We all know that King David – who is the type and symbol of Messiah – was a descendant of Judah: The Book of Samuel makes it very clear that God bestows His anointing, for all time, on a monarchic line arising from the Tribe of Judah in the person of King David.  Therefore, Jesus, who is designated ‘Son of David’, is also a descendant of Judah, as it is written: Our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood[1]. Have you ever wondered why? Why it was Judah – whose weaknesses, even sins, are revealed so clearly in the book of Genesis, both in the story of Joseph and the story of Tamar – who was honored with this extraordinary privilege? Moreover, if we know that Judah’s tribe was destined to have this very unique honor – to bring forth King David and also Jesus – how do we connect the dots between this glorious destiny and Judah’s questionable behavior in the book of Genesis?

Let us sort it out, then. Who was Judah and what do we know about him?


Let us start from the beginning—from Judah’s birth. When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she declared: “This time I will praise the Lord”. Therefore she named him Judah.”[2]  In English, of course, we don’t see a connection:  I believe this is one of the greatest losses we experience when reading our Bible in translation only – the meaning of the Hebrew names is completely lost in translation. Translations and adaptations do not simply change the original meaning, they  render the names meaningless. Unless we take time to go back into the Hebrew, the Biblical names of people and places in translation will continue to have no connection at all with the original reference points and ideas buried within the text itself. The connecting words: “therefore”, or “because”, or “so” seem meaningless in these cases – as in Gen. 3:20: And Adam: called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living; or in Gen. 25:26: Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob.  However, when we read these Scriptures in Hebrew, the connections are very evident—and this becomes absolutely clear in the naming of Judah: the verb lehodot (להודות) means “to thank “or “to praise”, and the Hebrew name for Judah, Yehudah (יהודה), is the noun form of the root Y-D-H (ידה), “to thank” or “to praise”.

Therefore, Judah’s Hebrew name, Yehudah (יהודה), can be translated literally as “thanksgiving” – and this is something that many Bible readers are aware of (even those who do not know Hebrew). This is also the first, and very important, lesson of the name Judah: we need to thank the Lord in order to become part of His plan and His story, and in order to bring His blessing upon our descendants. However, there is something more that we can learn from this name, — but in order to do this, we need to go through the most overlooked story in the book of Genesis.


In Genesis 38, right after the sale of Joseph by his brothers, we read the story of Judah and Tamar. This story, in fact, breaks the flow of the Joseph narrative: instead of continuing to tell us about Joseph’s going down to Egypt, the Torah finds it necessary to interrupt itself with the story of Judah. We read about Judah separating from his brothers (and wonder why), his marriage, the death of his sons, Tamar’s seduction, and the climax of the story—Judah’s confession. At first glance, this story is not connected at all to the sale of Joseph, and its position in the text seems random and strange. Is it really so?

Chapter 38 opens with the words: “It came to pass at that time.” This beginning already hints at some connection between the previous narrative and what we are about to read: this expression is usually used to indicate both chronological and thematic connections. Then we read “that Judah departed from his brothers”.  

Why did Judah leave?

Let us return to the story of the sale. Have you ever realized that it was the voice of Judah that was absolutely decisive in this story? While Reuven had good intentions (but was unable to follow them through), it is according to Judah’s suggestion that the destiny of Joseph was sealed and he was sold. Even in the middle of this terrible crime, we witness the amazing authority of Judah for the first (and definitely not the last) time, in the Joseph’s saga.  As we will see later, Judah’s heart will change, his character will be transformed—but this incredible authority, God’s amazing gift to this tribe, will stay with him always. Here we also find an explanation of why he left: we read in a midrash that the brothers blamed Judah and said: “You suggested that we sell Joseph, and we followed you. Had you suggested that we set Joseph free, we would have followed you also”. The burden of the leadership, the burden of the authority was the reason why “Judah departed from his brothers”.  This authority is evident throughout the whole Joseph’s saga:  all the crucial events in this story happen only after Judah’s voice is heard! In chapter 37, Joseph is sold according to Judah’s suggestions; in chapter 42, Israel lets Benjamin go to Egypt after Judah’s intervention; in chapter 45, Joseph reveals his identity after Judah’s speech. Undoubtedly, this authority was God’s special gift to Judah from the beginning, –   but it is here, in the story of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38, that we see the fruits of God’s work in his heart.


