Joel Cohen

The Winding Road of Judah

judah II

I’ve often questioned — is the Bible written in a way designed to allow its readers to infuse its passages with their own individual thoughts and experiences? In other words, can/should we read the Bible through the prism of our own lives? I myself hold the view that, yes, looking at the Bible that way is not only proper, but a needed step to understanding and relating to one’s religion.

This is the second in a series of pieces I’ve written which examines the Bible through the eyes of Biblical personalities. These articles supplement three such books I have written — “Moses: A Memoir” (Paulist Press, 2003), “Moses & Jesus: A Conversation” (Dorrance Publishing Co., 2006), and “David and Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes” (Paulist Press, 2007).

The road Judah takes winds through his own story, but also the stories of Jacob, his father and Joseph, his brother. In Scripture, I have attempted to digest his story, as it is told in the Bible; in Belief, I discuss the Blessing of Judah given by Jacob on his deathbed; and in Maybe, I imagine, through fiction, what Jacob may have thought as he walked through his life.


Judah was the fourth son of the Patriarch Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. His mother was Leah.

Joseph, the first born of Jacob’s wife Rachel, was the favored son. Recognizing his status, Joseph soon became arrogant — telling his brothers about his dreams where they subjugated themselves to him. Joseph brought “evil reports” about his jealous brothers to their father, Jacob. One day, Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him. But his brother Reuben talked them out of it (as it was his intent to secretly return Joseph to their father), and they cast Joseph into a waterless pit. While Reuben was absent, a caravan of Ishmaelites wandered to the place where the remaining brothers were eating, and Judah persuaded them to sell Joseph for twenty pieces of silver. When Reuben returned and found the pit empty, he was convinced that Joseph had been killed — the brothers having persuaded Reuben thus by dipping Joseph’s ornamented tunic (made by Jacob for his favorite son)  in blood, telling him that a wild animal had killed Joseph. This tale was in turn told to Jacob.

Judah, seemingly distraught over his father’s grief over the loss of Joseph turned away to an Adullamite town. There he found a woman, Shua, and married her. She conceived thrice, giving birth to sons, Er,   Onan and Shelah . But God found Er evil and he quickly died. Judah instructed Onan to marry Tamar, who had been Er’s wife — in tradition, a levirate marriage when a brother dies childless. But Onan did not want to procreate with Tamar, lest his offspring be the lineage of his deceased, and evil, brother. Angry, God caused Onan, too, to die.

Judah told Tamar, his daughter in law, to remain a widow in her father’s house, until his third son Shelah matured. Tamar did as she was asked.

Some time passed and Judah’s wife also died. When Judah finally became consoled over the loss of his wife, he ventured to Timnah to shear his sheep. By this time, Shelah was of age, but Tamar had not been given to him. Learning of Judah’s intended visit, Tamar removed her widow’s garb, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself in it. Unhappy that Judah had not kept his promise — that she would be given to Shelah — she sat in wait at the crossroads on the road to Timnah. Judah saw her but did not recognize her; he mistook her for a harlot. In exchange for consorting with him, Judah agreed to give her kids from his flocks. Tamar asked for — and Judah gave her — his signet, his wrap and his staff as a pledge for the kids. 

When Judah sent the goats to retrieve his pledge, he asked for the prostitute at the crossroads, but was told there had been none. Months later, when Judah was told that his daughter in law had conceived by harlotry, he brazenly instructed that she be burned. When she produced his signet and staff, and he realized what he had done — and that he was, indeed, the father — he said “She is more righteous than I — I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

Time passed. There were seven years of plenty, and the land produced grain and food in abundance. Joseph knew that those seven years would end in seven years of famine, and he stored the grain to feed those who would be hungry. When food became scarce, Jacob sent all his sons but one to Egypt to procure food. When they approached Joseph, he knew immediately they were his brothers; but they did not recognize him. Joseph challenged their motives and accused them of being spies. He took custody of Simeon and demanded that the others produce before him their youngest brother Benjamin (Joseph’s full brother, born also to Rachel) to prove to him that their story — that they were brothers seeking food for their family and were not spies — was true.

