63. Genesis 38:20-30, 43:1-10, 44:14-34, 46:12, and 49:8-12

III. D. 3. continued

We continue discussing Judah in the middle of his story, just after Tamar deceived him and became pregnant. It must have seemed strange to Judah when the temple prostitute vanished. Not only did she vanish, but no one in that neighborhood could even remember a temple prostitute ever being there. As mystified as Judah must have been, it would only have been embarrassing to pursue the matter so he dropped it. Three months later, Tamar could hide her pregnancy no longer. She still counted as a married woman, though she had not been given to Shelah as a wife (the worst of both worlds, married but with none of the privileges or protections of marriage), so she would be counted as an adulteress. Adultery was a capital offense, even among the these heathen. Even if her father had wanted to protect her he could not easily have done so. Instead, he took the only socially acceptable course open to him – he sent her back to Judah for judgement and execution. But Judah had only to see his ring and staff to realize what had happened.

At this point, he might have tried a cover up. If he had acted quickly to execute her while all her evidence was in his possession, he might have contained and controlled the story, as we now say. But Judah spared her life. He had understood himself as a sinner possibly for the first time. He knew it was his own sin in not giving her to Shelah that had driven her to do what she had done. He knew that if she had committed a crime, his was worse. He knew that she was more righteous than he was.  And knowing all this, he could not bring himself to judge her. This is quite a turn-around for a man whose conscience seems never to have bothered him before.

It is interesting the relative weights that he assigned to the two crimes. On the one hand, Tamar had disguised herself as a temple prostitute to seduce her father-in-law; and on the other hand, Judah had postponed her right to be married to his third son. Why was Judah’s crime worse than Tamar’s? Our own culture would judge Tamar’s as the more heinous of the two, but our culture’s perspective, ironically and unlike the Scripture, regards nearly all sexual sins as being worse than other kinds of sins. However, I think that Judah’s reaction was not really one of comparing the degrees of the two crimes. When one’s conscience is finally breached, it always feels like a log, not a splinter, in the eye. Realizing his own guilt for the first time in his life blinded him with the sudden realization that evil is evil, that guilt is guilt, that there is never a valid comparison between my sin and your sin. How can a judge who is guilty of anything at all ever pass judgment on the criminal who is guilty of anything at all? The answer Paul gives in Romans 2, and that Judah now grasped, is that he can’t.

These events surrounding Judah’s sons and daughter-in-law, were all disguises of God’s angel wrestling with Judah; and when Tamar sent him his ring and his staff, his thigh was put out of joint. He was wounded; the only question was whether he would hold on until he was blessed. And he did. He chose the path of confession, repentance, and justice. He spared Tamar but did not have sexual relations with her anymore. He brought her under his protection, and treated her children as legitimately his, but he did not count her as his wife. A modern man would have perhaps thought that since Judah had already had his daughter-in-law against all custom and against the Law that would come later, then there would be no further guilt incurred if he had kept her as his wife. That is not the way the ancients thought about it. On the contrary, it is never inappropriate to discontinue what should never have been done in the first place if it is possible to do so without further harm being done. Judah had obligations to protect her, to care for her and her children, but he could not continue what should not have been.

It is in the second trip to Egypt that we again see Judah. Judah may have encountered the beginning of self-doubt when God executed his two older sons – parents tend to feel guilt for raising an evil son; but it was Tamar’s deception that finally forced him to face his own character for the first time. Judging by his later actions on behalf of Benjamin, humility and repentance had taken root in him, and this is why I think the events with Tamar took place before the brothers went to Egypt the second time, though Perez and Zerah were born a bit later, not long before the whole family moved to Egypt. By this time, Tamar’s pregnancy was well-known in the family, and some of the benefits of Judah’s recent encounter with his own guilt can be discerned. He assumed leadership of the family, in part because his two older brothers, the two not in prison, had been discredited. Judah’s offenses had been committed in isolation from the rest of the family, but both Reuben and Levi still lived under the shadow of their past. So it was Judah that offered to bear the blame personally if anything happened to Benjamin during the trip, as Reuben had tried to offer.

Israel seemed to have no concern for Simeon’s welfare, and in the past this would have stirred up old grievances and bitterness in Judah, but he had been getting beyond all that. Seeing the wickedness of your own heart, if you genuinely see it, makes it easier to look past the failings of others. Israel should have loved Simeon as much as Benjamin, but he didn’t; and if Israel didn’t love Simeon as much as Benjamin, then he didn’t love Judah as much as Benjamin either. So what? Judah could see  his father’s weakness as being like his own. The old offenses didn’t seem so unforgiveable anymore.

