As I mentioned in my piece on the šir-o xoršid symbol, the lion often represented important religious or revered figures due to its obvious characteristics of power, majesticness and courage. This was true for Islamic figures like Ḥamzah ibn ‘Abdul-Muṭṭalib and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. However, the same can be said about leading individuals in both Judaism and Christianity, respectively Judah son of Jacob and Jesus Christ.
As mentioned in the Biblical Chapter Deuteronomy, the Israelites descend from the biblical arch-patriarch Jacob through his twelve sons. Judah is one of these sons, the progenitor of his tribe, the Tribe of Judah. The other eleven are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. From the period of the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel, the tribes formed a loose confederation in the area. It is written in the New Testament: “And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.” [Revelations 21:12-13]
Like I mentioned, the Tribe of Judah consisted of descendants of Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and of Leah. Betlehem and Hebron were the main cities in the lands allotted to them, all the way up to the Negev desert in the south (around 1200-1050 BC). Every tribe had its own symbol which represented its piece of the allotted territories. The symbol of Judah’s Tribe was a lion. In Genesis 49:9, the patriarch Jacob gave this symbol to his son when he referred to him as “a young lion” (yəhūḏāh ’aryêh gūr in Biblical Hebrew). It says: “You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness; who dares to rouse him?” Hence, the name Lion of Judah.
Why is the Tribe of Judah in particular so important, considering the multitude of Israelite clans that were present in a rather limited area? The Tribe of Judah was definitely one of the most powerful tribes in the region during the late second millennium BC, and more importantly, generated a famous royal line of kings starting with David son of Jesse. David, who was anointed king over Judah, unified all of Israel and conquered Jerusalem by the 10th century BC. It’s this lineage of David, his son Solomon and their next of kin, that became an important concept in both Judaism and Christianity. Since the Lion of Judah represents the Tribe of Judah, whose most famous king was David and Solomon after him, the Lion came to symbolize this royal line that is said to have ended with Jesus himself.
Indeed, since Jesus is believed to be of Davidic origin, he too is represented as the Lion of Judah. This additional importance is often referred to in Christianity, mostly in the names of Christian churches and organizations. In Chapter Revelations 5:5, we read: “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose its seven seals.” According to scholars of the Bible, the lion here obviously refers to Jesus Christ, whose earthly genealogy is said to come through king David and who is considered to be the eternal king whose kingdom has no end. This symbolism gave rise to the (modern) popular imagery of Jesus as both lion and lamb (another reference to him further in Revelations 5:6).
The most notable user of the Lion of Judah symbol, however, is the imperial Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia. According to the national epic Glory of Kings (Kebra Negast), a 14th century AD religious account written in Ge’ez describing the genealogy of the Solomonic dynasty, this dynasty was established by Menelik I, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to the book, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia somewhere around 950 BC. His bloodline supposedly ruled Abyssinia until the imperial Ethiopian House of Solomon ended with the deposition of emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The claim of descendance from king Solomon himself by the Ethiopian monarchy made every symbol related to Solomon extremely important in royal Abyssinian visual culture. I already wrote about the use of the Seal of Solomon, and the Lion of Judah played its part in this legitimacy as well. This was best expressed through the imperial flag, which featured the Lion of Judah wearing a royal crown and bearing a cross on a scepter between 1941 and 1974.
From its origins, Rastafarianism was intrinsically linked with Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 to 1974. He is undoubtedly the central figure in Rastafarianism, and many regard him as the Second Coming of Christ and thus God incarnate, while others see him as a human prophet who fully embodies Jesus’ teachings and essence. On being crowned, they gave Haile Selassie the title of “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” The Lion of Judah is therefore a supreme symbol among the Rastafarians, who believe their promised Zion lies in Ethiopia. It should be mentioned that Selassie himself didn’t encourage the movement, and distanced himself from any form of deification.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.