Choosing Judah: A Discussion in Verse and Prose

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?

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

causing pain.

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.


Keeping Vows

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.

Choosing Judah

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

to be

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.]

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  • Guest

    Thank you for the artcile! The Story of Tamar and Judah happens to amoung my favorite stories found within Genesis. I am earmarking this article for further pondering indeed!