Genesis 49:8-12 (and other verses)
Earlier in this series, the narrative departed from telling Joseph’s story to journey with Judah into Canaan and to focus on a shameful scene from his life where he denied justice to Tamar, acted with hypocrisy and was ultimately exposed and put to shame by her.
That story might have seemed like a random aside, but it was not. Throughout the rest of the Joseph narrative, Judah is present as a character who is in the peripheries of the story, but who makes persistent appearances. In these appearances, Judah’s own character arc is developed and we see a transformation in him from the selfish chancer who sold his brother into a man of integrity and sacrifice.
By the end of the story, we see a subversive declaration from Jacob that poses the question of whether this was really Joseph’s story at all or whether the Judah narrative was actually the one of greatest significance. In this sermon we dip back into Judah’s story, showing how it interacts with the events already told from Joseph’s perspective, before reflecting on how the story ends with Judah’s honour.
The next mention we have of Judah after the Tamar incident is in Genesis 43:8-10. A long time had passed in the story, and Judah was once more living near to his family. At this point in the story the brothers had visited Egypt once and had been instructed to return with Benjamin (with Simeon held as hostage until they do). It is clear that the only option was to comply with the request, but Jacob was struggling to get there. He loved Benjamin more than Simeon, and would not part with him even if it meant Simeon rotting in jail and the rest of them starving to death.
The brothers knew they needed to talk their father round, and Reuben suggested that if anything happened to Benjamin then Jacob could kill Reuben’s sons in revenge. This was a ludicrous suggestion that showed a callous indifference to life and completely missed the point. Judah however stepped up and agreed to take personal responsibility for Benjamin, promising that he himself would bear the consequences if any harm came to him. This is the first time that Judah accepted responsibility for anything but himself, and it shows a new growth in his character.
A big step in growing in maturity in Christ is being willing to accept responsibility beyond ourselves. It takes a while in the story for Judah to get to this point, but the fact that he does shows that any of us can, no matter what degree of selfishness there may be in our past.
The next mention of Judah is in Genesis 44:14. The silver cup had been found in Benjamin’s sack and the brothers had been brought back to Joseph’s house. It is fascinating that this verse says that ‘Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house.’ If anything it ought to have said ‘Reuben and his brothers’ as Reuben was the eldest brother, yet it is apparent that Judah was taking a lead. When Joseph addressed the brothers, Judah was the one who stepped up and spoke to him. He had agreed to take responsibility and now he was showing confidence in stepping up and leading, despite facing a difficult situation where it might have been easy to stay silent.
Leadership is not something to be afraid of, and it is not just for those who are more senior or experienced. God calls many of us to lead in different contexts and it us good to confidently use our gifts in carrying the responsibilities that we have been given, whatever the setting may be.
Initially Judah’s suggestion to Joseph was for him not to blame Benjamin for taking the cup but to hold all of the brothers responsible. Joseph insisted that only Benjamin as the supposed ‘guilty’ party should be punished and this set the scene for Judah’s finest moment.
Firstly, Judah interceded to Benjamin. He pleaded the case for why Benjamin should not be punished, making particular reference to the impact that it would have on his Father, having already lost Joseph. Secondly, he offered himself as a substitute in the place of Benjamin. He was willing to sacrifice his own freedom in order that Benjamin would be able to return to his father. Donald Barnhouse points out that Judah is the first person in the Bible ‘who willingly offers his own life for another.’ In doing this he shows Christlike love.
Jesus said that there is no greater love than the willingness to lay dow your life for another. In making this offer, Judah completes his transformation from the selfish man only out for himself to a sacrificial man willing to lay down his own interests to others. This is the path of discipleship that we are all called on. Jesus taught that we are to deny ourselves and to take up our cross.
Once Jacob and his sons have made the journey and settled in Egypt, the story concludes with Jacob speaking blessing over each of his sons. Some of these words were harsh, and Reuben, Simeon and Levi found themselves disqualified because of different things they have done. Joseph received a wonderful blessing from Jacob, but the most remarkable of all is the blessing that Judah received. Jacob decreed that all of his brothers will bow down before him!
This brings the story full circle and links back to Joseph’s dreams in chapter 37. Joseph saw his brothers bowing down to him, and this was literally fulfilled as they came to Egypt, and yet Judah is the one who ultimately is given this honour. This points to the inheritance of the promise and the Messianic line. The coming saviour would not be a descendant of Joseph but rather a descendant of Judah. He is likened to a lion, and in Revelation 5:5, Jesus is described as the lion of the tribe of Judah. He is the fulfilment of everything that is promised here.
How Does It Point to Jesus?
Just as Judah interceded for Benjamin and offered himself in his place, so Jesus makes intercession for us and gave himself as our sacrifice. He is the descendant of Judah who receives all honour and it is to him that every knee will bow.