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Judah’s Journey to Manhood: Part 1
A Personal Note
Men: If you have been reading these columns for any length of time, you know that I love the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Last month I happened to be in Genesis for my devotional reading and read their stories again. For the first time, I discovered Judah’s journey to manhood embedded in Joseph’s history. His journey blew me away. I want to share it with you, because it forms one of the most inspirational character arcs in the Bible. Judah begins as kind of a bully figure with a tendency to blame others for his own neglect. Yet he grows into a man of remarkable courage and responsibility. By the time the book of Genesis closes, he stands at the head of his brothers and even surpasses Joseph. My desire in beginning this series is to have you find as much hope in it as I have. Let me say at the beginning that I do not intend to use this series to bludgeon anyone. I will not say, “Here is what Judah did. Now you must go and do likewise.” I believe that is a wrong use of Scripture. Instead, I want to hold this man up as an example of what God can do. In other words, I want to use this series to give you a sense of hope in your own walk with Christ.
The Myth of the Squeaky-clean Bible Heroes
If you grew up in a Sunday school environment, like I did, you lived under the unstated but ever-present rule, “God uses good people,” which really means, “God only uses good people. Abraham was a good person, and God used him. Isaac was a good person, and God used him. Jacob was a good person, and God used him. Joseph was a better person than his brothers, and God used him to save the land and his family from starvation. The children’s Sunday school message is unflinching. God uses good boys and girls. As we grow into adulthood, we continue to look for those good boys and girls who became good men and women, and we spend our lives trying to be something we cannot. Without realizing the fact, we stifle the message of grace. Grace tells us, “God takes bad people and transforms them into redeemed people whom he uses for his good plan.” Just how bad do they get? The Patriarchs represent four generations of family dysfunction. Here is a brief rundown.
- Abraham and Sarah: Before Isaac was born, Abraham’s wife Sarah told him to sire a child by her Egyptian slave, Hagar. He fathered Ishmael, but the birth had the opposite effect that Sarah had anticipated. Hagar resented her. Later, Isaac’s time came for weaning, Sarah told her husband, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). Hagar and Ishmael were out the door from that moment and survived only by miraculous intervention.
- Isaac and Rebekah:When Isaac married, he and his wife bore twins. The boys split the family down the middle. Esau, the older twin, became an outdoorsman and captured his father’s heart. Jacob found himself unable to compete on a level playing field with his brother and learned the art of cunning from his mother. He finagled the birthright from Esau during their childhood and stole his father’s final blessing from his brother as an adult. He had to flee for his life (Genesis 27:1-46).
- Jacob, Leah, Rachel, and the Baby Wars:When Jacob ran from his brother, he went to his family in Haran. There he met Rachel and fell for her hard. Rachel’s uncle, Laban, brokered a marriage deal with him, but substituted Rachel’s older and plainer sister Leah on their wedding night. When Jacob protested, Laban brokered another marriage deal for Rachel. The double marriage created a separate and unequal household, with Leah having to carry the weight of Jacob’s resentment. The Bible’s assessment of the situation is blunt. “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Leah gave Jacob his first four sons—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Of course, Jacob continued to resent her. The baby wars escalated when both Rachel and Leah gave their personal servants, Bilhah, and Zilpah, to Jacob to bear surrogate children. Jacob sired ten boys through Leah and the two servants. Finally, Rachel finally was able to become pregnant with Joseph, and Jacob had a son. (Joseph’s “coat of many colors” signified his position as the heir. In this case the coat meant that he was Jacob’s only recognized son.) Just when the family appeared to be completely fractured, Rachel conceived again. She gave birth to Benjamin, but died in childbirth. The loss only made Jacob’s emotional hole bigger. While he doted over his two sons, the ten older brothers’ tempers seethed in their own pressure cooker.
- Joseph, Judah, and the Company of MenBy the time Joseph’s saga begins in Genesis 37, Jacob’s sons became divided into three tiers. Joseph and Benjamin, born to Rachel, enjoyed full status as heirs. Leah’s sons could never be more than junior varsity. And those born to the servants Bilhah and Zilpah were barely important enough to count. (Notice, for example, how Jacob arranges his family in Genesis 33:1-3, when he believes that Esau is coming to fulfill his vow for revenge).
God’s Raw Materials
When Joseph’s saga begins in Genesis 37, the brothers’ pressure cooker blows. Joseph is seventeen years old and claims to have had dreams of his superiority over his brothers. He actually believes that they will bow down to him. Their resentment is as thick as wet snow. When they are on their own away from home, their patience comes to an end and they conspire to murder him. Reuben, the oldest, intervenes momentarily, but it is Judah who comes up with a final solution.
Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him.
Judah already holds a certain degree of moral authority over his brothers. But his decision to sell his half-brother into slavery will come to haunt him.
