Biblical Portraits: Judah (finale)

 

JUDAH AND HIS BROTHERS

Last time, we left off our story just after the cup had been found in Benjamin’s sack. I suppose you understand that this already was a test. Theoretically, ten brothers could have gone home—they were absolutely free to do that, the steward was very clear: “he with whom it is found shall be my slave, and you shall be blameless.”[1] Moreover, they did have a good excuse—their families were starving and they really had to bring them food.  So they all could have left Benjamin and gone home, and I can imagine Joseph sitting in his palace, almost biting his nails,  waiting to see who would come back: only Benjamin or all the brothers. He was greatly relieved to see them all come back: the fact that they did all return was already a good sign—the brothers had passed another test.

And, as I mentioned last time, from now on this story becomes the story of Judah and his brothers. We read in Gen. 44:14:

 So Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, and he was still there; and they fell before him on the ground.

Do you know where in the Bible we have the same expression: “Judah and his brothers”? When we open the New Testament, we read in Matthew: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah and his brothers – this is how scripture sees this story. Why? In order to answer this question, we need to recall the story of Judah and Tamar and Judah’s repentance and confession there. Chapter 38, the Judah/Tamar narrative, became part of Joseph’s story precisely because of that: Scripture makes sure we know that the Judah, who later comes to Egypt and talks to Joseph, is not the same Judah we saw in chapter 37, in the story of Joseph’s sale. This Judah, who has experienced the terrible tragedy of losing two sons, has a broken and humble heart and has gone through deep repentance and transformation.

GOD HAS FOUND

What happens when Judah and his brothers come back and stand before Joseph after Benjamin’s alleged “crime” with stolen cup?  It seems that their innocence of this accusation, which not long ago they were ready to defend with such fury, falls away before a wave of repentance which sweeps over their souls. At least we see this repentance in Judah’s words, as he is the one speaking:

And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves?[2]

What can we say?  What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?   By now, he had certainly come to understand that what was happening to them was between them and God—the brothers had no reason and no way to justify themselves. The Spirit of God was at work behind this whole scene – touching their hearts and Himself leading the dialogue with them. Whilst they were not guilty of that particular crime, under Judah’s leadership, they accepted the conviction and chastisement from the One before whom they had long ago so terribly sinned. Judah continues: “God has found out the iniquity of your servants.’[3] In Hebrew it’s not, “found out”, rather it’s just “found” –  מצא- as if truly all these years, they have been playing a game of hide and seek—had hidden their crime from God and finally, after all these games of hot-and-cold, God had found it!  He had convicted them of their sin and pinned it on them. And even though at first they saw themselves as innocent regarding this particular sin, as they stood before God and opened their hearts to the rays of His light, their confession became profound and real. The words of Judah open one of the most beautiful stories of repentance – and I have absolutely no doubt that it is this repentance of Judah that makes this story so significant.

 

VAYIGASH

When we read the Bible in English, the whole story of the brothers returning to Joseph after the Benjamin “theft”—their speech, their repentance, and then Joseph revealing his identity—seems like one uninterrupted story. Not so in Hebrew, however. The Hebrew Torah, along with chapter divisions, also has divisions into Torah portions (Parashat Shavua) – and Parashat Shavua Miketz suddenly ends in the middle of the chapter 44, to give way to a new Parasha, Vayigash. There is an invisible dotted line, a pause, signifying that something very important is about to happen. Then the next Torah portion, Vayigash, begins with the words: Then Judah came near unto him.… This move of Judah proves to be crucial: it is here, in Vayigash, that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. The division into Torah portions makes it clear that the speech of Judah is perceived as something preceding, even instigating Joseph’s revelation. Why is this?

Now is the time to complete our biblical portrait with some final strokes. I’ve already mentioned that Judah’s Hebrew name, Yehudah (יהודה), can be translated literally as “thanksgiving” or “praise”: the verb lehodot (להודות) means “to thank” or “to praise”, and the Hebrew name Yehudah  is the noun form of this root Y-D-H (ידה). I suppose, most of my readers know this. However, few would be aware that the verb, lehodot, has yet another meaning: to admit, to confess. For example, Vidui, the Hebrew name of a special prayer of confession read before and during Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), comes from the same root. Before Yom Kippur, we recite special prayers called Selichot. The word Selichot means “confessions”. One of the most beautiful and profound prayers of this season says: How can we complain? What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselvesWe will examine our ways and scrutinize them and we will return to You for Your hand is outstretched to accept returnees. Not with abundance, not with deeds do we come before you, like paupers and mendicants we knock on your door.

