Of Jacob’s 12 sons, I have long been fascinated by Judah. Judah is a dynamic character who is incongruent at first glance. But with a closer eye on the arc of his storyline, Judah starts to make more sense. His account in Genesis follows a classic three act structure.
Act 1, the Set Up, is Genesis 37; the major plot point is when Judah instigates the sale of Joseph. Act 2, the Confrontation, is Genesis 38; the key plot point is when Tamar confronts Judah with his belongings. Act 3, the Crisis & Resolution, is Genesis 44 when Judah must choose whether to step out and save Benjamin from slavery. These three acts might be called, in order: the sin, the din, and the win. Let’s review all three, but not in chronological order for dramatic reasons which will make sense later.
Act I: The Sin
Genesis 37: The Judean wilderness.
Joseph is struggling for breath at the bottom of a dusty pit. His older brothers are sitting down for lunch, the scratches drawn by Joseph’s fingernails still red on their forearms. A merchant caravan appears on the hillside; the caravan is traveling in the direction of Egypt. Judah spies an opportunity. “Brothers,” he says, “what profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?” His pitch to them is a simple one: Let the slavers in Egypt do the killing so the blood will be on their hands, not ours. Plus, as an added bonus, we’ll score a quick profit in the meantime.
After agreeing to the idea, the brothers return to the pit and hoist Joseph back to the surface. For a moment Joseph thinks they’ve had a change of heart, but sadly it is quite the opposite. They have merely returned to make his disappearance irrevocable.
Since Judah had proposed the idea to sell Joseph, it seems natural that Judah would now lead the negotiation of his sale. In any case, the merchants purchase Joseph for 20 shekels and go on their way.
Judah and his brothers come to find themselves involved in a cover-up. They immerse Joseph’s robe in the blood of a goat. Days later they present it to their father Jacob and, in an Oscar-worthy performance, they tell him, “This coat we have found – Identify please (ha’ker na in Hebrew) if it is your son’s robe.” Jacob identifies the robe in horror. He cries out, “It is my son’s robe! A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is no doubt torn to pieces.” Jacob then rips his garment and puts on sackcloth. He mourns at the loss of his son for many days, weeping (v.34).
As time passes, the brothers (including Judah) try to comfort their father but he is inconsolable. Their father Jacob insists, “No, I will continue to mourn until I join Joseph in the grave.” It is noteworthy: Jacob is a man who has physically wrestled with God, but now he will spend the next twenty years wrestling spiritually with God. “Lord, how could You let a wild animal devour my beloved son?” Which wrestling match do you think Jacob found more difficult? Which struggle gave him more of a limp?
Having to witness their father shrivel into a shell of his former self, Judah – the ringleader of Joseph’s disappearance – becomes a target of resentment among the brothers. After all, it is easier to blame Judah than blame themselves. They reason: if we had left Joseph in the pit as originally planned, Rueben would’ve returned and pulled him to safety, and today everything would be fine and normal among us at home. Instead though, nothing is the same. Jacob’s crestfallen spirit hangs like a dark cloud over the entire family.
Be that as it may, the brothers continue to keep the secret a secret. This is a telling insight! From it we glimpse Judah’s stature among the brothers. We know that all the sons of Jacob tried to comfort their father, yet not one of them pointed a finger at Judah. Not one of them ratted him out – not even Rueben! History tells us that Judah will go on to be the predecessor of kings and leaders, and for his part Judah seems to be a natural leader as evidenced by the cooperation and loyalty of his brothers. Judah possesses the gift of influence or perhaps authority. Whether he wields his influence for good or evil is, ultimately, his choice to make. But we see its affect on those around him: the brothers watch their father agonize over a false narrative, yet they stand by Judah even while they endure the disintegration of their own self-respect.
Judah will deservedly merit their respect (and ours) in Act III. Act III is found in Genesis 44, a chapter in which Judah wields his gifts for the good.
Act III: The Win
Genesis 44: Egypt’s sprawling palace with towering ceilings, 20 years later.
Joseph has become viceroy of the most dominant superpower on earth. He doesn’t answer to the name Joseph anymore. In this place he is Zaphenath-Paneah (Gen. 41:45). And seated in the heights of a royal palace, Zap looks right at home. Zap looks, acts, and speaks like an Egyptian overlord, an intimidating power-player on the world’s biggest stage.
Having been reacquainted with his long-lost brothers, the unrecognizable Joseph makes a genius, 4D-chess type move. The move resets the table to see if his brothers will show the same ruthlessness that he remembers. He creates a scenario in which a certain opportunity again presents itself to his brothers, absent their father. The scenario will put Rachel’s other son (Benjamin) in the ejection seat. Will they press fire? Will they rid themselves of Benjamin as they rid themselves of Joseph?
Joseph frames Benjamin for a theft he did not commit. Joseph then summons the boy to receive due punishment for the crime: that is, a life of slavery in Egypt. But Judah (of all people!) steps forward and puts his life on the line. In earnest he tells Joseph, “What can we say, my lord? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now your slaves.”
Joseph moves another chess piece. “No,” he says, “you go back to your father in peace. Just leave me Benjamin, the boy guilty of theft.”
Judah counters because he isn’t the same man as before. Not only has Judah witnessed what the loss of a son can do to his father, Judah himself has experienced the loss of a son – two in fact. He replies to Zaphenath-Paneah, “Pardon your servant, my lord, but let me speak a word to you.”
Here the scene resembles a high-stakes courtroom drama. Judah approaches the bench with his brothers behind him, eyes wide and uncertain.
