Question: In a comment posted below "Foremothers and the Twelve Tribes of Israel," someone asked why God ordained Judah to be the tribe through whom the Messiah would come. You mentioned a couple of other Bible Talk articles where you touched on this, but I still don't get it. Why did God chose Judah to be the forefather of Jesus?
Discussion: Since the Bible doesn't give us an irrefutable answer to that question, I researched all of the biblical references to Judah I could find, then focused on ones that revealed his character. Within the context of Holy Scripture, it was as though he and I were having a conversation that I later recorded as a collection of poems. For example, one possible reason for choosing Judah became apparent after ten of the twelve sons of Jacob (aka Israel) sold their brother Joseph. That dramatic event occurred a few hundred years before God gave us the Ten Commandments and other laws through Moses, so the Twelve Tribes of Israel did not yet have the standards we do today. After that incident, however, Genesis 38:1 says that Judah went off by himself, which sounds as if he had troubling things to think about and matters of conscience to resolve.
After Selling Joseph Into Slavery
from Genesis 37-38
Fortunately, the sky doesn't fall
as you lift the flap of the tent
enveloping you in skins of darkness.
Later, you may learn to build pyramids
of brick and mortar if Joseph has no say,
but now you look at the sky and wonder,
"What have I done? What have I done?
This thing you feel perhaps is preface
to the history of conscience — a concise
course in Bible ethics beginning with
Adam and Eve who brought blame into
the world yet failed to show remorse
or with Cain, whose killing Abel caused
parental sorrow and caused Cain to develop
a distaste for consequences but who never
quite got the concept of scrambled scruples
Then there was Abraham who lied twice
about his wife being his sister and whose
son did the same without apparent shame
to himself or anyone. And, of course, no one
needs to mention how your father Jacob's long
intention was to turn his brother Esau's birthright
into wrong — with no sense of conviction
that this was no noble action.
But, Judah, you alone
have torn your heart from
mother, father, brothers and gone
to be alone with no clear precedent for repentance —
no legal handing down of a sentence
meant to extricate you from the slavery of
what you'd done.
Did Noah, your forefather, know his cursing Ham
would bring ancestral shame somewhere in the region
where Joseph sits imprisoned?
Would it help you now to know how the story ends —
with Joseph's dream come true as you
and your brothers bow to him?
Would it help you now to see your children's children
born of slavery?
Would it help you now to hear of the leadership of Moses
(a descendant of your older brother, Levi), who ascended
to the task of writing laws of right and wrong by which —
so deeply felt and darkly known — you would truly try
to abide and not have to hide to be alone?
Let speculation show you first
to dream of the need for a savior.
Over the years, Judah had a family, but when his oldest son died, he promised his daughter-in-law, Tamar, that she could marry his second son. She did, and he died! Understandably then, Judah wasn't too keen on giving Tamar his third son in marriage. After Judah's wife died, however, Tamar took matters into her own hands, dressing like a qedesha (prostitute) to entice the bereaved widower. Genesis 38 provides the full story, but this portion of a longer poem once again reveals the type of man Judah was becoming.
Judah, with so many burdensome stories
to weight you without the relief of a trial,
why are you quick to think ill of Tamar
when word, unexpectedly, comes of her child?
Don't you remember your own indiscretion
with the qedesha just a few months before?
Don't you remember how her disappearance
kept you from keeping your promise once more?
And what of your pledge to Tamar to marry
your last son — who's still unwed and alone?
If you'd honored that vow, Tamar might not carry
an unborn child of ancestry unknown.
You can be free of this obligation
by committing Tamar to the custom of flames,
but if you insist on extermination,
how will you live with your "purified" name?
Who will atone for your shame?
These are questions that cannot be answered
until you have shown all you have learned.
These are problems without a solution
until you've proven who you have become.
When Tamar comes forth with identification
that clearly proves this is your child and why,
you know your ancestors practiced deception,
yet you do not choose to profess a lie.
When you are wrong, you're The First To Admit It
as you humbly confess, "She's more righteous than I."
Tamar gave birth to twins, one of whom continued the Judaic line. Judah remained unmarried, but another important episode occurred in his latter years when he offered his own life in exchange for his brother's. That poem is too long to include here, but the character-revealing account in Genesis 44:14-34 shows how highly Judah had come to value love and how much he had matured. Apparently, his father noticed this too. When Jacob gave each son a final blessing in Genesis 49, he reserved a special word of praise that, ultimately, found fulfillment in Jesus Christ — a direct descendant of Judah and his kingly tribe.
No matter how you brace yourself,
when the time comes, your father's death
moves toward you like a sirocco,
stirring dust and famine.
What do you want stirred before he dies?
A word of love? Respect? Appreciation?
Or just acknowledgement that, yes, you lived.
So many years have passed! As you gather
for your father's final blessing,
the Promised Land consists of little real
estate — little more than a grave or cave
for burying — little more than wind
to hand down with a deed and title,
but with that breath of blessing comes
a word from God, inherited by faith.
Judah, of all the offspring, you alone
have shown you've known a day would come
when each of you must stand on
the indwelling of a word with deed —
as though the promise is as real
as land or life or the breath of a dozen
sons and daughters.
Brace yourself for the embrace of the wind.
Can you stand
the father's chosen?
[The above poems come from the unpublished chapbook, Choosing Judah, © 2007, Mary Harwell Sayler and have been used with the author's permission.]