On his death bed, Father Jacob offers blessings to his sons gathered around him. According to the Rabbis, his blessings were prophetic: predicting what will await each in the future (Genesis Rabbah 98:2). For Judah, Jacob foretells kingship: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10). Jacob provides no explanation for this blessing, leaving the reader to wonder why Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, the savior of Jacob’s clan, was not the better choice. (Reuben, the oldest, would reasonably be disqualified since he did not prevent the sale of Joseph to Egypt and was not trusted to protect Benjamin.)
Preaching in 1960, Rabbi Norman Lamm relayed the explanation of his esteemed teacher and dean of Orthodox rabbis in North America, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, known simply as the “Rav.” The Rav contended that Judah was worthy to be the progenitor of kings because of the evolution of his character. Though he was dilatory in arranging for the levirate marriage of his daughter-in-law Tamar, leading to her tricking him into intimacy, he comes to realize his error and is never intimate with her again (Genesis 38:26). Coupled with convincing his brothers not to kill Joseph but selling him into slavery (Genesis 37) and his impassioned plea for the life of his brother Benjamin (Genesis 44:18f), Judah emerges as both principled and courageous: qualities essential to rulership.
Joseph, on the other hand, is described by the sages “Joseph the Tzaddik” – Joseph the Righteous. He was surely a man of principle, resisting the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife. His righteousness, however, was practically inborn while Judah’s was developed, a product of his efforts. Proper conduct was natural for Joseph; for Judah, it was a process. Better suited for kingship is a person who recognizes that life is often a struggle, with challenges to overcome.
It is a marvelous lesson, but not entirely convincing. Joseph was a tattler, squealing on his brothers to their father. He, too, undergoes a moral evolution. Besides, Joseph is a phenomenal administrator, overseeing both Potiphar’s house and, later, all of Egypt.
An alternative explanation for placing Judah ahead of Joseph is that it was a way of assuaging Leah, the forgotten and despondent wife. The text never hides the fact that Rachel – Joseph’s mother – was favored. Even Judah has come to realize that to Jacob, there was only one real wife (Genesis 44:27), Rachel. Now, nearing his death, has one last chance to make up for the anguish Leah must have felt. She now can take comfort in knowing that one of her children will command the kingship of Israel.