Although the book of Genesis is characterized with sibling rivalry and conflict (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau), the story of Joseph and his brothers is far wider in scope (Genesis, 37- 50, with few interruptions)  and ultimate significance. Additionally, unlike the previous aforementioned conflicts, all zero-sum conflicts, at the conclusion of Joseph’s narrative, all the brothers remain chosen, all valid descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose children go on to form God’s people, the Jewish nation.

This family conflict is thus transformed from a zero sum conflict into a multifold difference, from a dichotomy to a duality, and from a divergence into a convergence of distinct, unique, yet at the same time, inextricable identities.

There is an additional importance to the brother’s reconciliation, one whose meaning extends beyond merely their own time. The later prophets (Ezekiel, 37:2, Hosea, 12-14) speak of the reunification of the Kingdoms of Judah and Ephraim, Joseph’s son and heir. These kingdom’s unique and distinct paths are perpetuated throughout Jewish history as two distinct yet not extricable avenues to the Divine.

Indeed, until the end of time we hear of these distinct Judah and Joseph identities. Jewish traditions teach of two messiahs, one from the house of Judah1 and another from Joseph2, each playing a distinct role in the grand messianic drama. What is so significant of these personalities that they play such a central role in Jewish faith and destiny?

What is the main essential difference between them that the tradition required two separate, yet intertwined, personalities?

Early Differences

Let us begin by investigating two early stories in the lives of the biblical characters Joseph and Judah. Both these stories involve questions of character and values, in which both figure’s faith are tested. Several classical commentators explain that the deeper purpose of God testing the faith of the righteous is in order to reveal their true nature.3

Judah is confronted with the episode of Tamar. He makes the courageous decision to not save his honor, not to deny his actions, but rather to do the right thing and admit publicly to his wrongdoing. Notwithstanding the probability that his culture probably would have understood and even forgiven him if he had taken another route, Judah’s went with his good morals, which shine out in this powerful Biblical episode.

In a seemingly similar test, we find Joseph also showing admirable richness of character, albeit n a different way. Joseph, a child of only seventeen years, is repeatedly solicited by his master’s wife. Joseph’s strong self discipline helps him from falling into the path of sexual immorality. Like his older brother Judah, he is able to maintain his integrity even at the cost of his public shaming and jail sentence.

I would like to argue that at this point we can begin to seem a thematic difference between the brothers. Both maintain their personal integrity and are willing to be shamed for that, both make a tough yet appropriate moral decision, yet both stories are radically different. Judah is able to express exceptional courage, albeit only after he has sinned. This courage, although outstanding and profound comes only after succumbing to immorality. Joseph, however, according to one opinion in the Talmud (B.T. Sotah 36b), is forever a righteous man; he does not experience even a moment of sin. I will argue that this pivotal difference sheds light not only on their personalities but also on their progeny.

Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s Approach

The simple impression one may get from a simple reading of the Biblical narrative is that indeed Joseph exercised constant self-control and always resisted temptation. In fact, the third century Talmudic sages, Rav and Shmuel (ibid.), argued this very point. According to one opinion, Joseph in fact had given up; he was ready to succumb to his evil temptation. However, at the crucial moment, Joseph is able to withstand the wiles of Potiphar’s wife due to his seeing the “countenance of his father” who berates him with the words: “Joseph! Your brothers are destined to be inscribed upon the stones of the ephod, and you are among them. Do you wish for your name to be erased from among them, and for you to be known as ‘a companion of harlots?’?”

There are several difficulties with this passage: Why does Jacob’s “countenance” appear only at this moment and only during this episode? Secondly, what is the deeper meaning of this seemingly random warning? Surely, a reminder of the strict punishment that awaits the adulterer should serve as a stronger deterrent to sin?

In a suggestive essay,4 Rabbi Isaac Hutner, great 20th century writer, thinker, and educator, discuss many of these ideas.

