In an interesting and perhaps confusing way, while reading through the story of Joseph we come upon an anomaly. In the middle of what is seemingly a story about Joseph we have the whole situation between Judah and Tamar. The story itself is more than confusing, which stems from the fact that many Westerners have a difficulty with the idea of kinsman marriages. In the saga, Judah’s son dies, and then by obligation his brothers are required to provide an heir for the deceased brother so that his name does not perish. This also functioned as a social safety net for widows in the day who would then be cared for by their sons and the inheritance they would receive from their father’s estate. The problem in this story is that Judah refuses to enforce this obligation and then through intrigue and subterfuge Tamar has a child by Judah and then confronts him as the father after he has already pronounced judgement on her. The key statement of the entire passage is in verse 26 where he says,
“She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. -Ge 38:26
This is important because Rueben, Jacobs oldest son and apparent heir tried unapologetically to take over the family in a hostile fashion and usurp his father in Genesis 35:22. After this, the next two eldest brothers, Simeon and Levi, both went on a murderous rampage taking things into their own hands in Genesis 34:25-31 and rather than apologizing afterward, they argued with their father about it. Then we get to Judah. Judah seems to be equally impertinent compared to his brothers, but Judah had a major difference. Judah actually recognizes his sin and seeks restoration. We see this with his admission in 38:26. He confesses and then he seeks reparations for his wrongdoing. In this situation that meant caring for Tamar for the remainder of her life, giving her son an inheritance from his own property, and not requiring anything from her in return.
So often we read this story of Joseph and we wrongly focus the story on Joseph when it is not a story about Joseph at all. The focus of the story involving Joseph is actually about Judah. We see that when Joseph’s brothers sought to punish him, it was the oldest brother Ruben who sought to return him to his father (Gen 37:21-22). He fails miserably (Gen 37:29). Then the brothers follow Judah in his plan rather than listening to their older brother, and they sell Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:26-27). Judah is leading his brothers, including his older brothers, and they are following his every order. This continues through the whole story as Judah is always mentioned first and the only one mentioned by name (Gen 44:14). When we fast forward in the story, all along Judah is mentioned at the lead. When Joseph under disguise threatens to kill their brother, Judah is the one who speaks up. Judah speaks first of Joseph and reminds the reader of his role in the untimely end of Joseph. Then he says,
Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” -Ge 44:33–34
He, however indirectly, admits guilt and then is willing to lay down his own life for his sins. If we continue long down the road, it is Judah who God favors. It is Judah whose line contains kings and ultimately the savior of the world. Judah is the one who receives the greatest honor and blessing of all the twelve brothers. Jacob himself says this in the blessings of his sons in Genesis 49.
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. -Ge 49:8–10
The last verse here is a reference to the ultimate rule of Christ who will come through the line of Judah.
According to God, Judah was the heir of righteousness. Not because he was perfect, but rather because he knew he was imperfect and still he sought after righteousness. How does this matter for us? It matters, because this entire story is written down in Scripture to tell us something about God. It is an epoch tale to be sure, but it isn’t about the characters at all. In fact, these can sometimes be distracting to us. The real aim of the story is to tell us what God values in people. It isn’t power, arrogance, intelligence, strategy, or anything of the like. It is a broken and contrite heart. It is the attitude of humility, admission of sin, and a desire to pursue righteousness that God wants. It is these attitudes that He ultimately blesses with an inheritance of righteousness. This was true in the days of Judah, and it is still true today. The lynchpin of the gospel is that we as human beings must recognize that we are sinners, that we are broken, and then seek the righteous way through Christ. This is what God wants. It is what God values. This is also the encouragement that we have as human beings. Judah was the heir to the promises of Abraham, even though he was the third born son. He was the heir because when all his other brothers were making trouble, he was the only one confessing it and pursuing righteousness. Personally, I feel like the odd choice for the heritage of righteousness through Christ but God chooses the unlikely son. God doesn’t base his choice on who you are, whether or not you seem like you should be saved, or even on our looks or abilities. God chooses the odd sons and daughters whose hearts are broken and laid bare before him, so He can put the pieces back together instead of us doing it ourselves. This is an encouraging thought, because like the brothers in this story, we do tend to make a mess of things when we leave them to ourselves. May God create in us a heart that recognizes our sins and seeks God to mend our broken selves.