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 22:16-18). God further promised that kings would come from him and his wife Sarah (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16).
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).
Later, around 1750 B.C., God promised essentially the same thing to Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:10-19). 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). 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).
We also see this in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 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). 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). 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). 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).
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.