He points to the fact that Jacob (Genesis 49) as well as Moses (Deuteronomy 33) blessed the tribes before their respective deaths. Each tribe is given their own unique and special blessing, especially designed for their distinctive role in the grand Jewish narrative. Every one of the tribes has their particular journey and their specific energy which they must manifest in this world. Therefore, suggests R. Hutner, what Jacob was in fact saying to Joseph was: your tribe is unique; it must appear inscribed on the ephod the same as all the others. Your uniqueness is that you will be absolutely pure, without sin. What you are about to do if indeed you sinned, Jacob was telling Joseph, is going against the very essence of what you should stand for in this world. By sinning, without getting into the technicalities of why, what, and how you will be sinning, you will be undermining your and your progeny’s very own reason d’être.

By sinning, Joseph would be taking away from his core essence and thus lose his distinction and his representation as a unique part of the Jewish people. This is because Joseph’s uniqueness and essence is purity.5. Once you sin, Jacob “tells” Joseph, you will lose your uniqueness as one whose quintessence is avoiding sin regardless of the context or the extent of the temptation.

R. Hutner continues and compares Joseph’s spiritual makeup with that of Judah. As we have seen, Judah is not pure; he is not always able to withstand temptation. He has intercourse with his daughter- in-law Tamar while under the impression that she was a prostitute. Judah’s redeeming quality is his ability, at great personal cost, to admit his failures6.

We thus find two diametrically opposed qualities of character and measure of distinction in the biblical personalities of Judah and Joseph. While Joseph’s quintessence and quality of distinction is his ability to withstand sin at all cost and to remain pure under all conditions, tempting though they may be, Judah’s quality and essence differs greatly from this. Judah is not necessarily immune to sin and nor does he necessarily overcome every temptation. Judah does, however, has the capability to repent. He has the compensating ability to recognize what he has done wrong and repent in a way that makes the necessary mends for his sin and clears the path for rejuvenation, renewal, and the regaining of his earlier status. This same repentance would not necessarily be possible and available to Joseph whose very essence implies complete avoidance of sin.

Monarchical Manifestations

One of the reasons it is so important to focus on and better understand the lives and personalities of Judah and Joseph is due to the fact that they continue to serve as model leaders for the Jewish people. Judah not only serves as a symbol of kingship and leadership on a figurative level. His actual progeny – the Davidic dynasty (Ruth 3:18) – served as the actual Kings of Judah during the First Temple period.

King Saul on the other hand, although not being the biological descendant of Joseph has very much that comes from Joseph as a role model, and has also some undeniable biological similarities; although Saul is a descendant of Benjamin and not of Joseph there is still a biological and theological relationship between the two of them. Joseph and Benjamin are both the children of Rachel so that although all tribes have the same father the common maternal ground indicates a far higher level of similarity and, as we see in the story of Joseph and the brothers the connection between Joseph and Benjamin was far stronger between Joseph and the rest of the brothers and stronger than the relationship between Benjamin and the rest of the brothers. This relationship is not to be overlooked and trivialized since as some scholars have pointed out7 and as will be shown here, much of Saul’s personality and surely Joseph personality can be traced and attributed to Rachel. This strong influence of Rachel’s trait is one that laces throughout Joseph and Saul’s life. Thus a better understanding of Joseph can also help put into context the life and reign of King Saul. This reign of Saul is not something that can be overlooked either as it is one that teaches us of a model of Jewish kingship whose lessons must be properly understood.

Separate but Equal?

Short lived though it was, King Saul’s short term kingship and dynasty can be understood as one model of kingship8. Although he ultimately failed, Saul’s kingship could theoretically have lasted for centuries. One of the most anomalous aspects of Saul’s life and dynasty are its tragic end, short term and the unforgiving manner in which God deals with him.

The question why Saul was granted such a short lived kingship while David merited the blessing of eternal kingship (Psalms89:37) is one that has troubled many9.

