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Judah gives his staff and ring to the disguised Tamar.

Judah/Yehuda (Hebrew: יְהוּדָה, Standard Yəhuda) was, according to the Book of Genesis, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, and the founder of the Israelite tribe of Judah. He lived in the patriarchal times, traditionally believed to be around the twentieth century B.C.E. His story is told in the Book of Genesis.

Judah was instrumental in saving the life of his brother Joseph, whom his other brothers wanted to kill. However, he also caused Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt and later joined his brothers into deceiving their father Jacob to believe that Joseph had died. Judah redeemed himself later when he risked his life on behalf of his youngest brother, Benjamin. He also moved Joseph—who had become a powerful ruler in Egypt—to reveal his true identity and re-unite the family.

Judah became the father of three sons—Er, Onan, and Shelah. After the first two sons died, he ended up unknowingly conceiving twins with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. It was through Judah and Tamar that King David's lineage is traced, as well as all of kings of Judah, including the Messiah to come. In Christian tradition, Judah is also the forefather of Jesus Christ. In Jewish tradition, he is the ancestor of the vast majority of Jews.


The text of the Torah explains that the name Judah (Yehuda) refers to Leah's intent to praise Yahweh, on account of having achieved four children. In classical rabbinical literature, the name is interpreted as being a combination of Yahweh and dalet (the letter d). The dalet has the numerical value 4, which rabbinical sources argue refers to Judah being Jacob's fourth son.[1]

It was Judah who suggested the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders, after Joseph's brothers intended to kill him. "What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?" Judah asked. “Come, let's sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood." (Gen. 37:26) After selling him to the Ishmaelites, the brothers took Joseph's robe, dipped it in blood, and brought it to their father Jacob to make him think Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. "We found this," they told him. "Examine it to see whether it is your son's robe."

Judah and Tamar

While little is said specifically about the lives of the other 12 sons of Jacob—other than Joseph—a special chapter is devoted to Judah. According to Genesis 38, Judah left his brothers and lived with a man from Adullam named Hirah. There, he married the daughter of the Canaanite Shuah, by whom he had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but died childless. According to the custom of the time, his widow was given in marriage to his brother Onan. "Lie with your brother's wife," Judah is reported as saying, "and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother."

However, knowing that the offspring of this marriage would not be legally his, Onan "spilled his semen on the ground" whenever he had sex with Tamar. The Lord reportedly put Onan to death for this.

Judah and Tamar

Judah now began to fear that Tamar was cursed. Although he promised her that she could marry his third son when he came of age, Judah told Tamar: "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." However, when the time came, he did not keep his word to her.

Years later, after the death of his own wife, Judah went to the town of Timnah with his friend Hirah for a sheep-sheering festival. At the town gate, he encountered a veiled woman, apparently one of the town's prostitutes.

"Come now, let me sleep with you," Judah proposed. "And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked. "I will send you a young goat from my flock," Judah promised. The woman agreed to these terms but demanded Judah's staff and seal as collateral. Judah gave them to her, and she slept with him as promised.

After the festival, Judah returned home and sent his friend Hirah with the goat to pay the woman and get back his staff and seal. Hirah asked the men who lived there, "Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?" The men, however, knew of no such woman. Hiram went back to Judah and reported the situation. Judah said, "Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock."

For three months, life returned to normal. Then, Judah was told that Tamar, his son's betrothed wife had turned up pregnant. Infuriated, Judah demanded that she be brought from her father's house for punishment: "Bring her out and have her burned to death!" he declared.

Before the sentence could be carried out, however, Judah received a message from Tamar. With the message were Judah's precious staff and seal. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," the messenger said in Tamar's name, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."

Judah recognized items and was stricken in his conscience. "She is more righteous than I," he admitted, "since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah."

Tamar bore twin sons to Judah, Pharez and Zerah. Pharez (or "Perez") was ancestor of the royal house of David. Moreover, their birth was a miraculous one. Like her forerunner Rebecca, the mother of Jacob and Esau, Tamar suffered greatly during her pregnancy, as her twin sons wrestled with each other for supremacy in her womb. Zerah's hand emerged first, and a midwife tied a red thread around his wrist. However the child withdrew his hand, and the "second son," Perez, was born first. The lineage of Perez and Zerah is detailed in the First Book of Chronicles, chapter 2. In Christian tradition, Perez is also the ancestor of Jesus Christ.

