Our story begins with the righteous patriarch Abraham, who, around 1900 B.C., trekked from Mesopotamia all the way to Canaan, which is now the land of Israel. In reward for his faithful obedience to God, the Almighty promised fantastic national blessings for his posterity and that through a particular descendant of his the entire world would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3 Genesis 12:1-3 1 Now the LORD had said to Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you:
2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing:
3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
American King James Version×; Genesis 22:16-18 Genesis 22:16-18 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, said the LORD, for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is on the sea shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice.
American King James Version×). God further promised that kings would come from him and his wife Sarah (Genesis 17:6 Genesis 17:6And I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you.
American King James Version×; Genesis 17:16 Genesis 17:16And I will bless her, and give you a son also of her: yes, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
American King James Version×).
This is widely understood to mean that a line of kings would spring from them, culminating in the Messiah—Jesus Christ—who would bring salvation for the whole world. These promises, both of ethnic lineage and of grace, were confirmed to Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5 Genesis 26:3-5 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to your seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father;
4 And I will make your seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
5 Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
American King James Version×).
Later, around 1750 B.C., God promised essentially the same thing to Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:10-19 Genesis 28:10-19 10 And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.
11 And he lighted on a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
13 And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac: the land where on you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed;
14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
15 And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you again into this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of.
16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
17 And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it.
19 And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.
American King James Version×). A few decades afterward, God informed him, “A nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body” (Genesis 35:11 Genesis 35:11And God said to him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of you, and kings shall come out of your loins;
American King James Version×). By this time, Jacob, renamed Israel, had fathered 12 sons—each to be the progenitor of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Through his son Joseph—and Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh—would continue the birthright promise of national greatness (Genesis 48; Genesis 49:22-26 Genesis 49:22-26 22 Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall: 23 The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: 24 But his bow stayed in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; (from there is the shepherd, the stone of Israel:) 25 Even by the God of your father, who shall help you; and by the Almighty, who shall bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: 26 The blessings of your father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brothers.
American King James Version×).
We also see this in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 1 Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but for as much as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright.
2 For Judah prevailed above his brothers, and of him came the chief ruler; but the birthright was Joseph’s:)
American King James Version×in the New Revised Standard Version: “The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel. (He was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so that he [Reuben] is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright; though Judah became prominent among his brothers and a ruler [“the chief ruler,” King James Version] came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph).”
Thus, while Joseph received the birthright, to Jacob’s son Judah, father of the Jews, went the promise of a kingly line leading to the Messiah. Just before Jacob died around 1670 B.C., he prophesied: “Judah is a lion’s whelp … The scepter [ruler’s staff] shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes [ Shiloh meaning “Peaceable One,” “Peacemaker” or “To Whom It (the Scepter) Belongs”—thus a reference to the Messiah]; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people” (Genesis 49:9-10 Genesis 49:9-10 9 Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, you are gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and to him shall the gathering of the people be.
American King James Version×). It is probably because of this prophecy that the lion, the “king of beasts,” became the heraldic emblem of Judah.
Some 30 years before this prophecy was given, around 1700 B.C., a strange event had occurred in the family of Judah, when Tamar bore him twin sons. During the delivery, a hand of one of the twins came out first, around which the midwife tied a scarlet thread to identify the firstborn—who was customarily preeminent when it came to inheritance rights (Genesis 38:27-28 Genesis 38:27-28 27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound on his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.
American King James Version×). But the baby pulled his hand back in and his brother came out first.
The midwife exclaimed: “How did you break through? This breach [or breaking out] be upon you!” (Genesis 38:29 Genesis 38:29And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How have you broken forth? this breach be on you: therefore his name was called Pharez.
American King James Version×). In other words, “You are to be identified with this from now on.” And to ensure it the child was named Perez (or Pharez), meaning “Breach.” Then the baby with the scarlet thread on his hand was born—and he was named Zerah (or Zarah), meaning “Rising” or “Appearing,” perhaps because his hand had appeared first (Genesis 38:30 Genesis 38:30And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread on his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
American King James Version×).
This surely seems a rather odd occurrence to record in the Bible if it were to have no further significance. The implication is perhaps that Perez, who forced himself into the firstborn position, would need to eventually be reconciled with Zerah. And we will later see that this appears to have actually happened.
In any event, since Perez was the firstborn, the right of inheritance went to him—although Zerah, with the scarlet thread, would seem to have some claim in this. So which one received the scepter? Neither did—personally that is. Indeed, Judah himself had not received it either. For it wasn’t until much later in the time of Moses and the Exodus—around 1445 B.C.—that Israel became a true nation with a ruling king. But even then that king wasn’t of the tribe of Judah.