The brothers returned to Jacob with their account of what had transpired in Egypt before the viceroy. Confronted by Jacob’s fear that Benjamin would be taken by the viceroy and killed, Reuben, the eldest, told Jacob that if Benjamin were killed, Jacob could kill Reuben’s own two sons. Jacob rejected the foolish pledge. But they were hungry, and the only place to procure food was through Joseph. Judah beseeched Jacob to send Benjamin with him: “Send the lad with me, and let us arise and go, so we will live and not die, we as well as you as well as our children.”  Judah further offered his personal guarantee for Benjamin’s safety: “If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time.” Jacob relented.

When they came with Benjamin in tow before Joseph — still not realizing he was their brother (who they long ago sold into slavery) — Joseph tricked them again and placed a goblet in Benjamin’s  sack, and pretended to have been victimized by the brothers’ theft. Judah offered no excuse and offered that they each be enslaved — but Joseph only wanted Benjamin, and offered the rest to go back to Jacob.

Judah, though, approached Joseph and told him how Jacob’s son (Joseph), the first son of his favored wife Rachel, had been killed by a wild animal, and now Judah would have to tell Jacob that Rachel’s second son too would die. He explained that he had personally taken responsibility for Benjamin’s safety: “How can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me, lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” And with this Joseph broke into tears, with shrieks so loud that all of Pharaoh’s household heard it. Joseph finally acknowledged to his brothers who he was and asked that Jacob and all his children and grandchildren come to Egypt where they would be reunited, which occurred.

When Jacob lay on his deathbed some time later, he blessed each of his sons. This was the blessing he accorded Judah: 

“You, your brothers shall acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies’ nape; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. A lion cub is Judah; from the prey, my son, you elevated yourself. He crouches, lies down like a lion, and like an awesome lion, who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations. He will tie his donkey to the vine; to the vine branch his donkey’s foal; he will launder his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes. Red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk.”  


  Judaism and Christianity are religions steeped in the “existence” and promise of the Messiah. Its status in Islam is somewhat more amorphous. For Christianity, the Messiah has already arrived once in the person of Jesus who, according to Christian and Muslim tradition, will again appear to humanity  — i.e., “The Second Coming.” While the observant in Judaism remain ever hopeful, the Messiah has not yet come.

Exactly the meaning of his existence or future existence for each of these religions remains, however, shrouded still in mystery — dependent  on the interpreter of the religious beliefs in question. Will, with his advent, there be world peace? World domination? A nirvana of sorts? Presumably to actually know, we must all await the Messiah’s ultimate arrival, assuming that day will come in our lifetimes, or ever.

For Judaism and Christianity, while there are other hints and clues to his existence in the Hebrew Bible, the conception of the Messiah finds its origin in the exquisite Blessing of Judah given by Jacob on his deathbed, as quoted just above. Indeed, these great religions trace the route to the Messiah directly from Judah (and the Tribe that derived from him that bears his name), later through the bloodline of King David himself. 

Much literature and speculation has been written about the quoted verse that “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh come; And unto him shall the obedience of the people be.” Still, despite its loftiness — given Judah’s sometimes questionable actions during his lifetime and Jacob’s ostensible blaming of Judah for the loss of Joseph — one wonders why God chose him (and his bloodline) as the forebear, as it were, of the Messiah.

Was it because God saw Judah and all of his actions, particularly, his conduct with Tamar, as appropriate and defensible — indeed, laudatory? Or was it that God sees and accepts flaws in each of his children –perhaps, especially Judah — and He makes that precise point by seeing Judah and his garments laundered in wine’s purple — the proper circumstance for the progenitor of the Messiah. Forgiveness, after all, being the hallmark of a Forgiving God. 


I stood at the side of the road at the edge of Timnah — the Adullamite town. Midnight hid my identity, but not my loneliness. No man fulfilled by life or warmed by a woman’s love would wander to that fog-shrouded corner of the world. And so, in my own dark night, I sought refuge there. My refuge was the anonymity of bartered love from a nameless, faceless woman: a woman willing to negotiate her virtue — a harlot who demanded nothing but swift payment for service. Maybe she too hid her own loneliness behind the opaque veil of a bought woman.