Many thinkers and commentators have struggled to find the justification for God’s dispossession of Saul from kingship while at the same time granting an eternal throne to David and his dynasty. Indeed the Talmud already points out to this seeming discrimination and states ironically that Saul committed only one sin and was punished while David sinned twice and was pardoned (Yoma 22b). The captivating statement from the Talmud points to the perplexing fact that while10 Saul, after sinning just once in his failure to carry out God’s word and destroy the Amalekities  (( See B.T., Yoma 22b and Kohelet Rabba 7:16 for Saul’s rational for not carrying out God’s commandment. For further elaboration, see: R. Elijah Yadid, Shaul Bekhir Hasem (Jerusalem, 2004).)) (Samuel 1, 15:9) is informed that his kingship has been revoked from him and given to his “better” (ibid., 15:28) fellow while David, despite sinning twice, is promised an eternal and inalienable throne. As mentioned, several commentators struggle to find a way to justify this seemingly discriminatory decision of God.

If we can come to understand that the different paradigms of leadership that these two kings embodied is due to their ancestry we may arrive at the key to understanding their differences. Realizing that these Kings’ ancestry and paradigmatic forefathers embody two theologically different roles may help account for their different leadership styles and the fate of their dynasties11.

David and Saul as Representations of Judah and Joseph

If we are correct that Saul was meant, as least partly, to serve as the standard bearer of Joseph and his call for purity and moral perfection we can understand better his failed career. Once his sinned (even once!) his sin qua nom and distinguishing uniqueness were no longer there and he had lost the reason d’être for his entire kingship. Saul was not meant to just be a king, he was meant to be a king that would live up to a certain standard. Failing that, his purpose on the throne was no more12.

King David, on the other hand, a descendant and representative of the tribe of Judah had other traits that marked his uniqueness. Judah, as manifested in his relationship with Tamar is not immune to sin; Judah’s greatness is not measured by his salient and impenetrable protection form sin. In fact, what we learn from that episode is quite to the contrary- contrary to the expectation of the Patriarchs and the twelve tribes to epitomize moral behavior and for their behavior to serve as something for generations to look up to, the story of Judah and Tamar is one that raises difficult and perplexing questions that have challenged Jewish thinkers to this very day13.

As a descendant and standard bearer of the tribe of Judah, David’s uniqueness will not be judged by his ability to always withstand temptation.  His distinction lies in his ability to admit mistakes and make the necessary corrections. The ability to rise from the ashes, to show the courage and resilience to make the necessary corrections to whatever mistakes one has made, is what marks Judah’s distinction and is the path that King David was able to follow so thoroughly14.

This notion of kingship being the lot of Judah fits well with his overall message and provides a glimpse into what a true Jewish monarchy ought to look like. The Midrash (Midrash Tehilim, 76) tells us that the impetuous for granting Judah kingship was his courageous admittance of guilt with Tamar. The fact that kingship is granted to Judah as a direct result of his ability to admit guilt when necessary, seems to be highly appropriate and understandable in a modern and a democratic context. Realizing that at the very foundation of an honest, versatile, and truthful government lays in its ability to accept criticism, engage in introspection, and be willing to admit mistakes it therefore makes sense that he who embodies this ability to admit mistakes and correct wrong decisions be given the role of king. Understanding Judah’s greatness in terms of repentance, self-criticism, moral integrity, and the ability to move forward after crisis allows a brighter and more cohesive understanding of Judah and David as individuals and on the Davidic Dynasty as a whole.

Messianic Implications

This distinction between the figure of Joseph, the representative of pure righteousness, and Judah the representative of one’s ability to correct one’s mistakes and return to a pre-sin condition provides for us not only a clearer perspective on their own uniqueness as individuals and their dynasties. It also provides us with an understanding as to how some Jewish thinkers perceive the nature of the Messiah and the Messianic age; an ideal world and the culmination of Jewish history.

One of the thirteen principals of faith set forth by Maimonides is the belief in the arrival of a messianic king from the house of David and his son, Solomon. This notion has its source in a widely understood interpretation of certain verses from the Bible15.

This notion that the Messiah must be a descendant of Judah and the Davidic dynasty is not merely concomitant with the fact that David’s dynasty has been the accepted and established dynasty Jews have gotten used to over hundreds of years. Nor is it simply a continuation of the Divine promise to King David that his throne shall last forever (Samuel 2, 7). This notion has deeper and significantly more substantive theological roots.

Genesis 49:10 reads:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations.

