One of my favorite stories in Genesis is one of the least well known. I learned the extent of this story from reading my brother’s book The Growth of the Seed: Notes on the Book of Genesis. When most people turn to the end of Genesis, they think of the story of Joseph, but I think of the story of Judah.
When we first meet Judah, he isn’t exactly a nice man. We all know that the 10 older sons of Jacob hated Joseph. He was clearly their dad’s favorite and he didn’t shy away from telling the dreams which seemed to predict his preeminence over the family. One day the older brothers caught Joseph alone and planned to kill him. In Gen. 37:26-27 Judah offers another idea: sell Joseph into slavery. His motive wasn’t saving the life of his younger brother; it was greed. Some have tried to justify Judah in this, but think of all the news stories recently about human trafficking. There was nothing merciful in Judah here. He might well have been sending Joseph to an early grave as a slave, but at least it lined his pocket! And so Joseph is sold.
In Genesis 38 Judah has left the family of God. Surely Judah knew of the promises God had made to his great-grandfather. He knew his family was the family of promise and that the blessing of God was passed down through his family, yet he chose to leave and go his own way. His absence wasn’t short either. He married, had three sons, raised them, and arranged a marriage for his oldest. So, he was gone for nearly 20 years at that point. Judah’s character shows again when we see how wicked his sons were. His oldest was so wicked God struck him dead. The next son, who took the widow of his brother to raise up an heir in the dead brother’s name, enjoyed the benefits of that arrangement without accepting any of the responsibility so God struck him dead too. One might strongly question the idea of Judah as a righteous father. Judah held back his youngest son from his daughter-in-law (Tamar) on the pretext that he was too young and Tamar went to live with her parents. Time went by, however, and the youngest son grew to an age to handle the responsibility but still Tamar was left alone. She began plotting to get what was truly hers by the laws of that time and place.
Meanwhile, Judah’s wife dies. After he finishes his period of mourning, he goes to the sheep shearing, an event with a festival atmosphere. On the way, Judah saw what he thought was a temple prostitute and decided to engage her services. So he is not only committing fornication, but is also participating in the worship of an idol. He leaves his signet ring, staff and the cord worn on his neck with the prostitute as a guarantee that he’d send payment back to her. Turns out the prostitute was actually his daughter-in-law Tamar who was just taking from him what he should have given to her. [A quick aside: whatever we think of Tamar’s tactics, God seems to have been ok with it. Not only is she not condemned anywhere in this story – and in fact, Judah will later say she was more righteous than he – but Tamar is one of only three women listed among Jesus’ ancestors in Matthew 1. That seems to be a pretty ringing endorsement.] When it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant, Judah plans to execute her for her loose ways until she shows the ring, cord, and staff and lets it be known that Judah is the father. His reaction -- “And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more” Gen. 38:26 -- seems to be one of true remorse and repentance because the next time we meet Judah he is back with the family of God.
Not only is Judah back with his family, he has gained status as the family's spokesperson. When the seven years of famine came and the ten sons of Jacob went to Egypt to buy grain (because God had raised Joseph to second in the land after he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and Joseph planned appropriately for the famine), they didn’t recognize Joseph and he treated them rather roughly. He insisted that the next time they come they bring their youngest brother to “prove” that they aren’t spies. When they get home and tell Jacob of the demands of the Egyptian lord, he refuses to consider it. In 42:37-38 Reuben tries to convince Jacob saying that he will be responsible for Benjamin. Jacob ignores Reuben. Finally, when things get really bad, Judah offers to be responsible for Benjamin and Jacob relents (43:8-13). Judah had obtained a respectability higher than his oldest brother. When they get to Egypt, Joseph arranges things so he can accuse Benjamin of being a thief and keep his younger brother with him. The other brothers, still not recognizing Joseph, believe a calamity has occurred. Judah gives a speech, part of which follows:
Gen 44:30-34 “Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad is not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad's life; it will come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants will bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then shall I bear the blame to my father forever. Now therefore, let thy servant, I pray thee, abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with me? lest I see the evil that shall come on my father.”
When Judah sold Joseph into slavery he had no concern for the feelings of his father and stood by callously as Jacob wept over Joseph. Now, he is so concerned for his father – and his brother – that he is willing to take the place of Benjamin. He begs for the right to live as a slave so that his brother may go free. It is reminiscent of John 15:13. While he wasn’t dying for Benjamin, he was giving up his life for him. This is a complete transformation from being a totally selfish man to being a man of love. We see this complete transformation acknowledged by God when Jacob prophesies that the scepter will not depart from the house of Judah until Shiloh come (49:8-12). The blessing that had passed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob was now being passed to Judah.
That almost seems strange, doesn’t it? Think of how wicked Judah had been in his early life. He sold his brother to human traffickers and then lied to his dad saying Joseph was dead. He left the family of God. He raised two extraordinarily wicked sons. He slept with a prostitute and likely worshiped an idol while he did so. BUT he came back to the family of God. He learned to love others and put them before himself. He learned to be self-sacrificing. It was for this repentance and faithful working in the family of God that he was blessed. Judah changed and God forgave.
It’s amazing how many of the great men of the Bible had huge failures. Think about it: Abraham repeatedly lied (Gen. 12, 20). Moses disobeyed and took the credit for a miracle (Num. 20:10-11). David murdered and committed adultery (2 Sam. 11). Peter denied the Lord (Matt. 26:69-75). Paul persecuted the church (Acts 8:3, 22:4). What all this means, what the story of Judah teaches, is that no matter how far you've fallen, you can still come back to the Lord. No matter what you’ve done, God will forgive you and give you a place in His family. If God will forgive Judah and allow the blessing of the coming Messiah to fall on him, then he will forgive us as well. We can enjoy the blessings of the glorified Messiah. All we have to do is repent and return to the family of God.
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Pet. 3:9.