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Why Can't You Be Like Your Brother?

Jesus identifies with Judah—the sinful, confused brother—so there's hope for all of us.


Today, I want to bring to you a word from the end of Genesis. The final chapters of Genesis focus on the life of Joseph. But tucked inside that story is another story: Judah fathering twins with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Why is this in the Bible? Even if it's part of the great fabric of redemption history that God is weaving, why is it here? Why place it directly after the story of Jacob and Esau? Judah is, after all, Joseph's older brother. Shouldn't Judah's story come first?

Joseph's inspiring life story

The story of Joseph begins in chapter 37. Joseph tells his father and brothers his dreams. The brothers become jealous of him. They don't like him or his coat of many colors. When he visits his brothers at a little place called Dothan, they see him coming and begin to plot his death. Rueben has a secret plan to make sure they don't kill him, but Judah speaks up, not out of brotherly affection but for a profit. He says, "Why shouldn't we profit from this guy. We get nothing out of killing him. But if we sell him we'll get something." So they sell Joseph into slavery.

The story of Joseph is one of the most inspiring narratives in the Bible. Joseph is heroic. He is faithful to the Lord in the face of oppression and false accusation. Whatever task he's given he does to the best of his ability and to the glory of God. In fact, there's no mark against his character in Scripture. He might show a little arrogance when he tells his dreams, but even that is debatable. He is exemplary in every way.

Judah's sordid life story

Then Genesis 38 describes Judah, an older brother. He's one of the four sons of Leah. Leah was Jacob's first wife as a result of his uncle Laban's trickery. Jacob, himself a trickster, was deceived and married a woman he did not want. That certainly affected the relationship between them. Though she was jealous of her sister, Rachel, Leah was blessed by God with children, and Rachel's womb stayed closed. Leah had four sons in succession, and she marked each one as a triumph over her rival sister. She named the first three based on her victory over her sister.

When she had this fourth boy, Judah, she named him praise. But she may have done this out of a selfish motive, praising God for the triumph over her sister. So Judah grew up in a dysfunctional family. One wife is good enough for me. I can't imagine having two wives and two concubines and twelve boys and at least one daughter. There were rivalries and petty jealousies and plotted murders and rampage of vengeance taken out on a whole village. And Judah was often at the forefront of this dysfunction.

Before the law was given, there was an ancient Near Eastern practice called the Levirate marriage. It protected the inheritance of the oldest son. If a man married and died without an heir, his next brother had to marry his widow. The brother then had to conceive a child with her who would be counted as the descendent of his dead brother. Not only would he have to marry a woman that he didn't choose, he would have to have a child that wouldn't count as his own. This would be a very difficult circumstance for families, but I'm sure it had its benefits. It made brothers close. If an older brother brought home a girl to meet Mom and Dad, the younger brother would need to make sure that she was a decent gal. He might end up with her one day.

This is exactly what happens in the case of Judah's family. His older son, Er, gets married and dies. So the next brother, Judah's second son, Onan, has to marry the widow Tamar. The text is embarrassingly blunt. Onan has sexual relations with Tamar. Before the act is completed, he withdraws and spills his seed on the ground to avoid impregnating her. He resents the fact that he has to raise his seed to his brother.

We're told that God killed Er because of his wickedness. When Onan does this, the Lord kills him, too. God strikes him dead for defying his command. The next brother, Shelah, is way too young to get married or father children. So Judah says to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, "Go back to your father's house and wear the clothes of a widow. Eventually Shelah will grow up, and I'll give him to you as your husband." But the text tells us that he has no intention of doing that. Judah considers Tamar bad luck, and he doesn't want her to be responsible for the death of his third son. He sends her home hoping that she'll just disappear and go away.

Verses 12-26 describe what happened next:

In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua's daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And when Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep," she took off her widow's garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He turned to her at the roadside and said, "Come, let me come in to you," for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, "What you will give me, that you may come in to me?" He answered, "I will send you a young goat from the flock." And she said, "If you give me a pledge, until you send it—" He said, "What pledge shall I give you?" She replied, "Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman's hand, he did not find her. And he asked the men of the place, "Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?" And they said, "No cult prostitute has been here." So he returned to Judah and said, "I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, 'No cult prostitute has been here.'" And Judah replied, "Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her."
About three months later Judah was told, "Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality." And Judah said, "Bring her out, and let her be burned." As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, "By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant." And she said, "Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff." Then Judah identified them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he did not know her again.

