Then at last Ephraim’s envy and jealousy will vanish and depart. It will be taken away. And Judah’s adversaries and enemies, those that trouble and harass them, will be cut off, eliminated and destroyed; Ephraim will not be envious or jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile to, vex or harassing Ephraim. Their rivalry will be no more. (Isaiah 11:13. My own Translation)
This is a strange one. Cursory Bible readers generally tend to assume that all the twelve tribes were happily co-habiting the land of Israel with deep familial bonds of love and spiritual and emotional ties to each other; the happy brotherhood of the Children of Israel, if you will. Wrong!
The kingdom infamously split after Solomon’s death. Humanly speaking it was Solomon’s fault that there was so much unrest, because he taxed the people so heavily. Judah were happy with a descendant of David on the throne. The rest of Israel wanted a peaceful and prosperous existence. But from the time Joshua took Israel into the Promised Land until that division of the kingdom under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, Judah were always separated from, and in a manner of talking, “superior” to all the other tribes. The biblical text commonly separates Judah from all the other tribes when listing army sizes or population numbers. These kinds of factual observations suggest that the tribe of Judah was the big brother that oversaw all the others. At various times when the issue is under the spotlight in the biblical narrative, it becomes obvious that this “superiority” of Judah did not sit comfortably with any of the other tribes. It was such a heated aspect of life amongst the Israeli’s that it led to jealousy that became more and more vicious as time progressed. Judah seemed to get the best breaks and the best draw of the cards of life than any other tribe.
To make the ultimate point, today the entire globe knows that the descendants of Israel are “Jews.” The word Jew is an abbreviation from “Judah.” I, personally have always considered it strange that after the split of the kingdom of Solomon, it was the Northern Kingdom under Jeroboam the son of Nebat who took the national title of “Israel.” Judah had the Davidic dynasty and the Temple which was the political, social and spiritual hub of the entire nation. Yet they became known as “Judah” simply because the gripe of the ten northernmost tribes was heavily against Judah, not Benjamin, not Simeon, and not even the Levites that lived in the southern areas. They might, and occasionally were referred to as “Judah and Benjamin.” They could even have been called, “The Southern Kingdom of Israel,” as opposed to the “Northern Kingdom of Israel.” But no! It was Israel with the ten tribes up north, and down south was the state of “Judah.” I cannot but wonder how the Benjamites thought of it, as well as the Simeonites (if there were any Simeonites still in existence that is).
Judah the man, and later, Judah the tribe, always seemed to be the leader in one upmanship within the confines of the promised land of Canaan. It was Judah who came up with the plan to sell their brother Joseph rather than kill him (Genesis 25:23). Judah definitely seems to have been more independent than any of the others of the twelve brothers going off on his own and “ploughing his own furrow” as it were (Genesis 38:1-2, 6-7). It was Judah that argued before the entire family about Jacob allowing Benjamin to go to Egypt to meet Joseph (Genesis 43:8). It was Judah that emotionally pled and offered himself instead of Benjamin when the chalice was found in Benjamin’s saddle bag and Joseph threatened to imprison him (Genesis 44:16-18).
Judah was not the oldest, but assumed the role of the firstborn as well as the blessings of the firstborn because of the sins and crimes of his three elder brothers. Reuben, the first born, had slept with Bilhah, one of his own father’s concubines which disenfranchised him from the firstborn’s blessing (Genesis 35:22). Simeon and Levi lost their firstborn blessings because of the ethnic cleansing of the Shechemites. Their vicious act of genocide done in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah lost them the succession into the blessings of the firstborn. It was Judah who was the next in line, the fourth son. From Genesis 35:22 onwards, Judah is seen as the family leader of brothers, the first amongst equals as it were.
We have to add, of course, that Jacob’s prophetic blessing laid upon Judah on as he knelt by his father’s deathbed, announcing that the sceptre was his until Shiloh comes left an anointing on Judah and all his descendants that self-evidently would thrust some kind of priority and/or pre-eminence on Judah’s descendants. It is commonly accepted by biblical commentators that “Shiloh” in that context was a euphemism for Christ (Genesis 49:8-10).
When the man Judah had developed into the tribe of Judah they were always the most numerous. In the Book of Numbers Judah is represented as sharing equally with the other tribes, without distinctive fortunes, the experiences of the Exodus and of the sojourn in the wilderness. The clans which then composed the tribe of Judah were the Shelanites, Perizzites, Zerahites, Hezronites, and Hamulites (Numbers 26:19-22). However their supremacy is clearly noted. In Numbers 1:27 they had more men qualified to be soldiers than any of the other tribes (Numbers 1:27). Judah was the tribe that led the procession in the wilderness, and the three tribes that were in the camp layout around the Tabernacle with the three tribes constituting the eastern camp (Judah, Zebulun and Issachar) were 186,400. Everything about Judah seemed to be the first, the biggest, the pre-eminent and the best. They still had the most potential soldiers (76,500) after the plague (Numbers 26:22).
