Taken from "Crazy Stories, Sane God" by Alan Turner
Judah had three sons— nothing unusual about that. His oldest one married a woman named Tamar. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about this oldest son except this: he was a bad apple. So bad, in fact, that God killed him. The second son was named Onan. He was expected to marry Tamar and get her pregnant, as was the custom back then. But Onan only wanted to have sex with her; if you’re not already familiar with this story, read Genesis 38: 9, and you’ll know how he managed to do so without impregnating her. Hard to believe this is actually in the Bible, isn’t it?
God didn’t like the fact that Onan treated Tamar like an object. What Onan did was selfish and mean, so God killed him, too. To put it mildly, Tamar wasn’t having very good luck with the guys. Now Judah had one more son, but he was way too young; they agreed that when the boy got old enough, he’d marry Tamar and do for her what neither of his older brothers accomplished. Until then she would live with her parents and wait. By now she must have felt like she was cursed, or damaged goods, or something because she actually agreed to go along with this.
Years went by. Tamar waited. The boy, Shelah, grew up. Judah’s wife died, and he grieved the loss of two sons and a wife. Eventually his life and work resumed. Then, like a lot of men throughout history, Judah sought solace in the arms of a “professional” woman.
Although the woman’s face was covered, it didn’t matter. He propositions her. “How much you got?” she asks. He says, “What can I get in exchange for a goat?” Obviously, not the most romantic conversation, but they both know they’re not there for romance— this was a business transaction. They go to some quiet place and do a goat’s worth of whatever it is they do. And when they’re done, she asks, “Where’s my goat?” “I don’t have it with me, but I’ll send it to you tomorrow.” “Yeah, right,” she says and asks for his ring, cord, and staff for collateral. And Judah complies.
When he returns home, he sends the young goat. It’s likely that this is not so much about honoring his end of the deal as much as he just wants his personal effects back. Especially since he tasks a friend to deliver the goat.
Trouble is his friend never finds the “cult prostitute” (Gen. 38: 21). He asks around, and no one knows who she is because there wasn’t a prostitute in the area. Eventually he returns to Judah with the goat and says, “I couldn’t find her. What do you want to do?” Judah decides to leave it alone— if he makes a big deal out of her having his stuff, people will figure out how she got it.
A few months later someone mentions to Judah that Tamar is pregnant and adds a juicy tidbit that she’s been acting like a prostitute. Judah is none too pleased; after all, she was supposed to save herself for young Shelah, and eventually he would have gotten around to fulfilling that long-ago promise, too. He orders her to be burned at the stake, which seems like a crazy, stereotypical overreaction for a guy who had visited prostitute himself.
As they are taking her into custody, she sends a message and some items to Judah. The message is that her baby’s father is the guy who gave her— wait for it— a ring, a cord, and a staff. Obviously, Judah now knew who was responsible. He drops the charges and acknowledges his failure to honor his initial agreement to her.
Interestingly, God doesn’t strike Judah or Tamar dead. Instead, months later, Tamar gives birth to twins, and one of them, Perez, winds up in the genealogy of Jesus.
Anyone who says the Bible is boring is really saying, “I haven’t read the Bible very much.” This is some daytime drama. Or late-night talk-show material, the kind where the audience chants somebody’s name, whether it’s the host’s, the guest’s, or the security guard’s. Why in the world is this crazy story in there?
Well, when God decided He was going to send His Son into the world, He knew He wanted to work through the lineage of Abraham and Sarah. They only had one son, so Isaac was a pretty obvious choice. But Isaac had two sons: Esau and Jacob. Which one to choose? God, for reasons all His own, chose Jacob.
Then Jacob complicated everything by having twelve sons. One of them was very famous, the namesake of a Broadway musical, in fact. Joseph would have been the obvious choice and made the most sense. We’ve logged many Sunday school hours learning about his great character— one of the few guys in the Old Testament who, once he got there, never really strayed too far off the right path. So if we’d done the choosing, we’d probably have gone with Joseph.
But the choice was God’s, and He chose a different son— not the oldest, not the best, not even the favorite. God chose Judah, and that was scandalous. If His decision were made today, we’d politely say, “That’s kind of random.” You see, Judah’s escapade with Tamar isn’t the only thing we know about him. We also know that when his brothers got together to kill Joseph, it was Judah’s idea to sell him into slavery— not because killing Joseph would have been wrong but because they wouldn’t have gained much from doing so. Even back then he was cutting deals. Judah conspired with his brothers and lied to their father, telling him a wild animal tore his brother to shreds. He watched his father grieve while he pocketed the money and never said a word about it. He probably would have taken this secret to his grave— just as he’d planned to do with the “cult prostitute” who could not be found. You won’t find Judah in Hebrews 11, where other heroes of the faith are listed. He’s a terrible son, a terrible brother, and a terrible father.
We know that twenty years after his successful plan that sold Joseph out, Judah and nine of his brothers traveled to Egypt to buy food during a famine. If you know the story, you already know Joseph was in charge of all the food distribution there. Of course, they didn’t recognize him— Joseph was young when they saw him last, and twenty years can change a person’s appearance drastically. But Joseph certainly recognized them. And we know that Joseph eventually forgave his brothers and helped them. Based on what we know about Judah, had the sandal been on the other foot, it’s not likely he would have acted as graciously.
So when I say it’s “scandalous” or “random” for God to have selected Judah to be the line through which His Son would be sent, it’s justifiable. But maybe that’s the whole point. Judah never broke ranks; he never confessed, never came clean about his role in Joseph’s disappearance. And as far as we can tell, he never even apologized. When Joseph finally had the upper hand, he blindsided Judah with grace. Judah got the exact opposite of what he deserved.
God chose Judah, yet Judah is bad. He deserves coal in his stocking. He deserves to be the one burned at the stake for selling his brother into slavery, lying to his parents, raising the kind of boys who would treat a woman like an object, going to a prostitute, sleeping with her in such a way so as to not even bother looking at her face long enough to recognize her as his own daughter-in-law! He should be a candidate for capital punishment; instead he’s a candidate for grace.
Why? Because God wants people to know they can’t come to Him on the basis of their own merits. You don’t get into God’s family because you deserve it, and your behavior can never disqualify you from it. Promising to change and do better does nothing to heal your past, does nothing about your secrets, and does nothing about the brokenness you’ve created in other people’s lives. Your only hope is that someone else will come and do for you what you can’t do for yourself, save you in your mess, and make your life story worth something.
That’s what Joseph did for Judah; that’s what God did for Judah. And that’s precisely what God did for us. God, for reasons all His own, has always chosen the broken people, the messed-up people, the people with a past, the people with secrets, the people with damage. He sent His Son into this world to extend grace to people who didn’t deserve it— even to those who, out of
sheer rebellion or fear that they’d never be able to measure up, run from Him. Judah shows us that a relationship with God never begins with, “Here’s what I promise to do differently.” It always begins with, “Here’s what has been done for me, and I can never repay it.”
Eventually Judah and his brothers get their father Jacob to Egypt, too. When he’s on his deathbed, he summons Judah and says, “Through your descendants will come a king, and your brothers’ descendants will bow down to him.” How did Jacob know?
Sure enough, generations later, from the line of Judah, a boy named David was born. Generations after that, from the same line, a boy named Jesus was born— because of Judah and because of all the Judahs in the world.