A tribe is more than the people that inhabit it. The tribe creates an identity for itself based on its traditions, heroes, accomplishments, territoriality, and symbolism. Before the establishment of a monarchy in ancient Israel, these individual attributes would be a source of pride that held the households and clans of the tribe together and marked them as unique among the other tribes. In later periods, as the weaker tribes were submerged politically into the larger tribes of Judah or Ephraim (the latter a confederation of northern tribes associated with Joseph), tribal identity was also tamped down to accommodate the authority of both the united and divided monarchies (see Solomon’s bureaucratic units in 1Kgs 4:1-19). This tribal threat to central government is made clear when the northern tribes secede from the Davidic kingdom (1Kgs 12:1-19).
The tribe of Judah stands out among the twelve tribes because of its associations with the house of David, the southern kingdom of Judah, and its capital in Jerusalem. The early stories in the biblical narrative establish the importance of the tribe’s founding father, Judah, and by extension, the tribal members. In Gen 37:26-27, Judah saves his brother Joseph’s life by convincing the other brothers to sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites rather than kill him. He then pledges responsibility for Benjamin in Gen 43:3-10 and pleads with Joseph for Benjamin’s life in Gen 44:18-34. Judah’s leadership and his acceptance of the primacy of law in his dealing with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) propel him to prominence among the tribal leaders.
Of course, not every member of the tribe of Judah is exemplary (compare the thief Achan in Josh 7:16-26), but there is a continuing sense of preeminence in the narratives identifying the tribe of Judah as the leader among the company of tribes. Thus the tribe of Judah leads the procession that leaves Mount Sinai (Num 10:14). Caleb claims Hebron (later David’s seat of power, prior to Jerusalem) and its environs for the tribe of Judah as his right for bringing a faithful report when the other tribal spies failed in their duty (Josh 14:6-14). During the conquest period and in the civil war between tribes, God always instructs that “Judah shall go up” first in line of battle (Judg 1:2, Judg 20:18).
Ultimately, the most important Judahite is King David. The tribe of Judah was the first to raise him to the kingship in Hebron (2Sam 2:1-4) and the first to call him back to his throne after his son Absalom’s revolt (2Sam 19:11-15). Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal when the northern tribes seceded (1Kgs 12:16-17), and the psalmist marks secession as treason and grounds for God’s rejection of the northern tribes (Ps 78:68-72). In the exile, Daniel of the tribe of Judah becomes a model for correct behavior and faithfulness (Dan 1:6). As the fortunes of the Israelite monarchy declined, the messianic vision held that the future was in the hands of a Davidic descendant within the tribe of of Judah who would restore the nation and its relationship with God (Isa 11:1, Mic 5:2).