The Grace of God in Judah’s Life

The narrative contained in Genesis 37-50 appears to focus primarily on Joseph. Indeed, Joseph is the main character, and the largest amount of space is committed to him. His obedience and morality stands in stark contrast with the disobedience and immorality of his brothers. But Joseph’s brothers play a key role in the book of Genesis, and this significance cannot be overlooked. The various narratives about Joseph show the gradual rise and development of Judah above his brothers. Throughout this narrative, we see the remarkable transformation that the grace of God makes in the life of Judah. By the conclusion of Genesis, it is clear that both Joseph and Judah are the key characters of this section of the book.

In the beginning of this section, Judah appears in the same condition as his brothers: bitter toward Joseph and immoral. The narrative concerning the sale of Joseph implies that Reuben was the most upright of the brothers, since he advocated throwing Joseph into a pit instead of killing him. His desire was to later rescue Joseph from the pit and return him to their father. But while Reuben was gone, Judah proposed that the brothers sell Joseph into slavery and make a profit from him instead of just letting him die.

The story of Joseph in Egypt is strangely interrupted by the account of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. In this story, Judah is proved wicked for lying to Tamar and breaking his pledge that she could marry his third son. Although this story seems out of place, it proves significant in the metanarrative of Scripture. Stephen Dempster said, “It is an entire episode devoted to the future of Judah’s line of descent. This apparently self-contained story emphasizes a future for Judah’s line, despite significant obstacles raised by Judah and his own family.” In addition to emphasizing how the line of Judah was preserved, this text sets the stage for the transfer of leadership from Reuben to Judah. Gradually Judah would develop into the leader of the family. In the article “The Central Role of Judah in Genesis 37-50,” Bryan Smith pointed out the comparisons in the story between Judah and Esau, as well as the contrasts between Judah and Joseph. He asserted that in this portion of the text, Judah manipulated the people at his disposal in order to gain dominion, just as Esau his uncle had done. But by the end of this story, a change may begin to be seen, as Judah admitted that Tamar was more righteous than he, and the Lord gave him twins through Tamar. These stories elucidate the wicked beginning that Judah had, but they also prepare the way for his transformation to a leader among his brothers.

The failures of some of Judah’s brothers also paved the way for his rise to prominence. Genesis 35 contains a small note regarding Reuben, Judah’s firstborn son. It simply states that Judah lay with his father’s concubine, and Jacob heard about this immorality. But when Israel called his sons together in Genesis 49, he stated that the position of preeminence passed over Reuben because of this grievous sin. Reuben forfeited the opportunity to be the leader of the family because he focused on his momentary passions, just as Esau had done earlier. Genesis 34 records the story of the rape of Dinah. After this atrocious act by Shechem, Simeon and Levi deceived the men of Shechem’s city and destroyed the entire city. Although neither Genesis 34 nor Genesis 49 explicitly state that Simeon and Levi were passed over for the place of preeminence because of this unrighteous act of vengeance, the account of Israel’s blessing to these two sons implies that this sin caused them to be passed over. In Genesis 49, Simeon and Levi are the only two brothers who received a simultaneous statement from Israel. In this announcement, Israel referenced the destruction of Shechem and his people, and then he cursed the anger and wrath. The fact that this announcement comes directly between the statement that Reuben was passed over for his sin and that Judah would receive the place of preeminence implies that Simeon and Levi were also passed over because of their deception and destruction. The sins of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi opened the way for Judah to receive the place of preeminence over his brothers.

Although the sins of Judah’s brothers helped Judah to become the leader of his family, it may be pointed out that Judah committed grievous sins as well. However, Judah was chosen over his brothers because of the transformation in his life that took place through the grace of God. The clearest evidence of this transformation occurs in the story of Benjamin’s trip to Egypt. When the brothers returned from Egypt in Genesis 42, they told Israel that they could not return unless they brought Benjamin with them. Israel refused to let them go, and Reuben asserted that he would take responsibility for Benjamin, saying that Israel could kill his two sons if he did not bring Benjamin back. The fallacy of this reasoning is evident. Reuben implied that the pain of the death of one son could be diminished through the death of two grandsons. Obviously no transformation had occurred in Reuben’s life, and Israel refused to let them go. But in Genesis 43, when the family was out of food and needed to return to Egypt, Judah took responsibility and stated that he personally would bear the blame if Benjamin did not return. This stands in stark contrast to Reuben, who wanted his sons to bear the blame for his error. Finally, when Joseph tested his brothers in Genesis 44, Judah stood up for Benjamin. He stated that they needed Benjamin to return to Israel, not for Judah’s personal benefit, but for the benefit of his father Israel. In addition, he pleaded with Joseph to remain in servitude in Egypt in place of his brother Benjamin. By this chapter, the transformation in Judah is complete and evident. On this basis, Israel gave him the blessing as the preeminent one among his brothers and the one through whom the blessing would come.

Although Joseph appears prominently throughout the end of Genesis, he is merely the character who God used to provide for the fledgling nation of Israel through famine and to set the stage for the fulfillment of God’s promise concerning Egypt in the Abrahamic Covenant. In contrast, Judah was the one through whom God would bring the line of Christ, who would rule the nations (Gen 49:10). The grace of God is clearly seen in Joseph’s life, but it is also clearly seen in the transformation in Judah’s life throughout the last several chapters of Genesis. The grace of God can save a person from sin, and the grace of God can transform the life of a person who follows God.

–Pastor Tim

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