Can you imagine the burden of knowing that one of your children may save the world? Imagine knowing that it could be one of your kids who could grow up to be the deliverer – the savior? Think of the expectations, the pressure. As parents, having that promise from God, how could you resist watching your children, looking for signs – is he the one? Is it his brother? Imagine pondering these things in your heart – and then imagine what it might do to your children. Every sign of obedience and spiritual zeal would be noticed, praised and encouraged and reinforced – its him, it’s got to be him. Every act of disobedience or hint of rebellion would disappoint – it can’t be him. Inevitably, possibly unintentionally, but inevitably nonetheless, you as a parent begin to think you have a pretty good idea which child is the chosen one. Although you may not mean to treat him any different, how could you help from doing it? One of your kids is going to save the world! You’re only human after all, how could you help from treating him differently from favoring him? As you can imagine, being the family of the promise is indeed a blessing, but it would be a very heavy burden – something that could in fact strain even the most united of families.
We don’t have to imagine what that burden would do to a family for we see it played out in the pages of Genesis. Last week we followed the life of Abraham, to whom God gave the promise of renown. Abraham was told that his offspring would become a great nation. Becoming impatient with God’s promise, he sired a son with his wife’s servant girl, Ishmael. But as we saw last week, the promise was given as much to Sarah his wife as it was Isaac is born to Abraham – it would be her son through whom the promise would be kept. The tension in the family becomes palpable between the two mothers. Abraham ultimately sends Hagar and Ishmael away to alleviate the tension.
After Isaac grows up and marries and his wife, Rebecca, they give birth to two sons, twins. Esau comes out first with his brother Jacob grabbing onto his heel. Now here is a situation for disaster. Isaac and Rebecca both begin to take notes, building up a mental inventory of these two boys – who will be the one through whom the promises will come. We see a sad description of this state of affairs in Genesis 25:27: When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. What does this do to the family? It destroys it. Jacob and Esau continually strive against one another, with Jacob getting the upper hand, tricking Esau into selling his right of the first-born son and with it deceiving his father into passing the blessing of the promise on to him. It boils over to such a point that Jacob has to flee from Esau because Esau’s going to kill him.
You’d think Jacob would learn a lesson from his upbringing when he has his own kids, but we see him making the same mistakes of his father and his grandfather. He marries two women, having loved one and being tricked into marrying her sister. These two girls have a sort of competition for Jacob’s affections and try to outdo one another bearing him children, they give seduce him with their servant girls, they bribe bargain with each other with fruit over who gets to sleep with him – it’s a crazy situation. Finally, after having 6 boys with Leah – the ugly sister who he really didn’t care for, and 4 more to various servant girls, finally, Rachel, the pretty one who he really loved, a child Joseph. From the moment Joseph steps out of the womb he is set apart in Jacob’s eyes. He’s got to be the one. He has to be – he’s Rachel’s boy! Now from chapter 37 to the end of Genesis Joseph becomes the central character of the story. We know Joseph – his story is pretty familiar – he’s Jacob’s favorite who gets sold by his wicked brothers into slavery in Egypt but God raises him up to be second-in-command of the entire nation and ends up saving the rest of his family – and really most of the whole world during a great famine. We read about Joseph’s life and his great character – how he resisted temptation, how he listened to God in interpreting dreams, how he was an amazing example of suffering through trials and to top it all off, he does an unimaginable thing by forgiving his brothers who sold him into slavery and left him for dead. What a guy!
But that’s not who this story is about. It’s about Judah. Who? Who is Judah? Judah was the fourth child of six born to Leah, the ugly sister. He wasn’t the firstborn – that was Reuben. He wasn’t the baby either, that was Zebulun. He was the middle child of the forgotten wife. It sucks being the middle child. You’re not the firstborn, so you get stuck with hand-me-downs and ignored, and you’re not the baby of the family so you don’t get spoiled. Really the only thing going for Judah was that he wasn’t one of the slave girls’ kids. What else do we know about Judah? He hated Joseph. With a passion. Joseph was a tattletale, always running to his dad when the older boys were goofing off in the fields. He hated everything about him, from his good looks he inherited from his mom (the pretty one), to the sparkly robe that Dad had made just for him because he was his favorite, to his ridiculous dreams that he claimed to have which told the rest of his brothers just what he thought of them. One day, it got too much to handle, and the brothers decided to do just what Esau wanted to do to their father Jacob, leave him for dead. After capturing Joseph, while the brothers were still considering how to dispose of him, it was Judah who suggested that they sell him to Egypt – if they were going to do away with him, why not make some extra cash? Judah and the rest of them got what they wanted. Joseph was out of the picture and they had made a few bucks beside.
Now, let me ask you a question for those of you who know the story of Joseph. After Joseph gets sold to Potiphar in Egypt, what happens next? The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, right? Wrong. Look at Genesis 38 – this may surprise you. The next part of the story is not about Joseph at all, but about Judah – the good-for-nothing middle child of the ugly wife. And what do we learn about Judah in this story? That he’s not only a good-for-nothing middle child of the ugly wife, that he’s not only a hate-filled, manipulative, back-stabbing brother, but that he’s a guy who marries foreign women, breaks promises to his daughter-in-law, sleeps with prostitutes, and hypocritically judges the sins of others, condemning them to death for his own sins. Judah, at this point in his life, is the anti-Joseph. He is the anti-chosen one.
