The Central Role of Judah in Genesis 37–50 -- By: Bryan Smith
Bsac 162:646 (April 2005) p. 158
The Central Role of Judah in Genesis 37–50
Bryan Smith is Bible Integration Coordinator, Bob Jones University Press, Greenville, South Carolina.
Genesis 37–50 records a story that stands as a giant in Old Testament narrative. Unlike the book’s previous sections (which are more or less episodic), this section is a unit that traces the development of a single conflict. The conflict, though long, is carefully crafted to hold the reader’s interest, steadily growing in intensity until it climaxes in Joseph’s revelation of himself and then settles into a fitting resolution. But the story succeeds on the microscopic level as well. Word plays, dialogue, subtle repetition, and rich ironies of every kind find their place in this account. Its beauty and its themes speak to people today. Family love gone bad, jealousy, untamed sexual desire, crippling guilt, and forgiveness full and free—all are addressed in Genesis 37–50. Alter speaks of these chapters as “a very compelling story, one of the best stories, as many readers have attested, that has ever been told.”1
But Genesis 37–50 is not without interpretive difficulties. Although most interpreters view these chapters as “the Joseph story,” several of the chapters are not about Joseph. All of chapter 38 develops the life of Judah, and much of chapters 42–44, 46, and 49 focus on characters other than Joseph. A further problem relates to the moral tone of the story. Though parts of this narrative clearly communicate their theological value, other portions seem disturbingly strange. Most conspicuous is Genesis 38, which speaks frankly of sexual sin but never seems to record God’s judgment on Judah, the chief sinner. Surprisingly in chapter 49 Jacob awarded Judah his highest honor, the throne of Israel.
These challenges are not unfamiliar to biblical scholars. The solutions many of them have proposed, however, are less than
Bsac 162:646 (April 2005) p. 159
satisfying. Usually they involve analyzing Genesis 37–50 as a fractured narrative, proposing that large portions of it should be considered extraneous to the plot. Such approaches to the narrative end up sounding quite ironic. They begin by praising
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