So, Genesis 38 opens with Judah departing from his brothers; we know already that midrash explains it by the fact that the brothers blamed Judah for the sale of Joseph. Without seeing this connection between the stories, the beginning of chapter 38 sounds almost awkward. Why, all of a sudden, does the Torah find it necessary to tell us about Judah’s marriage to some Canaanite woman (we are not even given her name, she is “a daughter of Shua”) and about the birth of his three sons from this marriage? And then we read:

Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also[3]

Let us pause here! Usually we see this story as the story of “Judah and Tamar” and completely forget the huge tragedy that befell Judah. There are no words to express the sorrow of a father whose two sons die one after another. Moreover, the Torah emphasizes that they did not die a natural death, but rather that “God put them to death” (וַיְמִתֵהוּ יְהוָֽה׃). This expression is very unusual—we seldom find it in the Torah. What was going on there? Was it a punishment? Was there a connection to the story of Joseph?

Throughout Joseph’s saga, we discover different hints suggesting this connection. For instance, when later we read that two sons were born to Joseph in Egypt, the picture becomes almost graphic: The one who was responsible for the crime, loses his two sons, while the one who was victim of the crime, has two sons born to him.

It becomes even clearer when we ponder the strange words of Reuven as he tries to convince Jacob to let Benjamin go with them to Egypt:  Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.”[4]  These words sound so bizarre:  after all, Reuven’s sons are Jacob’s grandsons – why would Jacob kill his own grandsons?

However, if in the eyes of the brothers, the death of Judah’s two sons was God’s judgment and punishment for not bringing Joseph back, then we can understand that Reuven is in effect saying: I will bring him back – and if not, I am prepared to pay the price.


Before proceeding any further, let us introduce some legal terms that will help us better understand the situation. According to the Levirate law (from the Latin Levir brother in law), a brother was obliged to marry the widow of his deceased brother, and a son born of this union was considered the son of the dead man. In Hebrew, such a union was called yibum. We read about it in Deuteronomy:

If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her.[5]

Later, the brother could refuse yibum by making a public declaration through the ceremony of chalitzah (Deut. 25:5-10). In earlier ages, however, yibum probably could not be evaded: a man was obliged to marry the widow of his brother. So, when Judah’s first son, Er, died childless, Judah’s second son, Onan had to marry Tamar by the law of yibum. When the LORD took his life also, according to the Levirate law, Judah’s third son, Shelah (whose very name שלה means “hers”), had to marry Tamar. Judah knows his responsibility to give Tamar his third son, and he tries to avoid it.  Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers.”[6]

Judah does not want Shelah to marry Tamar, and he thinks that if Tamar is removed from the house, Shelah’s duty to marry her will become less pressing as time passes.  As a result, he leaves Tamar agunah, עגונה‎‎, literally “anchored” or “chained” —a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage. The classic example is a man who has left on a journey and has not returned, or has gone into battle and is missing. Agunah has no husband – yet, she cannot marry another man, regardless of the amount of time that has passed since she first became an agunah. The situation of agunah is extremely difficult – and it is what we need to keep in mind as we enter the most intriguing part of the story.


Finally, we are entering the most interesting part of the story, the “action” of the story, which according to the text happens “a long time afterward”—a long time after the events we just discussed.
We read that a long time afterward”, “the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died” – and when the period of mourning was over, “Judah went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite”. And here Tamar enters the picture again: we read that it was told Tamar, saying, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” What did Tamar do upon hearing this news?

Let us remember that Tamar has been agunah for a long time already, for she was considered engaged to Shelah, and although “Shelah was grown, she was not given to him as a wife”. After the tragedy she had experienced (twice), it appeared that she would remain childless. However, she decided that her father-in-law’s unfaithfulness would not stop her from having children and being a part of God’s family, so she pretended to be a prostitute in order to trap her father-in-law. She “took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah”.
Most translations read that she sat in an open place. Sometimes, the name of the place where she was sitting is transliterated: “she sat down at the entrance to Enaim.” However, if we read the story of Judah and Tamar in Hebrew – we are struck by the name of the place: בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם BePetach Eyanim – literally: “in the opening of the eyes”. These words are incredibly meaningful and really designate what this story is all about—it is about the “opening of the eyes” of the heart.  At this point, Judah’s eyes are still closed, but they will not remain so. That is why Tamar, God’s unexpected and unlikely tool, is sitting at this place – because God wants to open the eyes of Judah’s heart.