Judah's redemption

Joseph embraces Benjamin after revealing his true identity to Judah and his brothers.

In Genesis 43, Judah joins Jacob's other sons in going to Egypt to buy grain. There, they unknowing meet their long-lost brother, who now acts as the Pharaoh's representative in negotiating the deal. When they return to Canaan, Judah is the spokesman for the group in reporting to Jacob regarding the terms of additional grain sales. The disguised Joseph has demanded that their youngest brother, Benjamin, be brought with them. However, Benjamin is Jacob's favorite, and he balks at the idea.

Judah declares: "I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life."

In subsequent interviews with Joseph, Judah again takes the leading part among the brothers and makes a most touching and persuasive plea for the release of Benjamin, whom Joseph intends to keep Benjamin as his slave. "Please let your servant remain here as my lord's slave in place of the boy," Judah asks, "and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father."

Judah's plea finally moves Joseph to reveal his true identity and bring the story to its happy conclusion.

Jacob's blessing to Judah

Jacob prophesies the future of his sons' descendants, the Israelites.

In Jacob's final blessing blessing to his sons, Judah is to be exalted to the position of chief of the brethren:

Judah your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father's sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion's cub, O Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:8-10)

Rabbinical literature

According to the rabbinical literature, Judah was born on the fifteenth of Sivan.[2] Sources differ on the date of death, with the Book of Jubilees advocating a death at age 119[3] and the midrashic Book of Jasher giving his death at the age of 129.[4]

Rabbinical sources state that Judah was the leader of his brothers, terming him the king.[5] The Book of Chronicles describes Judah as the strongest of his brothers,[6] and rabbinical literature portrays him as having had extraordinary physical strength. He could shout huge distances, was able to crush iron into dust in his mouth, and his hair stiffened so much that when he became angry, it pierced his clothes.[7]

Jacob's blessing describes Judah as "a lion's cub," and the symbol of the "Lion of Judah" still adorns many Jewish synagogues.

Rabbinical sources also allude to a war between the Canaanites and Judah's family, resulting from of the destruction of Shechem in revenge for the rape of Dinah.[8] Judah features heavily as a protagonist in accounts of this war. Judah kills Jashub, king of Tappuah, in hand-to-hand combat, after first de-horsing him by throwing an extremely heavy stone at him from a large distance. The accounts go on to state that while Judah was trying to remove Jashub's armor, nine assistants of Jashub fell upon him in combat, but Judah killed one and scared away the others. Judah also killed many members of Jashub's army—42 men according to the Book of Jasher and 1000 according to the Testament of Judah.

In the Torah's Joseph narrative, when Jacob's sons contemplate murdering the "dreamer," Judah suggests that they sell him to some passing Ishmaelites.[9] It is not entirely clear whether Judah's motives were to save Joseph or to harm him but keep him alive. Rabbinical sources held Judah to have been the leader of his brothers, judging him guilty of harming Joseph and deceiving Jacob by telling him that Joseph was dead. Even if Judah had been trying to save Joseph, the rabbis tend to regard him negatively for it. As the leader of his brothers, Judah should have made more effort.[10] Accordingly, the reason that Judah no longer lived with his brothers afterward is that—after witnessing Jacob's grief at the loss of Joseph—the brothers held Judah responsible and ousted him.[11] Divine punishment was also inflicted on Judah in the form of the death of Er and Onan, and of his wife.[12]

The Bible later describes Joseph—now in a position of power in Egypt—as taking Simeon hostage, and insisting that the brothers return with Benjamin to prove that they are not spies.[13] When Jacob balks at sending Benjamin, Judah offers himself as surety for Benjamin's safety. Judah later pleads on behalf of Benjamin, ultimately making Joseph recant and reveal his identity.[14] This is seen by the rabbis as redeeming Judah's earlier acts. Several extra-biblical sources give the story of Judah's plea much more extensively than the version in Genesis.[15] In these versions, Judah reacted violently to the threat against Benjamin, shouting so loudly that his voice could be heard in Canaan. Some sources have Judah angrily picking up a heavy stone (400 shekels in weight), throwing it into the air, then grinding it to dust with his feet once it had landed.[16] In these sources, Judah threatened personally to destroy three Egyptian provinces, and it was this threat that motivated Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers.

