Judah’s Descent

The most startling thing about Jacob’s family is its profound worldliness. They seem capable of every crime. At times the brothers appear more like a roving gang of vengeful thugs than Abraham’s offspring. Once, Simeon and Levi butchered all the males of a town, while the other brothers plundered it because of the rape of their sister Dinah (Chapter 34). Even Jacob was upset over this, not so much because of the violence, but because it placed him in danger with the inhabitants of the land (34:30; but see 49:5-6). Plainly, these people are wicked. However, it is equally plain that this family is categorically different than the rest of humanity, in spite of their immoral behavior. They were the children of Abraham through whom God was to reach the world with His love. They were God’s elect, His special people upon whom His thoughts and affections rested. This poses a problem. How is it that God’s chosen can act so contrary to the purity one would expect? The answer lies in the fact that the members of this family were living by their lower parts, that is, their senses and their reason. The story of Judah and Tamar best illustrates this (Chapter 38).

It is said that at the time when Joseph was sold, “Judah went down from his brothers” and “turned” toward a man referred to as an “Adullamite,” a Canaanite from the city of Adullam, a short way from Hebron where his family settled (38:1). “Going down” is directional not only in a geographical sense, but also in a spiritual sense. This comes right on the heels of Jacob’s lament for his son Joseph where he proclaims that he will go down to sheol in mourning (37:35). Moreover, in the larger context, our story hinges on Joseph, his brothers, and ultimately Jacob and his family going down to Egypt. For Judah going down from his brothers, for Jacob going down to sheol in grief, and for the family going down to Egypt, “going down” means descending from an ideal, a separation from what normally would be proper for those living in the land promised to them by the God of their father Abraham. In Judah’s case, the added fact that he went down “from his brothers,” and turned toward a Canaanite, makes it clear that Judah no longer considered his spiritual roots and preferred to live like the Canaanites. Judah has descended into the lower regions morally and spiritually.

This fact is reinforced by what immediately follows; it is said that Judah saw a Canaanite woman and took her (38:2). Seeing and taking are accompanied by disastrous effects in the Book of Genesis beginning with Eve with the fruit, the Egyptians with Abraham’s wife Sarah, the “Sons of God” who had sexual relations with the daughters of men, and Shechem who raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Wenham). These two words succinctly describe devouring on the basis of sensual encounter without regard for spiritual ramifications. The point here is that Judah is sensual man, operating from what his senses dictate, as opposed to spiritual man, who operates from the assumption that invisible realities are more foundational than visible realities. By marrying a Canaanite, Judah has become like his uncle Esau, who, as mentioned before, symbolizes sensual man par excellence and the urge for immediate gratification. Canaanite women symbolize the glamor and draw of this transient world. Such a choice no doubt bothered Jacob, who, like his father before him, looked to the land of Abraham’s ancestors to find a good wife (cf. Gen 24 with 28).

Truth be known, many Christians, true children of God, live like Judah. Gradually, they have descended down into their lower parts, living by their senses and reason, and go about this way without a clue as to their condition. What is needed is an awakening. For this we must wait for the next post.

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