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Lesson 59: Broken, But Blessed (Genesis 32:22-32)

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It’s been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Even if you’ve never paid much attention to God before, a severe crisis has a way of turning you to Him. You realize that unless God comes through, you are not going to make it. And so you cry out, “Oh, God, help me!”

Some of you may be there right now. It may be a health problem; unless God intervenes, there’s no hope. Perhaps it’s a serious marital or family problem, a financial problem or a desperate need for work. It may be a personal problem, such as loneliness, guilt, anger, bitterness, or anxiety. It could be some life-dominating sin, such as alcohol, drugs, pornography, or gambling. But whatever the problem, you know that you need God, and you’re calling to Him for help.

In Genesis 32, Jacob faced that kind of crisis. He was returning to Canaan in obedience to God, but that meant he would have to face his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated 20 years before. Jacob didn’t know how Esau would receive him. When Jacob’s messengers came back and said that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob froze with fear. Esau could easily wipe out everything that was of value to Jacob, including Jacob! And so he prayed, “Oh, God, deliver me from Esau!” (32:9‑12).

What Jacob didn’t know, and what we often don’t realize in situations like that, is how God goes about helping us. What we have in mind is that God would somehow remove our problem or make our enemy go away. But God doesn’t do it that way. God answered Jacob’s prayer for protection from Esau by wrestling with Jacob until He left him limping as he approached his brother. His plan had been that if Esau attacked one camp, Jacob (in the other camp) could escape. But now he couldn’t run from Esau if he tried! He was totally dependent on the Lord.

The way God helps us is by breaking us of our inherent self-dependence so that we lean totally on Him. In that context, we can properly receive His blessings. Our problem, like Jacob’s, is that all too often we want to use God and His blessings to further our own ends. All his life Jacob had been using God and people to get what he wanted for himself. But now God brings Jacob to see that you don’t use God‑‑ you submit to Him. When we submit to God, He blesses us.

God must break us of our self-dependence so that He can bless us as we cling to Him in our brokenness.

Brokenness is the path to blessing. Before God can use a man greatly, He must break him, because we all have a built‑in propensity to trust in ourselves. Thus,

1. God must break us of our self‑dependence.

God’s wrestling match with Jacob was not a dream or vision--dreams and visions don’t leave a man with a wrenched hip. Jacob’s opponent was the angel of the Lord, Jesus Christ in a preincarnate form. It was a physical fight with physical injury inflicted on Jacob, and yet there were obvious spiritual lessons impressed on him through this unforgettable experience.

It must have been terrifying for Jacob. He was already nervous about Esau’s approach. He had sent ahead his elaborate gift of hundreds of animals. Then he tried to bed down for the night. But he couldn’t sleep, so he woke up his family and moved them across the ford of the Jabbok. Then Jacob went back alone for a final check, to make sure nothing had been left behind. It’s dark and spooky on the desert at night. Suddenly, out of the dark, a hand grabbed Jacob. Jacob must have just about had a heart attack! Who was this? A bandit, trying to rob him? An assassin, sent by Esau? Instinctively, Jacob began to wrestle with this mysterious assailant, struggling for his very life.

We need to be clear that God was the aggressor here. Jacob was defending himself. Some preachers develop this text as a fine example of wrestling all night in prayer with God. But that is not the lesson behind the struggle. Jacob wasn’t laying hold of God to gain something from Him; God was laying hold of Jacob to gain something from him, namely, to bring Jacob to the end of his self‑dependence.

All his life, Jacob had thought that Esau and Laban were his adversaries. He had struggled and schemed to get the blessings he thought these men were taking from him, blessings that God had promised to give him anyway. But now, at some point in the struggle, he discovers to his horror that none other than God was his adversary. Actually, Jacob was his own adversary; but God had to wrestle him into submission to reveal this to him.

We’re all like Jacob. We think that the enemy, the problem, is out there. “The problem is my wife ... my husband ... my parents ... my boss ... my poor circumstances. God, please take care of the problem for me.” But the enemy or problem isn’t primarily out there. The problem is in me, my flesh, my sinful, selfish nature that dominates my life. So God has to reveal to me the power of my flesh before I can be delivered from it.

A. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our flesh.

Obviously, God could have crippled Jacob in the first minute of this contest. When He finally wanted to, He just touched Jacob’s hip and Jacob felt excruciating pain as his hip was wrenched. So why didn’t God do it sooner? Why did He allow the match to go on all night long?

God wanted to show Jacob the power of his self‑will. If you’ve ever wrestled, you know how exhausting it is to grapple with an opponent of equal or greater strength. A few minutes is enough. But Jacob kept at it all night! The Lord kept waiting to see if Jacob would surrender, but he kept fighting.

At what point do you suppose Jacob recognized that his opponent was not a mere man? Later (32:30) he acknowledged that it was God. The text doesn’t tell us, but I’m sure that if he didn’t know before, Jacob knew as soon as the Lord crippled him. But the Lord didn’t use that power until He saw that Jacob would not yield (32:25). The flesh dies hard! Only God can tame it. Until God crippled him, Jacob wouldn’t give in. God let him wrestle all night so that Jacob could see how strong his self‑will really was.

To make sure that Jacob has learned the lesson, the Lord asks him a question which, at first, doesn’t seem to fit the context. Jacob is finally subdued, and he clings to the Lord and says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The Lord responds, “What is your name?” (32:27). Remember, the Lord never asks questions to gain information. He knew the answer. He wanted Jacob to confess not just his name, but his character. He had to say, “My name is Jacob‑‑the supplanter, the conniver, the schemer.” Only after Jacob acknowledged that could the Lord bless him.

Part of the process of knowing God involves knowing ourselves. Until God reveals the power of our sinful nature to us, we tend to think that we’re not so bad. I was raised in the church, so I’ve always known that I was sinner. But yet I didn’t know it. I was inclined to think, “I’m not a terrible sinner; in fact, as far as sinners go, I’m a pretty good sinner.” But the more I’ve grown in the Lord, the more I’ve seen, as Paul said, that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). Until the Lord reveals that to us (and He often has to do it through an all-night wrestling match!) we depend more on ourselves than on Him. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our flesh.

B. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our God.

Before the Lord touched Jacob and crippled him, Jacob probably thought that the fight was pretty evenly matched. But then in one light touch, the Lord wiped Jacob out. Suddenly he saw that God was the lion and Jacob was the mouse. God had just been playing with him!

Until God breaks us, so that we walk with a limp, we have a tendency to view Him as a benign old grandfather, nice to have around, but not very strong. Until that time, we view obedience to God as an option available to us. But we’re in control, directing things as we think best. We choose our careers, our lifestyles, and our schedules, all centered around what will make us happy. God is a nice, harmless grandfather to have around when you need Him. Then the lion roars and in one easy swipe, He cripples us. We learn His awesome power. We learn that obedience is not an option; it’s our only reasonable course of action.

The frailty of our bodies should make us aware of our weakness and of our need to submit to God. Every time we’re sick or get injured, or when we feel the aches and pains of older age, we should acknowledge, “I am not God. I am weak and frail. Only God is God and I must depend totally on Him and live in submission to Him.”

A few years ago, the popular Australian actor, Paul Hogan, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while he was lifting weights. Although he was in a semicomatose state for five days, he dismissed the attack as “just a freak thing that was wasted on me if it was supposed to provide some sort of revelation” (Newsweek [12/8/86], p. 79). Wake up, mate! You can be a specimen of fitness and health, but you’re only a heartbeat away from standing before Almighty God. If He touches your body, you’d better acknowledge your weakness and depend on His strength! You can either submit to Him and be blessed, or fight Him and suffer the consequences. But you’ll never win if you wrestle with God.

Some people resist God’s breaking process and grow bitter. Jacob could have gone that direction here. When the Lord crippled him, he could have angrily shouted, “Now look what you’ve done! I’ve got to go face my angry brother, and you’ve crippled me so that I can’t fight or run!” Jacob could have grown bitter, not better. But he didn’t. Instead, when the Lord said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking,” Jacob clung to Him and gave that marvelous reply: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:26). This shows that

2. God blesses us as we cling to Him in our brokenness.

Often our greatest victories come out of the ashes of our greatest defeats. As soon as Jacob was crippled, he was able to hang on to the Lord for dear life. He knew now that if God didn’t bless him, he had no hope. He couldn’t trust in himself any longer, because he was crippled. He had to cling to the Lord, and in clinging to the Lord in his brokenness, Jacob received the blessing he had been scheming to get all his life.

