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In Deuteronomy 21:15-17 we are shown that the son of an unloved wife cannot be disinherited without cause. Jacob’s wife, Leah, is our prime example of an unloved wife in Scripture. Her oldest son, Jacob’s first-born, was Reuben, who, as we have seen, was disinherited, not for being the son of an unloved wife, but for defiling his father’s bed.
We should also mention that the KJV renders verse 15, “If a man have two wives, one beloved, and the other hated.” The NASB softens the word hatred to unloved. That is certainly how we ought to understand it; however, we should also take into account that there is a legal hatred as well as an emotional hatred. We see such an example in Deuteronomy 22:13 and 14, where we read of a man who marries and then later “hates” (KJV) his wife and charges her in court with not being a virgin when he married her. The NASB softens this hatred to the phrase, “turns against her.”
The Hebrew language often uses exaggeration as a literary device, as we are told by Kenneth Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I believe that this is one such case. To prosecute someone for a violation of the law is to “hate” judicially, rather than emotionally. This is similar to the idea of the “curse” of the law, which occurs any time the law renders a guilty verdict and passes sentence upon a sinner.
We ought to understand the law of the hated wife in this light, especially because we have no reason to believe that Jacob hated Leah. He simply did not love her as he loved Rachel. Yet the contrasting relationship is described in the law as “one beloved and the other hated.” Moses uses an exaggerated word picture, but the point of this law is to protect the son of an unloved wife.
Reuben was treated properly by his father, for he was not disinherited until after he defiled his father’s bed. The deeper question that Jacob faced was whether he could disinherit Simeon, Levi, or Judah, who were other sons of Leah—and all older than Joseph. The law does not give us the answer directly, but Jacob’s example suggests that they did retain some rights.
In Jacob’s blessing on the twelve sons, he spoke of Simeon and Levi in Genesis 49:5-7,
5 … Their swords are implements of violence… 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
The tribe of Simeon later was given territory to the south of Judah, and history shows that they were essentially scattered or absorbed by Judah. Levi received no territory at all, but God used his violent character to good use. Levi’s sword was used to sacrifice animals at the tabernacle. Simeon, being older, was held more accountable than Levi, but in the end, even Levi lost the priesthood on account of their hatred without cause (John 15:25).
And so, when we look closely at the way Jacob handled the problem in the end, we see that he deprived Leah’s sons of the birthright, but yet he gave them their due. Levi was given the priesthood and Judah the scepter for the duration of the Old Covenant.
The case of Judah’s scepter is more complex, because the story in Genesis shows him in both a negative and a positive light. He betrayed Joseph and sold him for twenty pieces of silver. Yet later his repentance speech showed his positive side. The long-term effect of his personality came out in his descendants, the tribe of Judah. Thus, Jeremiah 24 prophesies of two “baskets” of Judahites, one good and one evil. The good were repentant, submitting to the judgment of God with humility; the evil ones refused to accept divine judgment for their sin and fought to hold on to their scepter.
This mixture of people within Judah is seen later as well in the gospels. The good Judahites (“Jews”) followed Jesus into the New Covenant, and they eventually received the promise of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These, Paul says in Romans 2:29, are the true Jews, and their sign is that of heart circumcision.
On the other hand, the evil ones of Jeremiah 24 were those who remained unrepentant, first refusing John’s baptism of repentance and later rejecting the Messiah. Paul tells us in Romans 2:28,
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.
Those who were in rebellion against God and the Messiah followed the pattern of Judah’s evil side when he set forth the plan to sell Joseph. That is the side of the tribe of Judah that was to be disinherited and no longer recognized by God as part of the tribe. But those Judahites who had faith in the rightful Heir to the throne of David obtained the promise of the Spirit and shared in His throne. Ephesians 2:6 says,
6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.
Therefore, we see that the tiny group of disciples in the upper room became the heirs of the scepter, and all who joined that group by having a common faith in the King became citizens of Judah. Those who rebelled against the King Jesus showed that they were the part of the evil side of Judah, and those branches were cut off (Romans 11:17).
