Judah’s Transformation to a Man of God (Genesis 44:1-45:15)
In the final episode of Joseph’s testing of his brothers, Joseph framed Benjamin for an imaginary crime and claimed Benjamin as a slave in recompense. When he demanded that the brothers return home to Isaac without Benjamin (Gen. 44:17), Judah emerged as the group’s spokesman. What gave him the standing to take on this role? He had broken faith with his family by marrying a Canaanite (Gen. 38:2), had raised such wicked sons that the Lord put two of them to death (Gen. 38:7, 10), had treated his daughter-in-law as a prostitute (Gen. 38:24), and had hatched the plan to sell his own brother as a slave (Gen. 37:27). But the story Judah told Joseph showed a changed man. He exhibited unexpected compassion in telling of the family’s heart-wrenching experience of starvation, of his father’s undying love for Benjamin, and of Judah’s own promise to his father that he would bring Benjamin back home, lest Jacob literally die from grief. Then, in an ultimate expression of compassion, Judah offered to substitute himself in place of Benjamin! He proposed that he be retained in Egypt for the rest of his life as the governor’s slave if only the governor would let Benjamin go home to his father (Gen. 44:33-34).
Seeing the change in Judah, Joseph was able to bless them as God intended. He disclosed to them the full truth: “I am Joseph” (Gen.45:3 ). It appears that Joseph finally saw that his brothers could be trusted. In our own dealings with those who would exploit and deceive us, we must tread carefully, to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, as Jesus instructed the disciples (Matt. 10:16). As one writer put it, “Trust requires trustworthiness.” All of the planning Joseph had done in his discussions with his brothers reached this culmination, allowing him to enter into a right relationship with them. He calmed his terrified brothers by pointing to the work of God who was responsible for placing Joseph in charge of all Egypt (Gen. 45:8). Waltke spells out the importance of the interaction between Joseph and his brothers:
This scene exposes the anatomy of reconciliation. It is about loyalty to a family member in need, even when he or she looks guilty; giving glory to God by owning up to sin and its consequences; overlooking favoritism; offering up oneself to save another; demonstrating true love by concrete acts of sacrifice that create a context of trust; discarding control and the power of knowledge in favor of intimacy; embracing deep compassion, tender feelings, sensitivity, and forgiveness; and talking to one another. A dysfunctional family that allows these virtues to embrace it will become a light to the world.
God is more than able to bring his blessings to the world through deeply flawed people. But we must be willing to continually repent of the evil we do and turn to God for transformation, even if we are never perfectly purged of our errors, weaknesses, and sins in this life.
Contrary to the values of the societies around Israel, the willingness of leaders to offer themselves in sacrifice for the sins of others was intended to be a signature trait of leadership among the people of God. Moses would show it when Israel sinned regarding the golden calf. He prayed, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Exod. 32:31-32). David would show it when he saw the angel of the Lord striking down the people. He prayed, “What have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Sam. 24:17). Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, would show it when he said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18).
Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 565-66.