But why did my winding road lead me here?  Does the sinnerman start out the sinnerman?  Do our sins, even mortal sins of the flesh, define the whole picture of who we are, the entirety of our journey?

My mother Leah, who too had gained “love” in the ambiguous cover of night, named me Yehudah, in praise of God. But were the births of my three elder brothers not worthy of His praise? Was she so happy with my birth, as some would later claim, because she knew that four sons were enough of a handful for one person; that Jacob would have to help carry them on outings and help her tuck them in to bed, and therefore spend more time with her and neglect her rival, her sister, Rachel? Or did my mother know her oldest three sons would, somehow, fail God and our father Jacob?  Mother Leah somehow tried, but couldn’t persuade me that all the Children of Israel, “the Yehudim,” would someday bear my name.  How could a sinner come to merit God’s love — or is it His indulgence? — despite the enormity of his misdeed? Can I really be a “leader” if I lack leadership when the moment of truth is at hand?

It would come to pass, years later, that God would allow into motion the very proof of that exquisite irony. That proof would be born in a lethal jealously of our younger brother, Joseph. For when “the Dreamer,” born to our father’s second wife, Rachel, vexed us with his coruscating arrogance, we literally, en masse, ventured to “kill” him, to condemn him to the torture of a hopelessness leading to death in a desert pit — one devoid of water, but not of scorpions and snakes — while we twistedly feasted over that impending death.

But when we saw a passing caravan of Ishmaelite merchants, I somehow persuaded my brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than leave him to die in the pit — unconcerned, though, with the grim future he faced when he became dispensable to the merchants.  As we would require a lie to placate — and torture — our father, I would use Joseph’s despised tunic as a false prop.  We would convince our father that Joseph, while daydreaming in the field, was somehow ravaged by a wild beast.  Yea, my evil trait of guile that appeared with Tamar later at the darkened outskirts of the Adullamite town was not my first such encounter with my dark side.

True, my “leadership” ensured that my brother Joseph would live that day, but I acted to assuage my guilty conscience, not to protect my brother.  Our father would die a thousand natural deaths each day having lost his most precious son, Joseph, but I felt glad because I was yet too immature to know that I was still guilty.

My brothers would always blame me for deceiving our father, who pined away so many years over Joseph, but it didn’t matter to them — and it doesn’t really matter, after all — that the same lie would have been necessary to explain Joseph’s disappearance had I not intervened and he had instead died of thirst, starvation and sunstroke while languishing in the pit. And while I speculate, what did Joseph go through in that caravan and in Egypt that he would let our father die those daily deaths just so he could take his revenge on us and fulfill his childish dream?

My father Jacob, too, would always place fault for his torment at my doorstep, albeit in words unspoken. I know I deserved it, but it would pain me greatly that his final words to me on his deathbed alluded to my sin.  Indeed, that I had seemingly saved Joseph’s life that day with the Ishmaelites was of no moment, and could not completely assuage my own guilty conscience.  For rather than urgently fight my brothers to release Joseph outright from the pit, I eagerly compromised with them — and thereby with myself.  For I knew as surely as I knew anything, that because I had proposed to sell him as a worthless slave, he would inevitably die at the caravan’s hands another day, although my hands would seem to me, then, less bloody, less implicated.  As a leader, I needed to be resolute and strong. But I was a coward, weak and timid.

Thus, the hypocrite in me was exposed. I needed personal refuge, to descend into my own pit to punish myself for my brother’s descent. My pit was of self-exile from my brothers who now hated me instead of Joseph. Perhaps, I thought, exile along a winding road away from the site of my manifest weakness would bring me inner peace or at least forgetfulness. Though, as a toddler, my mother had sung me a lullaby to venerate me as a “lion cub,” I surely knew better. I knew that I was in reality a wretched, sinuous worm when responsibility called upon me.

