The life of Judah- an incredible conversion story! (1)


Michael Boland relays the following conversion story, “…Luke Short was a farmer in New England who attained his hundredth year in exceptional vigor though without having sought peace with God. One day as he sat in his fields reflecting upon his long life, he recalled a sermon he had heard in Dartmouth as a boy before he sailed to America. The horror of dying under the curse of God was impressed upon him as he meditated on the words he had heard so long ago and he was converted to Christ – eighty-five years after hearing John Flavel preach.”(1) This is an incredible conversion story! 

We find another incredible conversion story in the book of Genesis in the Bible and specifically in Genesis chapter 38. If you have ever read Genesis 38 you will know that it is one of the awkward passages in Scripture; where the Lord allows us to look as if through a microscope into the sinful life and even the heart of a particular man. In this case, the character in question is Judah, the fourth oldest son of the Patriarch Jacob. 

This narrative about Judah and his conversion is really about a man being brought to the knowledge of his sin which in turn, by God’s grace, leads him to repentance. It is this that we will focus on here: the power of God to convert sinners and what effects conversion has on the one who is truly repentant.

Judah’s Sins

We are going to take a very brief look into the latter chapters of Genesis for our story about Judah. In chapter 37 we read about Joseph, Judah’s younger brother, and how his father Jacob loved him more than his other sons and gave him a coat of many colors. This favoritism created a great rift between Joseph and his brothers. We read of this in Genesis 37:4, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.”(2) Joseph’s brothers, including Judah, hated him.

This hatred increased, even more, when Joseph dreamed that his brothers, and even his parents, would bow to him. Jacob, despite rebuking Joseph for the dreams, kept them in mind whereas his brothers envied him. 

This jealousy of the brothers toward Joseph eventually led the brothers to throw Joseph into a pit. Their initial plan was to kill him, but we found that Judah stepped up in a leadership role. We read of this in Genesis 37:26-27, “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.’” Judah’s plan was to personally profit by selling his brother Joseph into slavery!

Here we have a glimpse into the motives that dominated Judah’s life at that time: personal gain and profit with no regard for his brother or his father Jacob who loved Joseph. After the narrative ended with Joseph being sold into slavery the narrative about Judah began.

The first action we read Judah takes is in Genesis 38:1, “It came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.” Here we read that Judah left his family, the people whom God met with and covenanted with, and lived with pagan people who did not know or fear God. 

His departure from his family led to a greater and greater decline in holiness in his life as we will see. We read in verse 2, “There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her”. Consider the verbs: “saw”, “took”, “went in to”. Here Judah was only considering his desires, and not considering this woman’s spiritual situation. Judah’s marriage to a non-believing woman caused him great suffering.

You may recall earlier in Genesis when Esau took two wives from the Canaanites that Isaac and Rebecca were very unhappy with Esau. Here, Isaac’s grandson Judah is no different. He did not seek a spouse for godly reasons, but to satisfy his lusts. He saw her, took her, went in to her and of course the phrase “went in to” here mean sexual relations.

Judah’s Trials

We read on and find that the years pass by. Enough time for Judah to have three sons, two of which gained sufficient age for marriage. Judah had his firstborn son Er marry a woman named Tamar. Genesis 38:7 reveals that Judah’s son Er was wicked so God killed him. We do not know the nature of the wickedness of Er, but the reality that God killed him speaks to God’s hatred of sin. 16th Century theologian John Calvin, in speaking of Er, says,

“…he was not merely infected with common vices, but rather was so addicted to crimes, that he was intolerable in the sight of God” (3)

and further he adds,

“…the vengeance of God was so clear and remarkable in the death of Er, that the earth might plainly appear to have been purged as from its filthiness.”(4)

God has the power to sustain life or to end it. He ended Er’s life in a powerful act of judgment.

Our narrative continues as Er’s brother Onan, upon having to marry Tamar to continue Er’s line, committed a great sin by preventing any possibility of Tamar becoming pregnant. As a result, God killed Onan as well.

The sudden and shocking deaths of Er and Onan reveal the environment of sinfulness that permeated Judah’s household. God killed both of Judah’s oldest sons because of their wickedness. It is a fair assessment to be made that Judah had failed as a father to his children as he did not teach them the ways of the Lord. The fact that he married a pagan, unbelieving wife added greatly to the wickedness of his sons.

The plummeting of Judah and his selfishness continues to go on as we read in our text. Verse 11 says, “Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up’ – for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.” We see here more of Judah’s sins. Judah was afraid to allow Shelah to marry Tamar in the future, so he sent Tamar off to live as a widow. He had no intention of repairing her status as a widow as he was not going to give her to Shelah as his wife. The sins of Er and Onan did not lie at her feet, and yet she was another victim of Judah’s sinful behavior.

We then read that Judah’s wife also died. Once Judah was over mourning his deceased wife he headed back, with his Canaanite friend, to his sheep in Timnah. As they were traveling, we read that Judah saw a woman who he believed was a prostitute. He approached her and offered a pledge- to exchange personal items- so that he could pay her later. He then “…went in to her” as we read in verse 18 (Gen 38:18). Once again Judah gave in to his own lustful desires by sinning with a prostitute. 