This emerging pre-eminence continued throughout Israel’s history. Judah is stated to have received their inheritance which stretched right across the land from Jericho westward to the Mediterranean and from Jerusalem southward to the desert. The territory is said to have extended south as far as Kadesh Barnea (Joshua 15:3), which lay about fifty miles south of Beersheba, and west as far as Gaza, Ashdod, and Ekron (Joshua 15:42-47). They clearly had the largest plot of land (Joshua 15:1) as any map of Israel after the conquest will reveal. The tribe of Simeon’s allotted piece of land was encircled by the largest tribe, Judah (Joshua 19:9). Simeon had a hole in the map of Judah a little like Lesotho has today in the map of South Africa. As time progressed, it would seem that Simeon was simply assimilated into Judah – they disappear. On top of that, because of one or two violent episodes within the tribes, Benjamin was nearly wiped out at one time, and although they did not lose their identity, because of their size they came to be identified as an extension to, if not part of the pre-eminence of Judah.
After the settlement in Canaan, Judah seems to have stood apart from the other tribes. It is unique that Judah is not mentioned in the song of Deborah (Judges 5:14-18.); and in the accounts of the kingdom of Saul it is regularly reckoned separately from the other tribes (See I Samuel 11:8, 17:52, 18:16). From then on, when any statement of things that occurred, sizes of armies, and remarks about the politics or opinions of the people of Israel, Judah is always differentiated as separate from Israel. Check out 1 Samuel 11:8, 1 Samuel 15:4, 2 Samuel 2:1-4, 2 Samuel 2:10-11, 2 Samuel 5:5, 2 Samuel 12:8, and 2 Samuel 19:40-42. And note that it isn’t merely a cultural cosmetic difference. It was Judah that hastened to crown David as king. It was seven and a half years later before the other tribes did the same. After the death of Saul, David seemingly elevated the tribe of Judah into a separate kingdom (2 Samuel 2:1-4). Those initial 90 months where David was king of Judah alone set the entire syndrome in hard concrete. In 2 Samuel 20:2 it is noted that Judah stayed loyal to David, the rest of Israel did not. The Psalmist noted differences too. “God is known in Judah. His name is great in Israel,” says Psalm 76:1. Psalm 114:2 informs us that “Judah became His sanctuary. Israel His dominion.” As in the North South divide in the UK, as with the North South divide that precipitated the American civil war, there was a similar North South divide in Israel that was culturally, socially and religiously very keenly felt by the northerners. It created much ill feeling and animosity.
In this historical development and process the tribe of Judah settled in the region south of Jerusalem and were “the leaders” amongst Israel’s population. They became the most powerful and assertively the most important tribe. Not only did Judah produce the Davidic line, it was also prophesied, that Messiah would come from among its descendants. Judah ruled. OK!
Modern Jews, of course, trace their lineage to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (absorbed by Judah) or to the tribe, or group, of clans of the priesthood known as Levites. The modern family name of Cohen is undoubtedly Levitical. Apart from those three tribes, until a few years ago, there were no Jews at all who could authoritatively state that they were from any of the other ten tribes. As I write in 2014, there are now Jewish groups from as far as India returning to live in Israel with racial titles that sound similar to some of the “lost ten tribes.” Hitherto, however, the vast majority of Jews that the world knows of today are still from Judah, Benjamin or Levi. This situation of “lost tribes” was brought about by the Assyrian conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, which led to the dispersion of the 10 northern tribes and their gradual assimilation by other races in other nation states.
The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom were absorbed by the people among whom they were scattered, because their religion lacked the uniqueness and power of pure worship of Yahweh. It was this uniqueness, furthermore, which caused the name of the tribe of Judah to be perpetuated.
The southern Kingdom of Judah thrived until 587 BC, when it was overrun by the Babylonians, who carried off many of the inhabitants into exile. When the Persians conquered Babylonia in 538 BC, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, where they soon set to work to replace the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem that the Babylonians had destroyed. The history of the Jews from that time forward is predominantly the history of the tribe of Judah.
All this is to make the point that the rivalry, jealousy and violent division between Judah and the rest of the people of Israel was deep and prolonged. The impact of that division has led to the status quo with the people who are known around the world as “Jews” i.e. of the tribe of Judah.
Isaiah declares that this jealousy, and tribal infighting will dissipate in the light of Christ’s presence as highlighted in Isaiah 11:13. Unity and oneness would be the new norm when Christ returns. The deep seated animosity will not be buried in the Jewish psyche and left to fester. True reconciliation amongst the entire Jewish nation will exude from Christ down to the collars of His robe throughout the nation state from which He will reign on earth. The world will clearly witness the unity, and the spirit that will be experienced by Israel will trickle down and permeate the entire planet.
Isaiah makes this prediction in a day where the entire ten tribes were scattered into places unknown. Judah may have been in a slower state of agonising death throes, but it was obviously dying. In the midst of the incipient decline unto death of Isaiah’s state, he, by the Spirit of God, could clearly see the coming together again of all the tribes of Israel, and that the hearts of each tribe would be in unity. The tribal differences within Israel will still be there throught Christ’s millennial reign.