A summer sermon on forgiveness at our church featured Genesis 45, a thrilling drama! Joseph (he of the many-colored coat) reveals himself to his estranged brothers, who assume he is long gone. Much weeping, much falling on each other’s necks, much kissing and talking and gift-giving—the greatest gift being Joseph’s forgiveness of the terrible evil committed against him. Judah, of all the brothers, is particularly humble. The sermon focused on Joseph’s understanding of God’s sovereignty and offered practical tips to help us forgive our debtors.
I sat there thinking, “How did Judah go from a human trafficker to a humble servant in six chapters?!”
Is it a different Judah? Nope. Same guy. The terrible evil, of course, refers to the events of Genesis 37. Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him but ultimately decide to engineer some fake peril so they can fake rescue him. Judah is the one who points out that if they want to hurt daddy’s favorite but not technically lay a hand on him (Joseph is their brother, after all), they may as well sell him to some passing traders and make a little profit. They hand Joseph over to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver.
We know about people getting paid to do evil against the Lord’s chosen: Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Delilah got paid to deliver Samson into the hands of the Philistines. Ananais and Sapphira only pretended to give all of the proceeds of their land to the church. We remember. So, our eyes are wide when we learn that Judah and his brothers hated “that dreamer” so much they sold him.
Years pass as Genesis chapters 39-41 describe Joseph’s new life in Egypt. Enter famine, enter Jacob sending his sons to Egypt to find food, enter Joseph—now the head of Pharaoh’s household—demanding the brothers bring Benjamin to him. Benjamin is the other son Rachel bore to Jacob, and Joseph wants to see his face. Jacob isn’t having it, so Judah offers his own life and future as forfeit if he fails to bring Benjamin back from Egypt. Joseph employs some shenanigans (paraphrase mine), and it looks like Benjamin might have to stay in Egypt…but! But Judah begs Joseph to let Benjamin return to his father. If Benjamin is released, Judah will remain in Joseph’s household as a slave.
He who once brokered the slavery of his own brother now freely offers his own life in exchange for a different brother. Same Judah. What happened?!?!?!
Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. Previously united in their murderous hatred against Joseph, now the brothers are only united in their attempt to comfort their father. When Jacob refuses to be comforted and claims he will go down to Sheol still mourning, Judah skips town. The text doesn’t say how Judah felt about pulling Joseph out of the pit and shoving him into the hands of the Ishmaelites, but it does tell us that Judah leaves his brothers in the hill country of Hebron and goes down to stay with his friend Hirah the Adullamite. The terminology evokes the sense that Judah has “come down in the world,” but we know he hasn’t hit rock bottom. Judah isn’t crashing on Hirah’s couch til he deals with his own stuff. He fractures his family even more by settling down with the daughter of a certain Canaanite in a town called Chezib. Chezib means “deceptive.” Guile. Supplanter. Deceiver. These are names Jacob knows well. Judah starting a family in a town with an ignoble name is another thread in this tapestry of lies and deceit.
Intermarrying with the Canaanites was understood by Judah’s ancestors to be forbidden, but Judah does it anyway. His wife bears him three sons. While Joseph is off in Egypt dealing with Potiphar’s wife and all that, Judah’s kids grow up and he arranges marriages for them. His firstborn son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar. But Er is wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord puts him to death. Judah tells his second son, Onan, to go in to Tamar and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for Er. Levirate marriage was a common practice in ancient Mesopotamia. It was an inheritance issue, but also a way to protect and provide for the widow.
(Levirate marriage becomes a thing in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. There’s a great bit in Mark 12 where the Sadducees try and trick Jesus with a ludicrous levirate marriage scenario. It’s not really about marriage, it’s about their erroneous beliefs about the resurrection, and Jesus totally schools them and then says, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” !!!!!!!!! But I digress…)
Anyway, whenever Onan does go in to Tamar—inferring that this happens more than once—he spills his seed on the ground so as not to give offspring to his brother. Pleasure, not provision. Taking, not giving. This was also wicked in the sight of the Lord, and Onan is put to death by the Lord. “This” meaning defrauding Tamar of a future, and disobeying Judah’s command about continuing Er’s line. (Some use this verse to teach that masturbation is always wrong. Feel free to let them know you are happy to honor every levirate marriage the Lord asks you to enter.)
Judah is afraid that if Tamar marries Shelah, his youngest son, that Shelah will die, too! He tells Tamar to go live as a widow in her father’s household until Shelah grows up, and she does. Out of sight, out of mind.
In the course of time, Judah’s wife dies. After Judah is comforted, he goes up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite goes with him. Sheepshearing is a major event, and as mourning is over and he’s escaped the ‘Tamar situation,’ Judah is ready to party. Wine, women, and song. In fact, on the way up to Timnah, he sees a veiled woman by the side of the road and asks to go in to her. They haggle over price, and Judah promises to send her a young goat from his flock. She agrees, if Judah agrees to give her a pledge that the goat will arrive. Judah asks her what he should give, and she asks for his signet, his cord, and his staff. Done.
Afterwards, the woman gets up and leaves. She removes the veil that marked her as a prostitute and puts on…her widow’s clothes! It’s Tamar! When she was told that her father-in-law was going up to Timnah to shear his sheep, she took off her widow’s garments, wrapped herself in a veil, and positioned herself on the side of the road. She saw that Shelah was grown up, but she had not been given to him in marriage. Her life was at stake. Judah, who deceived his father with Joseph’s ripped and bloody coat, is now deceived himself by a ruse involving clothing.
