You can choose your friends, as they say, but you can’t choose your family. But actually, God could do exactly that! And that’s what he did. He chose his own family tree, ahead of time. First of all, he chose Abraham to carry his “seed”. He then chose Isaac (Abraham’s second born), and then Jacob (Isaac’s second born). Yet of all Jacob’s twelve sons, for some reason God goes for Judah – the fourth in line. If this seems a bit puzzling to you, you are not alone. The choice of Judah over all the other brothers is a bit of a mystery, and the Bible does not give an explicit reason for it.
Some have suggested that the first three brothers disqualified themselves by their unrighteous behavior. Reuben, the firstborn, violated his father’s concubine, while Simeon and Levi went on to deceive and kill the men of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister; plundering their households. However, there are a few problems with thinking that righteousness “earns” the choice of God, or that lack of righteousness forfeits it. Firstly, their father Jacob was far from pure, yet he was clearly chosen. Secondly, Judah was not someone we could easily equate with righteousness either. Read what he does in Genesis 38… it’s scandalous! He ends up admitting to an unmarried woman with whom he had slept (having thought that she was a prostitute) that she was more righteous than he. Not ideal.
It is true that we see a change in character for the better as the story progresses. In contrast to his earlier betrayal of Joseph, he later offers his own life as a pledge to his father that he will take care of Joseph’s little brother, Benjamin. In Genesis 44:33, he has to put his money where his mouth is, and offers to take Benjamin’s place when Joseph demands that he stays in Egypt as a slave: “Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers.” Judah’s self-sacrificial offer was a prelude to the Redeemer who would later take our place of punishment on the cross. Could it be that due to this act, Judah was chosen? But even if we are impressed with Judah’s character growth and see his actions as pointing to the Messiah, surely Joseph outstrips him on both counts.
The royal scepter was given to Judah
There is the line of thinking that King David was to descend from the tribe of Judah, therefore the Messiah must come from the tribe that David belonged to. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but that seems like backwards thinking to me. Whichever way we see it though, David did end up coming from the line of Judah, which was the royal tribe and the bloodline of the Messiah. At the end of the story of Joseph is where we first see this association between Judah and royalty. Specifically, it’s when Jacob begins divvying out prophetic blessings on his sons that the link between kingship and Judah is established. He proclaimed,
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples”. (Gen 49:10)
A scepter is a symbol of majesty and royal authority, and Jacob’s blessing is a Messianic prophecy that “Shiloh”, or the Messiah, would come from the tribe of Judah. The tribe of Levi would later become the priestly tribe, and Judah was the royal tribe. In Psalm 60:7 and 108:8, God calls Judah his ‘scepter’, and another key prophetic passage referring to the Messiah as a scepter is in Numbers 24:17:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…”
The royal scepter later appears in the book of Esther, as the symbol of acceptance when Esther dared to come before the king; indeed, the king extending the scepter was the only way of approaching him without incurring penalty of death. A bit like the Messiah himself, the only way to God. Thus, a kingly role and Messianic expectation is prophesied over Judah as he received his dying father’s blessing.
I wonder though whether Jacob realised the significance of his own prophetic words to Judah. It would seem that Jacob himself was expecting one of Joseph’s two sons to carry the blessing, as indicated by the curious hand-swapping incident:
“Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn)… When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.”
It harks back to the way Isaac had muddled up his blessing between Jacob and Esau, with the younger brother taking the blessing, doesn’t it? There had been a history of the second-born usurping the first – Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and even Judah’s twins, Perez and Zerah. And it’s true that Ephraim went on to become extremely numerous and important among the tribes, even becoming the name by which the ten northern tribes of Israel were referred to. In many ways, Joseph would seem a more obvious choice. He suffered immensely and righteously under grievous injustice, then rose to prominence and authority. God certainly did reward Joseph, and saw to it that he would receive a double portion. Instead of there being one tribe of Joseph, his two sons each established their own tribes, so two of the tribes of Israel come from him – Manasseh and Ephraim. Both of which were greatly blessed. But God had a different plan for his chosen family tree. The scepter would instead go to Judah – the Messiah would come from the line of Judah.
But why Judah?
Here’s my theory about why God chose Judah. It’s to do with Leah.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to really put yourself in her shoes, but she had a truly rough deal. Her husband was crazy in love with her sister, to whom he was also married, and they all had to live together in a highly dysfunctional family situation. I can’t imagine how she coped with the constant rejection and humiliation that it must have been for her. She had lost whatever friendship and sisterhood she may have enjoyed with Rachel in the past, and endured an existence of being unwanted, undesired, and unloved. Being forced to live in such close proximity to the two love birds in their twisted triangle must have been excruciating. She must have been living in a lot of emotional anguish, and it’s reflected in the names that she gives her children in Genesis 29:
“Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son and named him Reuben because she said, “For Adonai has seen my affliction. Surely now my husband will love me.” (v32)
Then she became pregnant again and gave birth to a son, and said, “For Adonai heard that I am hated, so He’s given me this one also,” and she named him Simeon. (v33)
Then she became pregnant again and gave birth to a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will join himself to me because I’ve given birth to three sons for him.” For this reason he was named Levi.” (v34)
She was consumed with her plight, and all her prayers were focused on trying to get God to end her pain. But then something very powerful happens.
“Then she became pregnant again and gave birth to a son and said, “This time I praise Adonai.” For this reason she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.” (v35)
I think it was this pivotal moment when a woman in severe grief turned all of her attention away from her pain, even though it had not been resolved, and decided to PRAISE GOD ANYWAY.
Sacrificial praise in the midst of agony is spiritual dynamite. Shift forward a couple of thousand years, and observe Paul and Silas in jail. They have been beaten, their backs are bleeding and in shreds. They had no medical attention and were slammed in a stony jail with many others and no comfort. What do they do? Cry? Complain? No! They SING! They sing praises to God, so that the whole jail can hear them. And what happens? An earthquake! Prisoners come to faith, doors swing open, and even the jailer repents and brings his whole family to accept Yeshua as Lord. See what I mean? Dynamite.
I honestly don’t think anything delights God more – a voluntary sacrifice of praise in the midst of hardship. It expresses such love and trust to God, such honor. I think this is the reason that God decided that Judah would be the ancestor of David, and ultimately the Messiah. Leah’s costly heart-change while still in great pain was so powerful and pleasing to God that he gave the honor of his scepter to the one whose very name means “praise”.
 In both Hebrew and Christian tradition, “Shiloh” in this context has become synonymous with Messiah. It is thought to be a contracted Hebrew word meaning, “To whom it belongs” , with “it” meaning authority, tribute (cf. Ez 21:27). Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995, p.51-51