Critical views

Some Biblical scholars believe that Judah's tribe was not originally part of the Israelite confederation and that Judah's name is eponymous—created after the fact to account for the tribe's name, rather than the tribe descending from the historical Judah. The Bible itself admits that tribe of Judah was not purely Israelite in character, but contained a number of others, the Jerahmeelites, and the Kenites, merging into the tribe at various points.

The story of Judah and Tamar is described in a passage widely regarded as an abrupt change to the surrounding narrative.[17] According to textual scholars, the reason for the interruption is that a story from the Yahwist source has been inserted into the Elohist narrative about the life of Joseph.[18] The Elohist, being a northern source, was concerned with Joseph as the leading northern tribe. The Yahwist, on the other hand, was concerned with the leading southern tribe of Judah.

The Tamar narrative sometimes seen as a legend concerning fluctuations in the early history of the tribe of Judah. Some suggest that this tribe was not originally associated with the Exodus, but federated with the Israelite nation at a relatively late date, perhaps around the time of King David's rise to power. A number of scholars have proposed that the deaths of Er and Onan reflect the dying out of two clans. Judah And Tamar Onan may represent an Edomite clan named Onam[18] which is mentioned in a genealogy of Edom in Genesis[19] while Er appears from a genealogy in the Book of Chronicles,[20] to have later been subsumed by the Shelah clan.[21]

Some scholars have argued that the narrative also aims to either assert the institution of levirate marriage, or present a legend about its ancient practice in Jacob's family. (Levirate marriage involved a younger brother or other relative taking responsibility for an elder brother's lineage if he died without a son.)

 Hebrew Bible Genealogy from Adam to David
Creation to Flood Adam Seth Enos Kenan Mahalalel Jared Enoch Methuselah Lamech Noah Shem
Origin of the Patriarchs Arpachshad Shelah Eber Peleg Reu Serug Nahor Terah Abraham Isaac Jacob
Nationhood to Kingship Judah Pharez Hezron Ram Amminadab Nahshon Salmon Boaz Obed Jesse David


  1. Sotah 10b
  2. Jewish Encyclopedia
  3. Jubilees 28:15
  4. Sefer haYashar (midrashic), Shemot
  5. Genesis Rabbah 84:16
  6. 1 Chronicles 5:2.
  7. Genesis Rabbah 93:6–7
  8. This is told in great detail in the Book of Jasher, see also Book of Jubilees 34:1-9.
  9. Genesis 37:26-27.
  10. Genesis Rabbah 85:4.
  11. Exodus Rabbah 42:2; Tanhumah, Vayeshev, 12
  12. Tanhuma, Vayiggash 10
  13. Genesis 42:24, Genesis 42:34.
  14. Genesis 44:18-34.
  15. Sefer haYashar (midrashic), Vayiggash; Genesis Rabbah 93:7.
  16. Sefer haYashar
  17. Genesis 38.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Thomas Kelly Cheyne and John Sutherland Black, Encyclopedia Biblica.
  19. Genesis 36:23,
  20. 1 Chronicles 4:21.
  21. J. A. Emerton, "Judah And Tamar" Vetus Testamentum 29(4) (October, 1979), 403-415.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bouter, Hugo. Jacob's Last Words: Jacob's Blessings for His Sons. London: Chapter Two, 1994. ISBN 978-1853070372
  • Cheyne, Thomas Kelly, and John Sutherland Black (eds.). Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religion History, the Archeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible. 1899.
  • Dershowitz, Alan M. The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law. Warner Books, 2000. ISBN 0446524794
  • Hendel, Ronald S. The Epic of the Patriarch: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel. Harvard Semitic monographs, no. 42. Atlanta, Ga: Scholar Press, 1987. ISBN 978-1555401849
  • Gunn, David, and Danna Nolan Fewell. Narrative in the Hebrew Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0192132458
  • Haupt. In Studien ... Welthausen gewidmet. Giessen, 1914.
  • Kirsch, Jonathan. The Harlot By the Side of the Road. Ballantine Books, 1998. ISBN 0345418824
  • Kugel, James L. The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0691121222
  • Meyer. Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme. Halle, 1906.
  • Winckler. Geschichte Israels. Berlin, 1895.


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