Perhaps the most significant guiding principle of hermeneutics is authorial intent. Our goal whenever we're interpreting Scripture and whenever we preach the text is to discern what the author meant. So not only do the words themselves have meaning but the context does, as well. Every passage is written in relation to and connected with those passages around it. Part of context is sequence and placement.

When we sing a song we do not sing it in any sequence of notes we chose individually. We sing it in the same sequence. Sequence determines the melody of the song. If you sing it out of sequence you're not singing the same song.

So it is with Scripture. When we approach the text, the sequence matters. We shouldn't just look at the immediate context or the narrative under our attention. We have to notice its specific placement in the surrounding story. Look especially for variation. You'll often find things repeated in Scripture: a theme, a rhetorical device, or a literary device. When you find repetition that is followed by a variation, that variation is usually the main point of the text. It's probably masquerading as a digression or some sprawling loquacious inclination of the author, but it is precisely what he wants us to notice.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables. Responding to the criticism of Pharisees who said, "This man receives sinners and eats with them," Jesus does not debate them. He just tells three stories, and the three stories are amazingly similar—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost son. In each of them something's lost, it gets found, and there's rejoicing.

But in the parable of the lost son there is a variation to this pattern. Something is lost. It gets found. There's rejoicing. Somebody gets mad. Someone's jealous of the thing that was lost and found. That is the crucial point of the entire chapter. That is the thing to which Jesus is driving us. He wants to grab us by the lapels (like those Pharisees) and say, "Don't you see the heart of the Father? Don't you see your own self-righteousness? You can't even rejoice when those who are lost are found!"

I learned from the linguist Robert Longacre to call this a zone of turbulence, a device that a biblical author uses to call our attention to a small detail that's going to prove essential to the larger plot. Genesis 38 is a zone of turbulence. It is the variation that simply does not fit. Genesis 38 appears in the Joseph narrative like a convicted felon brother who shows up at your Heisman Trophy ceremony for the entire world to see. He's appalling, drunk, and obnoxiously disruptive, blurting out the family secrets to every reporter in earshot.

Genesis 38 is so out of place it's like your brother has taken your grand accomplishments—an Eagle Scout ceremony photo, your Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University announcement, your congressional medal of honor—and placed them side-by-side with his obscene mementos—a disgusting moment at a frat party, the official police photograph from his first arrest, and a worn studio photo of the baby he fathered out of wedlock. Just when we might be tempted to laugh at his shenanigans as though they were a John Belushi college prank, we're reminded of the toll that his choices have taken. They have been devastating; his selfish acts have cost some lives and ruined others. Like all loving families, we grieve not only for what he has done but for what might have been.

Judah is a terrible embarrassment compared to Joseph, isn't he? Judah is selfish. Although he is a free man, he never does what is right. He follows his passion, not the Lord. He gives into temptation wherever it shows up, and he reaps long-term consequences. Joseph, on the other hand, is sold into slavery. But he is a vehicle for blessing to others even when it costs him greatly. He makes the decision to thrive rather than to sulk. He values character over temporary pleasure. He trusts God to act justly; he does not seek vengeance.

Joseph seems like the perfect guy. Potiphar's wife tries to seduce him, but he runs from the room. She grabs his cloak and holds onto it, and he runs away leaving the cloak. He does everything right.

Our life story resembles Judah

But on what basis do we evaluate their lives? How do we know which one is favored by God? Is Moses merely saying that Joseph is good and Judah is bad?

I think the difficulty of evaluating human life is perfectly illustrated by a man named Fritz Haber. Fritz Haber is probably the most important person in your life that you've never heard of. He was a secularized Jew in Germany at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century just prior to World War I. Haber had heard of the tremendous devastation throughout Europe during the Crimean War. There was a great famine in the land and much of Europe starved to death. Based on solar energy alone, Germany's grain production capacity could support thirty million people, but Germany had about fifty million people to support. This was a looming national crisis.

