The sudden change in the storyline from the headline act of Joseph to his brother Judah is strange at first glance and yet, God wants us to see that He is working all things together for his good, according to His plans, and that his promises are irrevocable.
This story is complex. Judah (Joseph’s brother) marries a Canaanite woman and together they have three sons (Genesis 38:1-5). Time moves on and Judah’s oldest son is found a bride, Tamar. Judah’s eldest son Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death (vs 6-7). Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to produce a son by Tamar to maintain his elder brother’s name (for us this is culturally challenging but if the newly widowed Tamar had a son, the son would be able to care for her and provide for her. It sounds to our western sensibilities not right, yet it was in the culture of the day the best way of making sure a widow was looked after). The son, if born to Tamar, would be Tamar’s son and not Onan’s who didn’t like this and made sure that although whilst enjoying Tamar she did not become pregnant (vs 8-9). God was very displeased that a widow should be treated in this way and consequently destroyed Onan. That’s two sons down!
We can assume that the third son is much younger, so Judah tells Tamar that she will have to wait until he grows up a bit but that she could still remain within the family home. What we are not sure of at this point is whether Judah has wiped his hands of providing the means whereby Tamar could produce a son.
It gets more complicated! Judah’s wife dies. It seems that Judah was the kind of person that made use of girls offered for a price and this must have been known by Tamar. Tamar exploits this weakness, hides her own identity but asks Judah to prove who he is by giving her his signet ring, cord and staff (vs 12-15). I did tell you it’s complicated and it gets worse as Tamar got herself pregnant by her father-in-law through employing deceitful means.
Judah’s payment for being with an unknown prostitute was one goat. He at least sends the payment only to find the source of his one night of paid pleasure is nowhere to be found (vs 20-23). However three months later it can be clearly seen that Tamar is expecting a baby. An outraged Judah sends for her. At this point she produces the signet ring, cord and staff. That must have been a ‘cut the atmosphere with a knife’ moment. Judah’s response was this,
Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. Genesis 38:26
Tamar gives birth to twins. During her labour one of the twins, although not going to be the first child to be delivered, puts out his hand and receives the red thread by which he would be marked out as the first born. What an extraordinary set of circumstances and yet the one who put out his hand and had the red thread tied around his wrist would be in the ancestral line of Jesus (Matthew 1:3 and Luke 3:33).
So what is the point of this incredible story?
It underlines that God’s ways are not our ways, that his plans are higher than ours and that he chooses to use flawed people to extend his kingdom. Just think about it, our Bible is littered with heroes that are failed and flawed men and women but where God’s grace defines them. Abraham took things under his own control and lied about who Sarah really was out of fear. Isaac was deceived because he enjoyed a good meal. Jacob was a deceiver and quite a crook. Now, there are twelve brothers who will become the twelve tribes of Israel but who are happy to kill Joseph. One of those brothers, Judah is callous, brutal and sinful. What we see is that God’s plans are not thwarted by me or you. It’s easy to think that because of our mistakes God has been pushed back but no, God’s plans cannot be stopped by human failures.
Judah did change, he did learn. At the time of these events Judah was brash, hard, had a struggle with sexual sin and cared nothing for his brother. His concern for his daughter-in-law was summed up by these words ‘let her be burned’ (vs 24). Remember, it was Judah who instigated the selling of Joseph into slavery. He was cruel, callous and a womaniser and yet in a while we find him pleading for mercy on behalf of his father (44:18-34). He became like Jesus, willing to offer himself to suffer in the place of another (44:33). Instead of deceiving his father he could not bear to see the pain his father had endured. This change brought Joseph to his feet (45:1). It had to be these events that changed him. There is hope for those who behave wrongly, act wrongly, speak wrongly. Rather than harbour hate or declare yourself a victim of circumstances, pray for those who persecute you, pray for your enemies.
It is Judah that leads us to David and David that leads us to Christ. The other brothers will face their own battles. Reuben will forfeit his blessing because of immorality. (49:3-4). Simeon and Levi were known for violence (49:5-7). It was Judah who was given the promise of kingship (49:8-12). What pleased God is what Judah became, namely, a man of sin became a man of such promise. It provides an encouragement for us and for those we perceive as having fallen or we are watching fall, God has not stopped working in their lives. Whatever might be the greatest disgrace in their lives, God can work it for good and they can still have a huge part to play in advancing his kingdom. Who are we to judge? God did not choose the tribe of Joseph, he chose the tribe of Judah. God has never stopped working.