Judah’s Plea for Benjamin [Genesis 44:18-34 Study]

The climax of the Joseph narrative. "The most moving address in all the Word of God." Judah offers himself as Benjamin's substitute and surety.

Judah’s Plea for Benjamin [Genesis 44:18-34 Study]
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  • In our last episode, we had looked at Genesis 44:1-17 and Joseph planting his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. And we read Joseph telling his brothers, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man (Benjamin) in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.”
  • We said that Joseph knew full well that the brothers would never be able to go back to their father in peace (shalom). If they returned to their father Jacob without Benjamin, for the rest of their lives, they would remain in anguish.

What follows is perhaps one of the greatest speeches in all of Scripture. Donald Grey Barnhouse calls Genesis 44:18-34 “the most moving address in all the Word of God.”[1]

But before I read this monologue, let’s me review the life story thus far of our new protagonist, Judah.

  • Judah was the fourth son born to Jacob and his first wife Leah. Remember that Jacob had two wives (Leah and Rachel), he had two concubines. Joseph and Benjamin were born to Jacob’s second wife Rachel.
  • It was Judah who said to his brothers regarding Joseph, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.”
    • There are some that believe that Judah is being merciful to Joseph.
    • But Genesis 37 gave no commentary to Judah’s intentions. It did say that Reuben had the intention to save Joseph when he persuaded the brothers to throw him into the pit. And when Reuben had returned and saw that Joseph was gone, Reuben tore his clothes. You had remembered in our last episode the significance of the tearing of one’s clothes.
    • I think we can just as easily assume that Judah had no benevolent intention with the selling of Joseph. In fact, he probably made the suggestion that if we are going to get rid of Joseph, we should at least get some financial gain.
  • The same Judah then runs away from his family in Genesis 38, marrying a page wife, breaking his promise with his daughter in law, and soliciting a prostitute.
  • In Genesis 43, we see Judah beginning to emerge as the new leader amongst his brothers. He will slowly overshadow Reuben, the eldest.
    • Reuben failed to persuade his father Jacob to send the brothers back with Benjamin in Genesis 42.
    • But Judah speaks up to Jacob and gives his surety guarantee. Let me remind us by reading what he had promised to Jacob.
    • Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy (Benjamin) with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be surety for him. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.”
    • And of course, we know that Jacob relents.
  • And we now come to Genesis 44 where the brothers return to Egypt to accompany their youngest brother Benjamin. When they return to the house of Joseph, the first to speak is none other than Judah.

Judah’s Speech has four components

  1. Judah asks Joseph for a favorable hearing (v.18)
  2. Judah reminds Joseph of their first encounter (v.19-23)
  3. Judah reports their father’s distress (v.24-29)
  4. Judah offers himself as Benjamin’s substitute (v.30-34)

1. Judah asks Joseph for a favorable hearing (v.18)

Gen. 44:18   Then Judah went up to him and said, “Oh, my lord, please let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself.

  • Judah is asking the prime minister to hear my case. Don’t get mad at what I’m about to tell you.
  • I understand that you have the power of Pharaoh, so should I stir you to anger, you have the power to severely punish me.

2. Judah reminds Joseph of their first encounter (v.19-23)

19 My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father, or a brother?’ 20 And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’ 21 Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23 Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall not see my face again.’

  • Judah is reminding the prime minister of the conditions that he had set on Judah and his brothers during their first encounter with him several months ago.
  • Here and for most of the reminder of this passage, we again see the narrator’s use of recapitulation.
    • I want to remind us again that unlike today when we can use many written words without cost, there was limited space with scrolls.
    • For the narrator to repeat these details a third time indicates a literary device is used for this repetition.
    • We first encounter this account back in Genesis 41 when the narrator describes the brother’s first visit to Egypt.
    • We read this again when the brothers report back to their father on their return to Canaan in Genesis 42.
    • Now we read these details a third time in Judah’s plea.
  • What are the details emphasized here in this third recapitulation
    • There is the father, an old man.
    • There is the youngest brother who is beloved by the father.
    • The youngest brother had another brother who is presumed dead, and so this beloved brother is the only one left from the woman that their father had loved.
    • The prime minister was informed that this youngest son cannot leave the father, for if he leaves, their father would die.
    • But the prime minister gave the condition that unless they returned with their youngest brother, they could not return to see the prime minister in Egypt.

3. Judah reports their father’s distress (v.24-29)

Gen. 44:24   “When we went back to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26 we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother goes with us, then we will go down. For we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27 Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28 One left me, and I said, “Surely he has been torn to pieces,” and I have never seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

  • Again we see that these events are summarized in recapitulation. The narrator first describes the interaction between Judah and his brothers with their father Jacob in Genesis 42 and 43.
  • This interaction is recapitulated here in Judah’s plea.
  • Again, what are the details emphasized here
    • They told their father of the prime minister’s stipulation to bring Benjamin.
    • Their father asks his sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food.
    • They said they could not return to Egypt without Benjamin.
    • Then it is emphasized that Jacob reiterates the reality that Rachel had only given him two sons. One has left and was torn to pieces.
    • If you take Benjamin, and harm befalls him, “you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.”