At the same time, other scientists did not think that the world could support more than 1.5 billion people. The world needed nitrogen in the soil. The primary source for nitrogen to use as fertilizer was bat guano from Chile. You could buy nitrogen from Chile; they exported it around the world. But bat guano was a very high priced and precious commodity, and they couldn't export enough. There were not enough bats to support billions of people.

Fritz Haber was a chemist. He was married to Clara, one of the first women in Germany to get a Ph.D. Haber worked diligently to discover a process by which he could separate nitrogen from its most common source, the air we breathe. For every five molecules you inhale, about four of them are nitrogen. But those nitrogen molecules adhere to other things. You can't just blow air on plants to make them grow magically.

Haber found a way to separate the nitrogen out of the air that produced an ammonia drip. This ammonia could be put into fertilizer. The bat guano market from Chile collapsed, because suddenly nitrogen was plentiful. Fritz Haber is the reason that the world today easily supports almost seven billion people through fertilizer.

If this is all you know about Fritz Haber's life you might think, This man was good because he made a tremendous difference in the world. But there's more to Fritz Haber's life. He was a very loyal German. When Germany entered World War I, he volunteered. Though he was already an older man, he was given a commission, because he said he could use the same process by which he separated nitrogen from the air to make explosives. Furthermore, as the war progressed, he made an ammonia gas that could kill enemy soldiers in a torturous death.

In 1915 at Ypres, Belgium, Haber turned on his gas machine and a great green cloud about the size of a whale emerged. The soldiers on the other side could see it coming across the no-man's land between their ranks. As it approached every living thing in its path dried up and died. Birds fell out of the air. The grass turned metallic. Leaves fell off trees. Then it hit the Allied soldiers on the frontlines. They began to choke and froth at the mouth and turn blue. They drowned in their own mucus because of the sudden irritation in their lungs. It killed every last soldier. The lingering gas even hurt innocent civilians. Haber thought this was a grand success.

The German officials agreed. Haber went back home to visit Clara, but he did not anticipate her reaction. She, too, was a scientist and a Jew, and she thought that this was a terrible use of the process that he'd discovered. The very thing that he had used to save lives was now an instrument of death. Clara confronted him, but he did not want to listen to her. So in the middle of the night, she took his service revolver, walked out into their garden, and shot herself in the heart. She was found by their thirteen-year-old son. The next morning Haber put on his uniform and went back to the frontlines to unleash more of his deadly gas, leaving the boy to deal with his dead mother by himself.

Even though he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918, after the war Haber was treated as a war criminal. Now he was a persona non grata. He tried to help Germany pay the tremendous war reparations by devising a process to distill gold from seawater. But a new regime appeared on the horizon in Germany, and it wasn't as kind to Jews as the Kaiser. When Hitler rose to power, he decreed that all the Jews who worked for Haber had to be fired. Haber resigned in protest and left Germany, but no one would receive him. In England scientists would refuse to shake his hand. He died alone, unloved.

As Hitler and the Nazi's gained power and initiated war in Europe once again, they went back to Haber's laboratories without him. They'd heard of a pesticide called Zyklon A, a variation of the gas that Haber had designed. It was used to kill insects, but because Zyklon A was undetectable, Haber's laboratories added a trace gas that humans could smell. The Nazis asked if they could make Zyklon A but without the warning gas so that no one could smell it. Haber's laboratories agreed and produced Zyklon B. This gas was used in Dachau, Auschwitz, and other death camps to exterminate Haber's own relatives.

Is the world better or worse because he lived? How do we categorize Haber? You and I are no different than Fritz Haber. We don't easily fit into the category of good or bad. But we don't have the right to examine ourselves. The final judgment is not left to us. Scripture is very clear that God has declared us all unrighteous. Like Haber even the good things we might do are tainted by an underlying wickedness.

I want to identify with Joseph. I want someone to pat me on the back and say, "You would suffer wrong rather than do wrong. You would obey the Lord. No matter what he allows in your life, you will triumph and rise to be a great man because of your goodness and the wonderful things you've done." But when I read Genesis 38, I fear I'm much more like Judah, whose name means praise but whose life reflects something entirely different.