When Judah saw Tamar, he did not recognize her and took her for a prostitute. As payment for her service, he promised to send her a kid goat, which brings us back to the story of Joseph’s sale in the previous chapter. Do you remember that the brothers slaughtered a kid, dipped Joseph’s tunic in the blood, and then sent the tunic to their father? Moreover, when we see Jacob receiving this tunic, we can’t help but remember that the same set that Jacob was deceived with—special clothes and a slaughtered kid—was also used by Rebecca and Jacob himself, in order to deceive his father Isaac! It seems that, beginning from Genesis 3, every time we have an animal and special garments, it serves as a cover-up for some serious sin or deceit. However, this story will end differently—it will be about the opening of the eyes. Tamar asked for a pledge: “Will you give me a pledge till you send it?” She asked for his “signet and cord, and staff”, and surprisingly, he gave her all these items.
We learn that through this trickery, Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah: “she conceived by him”. When, about three months later, Judah was told that “Tamar your daughter-in-law … is with child by harlotry,” Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” Tamar was still considered engaged to Shelah, and Judah, as head of the family, had judicial powers. His decision was both harsh and quick.
But then, something very significant happens. When Tamar brings out Judah’s personal items, she says: Discern, I pray thee – הַכֶּר־נָ֔א. In English, nothing strikes us as unusual in this sentence – however, in Hebrew one sees something that makes the connections between the two stories—the story of Joseph’s sale and the story of Judah and Tamar—absolutely evident. This expression, הַכֶּר־נָ֔א, discern, recognize, appears only twice in the entire Torah, and can you guess where it is first used? Right in the previous chapter, when the brothers bring Joseph’s coat to Jacob and say: discern please whether it be thy son’s coat: הַכֶּר־נָ֗א – discern, recognize, examine. Once again, in the entire Torah, this expression appears only in these two chapters: Genesis 37 and 38. In the first case, Judah was a deceiver, but now he is the one who was deceived. Judah’s deception revisits him in his very own words – and it is at this very moment, when Judah hears these words, that his heart is pierced by the recognition. Not only by the recognition of his own things, but much more deeply, by the recognition of his own guilt. Now his eyes are opened indeed, and he has a true change of heart. He confessed and repented.


We now come to the climax of this story – Judah’s confession: “And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son”.
We read a beautiful description of this transformation in Midrash: “Then Judah rose up and said: … I make it known that with what measure a man metes it shall measured unto him, be it for good or for evil, but happy the man that acknowledgeth his sins. Because I took the coat of Joseph, and colored it with the blood of a kid, and then laid it at the feet of my father, saying: Know now whether it be thy son’s coat or not, therefore must I now confess, before the court, unto whom belongeth this signet, this mantle, and this staff.”
Of course Midrash just fills in the gaps that Scripture leaves out. Yet, there is a point not to be missed: Judah is the very first Biblical figure who is ready to acknowledge his sin. Instead of saying: ‘she is the one to blame’, like Adam,- Judah says: ‘I am the one to blame.’ She has been more righteous than I. Judah is the first person in the book of Genesis – and therefore the entire Bible – to confess his sin, take responsibility for it, and change his behavior: he repents. Moreover, he doesn’t do it under external pressure: her social status was incomparable lower than his—a woman, a widow, and probably Canaanite. If his word were against her word, nobody would believe her. But God wanted to open the eyes of his heart, and therefore we witness this profound inner transformation.

Why is it important for us to see this transformation? Why is this story here, in the middle of Joseph’s saga? The answer is very simple: the Torah wants to make sure we know that the Judah who comes to Egypt and talks to Joseph, is not the same Judah that we saw in chapter 37, in the sale of Joseph. Yes, the amazing authority, Gods special gift to Judah and his tribe, is still there, and we will see it, but this Judah has a completely different character—the eyes of his heart have been opened! Now, being aware of this transformed Judah, let us proceed to the second part of the story, in order to be able to complete our biblical portrait.


