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Judah, Tribe and Kingdom

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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Even before Judah existed as a tribe, God had marked it out for a position of leadership in Israel (Genesis 49:9-10). Both on the journey through the wilderness under Moses and in the conquest of Canaan under Joshua (1240 BC), Judah took the lead (Numbers 2:9; Judges 1:2). Once Israel settled in Canaan, Judah soon established its prominence among the twelve tribes.

A large and powerful tribe

In the division of Canaan among the Israelite tribes, Judah received the whole of southern Palestine between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, as far south as the Wilderness of Zin and the Brook of Egypt (Joshua 15:1-12). This was the largest of all the tribal areas. It was, in fact, too large to be occupied entirely by the Judeans, so the tribe of Simeon was invited to occupy part of it. Simeon, as a result, had no separate tribal area of its own and was soon absorbed by Judah (Joshua 19:1; Joshua 19:9).

The land occupied by Judah rose west of the Dead Sea into a high central mountain area (Joshua 15:48; Luke 1:39), and then fell away through low hill country known as the Shephelah to the Philistine plain on the Mediterranean coast (Joshua 10:40-41; Joshua 15:20-21; Joshua 15:33; Joshua 15:47). The southern portion of Judah was the dry region known as the Negeb (Joshua 10:40; Joshua 15:19). (For further details of the physical features of Judah see PALESTINE. For some of its important towns see BEERSHEBA; BETHLEHEM; HEBRON; KADESH-BARNEA; KIRIATH-JEARIM; LACHISH. For towns on the coastal plain see ASHDOD; ASHKELON; EKRON; GATH; GAZA. For Judah’s conflict with the Philistines, who occupied the coastal plain, see PHILISTIA.)


A natural division of hills and valleys separated Judah from the tribes to the north; the Jordan River and the Dead Sea separated it from the two and a half tribes to the east. Added to this, some jealousy always existed between Judah and the other tribes. During the reign of Israel’s first king, Saul (who was from the tribe of Benjamin), the difference between Judah and the other tribes became so noticeable that people often referred to Judah as distinct from the rest of Israel (1 Samuel 11:8; 1 Samuel 18:16).

Era of David and Solomon

After Saul’s death (1010 BC), the division between Judah and the other tribes widened. The people of Judah appointed one of their own men, David, as king, but the other tribes appointed Saul’s son, Ishbosheth, as king. For two years the two groups fought with each other, but in the end David’s group won (2 Samuel 2:4; 2 Samuel 2:8-10; 2 Samuel 3:1). For the next five and a half years David reigned in Hebron over the whole of Israel. He then conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital, reigning over all Israel for a further thirty-three years (2 Samuel 5:1-5). (For details of David’s plans and purposes in making Jerusalem his capital see JERUSALEM.)

Solomon followed David as king of Israel, and further developed David’s plans to make Jerusalem the religious as well as the political centre of the kingdom. In a building program that lasted more than twenty years, he built a magnificent temple, a luxurious palace and other impressive buildings in the national capital. But his policy of forced labour and heavy taxes made him unpopular, particularly with the northerners, whose farm produce and land he gave to foreign creditors to pay for his showpiece city (1 Kings 5:11; 1 Kings 9:1).

Division of the kingdom

When Solomon died (930 BC), his son Rehoboam, apparently aware of the anti-Jerusalem feeling throughout the northern tribes, tried to regain the northerners’ allegiance. His first step was to have his coronation in the northern city of Shechem instead of in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:1). But it was too late. Rebellion in the north, led by the Ephraimite Jeroboam, had been building up for years, and now the northerners decided to break away from Judah completely. They did so, making Jeroboam their king (1 Kings 11:26; 1 Kings 11:28; 1 Kings 12:16; 1 Kings 12:20).

From that time on the ancient nation Israel was split in two – a northern kingdom of ten tribes that continued to be known as Israel, and a southern kingdom of two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) that was known as Judah (1 Kings 11:11-13; 1 Kings 11:29-32).

Judah was the smaller of the two kingdoms, both in area and in population, and it had the poorer country agriculturally. But it had greater political stability. It had an established dynasty, the dynasty of David, and a well fortified capital, Jerusalem. Its people, being mostly from one tribe, were fairly well unified. By contrast the northern kingdom rarely had a strong sense of unity. Reasons for this were the greater number of tribes in the north, the large population of local Canaanites still living in the area, and the natural divisions created by mountains and rivers. Judah was more isolated, but Israel more open to foreign interference.

