Judah: A Biblical Story of Failure and Leadership

God has called each man to be a leader within his own family and home.

Every man has leadership potential within him boiling underneath the surface waiting to break forth. However, all of us have made mistakes and have a history we are not proud of. There are things in each of our lives that we secretly hope never reach the light of public recognition. Yet because of the greatness of our God, our past does not dictate our future.

Judah is a great example of this. There is very little on the story of Judah in Genesis besides a few mentions throughout the book and the very sordid and twisted affair of chapter 38. From the details provided, we can see the story of a man rife with failures who eventually becomes powerfully transformed. In spite of belonging to the covenant family, and in spite of the providential circumstances of his birth, one of Judah’s first actions as an adult was to do something he knew would likely displease both his parents and God. Abraham had made it very clear that Isaac was not to marry one of the Canaanites from the surrounding land (Gen. 24:3), and Jacob was also similarly charged to do the same (28:1). Judah would have likely also known about the curse of Noah on the descendants of Canaan and their general wickedness (Gen. 9:24-27). In spite of this, he is the only one of his brothers to seek out and marry a Canaanite woman (Gen. 38:1-2).

Evidence of Judah’s Failure
It would seem that Judah then failed to be the spiritual leader of his home, as the wickedness of the Canaanites was easily passed along to his two sons. Because he failed to be a Prophet and Priest for his sons, they lived a life defined by sin. Not only did he fail to model any of the “5P’s,” (Prophet, Priest, Protector, Provider, Projector), but he also failed to confront them in their wickedness. These young men were so evil that God was forced to kill them (Gen. 38:7-10).
His first son, Er, does not have a clear description of his sin in the Genesis account. However, one commentator says that it must have placed him “in [the] company” of such people as those who lived before the flood in Genesis 6 and the people of Sodom in chapter 19, who both were guilty of gross sexual sin (Jude 1:7).
After Er’s death, the second son, Onan, sinned by failing to fulfill his responsibility to take care of his deceased brother’s family (Gen. 38:7-10, 1 Tim. 5:8). Again, we never once see Judah rebuke or discipline his sons for their wickedness

Judah’s sin then continues in consorting with a prostitute after the death of his wife (Gen. 38:12, 15). Unbeknownst to him, the prostitute was actually his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who, as a childless widow in the ancient world, was forced to find some way to have a child who would hopefully one day support her.
Her difficult situation was brought on by the “failure and the refusal of the men in the family to live obediently to God’s laws and fulfill their responsibilities.” Judah was one of these men, who like Onan, tried to avoid making sure Tamar was properly cared for (Gen. 38:11, 14). When Tamar is later found pregnant, Judah reveals his hypocrisy by ordering that she be burned (v. 24). She is saved at the last moment by openly proving that Judah was the father of her child, but more importantly the episode finally leads to Judah’s acknowledgment of his guilt (v. 25-26).

The whole story in Genesis 38 reflects very negatively on Judah, whom Moses’ original readers would have recognized as the ancestor of the largest and leading tribe in Israel (Num. 1:27, 10:14). Yet it is clear, at the beginning of his story Judah, is a man who would not take responsibility for his actions, would not be a 5P moral leader of his household, and even suggested selling his brother Joseph to the Midianites (Gen. 37:27-28).

God’s Redemption of Judah
On the surface, there appears to be little or no direct action of God in this story. Unlike others in Genesis such as Abraham or Jacob, Judah receives no word or vision from God.
Yet, if you put together all the details of his life, you can begin to see God quietly working in the background to slowly change Judah’s character and achieve His ultimate purposes (Gen. 50:20).

We can see that God was working on Judah through His mercy (Rom. 2:4). It would seem that God acted on him by not acting; He gave him time to repent and refrained from punishing him as his sins deserved (Psm. 103:10, Rev. 2:21). Seeing the stark and sudden deaths of his sons, Judah could not have failed to notice that although he had participated in those very same sins, he had been spared by God. After his moment of what seems to be genuine repentance (Gen. 38:26), we begin to observe a different man unfold.

Near the end of the book we see finally the full arc of Judah’s story unfold. Whereas he had once callously recommended selling his brother and “profit[ing]” from it (Gen. 37:26), he now offers his life as “surety” for his younger brother Benjamin (Gen. 43:8-9). When the brothers arrive back in Egypt, he shows true concern for both his father’s emotional well-being and his brother’s life, and even offers himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead (Gen. 44:30-34). When we look at Judah’s responses in the light of Jesus’ words in John 15:13, we see just how much this man has been transformed – He was willing to lay his life down for his brother. In a span of a few decades, Judah has gone from a man who would not even fulfill his basic family responsibilities to someone who was willing to lay down his life for another. His transformation is further reflected in Jacob’s blessing, where he is depicted as a true patriarch, a regal, lion-like figure, and ancestor of the Messiah (49:8-10, Matt. 1:3).

Through the transformation found in the Gospel, there is within each of us the potential to become such a leader (Rom. 12:2).


1 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 615.
2 Ibid., 615.
3  Ibid., 616
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