We are in Egypt now, in the second part of Joseph’s story.  The day has finally come, the long-awaited moment has arrived when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt and stand before him – the ten brothers who had nearly murdered him but took enough pity on him to listen to Judah’s suggestion and sell him into slavery instead. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.
From this moment begins either a game of cat-and-mouse, or perhaps hot-and-cold; something starts to take place – the game that is not quite visible from our outsider’s vantage point because the main story-line is being played out within the participants’ hearts. It is as if an invisible hand were stealthily creeping closer to that deep, dark and forbidden thing the brothers had concealed all these years, not only from others, but also from themselves. Each scene, each step taken in this story, fills their hearts with progressively greater confusion and fear; with each succeeding event, they feel the invisible hand getting “warmer”, slowly but surely nearing that secret, buried spot in their hearts.
We read that Joseph spoke roughly to them, accusing them of being spies and of coming to see the nakedness of the land. At first glance, all that Joseph says lacks any hint of comprehensibility. Why does he suddenly accuse them of spying? Why does he say to them, in this manner you shall be tested, and this is how it will be seen whether there is any truth in you”: bring your brother that is presently not with you? If he already accused them, then what could be the connection between the brother left at home and the accusation leveled against them? And yet, as unexpected as this accusation might have sounded to them with its subsequent demand to fetch their younger brother, despite its lack of sense and the total absence of a plausible connection with the accusation itself, it did not appear unreasonable to them. Then they said to one another, ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.’

This distress has come upon us… or, like Reuven said later, “his blood is now required of us”. Note that God is not yet mentioned here – they have yet to understand that none other than the Almighty Himself has made them participants in this game. We still hear impersonal and passive verb forms: his blood is now required of us (דמו נדרש); they still credit what is happening to the whims and ruthlessness of the Egyptian governor and consequently, to nothing more than an unlucky turn of events, and yet… in their deep inner recesses, a curious spiritual connection between what is happening to them and that long-ago story, is already beginning to be revealed to them. Through the apparently irrational and inconsistent visible circumstances, another invisible logic begins to make its way to the surface – the logic of the movement of God’s Spirit in the heart of the person He is pursuing.


It’s interesting that at this point, the Scripture doesn’t separate Judah from his brothers – we see the whole crowd together and we read that Joseph is talking to all the brothers—all ten of them. Yet, we know that the Scripture did separate Judah before and will separate him after – we saw him repenting and confessing in his story with Tamar, and we will see that it will be Judah’s speech and confession that will deeply touch Joseph’s heart and make him reveal himself to his brothers. Therefore, I think we can safely conclude that Judah is the one who is the most sensitive to the move of God’s spirit in this story.

Meanwhile, ten brothers set out on their way back and one of them notices the silver he had used to pay for the grain returned in his sack. Then their hearts failed them and they were afraid, saying to one another, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’ Was Judah the one who said that? Was he the one who began to understand that everything happening to them is not simply a twist of fate, but God has done it to them? “What is this that God has done to us?”

My dear reader, I want you to see this profound transition: from “his blood is required” to “What is this that God has done to us?” It is not so evident in most translations, but in Hebrew this transition is very clear: from impersonal and passive verb forms describing just unlucky circumstances, to understanding that it is God who is doing it to them.

The Hebrew here literally says that they “trembled to one another”. After all, they had simply gone down to Egypt to buy grain (just as many centuries later the Samaritan woman simply went to the well for water) and they certainly didn’t expect, much less want, something unusual to happen on this trip. What now were these uncanny things happening to them? Like a doubly exposed roll of film with its images overlapped, we can see God’s, as yet invisible, reality placed over their routine lives and beginning to show through. And without any doubt, it is Judah who is the most sensitive one among the brothers to this invisible God reality and to the move of God’s spirit.


And so, the brothers are back in Canaan, frightened and confused. Yes, they brought the grain home, and even the silver they paid for it was returned along with it, but somehow this Egyptian situation began to be associated in their hearts with that other long-ago story of Joseph’s sale, and although at first Jacob emphatically refuses to permit Benjamin to go back with them, as if closing the issue altogether, I think they all knew in their hearts that this story was destined to continue.

The parallels between Joseph’s sale and this second part of the story are remarkable. Exactly as in chapter 37, apart from the anonymous voice of all the brothers (They said to one another… – Gen. 37:19, Gen. 42:21), we hear two distinct voices here. The first belongs to Reuven: Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.”  As we discussed already, these words would sound so strange—after all, Reuven’s sons are Jacob’s grandsons, why would Jacob kill his own grandsons?  – if we don’t hear in them a clear echo of Judah’s tragedy: if in the eyes of the brothers, the death of Judah’s two sons was God’s judgment and punishment for not bringing Joseph back. Reuven, in fact, is saying: I will bring Benjamin back, and if not, I am prepared to pay the same price.

However, nothing happens after this emotional pledge of Reuven—just as nothing happens after his emotional words in chapter 37. As in the story of Joseph’s sale, once again, it is the voice of Judah that becomes decisive.  Reuven seems to have good intentions, but he does not have the character to follow up—he does not have the authority to make it happen. In chapter 37, he wanted to save Joseph, but he did not—in the end, it was Judah’s voice that sealed Joseph’s destiny. In chapter 42, he wants Jacob to let Benjamin go with them to Egypt, but once again, nothing happens until Judah intervenes.