And so I left my home, and took a winding road away. But instead of gaining the peace, or even the forgetfulness, I had so yearned for, I succumbed to temptation and sought love in the bosom of a “foreign” woman. In doing so, it seems, I also pursued requital for my father’s disapproval — why else would the arms of an Adullamite woman so quickly comfort me? Did I love her? Or did I choose her in search of my father’s disapproval for having blamed me over Joseph? Either way, I took the “daughter of Shua,” who bore me three sons — Er, Onan and Shelah. Strangely, the Bible did not identify her by name. I can only speculate why. Was Shua blamed by God, and indeed by Moses his scribe, because I chose the wrong woman?  Moses?

In any event, and whatever my true or unconscious purpose, the sins of the past always catch up with the sinner. Like father like son; just as Jacob failed to rear all his sons in righteousness, I too failed. Er betrothed an Adullamite girl, Tamar — but God found him wicked in His eyes, and he died while still a young man. When the mourning for Er was at an end, although it never ends for parents, even those who recognize the enormity of the child’s wickedness, I directed Onan to take as his wife Tamar, and to have children with her. Knowing, though, that such offspring would be Er’s, not his, he defied me. Rather than consummate a levirate marriage as I asked him to, he would defile his brother’s memory, I would come to learn, and would spill his seed on the ground whenever he would go into Tamar, abandoning that precious gift of life-giving that God gives to man. For that grievous sin, Onan too died quickly at God’s hand. The pain of Er’s death had not yet abated when I lost Onan too; I felt that the sun, the moon and all the stars had fallen on me – perhaps the same pain filled celestial objects Joseph had seen in his dream. (No wonder God warned us about worshipping the planets and the stars!) Strangely, though, I seemed unsympathetic to Shua and Tamar for their suffering. Acts of leadership and empathy seem missing when one’s personal suffering comes to the fore – especially for effete leaders.

Rather than blame my sons or, more properly, myself, for their deaths, I longed for a scapegoat. Tamar, my twice-widowed daughter-in-law, if one can even begin to imagine her pain and torment, surely wanted a levirate marriage with my youngest son, Shelah. Instead, I thoughtlessly sent her to her father’s home to “mourn” ostensibly until Shelah grew up, lest he too die, in my own mind, at her hand. In my pain, she was at fault. In my self-deceit, Tamar, not the way I had reared my children, caused my sons’ deaths. Under the protocol of how blame was “prosecuted” and assessed in the tribunal of my brothers, Tamar wasn’t an actor in the drama, she was the person accountable — she was the offender! I would employ the “learning” that they, my brothers, taught me. I myself would, ironically, now deflect blame onto Tamar and blame her, as my brothers chose to deflect blame onto me. My wandering road had turned around back toward me, and against myself; my wanderings, like so many others’ exiles, had become cyclic.

Far too soon, my wife, the true victim who was never the same after her horrible losses, also died. The loneliness that her death brought me was too painful for me to remain at home. I ventured now to Timnah, unaware where that serpentine road would take me — unaware that a harlot would “lie in wait” for me at the town’s crossroads. I kicked the morality taught by my father to the side of the road, and urgently chose the illicit pleasure of a stranger’s breast to consort with — recklessly unaware, and uncaring, who she was or what her true purpose might be.

It seems almost barbaric. I simply offered her a goat kid to gain quickly from her loveless, veiled physicality. Though she demanded my signet, my wrap and my staff as collateral until “payment” and delivery of the goat, I didn’t realize that she had stripped me bare. The passion that so quickly rose up in me made me impetuous, not cautious, as I pushed myself into her impervious to the consequences. Perhaps I was too concerned that if I dropped my own seed to the ground, what befell my son Onan would befall me too. (Maybe, I thought at the time, I should have taken that course of sinfulness in an effort to join myself with my wife and my two sons wherever they might then be). Satisfied, but yet unsatisfied, when the passion had abated from my act with Tamar, I left without a word spoken, not knowing that my seed would grow inside “the woman” — I had grown too accustomed to the nameless women — whose face I never really saw that awkward, darkened night.