Meanwhile, Joseph is in Egypt. Through an amazing set of circumstances, God raises Joseph up to become Prime Minister of Egypt, second-in-command of the most powerful nation on earth at the time. Joseph’s rise to power saw him overseeing an international aide program through which many were saved in Egypt and throughout the Ancient world. In Joseph we see what might be identified as a fulfillment of God’s promise to his great grandfather, that in him “all nations will be blessed.” The climactic scene in the story of Joseph, is when he is reunited with his family, and has his brothers in a place in which he can either condemn them or forgive them. In Genesis 45 we read of a scene that would bring tears to the eyes of any who have suffered through such a dysfunctional family – Joseph, forgives his brothers. Surely Joseph is the promised one, the anti-Judah!
Now, I want you to keep this in mind as we get to the end of Genesis. In Genesis 49, Jacob has come to the end of his life and he calls all his sons over to him to bless them and prophecy over them. He calls them all to him by the order of their birth. You can go through the chapter yourself and do your own Bible study as to how each of these prophesies came to be in the history of Israel, but we’re focusing here on Joseph.
The blessing on Joseph is given in verses 22-26, and as we would expect, there’s a lot of good stuff here: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.”
Jacob blessed his son Joseph with the blessings of prosperity that had been passed down to him from his fathers. Historically, after entering the promised land, Joseph’s descendents were given a double-share of the land. They settled in the fertile land centered around the Jordan valley, extending to the coastal plain. This is regarded as some of the most fertile land. The house of Joseph retained prominence among the tribes so that after the kingdom was split in two, the Northern kingdom of Israel was sometimes referred to simply as the House of Joseph. Indeed, Joseph receives the most magnificent of his father’s blessings.
Yet, something is missing from Jacob’s blessing to Joseph that we would expect if he is indeed the chosen son. If you remember, God’s promise to Abraham was not only that his descendents would receive the blessings of a land and of becoming a great nation, but also that a Son would come along and bless all people by destroying Satan and restoring the creation order by taking back the dominion that Satan had stolen from man.
Nowhere in the blessing to Joseph do we see a hint of this promise passed down. However, if we search through the rest of the promises to the brothers, we do find an echo of that promise – in the most unlikely of places! Genesis 49:9-12: “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. 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? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until it comes to the one to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.”
That’s right, Judah! The good-for-nothing, middle son of the ugly wife. The hate-filled, manipulative, back-stabbing brother. The lying, immoral, hypocritical father-in-law. That Judah. Look at the promise: to him will be the praise and tribute of his brothers (even Joseph!) To his descendants will be the scepter, the rule. This hearkens back to the promise of restoration. Most explicitly is the promise that the rule will belong within his tribe, “until the one to whom it belongs”. The Jews considered this passage to be Messianic, looking forward to the ultimate deliverer.
So what gives here, God? Reading through this part of Genesis, it seems clear to us that Joseph is the one, Joseph is the chosen one, it’ll be through Joseph that the world will be saved, and now you tell me it’ll be through Judah? Judah! What are you thinking God?
Ok, I will admit, I’ve misled you a bit. There is an account of Judah that we skipped over, and I think it holds the key to understanding this promise.
If you remember, the second time the brothers traveled to Egypt for aide, they were told to bring along their youngest brother, Joseph’s brother, Benjamin. This was against the wishes of Jacob, their father, who could not bear to lose Benjamin as he had lost Joseph. What finally persuaded Jacob to let Benjamin go? Judah – he promised his father: “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.” What? Judah is vowing to protect his brother? Well, maybe this is simply so that they can get going. I still don’t trust his motives. But then we read on. To the brothers’ horror, the Egyptian prince with whom they were dealing, accuses Benjamin of theft and finds the evidence in his sack. Benjamin is immediately arrested and is to remain in Egypt. Now, I don’t know what Joseph’s plan was at that point. Maybe he was thinking that his brothers would desert Benjamin and return home, after which he would reveal himself to Benjamin and they would live together in Egypt. I don’t think Joseph anticipated what would happen next – and he probably never thought Judah would be the one who did it. But it was Judah who approached him. It was Judah who spoke of how it would kill his father to lose Benjamin as he did his older brother. It was Judah who begged that he himself would remain in prison, bearing the entire punishment, if only Benjamin could go free. This is what brought Joseph to tears. Judah’s willingness to sacrifice himself to bear his brother’s guilt stirred compassion in his heart. Judah’s offering of himself, led to the reconciliation of the entire family. Judah, the good-for-nothing middle child of the ugly wife, the guy who messed up again and again and again, becomes a picture of redemption and the recipient of God’s promise.
You see, it will be a descendant of Judah who will inherit the promise. He also will stand before a king and offer himself to bear the punishment of the sins of his brothers. It will be through his sacrifice that forgiveness will be granted to the guilty ones so that the family of God can be restored. This is why I call this the promise of redemption – Judah is in Jesus’ family tree. I don’t care how misunderstood, lonely, alienated or unloved you feel, Judah was there and God redeemed him. I don’t care what sin you’ve committed or how lost you feel – Judah was there and God redeemed him.