I'm seated by a bed in a nursing home. They call it a rehabilitation center. For a few fortunate residents it might be, but for the majority it's their last stop on earth. They require constant care, far more than exhausted family members can give. They have to be stretched and turned and bathed and diapered between doses of medicine and regular feedings.

Perched vigilantly in my chair, I gaze into the face of the man lying in the bed beside me. Though he is sleeping, his trembling hands flail about violently as if he's beating back some unseen enemy. This constant motion wakes him every thirty seconds or so. He cannot rest. He jerks and snorts. When his eyes open he searches for me to see if I'm still there. Sleep is wearing him out. It sucks his body deeper into a quicksand from which he cannot extricate himself.

He hardly looks like the man who mentored me, discipled me, baptized me, taught me Bible stories, carried me on his shoulders, and fathered me. He was brought here because of a perforated ulcer after surgery, after his system went septic, after the hospital could no longer help. The unwelcome agent in his bloodstream is overwhelming his body. For seventy-nine years he's never even been in a hospital, but the healthy man I knew six weeks earlier has been replaced by this shriveled, featherless bird who cannot stretch a naked wing and fly.

It is the Friday before Mother's Day, and I'm taking my turn caring for him. Tornado sirens begin to wail, warning the nurses that the residents have to be put into wheelchairs and rolled into the hallway where they will await the all-clear sign. He is not capable of getting up, but regulations say he must. I help the nurse get him in the wheelchair. We roll him into the hallway. He looks at me and says, "Hersh, can you do me a favor? Can you take me home?"

"No, Dad. Sorry. I can't do that."

"I'd like to go home."

"I know. I can't do that."

We sit there for three hours while tornadoes pass through the region. His body gets weaker and weaker. At one point he raises his head, and he says the words I'll never forget, not the first time he said them, but the last: "I'm so proud of you. You have been everything in a son I ever wanted." They are words that bless and encourage my heart.

They are words that comfort me two days later when I watch my mother take her elegant fingers and stroke his hand and say, "Honey, it looks like the Lord's not going to raise you back up to preach again. You go on. I'll meet you there." And in ninety minutes he's gone. He had stepped into the presence of his Savior. And the words that he said to me blessed my heart.

But, honestly, they also convict me. I know dark secrets I want to keep locked in the farthest corners of my heart and mind and forget. I know my dad's evaluation is not the one that matters. In fact, his evaluation convicts me in a way that nothing else ever could, because I saw his failures. I walked with him through his repentance on a few issues, just as he walked with me.

Christ identifies with Judah (and us)

Is our evaluation of one another, as comforting as it is, enough? After reading Genesis 38, it is too easy to say, "Joseph's the man. He got it right." But Jacob, their father, reveals something in his final blessing. In chapter 49, Jacob blesses his sons. In verse 22 he says, "Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall." Clearly God has blessed Joseph, and Joseph's life is productive. Joseph has shown us how God blesses an honest man, and we don't want to rob Joseph of that blessing. We would do well to learn from Joseph.

However, there's something to learn from Judah, too. In verse 8 Jacob says,

Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father's sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion's cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
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.
Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey's colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes.

Jesus stands at the intersection of these two men. Like Joseph, Jesus is a prince who becomes a willing slave. In humility he takes on the form of a servant in perfect righteousness. He pays the price in order to obey God's will.

But Jesus did not descend from Joseph. Jesus descended from Judah. Jesus does not save us by identifying with the obedience of Joseph. He saves us by taking on the moral failure and confusion and turpitude of Judah. He takes up the sin of Judah—the disobedient, the unconventional, the one who defies his father. Jesus is the Lion of Judah, taking up our sin. We, like Judah, have failed. But Jesus identifies with us; he becomes our Lion, our representative. He washed his garments, not in wine, but in his blood and placed them around me. I'm accepted in him.

Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Joseph's inspiring life story

II. Judah's sordid life story

III. Our life story resembles Judah

IV. Christ identifies with Judah (and us)