To “cut off” unrepentant Israelites of any tribe was a feature of the law as well. For instance, in the law of sacrifice found in Leviticus 17:10, God says “I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.” In other words, it is a serious violation of the law to be bloodthirsty and violent.
Likewise, if a man sacrifices an animal “outside the camp,” he was to bring the blood of that sacrifice to be presented to the Lord. If he fails to do this, God says in Leviticus 17:4, “that man shall be cut off from among his people.” Jesus was made the final Sacrifice for sin, and He bore His cross “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:11-13). Though He died for the sin of the world, it is necessary for a person to apply His blood to their account in the tabernacle. If they fail to do this, they are “cut off” and are no longer considered to be members of the tribe, regardless of their genealogy.
In the New Testament dispute over the scepter of Judah and the throne of David, the hearts of the two groups of Judahites were made manifest by these laws. Those who applied the sacrificial blood of Christ to their “temples” were the inheritors of the promise. Those who failed to do this, having no faith in His Sacrifice, were cut off and disinherited unless they later repented and fulfilled this law of sacrifice.
The two factions of Judah were manifested in the revolt against David in 2 Samuel 15-18. In that story, Absalom led the group of evil Judahites that rejected the true anointed one—the messiah of his day—King David. He was helped by Ahithophel, David’s friend who betrayed him (2 Samuel 15:12). Ahithophel later hanged himself (17:23) and became the prophetic type of Judas when this story was repeated in the revolt against King Jesus, “Son of David.”
Although Absalom succeeded for a while in usurping his father’s throne, in the end David returned to reclaim it, and Absalom was killed. It is clear from this story that the two factions of Judah—one good and the other evil from God’s perspective—surfaced in the war between Absalom and David. Between these competing factions, which side represented the true Jews, and which side represented the evil ones who were to be cut off unless they repented? More to the point, which side was “chosen”? Was Absalom chosen and anointed to rule? Obviously, he thought so, as did his followers—and they formed the majority of the people.
But in the end David reclaimed his rightful throne, for God judged the case and found David to be the true anointed one, i.e., the messiah of the time. Likewise, when this dispute was replayed a thousand years later, the usurpers seized Christ’s inheritance (Matthew 21:38) and cast Him out of the “vineyard” with the help of Judas, the “friend” of Jesus (Matthew 26:50) who betrayed Him with a kiss.
All of this shows the background for Paul’s statement in Romans 2:28 and 29, where he legally defines a Jew (i.e., a member of the tribe of Judah). Those who remain under the Old Covenant with its sign of physical circumcision are NOT JEWS, he says. Those who have come under the New Covenant with its sign of heart circumcision are Jews in the sight of God.
In other words, what men call the Church is actually the tribe of Judah, for they follow the rightful Heir of the throne of David. And, of course, the law provides for any man of any ethnicity to gain legal citizenship in the tribe of Judah as long as they have faith in the King and swear allegiance to Him.
The complexity of Judah’s case is visible to those who study this part of Scripture. Hence, when Jacob gave the scepter to Judah, it had long-term ramifications for the tribe itself. In the end, however, Judah’s possession of the scepter would be temporary, for the entire birthright would have to be reunited in the hands of Jesus Christ. As I said previously, Levi’s priesthood was claimed by Jesus in His first coming, but the scepter of Judah was usurped and remains disputed to this day. That dispute will be resolved by the second coming of Christ, even as the dispute between David and Absalom was resolved with David’s return to Jerusalem. That prophetic type has yet to be fulfilled.
Though Christ came the first time as a descendant of Judah and David, He will come the second time as Joseph with His robe dipped in blood. Hence, His second coming will not only resolve the dispute between the two groups of “Jews,” but He will transfer the scepter from Judah to Joseph.
This is how the law of the unloved wife has prophesied the future and has affected the tribes of Simeon, Levi, and Judah throughout Kingdom history. The law has penalized them for sin, but more importantly, it has also protected their rights as sons of Leah.