Sorrows of the fathers
by Mary C Legg
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I-11 Vayigash Gn 44:18-47:27
Judah stands before the Pharoah's vizier and pleads, "Have ye a father or brother?," changing the issues from trade to personal matters. Confronting a stranger, he dares to bare his soul with a man who has the power of life and death over him. What he says can alter his life forever, or destroy his family. He finds himself on the edge of a chasm without any guarantee to protect his brothers or win Reuben back. A thousand "what-ifs" flood his mind in its turbulent anxiety.
They brought gifts; they paid the fair price and when money was discovered in their packs, they offered to repay it. Trickery troubles him, but now Benjamin's life and the his aged father's happiness haunts Judah. Softly he continues, confronting the sorrows of fathers, recalling Jacob's words to the strange man before him, "one went from me and I said, surely he is torn to pieces..." After so many years, Judah knows the agony of his father's loss, recognizing his part in the brothers' deceit. Now, a father, himself, he is no longer willing to accede to another. He has reached a decisive point of true repentance. The past he cannot change, but he can take responsibility for his future actions.
What caused the change? Judah had three sons, but two died unexpectedly:Er and Onan. According to Leverite marriage, Tamar was married to the elder and when he died; she was given to the second. Although it sounds cruel by our standards, it was a guarantee of her protection with a family supporting and providing her needs. When the younger died, then Judah did the despicable thing of sending her back to her family in shame. He had the wealth to retain and provide for her life, but instead he humiliated her. As a widow, she could also not marry; therefore had no future support . He promised his third son, but it never happened. The third son grew up and Judah did not call for her—and Tamar understanding that she had been discarded went to confront Judah as he was on the way to a sheep-shearing festival. As she sat at the side of the wayside, Judah took her into the fields. She conceived. Insulting her further, he treated her as a whore, promising a kid as payment.
In small villages, rumors fly quickly. Tamar was pregnant. The news reached Judah, who threatened to have her burned. Making a hasty judgment, he calls Tamar before him, accusing her of adultery. Presenting his signet ring and staff, Tamar has the upper hand, identifying that he was the father of the child.
He is publicly humiliated for his rash judgment and her treatment. He compounded a wrong, threatening to kill Tamar for his own wrong-doing. She is innocent. A woman is not guilty of adultery if a man seduce her. The blame lays directly on the man for his actions since a woman is not expected to be strong enough to defend herself. He learns the value of human life the hard way. He did not defend Joseph against his brothers when they sold him into slavery. He conceded to their wishes. With the loss of his sons and public humiliation before Tamar, he rethinks his life and begins to change. Unlike Reuben, he is is not amoral to offer the lives of his sons-- he can only pledge his own. His sons died unexpectedly. Only one survived. Judah confronts himself, stepping forward to assume responsibility before his father, "Send the lad with me, and we will go, that we may live and not die, both we and thou, and also our little ones. I will be a surety for him; of my hand thou shalt require him; if I bring him not unto thee and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame forever." Gn 43:8-9
In contrast, Reuben is willing to forfeit his children's lives, but not his own. "Reuben spake unto his father, saying, slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee: deliver him into my hand and I will bring him to thee again." Gn 42:37
What kind of father is he? Would you entrust your children to a man willing to kill his own? Jacob recoils. Reuben has little respect for family relationships and human life. He had no qualms about entering Bilhal's bed after Rachel's death. Although Bilhal is not Jacob's wife, Reuben is half-brother to her children. You can hear the taunts he throws in the field to the younger men, "You're mother's a whore. I screwed her..." When the brothers plot to lay hands on Joseph, Reuben objects to killing him, but then disappears, unwilling to defend Joseph in his time of need. Judah suggests selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites, but Reuben only returns after the camels have departed.
Where was he? In a desert, visibility extends for miles. They recognized Joseph from a distance. Certainly a caravan is visible against a flat backdrop. When Reuben reappears, his concern is not for Joseph's whereabouts, but for his own skin, ""The child is not, whither shall I go?" Gn 37:30. He, too, concedes easily under pressure. They tear up Joseph's coat, kill a kid and soak the coat in blood and begin a brutal deception continuing until Judah approaches the Pharoah's vizier with the question, "Have ye a father?"
As the eldest, Reuben should have objected vehemently against the schemes of his brothers. He was responsible for their actions. He did nothing to intercede, vansihing from the scene until after the camels are long gone.
Judah, though recognizes his own errors. He sees that he, too is guilty in what happened to the missing brother. It burdens his heart as a father. He has seen his little ones born and grow as children, and suffered his own losses. He knows the sorrows of fathers and the deep loss Jacob would suffer if Benjamin disappeared. He puts himself on the line, by baring the agony within his soul.
Reuben equivocates, shifting blame, "Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child and ye would not hear? Therefore, behold thy blood also is required." Gn 42:22
He sees the world in terms of physical strength and vendettas. As the oldest of the brothers, he is guilty for shirking responsibility, pushing it aside. He has no interest in justice, but in his own skin. He does not understand compassion or love, willing to sacrifice his children just as easily he partook in the slaughter at Shechem.
They have lived the lie so long, they are comfortable in their deception before the Pharaoh's vizier, "Nay my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come. We are all one man's sons; we are true men, thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not." Gn 42:11-13
Year in and year out, the lies wear onto their faces like masks until it is difficult to know true from false. Judah sees within himself, the need for change, the time to be honest with himself and with God before all men. His whisper echoes across the stone floor in a still room, "Have ye a father?"
And in the final blessing, when they are gathered around Jacob, he pronounces, "Judah is a lion's whelp and the scepter shall never go from him..." Gn 49:9 The birthright skips from the first to the fourth..
Why? In those few words, Judah placed all his courage in his hands, turning in a new direction.
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