Why do you suppose the Messianic line that culminated in Jesus came through Judah rather than through Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, the firstborn of his favorite wife? What must it have been like for Jacob to say of Judah, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his,” yet to say of Joseph only that he was the “prince of all his brothers”? How would Joseph have felt to hear those words? I’m surely not the only one who would pass up being the second-most powerful man on earth if the alternative were to have a descendant who would bring the whole world into obedience to the ever-living God.
So why did the bigger plum go to Judah? Was this simply a case of God’s arbitrary choice, “before the [brothers] . . . had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand”? Or was it more like the case of Abraham, to whom God said, “because you have . . . not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore”?
Joseph is often used as a type of Christ, and with good reason: like Jesus, he was chosen by his father to rule the sons of Israel, who rejected him; he was sorely tempted, and though he did not sin he suffered the punishment of the guilty; he forgave those who sinned aginst him and eventually ruled beneficently over them; and he took a Gentile bride. Yet in comparison to Judah’s reward, it would seem that much of Joseph’s was in this life. Is there some sense in which his string of accomplishments, impressive as it is, was topped by Judah’s?
Judah is introduced as a foil for Joseph, his sexual immorality (Ge 38) providing a contrast to Joseph’s chastity (Ge 39) and his plan to profit by selling Joseph into slavery (Ge 37:26) contrasting with Joseph’s willingness to suffer rather than to do evil. He acted more like Simeon and Levi, who shed innocent blood, than like a descendant of Abraham. Worse, his incest with Tamar, however unwitting, shows him to be a brother of Reuben, who had violated his father’s concubine.
After Jacob declared that he had chosen never to be consoled over Joseph’s fate, Judah “went down from his brothers and joined up with an Adullamite named Hirah.” The words “went down from his brothers” are commonly taken to foreshadow his fall into deep sin; however, when he confesses at the end of his adventure that he is less righteous than a woman who has pretended to be a prostitute in order to commit incest, he shows that he realizes he has a spiritual problem and has gone some way toward bringing forth the fruits of repentance. Purposely or otherwise, the author uses this realization to foreshadow the climax of the book.
The next time Judah surfaces he has rejoined his brothers, gone to Egypt to procure food for the extended family, and returned to his father without Simeon. He is trying to reason with Jacob and get permission to take Benjamin to Egypt. Jacob doesn’t trust his sons, so Reuben offers Jacob the opportunity to take revenge on Reuben’s sons if Benjamin does not return safely. In contrast, Judah offers to bear the consequences himself: “You can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life.”
How many times I read those words and considered them empty: why would Jacob accept them any more than he did Reuben’s? Yet here Judah was showing himself to be Joseph’s spiritual brother, willing to take on himself the responsibility for others’ sin. Not only was he expressing willingness to risk his life, but one must also ask whether he was more loath to die or to return to his father empty handed.
When Joseph sees Benjamin, he threatens to make him a slave, and Judah intercedes for what he believes to be Benjamin’s sin: he tells a judge who has every reason to condemn a guilty man that he will take on himself that penalty so that his father will not lose the fellowship of his secondmost beloved son. Here is a wonderful picture of Jesus’ intercession for us: Jesus intercedes with the Judge of all the earth on behalf of the Heavenly Father’s children. In the fulfillment, however, the Judge and the Father are one and the same. But in both cases the redeemed is second in line for the father’s affection; Benjamin was second fiddle to Joseph, and we can never be God’s sons in the same way Jesus is.
Judah does something here that Joseph had no stated need to do: repent of his own sin. Surely Joseph realizes as Judah speaks that Judah knows he sinned against his father by selling Joseph into slavery and is now trying desperately to make sure he is not party to further grief for his father. This is the first instance in Scripture of repentance and redemption—with one exception, that of the Pharaoh’s butler, who confesses his “shortcomings” (the same word translated “consequences of sin” in Nu 18:22). So we have in Judah repentance, confession, intercession, substitutionary atonement, and the happiness of the father.
Was Judah’s foreshadowig of Christ thus better than Joseph’s? I don’t know, but I can think of one aspect of Joseph’s picture that Judah’s lacks: Joseph was a politician and Judah wasn’t.
Joseph’s modus operandi, as his apologists acknowledge, was purely political. The power of taxation, 20 percent in the good years, is overtly mentioned. There was probably more to it, though. One wonders how, if Goshen was the best land in Egypt, there was room for Jacob and his family to settle there; did no one live there already, or did Joseph move them out? After all, “as for the people, he removed them to the cities from one end of Egypt’s border to the other” (Ge 47:21 NASB; the NIV “reduced them to servitude” is based on a conjectural emendation of the text). If it’s already OK to exercise eminent domain and move some people to cities “for the common good,” why not a few more?
Joseph became the secondmost powerful man in the world, and he was indeed able to use that status to provide abundantly for his family. And surely God was with him in that position: God promised Jacob that he was to go there to die, become a great nation, and return to the Canaan, all so he could see Joseph alive again.
Yet the food Joseph distributed to the Egyptians went to them at the cost of what freedom they had enjoyed (Ge 47:25); surely the land that went to Joseph’s family was taken from its Egyptian owners, most likely in a swap for food. And we know that the same government that Joseph made all-powerful over Egypt (Ge 47:13–25) and that provided for his family eventually turned against the Israelites.
Thus where Judah’s intervention with his father set Simeon free, and his intervention with Joseph set Benjamin free, Joseph’s intervention resulted in slavery, first for the Egyptians and later for the Israelites. Most importantly, Judah’s intervention, like that of Jesus and unlike Joseph’s was totally apolitical. Where Joseph had the most powerful army in the world at his disposal to impose his will on his subjects, Judah always negotiated from a position of weakness; he had only the grace of God to rely on, the understanding at some level (none is attributed to him by Scripture) that God would look upon the justice of his cause and vindicate him, and if not, he would do what was right no matter the cost (as, he did not know at the time, Joseph had with Potiphar’s wife).
Again, Judah’s becoming the progenitor of the messianic line may have been no more a result of his actions than one snowflake landing in a tree and another on the ground. However, his life sends a strong message about the depths of depravity to which people can fall and from which God can rescue them, as well as the unimaginable honor that he can bestow on those who sincerely repent (Mt 23:12). My most recent post argues that the church of Jesus Christ in the US today has some serious repenting to do. I end here with a suggestion that if we set about it, God will reward such penitence beyond our wildest dreams.