Then Judah came near to him. (Genesis 44:18)
The goodness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4)
The restoration of Joseph's brethren is a story which we might have summarised in two or three sentences. God's Word, however, gives a description that includes minute details. One reason may well be that it is vital to understand the truth of repentance and restoration. Another reason, sadly, may be that restoration is often a lengthy process. This is not because God is slow to forgive but because the human heart is slow to repent.
Joseph's brethren, in Genesis 42 to 44, foreshadow the twelve tribes of Israel (including Judah) in their future restoration when they will be led to accept the rejected but true Joseph. Further, their story brings to light certain principles regarding the work of restoration and the concept of true repentance.
In this respect Judah's pleading address is highly interesting (please read chapter 44, verses 18 to 34). The effect is tremendous: Joseph, who had "made himself strange to them" and had spoken "roughly" to them (ch. 42:7), can no longer control himself: "And Joseph could not control himself before all them that stood by him, and he cried, Put every man out from me! And no man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brethren. And he raised his voice in weeping. And Joseph said to his brethren, I am Joseph" (ch. 45:1).
This proves that Judah's speech had given evidence of true repentance. Joseph's dealings which, at first sight, appear strange, rough and arbitrary, can now be recognised as governed by wisdom that reached the aim of the true restoration of his brethren.
In what follows, this article attempts to point out some of the features of true repentance that can be identified in Judah's pleading address.
Communion with God's mind
Contrary to popular belief, repentance is more than just a feeling of regret. Joseph's brethren who had boldly stated "we are honest" (ch. 42, vv. 11 & 31) did feel regret. Their words in chapter 42 (vv. 21 & 22) prove two things: firstly, their conscience was active, and secondly, they regretted the consequence of their deed: "And now behold, his blood also is required." But this is not yet true repentance. More is required before Joseph reveals himself. And this is exactly the point of this article: repentance implies the realisation of God's thoughts (or feelings) about the matter concerned. The primary question faced by a truly repentant person is not how he or she or somebody else was affected, but the consequences for God's glory.
Judah's speech demonstrates that he now has a feeling for the grief he caused his father. He realises and states that Benjamin "cannot leave his father: if he should leave his father, [his father] would die" (v. 22).
Joseph and Benjamin were the only sons of Rachel, the wife Jacob had loved (29:18). Losing Benjamin would be the event that would be most comparable to loosing Joseph whom Jacob loved "more than all his sons" (37:3). Now Benjamin is the most beloved: ". and his father loves him" (v. 20) and "his life is bound up with his life" (v. 30). Judah is no longer occupied with how God may act in retribution but with Jacob's love for his son and his grief.
The matter is made clear very eloquently in verse 22: "If he should leave his father, [his father] would die," and verse 29: "And if ye take this one also from me, and mischief should befall him, ye will bring down my grey hairs with misery to Sheol." These words are the echo of Jacob's own words after the loss of Joseph (37:35).
Judah's mind evidently has been brought into communion with Jacob's. True repentance brings the mind of the one who has sinned into communion with the mind of God and leads the soul to appreciate how the Son of God was affected by it and what grief this caused for God. This appears to be a central feature of true repentance.
Judah's determination to avoid repetition
The hoped-for result of Judah's discourse is that Benjamin would be free. In order to achieve this Judah is willing to "stay" in Egypt as a substitute: "And now, let thy servant stay, I pray thee, instead of the lad a bondman to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brethren" (v. 33). This proves Judah's utter determination to avoid anything that would be like a repetition of his crime.
No attempt to escape the consequences
This determination proves that there is no attempt on Judah's part to protect himself from the consequences of his crime. There is no attempt to ameliorate his actions or their results. He vividly describes Jacob's grief which implies their (Joseph's brethren's) guilt. The account of this is not mitigated with a view to improving Judah's current situation.
Everyone, honest enough to admit it, will confirm how easily one may emphasise some details and omit or play down others, in order to present one's failure in a less drastic way so that the perceived damage may be minimised (as an example of this type of mitigating confession one may compare Aaron's words "I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf" to the actual account stating that he "fashioned it with a chisel and made of it a molten calf," Exodus 32:4, 24).
The above features of Judah's discourse show the essence of repentance, namely communion with the mind of God, and provide two signs of the sincerity of his repentance: avoidance of repetition and willingness to bear the consequences.
The answer and result
True repentance is answered. Joseph can no longer control himself-he weeps, and demands all others leave. Left with his brethren, he "raised his voice in weeping" (45:2) and reveals himself to his brethren. He no longer speaks harshly to them, nor does he use an interpreter. Rather, he utters these meaningful words: "I am Joseph" (45:3). He says to them "Come near to me, I pray you" (v. 4). All notions of distance have disappeared. When, initially, they were "troubled at his presence" he calls himself their brother and says "be not grieved, and be not angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither, for God sent me before you to preserve life" (v. 5). This confirms that the side of their responsibility has been dealt with. What remains is the counsel of God.
Overwhelming as these proofs of acceptance must have been, Joseph has still more in mind for his brethren. "Haste and go up to my father, and say to him, Thus says thy son Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt" (v. 9). In short, Joseph's plan for his brethren is that they might become messengers of his glory: "Tell my father of all my glory. and of all that ye have seen" (v. 13).
The restored soul is led into communion with the Lord and is enabled to worship, to tell the Father of all the glories of the Son, the true Joseph.
Today, the Lord is still able to work true repentance. Our hearts, however, are sometimes as hard as those of Joseph's brethren. It takes us a long time to see the difference between justifying ourselves and true repentance. It takes us a long time to realise what we have done to God and how He felt about the matter (strife, disunity, neutrality towards Christ and His glory, etc.). But the result of Judah's repentance demonstrates that it is well worthwhile.
We can rephrase this challenge by borrowing Malachi's words. Instead of asking "Wherein shall we return?" we should count and act upon the promise "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you" (Mal. 3:7).