“A leader without flaws is not fit to lead”
At first glance, the Judah and Tamar story seems like a gratuitous diversion from the real story at the end of Genesis: The Joseph Story. But it’s actually the key to unlocking the real story that we are supposed to see in the real story. A lot of this is not new for me or for you, but I am grateful to Professor Leon Kass [The Beginning of Wisdom] for clinching this interpretation with a few superb observations.
Rewind for a moment. For the first time in history, the Abrahamic family is blessed with a large group of sons who can build a nation. Now, instead of choosing an heir to the exclusion of the other, Jacob must choose a leader who can lead the brothers from family to nation.
Jacob clearly chooses Joseph to be the leader. He is the eldest of Rachel’s sons, ambitious, and blessed with many great talents. The striped coat is a tribal symbol of leadership and Jacob instructs the coat wearing Joseph to watch his brothers. Joseph loves being the chosen leader and he uses his position of authority to tattle on his brothers. He uses his dreams to assert his authority to spectacularly horrific results. Jacob’s choice for once and future leader was a failure.
Emboldened by Joseph’s failure, Reuben thinks he can win the throne. He plays along with his brothers plan to kill Joseph but privately schemes his way to leadership. Reuben plans to rescue Joseph from the pit and heroically return him to their father. Jacob will have no choice but to appoint Reuben the family leader. This plan is clearly not good leadership. Tricking your brothers and stealing glory from beneath their noses is hardly a plan for earning their respect and patronage. Reuben fails.
Simeon and Levi are disqualified because of their warrior spirits. Next up is Judah. Unlike Reuben, Judah includes his brothers in his plan for Joseph. The brothers do not vocally agree, but at least they are part of the discussion. Judah wants to sell Joseph to Ishmaelite merchants en route to Egypt. Brilliant. Sell him to family (Ishmael was their great-uncle) and Judah will know where to find Joseph if he needs to bring him home. He will be in Egypt. But before Judah can sell Joseph to an Ishmaelite caravan, the Midianite caravan scoops Joseph from the pit. It’s possible that the brothers do not even know about the Midianites! When Reuben, and the others, return to the pit they discover that Joseph seems to be lost forever. Thus ends Judah’s failed attempt at leadership and he does not even take the helm when the brothers go home to their father. Reuben is in charge for now.
As we know, Joseph never materializes into the leader of the Israelites. His exile to Egypt does not turn him into a leader. He was the wrong choice and he never becomes the right choice.
Judah was not ready for leadership either and he also leaves the family [Gen. 38:1]. He marries a Canaanite and becomes friends (friends!) with a Canaanite. His sons do not follow the Abrahamic path and two of three die without bearing sons. Children were so precious to Abraham and Isaac, but now Judah’s sons do not even want children. Fearful that he will lose his third son, Judah does not even allow Shelah to perform his duty to his brothers and marry Tamar. Judah hits rock bottom when he finds comfort in the bed of a harlot who turns out to be the wily Tamar. When Tamar is pregnant with his child, he sentences her to death. Tamar quietly discloses that she is pregnant with his child and Judah finally has his awakening.
“She is more righteous than me!” Judah exclaims as he realizes his guilt. Judah admits that he is flawed and broken. In fact, he is the first person in recored Biblical history to admit to making a mistake. A leader is born.
This story demonstrates why Jacob’s choice for leader of the clan was incorrect. Joseph was the wrong choice. Judah was the right choice. It took some time, but eventually Judah figured it out.
The next time we hear from Judah he is back with his brothers. Judah acts heroically, and like a true leader when he confronts Joseph. Judah never looks back. The once and future family of Jewish kings is Judah. Joseph leads Egypt for a while, but he is not the leader of Israel. The text of the story is reminding us not to be so impressed with Joseph’s success. Judah is our real leader.
Real leaders admit mistakes. Real leaders learn from their mistakes. Real leaders are flawed. Real leaders are broken. Real leaders are heroes when they are needed. Real leaders are like Judah.