In the last book of the Bible, one of the elders in heaven says to the apostle John in Revelation 5:5, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.” Jesus, as we know, is the Lion of Judah. And as we come to the first book of the Bible, to the climax of the Joseph story (which is the climax of the whole book of Genesis), we get a glimpse into one of the reasons why.
We might ask it this way: Why is Jesus “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and not “of the tribe of Joseph”? Joseph is Jacob’s favoured son. And Joseph is the focus of the last main section of Genesis (chapters 12–23 for Abraham; 24–26 for Isaac; 27–36 for Jacob; and 37–50 for Joseph). Judah and Joseph, of course, are half brothers, both sons of Jacob, along with ten other half brothers. Judah is Jacob’s fourth son, by his wife Leah (Genesis 29:35; 35:23). But Joseph is Jacob’s favoured son, one of only two by his favoured wife, Rachel — and Joseph is plainly the focus of Genesis 37–50, not Judah.
As we know from chapter 37, Judah and his brothers were jealous of Joseph (verse 11) and hated him (verse 4) because of their father’s special love for him. And Joseph’s dreams didn’t help. He reported seeing them all bowing down to him. The brothers came to hate Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and gave their father the impression that Joseph was dead.
But even in slavery, God was with Joseph. Joseph worked in the house of a man named Potiphar, who soon put Joseph over his whole house. When Potiphar’s wife lied about him, Joseph was sent to prison, and then, even there, God’s favor remained on him, and soon he was put over the whole prison. Then, he interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s disgraced servants, which eventually (after “two whole years,” Genesis 41:1) led to him interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and being put over all of Egypt, which brings him back in contact with his brothers.
“Joseph comforts his distressed brothers by assuring them that he sees what God was doing for good when they intended evil.”
Joseph, as we’ve said, is the focus of Genesis 37–50. And yet, one of the most surprising and important developments during Joseph’s life, which has massive implications for the history of God’s people, and for the eventual king of God’s people, is what happens to Joseph’s brother Judah. In fact, the climactic moment of the whole book of Genesis comes when Joseph and Judah stand face to face at the end of chapter 44.
So, I’m asking you to come with me this morning with fresh eyes to this well-known story, which likely is familiar to most of us, but let’s do so from a different angle: with Judah in view. Let’s consider three important details about Judah in the Joseph story.
Not only was Judah among the ten brothers who envied and plotted against Joseph, but in fact, Judah had been the one who suggested they sell Joseph into slavery:
Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. (Genesis 37:26–27)
Judah does speak up to keep Joseph from being killed, but why? He appeals to profit. “What profit is it if we kill our brother . . . ? Come, let us sell him.” In other words, “Let’s not only get rid of this dreamer but profit from it!” And Judah carries the day. He speaks up, the brothers agree, and they sell Joseph as a slave.
Then chapter 38, as a seemingly strange aside from the Joseph story, chronicles Judah’s downward moral spiral, especially in relation to his niece, Tamar, ending with his admission of wickedness and hypocrisy (38:26). This seems to be rock-bottom for Judah.
The strange aside of Genesis 38 tips us off that we need to pay careful attention to Judah. Genesis 37–50 is the Joseph story, and yet Genesis 38 comes along and turns the focus — in the middle of Joseph’s story — to Judah. There are at least two reasons for this.
One is the immediate contrast between Judah in Genesis 38 spiralling downward and visiting a cult prostitute, and Joseph in Genesis 39 flourishing in Potiphar’s house and exhibiting sterling character in refusing the overtures of his master’s wife. So the lives of Joseph and Judah go opposite directions. They are foils. But then, there is a second reason (perhaps often overlooked), which is to prepare us for what we see in Judah in chapters 43–44.
So, first, remember Judah’s glaring flaws.
In Genesis 42, Jacob sends his sons (minus Benjamin) to Egypt to seek food during the famine. Joseph, now lord of Egypt, recognizes his brothers but remains unknown to them. He sends them home with food but keeps Simeon until they return with Benjamin, his full brother (the only other son of Rachel). But Jacob, having already lost one of his favoured sons, does not want Benjamin to go. Then Judah steps forward in a critical moment, now in contrast with Reuben — and this time Judah is on the positive side.