A. We won’t cling to the Lord until we’re broken.

There’s a paradox here, in that Jacob seems to have incredible strength in clinging to the Lord after he is wounded. Of course, the Lord could have loosened Jacob’s grip and gotten away. But the Lord loves it when His children cling to Him in their brokenness and say, “I won’t let You go until You bless me.”

But we’re all like Jacob: We won’t cling to the Lord with all our strength until we have to. As long as there’s an ounce of self‑dependence left, we’ll trust in ourselves. We can see this in the life of Peter. He was the natural leader of the twelve, always the spokesman. On a few occasions, he even had the audacity to correct the Lord. When Jesus predicted, “You will all fall away because of Me this night,” Peter set the record straight: “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33). Peter still didn’t realize the power of his sinful nature; he wasn’t weak enough to cling in dependence to the Lord. The Lord had to allow Peter to go through that dark night of the soul so that, crippled in himself, Peter would cling to the Lord in his brokenness. It was a broken, but dependent, Peter who boldly preached in the Lord’s power on the Day of Pentecost.

The same is true in coming to Christ for salvation. Many people don’t see their need to trust in Christ as Savior because they hang on to their belief in their own goodness. Their pride blinds them to their great need before God.

Andrew Bonar said that in the highlands of Scotland, sheep sometimes wander off among the rocky crags and get trapped on dangerous ledges. Attracted by the sweet grass, they leap down ten or twelve feet to get to it, but they can’t get back up. A shepherd will allow the helpless animal to remain there for days until it becomes so weak it’s unable to stand up. Finally, he ties a rope around his waist and goes over the edge to the rocky shelf and rescues the one that has strayed. Someone asked Bonar, “Why doesn’t the shepherd go down right away?” He replied, “Sheep are so foolish that they would dash right over the precipice and be killed if the herdsman didn’t wait until their strength was nearly gone.” (In “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980.)

So if you’re thinking, “I’m not a terrible sinner. In fact, I’m a basically good person,” God may have to let you go through some serious problems, until you see your desperate need for Christ. He came to save sinners, not pretty good people. Sometimes God has to let you hit the bottom, where you see that you cannot do anything to save yourself. It’s when God cripples us and we see how weak we really are that we cling to Him until He blesses us.

B. Even in clinging, we’re prone to use God, not to submit to Him.

After the Lord asks Jacob his name and gives him a new name, Jacob asks the Lord to tell him His name (32:29). But the Lord replies, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Again, the Lord wasn’t wondering about the answer to that question. He wanted Jacob to think about it, because the answer would teach Jacob something about himself.

I think that the Lord refused to tell Jacob His name because Jacob had the wrong motive in wanting to know. Jacob obviously knew that this was the Lord, as verse 30 shows. But the name reveals something about the Person. I think, in line with his lifelong tendency, Jacob wanted to know God’s name to get a handle on Him that he could use in the future. Even though he was now clinging to God, Jacob was prone to keep on using God as he always had done. But to keep Jacob submissive and seeking, the Lord refuses.

So even though we’ve had an experience where God has humbled us, we always have to be on guard against our tendency to use God rather than to submit to Him. The Lord is far above us, and while He graciously consents to reveal Himself to those who obey Him (John 14:21), He will remain distant to those who simply want to know Him so that they can use Him for their own purposes.

C. Clinging to God in our brokenness is the key to power with God and with others.

When Jacob clings to the Lord and demands that He bless him, the Lord gives him a new name. To the Hebrews, the name reflects the character. So God, speaking prophetically, gives Jacob a new character: Instead of Jacob, he is to become Israel. Instead of supplanter, he is to become a prevailer. The name “Israel” either means, “he who strives [or, prevails] with God,” or “God strives” [or, prevails]. Both meanings are true: Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed in the sense of hanging on until God blessed him. But, first, God prevailed over Jacob by crippling his stubborn self-dependence. Jacob’s prevailing with men is a prediction of how God will now conquer Jacob’s enemies (the most pressing being Esau) by His power rather than through Jacob’s conniving ways.

If we come into the proper relationship with God, of clinging to Him in our brokenness, then we have power with Him. We prevail with Him who has prevailed over us. And since God is over all, if we can prevail with Him, then we prevail over all others. As Jacob went limping to face Esau, he was more powerful in God’s strength and his own weakness than he ever could have been in his own scheming and strength.

So above all else, devote yourself to seeking God’s blessing. When you’ve got that, you’ve got everything! When you prevail with God through His prevailing over you, He will take care of your problems and enemies. Then you’re not using God to solve your problems; you’re submitting to God and clinging by faith to Him.

That was the lesson for Moses’ readers, the nation Israel, poised to enter the land of Canaan. They would not gain victory in Canaan in the usual way nations gained victory, but rather through prevailing with God. The Canaanites could not prevent Israel from God’s blessings in the land any more than Esau had prevented Jacob from entering the land. It was God who would defeat the Canaanites for them if they trusted Him. It was also God who would oppose Israel if they failed to submit to Him. Weak in themselves, they could lay hold of God’s strength, and no one could prevail against them.


Two concluding applications:

(1) Take time to get alone with God. It was when Jacob was left alone that the Lord came to wrestle with him (32:24). Calvin states, “Would we bring down the pride of the flesh, we must draw near to God” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 202). When you get alone with the Lord, ask Him to break you of your sinful self‑dependence, and then cling to Him in your brokenness until He blesses you. When He breaks us and prevails over us, then He will allow us to prevail over our problems.

(2) Use your victories which come out of God’s breaking you, to teach others. When Jacob’s family asked him why he was limping, he could have concealed the lesson to save face: “Just a little arthritis, I guess.” But he was willing to let us in on what he learned. In verse 32, Moses explains a Hebrew custom which even continues to this day among orthodox Jews. They do not eat the sinew of the hip of animals because that is where God touched Jacob. That custom should serve as an object lesson to God’s people of the truth Jacob learned, that God breaks us of our self‑dependence so that He can bless us. As the Lord teaches that to you, pass it on to others. Your greatest problems can become your greatest victories if, when God breaks you, you cling to Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Brokenness can be a key factor in restoring strained relationships. Discuss how.
  2. Some say we need proper self‑confidence to get things done. Is this biblical? Consider 2 Cor. 3:5-6; Phil. 4:13; John 15:5.
  3. If God wants us to know Him, why does He withhold knowledge of Himself (as He did here with Jacob)?
  4. So often we use the Bible as a problem‑solving manual. Is this wrong? What cautions do we need to have in this approach?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 60: Forward, Halt! (Genesis 33:1-20)

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My drill instructor in Coast Guard boot camp believed in the value of marching. We marched a lot. When you’re marching as a company, it’s not easy to be the one giving the orders. To do that, you’ve got to think on your feet and look ahead to know what you’re going to say. It’s easy to get flustered.

On one occasion, our recruit company commander was marching us along under the scrutiny of our drill instructor. He yelled out an order that was not correct. When you do that, the way to rescind the order is to say, “As you were.” But being already flustered by yelling the wrong command and seeing us begin to respond, this recruit forgot “as you were,” and yelled instead, “Cancel that order!” From the back, the deep voice of our drill instructor broke us all into laughter when he bellowed, “Cancel that order? What do you think this is, some blankety‑blank McDonald’s?”

If Jacob had been calling out marching orders to his family as they returned to Canaan, in Genesis 33 his orders would have been, “Forward, halt!” Jacob gets a bit flustered as he finally meets Esau and his 400 men. He has just spent the night wrestling with the Lord, where God broke Jacob of his self‑dependence. He’s walking with a limp as he approaches the dreaded meeting with his estranged brother. Under the pressure of the moment, he resorts to his old scheming ways and takes matters into his own hands, but it’s mixed up with some positive aspects of his newly discovered trust in the Lord. So the result is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that commentators and preachers have some different views of Jacob’s actions in this chapter. Some extol him as a godly man who models how we ought to be reconciled to our enemies and live by faith. Others chide Jacob as a sorry example of the life of faith, using chapter 34, which shows the results of his actions in chapter 33, as their proof. Who is right?

I take the middle ground. I think there are some positive changes in Jacob, but they aren’t complete. He’s still the same old schemer in many ways, but God is working on him. He’s changed as a result of Peniel, but he’s still unchanged in many ways. The flesh still dominates much of him, but he’s beginning to live by faith.

