Most people would say that Genesis 37 through 50 is the story of Joseph. Fourteen chapters with the focus almost entirely on the life of Joseph. It is a fascinating story that we can learn a lot from.
But stuck in the midst of that epic saga about the life of Joseph is a chapter that’s not about him at all. In fact, Joseph is not even mentioned. It’s a story about Judah, Joseph’s brother, and his family.
Judah had three sons. The oldest, Er, had a wife named Tamar. Er died, leaving Tamar childless. The practice of the day was for the brother to take the widow and give offspring for the deceased sibling. So the next son, Onan, took Tamar, but they bore no children, and Onan died, also. This left the youngest of Judah’s sons, Shelah, but he was too young to marry. So Judah asked Tamar to wait – remain a widow – until Shelah was old enough. Apparently, though, Shelah grew up, but Judah never followed through on his promise. Because of this, Tamar decided to seduce her father-in-law. So, dressed as a prostitute, Tamar tricked Judah – he had no idea it was Tamar – into an afternoon liaison. Nine months later, she bore twin boys, Perez and Zerah.
You might be thinking, Well, that’s a fascinating story, Tom, but, so what?
Let me explain. There’s a really vivid contrast drawn between these two brothers, Judah and Joseph. It was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph had done nothing to deserve that treatment. Judah was willingly seduced by someone he thought was a prostitute, a person who charges for having sex. Joseph fled away from the free offer of sensual desire with his master’s wife. Judah broke his word to his daughter-in-law. Joseph is repeatedly depicted as a man who was honorable and true to his word. The contrast between these two men couldn’t be more stark, especially when their stories are told in such close proximity to one another.
As a result, we honor Joseph, but we look down on Judah. One is a hero; the other is someone to be despised. Joseph is the guy we want to hang around with. Judah is the one we want to avoid, right? And that makes perfect sense to our minds. One is worthy, the other not so.
Until we read the lineage of Jesus in the New Testament. Joseph isn’t listed. The noble Joseph, whose life story is comprised of more than a dozen Old Testament chapters, is not in the line of Jesus. But Judah and Perez are there. Judah, the adulterer. Judah, the provocateur. And Perez, whose mother willfully seduced her father-in-law – caused an incestuous relationship – in order to have a child. Those guys made it into the lineage of Jesus, but not Joseph. Matthew even points out the connection, when he says, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…” (Matthew 1:3).
Doesn’t that strike you as odd? God could have put anyone into the family tree of Jesus. If He really is sovereign – and, make no mistake, He is – then he could have picked and chosen whoever He wanted. He could have grabbed a handful of dirt and made a new person to stick into the lineage if He had so desired.
So, don’t think that somehow this was the Lord making a second or third choice. “Well, that idea didn’t work, so maybe I’ll try this other one.” No! God wasn’t somehow surprised.
Actually, God is the One Who willingly goes after the rebellious.
I think the story of Judah is stuck into the story of Joseph intentionally. It lets us see the difference between those two.
More importantly, it lets us see the God Who intentionally pursues sinners.
“But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” (1 Corinthians 12:18)