This verse has traditionally been viewed as a messianic prophecy: God shall uphold his promise to Judah16 until the messianic figure arrives. This is also how Maimonides understood this verse and therefore he arrived as his ruling as to the Davidic lineage of the messiah as seen above.

This relationship between Judah and the messianic era may be better understood in light of the dual role that the messiah and the messianic era have in Judaism.

Maimonides’s understanding of the messiah’s role is not merely that of warrior and military leader, providing the Jewish people with safety and security, returning them to their land and rebuilding the Temple. In his outline, the messiah must also bring about a religious revival amongst the people, leading them to higher levels of observance of Jewish law and a greater pursuit of Torah learning.17

This dual notion of the messiah is reflected in many passages in the Bible (e.g. Numbers 24:17, Isaiah, 11: 1-5).

We demonstrated above that Judah and David are two biblical figures who exemplify the values of repentance and growth  ((This power that Judah exemplified, the power of repentance, can be seen again in the life of King Manasseh. The Book of Kings treats him as a wicked and vile man who turned back the clock on his father’s religious reforms. However, later in his life, under great duress he repents and his is told that God has accepted his repentance and pledge to return the people to the proper path. Truly there is not a better exemplifier of the path of Judah-David, of true repentance and growth. )). It is therefore clear why they were chosen as the tribe from whence cometh the messiah, the final redeemer, physically and spiritually, of Israel  ((The Talmud comments that David was the one who demonstrated the use and effectiveness of repentance (B.T., Moed Katan 16b). R. Hutner (ibid.) explains that this passage means to say that the uniqueness of David’s repentance was that even after he sinned he did not lose his exalted status before God. R. Joseph B. Soloveichik similarly points to the dual consequences of sin. It brings punishment upon the doer and also causes him lose his spiritual integrity and closeness to God. Although people have repented in the past and absolved themselves of punishment David was an epic example of not only repenting to rid himself of punishment but was able to regain his spiritual status and maintain the eternal throne and closeness to God that he so cherished. A beautiful example of this can be found in David’s prayer after he sinned (Psalms 51:12). All he asks for is to maintain a close relationship with God; it was not the approaching punishment or the devastation that would follow that concerned him but rather the closeness to God that he was most fearful of losing.)).

Messiah Son of Joseph

Throughout this essay we have been referring to the messianic era brought about by a messianic leader, a kingly figure from the tribe of Judah. Several ancient sources18 also refer to a second messiah, this one from the tribe of Ephraim and Joseph who will also have an important role in the messianic process.

While these sources disagree on many points all describe this man as waging war with the descendants of Esau and that he will perish in this battle. His death with lead to the final redemption, headed by the far better known, “Messiah son of David”.

One cannot ignore the striking similarity between Saul’s short lived career and the tragic end of the Messiah from the House of Joseph. What can this teach us about the mission of Joseph and it’s manifestation in the life of this messiah? I believe that there is an internal coherence and consistency is the lives of these two men. We have portrayed Joseph as the embodiment of purity. His righteousness is complete and without blemish. The book of Genesis is, to be sure, full of shady figures and downright evil men. However, Esau, one can argue, behaves with a unique form of depravity and negativism.

He represents a hypocritical, sometimes undetectable, form of negativity. The clearest example of his ability of Esau to mislead others with regard to the nature of his moral standard is the story of Esau and Issac’s blessings. Esau is so successful in conveying a positive image of himself to his blind father to the extent that his father is not only willing to accept him as righteous and legitimate, but is even willing to see him as a superior moral candidate to his brother Jacob. This ability to deceive others and to show a convincing positive image is one that is unique to Esau in contradistinction to other negative figures in the book of Genesis who usually show such clear and outright negativity.

Therefore, it can be argued, the tradition chose Joseph as the best candidate to combat and countermeasure this evil.19 Only Joseph, a figure of unrelenting, unquestionable, and epic integrity is ready to stand and confront a figure of such confused and camouflaged identity.

It is only Joseph, the unquestionable figure of righteousness who can counter Esau, a figure whose essence is foggy, hypocritical, and shrouded with moral doubt. Only this figure of sterling righteousness can face he who exemplifies the blurring of moral lines and the tainting of character clarity.