But the real test of Judah’s new found repentance and humility came in Egypt as Joseph again set up his brothers and framed Benjamin for a crime. Joseph could guess how it would be with Benjamin, how Israel would have put Benjamin in Joseph’s former place as the new favorite and how his brothers would have been made jealous of him just as they had been of Joseph; he would guess that one of them had probably had to offer to be responsible for Benjamin’s safety; and when Judah assumed the role of spokesman he would have known that it was Judah who was on the line for Benjamin. So much the better. Joseph could remember with justifiable bitterness how it had been Judah’s idea to sell him as a slave, how Judah had turned away from his pleading; now was the time for revenge. He tightened the noose by offering to send them all back except for Benjamin, putting Judah in the worst possible position. And just as Joseph suspected, the story came out: Judah had offered himself as surety for Benjamin, and Joseph got to hear the one who plotted his sale into slavery offer up himself as a slave in place of his younger brother. The wheel had turned full circle and Judah was paying for his crimes in the most perfect possible way. The rest of the scene belongs to Joseph’s story and will be examined in due time. For now let’s stop and just consider Judah.

Was this whole sequence of events God’s judgment against Judah for the sale of Joseph? Yes and no. First of all, Judah only suffered the consequences in his imagination; he never actually experienced being a slave and never actually suffered as Joseph had done. But he had begun to understand exactly what he had done to Joseph and that if he did become a slave it was only the justice due him. This was the culmination of the whole process of Judah being brought face to face with himself, the culmination of a process of discipline, of wrestling with the angel. More than any material blessing could have done, the events with Tamar and then in Egypt demonstrated God’s love for Judah and His commitment to him. God does not punish us for our sins the way we punish our children. The punishment of sin, the way we do it these days in our families and in our society, is utterly stupid because it teaches nothing, it accomplishes nothing, except to inflict suffering. God has no interest in making people suffer. His discipline is to show us how to see our choices the way He sees our choices. This is another reason the Covenant with Abraham should be called the Covenant of Revelation – it is not that direct verbal revelation is always involved, but for those in the Covenant life itself is a revelation.

We have already mentioned Genesis 46:12, that Er and Onan retained their standing among the people of God; they “went to Egypt” even though they were dead. We could further note that there are two sons of Perez listed among those who went to Egypt, though Perez himself must have been but a baby at the time. Doubtless, the children of Perez were listed here because they were of particular interest to the line of David and the coming Messiah. They went down to Egypt with Jacob, not because they were born at the time, but they were present in potential in Perez the infant. That is a stretch, I know, but the book of Genesis is intrinsically a stretch. This is yet more evidence, by the way, that the genealogies were not meant to be taken as timetables.

Finally we must look at Israel’s deathbed prophecy over Judah. Israel’s words look forward to David the King, but they also look beyond him to the Messiah. Judah was given the pre-eminence over his brothers, and that must have astonished Judah as much as the others. At the time, they were all bowing to Joseph, and Joseph had been elevated to the position of first-born when Israel adopted Manasseh and Ephraim as his own, so it would be naturally expected that he would have the blessing of the first born as well. By this time the famine had been over for a dozen or more years and the authority of Joseph was not so great under the next Pharoah, but it must have been something of a surprise that spiritual pre-eminence did not go to Joseph’s family. Joseph had the spiritual credentials in the dreams and the great work God had done through him. Judah was just a sinner, with a long list of crimes to his credit. But Israel had been chosen over Esau, and Judah was now chosen over all the others.

And it was clear that rule was what was in view. The image of Judah’s descendants as a lion is a kingly image, and the scepter of course has to do with a king. The image of the Lion of Judah began here and has become for us a name for the Messiah. Furthermore it was not just the submission of his brothers that would come to the line of Judah, but the obedience of the peoples, the obedience of those who were outside the family, was prophesied as well. The Jews as the chosen people, as a nation among the nations of the world, did not yet exist. The children of Israel were simply a clan, a very large extended family, not a nation. The world was not yet divided into Jew and Gentile, and the term “peoples” would not have the same meaning for them as it would have later. Yet it still conveyed that the authority of the descendants of Judah would extend beyond their own circle.

“Shiloh” is the word that is most obscure. Some translate “shiloh” as “tribute”, but we do not know what the word means. It would be the name of a city in the territory of Ephraim eventually, but its meaning here is more likely a personal name. So the rendering of 49:10 could be “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” The context of the prophecy as a whole suggests that it is a Messianic reference. The last verses of the prophecy continue with an image of peace and prosperity, of abundance of wine, and later the land of Judah would be known in Israel as the source of the best wine. Though we do not understand this passage in any detail, the overall thrust of its meaning is clear: a future king will come from Judah to whom much of the world will owe allegiance.

 

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