The Lion of the Tribe of Judah: Symbol & Meaning

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  • 0:04 Tribe of Judah
  • 1:02 Jacob's Blessing
  • 2:17 Lion Symbol in History
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Lions are often used to symbolize authority, strength, or dominance. Judaism uses this symbol to represent one of its most important tribes, the tribe of Judah, which you can read more about in this lesson.

Tribe of Judah

The lion is the primary symbol of the tribe of Judah, but where did this connection come from? The tribe of Judah is one of the twelve tribes of Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible, the twelve tribes began with the twelve sons of Jacob, later called Israel. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his first wife, Leah. The tribe of Judah became one of the most important because it was the tribe of the monarchy, or rulership under one royal leader, when the ancient kingdom of Israel was established around the 11th century BCE. Most of its rulers, including David and Solomon, came from this tribe.

The united kingdom split into northern Israel and southern Judah around the 10th century BCE. Only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah inhabited the kingdom of Judah, while the other ten were in Israel, so its rulers were predominantly from the tribe of Judah. Even the words ''Judaism'' and ''Jew,'' used to describe the Israelites' religion, came from its name.

Map of the Ancient Near East with Israel in blue and Judah in orange, and the red dot in Judah marking Jerusalem.
Map of the Ancient Near East

Jacob's Blessing

If you have ever read or watched a series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, you know that the lion often symbolizes powerful houses. The same thing is true of the tribe of Judah. Lions are frequently symbols of leadership, as the lion is considered the king of the animals. In the Book of Genesis, long before the Israelite monarchy is established, Jacob blesses Judah on his deathbed, saying he is a ''lion's whelp,'' or cub. Because of this blessing, the tribe of Judah adopted the symbol of the lion to represent itself.

The blessing Jacob gives to Judah in Genesis 49 reflects this symbolism. Jacob explains the comfort that Judah will have, using the imagery of a lion stretching out and not being roused by others. He refers to the rulership that Judah will have, saying the ''scepter shall not depart'' from him. Jacob finally completes this symbology with a depiction of what the lion, or Judah, looks like. His eyes are ''darker than wine'' and his teeth are ''whiter than milk.'' When you see pictures of lions, these colors are prominent. The lion is also wearing a purple robe that is soaked in the ''blood of grapes.'' The color purple is symbolic of royalty, so Jacob's use of this image further emphasizes the idea that Judah's descendants will be kings.

Lion Symbol in History

Through the tribe of Judah, the lion symbol came to represent the blessing, majesty, and even divine protection of the Jews. It is not surprising, then, that the lion symbol continued to be used even after the destruction of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah's nation, in 586 BCE. In 1949, a year after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, the lion became part of the emblem for the capital city of Jerusalem, recalling the city's historical importance.

The emblem of Jerusalem.
Emblem of Jerusalem

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