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Why Does the Messiah Come from Judah?

A novel interpretation of Judah's personal transformation reveals a surprising message of sublime hope

The messiah descends from King David, and King David from Judah. Why Judah? The story of Judah and his transformation from the person he was to the person he became provides an answer.

We first learn about Judah’s character through Joseph. Like his brothers, Judah despised Joseph. The Bible recounts the depths of the brothers’ hate, which culminated in their conspiracy to murder Joseph. Reuben stopped his brothers from immediately killing Joseph, but the act remained on their mind. Judah, however, convinced them to take another course of action.

“Judah said to his brothers, ‘What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites—but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened. Midianite men, traders, passed by; they pulled and brought Joseph up from the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; then they brought Joseph to Egypt” (Gen. 37:26-28).

Judah did not endorse the murder of his brother, but he had no qualms about selling Joseph into a harsh life of forced labor, at best, while benefiting from doing so. Indeed, each conspiring brother would receive two pieces of silver from the sale. Whatever fraternal feelings Judah may have had toward his brother, they were negated by his awful deed.

Following Joseph’s sale, Judah’s life began to spiral rapidly downwards. First, he lost the respect of his brothers. He then married a local Canaanite girl, a relationship viewed with deep antipathy by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Judah’s first two sons died in quick succession, and he refused to give Tamar, their widow, to his third son in levirate marriage. Judah’s wife subsequently died, after which Judah slept with a prostitute, who was actually Tamar in disguise, and he impregnated her. When after three months Tamar’s pregnancy became obvious and Judah’s neighbors accused Tamar of harlotry, Judah, scandalized and unaware of his responsibility for Tamar’s pregnancy, called for her death.

Judah’s life had reached a nadir. Not only had Judah sold his brother into slavery, he had also lost nearly everything that was meaningful and good in his life. This returns us to the original question: How was Judah in any way fit to be a progenitor of the messiah? It was precisely at this point, however, that Judah made a decision that changed his life.

As Tamar was taken out to be burned, she showed Judah the pledge he had given her when she was disguised as a prostitute, proof that he was responsible for her pregnancy. The way she did it, however, was remarkable. She did not identify Judah publicly as the father. Tamar gave Judah the opportunity to keep silent and let her be killed, and along with her, the secret of his paternity would have also disappeared, vaporized in smoke and flame.

Judah now faced a terrible decision: whether to admit he was the father or not. It is not difficult to imagine how deeply conflicted Judah must have felt. In nearly all cultures across time, being a prostitute is considered disgraceful and for a father to have a relationship with his daughter-in-law is considered particularly abhorrent behavior. Imagine Judah’s shame, the ostracism that he would experience, for being known not only for having impregnated his daughter-in-law, but also for her having encouraged him by disguising herself as a prostitute. Judah may have thought his life had already hit rock bottom, but now it was about to become worse.

Given Judah’s history, his decision should have been easy. The simplest solution would have been to let Tamar be killed. Tamar posed a problem, and Judah already had experience getting rid of another problematic family member: Joseph. Instead, Judah made the most difficult decision of his life: he admitted his culpability and spared Tamar from death – and in so doing, accepted public humiliation.

This was a pivotal moment for Judah. From here on, Judah was a changed man. The next time Judah appeared in the Bible, he tried to convince his father Jacob to allow Benjamin to accompany his brothers to buy food in Egypt. Benjamin’s presence was commanded by Joseph, who at that point the brothers only knew as Pharoah’s viceroy and responsible for Egypt’s food stores. But Judah won over his reluctant father by guaranteeing with his life that he would bring Benjamin home. As with Tamar, we see that here, too, Judah took responsibility at personal great risk.

Back in Egypt, Judah’s promise was soon tested. Joseph devised a ploy to enslave Benjamin in Egypt, so again Judah was faced with a terrible decision: whether to give up his freedom to save Benjamin, or not. Making the decision more fraught was the similarity between Benjamin and Joseph. Like Joseph, Benjamin was Rachel’s son and Jacob’s favorite son. Why should Judah treat Benjamin any differently than how he treated Joseph?

We know how the story ends. In an act of great courage and sacrifice, Judah confronted Joseph and offered to exchange his freedom for Benjamin’s. Joseph was overwhelmed by Judah’s selflessness and was unable to continue his ruse. In a scene of intense emotion, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He realized that the fraternal enmity he experienced in his family had been replaced by fraternal compassion. What then followed was extraordinary. Jacob’s family reconciled and moved to Egypt to be supported by Joseph during the famine. There they were fruitful and multiplied, first in Pharoah’s favor and later as slaves. Despite the hardships in Egypt, Jacob’s family remained united, and they grew into the nation of Israel—whom God ultimately freed and redeemed as His chosen people.

That Judah’s actions catalyzed the creation of the Jewish nation suggests that his change of character had significance that extended far beyond his heroic saving of Tamar and Benjamin. Indeed, in the context of Genesis, his actions responded to two questions that had been lingering, unsatisfactorily answered, since the beginning of humanity.