Chasing Self-Destruction; Part 2
One of the most paralyzing fears that a man can face is that belief that something he have done in his past has damaged his future so deeply that it cannot be fixed. I know because I have been there. My own life contains a catalog of those whom I have wounded by poor decisions, evil actions, hasty words, and even cruelty towards others. But these things are exactly what show us why God’s grace is so great. His sovereign care over us is not marked by the way he steers us away from mistakes, but by the healing work that he performs after we make them.
Clash of the Egos
Judah is a prime example. We first see him in operation in Genesis 37, when he is pitted against Joseph. There, he is indeed a cruel man. At the same time, Joseph is more of a punk than a responsible brother. The chapter that introduces Joseph shows us a seventeen-year-old kid with an out-of-control ego. As if the years of his father’s doting over him were not enough for his brothers to endure, Joseph brags when he discovers his talent for interpreting prophetic dreams. The dream that opens his career shows him standing before his brothers while they bow down to him. Unfortunately, the dream puts him at an even greater distance from his brothers. While Joseph relishes his coming notoriety, his brothers react with disdain. According to the Scripture, “His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?’ So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words” (Genesis 37:8). Hatred is no exaggeration. When they all are away from their father, the brothers conspire to murder Joseph. At the last minute, Reuben, the oldest, tries to intervene by suggesting that they throw him into a dried-up cistern. He secretly plans to return later to rescue him.
The Sweet Smell of Opportunity
Reuben never gets a chance to perform his rescue. While he is away, a caravan from Midian shows up. This is where we first see Judah as an adult.
Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him.
-- Genesis 37:26-27
Let those words sink in for a moment. How can a man be so empathetic and treacherous at the same time? On the positive side, Judah argues that Joseph is “our brother, our own flesh.” His call to persuade his enraged brothers to view Joseph with pity is successful. He saves the young man’s life. For the fourth oldest to have this kind of natural sway is remarkable. On the negative side, he is treacherous. How can a man plot so calmly abandon his family to slavery for profit? Perhaps this was his only viable option in the heat of the moment, and he considered abandonment to slavery to be better than murder. We do not have a definite answer to that question.
The Cruelty of the Coverup
The chapter closes with Reuben’s return. Joseph is gone, and Reuben is distraught (Genesis 37:29-30). Now, however, they all are involved in Joseph’s disappearance so some degree, and they must act together. They conspire to manufacture a coverup. The Bible shows the act’s cruelty in full color. When they return to their father, they do not actually lie. They launch a tale and let it fly on autopilot.
Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.
No Visible Way Out
To say that the brothers’ act carried unexpected consequences is an understatement. If they thought Jacob was bad as the doting father, he is unbearable as the grieving one. Did they really expect their problem to go away when they removed their brother from the picture? Genesis 37 closes on this dark note. Joseph’s father wallows in grief, while his brothers become cemented in their lie. Humanly speaking, they have buried themselves in a hole with no visible way out. After what they have done, their collective future appears to be irreparable.
This drives us to a big question. Why does God allow family woundedness to run this deeply? Let me offer two observations from the larger narrative. One comes by looking back. Actions have consequences, and sometimes the consequences run for generations. The brothers’ criminal act in Genesis 37 does not occur spontaneously. It has been building for four generations. The brothers’ resentment of Joseph is only a mirror image of their father Jacob’s open resentment of Leah. Jacob in turn still bleeds from the wounds of his father Isaac, who threw all his affection toward Jacob’s twin brother Esau. And Isaac had to live with a heartbreaking family split when his mother Sarah banned his half-brother Ishmael from their father Abraham’s presence. We are not looking at four separate wounds. There are at most two. Abraham lived with one, from the time that he had to let Ishmael go. The family division that began with Isaac’s resentment of Jacob, however, has plagued the family for three generations. The other observation arises from looking forward. God intends to perform a task that is impossible by human standards. He wants to heal all four generations—the dead with the living.
The restoration that he will forge through Judah over the next twenty-plus years not only will lay the foundation for a genuine relationship to grow between Jacob and his sons, but it also will reach back through the previous two generations to cauterize the wounds have bled since Abraham and Isaac’s time. For the moment, the brothers can see only carnage. Humanly, they are in a hopeless situation, “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:26). Where grace abounds, hope follows.
For additional studies click on the links below:
May 2017 - Exodus 6:1-13 - Defeat, Not Failure
June 2017 - John 9:1-7 - True Discipleship
October 2017 - Ephesians 1:9-10 - God and the Work Ethic
October 2017 - Psalm 11 - Righteousness and Evil in the Las Vegas Shooting
November 2017 - Ephesians 6:5-9 - Practicing Value in Undervalued Labor
December 2017 - Psalm 77:19 and Psalm 131- Waiting on the Lord
February 2018 - Nehemiah 8:5-8 - Thinking Man's Warfare
March 2018 - Isaiah 1:18-20 -Authority and Reason
April 2018 - Deuteronomy 17:14-20 -The Life of David, Part 1