In this regard the Bible is realistic, because that’s how it is with most of us. I don’t know anyone who has been totally sanctified as the result of one dramatic spiritual experience. I know many who claim to be totally different, but you don’t have to be around them very long before you realize that they’ve got the same basic problems. A spiritual experience is fine, but, we need to recognize that Christianity is a lifelong walk with God, not a flash in the pan. As A. W. Pink writes (Gleanings in Genesis [Moody Press], p. 295), “It is one thing to be privileged with a special visitation from or manifestation of God to us, but it is quite another to live in the power of it.” So Jacob’s experience in Genesis 33 teaches us that ...

Having begun to live by faith, we must be careful to continue.

Satan usually doesn’t get us off track in one fell swoop, but by degrees. As with John Bunyan’s pilgrim, we wander slightly off into Bypath Meadow, thinking that it’s a pleasant route that will take us parallel with the road to the Celestial City. But it takes us farther and farther away, until we’re caught by the Giant Despair and wonder how we ended up in his dungeon.

If you look ahead, Jacob’s situation at the end of chapter 34 is terrible. His daughter has been raped by the prince of Shechem. In retaliation, Jacob’s sons have treacherously promised the men of Shechem a peace treaty, only to murder them all after they complied with the terms of the treaty. And Jacob is afraid that the other people of the land will destroy him and everything he has.

How did he get into that mess? It began in chapter 33, with little instances of disobedience. The events in chapter 33 probably add up to eight to ten years. Over these years, the little instances of unbelief and disobedience are gradually taking Jacob off the path. These events led to the catastrophe of chapter 34. To explain the text, I want to trace Jacob’s mixture of faith and the flesh in Genesis 33; then I’ll conclude with some applications.

1. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his reconciliation with Esau (33:1‑16).

As the sun rises on Peniel, Jacob comes limping from his wrestling match with the Lord. He looks up and sees Esau and his 400 men coming toward him in the distance. I wish that Jacob would have said, “Lord, You’ve crippled me so I’m helpless unless You intervene. You’ve promised to bless me. I’m trusting You to work.” But instead, the old Jacob takes over: He divides his children and wives, putting the least favorite in the front so that the more favored can possibly escape the massacre he still fears. Jacob is still relying on his own wits to get him out of another tight situation. If his trust had been completely in the Lord, he wouldn’t have had to resort to his escape plan.

Several commentators point out that after God changed Abraham’s name from Abram, the new name is used consistently. But after God gave Jacob his new name, Israel, the Holy Spirit, who superintended Moses’s writing of Genesis, saw fit after this to use the name Jacob 45 times, while the name Israel is used of him only 23 times, and it even has to be reaffirmed in chapter 35. While we probably shouldn’t put too much emphasis on this, it may hint that Jacob was not living up to his new position and privilege as a man who had prevailed with God.

Jacob’s scheming and lack of trust in the Lord is further seen in his groveling approach to his brother. Some commentators commend Jacob for his humble courtesy, but I think that he goes beyond proper respect. His obsequious “my lord, your servant” language is manipulative, at best (33:5, 8, 13, 14 [twice], 15). He meets Esau by bowing seven times, a greeting normally reserved for kings. All the wives and children bow down. There is a place for proper respect, but Jacob is going overboard. Esau didn’t expect that kind of stuff. He calls Jacob, “my brother” (33:9). He’s real; Jacob is the phony.

Jacob’s lack of trust in the Lord is seen also in his insistence that Esau accept his elaborate gift. It was a matter of custom that you didn’t accept a gift from an enemy, so Jacob wanted to make sure that Esau was not still at odds with him. But he was really trusting the gift to appease Esau (33:8). Some commentators say that this is a model of reconciliation, that sometimes it is not wise to bring up old hurts or talk about the problems of the past. I don’t agree. I think this was a superficial reconciliation at best, because Jacob never verbally confessed the wrongs he had committed against Esau, nor did he ask for forgiveness.

It’s like when a husband wrongs his wife. To make peace, he brings home some flowers and a gift. That may be a way of waving a white flag, opening the door for peace talks. But if the gift is all that’s done, there hasn’t been adequate reconciliation. The husband needs to specify how he wronged his wife and ask forgiveness. They need to talk about what happened so that they understand each other. Otherwise, she’s going to say to herself, “He thinks he can just run roughshod over me and then bring me a gift to make everything right. But he’s not willing to deal with the real problem.”

Jacob utters a truth beyond his understanding when he tells Esau, “I see your face as one sees the face of God” (33:10). What Jacob meant is that in Esau’s favorable reception, Jacob saw God’s favor. But beyond that, Jacob’s words point out the truth that when you’re at odds with your brother, he represents God to you. If you’re not right with him, it’s a pointed reminder that you’re not right with God. As John puts it (1 John 4:20), “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Jacob’s flesh also rears its head in his response to Esau’s offer to travel together (33:12‑16). It would not have been right for Jacob to go with Esau, since God clearly had told Jacob to go to Canaan, not to Seir. So Jacob was right to refuse, but he was wrong in the way he refused. He makes up an excuse about his children and flocks being too weak to travel at Esau’s pace. He pushed them hard to escape from Laban, but now he uses their weakness as an excuse to avoid going with Esau. He lies by telling Esau that he will follow him to Seir (33:14).

Some commentators come to Jacob’s defense, saying that he intended to go to Seir, and maybe he did, since the text is not comprehensive. I find that an overly optimistic view of Jacob, because as soon as Esau is out of sight, Jacob turns around, goes back over the Jabbok, and heads a few miles north to Succoth, where he settles for a few years. We’ve all been in similar situations, where we were asked to join an activity which would compromise our faith. In an effort not to offend the person asking, it’s easy to fall into deception. But the right thing to do is to be straightforward in a kind manner. Jacob could have said, “I appreciate your kind offer for me to go with you to Seir, but God has commanded me to go to Canaan.”

With so much of Jacob that’s of the flesh, you may be wondering if he did anything by faith. I see several things. First, Jacob goes out in front of his family to meet Esau (33:3). This represents a change from the night before, when he put his family across the Jabbok (toward Esau’s approach), while he returned to the more safe side. But after wrestling with the Lord and being crippled, he hobbles out in front of his family, which reveals his faith, mingled as it was with his faithless schemes.

Also, Jacob’s faith is seen in his witness to God’s grace in his life. When Esau asks about the children, Jacob is careful to acknowledge the Lord when he says that they are “the children whom God has graciously given your servant” (33:5). In reference to his gift, Jacob says, “Please take my gift ... because God has dealt graciously with me” (33:11).

Jacob’s faith is probably also seen in his refusal to accompany Esau, even though his method of refusal was wrong. I say “probably” because it may be argued that Jacob didn’t trust his brother and was afraid that Esau would play along with the reconciliation for a while and then kill Jacob. But perhaps Jacob saw that since his brother was a secular man who had no concern for God’s purpose concerning Canaan, there could be no true fellowship between them. So he refused to go with him.

So Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith. In many ways, Esau is outwardly the better man. It’s sad that often non‑Christians, who have no interest in the things of God, are much nicer people than those who claim to be following God. Esau probably brought along the 400 men to meet Jacob just in case his brother was up to his old tricks. But when he sees that Jacob isn’t meeting him with an army, he leaps off his camel, runs to Jacob, hugs and kisses him and weeps. He doesn’t hold a grudge in spite of Jacob’s past treachery. And Esau isn’t greedy. Although he finally accepts Jacob’s gift, he says, “I have plenty, my brother. Let what you have be your own.” The trouble is, Esau was not at all concerned for the things of God. Spurgeon pointedly observes, “It is an awful contentment when a man can be satisfied without God” (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 5:354).

2. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his decision to dwell at Succoth and Shechem (33:17‑20).

As I said, the “by faith” part of Jacob’s turning back to Succoth was in not accompanying Esau. But that’s about as far as his faith went. For the most part, it was the old Jacob, living by the flesh. As Derek Kidner observes, “Succoth was a backward step, spiritually as well as geographically” (Genesis [IVP], pp. 171‑ 172). It lies to the east of the Jordan River, thus outside the boundary of Canaan. Thus, Succoth represents incomplete obedience on Jacob’s part.

In 31:3, the Lord had told Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” In 31:13, in repeating the command, the Lord said, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me.” It would seem that Jacob should have returned to that place of his vision and vow. In 35:1, after the disastrous events of chapter 34, the Lord specifically commands Jacob to go to Bethel. So it seems that at the least, God had wanted Jacob to return to Canaan but, more likely, to go to Bethel. But instead, Jacob settled at Succoth, and then bought land at Shechem.

