Chapter 38 is another one of those sections in the Book of Genesis that seems out-of-place. Chapter 37 leaves off with Joseph being sold as a slave to Potiphar in Egypt and Chapter 39 picks up in the same spot. Chapter 38 spells out the sordid misdeeds of one of Joseph’s brothers, namely Judah, and seems to be an irrelevant parenthetical account; an unnecessary interruption in the narrative which has been focusing on Joseph.
While the incidents surrounding the sins of Judah do very little to advance the story now before us, they do serve as a very enlightening background and explanation for what will follow. We caught a glimpse in Chapter 37 of the level of depravity that the sons of Jacob had fallen to, now we get a more detailed, up-close look at one son in particular. Perhaps it is intended that we consider him as an example and his wickedness recorded here but an illustration of the great sinfulness which characterized the entire family. Nevertheless, there are at least three main reasons why we are told about Judah’s actions here:
Judah’s Sin Shows The Need To Get The Israelites Out Of Canaan
First and foremost, the sinfulness of Joseph’s brothers (we saw another example in the lives of Simeon and Levi back in Chapter 34) demonstrates the need for God to get the family out of the land of Canaan. Here we are only three generations removed from Abraham himself and the family has already so adopted the practices of their pagan neighbors that they are morally no better than the inhabitants already living in the land. Everything about Judah’s dealings with Tamar was typical behavior of the Canaanites. Even his grave, hypocritical double-standard as recorded in Verse 24 is characteristic of the worldly, man-of-the-flesh. The vilest of heathen is indignant when confronted with the sins of others, though he himself sees no injustice in his own.
If the family of Israelites had become so utterly corrupted by the influence of those living around them in just three generations, how much greater would the contamination have been had they remained in Palestine all along? Thus God chose for them to dwell in the incubator of the wilderness of Egypt, removed from the corrupting influences of their neighbors. Even the Egyptians’ contempt for all keepers of sheep served the purposes of God, for it allowed the family to be further segregated in the land of Goshen within Egypt.
Judah’s Sin Shows the Contrast Between Joseph’s Character And His Brothers’
It is not likely just a coincidence that we are told of the sexual impurity of Judah just before we are told of the chaste behavior of his younger brother, Joseph. It is safe to conclude what Judah’s (and probably every other brother, except Benjamin) response would have been to the advances of Potiphar’s wife. As we began to see in Chapter 37, Joseph is different from his brethren. Joseph fears God and respects others while his brothers seem to simply take whatever they want and mistreat others for their own selfish interests.
Judah’s Sin Characterizes The Line Into Which The Lord Jesus Will Be Born
“Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez was the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram.” (Matthew 1:2-3)
Chapter 38 of Genesis serves as a profound reminder of how great humanity’s need for a Savior really is! We see that even those who were in the lineage of the Lord were sin-stained, imperfect people. Perez was the illegitimate son of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Yet he became the father of Hezron and ultimately an ancestor in the line that led to the Lord Jesus. The sordid deeds of Judah show us that God did not choose the noblest, the most morally upright, or the most righteous of the sons of Israel through which to bring the Lord Jesus into this world. He used sinners to bring about His purposes. If men like Judah fit into the plans of God, maybe He can use the rest of us sinners, too.
To Jesus Christ goes all glory. In service to Him,
[This post was originally published September 16, 2010]
[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]
“And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found.” (Genesis 44:16)
The musical “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”(*) contains a song performed after the silver cup is discovered in Benjamin’s sack called the “Benjamin Calypso.” Some of the lyrics to this Caribbean style number include the phrases:
Oh no – not he
How you can accuse him is a mystery
Save him – take me
Benjamin is straighter than the tall palm tree
Oh, yes – its true
Benjamin is straighter than the big bamboo
No ifs – No buts
Benjamin is honest as coconuts
The picture is often painted that the brothers, Judah in particular, were astounded by the accusations made against Benjamin and thus offered to give themselves in the place of this innocent man. Yet in Judah’s very moving and emotional plea with Joseph to take him instead of his younger brother, we see no such appeal to Benjamin’s innocence nor any denial of the crime of which he has been accused. Obviously, we know from the text that Benjamin was innocent of stealing the silver cup; but was Judah convinced of this? Judah and the other brothers, I am certain, were keenly aware that the strength of Benjamin’s character far exceeded their own, but did Judah believe that such an act was entirely out of the realm of possibility for Benjamin to have committed? A young man, away from his simple, rural home for the very first time; entertained in the palatial estate of the viceroy of Egypt, surrounded by gold and silver and jewels that must have staggered the imagination of this shepherd boy. Perhaps, Judah may have pondered, this young man got caught up in the splendor of the moment at the meal where they had been guests and, supposing that such a small treasure among so many others would have scarcely been missed, slipped the cup away in his sack as a souvenir from a place to where he would very likely never return.
Whether Judah pondered such ideas in his own mind or not, we do not really know. But I think we miss something very significant when we conclude that it was Judah’s conviction of Benjamin’s innocence that compelled him to make such a noble gesture as giving himself for his younger brother. This scene is infinitely more touching and of much greater significance when we consider that Judah was offering himself, not based on the merits of Benjamin, but out of his love both for his brother and his father. We are reminded here of the Apostle Paul’s summation of the magnitude of what Christ has done for us in that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us “(Rom. 5:8). It was not our own merits that compelled the Lord Jesus Christ to offer Himself up on the Cross, but His love toward us and toward His Father. It was not Jesus’ deference to our own righteousness (indeed, we are without any righteousness of our own!) nor His belief in our own innocence; In fact, He gave Himself because we are not innocent!
Judah explained that it was for the sake of his father Jacob’s great love toward Benjamin that he would willingly give himself in order that the young man would live (Gen. 44:30-31). Jesus gave Himself because of the Father’s love toward us.
(*) Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics used here are under copyright by their respective owner.
“And Judah said unto Israel his father, Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go; that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones. I will be surety for him; of my hand shalt thou require him: if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever:” (Genesis 43:8-9)
When we consider what we know thus far about Judah, this offer on his part seems entirely out-of-character. This is the same Judah who made the suggestion to sell Joseph into slavery back in Genesis 37:27; the same man who ordered that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, be put to death for harlotry back in Genesis 38:24. This is the first truly selfless and noble gesture that we see him make. If there is any doubt that there has been a change in Joseph’s brothers, we are certainly beginning to see evidence of it. Judah confessed his guilt over what he intended to do to Tamar (Gen. 38:26) and, along with his other brothers, confessed his sin over what he did to Joseph (Gen. 42:21). But mere acknowledgment of wrong-doing does not always indicate a repentant heart. A change in behavior is a better sign that a genuine repentance has occurred. And it seems that such a change has happened in the heart of Judah.
That Judah’s offer is not merely so many idle words is proven when the time comes for him to make good on his surety (Gen. 44:33). The same man who callously sold one brother for twenty pieces of silver (Gen. 37:28) will later offer to give his very life to save another. What a fortunate young man Benjamin was to have someone willing to give himself for him. Yet we, too, have One Who not only offered to do the same, but indeed did so. A Descendant from the tribe of Judah would later come and offer Himself as a surety for anyone who would believe on Him (Mark 10:45).