It is interesting that, unlike Reuven, Judah doesn’t make any solemn pledges, doesn’t swear – he just says: “Send the lad with me…  I myself will be surety for him; from my hand you shall require him”[7] – but once again, it is after his intervention that everything changes. Judah has been given this authority from the very beginning, and therefore it is his voice that becomes decisive and makes a difference here also. Moreover, in Hebrew we can see how this amazing authority affects his father. After Judah’s words, Israel (Jacob) says: אִם־כֵּן אֵפֹוא – If …so. The word אֵפֹוא is a redundant word in Hebrew, used only for stylistic purposes, and I believe it designates here some inner process in Jacob’s heart: even though he has not received any additional rational arguments, after Judah’s words we see him completely convinced and compelled to let Benjamin go.


We all know that, together with Benjamin, the brothers returned to Egypt and, contrary to their expectations, everything turned out well there—at least, in the beginning. It got even better after once again they, now with Benjamin, came and stood before Joseph. He not only spoke with them in a rather softer and friendlier tone than previously, but also invited them to a joint meal where the brothers were seated in order, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, and once again they got the impression that somebody present knew them and was aware of their secrets – and the men looked in astonishment at one another[8].

At dawn they started back on the road, but we also know that not long before they had left, Joseph had commanded his steward (to his great puzzlement, I imagine, as well as to the puzzlement of those reading these chapters for the first time) to put his silver cup into Benjamin’s sack. Next, we read: Joseph said to his steward, “Get up, follow the men and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good?’ … So he overtook them.[9]

Stop here. Try to imagine what the eleven must have been experiencing:  already anticipating their reunion with their father and their families; already sure that everything had gone smoothly and expediently; in the end it turned out that this was only a continuation of that same ongoing game of cat-and-mouse of their first meeting. His hand, which had allowed them to get but a few steps away, once again overtook them: So he searched. He began with the oldest and left off with the youngest. Try to imagine them during the search: panting and crimson, indignant with the total injustice and groundlessness of this new accusation, their hearts filled with mixed feelings of puzzlement, fear, affront and triumph over each one’s innocence proven. Now everything is almost over, just one more moment and at last they will be released and can get moving on their way home again, far away from this strange place where evidently something mysterious is at work, far away from this sinister person who for some reason causes their hearts to shudder in remembrance of that long ago perpetrated crime. Just one more minute, only Benjamin’s sack is left to be checked and he of course is the youngest, the purest among them, innocent of even what all of them are guilty of—is there even any need to search his bag at all? Dancing around nervously with impatience, each brother has already loaded up his donkey. They are just about ready to get back on their way – hurry, come on, let’s get going… hey, what’s going on? What?!! I hear a moan of terror multiplied ten times over at the end of verse twelve: the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, – and only Benjamin is left speechless and doesn’t say a word.


I suppose you understand that this already was a test. Theoretically, ten brothers could have gone home—they were absolutely free to do that, the steward was very clear: “he with whom it is found shall be my slave, and you shall be blameless.”[10] Moreover, they did have a good excuse—their families were starving and they really had to bring them food.  So they all could have left Benjamin and gone home, and I can imagine Joseph sitting in his palace, almost biting his nails,  waiting to see who would come back: only Benjamin or all the brothers. He was greatly relieved to see them all come back: the fact that they did all return was already a good sign—the brothers had passed another test.

This is a critical point in the narrative, because from now on, this story becomes the story of Judah and his brothers. We read in Gen. 44:14:

 So Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, and he was still there; and they fell before him on the ground.

Do you know where in the Bible we have the same expression: “Judah and his brothers”? When we open the New Testament, we read in Matthew: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah and his brothers – this is how scripture sees this story. Why? In order to answer this question, we need to recall the story of Judah and Tamar and Judah’s repentance and confession there. Chapter 38, the Judah/Tamar narrative, became part of Joseph’s story precisely because of that: Scripture makes sure we know that the Judah, who later comes to Egypt and talks to Joseph, is not the same Judah we saw in chapter 37, in the story of Joseph’s sale. This Judah experienced the terrible tragedy of losing two sons, has gone through deep repentance and transformation the story with Tamar – – and therefore, he has a broken and humble heart now.