In Genesis 42:37, Reuben had asked Jacob to send Benjamin, so the family could get more food, and said, as a pledge, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.” That’s a terrible idea, Jacob must have thought. If a son is lost, then kill two grandsons? No, Jacob says, I will not trust you with my son Benjamin. But soon the family will starve. Every day the need grows greater. Then, in Genesis 43:8–9, Judah offers another approach.
Judah said to Israel 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.”
Reuben’s idea was horrible. But Judah’s is honourable. “I will be a pledge of his safety.” “I will bear the blame for him.” (I wonder whether it might have reminded Jacob of the assuring words of his righteous mother, Rebecca, when she said to him in Genesis 27:13, “Let your curse be on me, my son.”)
Jacob agrees and entrusts Benjamin to Judah. The brothers return to Egypt, dine in Joseph’s house (where Benjamin gets five times the portions of the others), and are sent home again with more food. However, now they are caught from behind by an Egyptian saying someone stole Joseph’s silver cup. The cup, planted by Joseph, is found in Benjamin’s pack and condemns him to return to Egypt as a slave.
“God is most glorified in his people’s acts of sacrificial love when we are most willing and eager and joyful in him.”
Two important questions here: First, why does Joseph give Benjamin five times the portions, and second, why hide a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack? If we’re following the story closely, these are perhaps the two most confusing details. And this is what we love to do at Desiring God: pay attention to details in the text, and ask, Why? Because often the parts of the Bible that seem confusing to us at first are precisely the parts we need most. The questions that require the hardest thinking often lead us to the answers that will be most rewarding.
The answer to both of our questions is that Joseph is setting up a test. Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, is now his father’s favourite in Joseph’s absence. And now Benjamin receives favoured treatment in Egypt. So Joseph’s question is, Will my brothers envy and mistreat Benjamin like they did me? And since such silver cups in Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient world were used for divination, for seeing the future (Genesis 44:5), might the brothers think that Benjamin was hoping to be a “dreamer” like Joseph? What’s happening is that Joseph is setting up Benjamin as a new kind of Joseph to see how the brothers will respond. Will they abandon Benjamin now as they did Joseph 22 years before?
There’s another small, but important, detail in Genesis 44:14: “Judah and his brothers.” This is foreshadowing. Judah is about to emerge as the key brother as they return to Joseph, and Judah steps forward to give the longest speech in the book of Genesis, which is the climax of the whole book. At the end, he says, in Genesis 44:32–33,
[I] became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.” Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers.
Judah’s speech, and readiness to sacrifice himself — to put himself into slavery instead of abandoning his brother — breaks the spell, so to speak:
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1)
This is one of the most dramatic, emotional moments in all the Bible. He reveals, “I am Joseph!” — and the brothers are terrified. “Joseph is lord” is not good news for those who have sinned so grievously against him. And now he has the power to crush them if he so chooses. But instead, he comforts them. And how does he do it? With the providence of God. He points five times to God’s purposeful sovereignty in their evil. Look at Genesis 45:4–9:
I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt.”
Joseph is amazingly God-centered. “God sent me before you to preserve life.” “God sent me.” “He has made me a father to Pharaoh.” “God has made me lord of all Egypt.” “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Which, I hope you know as ministry partners of Desiring God, will be captured in the last chapter of Genesis in the great summary line (which is the best one-verse summary of the whole book): “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
How might it change us, when victimized like Joseph, to see God’s work despite (and through) others’ sin? God’s purposeful sovereignty in Joseph’s ill-treatment doesn’t at all mean that the brothers’ actions were not evil. They were evil. They were accountable. “You meant evil against me.” And yet, even in evil — often, it seems, especially in evil, as we see throughout the book of Genesis, and the whole Bible — God shows himself to be in full and absolute control. He is sovereign over and in every detail. Human sin and evil do not stymie his purposes but wonder upon wonder. He takes the very acts and intentions of evil man, not just despite them but even precisely because of them, he brings about his saving and good intentions for his people. As he did so plainly and powerfully with his own Son at the cross.
Joseph comforts his distressed brothers by assuring them that he sees what God was doing for good when they intended evil, and because of his God-centeredness, he is able to genuinely forgive their evil intentions and sin against him.
“This is the legacy of Judah: not exploiting others but sacrificing for them.”