Months later, I was told that my sons’ wife, Tamar, with whom I had lost touch after I dispatched her, but who had not since married, had conceived — acting the harlot.  Without a thought given to my words, their horrific meaning or unwarranted judgmental tone, I allowed my hypocrisy to rise quickly within me, and I yelled, “Burn her!” Little did I know, until I was later confronted with my signet, that Tamar, playing the harlot, had taken me into her. I chose to lay with her, simply an anonymous chasm for my forlornness, thus replacing my son Shelah whose youthful loins I had denied her. Tamar had conceived my twin sons — the “mother” of a line of Yehudim traceable down the ages to Nahshon, to Jesse, to David, to the Messiah himself — if that moment in time and the history of the world would ever come to be. She was a Woman of Valor. I, instead, was a simply a patron of a woman who seemed to me nothing but a woman of the night. How could God choose to reward me in this way despite what I showed Him about myself? But still, He did.

When my father would discover what had happened and, given his prophetic vision, what the future truly held for these grandsons, the sons of my loins, he would welcome me back to his household despite my added shame that we both always refused to discuss.  This, then, despite the detour I had taken from the path he had set for me. The road would turn back again, to link me back once more with my brother Joseph, now Viceroy of Egypt. I, who couldn’t even properly lead my handful of brothers, had sold him to be a slave; only for him to become second to the king of the greatest civilization — the irony of it all.

After the famine had set in, and though we surely deserved it, it was Joseph now who would became the arch-deceiver — disguising himself as the stranger we had always wanted to turn him into, not our flesh and blood.  But why would it come to be that I would be the one to open his heart, as it were? I was the fourth son of Jacob — Reuben, Simeon and Levi, my elders, deserved to be the leaders. But Reuben, the eldest of us all, and the brother who should have led us all, had taken our father’s wife Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, to his bed after Rachel died. Whether Reuben’s motive was to protect our mother Leah’s status, as some have said, our father learned of his behavior and never forgave him. But Reuben acted out of desire; his efforts were not those of a leader. And what could he have been thinking when, in an effort to barter Benjamin to bring Benjamin to Egypt, he offered Jacob the right to murder his own sons if he did not succeed in bringing Benjamin safely home to Jacob. The situation was already dire since Joseph demanded that we bring Benjamin to Egypt, but why would Jacob want to murder two grandchildren to punish his son for losing another son?  Surely Jacob would have remembered his own mother Rebecca’s advice when she told him to flee from Esau: “Why must I lose two sons in one day?”

Nor, indeed, could Simeon and Levi occupy that role. They truly acted the avenger, while I was in “exile” among the Adullamites. Out of love for her, Shechem had kidnapped and defiled our only sister, Dinah. His father Hamor — the man’s name was donkey after all! — aware of Shechem’s love for Dinah, later sought peace with Jacob and agreed to circumcise every male among his people if Shechem would only be given Dinah’s hand in marriage.  But while all the male populace was still recovering on the third day from the pain of its collective circumcision, Simeon and Levi ravaged and killed all the males, plundering all their wealth and taking captive all their wives and children. When Jacob denounced Simeon and Levi for having made him odious in the eyes of all the Canaanites and Perizites, they meekly defended themselves saying, “Should he be allowed to treat our sister as a harlot?” A painful phrase for me to hear, when I myself had treated my daughter-in-law as nothing but a harlot. The painfulness of the phrase notwithstanding, I saw my brothers Simeon and Levi as worthy of just violence, not leadership.

And, so, I became “leader” by default. My brothers had simply failed our father, and so after the first three qualified candidates lost the honor, I was lucky enough to have been next in line. Nothing less, nothing more. Leadership — indeed, power — often arises in a vacuum created by the shortcomings of others. And seemingly great moments often arrive the same way.