Judah sends Hirah with the goat. He needs his cylinder seal, cord, and staff back! It’s kind of like he left his driver’s license. Unfortunately, Hirah can’t find the woman. He asks the local men, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the wayside?” In verse 15, Judah assumes the veiled woman was a prostitute. Hirah the Adullamite uses a more specific term here in verse 21, referring to a woman who served a pagan deity by prostitution. It’s less that Judah was confused about which type of prostitute he had dealt with and more like Hirah using the phrase “courtesan” instead of “whore.” The men tell Hirah that there is no cult prostitute there. Hirah can’t find her, so he goes back to Judah and gives him the bad news. Judah replies, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”
WE shall be laughed at. YOU did not find her. Judah is craftily making Hirah implicit in this whole transaction. Nothing has changed. Deception and lying and twisting what’s right into what’s convenient is Judah’s character.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. Three months later, Judah is told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has been immoral and moreover, is pregnant from prostitution.” Judah says, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” Later on, in Leviticus, burning will be listed as an option if a priest’s daughter is found guilty of prostitution, but it’s a harsh sentence here. As Tamar is being dragged away to be burned, she sends word to Judah. “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” She gives him his seal, cord, and staff and asks him to identify them. It’s another parallel to what Judah and his brothers did to Joseph. When they brought the coat of many colors back to Jacob, they used almost the same language Tamar uses here. They send for the person, and they ask him to examine the item, and the items are examined…
Heaven holds its breath.
Judah can lie. He can watch Tamar burn. He can watch it all burn. Instead, he finally hits the rock bottom of the pit he’s been mentally living in since hatred gave birth to evil treachery against Joseph. He identifies the items as his own.
“She is righteous; I am not.”
Judah declares Tamar to be more righteous than he because he didn’t give her to his son Shelah. He did not protect and provide for her. He did not honor her or his family or his father’s family. Judah calls Tamar righteous, not prostitute. Not immoral. Not harlot. Righteous. It is a stunning declaration from a man who, as long as we’ve known him, has only ever served himself. But the best part is the end of verse 26: “And he did not know her again.”
Repentance! Taking his daughter-in-law in a levirate marriage might have been a valid option—ancient Hittite and Assyrian practices allowed it—but Judah decides to avoid any hint of incest. Tamar bears twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Her name becomes associated with a blessing, as seen in Ruth 4:11, “…may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah…” Her name is the first woman listed in the New Testament. When Judah kept going down, down, down, Tamar stood up and insisted on doing what was right. Her victory finally stopped Judah’s deceitful ways.
When we get to Egypt, Judah is unrecognizable. Unrecognizable. He defends his brothers against “Pharaoh’s household ruler” (aka Joseph in disguise) and acts so honorably and with such humility and self-sacrifice that Joseph stops harassing them and reveals the truth. Joseph’s emotional breakdown is so loud the whole house hears him weeping. Judah brought that about. And of course the story ends well for Jacob, who is reunited with all of his sons, and God uses the whole thing to preserve the Israelites through the famine and into the Exodus, where he declares himself to be the great I AM.
When Jacob is dying, he has words for each of his sons. Here’s what he says to Judah:
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
9 Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
This is Judah’s legacy. I can scarcely read these words without trembling when I realize it could have been so, so different. Imagine what Jacob would have said to Judah if he’d stayed a cold-hearted, fearful, callous, exploitative deceiver? I cannot imagine. I would much rather revel in the reality that a man as treacherous as Judah could change so completely that he would be blessed to have the lineage of Christ come from his house.
You might think Judah shouldn’t have been forgiven, that human trafficking is the line in the sand. Or, maybe the line is ordering women to be burned for a sin you’re guilty of, too. The Bible does not excuse Judah of any of his wickedness, but wickedness isn’t on a line with Judah at one end and you and your speeding ticket on the other. It’s just all of us slinking away from love with our secret, hidden filth, not even knowing that we’re spiritually dead. Not “surviving,” or “getting by.” Dead. We are all slaves to sin. Slaves to it. We don’t dabble, we’re chained. Restoration requires righteousness, and dead men can’t acquire that for themselves. God clothes us with His righteousness. No deception, no veil, just pure clothing given by the Giver of all good things. That’s what grace is—the lavish, undeserving, scandalous, almost-too-good-to-be-true gift of love everlasting.
I’m not especially fond of looking to the Scriptures to learn something about God and then being pressed to come away with a personal application. I mean, sometimes, sure, the Holy Spirit nudges you with a thing, or there’s legitimately a part of an Epistle that says, “knock it off,” but most of the time I just like to bask in the awesomeness of God, you know what I mean? But I think this story shouts one very true thing we would do well to remember and get excited about:
God knows what He’s doing.
Before the creation of the world, He knew He would call a people to Himself, and He knew what Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all their sons would do to jeopardize that relationship. He knew all that, and He still proved Himself to be a covenant-keeping God. Your sin is not an obstacle to Him. He’s not up there face-palming because you wrecked His plans. What you meant for evil, He can use for good. Or maybe you’re actually not even remotely sinning right now, thankyouverymuch, but life just totally sucks, and that’s about it. He can turn that to good, too. Do not be weary in well-doing, for in due season you shall reap, if you faint not. (Gal. 6:9-10, KJV, italics mine.) There are so many fat, juicy promises in the Bible and God has not let one of them fall through the cracks! What do you want? Where did you get lost? Are you at home in your widow’s clothing, waiting for rescue? Unlike Tamar, you don’t have to rescue yourself. But if you still need some actual earthly rescuing in addition to the spiritual rescue, please know it’s perfectly okay to ask Him what on earth He thinks He’s doing! I’m sure He’d love to comfort you in your affliction, because He’s that sort of God.
So, the next time we sing or think or pray about Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the lamb that was slain, let’s remember Tamar. She hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and was blessed. Revelation 5:5 says, “Behold, the lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.” Without Tamar, there might not have been a tribe of Judah, much less a Lion of Judah.
But there was. And there is.
And He won.