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The Lion of Judah

Although the book of Genesis is not primarily a book of prophecy, it contains hints about the coming Messiah, Abraham’s descendant through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3; 22:18; Gal 3:16).

The longest prophetic passage in Genesis is in chapter 49, where the patriarch Jacob imparts blessings to his sons before his death (v 28). “Gather yourselves together,” he announces to them, “that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come” (v 1).

The Hebrew phrase for “in days to come,” be’akherit hayammim, is often translated “in the latter days” and appears in prophecies with an end of time orientation (Isa 2:2; Jer 23:20; 30:24; 48:47; 49:39; Eze 38:16; Dan 2:28; 10:14). We see such a focus in Gen 49:10, part of the blessing for Judah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

Both Jewish and Christian traditions see Gen 49:10 as a reference to Israel's Messiah ruling on the throne of Judah's descendant David.

The phrase “until tribute comes to him” in Gen 49:10 can also be rendered, “until he comes to whom it [i.e., the rulership] belongs” (see the ESV footnote). With either translation, this verse pictures a line of rulers coming from Judah, culminating in a king who will rule the nations. Both Jewish and Christian traditions see Gen 49:10 as a reference to Israel’s Messiah ruling on the throne of Judah’s descendant David (see also 2 Sam 7:12-16; Mat 1:1).

Additional references to the Messiah’s person and work are hidden in the poetry of the blessing for Judah in verses 8-12. Verse 8 begins, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you.” Judah’s name is a play on words connected to his mother Leah’s praising God at his birth (Gen 29:35). Verse 8 adds that “your father’s sons shall bow down before you.” The Hebrew words for praise and bow down appear together in just two other verses, 2 Ch 7:3 and Ps 138:1-2, both of which refer to worship of God. There may be a hint here of the divine nature of the messianic king.(1)

The phrase “your father’s sons shall bow down before you” reminds us of the dreams of Judah’s brother Joseph (Gen 37:6-10; 42:6; 50:18) and implies that the kind of honor Joseph had received would subsequently go to Judah. This Judah/Joseph connection also invites us to see Joseph’s past experiences as precursors of Judah’s descendants’ future experiences, the Messiah in particular.

For example, we read in verse 8, “your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies.” This could be a reference to Judah (or the Messiah, particularly) defeating enemies, including the serpent and his seed (Gen 3:15). On the other hand, it could refer to reconciliation with enemies. Often in the book of Genesis, restoration of relationships is pictured with people falling on each other’s necks (33:4; 45:14; 46:29). Joseph’s brothers were his enemies (Gen 37), but they were later reconciled (45:15; 50:15-21). We might see Joseph’s life pointing ahead to the Messiah’s work of reconciliation on the cross (Rom 5:8,10; Col 1:21-22).

It is possible, then, that Gen 49:9 refers to a lion that has lain down in death, and the question being asked is, “Who will raise him up?” The implied answer would then be, “God will!”

In verse 9, Jacob compares Judah to a lion. This verse is the source of the “lion of the tribe of Judah” imagery for the risen Jesus in Rev 5:5. Jacob says, “From the prey, my son, you have gone up.” The word prey is related to the verb tear, as in tear to pieces. Jacob thought Joseph had been torn to pieces as the prey of some wild animal (Gen 37:33), but he later learned that Joseph was still alive (45:28; 46:30). In Jacob’s eyes, Joseph had gone up. It was as if he had risen from the dead.

Verse 9 continues, “He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” Our English translations tend to picture Judah as a powerful lion that has lain down and should not be disturbed. However, there is another possibility. The verb for rouse in this verse, qum, is usually translated as raise rather than rouse. (A different word, ur, is used for waking up or stirring up a living thing, as in Ps 44:23; 108:2; Sng 5:2; Job 41:10). The verb qum is used in situations where someone who is weak and has fallen is raised up (2 Sam 12:16-17; Job 4:4; Ps 113:7; Ecc 4:10).

It is possible, then, that Gen 49:9 refers to a lion that has lain down in death, and the question being asked is, “Who will raise him up?” The implied answer would then be, “God will!” With this reading, Jacob predicts the resurrection of the lion of Judah. Such an interpretation, with the reclining lion representing Jesus in the tomb and God as the one who raises him, was adopted by some of the early Church fathers, including Hippolytus (c. 170-235 AD) and Ambrose (c 340-397 AD).(2)

There are other messianic allusions in Gen 49:11, which says that the ruler of verse 10 “will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch.” The references to a donkey and colt remind us of the messianic prophecy of Zec 9:9, which according to the Gospels, was fulfilled by Jesus in his humble but triumphant entry of Jerusalem (Mat 21:1-5, e.g.).

Verse 11 continues, “he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes.” The connection here between wine and blood may point ahead to Isa 63:1-3 and Rev 19:13-15, where we see Messiah as the judge of all nations. The final sentence of the blessing in v 12—“His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk”—suggests the abundance and well-being of the messianic age.

Upon close examination, Judah’s blessing in Gen 49:8-12 gives multiple pictures of the victorious Lion of Judah of Rev 5. Jacob’s inspired poetic language presents the Messiah as a divine ruler who brings reconciliation with his brothers, who dies, is raised, and lives to judge and rule over the nations in a world where his fullness of shalom reigns forever.


(1) See Kevin S. Chen, The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch, IVP Academic, 2019, p. 115.

(2) See Chen, pp 125-130, for a detailed argument in favor of Gen 49:9 as a prophecy of the resurrection.


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