As Joseph prophetically stated in his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream, the famine in the land was imposing, and we ventured to Egypt to seek food — though it would later be said that Jacob had more than enough food, but that he did not want to cause others to be jealous. Surely, none of us recognized Joseph when we appeared before him and he toyed with our insecurities. I never asked him later when he reconciled with us, but it always seemed to me that when he castigated and accused us of treachery that he looked knowingly in my direction. Did I dream that look as he had dreamed so often and so vocally? Had he heard my voice — so many years earlier — from the bottom of the pit desperately trying to save his life from our brothers’ murderous plot against him? Did he, “the prophet,” know that it was I who had lied to our father to explain his disappearance? Did he know that I, the hypocrite, had later condemned to death the wife of my late sons? And did he know that we had become kindred souls after our brothers had taken to hating me instead of him, and sent me into exile? I will never know the true extent of Joseph’s prophecies, just as I will never know whether I only imagined his “knowing” stares in my direction

True, Joseph purported to view my brothers and I, then finally our youngest brother Benjamin, as spies who threatened Egypt’s “nakedness.” Joseph’s seemingly vengeful demand that we produce Benjamin to him in Egypt ironically accorded me the “power” to finally make our father believe that I was the leader he had always hoped I would be. And that “power” to let me take Benjamin by the hand grew ineluctably from an argument of default, when Jacob blamed us for having told the Viceroy that remaining with Jacob was yet another son. Nonetheless, I persuaded our father Jacob by telling him that, indeed, if Jacob did not release Benjamin to me to go to Egypt, we would all die of famine.

Yes, I told Jacob that “If I do not bring him back to you and stand before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time.” But he had already made up his mind when I said, “Send the lad with me, and let us arise and go, so we will live and not die.” When I uttered those few words a rare smile came across his face that he tried to suppress. I knew, right then and there, tortured as he was by the prospect of losing Benjamin too, he had finally found a “leader” in his flock. He found a leader who didn’t need to threaten to kill his own sons if Benjamin was taken hostage in Egypt, and a leader who didn’t need to murder a whole society because his sister was defiled. His “lion cub” had grown to be the crouching adult lion from the end of his blessing.   

Now, having persuaded Jacob of my strength of purpose, I knew in my “lion’s heart” that I would indeed gain victory from the Viceroy of Egypt, no matter how imposing the prospect. Yes, if I failed in my mission I would remain a “sinner” to my father for all time. Still, I wasn’t worried about “sin,” only victory no matter the price (the kind of victory that Joshua and Caleb would seek for the Children of Israel years later).

So, when we arrived in Egypt and appeared before the Viceroy, we couldn’t know he would falsely accuse Benjamin of purloining the silver goblet. Astonished, I boldly asked that he enslave all of us to save Benjamin from certain death. I was a leader unable to threaten my opponent, a fact that Joseph, ever the deceiver, quickly realized when he said it would be “sacrilegious” to retain us all for the sin of one.

Sacrilege had nothing to do with it. It was vengeance, nothing else, well-earned vengeance on the part of Joseph, who never forgot what we had done to him — though, of course, I didn’t realize it then. I needed boldness as a leader, but boldness couldn’t work, for I held no weapon in my hand. Although I was a stranger being taunted by a “despot,” not a brother, I chose nonetheless to cajole him as I might a brother. It seems odd to me even now. Why would I ever come to believe that a despot might accept my lamenting tones? Why would I see an argument to a despotic stranger as persuasive as to a brother confronted by the torment of a long-lost father who had suffered the death of his favorite child? Was my decision to travel that road the act of a leader? Was it the tactic of man who had nothing else to try? Or was it a simple case of God being on my side?                        *                      *                      *

At day’s end, it seems to me, that is what leadership is about — God’s mystifying, often counter-intuitive, decision on who to side with in the affairs of mankind, or who to arm with the power of leadership. Who will end up the lion, and who the lamb will always be God’s choice.

My father Jacob told me on his deathbed that my brothers shall acknowledge me, that my hand will be at my enemies’ nape, that my brothers will prostrate themselves to me. That the scepter shall not depart from me, and that I will launder my garments in wine and my robe in the blood of grapes. Beautiful words. But why does he prophesy that future for me?

The answer can only lie in where my winding road will finally take me, and perhaps in whether I find comfort over the future, despite the uncertainties that will always lie ahead.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.
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