The text doesn’t give us a motive for Jacob’s incomplete obedience, but it may hint at one. Verse 18 states, “Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem.” (The King James Version takes the adverb “safely” as a proper noun, “Shalem.”) Jacob may have felt safe there, but feared returning to the southern part of Canaan, where his father was, because of continuing fears of Esau, who frequented that region. In spite of Esau’s warm greeting, Jacob probably didn’t trust him. Those who are treacherous, like Jacob, often think others will be treacherous.

But while Jacob was afraid of Esau, he wasn’t afraid of staying in Succoth, outside the land, or of buying property in Shechem, where his family would be morally polluted. He was afraid of the wrong things! God had promised to protect Jacob if he obeyed; but Jacob felt he was more safe in a place of partial obedience than to risk trusting the Lord by obeying completely.

What about the altar Jacob erected in Shechem? Again, commentators are on both extremes. Some say it is a marvelous example of Jacob’s faith, while others condemn him for being hypocritical, living in disobedience while he puts on an outward show of religion by claiming that God is his God.

My observation of Christians (including myself) tells me that Jacob was doing what we all do. He was making an attempt to follow the Lord, but at the same time he was not obeying the Lord completely. By calling the altar “God, the God of Israel,” he was acknowledging his gratitude to God for bringing him safely back to the land. But by not going all the way to Bethel, he was catering to his fleshly fear of Esau. He was the new man, Israel; but he was still the old man, Jacob. We do the same thing. We begin by faith in the Lord, but then live by the flesh.


I conclude with four applications:

1. Be on guard to your own bent toward the flesh. We all have our unique areas of weakness. Jacob’s bent was his scheming. Abraham and Isaac were prone toward lying under pressure. Moses tended to take strong action, but in his own strength, as seen in his killing the Egyptian and later in striking the rock. David had a weakness for women. You and I have our own bent. It’s like the default mode on my computer‑‑it’s the mode you fall into automatically. You’ve got to be on guard, and cling to the Lord especially in that area. Be in the Word--it will reveal to you the thoughts and intentions of your heart (Heb. 4:12) so that you can be on guard.

Also, know your strengths. Usually our areas of greatest strength are related to our areas of greatest weakness. The Apostle Paul was strong as a man of purpose and conviction, but he tended to run over weak people, like John Mark. He had to learn to accept Mark, in spite of his desertion on the first missionary journey. Your strengths will show you your weaknesses, so that you can be on guard.

2. Even though you enjoy God’s protection, you must constantly seek His direction. Jacob came safely to Succoth and Shechem, under God’s protection. But he failed to seek God’s direction, and wrongly settled where he shouldn’t. Granted, Shechem was in the land of Canaan, but Jacob never asked the Lord if this was where He wanted him to live. He falsely mistook God’s protection for His approval.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how Christians make major decisions, like where to live, on the most trivial basis, without consulting the Lord. Often, the last thing they think about is the spiritual well‑being of their family. I’ve heard of Christians deciding to move to some isolated location because they want to get away from people. But is there a good church in this small town? Did they bother to find out if God was directing them to get away from people? As I recall, Christ died for lost people, not for deer and bear and forests. He may want some of His children to abandon the crowds, but I have a hunch that most Christians who head for the wilderness haven’t bothered to check with the Lord.

I once sold a car to a guy who was living in a tiny motel room next to Mother’s Bar in Sunset Beach, California. Since he was from the midwest, I asked him how he happened to settle there. He told me that he came west after a divorce and was driving down Pacific Coast Highway when he saw Mother’s Bar. He stopped in for a drink, liked the place, and decided to stay. What a way to pick a place to live! As believers, the Lord’s purpose and direction should be the major factor in determining where we live.

3. Be alert to spiritual danger, especially as it affects your children. Shechem was probably a trading center, a place where caravans stopped and exchanged goods. Jacob looked around and thought, “It’s as good as any other place.” So he settled there, but he didn’t think about how it would affect his children. The ten years or so he was there were the years his children grew up. Apparently he hadn’t warned Dinah of the dangers of mingling with the local young people. As a result, she got raped and her brothers took brutal revenge.

Think through the implications of your behavior on your children. You may do things which don’t damage you too much, at least outwardly, but it can wipe out your kids. Jacob’s settling in Shechem resulted in the tragedy of chapter 34. His showing favoritism to Joseph built resentment in his other sons, resulting in their selling him into slavery a few years later. We have to be examples of godliness to our kids both in word and deed, and warn them of spiritual dangers.

Your nonverbal actions send loud signals to your kids. If you act selfishly, your kids get the message and learn to be selfish. Even in little ways, you need to show your children that you care for them and want them to grow spiritually. Pray often with your kids. Turn off the tube and read good books to them. Give them your time and attention. Put down your newspaper and listen when they tell you about something that’s important to them. You can and should say “I love you,” but if you don’t show it by giving them your attention, they won’t feel it. If you model godly love, there’s a better chance your kids will hear your verbal teaching about spiritual matters.

4. Be careful of justifying partial obedience. Your little compromise becomes their flagrant disobedience. You can talk about God all day long, but if you don’t live consistently, your kids aren’t going to buy your advice. You can set up your altar in Shechem, even out of the right motives, but if God wants you in Bethel, it doesn’t ring true. And kids are experts at spotting phoniness! You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to live in reality with Jesus Christ, which means obedience, even when it’s not easy. When you sin against your kids, confess it to them and seek their forgiveness. Be real in your growing walk with God!

Everything I’m saying is summed up by Paul in Colossians 2:6, 7: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” You began with Him by faith in obedience to the gospel. Keep it up! Instead of “Forward, halt!” make it, “Forward, march!”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person know if he’s living by faith or by the flesh? What signposts can he look for?
  2. Is spirituality an all‑or‑none matter or a progressive matter?
  3. In restoring a broken relationship, should we always talk through past wrongs, or is it okay just to “forget about the past”?
  4. In declining an unacceptable social offer from a non‑Christian, must we be totally honest or are excuses sometimes okay?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life

Lesson 61: Fatal Attraction (Genesis 34:1-31)

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A few years ago, there was a popular movie called “Fatal Attraction.” I did not see it (because it was R-rated), but it was about a man whose involvement with a prostitute almost got him murdered. Genesis 34 is the original version of “Fatal Attraction.” A young man’s lust for a teenage girl results not only in his murder, but also in the murder of his father and all the men in his town. The script has lust, rape, anger, deception, greed, murder, and family conflict. Who needs the movies or TV--it’s all right here in the Bible!

You may wonder, “Why is a sordid chapter like this in the Bible?” If a Jewish writer, like Moses, had wanted to make the nation’s founding fathers look good, either he would have left this story out or doctored it up, because it isn’t a pretty picture. While Shechem’s date rape of Dinah was wrong, it was nothing compared to the treachery and brutality of Jacob’s sons, who even used their religion to trick these friendly men. After slaughtering them, they looted their goods and took their wives and children as slaves. God’s chosen people weren’t exactly being a channel for His blessing to the nations!

Since “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), this text has lessons for us. I think Moses included this chapter in all its repulsiveness to warn God’s people of the danger of becoming assimilated with the world. The nation Israel was about to go into the land of Canaan. The greatest danger facing them was not fighting the giants in the land. It was the danger of being seduced into blending in with the Canaanites. The same is true for us today:

Assimilation with the world is the greatest danger facing God’s people.

If Satan can get God’s people to act as bad or worse than those who do not know Christ, the world shrugs off the gospel. It’s even more tragic when Christians use the faith to take advantage of others, as Jacob’s sons did here. When believers are fatally attracted to the world, it is fatal for the world, which misses the gospel. Our text reveals three aspects about this fatal danger:

1. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it is a subtle danger.

The greatest dangers in life are always subtle, not frontal. With a frontal danger, you’re on guard; you’re not as vulnerable. But with a subtle danger, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, you’re not aware of it until it’s too late. When Jacob returned to Canaan, Satan didn’t use an army or a band of robbers to try to get him. Instead, he used Jacob’s fear of Esau to get him to settle in the north, near Shechem. It was inside the borders of Canaan, so Jacob could rationalize that he had obeyed God by returning to the land. But it wasn’t Bethel, where Jacob needed to fulfill his vow to the Lord. It wasn’t Hebron, where his father Isaac was still living. Jacob’s settling on the outskirts of Shechem reminds us of Lot pitching his tent near Sodom. Although Jacob built an altar there, he wasn’t where God wanted him to be.