So Judah stepping forward to offer himself in Benjamin’s place passes the test Joseph set up. Judah’s pledge of safety and readiness to bear Benjamin’s blame demonstrates love (instead of envy), and shows Joseph that Judah, at least, has changed. He, for one, is not the same man he was 22 years before. This is not the same Judah as Genesis 37–38. Given the chance to dispense with Benjamin as the brothers did with Joseph, Judah offers himself as a substitute. This leads, then, to his legacy.
So, (1) remember Judah’s glaring flaws, and (2) mark his pledge of safety.
When Jacob comes to the end of his life and blesses his twelve sons in Genesis 49, he says that the kingship in Israel will belong to Judah:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (49:10)
This would not have been his lot after Genesis 38 — but for his changed life and the pledge of safety. As Judah became a pledge of safety for his younger brother Benjamin, the king in Israel should pledge safety for his brothers and sisters. This is Judah’s legacy, what he should be remembered for. Not Genesis 37–38. That was the old Judah. Instead, Genesis 43–44 and the pledge of safety shows us a new Judah — and the kind of person God means to serve as a leader in his kingdom.
Just as Judah came to offer himself to free his brother, rather than enslave him, so God means for the leaders of his people to embrace the cost, and inconvenience, and loss of personal comfort and private joy for the greater joy of meeting the needs of those entrusted to their care. God means for those who lead his people — whether as pastors or husbands or fathers or mothers or influential figures — to not use others or domineer over others but to lift others up and serve them. To sacrifice for others, rather than be selfish. To use our God-given strength and energy and resources and finances and influence to help others, rather than hurt them.
This is the legacy of Judah: not exploiting others but sacrificing for them. Not pushing others down but lifting them up. Not using power to hurt others but to help them. This is the kind of man God wants to be king over his people, leaders in society, pastors in churches, husbands and fathers, and mothers in our homes.
And this is the apostle Peter’s vision for leadership among God’s people in the church. When he comes, in 1 Peter 5, to directly address the elders in the churches of the Dispersion, he gives three vital contrasts (“not that but this”) at the heart of the calling of Christian leadership:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, (1) not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; (2) not for shameful gain, but eagerly; (3) not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2–3)
God wants our offering of self to be willing. Not begrudging. Eager, not dutiful. And he’s always wanted the self-giving and self-sacrificing of his people, especially those in leadership, to be willingly. Because God is most glorified in his people’s acts of sacrificial love when we are most willing and eager and joyful in him.
What’s the next thing Peter says after “not under compulsion, but willingly”? As God would have you. Literally, “according to God” (kata theon). This is why, among dozens of reasons, I love working for Desiring God. Willing service, willing living, willing sacrifice — not under compulsion, but eagerly, gladly, happily — is how God would have it. That’s his design. That’s how he wants it. And willingness, gladness, eagerness, is not only what he wants from us, but also how he himself is. He means for us to live, act, serve, and lead eagerly, gladly, and joyfully because that’s how God himself lives, acts, serves, and leads: eagerly, gladly, joyfully.
“We have a lion to lean on: the Lion of Judah, who has conquered. He will hold us fast.”
We don’t have details in the broad sweep of the Genesis narrative about the precise heart-dynamics that led to this change in Judah. But we do have plenty in the subsequent Scriptures about what it’s like for us. The legacy of Judah, who puts himself at risk to protect others, is not a legacy that flows from mere duty. Rather, changed life flows from changed joy. Living the legacy of Judah, in being a pledge of safety for others, is not a dour existence but one that proceeds from, and refills the reservoirs of, profound, unshakable joy in God.
But the legacy of Judah is more than simply a call for us to be pledges of safety for others. (And this is part of what makes our new joy possible.) The reason we can have hope, despite our glaring flaws, and the reason we can step forward, in joy, to gladly sacrifice self for the good of others, is because we ourselves have a Pledge of Safety for us. There is only one king, and only one man, who is the perfect embodiment of Judah’s legacy: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered” (Revelation 5:5).
Brothers and sisters, as we close, picture Jesus himself turning to his Father in eternity past and saying about us, “I will be a pledge of their safety. Father, I will not come back without them. I will bear the blame for them.” And Jesus came and offered himself in our place, as our substitute. What enables us to be the kind of people who become pledges of safety for others is that first and foremost we know the joy of having Jesus as our Pledge of Safety.
And when life and leadership get hard, and when we feel weak, and when it feels like it’s more than we can bear, we have a lion to lean on: the Lion of Judah, who has conquered. He will hold us fast. He will keep us safe. He will bring us home to his Father.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines.