Blessings, curses

“Gather around,” Israel told his sons as they entered his tent in the cool of the evening. “I want to tell you what to expect in the coming days.”

All twelve sons presented themselves before their patriarch, each anticipating a blessing to carry them forward after his death.

“Reuben, my firstborn, the might of my youth, great in rank and power,” Israel began. “You went in and defiled your father’s bed. You’re unstable and your best days are behind you.”

Reuben fell to his knees and began to weep.

“Simeon and Levi,” Israel continued. “Brothers of violence, woe to those who would join in your company. In anger you kill men, and in jest, you slaughter innocent animals. You’re divided as brothers, and you’ll be scattered as tribes in Israel.”

Simeon and Levi slumped where they stood, the lines in their faces betraying a lifetime of wrath.

“Judah.”

Judah straightened his spine, bracing himself for whatever came next.

“Judah, your brothers will bow before you and praise you, and your enemies will fall under your yoke. You’re a lion’s cub, drawing vitality from the kill. When you stretch out like a lion, who dares to rouse you? The king’s scepter will remain in your hand, its base will rest at your feet until your people come with their tribute and obedience. The traveler will come into your land and tie his colt to the nearest vine, for wine will be as abundant as water.”

Judah closed his eyes and let out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.

“Zebulun, you’ll settle on the seashore of Sidon, a safe harbor for coming ships. Issachar, you’d sooner nap between the sheep pens than to earn your keep and enjoy your freedom, so you’ll be a slave to others. Dan, you’ll serve as the justice of the peace among the tribes. Like a viper who strikes the horse’s heel, your bite will bring the rider down swiftly.”

Israel paused, as if in thought. He looked up and sighed deeply. “Save us, Lord,” he expelled, looking as if he would faint.

Judah stepped forward to steady the man, but Israel held up his hand. “We wait for you, Lord.”

Judah stepped back, and the tent was silent for a few minutes. Then Israel continued.

“Gad will be overtaken by bandits, but he’ll get his revenge. Asher will prepare food fit for kings. Naphtali will be a free-range deer, and his offspring will be nimble and beautiful. And Joseph…”

Israel reached out his arms, and his beloved son knelt at his feet.

“Joseph is a flourishing tree by a brook, his branches scaling the castle walls. Archers attack with brutality to no avail. He nocked his bow by the steady hand of God, the guiding Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. The God of your father will continue to steady your hand and bless you with gifts from the heavens above and from the depths below, blessings of nourishment and fertility. My blessings are greater than all the bounty that the timeless mountains have provided, and they rest upon your head. My son, you are set apart from your brothers.”

Joseph kissed his father’s hand and returned to stand among his brothers.

“Benjamin, my joy, you are a hungry wolf. In the morning you hunt your prey, and in the evening you share the spoils.”

Israel drew himself onto the bed and leaned his head on the banister.

“I’m prepared to be gathered to my ancestors. By Joseph’s word, I’ll be buried at Machpelah Cave near Mamre Oaks, purchased by my grandfather, Abraham, who is buried there with his wife, Sarah. My parents, Isaac and Rebekah, are buried there. My wife, Leah, is buried there.”

Then, Isaac drew his final breath.

Inspiration: Genesis 49

Judah’s plea

The brothers returned to the palace and fell at Zaphenath’s feet.

“What is this evil deed you have done? Were you not aware that I am a man of deep insight?” Zaphenath asked them.

Judah spoke up. “Tell us how to make amends. Our God has seen our guilt and has repaid us for what we’ve done. We have come to serve you in your house. If Benjamin is a slave, then his brothers are slaves along with him.”

“You speak nonsense,” Zaphenath replied. “The guilty party acted alone, and he alone will be my slave. No, go to your father in Canaan and live in peace.”

Judah stood up. “My lord,” he said, taking a step closer, “I pray, allow me to speak without getting angry at your servant. You’re like Pharaoh in wisdom and splendor.”

“Very well. Speak.”

“My lord, you accused us of being spies. We told you that we have a father who is old and a younger brother, born in his old age. He’s the only son left of his mother’s children because his brother is dead. You ordered us to bring him to you, to prove that we weren’t spies. We told you Benjamin couldn’t leave our father, who loves his son more than his own life. You insisted, taking Simeon captive and threatening to sever our relationship if we didn’t return with Benjamin. We went back to Canaan and told our father everything. Our father, Israel, refused to release Benjamin to us. After our rations were gone, he told us to go buy more food. We refused, having remembered your words, lest we take Benjamin with us. Our father said, ‘The wife I loved gave me two sons before she died. One has surely been ravaged by wild animals. If you take Benjamin, and he is hurt, I will die along with him.’ If we don’t return to Canaan with Benjamin, our father, whose life is entwined in Benjamin’s, will go to the grave, full of sorrow. I have vouched for his life, and I would rather die than return to my father without my brother. Now, release my brother, and I will serve you in his place. Let Benjamin return to the father who loves him more than life itself.”

Inspiration: Genesis 44

Hard bargain

The famine worsened, and soon they consumed all the grain brought back from Egypt.

“Go back to Egypt,” Israel told his sons. “Bring back enough to feed us awhile longer.”

Judah said, “The man gave us a grave warning. If we return to Egypt without our brother Benjamin, we’ll be captured, killed, and put on display. And you and the rest of your house will die of starvation.”