The Shechemites were friendly toward Jacob. Although the young man for whom the town was named violated Jacob’s daughter, he wanted to make things right. He said he loved her and wanted to marry her. He was willing to pay a handsome dowry. He and his father offered to form a friendly alliance, intermarrying with Jacob’s people and letting them trade and own property (34:9‑10). The appeal was for Jacob to “become one people” with them (34:16, 22). It sounded attractive.

Jacob thought he was in great danger in facing Esau; actually, he was quite safe then, surrounded by a regiment of angels. Here, Jacob thought he was quite safe with these friendly people, but he was in great danger. If he had accepted the Shechemites’ offer, God’s people would have been absorbed into the Canaanite culture and would have ceased to exist. We pray for the church in countries where there is persecution, and rightly so. But the greatest danger to God’s people is not persecution; it’s assimilation. Persecution has a way of weeding out the lukewarm. We who are prone to blend in with our hedonistic culture are in greater spiritual danger than those who are persecuted.

I am convinced that the primary way Satan has seduced American Christians is through television. We average over three hours of TV per day per person. That’s almost one full day in seven spent watching the tube! American teenagers view about 14,000 sexual references a year on television. Weekend daytime programs for children portray an average of 25 acts of violence per hour. A decade ago, Newsweek (11/24/86, p. 76) reported, “Many social scientists think that television’s portrayal of family life may be the single most influential factor in how we conduct it.” They cited a study by the National Institute of Mental Health that “a majority of adults and children use TV to learn how to handle their own domestic roles.”

Back when “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best” were the prime-time hits, the negative influence may have been negligible. Those days are long gone! This month TV breaks new ground by having the star of “Ellen” come out with the fact that she is a lesbian. Previous episodes have featured her and others on the show having promiscuous sex. The American Family Association’s Journal gives a brief synopsis of some of each week’s programs. I was going to read a few of these to you, but they are so gross I decided I should not. But popular programs such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Living Single,” “Burke’s Law,” “Frasier,” and many more, are pure raunch.

Studies have shown that those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians watch the same amount and the same programs as the society at large! I’m going to make a statement that may make you angry, but I will defend it: If you as a professing Christian watch that kind of programming on a regular basis, you are not a godly person and you will not raise godly children! You are being assimilated into our godless culture, whether you realize it or not. To watch such fare is to disobey Ephesians 5:3, 4: “But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”

So we’ve got to be on guard, because Satan is a subtle foe. He doesn’t usually saunter up and say, “Would you like to ruin your life and the lives of your family? Follow me.” He’s subtle, seducing us when we think there is no danger.

2. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it happens in the course of everyday family life.

Shechem may have been good for Jacob’s finances, but it was disaster for his family. His seed of disobedience in not going all the way to Bethel resulted in this harvest of shameful events in Shechem. And it all came about in the course of everyday family living. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, was about 14 or 15. Like any teenage girl, she wanted some girl friends, so she started wandering over to Shechem. As she hung out there, she scored big‑‑the prince, for whom the town was named, fell for her.

What 14 or 15 year‑old girl wouldn’t be thrilled by that? It would be like a freshman girl being asked to the homecoming dance by the captain of the football team. Dinah was probably a bit naive, so she allowed herself to get into a situation with Shechem where the two of them were alone. His passion got the best of him, and he raped her.

When word of what happened got back to Jacob, he didn’t know quite what to do. But his sons got mad, and then they got more than even! When Shechem and his father came seeking Dinah’s hand in marriage, Jacob’s sons told them deceitfully that if they and all the men in their town would be circumcised, Shechem could take Dinah in marriage. Shechem, who was highly respected, persuaded his townsmen to comply by convincing them that it would be financially profitable. When all the men of Shechem were at the height of their pain from the operation, Simeon and Levi took their swords, came upon the city unawares, and killed every male. Then Jacob’s sons looted the town and took all the women and children as slaves.

It was terrible revenge. Even though God would later command Israel to wipe out the Canaanites, He had not done that here. There is no way of justifying what they did. The whole incident was like an avalanche which begins with a little stone and ends up burying a whole town. It never would have happened if Dinah had not visited there, which would not have happened if Jacob had not settled there. And it all came about in the course of everyday family life. Perhaps as Dinah went out the door she called, “I’ll be back later; I’m going over to my friend’s house.” Little did anyone suspect the events which would transpire.

As God’s people, we’re locked into a life and death struggle with our enemy, the devil. When you think about spiritual warfare, you may conjure up images of missionaries confronting witch doctors or of evil governments persecuting Christians. But do you think of everyday family life? You should! The family is under attack from the enemy, and the battlefield is made up of everyday events like a teenager going over to a friend’s house.

My question is, why did Jacob and Leah let a girl of Dinah’s age go alone to a pagan city to be with pagan friends? Why no word of warning? And then, after the disaster of her being raped, it seems that Jacob was going to let her be married to Shechem. (He didn’t know of his sons’ evil plan.) Jacob’s father had warned him sternly not to take a bride for himself from among the Canaanites (28:1), but he doesn’t seem concerned that Dinah is going to be married to this Canaanite man!

Parents are responsible before God for where their kids go, what they do, and who they spend time with. Wrong friendships can lead Christian kids into terrible situations where they lack the wisdom or willpower to resist evil. Shechem was a pagan young man with no moral scruples living in a town that was just the same. What do you expect when you let your 14 year‑old daughter visit such a place alone? I think one reason Jacob wasn’t as angry about this incident as his sons were is that he knew it was as much his fault as anybody else’s.

I also suspect that Jacob didn’t have enough of a relationship with Dinah to have warned and corrected her anyway. She was Leah’s daughter, and Jacob wasn’t overly fond of Leah. In that culture, daughters weren’t as highly valued as sons. My guess is that Jacob hadn’t spent much time with Dinah. So when she wanted to go visit the girls in Shechem, either he didn’t know about it until after the fact or he didn’t say anything. His passivity was a major factor in his daughter getting raped.

All of us are influenced by our relationships. It’s normal and proper for teenagers to develop friendships with others their own age. But if they get in with the wrong crowd, it can have devastating results. That’s why it’s so important for parents to maintain a close relationship with their kids during their teen years. They need the influence of godly parents, and that influence is imparted through a close relationship.

“Impossible!” you say. A lot of parents expect their teenagers to rebel and they assume that they have to give up friendship with their kids during the teen years. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that common notion. It’s not inevitable that teenagers rebel against their parents. I didn’t‑‑I never felt a need to. If parents treat their teenagers with respect and love, there doesn’t have to be a rupture in relationship. The teen years are a critical time when kids desperately need the wisdom and counsel of their parents, to keep them from making some very damaging mistakes. Your parental counsel will be heard to the degree that your love is felt.

Thus, assimilation with the world is a great danger because it’s subtle and it happens in the course of normal family life.

3. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it is an aggressive danger.

It’s subtle, but it’s not passive. If you’re passive against an aggressive foe, you’ll lose. We’re engaged in warfare, and you don’t win wars by being passive. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” One writer put it, “Casual Christians will become Christian casualties.” (John Blattner, Pastoral Renewal [11/87], p. 15.)

Throughout this chapter, Jacob is passive. He never warns or stops Dinah before it’s too late. When he hears of her defilement, he is silent. He doesn’t give any direction to his sons as to how they should deal with things. He’s passive in dealing with Hamor and Shechem, letting his sons do all the talking. It seems he would have let Dinah marry Shechem after he was circumcised, even though he still would have been as pagan as before. Although he rebukes his sons, it’s based more on his own fear of retaliation than on moral principle (note the emphasis on “me” and “I” in verse 30). If he was grieved over Dinah’s defilement or his sons’ godless revenge, it’s not recorded. At least his sons grieved over what happened to their sister (34:7).

One of Satan’s most aggressive schemes for wiping out God’s people has been intermarriage with unbelievers. Let me state it plainly: It is sin for a Christian to marry a non‑Christian. I’ve had girls tell me, “But I’ve prayed about it; I have a peace about it.” But you don’t need to pray about whether you should marry a non‑Christian any more than you need to pray about whether you should commit adultery. I’ve seen Christian girls neutralized by marrying nice non‑Christian guys. Often they get involved sexually, just as Dinah did. True, she was raped; but why was she alone with a guy like Shechem in the first place?

Whenever a Christian girl goes out with a non‑Christian guy, she is on the defense; he is on the offense, trying to see how far he can get sexually. Any football fan knows, you don’t win if you are always on the defense. It’s only a matter of time until the guy will wear down her resistance and she will lose her purity. (This applies just as much to Christian guys as to girls.) So don’t even date a non‑Christian! And choose friends of the same sex who want to follow Christ. Nobody plans the kind of disaster we have in Genesis 34. It began when Dinah went out to visit her worldly girlfriends.