What remains to be explored is this Messiah’s unavoidable death which remains esoteric and whose meaning is an enigma shrouded with mystery. Perhaps once his completes his role it’s vital, for the sake of unity, for him to vanish as to not be seen as a possible contender.  ((See: Isaiah 11:11-13: “It shall be on that day that the Lord will once again show His hand to acquire the remnant of His people…Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah and Judah will not harass Ephraim”. R. Hutner (ibid.) asks why it is that the prophet only mentions jealously with regard to Ephraim. He points out that usually the emotion of jealousy is triggered by the feeling of lack. Judah will be the one who will lead the Jewish people into the messianic era. What Isaiah is prophesying is that Ephraim will nevertheless not be envious of his brother Judah. R. Hutner connects this explanation with an exegesis of the Rabbi Judah Lowe b. Bezalel (Maharal) of Prague (d. 1609). The Talmud (B.T., Sanhedrin 110b) records a dispute among the sages whether the ten “lost” tribes of the former Kingdom of Israel will return during the messianic era. The Maharal (Netzakh Yisrael, Chapter 34) suggests that the argument is whether they will return based on their own merits. The opinion that stipulates that they will not return means to say that they will not return because of their own merit and with their own capabilities as this redemption will be facilitated by the characteristics that are inherent to the tribe of Judah and this is what brought about the redemption.)) Another suggestion is that as he represents Joseph’s purity he will therefore ascend to heaven as Elijah did (Kings 2, 2:11).


The lives of both Judah and Joseph resemble and embody sharp and strong similarities while at the same time they show diametrically opposed characters. While Joseph’s life tells us a story of unyielding purity and uncompromised integrity even in the face of the strongest of temptations, the story of Judah’s life tells us of the ability to rebuild and rise oneself up, even after failure and succumbing to sin. The story of Judah tells us of the ability to not only repent and clear one’s self of guilt and punishment but to be able to return to one’s pre-sin status. These diametrical differences between Judah and Joseph prove to be integral not only to the appreciation of their own personal lives, but, perhaps even more importantly, to their descendants and spiritual namesakes. This is most exemplified in the lives of King Saul and King David. Saul, a representative of Joseph, loses his kingship in a most tragic way after sinning only once while David, who sins twice, is granted an eternal throne. Understanding how the quintessence of these two giants of character, Judah and Joseph differs sheds great light on their subsequent descendants. Understanding Joseph’s uniqueness in terms of the ability to withstand all sin at any price explains why his relative Saul is so heavily punished after not living up to that expectation. Similarly, understanding Judah’s greatness not necessarily in terms of withstanding all sin but rather is his ability to correct the mistakes he has makes and to ascend up the path of repentance difficult though it may be, explains why King David is able to do the same after sinning. This understanding makes the principle of messiah being specifically a descendant of Judah and David considering his role in leading the Jewish people up a path of repentance. It also explains the role of the enigmatic messiah son of Joseph in being the one chosen to fight the house of Esau, a persona personifying hypocrisy and moral deception.


