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The character of Judah (September 25, 2022)

A Uniform Lesson for September 25, 2022.

Uniform Lesson for September 25, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Genesis 35:22b-26; 38:24-26; 49:10-12

When Jacob gathers his sons in Egypt to describe what will happen to each of them, Judah is given a place of prominence among the 12: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10). Judah becomes the forerunner of the Southern tribes, who outlast the Northern tribes, and become the primary bearers of the traditions of the Jewish people. Jesus is later described as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5), who alone is worthy to open the seals of God’s scrolls. Judah seems chosen indeed! However, once more, we ask why? And the answer is, by now, increasingly familiar. Judah’s being chosen doesn’t seem to be grounded in anything we might point toward as character. Indeed, most of the narrative runs in just the opposite direction.

Judah and Tamar

Judah first shows up in our lesson at the tail end of a remarkable story about Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, which seldom makes it into our lesson books. Judah has a series of sons by an unnamed Canaanite. The eldest of these sons is struck down by God due to his wickedness. To gain an heir by Tamar, Judah sends his second son to her, but he too fails to do his duty, and is also struck down by God. Not wanting to risk his third son, Judah delays making a similar request of him.

Tamar, now stepping into the role of the trickster, dresses up as a prostitute and solicits her father-in-law Judah, gaining his signet and cord in the process. Here our passage picks up the story, as Judah prepares to burn Tamar for her infidelity, only to be revealed as the father of her child. Judah now acknowledges that “she [Tamar] is more right than I” (Genesis 38:26), setting the stage for later revelations regarding his character or lack thereof. Yes, it seems like God prefers “exceptional choices,” especially exceptionally poor and inexplicable ones — like Judah.

Judah and Joseph

This story is preceded by another story of deception and betrayal involving Judah and his brothers, this time with respect to the youngest of the lot, Joseph. Jacob, now Israel, sends Joseph out to find his brothers, to check on their welfare and bring back a word. Seeing him coming, they decide to kill him and rid themselves of this dreamer who thinks he’s chosen. Reuben, the eldest, intervenes, recommending that they throw him in a pit to let him die of “natural” causes. Judah then steps forward with an alternative plan, saying, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal this blood” (Genesis 37:26). Thus, they sell their brother to some passing Ishmaelites, making 20 pieces of silver and ridding themselves of their father’s favorite. Judah reminds me of Judas, another person who profits by betraying someone he’s called to love. Oh, boy. What is God thinking? Can’t God find someone more choose-able than this?

Judah and God’s election

And so, we move to one final scene in this tawdry story of betrayal and incest and the selling of one’s own kith and kin. These same brothers now find themselves before Joseph in Egypt, though this time, it’s Joseph who plays the trickster. Joseph has twice set them up for crimes they did not commit, and now he threatens to take the next youngest, Benjamin, from them and their father. Finally, Judah steps forward graciously, perhaps having learned something about the costs of betrayal and deception along the way. He offers himself up in the place of Benjamin, proffering himself as a slave in Joseph’s service. Having caused much suffering for his father in the past, he resolves to do so no longer (Genesis 44:34). The story has now come full circle, with the enslaver ready to become the enslaved, out of love for his father.

Mercy me. We’ve already asked ourselves why God keeps messing with such messy families. Yet Judah seems to take this to an entirely different level. Or does he? Father Abraham was known for deceptions involving his wife, Sarah. Jacob was the master of deception, from his birth onwards. And now comes Judah, deceived by Tamar and Joseph, yet able to move toward sorrow and sacrifice as the story moves on. As Jacob held onto God for a blessing, so Judah holds on to this story until he’s given a chance to shine. Did God choose Judah because God knew this was coming? Or did this come because Judah knew he’d been chosen, warts and worse? Yes, this is a messy family — like yours and like mine.

For discussion:

Based on these stories, would you name a child Judah?

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