What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? These are exactly the words Judah used when he and his brothers came back to Joseph – and probably here we can find an answer to the question that we asked in the beginning. We all know that Judah’s tribe was destined to have a very unique honor – to bring forth King David and also Jesus – why?  Why was it 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? Joseph was righteous – would it not be more logical to expect this special monarchic/messianic line to come from the tribes of Joseph (from Menashe or Ephraim)? Why Judah?

I hope the biblical portrait that I’ve been drawing here, helps you to see the answer: Judah is a man of  repentant heart!   Judah was the very first Biblical figure who was ready to acknowledge his sin and repent; he repents twice in the book of Genesis—with Tamar and with Joseph; his words become part of Yom Kippur prayers and thus designate the attitude that the Lord desires from his children.  I believe it’s because of this repentant heart that Judah was so special in the eyes of the Lord, as many centuries later Judah’s descendant David, also a man of repentant heart, was very special in the eyes of the Lord as well:    “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God”. (Ps. 51:17 ).

[1] Gen.44:10

[2] Gen. 44:16

[3] Gen. 44:16

 

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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. Harleypreacher

    Julia, I always enjoy the new insights that your blog reveals. I am living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks. I have been a Bible teacher, evangelist and pastor for over fifty years and a student of Hebrew and Greek languages for almost that long and I am still learning. In my opinion, so many things in the Bible have been so misunderstood for hundreds of years because we tend to read it from the Western-perspective, rather that from the first century Jewish perspective. Thanks for teaching this old dog new tricks! God Bless. Psalms 122:6

  2. Brad James

    All I can say to your series on Judah is thanks. What a profound treatise on one of the tenants of a life well lived. Recognition of error and redirecting behavior to correct past mistakes is what our Creator desires. May we be more like Judah in this respect.

  3. Julie Check Didlick

    I love the Old Testament so much. I am a fill in teacher at church and I read the student and teachers manual as well as the scriptures. And I have loved your insight and your deep feeling. My great great grandparents were Jews but became Lutherans for business and safety. Thank you so much.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Julie! Hope you will find my other articles interesting and helpful as well.

  4. Michele Thompson

    Shalom Julia, thank you again for a wonderful insight into the story of Judah and his brothers. Although the Holy Spirit opens the revelation of God’s word to the hungry, there are insights that are only held by the apple of his eye – and as you show, continue through to to this day, through Jewish prayers and organization of biblical readings. How rich to be able to receive this treasure. God bless you!

  5. Rev. Louise

    bless you it need the Love of God to well understand

  6. Gladys Fox

    Thank you . Julia you are an amazing teacher. I have learned a lot from you. I am wondering if there is another thing we need to see in the story of Judah. We read about the birth of Tamar’s twins.; one puts his hand out first and a scarlet cord is tied around his wrist ,.but the other twin is born first. He supplant s his brother in the womb. Could this be a clue that Jacob was also supplanted in the womb. Jacob , I believe is one of the most misunderstood people in the bible. I believe that Jacob was meant to be born first. Esau was bigger an stronger ad fought his way out first..The story of Jacob is the story of the people of Israel. They will be a small nation,be misunderstood and have to fight tooth and nail to get what is rightfully theirs.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Gladys, you are so right. The pattern of the younger son goes through the whole Bible – and therefore, Jews would likely identify with the younger son (Abel, Isaac, Jacob, and Ephraim). The story of Jacob is the story of Israel indeed , its not occasional that the people of Israel were called after Jacob -Israel. We discuss these things in our Discovering Hebrew Bible classes. Blessings!

  7. Nani

    I have so loved this series. Thank you and bless you Julia,

  8. Dot Healy

    How privileged we are to be beneficiaries of your diligent exegesis Julia. And how profoundly significant it is that the Yom Kippur prayer you cite is taken directly from Judah’s words of repentance, which trigger Joseph’s revelation of His true identity as their brother. I pray we live to see this prophetic portrait become reality in the Holy Land, when Yeshua reveals his true identity to His Jewish brothers.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Dot! I also find it so significant – and so overlooked – that one of the Yom Kippur prayers starts with the words of Judah! We can’t understand God’s choice of Judah if we don’t see his repentant heart.

  9. George Anamolga

    Thank you Julia.