The kingdom of Judah

For the first sixty years of the divided kingdom, Israel and Judah fought constantly (1 Kings 14:30; 1 Kings 15:7; 1 Kings 15:16), but the main difficulties for both nations came from the false religious practices that grew up among them. Baal worship was always a problem, particularly in the north. (For further history of the northern kingdom see ISRAEL.)

The kings Asa and Jehoshaphat carried out reforms in Judah (2 Chronicles 14:1-5; 2 Chronicles 17:3-6), but a greater threat to Judah’s religion followed when a particularly evil form of Baalism from the north spread into the south. It was eventually removed, largely through the work of the priest Jehoiada (835 BC; 2 Kings 11:4-20).

In the years that followed, Judah developed agriculturally and commercially to an extent never before experienced. But with rapid growth in wealth came increased greed, corruption, injustice, violence and immorality. The prophets Isaiah and Micah condemned the sinful nation and announced the coming judgment of God (Isaiah 1:1-4; Isaiah 5:13-25; Micah 1:1; Micah 2:1-5; Micah 3:9-12; see ISAIAH; MICAH).

Judah began to feel the divinely sent judgment when, through the disastrous policies of the Judean king Ahaz, Assyria began to interfere in Judean affairs. But Assyria’s interference in Israel’s affairs to the north was even more serious. Several of Israel’s kings, and now Ahaz of Judah, had fallen under Assyria’s domination, and maintained their rule only by paying heavy tribute to Assyria (2 Kings 15:17-20; 2 Kings 16:1-9; 2 Kings 17:1-3). Because of treachery and instability in Israel through a number of rebellions, assassinations and changes of foreign policy, Assyria finally lost patience. In 722 BC it destroyed the northern kingdom and took most of the people into captivity (722 BC; 2 Kings 17:5-6).

Isaiah was probably the most important man in Judah during this era. He announced untiringly, to king and people alike, that Judah’s only hope was to trust in God. The good king Hezekiah, who had introduced sweeping religious and political reforms (2 Kings 18:1-8), proved this to be true when God miraculously saved Jerusalem from what seemed certain conquest by the Assyrians (701 BC; 2 Kings 19:34-36; see HEZEKIAH; ISAIAH).

The next king, Manasseh, undid the good that his father had done. Under his rule Judah’s spiritual condition became so corrupt that not even the reforms of Josiah and the preaching of Zephaniah could prevent the nation’s collapse (2 Kings 21:1-15; 2 Kings 23:24-27; see JOSIAH; ZEPHANIAH).

Captivity and return

For the final forty years of Judah’s history, the person who most clearly saw where Judah was heading was the prophet Jeremiah. He had a constant battle with kings, priests, government officials and the common people, as he tried to prepare the nation to accept the judgment that must now certainly fall upon it (Jeremiah 21:3-10; see JEREMIAH).

Babylon, who had conquered Assyria in 612 BC, took control of Judah in 605 BC. The Judean king, Jehoiakim, at first submitted but later rebelled. The outcome was that Babylon attacked Jerusalem and took most of the nation’s wealth and best people into captivity in Babylon (597 BC; 2 Kings 24:1-17). Zedekiah was made king, but when he too rebelled, Babylon attacked Jerusalem again. This time it destroyed the city and took most of the remaining people into captivity (587 BC; 2 Kings 25:1-12).

The Babylonians appointed a Judean named Gedaliah as governor over the small community of Judeans left in the land. When Gedaliah was killed by some anti-Babylonian rebels, Babylon’s army returned to deal with any possible uprising. Some of the Judeans escaped to Egypt, and most of the rest were captured and taken off to Babylon (582 BC; 2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 52:30).

Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC and gave the captive Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their nation. Those who returned were mostly from the tribe of Judah, but since the old distinction between the northern and southern kingdoms no longer existed, the restored nation could be referred to as either Israel or Judah. As a result Israelites in general became known as Jews, the word ‘Jew’ being a shortened form of ‘Judean’ (see JEW). (For the history of this post-captivity period see ISRAEL.)

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Judah, Tribe and Kingdom'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​j/judah-tribe-and-kingdom.html. 2004.
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