Biblical Portraits: Judah (4)

My dear readers, together we have witnessed the profound inner transformation that Judah went through in chapter 38, in his story with Tamar. Why was it important for us to see this transformation? The Torah wants to make sure we know that the Judah who comes to Egypt and talks to Joseph, is not the same Judah that we saw in chapter 37, in the sale of Joseph. Yes, the amazing authority, Gods special gift to Judah and his tribe, is still there, and we will see it, but this Judah has a completely different character—the eyes of his heart are opened! And now, being aware of this transformed Judah, let us proceed to the second part of the story, in order to be able to complete our biblical portrait.

This distress has come upon us
We are in Egypt now. The day has finally come, the long-awaited moment has arrived when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt and stand before him – the ten brothers who had nearly murdered him but took enough pity on him to listen to Judah’s suggestion and sell him into slavery instead. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.
From this moment begins either a game of cat-and-mouse, or perhaps hot-and-cold; something starts to take place that is not quite visible from our outsider’s vantage point because the main story-line is being played out within the participants’ hearts. Beginning from that moment, it is as if an invisible hand were stealthily creeping closer to that deep, dark and forbidden thing the brothers had concealed all these years, not only from others, but also from themselves. Each scene, each step taken in this story, fills their hearts with progressively greater confusion and fear; with each succeeding event, they feel the invisible hand getting “warmer”, slowly but surely nearing that secret, buried spot in their hearts.
We read that Joseph spoke roughly to them, accusing them of being spies and of coming to see the nakedness of the land. At first glance, all that Joseph says lacks any hint of comprehensibility. Why does he suddenly accuse them of spying? Why does he say to them, in this manner you shall be tested, and this is how it will be seen whether there is any truth in you”: bring your brother that is presently not with you? If he already accused them, then what could be the connection between the brother left at home and the accusation leveled against them? And yet, as unexpected as this accusation might have sounded to them with its subsequent demand to fetch their younger brother, despite its lack of sense and the total absence of a plausible connection with the accusation itself, it did not appear unreasonable to them. Then they said to one another, ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.’

This distress has come upon us… or, like Reuven said, “his blood is now required of us”. Note that God is not yet mentioned here – they have yet to understand that none other than the Almighty Himself has made them participants in this game. We still hear impersonal and passive verb forms: his blood is now required of us (דמו נדרש); they still credit what is happening to the whims and ruthlessness of the Egyptian governor and consequently, to nothing more than an unlucky turn of events, and yet… in their deep inner recesses, a curious spiritual connection between what is happening to them and that long-ago story, is already beginning to be revealed to them. Through the apparently irrational and inconsistent visible circumstances, another invisible logic begins to make its way to the surface – the logic of the movement of God’s Spirit in the heart of the person He is pursuing.

What is this that God has done to us?

It’s interesting that at this point, the Scripture doesn’t separate Judah from his brothers – we see the whole crowd together and we read that Joseph is talking to all the brothers—all ten of them. And yet, we know that scripture did separate Judah before and will separate him after: we saw him repenting and confessing in his story with Tamar, and we will see that it will be Judah’s speech and confession that will deeply touch Joseph’s heart and make him reveal himself to his brothers. So I think we can safely conclude that Judah is the one who is the most sensitive to the move of God’s spirit in this story.

Meanwhile, ten brothers set out on their way back and one of them notices the silver he had used to pay for the grain returned in his sack. Then their hearts failed them and they were afraid, saying to one another, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’ Was Judah the one who said that? Was he the one who began to understand that everything happening to them is not simply a twist of fate, but God has done it to them. “What is this that God has done to us?”

My dear reader, I want you to see this profound transition: from “his blood is required” to “What is this that God is doing to us?” It’s not so evident in most translations, but in Hebrew this transition is very clear: from impersonal and passive verb forms describing just unlucky circumstances, to understanding that it is God who is doing it to them.

The Hebrew here literally says that they “trembled to one another”. After all, they had simply gone down to Egypt to buy grain (just as many centuries later the Samaritan woman simply went to the well for water) and they certainly didn’t expect, much less want, something unusual to happen on this trip. What now were these uncanny things happening to them? Like a doubly-exposed roll of film with its images overlapped, we can see God’s, as yet invisible, reality placed over their routine lives and beginning to show through. And without any doubt, Judah, who has experienced the terrible tragedy of losing two sons, who repented, who has a broken and humble heart, is the most sensitive one among the brothers to this invisible God reality.

To be continued…

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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gary Gibbs

    Julia as always your description of this story is so insightful. I always enjoy your teaching and have learnt so much from reading your blogs and your books. Especially ” As if Hiding His Face” and your piece on Judah has been so helpful.
    Thank you

  2. Carla Gade

    I look forward to each of your posts. I’ve been really enjoying your insights about Judah.