The Tribe of Judah by Victor H. Matthews

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).

Victor H. Matthews, "Tribe of Judah", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Victor H. Matthews

Victor H. Matthews
Professor, Missouri State University

Victor H. Matthews is a professor of religious studies and dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs at Missouri State University. Among his publications are Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Baker Academic, 2007), Manners and Customs in the Bible (3rd ed., Baker Academic, 2006), and A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Westminster John Knox, 2002).

Israel/Judah when ruled by a king from the Davidic lineage, which included the United Monarchy, the Kingdom of Judah, and the future prophesied in texts like Amos 9:11-12.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's first son; often identified with many or all ethnic Arabs.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The Israelite tribes that became a part of the northern kingdom of Israel: Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, Manasseh, Ephraim, Gad, and Benjamin.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

1Kgs 4:1-19

Solomon's Administrative Officers
1King Solomon was king over all Israel,2and these were his high officials: Azariah son of Zadok was the priest;3Elihoreph and ... View more

1Kgs 12:1-19

The Northern Tribes Secede
1Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king.2When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard of it (for he was st ... View more

Gen 37:26-27

26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our h ... View more

Gen 43:3-10

3But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’4If you will send our brother with us, ... View more

Gen 44:18-34

Judah Pleads for Benjamin's Release
18Then Judah stepped up to him and said, “O my lord, let your servant please speak a word in my lord's ears, and do not be a ... View more

Gen 38

Judah and Tamar
1It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.2There Judah saw the ... View more

Josh 7:16-26

16So Joshua rose early in the morning, and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken.17He brought near the clans of Judah, and the cl ... View more

Num 10:14

14The standard of the camp of Judah set out first, company by company, and over the whole company was Nahshon son of Amminadab.

Josh 14:6-14

Hebron Allotted to Caleb
6Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal; and Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said ... View more

Judg 1:2

2The Lord said, “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.”

Judg 20:18

18The Israelites proceeded to go up to Bethel, where they inquired of God, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?” And the Lord answ ... View more

2Sam 2:1-4

David Anointed King of Judah
1After this David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” The Lord said to him, “Go up.” David said, ... View more

2Sam 19:11-15

11King David sent this message to the priests Zadok and Abiathar, “Say to the elders of Judah, ‘Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his house? ... View more

1Kgs 12:16-17

16When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king,
“What share do we have in David?
We have no inheritance in the son o ... View more

Ps 78:68-72

68but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.69He built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded forever.70He ... View more

Dan 1:6

6Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah.

Isa 11:1

The Peaceful Kingdom
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Mic 5:2

The Ruler from Bethlehem
2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in I ... View more

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