Monday, July 6, 2015

What's so Special about Judah?

        Many statements in the Old Testament forecast the arrival of a Messiah and he is predicted to be sent through Judah’s family line. Why?

         Why did the fourth son, not the first, deserve the Messiah? Usually it is the oldest that receives the greater blessing and there was a good reason if this didn’t happen. Throughout the Bible, people were rewarded for their faith and obedience to God, but what did Judah do to deserve this coveted honor? Such an ultimate prize surely deserves an outstanding show of great faith and dedicated obedience. Jacob’s younger son Joseph actually showed greater faith and stronger leadership skills than Judah. In the next blog post, I will compare Judah’s life with Joseph’s, but for now I’m concentrating on other factors that may be part of why this honor went to Judah.

        I’d love to hear your comments. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Leah’s blessing on Judah: Leah was the unloved wife. Jacob loved Rachel, Leah’s sister, but he was tricked into marrying Leah first. Before their marriage, he already had no feelings for Leah, but this deception must have created in Jacob actual dislike of her. So Leah endured living in a family without love. Still, the four sons born to her must have redeemed her in Jacob’s eyes considering the values of the day. Judah was Leah’s fourth son. When the first three boys arrived, Leah made a comment about being unloved, thanking God for his gift to her, but when Judah was born, she blessed the baby saying, “This time I will praise the Lord.”1  Her heart was full of thanksgiving and wanted this baby to be a symbol of praise. God looked on Leah’s situation with compassion but also, he honored a parent’s blessing on her child. The formal blessing given by the father on his deathbed came later, and that is the most telling prophesy for Judah, but we’ll get to that.
 
2. His brother’s behavior: Judah’s blessing may not be so much the result of what he did but also what he didn’t do. His older brothers compromised their chances through their foolish behavior. Reuben, the oldest, should have received the greater blessing but forfeited his chances when he committed a selfish, thoughtless act and slept with his father’s concubine.2  On his deathbed, Jacob mentions this, passing over Reuben. This meant the second-born should have received the lion’s share, but Simeon and the next son, Levi, both are passed over after they reacted with deception and extreme violence toward the Shechemites, the family’s hosts during their travels. Their intentions were commendable in wanting to avenge their sister’s rape, but they overreacted, committing many vicious murders and actually jeopardizing the family’s safety, putting them in danger of annihilation through all out war.3 So these thoughtless acts left the way open for Judah, next in line. 

3. Judah's sense of justice: There is no denying that Judah displayed a passive personality, allowing events to take their course without his intervention. When their father favored Joseph, the resulting jealousy among the other sons builds until finally they explode in a fury and throw him into a well, planning to kill him later. Judah did not intervene until he was presented with another option. Seeing a caravan approach, he suggests selling Joseph instead of committing murder. Not much integrity there. However, this is the first spark of a developing leadership and sense of justice we see in him. 

4. Tamar's desperate act: Judah’s passive nature showed itself again in the story of Tamar, his daughter-in-law. Widowed with no children, she is in a critical situation. Women in Bible times needed a husband or at least children to protect them and provide for them. This is why Ruth’s dedication to Naomi holds so much meaning.5 Judah tried to provide for Tamar through the practice of giving her to her dead husband’s brother in hopes of providing children to her, but when he also dies, Judah sent her to live with her father and proceeded to forget about her. Tamar was forced to trick Judah in order to gain the care and protection she deserved. Now backed into a corner, he admitted neglecting her care.6 Is this the kind of leader deserving of a Messiah through his descendents? 

5. Judah the leader (finally!): By the time we see Judah again, he has become a fully matured, responsible leader of the family. The brothers are preparing for their second trip to Egypt for supplies during the famine and Judah convinces their distraught father to send his youngest son, Benjamin, as promised to the Prime Minister (Joseph in Egyptian dress and acting like a stranger). Jacob has already lost one son (Joseph) from his beloved wife, and fears losing the last remaining symbol of her. Judah offers himself to Joseph as surety for Benjamin’s life. He may be thinking at this point that if they don’t bring Benjamin, the whole family may lose their lives, either directly by the hand of the Prime Minister or by starvation if he refuses to give them supplies. At any rate, it was Judah, not his older brothers who took leadership in speaking to Jacob and offered himself as warranty, and this is the act of a genuine leader.  It’s possible when he said to Jacob, “ I will bear the blame before you all my life,” that he was offering up his birthright, both of them fully knowing he was in place to receive it. 

6. Judah, the official leader: When the family moves to Egypt, Judah is the clear leader, taking the vanguard role during the move to Goshen, the territory Pharaoh gave them. This is the first clear reference where we see Judah picked as the official authority instead of his older brothers.8 

7. Jacob's blessing: By the time Joseph is old and lies on his deathbed, much history has passed in the family. It is time for him to give his final blessing to his sons. This chapter is the culmination of the family story. Jacob promises Judah that his clan would be the greatest among them. Jacob’s reference to Judah as a lion hints at strength and leadership, but his next statement clearly foretells a coming kingship. (“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”) It’s interesting that Joseph continues so far in his prophesy that he makes reference to the life of Jesus, describing his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, the usual action of a conquering king. This appears to be legitimate God inspired prophecy.9  

        So this is how I see it and I welcome your thoughts. We can gain comfort from Judah’s story because who among us could cast the first stone, so to speak, and judge Judah for the way he lived his life? We are all weak and our lives are speckled with sin, but God loves and blesses us anyway, and so it was with Judah.


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 1 Leah’s sons are named: Genesis 29:32 - 35
 2 Reuben’s sin: Genesis 35:22
 3 Simeon and Levi react with violence: Genesis 34:25 - 31
 4 Judah saves Joseph’s life: Genesis 37:26
 5 Ruth has her own story in the book of Ruth.
 6 The story of Tamar: Genesis 38:1 – 26
 7 Judah pleads with Jacob: Genesis 43:3 - 10
 8 Judah leads the family to Goshen: Genesis 46:28
 9 Jacob blesses Judah: Genesis 49:8 - 12

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