Selfishness, materialism, sexual immorality, a murderous heart, lust, failure to teach and instruct his children, and more including a total rejection of his covenant God revealed that Judah needed to be changed. He was on course that was leading to disaster, both temporally and eternally. 

We have taken some time to see the great sins in Judah’s life. Now we will see how God begins to chasten and reveal Judah’s own sinful heart to him. In being the ring-leader in selling Joseph into slavery Judah cast aside his brother Joseph and showed not a little bit of regard for how it would affect his father Jacob. Judah cared only for himself. For about 22 years Jacob thought that Joseph was dead. God used the death of Er and Onan as more than acts of judgment on these two men. As we saw Judah plunging more and more into sin, we also saw that God was working behind the scenes throughout the incidents. 

In a lecture series, Michael Morales of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary pointed out that God greatly chastened Judah in the death of Judah’s loved ones (5). First, God killed Er because he was wicked. Then God killed Onan for his sins. Finally, Judah’s wife died. Think of the magnitude of the hardship that Judah went through. This is not even to mention the manner in which Judah’s sons died: in judgment because of their wickedness. They died in judgment and disgrace.

Judah’s life was a disaster.  When he came up with the plan to sell Joseph into slavery those many years before little did Judah know what great suffering he would endure because of his sins. 

Well, despite the great loss of his two oldest sons and his wife Judah did not admit his own sins or go to the Lord in his time of pain. We read that he went into a prostitute to find happiness and pleasure. Even in suffering he would not go to God and did not see himself as he truly was. The death of his two sons and wife did not awaken him to his sinful state. 

But God was not through with Judah because He had plans for him. As providence would have it the woman who he had thought was a prostitute was none other than his own daughter-in-law Tamar! Judah had essentially forced her into barrenness, but she had come up with a sinful plan by deceiving Judah into thinking that she was a prostitute so that she would have children and remove the curse of widowhood from her. It is interesting to note that Tamar believed that she could trick Judah into thinking she was a prostitute. She knew his sinful character well. 

About three months later Tamar was found to be pregnant by prostitution. Despite committing the same sin as Tamar, Judah called on her to be burned ignoring his own guilt. He knew what was right: that this sin should be punished, but he was not obeying or applying this standard of righteousness to himself. He was a great hypocrite. 

God would use this incident to bring great humiliation on Judah as he was forced to acknowledge that it was he who committed the same lewd sin when Tamar provided evidence to that end in the items Judah had given to her as a pledge. In verse 26 we read the first statement of humility from Judah, “Then Judah identified them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not know her again.” Judah was humbled by the Lord through the sinful actions of Tamar and he began to treat her with respect and take care of her implied by the statement, “and he did not know her again.”

We have seen that Judah was a great sinner, despite being in God’s covenant family. Judah rebelled against God and committed atrocious sins. It took great chastening and discipline by the Lord to bring Judah to a place where he finally acknowledged himself as a sinner. 

The statement from Judah upon being humiliated may not initially give us confidence in a change in Judah’s life. Judah said that Tamar had been more righteous than he had been because he did not give her in marriage to his other son Shelah. Upon a conversion from sin into the gracious light of Jesus Christ a person isn’t instantaneously brought to the highest level of sanctification. This is the case with Judah. Here he finally acknowledged that he had sinned, something that he had not done to this point.

The first step to conversion must be humility. A person must see that they have a need; that they are a sinner before they realize that they need Jesus Christ. Here Judah did that very thing. This cannot be seen as anything other than God’s transforming grace in his life. Quite frankly, Judah was a very despicable man, but we now see the beginning of God changing Judah and molding him into a godly leader in Israel. 

This last confession of Judah, in Genesis 38, is the last time we hear about him until Genesis 43 where we see that Judah is back with Jacob and his family. Furthermore, in Genesis 44 Judah is the one who steps up and takes a new leadership role.  

The conclusion to this first look into the life of Judah must lead us to the conclusion that repentance and conversion are not the results of our work. Rather, it is evidence that conversion is first the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. The Holy Spirit brings us to the knowledge that we are sinners and need to turn to Jesus Christ in repentance, a turning away from our sins.  On our part, this is a work that involves a denial of self and humility which is the result of our acknowledgment of our status as a sinner before a holy God. In the next article, we will delve more deeply into the extent of Judah’s transformation.

  1. Michael Boland, “‘The Conversion of Luke Short’ by Michael Boland,” Tolle Lege, last modified October 4, 2013, accessed January 9, 2020,, Note: This story is also relayed in the reprint of the book The Mystery of Providence written by John Flavel and reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust, Carlyle PA, 2002.
  2. Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. John Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, trans. John King, vol. Volume 2, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 279.
  4. Ibid, 281.
  5. Michael Morales, “Lecture on Genesis” (presented at The Pentateuch Lectures at the Gillespie Divinity School, Woodstock, ON, June 3, 2019).

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John Nymann

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