A casual reading of the climax of Genesis, chapters 37–50, would suggest that it is an account centered upon Joseph. A more careful reading of the text, however, demonstrates that the true focus is upon Joseph’s brother Judah, to whom the scepter in Israel is at last given by their father Jacob (Gen. 49:10). At the beginning of the account, Jacob gives the famous coat of many colors to Joseph (Gen. 37:3). Joseph also has the dreams foretelling that his brethren will bow down to him (Gen. 37:5–10). But in an astonishing reversal of fortunes at the end of the narrative, Jacob ascribes a colorful garment dipped in the blood of grapes to Judah instead of Joseph (Gen. 49:11), and he foretells that all the brothers, including Joseph, will bow down to Judah (Gen. 49:8).
One of the overarching themes of this Genesis narrative is the grace of God in His election, a grace that is highlighted by the relative merit of Joseph and the demerit of Judah. Joseph is the faithful and loving son of Jacob, the delight of his old age. He is favored by his father over all his brothers. Judah (in Greek, his name is rendered Judas) is the treacherous brother who suggests selling Joseph to the Midianites for silver (Gen. 37:26–28). He participates in the cruel deception of his father, who believes that a “wild beast” has devoured his beloved son (Gen. 37:33). Moreover, contrary to the covenant of his fathers, Judah marries a Canaanite woman who bears him two evil sons (Gen. 38:1–10). Judah wrongly judges his daughter-in-law Tamar to be responsible for the death of his sons, so he defrauds her by promising to her a levirate marriage with his remaining son that he never intends to honor (Gen. 38:11, 14). Tamar, however, wants to be the mother of Judah’s heir, so she dresses up as a prostitute, apparently knowing the wicked character of her father-in-law. As she expected, Judah turns in to the “prostitute” by the road, and so Tamar conceives by her father-in-law. When Judah later discovers Tamar’s pregnancy, he self-righteously and hypocritically condemns her for immorality and wants her to suffer burning, determined to destroy her and, unwittingly, his seed by her (Gen. 38:24).
In contrast to Judah’s wickedness, Joseph was the model of rectitude and righteousness. He was the loving son of his father and was favored above all his brothers (Gen. 37:3). He was favored by heaven, too, and given prophetic dreams of an ascendancy over his brothers. He suffered unjustly at the hands of his brethren; yet he maintained his integrity in the face of so bitter a betrayal. When he was pursued by the whorish wife of his Egyptian master Potiphar, he refused to disrespect his master and to do evil before his God (Gen. 39:8–9). Because he had done nothing wrong, the Lord was with Joseph, whether he was over Potiphar’s household (Gen. 38:2) or over the prison-house (Gen. 39:21–23). Consequently, when juxtaposed to his brother Judah, Joseph displays all the marks of one entitled to rule in Israel. Judah, on the other hand, is precisely one we would reject as utterly unworthy of rule. But God rejected Joseph. He gave Judah the right to rule in Israel. How could this be?
Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel, is ironically the great teacher of grace to God’s people. God’s choice, Moses makes clear, defies our assumptions about legal merit and demerit. Man’s customary preference is for the first-born, and yet God disregards birth-order when He elects Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, and Jacob over Esau.
There is an emblematic representation of this principle of God’s election with respect to the sons of Judah and Joseph. Both Judah and Joseph have two sons whose destiny is instructive. In each case, God’s election is marked by the peculiar withdrawal of a hand. Tamar gives birth to Judah’s twin sons, Zerah and Perez. Zerah is the first son to “present” in the birth, and his hand is marked with the scarlet cord to give him the dignity of the first-born according to the custom (Gen. 38:27–28). But Zerah’s hand is withdrawn and Perez comes forth first instead (Gen. 38:29). Afterward the line of Zerah would be cut off altogether in Achan (Josh. 7:10–26, with Rahab, who married into the line of Perez, receiving the scarlet cord of election!). As a result, Perez receives the scepter in Judah (Matt. 1:3). Similarly, Joseph has two sons whom he presents to his father Jacob for a blessing. Joseph carefully arranges his sons in order that their grandfather would honor the firstborn Manasseh over Ephraim, Joseph’s second-born son. He places Manasseh before Jacob’s right hand and Ephraim before his left hand (Gen. 48:13). But to Joseph’s dismay, Jacob crosses his hands in the blessing and gives the greater honor to the lesser son
Moses’ teaching that God’s election is through grace alone gives believers the true perspective of our own position before God, afterwards confirmed by the Lord’s evangelists and apostles. Christ, who is eternally at the right-hand of the Father’s blessing, holds Judah’s scepter. It is through Christ alone that we, in a glorious grace that disregards our own demerit and marvelously imputes to us the merit of Judah’s Prince, have obtained our own participation in the astonishing grace of God’s election!