In a quiet voice, Judah, an old shepherd, speaks personally to the royal looking down at him. He tells Zaphenath-Paneah (and I’ll paraphrase), “Do not be angry with me. I recognize that you are equal to Pharaoh himself. But listen, our father loves this boy in a special way. Our dad didn’t want him to come to Egypt but we insisted. If we now return without him, my dad will most assuredly go to his grave in grief. You must understand that I personally guaranteed the boy’s safety. I said, ‘Father, if I don’t bring him back, I will bear the blame for the rest of my life.’”
The sun-wrinkled eyes of the old shepherd gaze into the eyes of a powerful man, eyes darkened and carefully-etched by Egyptian make-up. The shepherd surrenders. “Please, let me stay behind as your slave in place of the boy. Let the boy go back. I mean how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do NOT let me see the misery that would come upon my father.”
This is Judah’s redemption moment. Joseph is so touched by Judah’s transformation that he commands the palace servants to leave at once. Only after the last servant has exited the room does the Egyptian overlord reveal his true identity to the brothers.
For us, the audience reading this story ~4000 years later, a question emerges. How does this guy Judah go from the wicked, self-serving opportunist of Act I to the selfless, family-first heroism of Act III? At this point our main character, Judah, seems totally incongruent. How do we reconcile the contradictions?
The answer lies in Act II, i.e. Chapter 38. In Chapter 38 we witness Judah’s turning point, or, if you prefer, his breaking point. So let’s rewind to Chapter 38 and see what happens.
Act II: The Din
Genesis 38: Canaan, in the decades between Chapter 37 & 44.
Chapter 38 is the middle act in Judah’s story. I call it “The Din” because din is a Hebrew word meaning to judge, to vindicate, or to strive with. In Genesis 38 we encounter Judah’s “come to Jesus” moment, a time in which the Hebrew word din very much applies. Here’s a summary of the chapter along with a few strategic call outs.
Judah leaves his brothers at the beginning of the chapter (Gen. 38:1).
No surprise here! Given the level of tension that exists among the brothers following the sale of Joseph and their father’s ensuing depression, Judah leaves his home because he wants to get away from the mess that he has caused. He is running away from his past in hopes he can quiet a guilty conscience.
Judah marries a Canaanite woman (38:2).
Indicative of a man who’s breaking ties with his Hebrew family.
Judah and his Canaanite wife have three boys, all of whom reach the age of marriage before the end of the chapter (38:3-14).
In terms of its timespan, Genesis 38 is a long chapter. It spans close to two decades.
Reading the chapter, we learn that Judah’s oldest son is put to death by God due to his evil deeds. This makes the man’s wife, Tamar, a widow. Tamar is then married to Son #2 as was custom in those days. But then unfortunately, Son #2 is put to death by God due to his evil deeds. Tamar, again a widow, is supposed to be given to Judah’s third son. However, the third son is too young to be married for the time being. So Tamar goes off to live with her parents while she waits on further word from Judah.
After a long time Judah’s wife passes away. Judah becomes a widower. As a widower, Judah travels to a town where he encounters a veiled prostitute. For temporary payment, he gives her his staff, his seal and its cord. They sleep together and he leaves. A few weeks pass. Through a series of revelations, he discovers that he’s been robbed by the prostitute. He’ll never see his personal belongings again, or so he thinks. He decides to bury the matter because he doesn’t want to be a laughingstock among the townspeople.
Three months later he learns that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, has become pregnant. The surprise pregnancy is problematic in his eyes, because she is the widow of his first two sons and she has yet to be married to his third son. How can she be pregnant if not for an act of adultery? Furious, he calls for her execution in public. “Bring her out and burn her to death!” he declares. The townspeople go along with Judah’s verdict. They bring her out to be killed, both her and the unborn life inside her.
But Tamar does the most unexpected thing. She sends private word to Judah, saying, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” Lo and behold, the items that she references are Judah’s personal belongings: his staff, his seal and its cord. Her message adds (and this is key), “Identify please (ha’ker na) whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
Without realizing it, Tamar employs the same language that Judah used when he and his brothers presented the torn and bloodied robe of Joseph to their father. A flashback jolts Judah to his senses. Judah hears her words in a way that only Judah can hear. They land with all the force of the Holy Spirit. He melts. Judah reverses course and stops the execution. “She is more righteous than I,” he says, “since I did not give her my son.”
His remark warrants some thought. In various ways Judah and Tamar are alike. Judah deceived his father; Tamar deceived her father-in-law. Both Tamar and Judah, a widow and widower, slept with someone out of wedlock. And yet, according to Judah, Tamar is the more righteous. How can this be?
- Judah’s ha’ker na was a manipulation: it was contrived to cover up Judah’s evil deed of selling Joseph.
- Tamar’s ha’ker na was a plea to live: it was a plea made with such discretion that it covered up Judah’s evil deed of sleeping with a prostitute.
By sending word to him rather than blurting it out or making a big show of it, she kept Judah from becoming the thing he most feared: a laughingstock. She also put her future in his hands. Judah, having repossessed his belongings, could have denied her message and followed through with her execution – a brand new cover-up of epic proportions. But this time around, Judah chooses a better path. He recognizes that Tamar did the same thing that he did, but she did it in the opposite direction: toward the good rather than the bad, toward life rather than death.
The next time you and I see Judah, he is once again living alongside his brothers and their father. He is a changed man, a man who will go on to do what he does in Act III, Chapter 44, standing up for Benjamin and putting his own life on the line.