The first concerned God’s question to Adam when He asked whether Adam had eaten “of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat” (Gen. 3:11). Though Adam admitted that he did, he blamed Eve for his transgression, and implicated God as well! Adam said: “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). God then questioned Eve, she responded similarly, blaming the snake. Why did God ask Adam and Eve whether they ate from the Tree of Knowledge when of course He knew the answer? He did so to encourage them to take responsibility for their actions, and to repent.

The second question came from the dialogue between God and Cain. After murdering Abel, God asked Cain “Where is your brother Abel?” to which Cain infamously replied “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God then said “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Gen. 4:9-10). Again, God did not need to ask Cain about Abel. He already knew the answer, but He wanted Cain to admit responsibility and repent. In God’s response to Cain, He condemns fratricide with poetic fury. But God did not precisely answer whether Cain should be Abel’s “keeper.”

Despite God’s early adjuration, Genesis is largely an extended meditation on the theme of fraternal strife, which becomes a source of much the book’s dramatic tension and is examined across multiple permutations and contexts. All of our forefathers had troubled relationships with their brothers. In the sale of Joseph, this even extended beyond Joseph’s brothers to the Ishmaelite and Midianite traders—cousins who descended from eponymous great-uncles to Joseph and his brothers. Even between Judah’s sons Er and Onan there was strife; the express purpose of Onan’s levirate marriage to Tamar was to provide an heir for Er, yet Onan refused to have a child with her in his deceased brother’s name.

It was Judah who ended this corrosive family dynamic. By saving Benjamin at the risk of his life, Judah demonstrated categorically that yes, brothers are to be each other’s keepers. Indeed, the next time brothers take center stage in the Bible, it is when God chooses Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt and Aaron is to support him. Though Aaron as the older brother of Moses could have been resentful and jealous of him, he instead served in his role with alacrity and the two brothers worked as a team. Their relationship reflected the spirit of the mature Judah, which he introduced into the family of Jacob and entered into the body politic of the Jewish nation. As Judah said to Joseph regarding Benjamin, “your servant [Judah] took responsibility for the youth” (Gen. 44:32)—language that is used in the famous Talmudic dictum that “all Jews are responsible for one another” (Shavuot 49a).

Perhaps the most important aspect of Judah’s greatness, however, is that he repented. While the patriarchs in Genesis are portrayed as real, fallible people, they were also righteous individuals. But this cannot be said for Judah, who, by selling Joseph, committed an especially grievous sin.

Judah’s path to repentance began when he made his fateful decision to be accountable with Tamar and culminated when he offered to exchange his freedom to save Benjamin—a situation analogous to the sale of Joseph. Why is this important? Rambam, who distinguishes between repentance (“teshuva”) and full repentance (“teshuva gemura”), helps us to understand. Defining “full repentance” as “When a person has the opportunity to commit the original sin again, and is physically able to sin again, but one doesn’t sin because of his repentance” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:1), he therefore would have characterized Judah’s change in character as such. With Benjamin, Judah was no longer the person he was when he sold Joseph. He was better. God wanted Adam and Cain to repent for their actions, but it was Judah who showed how to do this.

Asked at the beginning of humanity, God’s questions to Adam and Cain are especially significant. Posed twenty generations before the appearance of Abraham, the first Jew, they should be understood as lessons relevant not only to Jews but to all of humanity. Judah acted as an individual Jew, but in the Biblical context his actions have universal relevance, magnifying their importance and imparting them with eschatological meaning.

Taking responsibility for one’s actions, living up to one’s mistakes and trying to learn from them, and caring for our brothers are moral behaviors that parents teach and expect of their children. Yet the Bible teaches us that precisely these simple actions can redeem the world. It’s a point that is very relevant, even in our modern world. Take, for example, those politicians and bureaucrats who eschew responsibility for their actions and cast blame on others—fostering deep, corrosive cynicism about our leaders and society. Consider also Russia and Ukraine at war today – a horrible, tragic conflict between two brotherly peoples.

Judah’s actions served to redeem the sins of Adam, for which humanity was exiled from the Garden of Eden, and of Cain, which foreshadowed a paradigm of fraternal strife that has been manifest in human relations throughout history. Setting an example for all of humanity, Judah was deemed worthy to be a progenitor to the messiah. In addition, Judah’s story offers a message of sublime hope. God does not expect us to be perfect. In fact, we can be, like Judah, far from perfect. What God wants, however, is for us to take responsibility for actions, to care for our brothers and sisters, and, when we make mistakes, to repent and try to do better. Through Judah, the Bible teaches us that not only does God give us room to repent, but when we do so, even those who committed the worst sins will hasten the arrival of the messiah.

About the Author
Daniel Berkove helps companies to accelerate profits and growth in complex, challenging markets. In addition to his private sector work, he serves as a board member of Innovation: Africa and the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States. He was also Executive Director of “The Blessing Israel,” a Jewish-Christian music video collaboration against antisemitism which featured an international cast including Grammy-winning stars and received over three million views. Originally from the US, he lives in Israel with his family.
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