  1. The role of this Messiah is laid out in, Maimonides, Mishne Torah (henceforth M.T.), Hilkhot Melakhim, 11:1.
  2. His role, while less explicit in the classical sources, in nevertheless hinted at in several texts, e.g., B.T., Sukka 52b.
  3. See Rashi, Rashbam, Nahmanides, and Ibn Ezra to Genesis 22.
  4. R. Issac Hutner, Ma’amaray Pachad YItzkhak (New York, 2003), pp 97-100.
  5. In the Rabbinic writings Joseph is often referred to as, “Yosef Hatzadik”, Joseph the righteous. Joseph’s strength and essence is understood to lay in his ability to avoid sin no matter how great the temptation.
  6. See Genesis Rabbah 85:1, suggesting that in the merit of his courageous admittance, Judah merited that the King Messiah should descend from him.
  7. See R. Yair Bachrach, Bein Shaul Le’David, (Jerusalem, 1970), pp. 207-240.
  8. God promises Jacob “and kings will (in the future) descend from you”. This seems to be a difficult promise to understand considering the fact that Judah was already born and therefore what other kings will descend from Jacob?  Rashi (Genesis 35:11, based on Genesis Rabbah 2:4) explains this difficulty by pointing out that at the point this promise was made Benjamin was not born yet. Benjamin shall be the ancestor of King Saul and his son Ish Boshet. They, albeit for only a short period, served as kings of the Jewish people during the first commonwealth.
  9. R. Samuel Eidels (Maharsha), Yoma 22b,  points out that many have been bothered by the seemingly short shrift that Saul receives and he provides one possible approach. R. Judah Leib Alter, Chiddushei Sefat Emet (ad loc.), suggests another approach.
  10. A similar, and similarly troubling, phenomenon can be found hundreds of years later. The Book of Kings informs us that while the Israelite kingdom was completely destroyed and it’s people lost to exile, the kingdom of Judah not only will exists for many more years but many of her people ultimately return and are not lost to exile. The people of Judah sinned just as much as the people of Israel. The reason for their better fate is, as the verse says, “for the sake of David my servant”.  This seems to echo the same difficulty the Talmud has with the unequal treatment of Saul and David though David seems to have earned more merit so that the kingdom descendant from him should last for longer.
  11. This line of reasoning is raised by R. Hutner (ibid.) although he only suggests if for Judah-David.
  12. Another angle to the role of Joseph-Saul as moral perfectionists is the fact that they are both children of the matriarch Rachel. In the Rabbinic reading, Rachel is a paragon of pure virtue and moral perfection. In the Aggada (B.T., Megilah 13b, Baba Batra 123a) we learn that Jacob and Rachel were in love and wished to marry. While at first, her father, Laban, acquiesces, the couple is concerned that he will attempt to trick them and attempt to switch her older sister Leah in her stead. Jacob and Rachel agree on a set of “signs” (probably a form of code or password, verbal or otherwise) which Rachel was to show him at the wedding to confirm that she was the real bride. Rachel, seeing the ruse about to be carried out, could not allow her sister to be humiliated and she reveals the “signs” to Leah. This ability to act selflessly and altruistically, doing what is right no  matter the personal cost, is found later in her first-born Joseph and indeed was expected of their descendant, Saul.
  13. See B,T. Sotah 10b: “whoever says that David has sinned is mistaken”.
  14. A continuation of these themes can be found in the story of Esther and Mordechai. Mordechai, by refusing to bow down to Haman, puts his entire people at risk.  Mordechai, from the tribe of Benjamin and a descendant of King Saul, exemplifies the path we have been describing as that of Joseph, Benjamin’s closest brother. Some commentators suggest that Mordechai’s action served as a “spiritual correction” (tikun) for the actions of his ancestor. The Talmud (B.T., Megilah 13b) also acknowledges the connection between Rachel and Mordechai’s actions albeit it attributes them to the great merit of Rachel’s profound modesty (tz’niut).
  15. See M.T., Hilkhot Melakhim Chapters 11-12. Maimonides describes in some detail how he perceives the unfolding of the messianic process. His main scriptural proof texts are Genesis 49:10 and Isaiah 11.
  16. See: B.T., Sanhedrin 5a, 98b. Horayot 11b. See also: J.T., Horayot 3:2, Sotah 8:3. Nachmanides’s commentary to this verse in Genesis speaks strongly against not violating this privilege of the tribe of Judah. He also points out that this promise is reiterated in Chronicles 2, 13:5.
  17. M.T., Ibid, 11:4.
  18. See: B.T., Sukka 52b, Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 1, Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms, Chapter 82.
  19. See: Obadiah 1:18, “The house of Esau shall become straw while the house of Joseph will become a flame, and the house of Joseph shall consume the house of Esau”. Joseph is explicitly selected to be the one who will bring about the destruction of the house of Esau. Cf. Genesis Rabbah 73:5. Tanchuma Exodus, Ki Tetzeh, Chapter 10, P’sikta Rabbah 12.

Published in Torah Musings, July 14th 2016