How do you fight the subtle, yet aggressive danger of assimilation with the world, especially as it seeks to undermine your family life? Here are three commitments that will help:

First, commit yourself to proper separation. As God’s people, we are not to live in monasteries. But there is a place for proper separation from evil people, evil activities, and evil environments. Paul warned, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’“ (1 Cor. 15:33). If you want to be godly, don’t choose ungodly people as your best friends. If you think you’ll influence them and not vice versa, then you’re deceived and you’re disregarding the apostle’s warning.

Paul also wrote, “I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (Rom. 16:19). Not many of us could claim to be innocent in what is evil! I’ve heard Christian parents say, “My kids are going to find out about the world sooner or later, so I’m not going to shelter them.” That’s tragic! I can hear Jacob and Leah saying the same thing as Dinah trotted off to Shechem. Read the Bible to your kids and they’ll find out all they need to know about sexual immorality, lust, greed, and every other sin. But they’ll learn about it in a context where the results of sin are clearly spelled out.

I’ll shoot straight: Some of you watch TV shows and videos which neither you nor your kids should watch. Some of you have magazines in your home which belong in the trash. In the context of mental lust, Jesus said, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out and throw it away .... If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it away ...” (Matt. 5:29‑30). He used those radical images to make the point that we dare not dally with sin. God wants us to be holy in our thought life. And that means that we’ve got to separate ourselves from the things which defile us and hinder our fellowship with our holy God.

Second, commit yourself to proper insulation. By this I mean that we need to wrap our minds with the Word of God so that our thinking and attitudes are shaped by God, not by this evil world. Unless our minds are steeped in the Word, we’re going to be swayed by the world. If you read your Bible 15 minutes a day, and watch TV for 3 hours, guess which will influence you the most!

Take, for example, the worldly view of sin. You can see it here with Shechem and his father. Neither one admits that Shechem’s rape of Dinah was wrong. He’s just a red‑blooded young man! Boys will be boys! That’s a worldly view of sin: “Teenagers will be teenagers! Every generation has to sow some wild oats!”

Or take Jacob’s sons’ actions. It was right to be angry about the sin, but they were angry for the wrong reason: They were not concerned about God’s glory. Their family pride was offended: “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” While they were bothered by Shechem’s sin against Dinah, they were oblivious to their own sins of deception, vengeance, murder, and theft. In their deception, they are truly Jacob’s sons (34:13). Years before, Jacob should have been dealing with his own and his sons’ sins.

My point is, if we pick up our values and how we relate to others from the world, especially from TV, we will justify sins like pride, envy, anger, deception, and sexual immorality, because the world shrugs off all those sins. Our kids will learn to be defiant to authority, because TV portrays parents as a bit slow, at best. We will learn to relate to others by selfishness and put-downs, because that’s how they do it on TV. It is only when we turn to the Bible that we learn how to please God in our thought life, our words, our actions, and our relationships.

If you’re a father, I urge you to read the Bible to your family on a regular basis. Every Christian needs to memorize verses that tell us how to think, how to speak, and how to relate to one another. Properly insulated with godly thoughts and attitudes, we can be in the world without being of the world.

Third, commit yourself to proper intention, or purpose. Jacob’s sons had the wrong purpose: They were out to teach the Shechemites, “Don’t mess with us!” Things would have been different if they had been focused on God’s purpose‑‑to be a channel of His blessing to all people! This situation should have been an opportunity for witness on behalf of their covenant‑keeping God. Instead, they used God’s covenant sign (circumcision) as the means of deceiving these lost men and sending them to a godless eternity!

When we go out into the world, we’ve got to keep our purpose uppermost in our minds. We’re not there to judge the world. We’re not there to cavort with the world in its sin. We’re there to represent our Savior, who came to seek and to save those who are lost. Go into the world with the proper separation from evil, the proper insulation of biblical thinking, and the proper intention of witness for Christ, and you won’t be assimilated into it. The world won’t be a fatal attraction for you, or you for it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much should Christians separate themselves and their kids from the world? Where do we draw the lines?
  2. Agree/disagree: Teenagers need not rebel?
  3. How should Christians respond to a crime against a family member such as rape? Is it wrong to seek justice? Vengeance?
  4. Why do Christians who seek not to be worldly often seem weird?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 62: Getting Out of a Spiritual Slump (Genesis 35:1-29)

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Anyone who follows baseball knows that occasional slumps are part of the game. If you’re the Cubs, they’re a major part of the game! The New York Mets began their history as notoriously inept. During one especially bad time, Mets manager, Casey Stengel, got a cake for his birthday. Someone asked why Marv Thornberry, their first baseman, hadn’t received a cake for his birthday. Stengel quipped, “We were afraid he might drop it.”

If you’ve walked with the Lord for any time at all, you’ve gone through spiritual slumps, when the Lord seems distant. You hit a plateau where you seem to get stuck. Usually you’re not aware of it right away. But at some point, you realize that you aren’t as excited about the Lord as you used to be. You’re still going to church, reading your Bible, and praying, but you’ve lost your first love. It’s easy for that to happen after you’ve been a Christian for many years. Maybe you’re burned out from serving in the church, so you kick back. Slowly the air leaks out of your spiritual tires and you realize that you’re in a spiritual slump.

Jacob was there. Thirty years before, the Lord had met Jacob in a special way at Bethel, as he fled from his angry brother, Esau. Jacob made a vow that if God brought him back safely to the land of Canaan, then He would be his God. God kept His part of the deal: Jacob had prospered financially under Laban, in spite of Laban’s greed and deception. Jacob had been blessed with eleven sons and a daughter. After wrestling him into submission at Peniel, the Lord had protected him in his dreaded meeting with Esau and brought him safely back to Canaan.

But Jacob stopped short of returning to Bethel, the place of his vow to God. Whether it was continuing fear of Esau, attraction to the good life in Shechem, or other factors, we can’t be sure. But Jacob settled short of the place God wanted him to be. It wasn’t that he abandoned God during those ten or so years. He erected an altar there (Gen. 33:20). But even though he went through the outward motions, the reality of Bethel and of Peniel had faded. Jacob went through a decade of spiritual slump which climaxed in the rape of Dinah and the terrible slaughter of the Shechemites by his sons.

The trick isn’t getting into a spiritual slump‑‑most of us have done that without much trouble! The trick is getting out. How do you start growing again? Genesis 35 shows us how Jacob began to grow after his slump. In a nutshell,

We get out of a spiritual slump by responding obediently to God’s Word.

God spoke and Jacob responded obediently. There are four facets to Jacob’s obedience which we can apply personally:

1. Obey God’s present commands.

Genesis 35:1 ought to encourage anyone in a spiritual slump. After the events of chapter 34, you would have expected the Lord to say, “Jacob, that’s it! You and your family have messed up once too often! I chose you to be a blessing to all nations, but instead you deceived and slaughtered them! I’m going to find someone else to be My covenant people!” But instead the Lord graciously says to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”

That’s encouraging! God wants us to come back to Him and grow, even after a decade of spiritual slump, even after a disaster like Genesis 34! Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, the Lord is looking for His straying children to return to Him, and He always welcomes them back with open arms. His grace should motivate us to respond obediently to Him.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s great that God spoke to Jacob. But God hasn’t spoken to me.” Ah, but He has! First bow your heart before Him and confess your spiritual apathy. Then, open your Bible and ask Him to speak to you from His Word and show you what to do. And then do as Jacob did‑‑obey.

One way you’ll know that the Lord has spoken to you is that you’ll have an immediate sense of the need for personal and family cleansing. You’ll be aware that there are things you have allowed into your life that have to go, because they are not pleasing to God. As soon as God told Jacob to go back to Bethel, he had to do some spiritual house cleaning (35:2). God didn’t have to tell him to get rid of the idols. Jacob knew that if he was going to meet with God, there had to be cleansing. He couldn’t let his family haul their idols to Bethel.

Here is the number one family on the face of the earth, as far as God’s dealings go. The Lord has been working with Jacob for over 30 years, and with his father and grandfather before him. And yet here we discover that his family is loaded with idols and earrings which had some sort of idolatrous significance (35:4). Rachel had stolen her father’s household gods (31:19); the rest of the family apparently had more of their own. Probably they had added a few more when they looted Shechem. Jacob had known about it, but just let it ride until now. But when God told him to return to Bethel, he confronted his family’s sin. For the first time we see Jacob taking the proper leadership of his family!

It’s easy to sit here and think, “This doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have any idols--I’m a Christian, not a pagan!” But idols aren’t just little statues you bow down to. An idol is anything that takes the place of God in your life and blocks you from growing in the Lord and doing His will. For some, the idol is career success. Everything else, even the family, is subordinated to that goal. For others, it’s affluence, collecting all the junk Madison Avenue tells us we need to be happy. Some worship personal fulfillment, even if it means divorcing their mate. For some, it’s the pursuit of leisure. They don’t have time for personal or family devotions. No time for getting to know their lost neighbors or for calling on church visitors. They’re too busy to work with the young people in the church or to be involved in a Bible study. But they’ve got time for TV, sports, or whatever.

It’s also easy to sit here and think, “I hope so-and-so is listening to this! He’s such a materialistic guy.” But each of us needs to take the log out of our own eye. The most stubborn idol we have to get rid of is self in all its manifestations. There are three things in the process of rooting out our idols (see vs. 2). First, we must identify and put away anything that hinders our drawing near to God (“Put away your foreign gods”). Second, we must cleanse ourselves, by confessing our sins and appropriating God’s forgiveness (“purify yourselves”). Third, we must change our outward behavior, which usually involves changing our schedules (“change your garments”). The way to get out of a spiritual slump is, in response to His grace, obey what God is telling you to do right now.

2. Fulfill your past commitments.

God had begun with Jacob 30 years before at Bethel, where he had made some commitments to the Lord. They were immature commitments in many ways, because Jacob was bargaining with God, and no sinner should do that. Jacob had promised God that if He would provide for him and bring him back safely, he would let God be his God, he would set up Bethel as God’s house and give a tenth to God. Although immature, God took Jacob’s commitments and began to work with him. He wanted Jacob’s obedience and worship. So here, the Lord doesn’t mention the house or the ten percent. He commands Jacob to return to Bethel and fulfill his commitment to worship. Jacob had to return to his original commitment to the Lord.

God has a way of bringing us back to commitments we made to Him years before. That’s why it’s good to encourage your children to commit themselves to the Lord, even if they don’t understand much. I “invited Jesus to come into my heart” when I was three. I didn’t understand total depravity or substitutionary atonement. But the Lord was at work in my heart. When I was in grade school, I remember responding when an evangelist at church asked those who wanted to be sure about going to heaven to raise their hand. In fourth and fifth grades, I went to a church camp in Crestline, California. I don’t remember anything any speaker said. All I remember is getting into nettle playing by the creek, having a crush on a couple of girls and on one of the girl counselors, choosing Philippians 4:13 as my life verse, and throwing a stick on the fire signifying dedicating my life to the Lord. Little did I know that God would bring me back to that same community to pastor a church for 15 years!

Most of us make commitments to the Lord early in our relationship with Him. Maybe it was at camp or at a church service. Maybe it was during a crisis, when you promised the Lord that if He would get you out of that jam, you would follow Him. It’s good to dust off those commitments once in a while and go back spiritually to the place where God met you then.

You have to do that in marriage once in a while, don’t you? It’s wonderful when you first fall in love! Remember how you felt toward each other? Remember that romantic moment when she told you she’d marry you? That was wonderful, but there isn’t anybody who maintains those intense feelings through the years of marriage. Sometimes, when marriage has grown a bit stale, it’s good to go back, either in your mind, or perhaps, even as a couple to the very spot, and renew those early commitments.

It’s the same spiritually. You’ve got to rekindle the romance you used to have with God. Get alone with Him and tell Him that you love Him. Clean out the junk in your life that has gotten you off track. Think about the things you’ve promised to do for Him. And recommit yourself to do them now, by His grace. That leads to the third factor in shaking off a spiritual slump:

3. Remember God’s past and continuing compassion.

Much of this chapter focuses on God’s past and continuing mercies to Jacob. God’s past mercy in protecting him from Esau is mentioned three times (35:1, 3, 7). The Lord mercifully protected Jacob’s family from vengeance for slaughtering the Shechemites by sending “a terror” on the Canaanites (35:5). When the Lord appears to Jacob again at Bethel, He doesn’t say much new, except that kings shall come forth from him (35:11). Everything else has been revealed before. The Lord reconfirms Jacob’s new name (35:10). He reveals to Jacob His name “El Shaddai;” but that wasn’t new; Abraham and Isaac knew God by that name (17:1; 28:3). It means, “God Almighty,” and pointed Jacob toward the fact that God was sufficient for all his needs.

The Lord goes on to remind Jacob that He will keep the promises He gave years before: To multiply Jacob’s descendants and give them the land. After God leaves, Jacob does the same thing he did 30 years before: He sets up a pillar and pours out an offering on it. Even the list of Jacob’s twelve sons (35:23‑26) fits the context here as a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness. As the heads of the future twelve tribes of the nation, they are like the down payment of God’s promises. As Jacob knelt before God at Bethel, this time not alone, but with a great company, how could he help but thank God for His abundant compassion?

Sometimes we think that to get out of a spiritual slump we’ve got to discover some new spiritual truths. That’s seldom the case. Usually all we need is to be reminded of the old truths we already know. We need to remember God’s past and continuing mercies toward us in Christ. We need to recall that in spite of our sin and spiritual dullness, the Lord is faithful, that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6).

That’s one reason frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper is so important. I hear Christians say, “It becomes too commonplace and loses its meaning to do so often.” I’ll grant that any spiritual discipline can become commonplace and lose its significance if we let it. Daily prayer and Bible reading aren’t always exciting. A person could even get bored coming to church every week, in spite of my interesting sermons! But we need frequent reminders of the simple truth of God’s mercy toward us in Christ. The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

So to get out of a spiritual slump, we need to obey God’s present commands, fulfill our past commitments, and remember God’s continuing compassion. There’s a fourth element:

4. Trust God with your present concerns.

God had spoken to Jacob ten years before at Peniel, but not since, as far as the text reveals. During that time, Jacob had become comfortable in his partial obedience in Shechem. Then the tragedies of Dinah’s rape and his sons’ bloody revenge shook Jacob out of his complacency. Suddenly, he was ready to listen and God spoke again. In verse 1, the Lord brings to Jacob’s mind how He had appeared to him when he fled from Esau. In verse 3, Jacob refers to that time as the day of his distress. It often takes a day of distress to get our attention so that we’ll snap out of our spiritual slump.

But then we mistakenly think that since we’ve turned the corner and now we’re obeying God that He will give us (or even owes us) a trouble‑free life. But obedience to God doesn’t mean that He will reward us with a life free from trials. It’s often the trials that keep us clinging to Him so that we don’t fall back into another slump. It’s significant that in this chapter which records Jacob’s spiritual recovery, there are no less than four tragedies which bring sorrow into Jacob’s life.

The first is the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (35:8). She was only mentioned before (not by name) when she left Haran with Rebekah, who was going to marry Isaac (24:59). If she had cared for Rebekah as an infant, she would be very old by now, probably about 170. It is not revealed when she joined Jacob’s company, but her presence probably indicates that Rebekah had died sometime during Jacob’s years in Haran. As close as he was to his mother, the death of her beloved nurse would have been tough for Jacob. The name given to Deborah’s burial place, “The Oak of Weeping,” shows his grief.

The second sorrow to hit Jacob was the greatest of his life: his beloved Rachel died in childbirth (35:16‑20). (Jacob’s journey from Bethel toward Hebron was probably not a violation of God’s command in 35:1, which meant, “Stay at Bethel long enough to fulfill your vows.” See also the command in 31:3.) Jacob had loved Rachel at first sight. He had worked seven years for her and then, when he got cheated with Leah, he worked seven more for Rachel. Although his grief is passed over in Genesis 35, it is revealed about 40 years later, when Jacob on his deathbed poignantly recalls, “... when I came from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the journey, ... and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath” (Gen. 48:7).

Jacob’s third sorrow is mentioned on the heels of Rachel’s death: Reuben, his firstborn son, committed incest with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine. This was probably Reuben’s attempt to grab the family inheritance for himself, much as Absalom in his rebellion publicly went in to David’s concubines, and Adonijah later attempted to usurp power from his brother, Solomon, with the same scheme. Reuben’s crass sin must have stung Jacob deeply (Gen. 49:4).

