Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about Judah – Part Two

In Part One, we mentioned the question why Judah’s family merited according to tradition having the messiah come from them and obscurities in the Torah in Genesis 37 and 38. This is a continuation.

  • Chapter 39 resumes the Joseph story after telling us about Judah in chapter 38. Briefly told, he becomes second to Pharaoh, there is famine in Canaan, Jacob sends all his sons except Benjamin to Egypt to get food for the family, Joseph recognizes them but does not reveal his identity – we don’t know why. He insists that the next time they return they must bring Benjamin, he imprisons his brother Shimon pending their return, Jacob refuses to allow his sons who need to return for more food to take Benjamin with them. He fears he will lose Benjamin as he lost Joseph. The brothers try to persuade Jacob to relent. Benjamin does not say a word during the discussion. Why?
  • Judah tells his dad that he guarantees that he will bring Benjamin back. Jacob listens to him and relents. Why was Judah’s guarantee more persuasive than that of his siblings? Scripture is mute on the issue. Is it because Jacob realized that Judah of all his children was the most sensitive to the loss of a child because he lost two sons and would not let his father go through the pain?
  • The brothers return to Egypt with Benjamin. Joseph entraps Benjamin claiming he stole Joseph’s cup, which Joseph ordered his men to place in Benjamin’s bag. Joseph tells the brothers he will keep Benjamin in Egypt and punish him. No reply by Benjamin is reported in scripture. Why? Is it so as not to detract from Judah’s speech? Why is Joseph doing what he is doing? Is it revenge? Is he testing them?
  • Judah, who guaranteed to his father that he would return Benjamin, steps forward and delivers a simple empoisoned speech that wins over Joseph. So perfect was his speech that it caused Joseph to burst out in tears and reveal his identity that he hid until this moment. How many lawyers hope that they could deliver such a defense? What was it in the speech that prompted the tears?
  • In Judah’s passionate speech to save Benjamin, Judah states in Genesis 44:22, “The boy cannot leave his father; if he were to leave his father, he would die.” Who will die? The pronoun “he” is ambiguous. The commentators Rashi, Nachmanides, and others contend it is Benjamin who will die. In contrast, Rashbam, Gersonides, Joseph ibn Kaspi, and others more realistically but still without certainty say it is his grieving father Jacob. Bachya ben Asher, Sforno, and other commentators say both despite the Torah’s singular “he.” Ibn Ezra more courageously admits that it is impossible to know; the statement is ambiguous. Did Judah purposely make it unclear or is this the typical Torah style?
  • Joseph reacts strongly to Judah’s speech. Among much else, he asks in 45:3, “Is my father still alive?” This is a remarkably strange question. The brothers told Joseph previously that Jacob was alive. Why is he asking? Was he showing that he did not believe what they had told him previously? If so, what did he not believe, just whether Jacob as still alive or everything they told him? More striking, Joseph was in a position of power for years and could have ascertained this information easily. Not only did Joseph not inform his grieving father that he is alive, he did not even attempt to find out if his father was still living. What does this tell us about the righteous Joseph?
  • In Genesis 49, Jacob is described as gathering his sons to his death bed where he comments about each of them. Much of what he tells them is obscure, including whether he is talking about his sons or their descendants, is he describing them or predicting the future. After censuring his first three sons for their misdeeds, Jacob probably remembering Judah’s words regarding the children of Tamar and those about Benjamin, although scripture does not comment on what prompted him, Jacob praises Judah and predicts great results for his descendants who he will lead the descendants of his brothers.
  • But this leadership will be “until Shiloh arrives.” We have no idea what this means, and any suggestion that is offered is pure guesswork. Furthermore, it appears that the prediction is faulty. Judah’s progeny led the united tribes under David and Solomon, but ten tribes abandoned their rule at the start of Solomon’s son’s ascent to the throne and established a kingdom in norther Israel called Israel while the smaller kingdom led by Judah’s family ruled over a kingdom called Judea, named after Judah until it was destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE. The northern kingdom Israel was destroyed earlier in 722 BCE.
  • Jacob ends his comments about Judah by saying in the Jewish Publication Society of America translation, “Binding his foal (donkey) unto the vine/ And his ass’s colt unto the choice vine/ He washes his garments in wine/ And his vestures in the blood of grapes/ His eyes shall be red with wine/ And his teeth white with milk.” Jacob’s statement is generally understood as an exaggeration; Judah or the tribe he produces will have so much wine that he/they will use it instead of water to clean his clothes and he/they will drink so much that his/their eyes will be red. While many Bible readers do not realize it, the Torah has many exaggerations to emphasize its points. Why does the Torah tell us after saying Judah will lead the other sons that he will have plenty of wine? Why exaggerate about wine? Isn’t it insulting to say that he/they imbibed so much that the eyes were red?
  • Moses blessed the tribe of Judah in Deuteronomy 33:7 when he blessed other tribes. But we have no certain understanding of what Moses is saying and even how we should translate his words. The JPS translates this verse in its “The Holy Scriptures” as follows: “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah/ And bring him in unto his people/ His hand shall contend for him/ And Thou shalt be a help against his adversaries.”
  • Why was Judah awarded leadership of Israel after so many missteps by his ancestors and by him? Tradition answers that it was because he admitted his guilt in the affair of Tamar. He set this as an example for his progeny King David who admitted that he acted improperly in the matter of Bathsheba. Long after Judah and David, rulers continued to not admit mistakes and blamed predecessors. The very first human leader, Adam, blamed his wife and the serpent for he and his wife disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit. Wasn’t Augustine wrong in what he considered the original sin? It was not the eating of the forbidden fruit. It was blaming another for our mistakes.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.