Very soon, the state of Israel will celebrate the 70th birthday (the Independence Day in Israel is always celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, and this year it will be celebrated very early, on April 18- 19th). Originally I had planned to write something special about the State of Israel in this post, but then I realized that you probably know as much as I do about it, and even if not, there are plenty of articles about Israel online, especially on this joyful occasion. But this, as you know, is a Biblical Studies Blog – and I personally felt led to speak about biblical Judah.
Yes, Judah from the book of Genesis, Jacob’s son and Joseph’s brother. You might ask, Why Judah? What does Judah have to do with Israel’s birthday? Later in the Bible, Judah comes to represent the southern kingdom, with the capital in Jerusalem, while Israel was the name of northern kingdom. At first glance, the biblical portrait we are going to paint here seems not to be connected to Israel’s 70th birthday at all! And yet, we all know that King David – who is the symbol of United Israel and the type and symbol of Messiah – was a descendant of Judah. The Book of Samuel makes it very clear that God bestows His anointing, for all time, on a monarchic line arising from the Tribe of Judah in the person of King David. And Jesus, who is designated ‘Son of David’, is also a descendant of Judah. Therefore, Judah’s portrait has everything to do, both with Israel and with the Christian faith. When Israelites sing “David Melech Israel” (“David is King of Israel”), it all started with Judah. And when we read in Revelation about the “Lion from the tribe of Judah,” it also started with Judah.
Have you ever wondered why? Why it was Judah – whose weaknesses, even sins, are revealed so clearly in the book of Genesis, both in the story of Joseph and the story of Tamar – who was honored with this extraordinary privilege? Moreover, if we know that Judah’s tribe was destined to have this very unique honor – to bring forth King David and also Jesus – how do we connect the dots between this glorious destiny and Judah’s questionable behavior in the book of Genesis? And, once again, what does this all have to do with Israel’s 70th birthday?
Let’s sort it out, then. Who was Judah and what do we know about him?
Let’s start from the beginning—from Judah’s birth. When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she declared: “This time I will praise the Lord”. Therefore she named him Judah.” In English, of course, we don’t see a connection: I believe this is one of the greatest losses we experience when reading our Bible in translation only – the meaning of the Hebrew names is completely lost in translation. Translations and adaptations don’t simply change the original meaning, but render the names meaningless. Unless we take time to go back into the Hebrew, the Biblical names of people and places in translation will continue to have no connection at all with the original reference points and ideas buried within the text itself. The connecting words: “therefore”, or “because”, or “so” seem meaningless in these cases – as in Gen. 3:20: And Adam: called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living; or in Gen. 25:26: Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob. However, when we read these Scriptures in Hebrew, the connections are very evident—and this becomes absolutely clear in the naming of Judah: the verb lehodot (להודות) means “to thank “or “to praise”, and the Hebrew name for Judah, Yehudah (יהודה), is the noun form of the root Y-D-H (ידה), “to thank” or “to praise”.
Therefore Judah’s Hebrew name, Yehudah (יהודה), can be translated literally as “thanksgiving” – and this is something that many Bible readers are aware of (even those who don’t know Hebrew). This is also the first, and very important, lesson of the name Judah: we need to thank the Lord in order to become part of His plan and His story, and in order to bring His blessing upon our descendants. However, there is something more that we can learn from this name, but in order to do this, we need to go through—
THE MOST OVERLOOKED STORY IN THE BOOK OF GENESIS
Right after the sale of Joseph by his brothers in Genesis 37, we read the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. In fact, this story breaks the flow of the Joseph narrative: instead of continuing to tell us about Joseph’s going down to Egypt, the Torah finds it necessary to interrupt itself with the story of Judah. We read about Judah separating from his brothers (and wonder why), his marriage, the death of his sons, Tamar’s seduction, and the climax of the story—Judah’s confession. At first glance, this story is not connected at all to the sale of Joseph, and its position in the text seems random and strange. I’ve been teaching this lesson for a few years now, and every time I ask my students: Can you please explain why the story of Judah was placed in the middle of Joseph saga? Why does it interrupt the story of Joseph? So far, I’ve never received an answer to these questions.
Chapter 38 opens with the words: “It came to pass at that time.” This beginning already hints at some connection between the previous narrative and what we are about to read: this expression is usually used to indicate both chronological and thematic connections. Then we read “that Judah departed from his brothers”.
Why did Judah leave?
Let us return to the story of the sale. Have you ever realized that it was the voice of Judah that was absolutely decisive in this story: while Reuven had good intentions (but was unable to follow them through), it is according to Judah’s suggestion that the destiny of Joseph was sealed and he was sold. Even in the middle of this terrible crime, we witness the amazing authority of Judah for the first (and definitely not the last) time, in the Joseph saga. As we will see later, Judah’s heart will change, his character will be transformed—but this incredible authority, God’s amazing gift to this tribe, will stay with him always.
And here we also find an explanation of why he left: we read in a midrash that the brothers blamed Judah and said: “You suggested that we sell Joseph, and we followed you. Had you suggested that we set Joseph free, we would have followed you also”. That is why “Judah departed from his brothers”.
To be continued …