4. Judah offers himself as Benjamin’s substitute (v.30-34)

Gen. 44:30   “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.
32 For your servant became surety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ 33 Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”

  • What an enormous plea for clemency.
    • Judah is not asking that Joseph to overlook the sin and transgression. He is not asking Joseph to just forget about what had happened and move on for the sake of our father.
  • We now understand the reason for this recapitulation.
    • Judah had to beg their father to let them return to Egypt with their youngest brother Benjamin.
    • And the only way that their father would part with Benjamin to return was if one of them would become the surety for him.
  • Now a brief segway
    • I have substituted the King James Version which translates the Hebrew word (arav) with the English word surety. The ESV translates (arav) as “a pledge of safety” in the ESV.
    • This same Hebrew word (arav) in its noun form was used in Genesis 38 which Tamar asked Judah for a pledge.
    • Remember back in Genesis 38, Judah did not have any money with him, so he promised to send Tamar a young goat from his flock.
      • But Tamar asked for a pledge. She asked for surety.
      • So Judah, as surety, gave Tamar his seal, his cord, and his staff.
  • So Judah explains that the only way their father would part with Benjamin was on the condition that one of the brothers would be the surety for him. And Judah tells Joseph, “I am the surety for my brother.”
    • So what Judah proposes is an act of vicarious punishment. Judah proposes to be a substitute. “Let me take his place. Let me act as the surety for my brother. Let Benjamin go for the sake of our father, and take me as his place. I will be your forever slave.”
  • It is Judah who offered himself as surety for his brother. Now what is this offer of surety.
    • It is the promise of being a guarantee to cover someone else’s debts.
    • And the supreme surety that is provided for the people of God will come from the descendants of Judah.
    • Jesus is our surety. Jesus is the one who takes upon himself the debts that we owe to our creator God, the King of Kings.
    • Jesus is the one who stands in our place.
    • Jesus is the one who substitutes himself for us in bearing the just punishment of our sins.
  • We call the atonement of Christ the vicarious substitutionary atonement.
    • Vicarious means something that is done for us by someone else.
    • If I experience something vicariously, I am not experiencing it of myself. But rather, I am experiencing it through the experience of someone else.
  • Here, Judah is offering himself as surety by submit himself to slavery, so the presumed guilty one, the youngest brother Benjamin, might be set free.
    • Christ came to set the captives free.
    • He binds himself to the law and the judgment of God so he may set free those who have been held captive by their sin.
    • We have here in Judah’s plea a picture of the gospel, a picture of vicarious punishment.
  • There are two other individuals recorded in Scripture that have made similar pleas.
    • Moses, when he plead for God’s mercy toward the idolatrous Israelites, said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)
      • In other words, Moses is pleading to God to have mercy, and he was willing to give up his spiritual life if necessary.
    • The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 9, ”I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
  • Judah, Moses, and Paul did not need to follow through on their plea of substitutionary atonement. They were not capable. They were not qualified. They were not needed.
    • Only one person was capable. Only one person was qualified. Only one person was needed. That person is our Lord Jesus Christ.
    • No wonder a title commonly ascribed to Christ Jesus is the lion of Judah.
  • So what caused this change in Judah? This was the same brother that willfully sold his brother Joseph to slavery and rid him for financial gain.
    • Judah encountered the God of mercy in Genesis 38.
  • Back in Genesis 38, Judah committed three major sins.
    • First, he marries a pagan wife.
    • Second, he breaks his promise with his daughter in law, Tamar.
    • Third, he solicits a prostitute shortly after his wife’s death.
    • But God bestowed grace and mercy upon Judah.
      • Remember we learned that God has the prerogative to choose to whom he may bestow mercy.
      • Instead of taking the child away like God did with King David and Bathsheba, God opened Tamar’s womb to twin boys.
      • And through Judah’s firstborn son Perez will come the promised Messiah.
  • Our merciful God did not withhold his one and only son. The promised Messiah, Christ Jesus, will fulfill the law and serve as our vicarious substitutionary atonement.
  • Judah experienced the mercy and love of God. As 1 John 4:19 states, “we love because he first loved us.”
  • So at the end of this great speech, this powerful plea, Judah makes the offer to the prime minister of Egypt, to keep his vow to be Benjamin’s surety.

  1. Barnhouse, Genesis: A Devotional Exposition, vol 2, 200. ↩︎

Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph

  1. Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
  2. Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
  3. Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
  4. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
  5. Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
  6. God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
  7. Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
  8. Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
  9. Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
  10. Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
  11. Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
  12. Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
  13. Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
  14. Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
  15. A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
  16. It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
  17. Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
  18. God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
  19. "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
  20. Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
  21. God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)