“He’s right, Father,” Reuben said. “If Benjamin doesn’t go with us, we don’t go.”

Israel’s face reddened, and his eyes tightened. “What have you done? Why did you tell the man you had another brother?”

Reuben answered, “The man wouldn’t stop asking questions about where we came from. He accused us of being spies from the north.”

“We insisted that we were godly men from the same father,” Zebulun added, “and that we also had a brother at home.”

“He called us liars,” Judah said. “He wouldn’t relent. How were we to know he’d require us to return with Benjamin?”

Israel’s eyes turned cold and hard.

“Dear Father,” Judah coaxed. “By God’s mercy, put Benjamin in my charge and give us leave.”

The brothers inched forward, anticipating their father’s response.

“Look at you, Father,” Judah persisted. “You’re famished, and your family will starve soon.”

“We’d be there and back twice by now,” Dan chimed in.

Judah said, “I’ll vouch for Benjamin. If he dies, I die.”

Israel saw that he was outnumbered and out of options. “Go on then,” he relented. “Present gifts to the man. Take balm. Take honey, gum, resin, pistachios, and almonds. And take twice the amount of money you paid the first time. It was likely an oversight you can make right.”

“And what about our brother,” Judah asked.

“Take him, and may God be merciful when you face the lord of Egypt.” Israel slumped in his chair and lowered his gaze. “I heart goes with you.”

The brothers embraced their father and made ready the provisions and money for the journey. Hoisting Benjamin on a donkey, they followed the trail west toward the vast and opulent land of Egypt.

Inspiration: Genesis 43

Judah’s twins

“Come, let’s spend time together at my lodgings,” Judah propositioned the veiled woman, not realizing that the temple prostitute was his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

“And what’s in it for me?” Tamar asked with a sly smile.

“A baby goat from my flocks when I reach Timnah,” Judah said.

“And I should just believe you’ll keep your promise?” Tamar asked. “I need collateral.”

Judah carried little of monetary value when he traveled. “What shall I give you, as I have nothing but the clothes on my back?”

Tamar smiled. “I’ll take your signet ring and the cord it dangles from on your neck. Or is your identity worthless?”

Judah took the ring of his family seal and handed it to her.

“And your staff,” Tamar added.

Judah handed over his staff and brought her to his bed.

After Tamar got what she was after, she left Judah’s tent and went back home and changed her clothes.

After seeing his sheepshearers in Timnah, Judah sent his friend Hirah back through Enaim to make good on his promise and to recover his signet, cord, and staff. Hirah looked all over Enaim for her without success.

He asked the local citizens, “Where can I find the temple prostitute who waits by the east gate?” But no one knew who he was talking about. “We run a clean town. No prostitutes here.”

Hirah went back and gave Judah the bad news. Judah answered, “Well, let her keep my belongings. We’ll become a laughing stock if we keep looking for her.”

Three months later, Judah heard some disturbing news. “Tamar, your sons’ widow, has been whoring around and now she’s pregnant.

“Bring her here to be burned alive,” Judah commanded indignantly.

Tamar faced her father-in-law, who had already prepared a pyre for her in the square. She carried with her a broad-bottomed satchel.

“The owner of these belongings is the man who has made me pregnant,” she said, throwing the satchel at his feet. “Take a look, and know who the father is.”

Judah opened the satchel and turned white as a ghost. There he found his signet, cord, and staff.

Falling to his knees, he hung his head and said to those gathered around, “She’s in the right, and I’m in the wrong. I promised her my son Shelah, and I failed to fulfill it.”

Tamar gave birth to twins, and Judah never slept with her again. During childbirth, one child put his hand out, so the midwife tied a red thread around its wrist to mark who would be born first. But when he withdrew his hand, his brother came out before him. They called the firstborn “Perez,” Breach, and his brother with the red thread, they named “Zerah,” Bright.

Inspiration: Genesis 38

Spilling seeds

Judah left home in Hebron to stay with a friend and fellow shepherd named Hirah in Adullam. While living there, he married a Canaanite named Bathshua, and they had two sons, Er and Onan. When Bathshua conceived the third son, Judah and his family settled for a time in Chezib.

Shortly after his third son Shelah was born, Judah chose a wife for his firstborn son, Er. Her name was Tamar.

Er was a wicked man, so God put him to death. As was the custom, Judah insisted that Onan marry his brother’s widow so that he could father a child on his brother’s behalf. But Onan wanted the offspring as heirs for himself, so whenever Onan had sexual intercourse with Tamar, he’d pull out and let his semen spill onto the ground. This displeased God, who wanted Abraham’s descendants to be fruitful, so He put him to death too.

“Live as a widow in your father’s house,” Judah told Tamar after Onan’s death. “When my son Shelah comes of age, he will be your husband, and he will give you an heir.”

Judah had no intention of giving his third son to Tamar because he feared Shelah too might die. But Tamar took Judah at his word and moved back to Adullam to live with her father until Shelah came of age.

Judah’s wife died shortly after Shelah grew to manhood. After he mourned her death, Judah and his friend Hirah decided to meet up in Timnah for sheep shearing season. Word got back to Tamar about their plans, and since Judah hadn’t kept his word to her, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Tamar took off her widow’s clothing and put on a veil. There on the road to Timnah, she sat disguised as a prostitute at the entrance to Enaim. She would wait for Judah to pass by.

Inspiration: Genesis 38