Judah is a fascinating character.
When his brothers wanted to kill Joseph, he steps up and talks them into selling him as a slave. I know what your thinking, “With friends like Judah, who needs enemies.” But this actually saved his life (Gen. 37:20, 26-27). Judah continues the Genesis theme of life and death; good and evil.
In the midst of the story of Joseph, the author tells us about the actions of Judah (38). It almost seems out of place and appears to have no connection to the plot. Judah moves away from the family and marries a Canaanite woman. This was a departure from the restrictions Abraham had for his son Isaac (24:3).
This Canaanite woman, Shua, gave birth to three sons. The oldest was so evil God put him to death (38:7)! In that culture, you were supposed to give the sons wife to the next oldest brother. That sounds strange to us, but having a family was everything in the ancient world. This would allow her to have children and carry on the family line. Judah does so, however, while her new husband was enjoying the sexual perks, he would not allow himself to impregnate her. This was evil in the LORD’s sight because he rebelled against the legal obligations toward his brother, so He put him to death also (38:10).
Judah has one son left and the continuation of the house of Judah is at stake. He sees Tamar as a curse and stalls to keep him from giving his last son to her in marriage. Eventually she came up with a plan. It is bizarre, to say the least. She dresses like a prostitute to “proposition” Judah. You read the story, she ends up pregnant with twins. When Judah finds out, he wants her burned for acting like a prostitute (38:24-25). Tamar calls for a paternity tests, well… sort of, she brings out the signet ring, cord and staff Judah gave her in exchange for sex.
Why is this here? Judah was in jeopardy of having no one to carry on the family line. Besides having only one son left, he had children by a Canaanite. Even though Tamar’s plan was sinfully twisted, God used it for good, to preserve the seed of Abraham. Tamar isn’t a Canaanite or we assume the writer would have mentioned it.
Fast forward to Genesis 42 and 43.
Jospeh has risen to the second most powerful man in Egypt (read more about that story here). Judah and his brothers have come to buy grain during the famine. Joseph recognized them, but they do not recognize him. Judah plays an important part in the story and rises to the occasion. By his actions, he separates himself from the others, including his older brother Reuben. Both tried to save Joseph from death (37:21-22, 26-27) and both speak on behalf of the other brothers (42:22, 37; 43:3, 8). But it was Judah who spoke plainly to his father about the life and death situation if they did not bring Benjamin back with them (43:8), rather than the positive spin the other brothers tried to put on the situation (42:34). It was Judah who took responsibility for the life and death of the family by making a pledge to care for Benjamin so they could buy food.
Genesis 43:9, “I will be responsible for him. You can hold me personally accountable! If you do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you forever.”
Judah further separated himself from Reuben. What Reuben offered was impressive, or twisted, depending on how you look at it. He said he would have his two sons put to death if Benjamin did not return with them (42:38). How does putting to death two of his grandsons help with his grief of losing two sons? It was Judah who offered himself as a slave to save his brother Benjamin (44:33-34) so he could return home to their father.
Judah is thinking about everyone but himself. This is in contrast to the opening account of the jealousy of the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery. Like Joseph, Benjamin was the favored child, but Judah is compassionate to his fathers love being bound up in the youngest son. It was 22 years earlier Judah came up with the plan to sell his brother into bondage, but today he is the one willing to become a slave so the favored child could be saved. That was the straw that broke the camels back, as they say. Joseph reveals his identity, the brothers are restored and they learn of God’s plan.
Genesis 44:7, “God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” (emphasis mine)
When Jacob comes to Egypt, he sent Judah (not Reuben or Joseph) ahead to prepare for their arrival in Goshen (46:28). But it is in Genesis 49 we find the greatest honor.
Genesis 49:8-12, Judah, your brothers will praise you. Your hand will be on the necks of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. Judah is a young lion – my son, you return from the kill. He crouches; he lies down like a lion or a lioness – who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah or the staff from between his feet until He whose right it is comes and the obedience of the peoples belongs to Him. He ties his donkey to a vine, and the colt of his donkey to the choice vine. He washes his clothes in wine and his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth are whether than milk.
Judah, not Joseph, is chosen as the royal tribe.
Even the psalmist wrote about it.
Psalm 78:67-68, He rejected the tent of Joseph and did not choose the tribe of Ephraim. He chose instead the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which He loved.
The early dreams of Joseph were of his brother bowing down before him, which they did, yet that theme is picked up here to the future house of Judah – King David. We now know this had even farther reaching dimensions – a future Davidic king – the Messiah who will bring a universal kingdom!
Revelation 5:5, Then one of the elders said to me, “Stop crying. Look! The Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has been victorious so that He may open the scroll and its seven seals.”
There are so many allusions to the coming King Jesus from the Judah prophecy (Isa. 63:1-6; Rev. 19:11, 13, 15). It gives even greater significance to God saving the family line of Judah. Yahweh saved him from his evil to accomplish good.
Have you ever wondered why you have been saved from your own failures?
You can look back and see a time you could have died, become homeless, lost your family or a number of other things. What has God saved you to accomplish? It begins by growing up and taking responsibility. You can only come to this place by no longer focusing on your own self-preservation and you begin to care for the good of others. You may not believe God would use you because of some evil sin in your life. Read Genesis 38 again. Judah married the wrong woman, he broke a serious law of the land, had relations with (what he thought was) a prostitute, and almost killed off his linage. But God saved him from himself and used him to save others.
What about you?
*All Scripture quoted from the Holman Christian Standard Bible
*Resources for this blog: The Pentateuch as Narrative, John H. Sailhamer and The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter