Judah’s Changed Heart
Genesis 38 is an account of the sinfulness and the beginning of a change in the life of Judah. We saw that Judah was a great sinner, had a murderous and lustful heart, and was in no way a faithful and godly man. Then we saw that there was a beginning of a change in him. He finally acknowledged that he was a sinner and that he had sinned against his daughter-in-law Tamar. The story of Judah continued as we shall see. Judah’s story is one of God’s amazing and transforming grace in the life of a sinner, a sinner like you and me. The remaining chapters of Genesis, in part, display the extent of the change in the life of Judah and how God transformed him.
In Genesis chapters 39 – 42 we read of Judah’s brother Joseph and his faithfulness to the Lord, his godliness in his life, and his ultimate rise to power in Egypt by the gracious and powerful hand of God. Remember, this is the same Joseph who had been sold into slavery by Judah and his other brothers.
Joseph’s rise to power occurred during a time of great famine and God used this to reconnect Joseph with his family. Many years had passed, 22 approximately, and Judah and his brothers traveled down to Egypt to get food. Joseph saw and recognized his brothers after these many years and began to interact with them, though they did not know it was him. Ultimately Joseph created a plan to test his brothers, to see if they had changed, and to ultimately be reunited with them and his dear father Jacob.
Joseph started his plan out by accusing Judah and his brothers of being spies. He said that in order to prove that they were not spies that they would have to bring their youngest brother Benjamin down to Egypt with them. As a result, Joseph had one of the brothers, Simeon, arrested and placed in prison on the condition that he would be held there until Benjamin was brought.
If you are familiar with this story you may remember that Benjamin was the youngest of all the brothers and had now become the favorite of their father Jacob. In a sense, Benjamin had replaced Joseph as the favored son. He had not gone down to Egypt because their father Jacob did not want to lose Benjamin like he had lost Joseph so many years before.
Judah and the remaining brothers returned to Jacob without Simeon.
Time passed and food began to run out. The brothers needed to go back to Egypt to get food, but in order to go down to Egypt Judah and his brothers had to convince their father Jacob that Benjamin should go down with them and that he would be safely returned. In Genesis 43 Judah’s changed character was on display when he offered to be a surety for Benjamin, that he personally would ensure that Benjamin would return safely, or Judah would personally “bear the blame forever”. This convinced Jacob, which implied that he had begun to trust Judah. Benjamin, Judah, and the rest of the brothers traveled back to Egypt to try to get food.
When they arrived in Egypt, they met the Egyptian governor, who they did not know was Joseph. At first, Joseph treated them with great hospitality, and they were reunited with Simeon. After obtaining the needed food they began their seemingly successful journey back to their home.
What they did not know was that Joseph had a silver cup planted in Benjamin’s sack. This cup was said to be Joseph’s special divining cup and had great value. Its theft was considered a terrible offense; so bad that the one who was found to have the cup would be held as a slave in Egypt. Once the brothers discovered that this valuable silver cup had been found with Benjamin, they were distraught with fear and returned back to Egypt to face the Egyptian ruler.
In this time of terrible fear, it was Judah who first acknowledged God’s judgment at work in his life. Among the brothers, Judah stepped up and interceded for his brother, but in doing so says something quite interesting. In Genesis 44:16 Judah said when facing Joseph, “What shall we say to my Lord? What shall we speak? Or how shall we clear ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants.” This was a powerful remark. “God has found out the iniquity of your servants” Judah said. Why did he say this?
It is interesting that Judah admitted guilt and yet in no way was he or his other brothers, save Benjamin they thought, guilty about the silver cup. Technically speaking they had not done anything wrong and yet Judah acknowledged sin here.
What is the explanation for Judah’s confession of sin?
His confession here was an addition to the brother’s statement earlier in Genesis 42 where they came to the conclusion that they were in that trial because of their sin against Joseph so many years before. Joseph had accused them of being spies and had arrested Simeon. We read in Genesis 42:21, “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.’” They had remembered their terrible sins which they had done to Joseph those many years before and waves of guilt overcame them.
Now, in Genesis 44, when they had again returned with Benjamin it was Judah who declared that it was God who had found out their iniquity and he acknowledged that there was nothing to say and no defense to be made with respect to the silver cup being found among them.
Judah’s confession of sin here is remarkable as about 22 years had passed between these events and the selling of Joseph into slavery. Imagine being burdened with guilt and shame for over 2 decades because of sin. It had plagued the brothers for so long. Judah acknowledged the sins of himself and his brothers, and his humility permeates the remainder of the chapter.
Remember that in Genesis 37 Judah and his brothers despised and were jealous of Joseph. Joseph was the favored son, had the coat of many colors, and dreamed of greatness.
Now things had changed. Judah was willing to be a surety for Benjamin to ensure that he arrived safely back with Jacob. In this way, Judah was showing love for Benjamin, the new favorite son, and for his father Jacob. Judah had not shown such a love for Jacob or his other brother, who was the favorite, in the past.
It is important to remember what Judah had placed on the line in order to convince Jacob to let Benjamin go down to Egypt with them. When Judah had said that he would ‘bear the blame forever’ he actually placed his own life on the line. He declared that he would personally take upon himself any blame and any punishment that would occur if Benjamin did not return safely. This is a very different man than the one who had sold Joseph into slavery. Judah had a new love for both Benjamin and his father Jacob.
This new love that Judah had was shown in his dialogue with Joseph. Remember that the primary purpose for Judah to become the surety for Benjamin was because he loved Jacob. This love was shown when Judah said in Genesis 44:30-31, “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.” Then, in verse 34 Judah asked this hard question, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father?” Judah here declared that he could not bear the possibility of seeing his father suffer and die, a sign of his care for him.
Judah, rather than being a source of pain for Jacob as he had been in the past, now had become Jacob’s protector, doing everything he could to keep his father well. We see here great evidence for the changed heart in Judah. Rather than dishonoring Jacob, he honored him; rather than causing him great pain, he protected him from pain.
This is in light of an interesting observation from commentator Gordon Wenham. Wenham remarked that Judah had not only accepted that Benjamin was Jacob’s new favorite, but Judah actually used the fact that Benjamin was particularly loved as a way to bolster his argument as to why Jacob needed to have Benjamin taken back home.
The reality was that Judah was the victim of a wrong family relationship were Jacob had favorites within his family, loving one brother more than the others. But Judah’s love for his father grew so much that this unfair situation was accepted by him. Judah was loved as a secondary son but his love for his father was such that this did not matter to him. This was a remarkable showing of the power of God to subdue and then change the sinful heart of a sinful man and to mold it into the faithful man that God would have him become.
The flower of Judah’s words as surety and displayed love for his father came full bloom in Genesis 44:32-33. We read there, “For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father forever.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.” Amazingly, Judah’s promise to Jacob to be a surety for Benjamin is shown to be more than mere words. Judah here offered himself as a substitution for his brother Benjamin in order that his father would live. He would be the slave while his brother Benjamin could go free!
It is important to remember that Judah had family and children back at home and had much to lose. Yet, he offered himself to become a slave in Benjamin’s place. This was a test for Joseph to see if his brothers had changed. He got his answer in Judah’s speech!
Remarking on Joseph’s response to Judah’s speech theologian G.Ch. Aalders in his Commentary on Genesis said,
“Judah’s plea had a tremendous emotional impact on Joseph. He now saw clearly how much his brothers had changed since that fateful day when they sold him as a slave into Egypt, without any concern for their father’s broken heart. Now they were ready to pay any price to prevent the grief that would be heaped on their aged father if Benjamin did not return.”
What a change – Judah offering himself as a substitute for his brother! Judah was a changed man indeed.
There are few places in Scripture where we see such an offer of substitution, but there was a greater descendant of Judah who offered himself as a substitution for people. He bore the title which carries the name of his fore-father. He is ‘The Lion of the Tribe of Judah’. He also called himself the Resurrection and the Life and he is the one to whom John the Baptist called out in John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus Christ became the great substitute – but not just a substitute – he made a substitutionary atonement for the sin of His people when he died on the cross.
In examining Judah’s life and extraordinary change, we see that Judah became a type which causes our gaze to go further; to look upon Jesus Christ, the great King who saved Judah from his sins. The One who came from the line of Judah, took upon Himself a true human nature, becoming both God and man, and who died on the cross for the sins of His people.
Judah was a less-loved son, but who offered himself for a more loved brother out of love for his father. In a more profound way, Jesus had a perfect relationship with His heavenly Father but was entirely forsaken in order to have his sinful people become children of God who would receive a heavenly inheritance. In Christ, we see not only salvation for Judah or even Israel, but for all those who place their trust in Him.
In examining the life of Judah, we see that God has the power to change the hearts of sinful people. People like you and me. We also see that the evidence of that change is a repentant heart, a turning away from sin and being holy. Judah displayed faith in God in confessing sins and he displayed that God changed his life, from a life of great sin into one characterized by humility and self-denial.
In Genesis 45 Joseph saw that Judah’s heart was changed and they were reunited as a family. We must examine our hearts today as well. If we are not trusting in Jesus Christ for our life and salvation then, like Judah, we need a transformation. This is something God can do. Pray to him and ask him to have faith and a repentant heart. He can change us because Jesus Christ, his Son, died so that we could be saved and made holy.
- Gordon John Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Volume 2, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. John D. W. Watts (Dallas, TX: Zondervan Academic, 1994), 427
- G. Charles Aalders, Genesis, vol. 2, 2 vols., Bible Student’s Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 239