The stories in the book of Genesis present life or death choices for the patriarchs and matriarchs, but HaShem orchestrates their choices and delivers them from evil. Famine is one life or death scenario. Jacob’s sons had sent Joseph into slavery in Egypt and honestly had no idea if he was still alive. But HaShem used the famine to reunite and save the brothers and Joseph. Along the way, Judah and Joseph also learn that HaShem guides everything.
Judah is the primary antagonist to Joseph in the story. Judah had made the plan to send Joseph away. But the great famine was going to force Judah to reckon with this tragic choice. Likewise, Joseph has to accept the suffering he endured for the salvation of his family who had handed him over to the nations. Joseph would have the grain that gives hope in the darkness of famine.
When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they did not recognize their brother because Joseph looked and acted like an Egyptian before them. In Jewish lore, Joseph is a messianic arch-type, called Messiah ben Joseph. Messiah ben Joseph suffers, bearing the sins of his brethren in order to save them. Now Joseph of course recognized his brothers and yearned for reconciliation. But Joseph needed to help Judah realize his descendants’ future calling to lead the whole family of Israel. Judah needed to recognize two things: HaShem’s hand in bringing about justice, but also seeing HaShem’s mercy toward him.
“Grain”, in Hebrew: שֶׁ֖בֶר, occurs several times in the Joseph novella. It is pronounced Shever; accent stress is on the bold type. Curiously, in the northern kingdom of Ephraim, they apparently had difficulty making the “SH” sound in Hebrew. In Judges 12:6, the Gileadites would test fugitives whom they suspected were from Ephraim (Joseph’s descendants) by making them say “ShiBolet”, but Ephraimites would always say, “Sibolet”. On account of this, there may be a double-entendre in the Joseph story. When the descendants of Ephraim heard of “Shever” in Egypt, Ephraimites would hear “Sever“, which means “Hope” in Hebrew; there is “Hope” in Egypt. Their patriarch, Joseph, was the hope that would save them from starvation! Meanwhile, the descendants of Judah would not notice the subtle connection.
Back to Genesis 42: the “Shever” was eaten up and the family once again faced a life and death choice. Joseph, and more specifically, HaShem, had put the family at the risk of starvation and death. Judah was in between a rock and a hard place: Bring Benjamin to Egypt, or the whole family dies. Judah takes the lead among the brothers. Judah took full responsibility for Benjamin and the whole family of Israel to save them from certain death.
I am struck by Judah’s choice to lead in this moment. Based on his life experience thus far, I think Judah finally recognized the gravity of the situation. In a very similar spirit to Messiah ben Joseph, Judah instead chose to save his family, whatever the cost to himself and it was also sufficient for HaShem to preserve the promise.
Joseph was always second according to Torah. Judah was HaShem’s choice, despite Jacob’s preference. Joseph also always served another master. Our Master Yeshua was like Messiah ben Joseph, suffering for the sins of his brothers, left for dead, but leading to salvation for those who have Hope, “Sever”. Yet our Master, a descendant of Judah, will likewise come a second time in complete victory, saving his family, the Jews, and those from the nations who have “Hope” in Yeshua!