Last night at CSF we talked about the family tree (the genealogy) of Jesus that Matthew begins his story with (1:1-17). Many Jews wrote genealogies in their histories but Matthew is unique in including four women. Even more amazing, rather than including some of the great women from the Old Testament (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel), he includes women with questionable reputations (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba [Uriah’s wife]). What Matthew is emphasizing is that God has always welcomed any person who comes in humility and faith and that Jesus is then not just for the religious “insiders” but for everyone, including (especially) those who have been told by religion that they are not good enough (“outsiders”). In other words, the saving grace of Jesus Christ is for all people, it meets a need we all have.
Through preparing for last night’s teaching, I have been thinking more about the character of Judah. Judah was the fourth of the twelve sons of Jacob in the book of Genesis. In those days, being the firstborn son was a big deal, you would receive a double-portion of the inheritance and take your father’s place as head of the family. The story of Genesis shows that things do not always go as expected, for example Esau was the first born but his brother Jacob ends up with the blessing and birthright the firstborn deserves (Gen. 25:19-34; 27:1-40).
Jacob is kind of a jerk and a schemer. His family is the definition of dysfunctional. Jacob had twelve sons from two wives and two concubines (his wives’ servants). His favorite wife was Rachel and her servant was Bilhah, both of whom were the mothers of some of his children. His firstborn son, Reuben (whose mother was Leah), should have received all the rights of the firstborn. But after Rachel died, Reuben slept with Rachel’s servant (and his own step-mother) Bilhah (Gen. 35:22).
Jacob’s second and third sons were named Simeon and Levi (also from Leah). In a story that provokes debate among Bible scholars, their sister, Dinah, draws the eye of a man named Shechem. Some argue that Shechem rapes her, others argue that the two are in love and it is a tragic story. Either way, Simeon and Levi are very angry about this relationship, or whatever it is, happening. Chief among the problems is that Shechem is not a worshiper of God, he does not bear the mark (circumcision) of God’s people. Shechem’s father makes an agreement with Dinah’s father that all the men of Shechem’s family will be circumcised, that the two groups can marry each other and become one. But while all the men of Shechem’s family are recovering from the painful circumcisions, Simeon and Levi attack and massacre all of them. Their father, Jacob, is very angry, fearing that other groups related to Shechem’s family will seek revenge (this story is in Genesis 34).
These acts disqualify Reuben, Simeon and Levi from the rights of firstborn. Next in line is Judah. Of course,he has his own sordid tale in which he impregnated his daughter-in-law Tamar thinking she was a common prostitute (Gen. 38). At the same time, Judah bears a hint of humility and repentance absence from his older brothers, as he states about Tamar, “She is more righteous than I am” (38:26). Judah continues to mature, later on offering to exchange his own life for that of his youngest brother Benjamin (Gen. 43:3-9) and eventually offering himself up in order to save all of his brothers (Gen. 44:16-34).
On his deathbed, Jacob blesses his sons. The first three are brought low: Reuben for going into his father’s bed (49:4) and Simeon and Levi for their excessive violence (49:5-6). Conversely, Judah is lifted up, told that his brothers will praise him, that he will rule and that he is a lion (49:8-10). Judah continues to hold pride of place among God’s people in the Old Testament story as the kings in Jerusalem are his descendants. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is a descendant of Judah (as we learn in Matthew’s genealogy). Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who has triumphed (Rev.5:5).
The story of Judah is one of grace. His brothers made horrible decisions, which reminds us that decisions have consequences. Certainly God could have forgiven any of them and they would have kept their place, although their is no indication they sought such forgiveness. Judah also made some bad decisions which could have caused him to lose his place also. Yet God’s grace was there to restore Judah. Ultimately it is a story of God’s grace as this man grows from the sordid engagement with Tamar to the man who offers himself in his brother’s place to save them.
Judah points then to his descendant Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ offered his life in place of each and every one of us in order to save us. We can say Jesus is the greater Judah, the one in whom Judah was pointing for what Judah did partially Jesus has done fully. May we be reminded this morning that we have a savior who offered himself in our place, dying for us and giving us new life.