As I moved forward in my investigation, I was equipped with an obvious yet often overlooked understanding that I’d gathered anecdotally from my Jewish friends. The Jews are called “Jews” because they are the descendents of Judah.
Judah was the fourth son of Jacob. His mother was Leah. Leah received her husband by the deception of her father and Jacob did not love her as much as he loved her sister, Rachel.
Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years. When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. So Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, “The Lord has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me.” Genesis 29:30-32
God, in his compassion for the unloved, allowed her to conceive and bear a number of sons and one daughter. While a couple of those sons were born by her handmaiden, Zilpah, the first 4 were directly from her own womb, plus three more after Zilpah bore two.
Judah, or Yahudah in Hebrew, means “praise” because she was able to praise God despite her husband’s lack of love toward her after giving birth to him. Even though she knew that God continuously showed love and compassion for her in her plight, she was still consumed by jealousy of her sister and the fear of being beneath her. Leah is described as having “nice eyes.” By contrast, Rachel was extremely beautiful. The narrative implies that Leah was placed below Rachel in the eyes of her family. In fact, she was led to believe that the only way she could possibly obtain a husband was through deceit. Personally, I feel that Leah carried deep emotional scars of rejection and believed that her worth hinged solely on her ability to bear children, sons, in particular. So while she was able to praise God after He opened her womb, she still lived in constant fear of losing what significance she had acquired through childbirth. In addition, though the scripture does not specifically mention it, we can see that Leah’s jealousy and insecurities may have been passed down to her children. All we have to do is look at their treatment of Joseph, Rachel’s son. They treated Joseph badly even before he started having his prophetic dreams. Of course, Jacob did not help the situation by his blatant favoring and spoiling of Joseph. Even Rachel’s “adopted” sons (born through her handmaiden Bilhah) despised him for Jacob had made Joseph a supervisor over all his brothers.
Furthermore, when Joseph was about seventeen, he started to have dreams that symbolized his family bowing down to him and did not hesitate from sharing! One day, after the dreams began, he was sent to “check up” on his brothers and bring back a report of their business to his father. I have to say one thing here, the text insinuates that the sons of Jacob must have been in the habit of not obeying their father’s commands if Jacob found it necessary to appoint someone to keep a check on them in the first place.
Anyway, all of his brothers were together (where they shouldn’t have been) and when they saw him coming, they plotted his death. Well, all except Reuben, that is.
Now when they saw him afar off, they conspired against him to kill him. Then they said to one another, ”Look, this dreamer is coming!” “Come, therefore, let us now kill him and cast him some pit: and we shall say,’ some wild beast has devoured him.’ We shall see what will become of his dreams!” But when Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands, and said, “Let us not kill him.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand on him” that he might deliver him out of their hands and bring him back to his father. Genesis 37:18-22.
As the eldest, Reuben is clearly the most morally responsible out of the bunch and tried to talk the other brothers out of their desire to commit this murder. At first, he is only able to postpone the act.
They ripped his many-colored coat from him, a gift from his father and threw him in a hole. An old Hebrew commentary provides some fascinating information about this coat.
“People have often wondered why a trifle like this gaudy garment should have provoked the murderous hatred of all the brethren. We now know from the painted Tombs of the Bene Hassein in Egypt that, in the Patriarchal age, Semitic chiefs wore coats of many colours as insignia of rulership. Joseph had made himself disliked by his brothers for reporting on them; and Jacob, in giving him a coat of colours, marked him for the chieftanship of the tribes at his father’s death. Add to this the lad’s vanity in telling his dreams, and the rage of the brethren becomes intelligible, This sign of rulership and royalty was still in use in the household of King David, as seen from 2nd Samuel 13, 18, though the chronicler must explain this strange fashion in dress. The fact that in the Joseph story no such explanatory gloss is given is proof of the antiquity of the narrative. When it was first written its implications were perfectly intelligible (M.G.Kyle).
So, according to this historical commentary, by giving Joseph the coat, Jacob/Israel had already set him up to rule over his brothers.
The situation becomes more disturbing when we learn that there is no water in the pit where they throw him in. This hole in the ground is actually a cistern, a common device used by indigenous peoples to catch the winter rains. Quite often when they are found empty of water, late into the summer, they are not truly empty, as scorpions and snakes will have likely taken up residence there. Perhaps this could be one reason that Joseph cries out so much and so loudly in the account.
It’s also thought that the brothers motivation involved leaving him there to die of thirst, starvation, and the stings and bites of whatever creatures might have been down in the pit with him.
While Rueben is off planning Joseph’s rescue, the remaining brothers sit around eating and discussing what to do with their “dreamer” of a brother. Suddenly, in the distance, they spot a caravan travelling toward Egypt. It’s then that Judah comes up with the final plan. They will not murder their brother. Rather, they will sell him.
Some time later, we find Joseph in an Egyptian prison where he meets up with Pharaohs’ butler and baker. These men both had interesting dreams and Joseph provides interpretations which eventually, turn out to be true. He only requests that they remember him when they are retuned to the king’s court. During this encounter, he mentions that he had been “stolen away” from his family and home. This comment has led some commentators to believe that the brothers actually didn’t get the chance carry out their plan because, as the scripture shows, some Midianites were travelling by the cistern where Joseph was imprisoned, they heard his cries, stopped, pulled him up, and they sold him.
Years later, after Joseph’s rise to power during a great famine, the brothers return home from a voyage to Egypt in search of food. They explain to their father that they were ordered (by Joseph who they do not recognize) to return and Benjamin with them the next time they went or they would not be given any more food. Keep in mind, at this point, Simeon is being held in an Egyptian prison to ensure their return. To reassure their father, Reuben even offers to forfeit the lives of his own two sons if Benjamin is not returned safely home, but Jacob refuses to even consider the idea of Benjamin going anywhere.
However, when the time came that they had to go back to Egypt for more food it was Judah who did the talking. He reminds his father of the words of the “lord of the land” to bring back their youngest brother. Judah takes full responsibility and makes “surety” for Benjamin. This means that Judah will become Benjamin’s ultimate protector and if anything should happen to the youngest brother, Judah’s very life could be forfeit. At the very least, he will be obligated to carry the burden of blame for the rest of his life. Jacob finally gives in and allows Judah to take responsibility for the boy. Later, when “the lord of the land,” i.e. Joseph, plots to keep his younger brother with him while he sends the rest home to bring back their father, Judah begs him for his brother and offers himself in his place. By making this offer, he, in essence, has “redeemed” himself of past deeds toward Joseph.
In my studies on Judah, I have come to the conclusion that while he makes a lot of bad decisions, he does eventually take responsibility for them, albeit grudgingly. Most people are aware that God fully intended, from the very beginning, to establish the throne of Israel from Judah’s lineage, as He later promised that David would continue. However, I do not see anywhere in scripture where God made a “pure” Israelite race a condition of that promise.
We can also conclude, based on scriptural and historical context alone, that neither Judah nor his descendants after him, for many generations at least, were ever referred to as “Jews.” More on this next time… Until then, continue to pray for truth.