There are two ways of reading the Bible. One way is to see it as a repository of morally edifying stories. One can label that the pietistic approach or the moralistic, therapeutic deism approach.
The other approach is to see the Bible as a history of how God revealed, step by step, the redemption story. This was the approach taken by the Anabaptists of years ago. We, who claim to be their spiritual descendants, have been heavily influenced by Bible story books and other influences coming from modern evangelical Christianity and have come close to swallowing the pietistic interpretation. We have lost something important in the process.
Take for example the story of Joseph as it unfolds from Genesis chapter 37 on. Joseph is a perfect fit for the modern idea of a hero — poor mistreated boy makes good beyond his dreams and then is gracious to those who mistreated him. Most people see nothing more than that in these chapters.
There is, however, another story woven into those chapters in such a way that we almost miss it. In fact, most often we do miss it. That is the story of Judah.
Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son, the one who should have been the head of all the tribes of Israel. Well, he tried — sort of. When his brothers wanted to kill Joseph, he suggested they put him in a pit instead. It seems that he intended to rescue him later, but didn’t really have a plan. Later when Joseph demanded that Benjamin be brought to him in Egypt, Reuben offered his two sons to his father as surety for Benjamin. Jacob did not appear to be impressed.
Judah was the fourth son of Jacob, certainly not predestined to have the preeminence, and there is not much in his earlier life to suggest that he might one day become the leader. It was Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Perhaps he was trying to save Joseph’s life, but he certainly never expected to see him again.
It isn’t until chapter 43 that we see a different Judah. Obtaining grain from Egypt was now a matter of life and death, and Jacob had rejected Reuben’s offer of his sons as surety for Benjamin. Then Judah steps up before his father and says: “ Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go; that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones. I will be surety for him; of my hand shalt thou require him: if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever.”
Evidently Jacob saw in Judah a depth of sincerity and commitment that convinced him that he could trust him to keep his word. In the following chapter, Judah stands before the man who was the lord of Egypt and recounts the commitment he made to his father: “ For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest peradventure I see the evil that shall come on my father.”
By this willingness of Judah to sacrifice himself for the welfare, not only of Benjamin but of the whole family, the heart of Joseph was broken and he revealed himself to his brothers. And by this act of self-sacrifice Judah became the leader of the children of Israel.
Years later, when Jacob blessed his sons, his blessing of Judah foretold his role in the whole future history of the children of Israel. “Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.”
Note that in Egypt the brothers bowed down to Joseph, but Jacob foretold that in the future they would bow down to Judah. The kings of Israel, after Saul, were of the tribe of Judah. Our Saviour came from the lineage of Judah as reckoned according to the flesh.
There are important lessons in the life of Joseph. But the truest image of the story of redemption is not found in the man who lived in palaces, dressed in costly array and whose authority was felt in every corner of Egypt. It is found in the man who, when it became a matter of life and death for his brethren, offered himself as a ransom.