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The “Lion of Judah”, a powerful symbol deeply rooted in ancient traditions, carries a wealth of historical and religious resonance. Originating from the biblical tribe of Judah, its significance spans Judaism, Christianity, and Rastafari. Let’s explore the origins and symbolic importance of this enduring emblem.
The Lion of Judah – In Judaism
The Lion of Judah originates in the Book of Genesis where Jacob is found blessing his twelve sons from his deathbed. Each of the sons is a namesake for one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
When Jacob, also known as Israel, blesses his son Judah, he calls him, “a lion’s cub” and says that “he crouches as a lion and as a lioness” (Genesis 49:9). Thus, the tribe of Judah became identified with the symbol of the lion.
Several centuries later, the Kingdom of Israel, having been united under King David and his son Solomon, was divided into northern and southern kingdoms in 922 BCE.
The northern kingdom comprised 10 tribes and kept the name Israel. The southern kingdom, comprised of only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, took the name Judah.
After the conquest and absorption of the northern kingdom into the Assyrian empire, the southern kingdom of Judah survived until it’s conquest by the Babylonians. However, rather than being completely absorbed, some Hebrews were left in the land, and a number of exiles eventually returned under the rule of the Medo-Persian empire that succeeded the Babylonians.
Modern Jews are the ancestors of these Hebrews, and it is from their religious beliefs that Judaism is derived.
In ancient Israel, the lion was an important symbol of power, courage, justice and God’s protection. There is evidence that images of lions were prominent in both the Solomonic temple and the rebuilt second temple after the return from exile under Ezra and Nehemiah.
There are several mentions of lions in the Hebrew Bible. It mentions the existence of lions in the wilderness surrounding the cities and towns of Israel. They roamed the hills and would often attack herds. Another example is when King David claims to have killed a lion in protection of his sheep (1 Kings 17:36). This is how he justified his assertion that he could kill the giant Goliath.
Today, the lion continues to hold importance as an identity marker for the Jewish people both politically and spiritually. The lion became a symbol for the nation of Israel, its courage, might, and justice. It also appears on the flag and emblem for the city of Jerusalem.
Lions often decorate the ark, the ornate cabinet which contains the scrolls of the Torah, at the front of many synagogues. A common decoration found atop these arks is a rendering of the ten commandments written upon stone tablets and flanked by two standing lions.
Lion of Judah in Christianity
The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, as with many other Hebrew symbols from the Old Testament, is folded into Christianity and takes on new significance in the person of Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation, written around 96 CE by an early Christian leader named John the Elder, refers to the Lion of Judah – “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll” (Revelation 5:5).
In Christian theology, this is understood to be referring to the second coming of Jesus, when he will return to conquer all his enemies including Satan. Immediately following this verse is a description of a lamb who has been slain. Jesus earns the description of Lion and Lamb among Christians from this passage.
In Christian theology, this passage confirms important prophecies about the person and work of Jesus as the Lion of Judah. He is identified as heir to David and so the rightful King of the Jews. He is depicted as conquering despite having endured a terrible death by crucifixion.
Thus, one thing he conquered is death through his resurrection. He will also return to finish his conquest. He alone can open the scroll which serves as a symbol for the culmination of human history and end of time in the Book of Revelation.
Today, the image of the lion is understood by Christians almost exclusively as a reference to Jesus. This has been aided a great deal since the middle of the 20th century by the popularity of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan the lion serves as a representation of Jesus. Aslan is strong, courageous, just, fierce, and self-sacrificing. Along with literature, the lion is commonly found as a subject in modern Christian art, music, and film.
The Lion of Judah in the Empire of Ethiopia
Another interesting use of the term Lion of Judah is as a title for the Emperor of Ethiopia.
According to the historical record found in the 14th century text known as Kebra Nagast, the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia was the offspring of King Solomon of Israel and Makeda the Queen of Sheba, who visited him in Jerusalem.
An account of this visit is found in the book of 1st Kings chapter 10, though no mention of a relationship or offspring is made.
According to Ethiopian tradition, both national and religious, Menelik I inaugurated the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia in the 10th century BCE. Claiming lineage from Menelik was an important aspect of imperial authority for several centuries.
The Lion of Judah and the Rastafari Movement
The Ethiopian emperor bearing the title Lion of Judah figures prominently in Rastafarianism, a religious, cultural, and political movement that originated in Jamaica in the 1930’s.
According to Rastafarianism, the Biblical references to the Lion of the tribe of Judah speak specifically of Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974.
Some Rastafarians view him as the second coming of Christ. At his crowning, he was given the title “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” During his lifetime, Haile Selassie viewed himself as a devout Christian, and rebuked the growing assertion that he was the second coming of Christ.
For Jews, the Lion of Judah is an important ethnic and religious symbol, linking them to their beginning as a people, their land, and their identity as God’s children. It continues to serve as a reminder in their public worship, and as a symbol of their socio-political identity.
For Christians, Jesus is the Lion of Judah who will return to conquer the earth, in contrast to his first appearance on earth as a sacrificial lamb. This gives Christians hope that evil, which now must be endured, will one day be defeated.
The Lion of Judah also figures prominently in the history of Africa and Afro-centric movements of the 20th century such as Rastafarianism.
In all of these expressions, the lion evokes the ideas of courage, strength, ferocity, majesty, royalty and justice.