Jacob’s final sorrow in this chapter is the death of his aged father, Isaac. The text might make us think that Jacob arrived just before Isaac’s death. But from other chronological notices in Genesis, we learn that Jacob lived in Hebron with Isaac about twelve years before Isaac died. But Isaac’s death is presented here to wrap up this part of Jacob’s history. It was another sorrow for Jacob, as another link with the past was removed.

While the text doesn’t develop it in each situation, there are hints that Jacob bore these trials with renewed trust in God. His renaming Benjamin in spite of Rachel’s death seems to have been an act of faith. She had named him Benoni, “son of my sorrow,” but through his tears Jacob named him “son of my right hand.” There are two pillars in this chapter, the first at Bethel where he poured out his offering (35:14), the second at Rachel’s grave (35:20). They seem to be linked as monuments of growth, the first signifying Jacob’s thankfulness for God’s faithfulness, the second his faith in God’s promise in spite of his loss. Jacob’s faith may be hinted at when the text says, “Then Israel journeyed on” (35:21), using his new name of strength. At first glance I would have labeled Jacob’s silence in response to Reuben’s sin as another example of his passivity. But again the text states, “and Israel heard” (35:22). This seems to hint that he handled this shocking news in his new strength with God. He waited until the final blessings on his sons to deal with it (49:3‑4); but then he did deal with it by depriving Reuben of his birthright.

The point is that coming out of a spiritual slump doesn’t guarantee that life ahead will be rosy. Obedience doesn’t mean a trouble‑free life. But in the inevitable trials God uses to shake us out of spiritual indifference and to keep us trusting Him, we have the God of Jacob as “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1, 7, 11). It is significant that in chapter 34, with all its sin, God is not mentioned at all. But in chapter 35, God’s name appears 11 times, plus 12 more times in the names Israel, Bethel, El-Bethel, and El-Shaddai (James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:348, points this out). Trials can either make us self-focused or God-focused. If we allow the trials to help us put God back in the rightful center of our lives, we will recover from a spiritual slump, as Jacob did.


There is an old rabbinical legend about a man named Simon who lived in Krakow, Poland. Simon repeatedly had a vivid dream in which there was a great treasure buried under a bridge in Prague, many miles away. Being a poor man, he finally decided to make the long trip to Prague to search for this treasure. When he arrived and went to the bridge, a sentry saw him probing around and demanded to know what he was doing. Simon told the sentry about his dreams and his long journey from Krakow.

“You foolish man,” the sentry replied. “Don’t you know that you can’t believe your dreams? Why I’ve dreamed many times about a man in Krakow named Simon who has a treasure buried under his kitchen stove, but I’ve never been so dumb as to go to Krakow in search of it. Now get along!”

So Simon returned to Krakow, looked under his kitchen stove, and discovered a treasure which enabled him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. The rabbis always ended the story by saying: The treasure was always in Krakow, but the knowledge of it was in Prague.

Sometimes the very thing we’re looking for is right under our noses, but we’ve got to go the long, hard way around to discover it. God’s place of blessing for Jacob was in Bethel, but he had to go to Haran for twenty hard years and spend another ten in Shechem before he came back to Bethel. Some would say that those were all wasted years. Were they? In one sense, yes, in that if Jacob had learned to trust and obey the Lord sooner, those years could have been avoided or shortened. But in another sense, they were necessary in the process of shaping Jacob.

We have all of God’s treasures in Jesus Christ and in the written Word which reveals Him. He is El Shaddai, the All‑Sufficient One. Sometimes God uses a spiritual slump to make us wake up to the riches that have been right under our noses all the time. If you’ve been in a slump, shake it off by responding obediently to God’s Word.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can spiritual slumps be avoided? How?
  2. What are some American Christian “idols”? How can we “guard ourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)?
  3. How can we keep fresh at regular spiritual disciplines?
  4. How would you respond to someone who asked, “If obedience to God doesn’t result in a life with less trials, why obey?”

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 63: A Successful Man Who Failed With God (Genesis 36:1-43)

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Near my boyhood home there was a small cemetery that had been there since before the turn of the century. Sometimes I would go there and walk along the rows, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones. The most fascinating one was an old, weathered, wooden tombstone which read, “Injun Joe,” and listed his death in the 1850’s.

Most of the tombstones had a brief description of the person, such as “Beloved Mother” or “Dear Father,” plus the dates they lived. I used to try to imagine what those people had been like. I wondered what they had done with their lives. The people buried there had meant much to their families and friends in their day, but now they were gone and unknown, except for this gravestone and the memories they left behind in the minds of their loved ones.

While I haven’t spent much time walking through cemeteries and reading tombstones, it isn’t a bad idea, now and then, to do that. It makes me stop and think about the fact that, unless the Lord returns, someday soon there will be a grave with my name on it, the years I lived, and a brief inscription. How do I want to be remembered? What do I want to accomplish in my brief years on earth? Am I living for the things that really count? The clock in the game of life is always running‑‑there are no time outs!

Even if you read your Bible, I’ll bet that Genesis 36 is a chapter you don’t spend much time thinking about. It’s one of those chapters that makes you wonder, if you’re honest, why it’s in the Bible. There are a bunch of names which mean nothing to us and about whom we can learn almost nothing. They lived and died almost 4,000 years ago, linked together with the common thread of being Esau’s descendants. But pondering this chapter can be like a walk through a cemetery: It can make us stop and think about the meaning of life and success.

Esau, the man whose generations are listed here, was a most successful man by worldly standards. He was the founder of a dynasty and a nation, the father of rulers and kings. He enjoyed financial prosperity. He had good-looking women in his harem. He had political power. He was a famous man in his time and for hundreds of years after. And he was a nice guy, the kind who would make a great neighbor or friend. But Esau lived for this world, and in so doing, he failed miserably where it matters most--with God. He was a successful man who went to hell.

This chapter is in the Bible for at least two reasons. First, Moses was writing to people who were about to conquer the land of Canaan. The Edomites, Esau’s descendants, lived on the borders of that land. When Israel had sought to pass over their land en route to Canaan, the Edomite king refused, even though Moses promised to pay for any food or water they consumed (Num. 20:14‑21). Perhaps once Israel was established in the land, someone would say, “Let’s teach those Edomites a lesson!” But God commanded Israel not to provoke Edom and said that He would not give Israel any of their land (Deut. 2:2‑5). So Israel needed to know who these people were so that they would treat them as the Lord had commanded.

A second reason for this chapter is to make Israel and us consider the outcome of Esau’s profane life, especially as contrasted with Jacob’s life. There is an obvious contrast between chapter 36, which outlines the wealth, success and power of Esau and his descendants and 37:1, which says with understatement, “Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.” While Esau was out conquering the land of Edom, founding a nation, fathering kings, and making a great worldly success of himself, Jacob was quietly living in a land he didn’t even own, the land where his fathers had sojourned. While Esau’s descendants were mighty chieftains, famous in their day, Jacob’s descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh.

So the chapter in its context portrays two roads set before us all: The road to earthly success, fame, and power, which can bring quick, visible results; and, the road of obedience to the will of God, which is much slower and less visible in terms of the payoff. The worldly road focuses on the things which are seen, which, from God’s perspective, are destined to perish; God’s road focuses on the things which are not seen, but which are eternal and cannot be taken from us (see 2 Cor. 4:18). So the chapter teaches:

If we succeed by worldly standards, but fail with God, we fail where it really matters.

The text reveals four areas where Esau and his descendants succeeded in this world, but failed terribly in light of eternity:

1. A beautiful family by the world’s standards does not equal a family blessed by God.

Esau’s turn away from God is seen in that he took his wives from the daughters of Canaan (36:2). Esau’s grandfather, Abraham, had made his servant swear by the Lord that he would not take a wife for Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites (24:3). But Esau shrugged off the strong warning of his godly grandfather and chose his wives from the Canaanites (26:34). Later, still lacking spiritual discernment, he took a wife from the descendants of Ishmael (28:9).

It’s significant that there is no mention of barren wives when it comes to Esau’s line. Abraham had God’s promise of many descendants, but his wife Sarah was barren. Isaac had the same promises, but Rebekah could not conceive for the first twenty years of their marriage. Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel, was barren for a long time. But Esau’s wives bore him five sons and a number of daughters with no trouble (36:4‑6).

Esau represents the natural man‑‑strong, capable, independent, able to cope with life’s problems with his own resources. Who needs to depend on God for things when you can take care of it yourself? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their barren wives, represent God’s way of working. He humbles our pride by shutting us up with problems we are incapable of solving‑‑ problems like barren wives in the face of promises to make us into a great nation. Then, when we call on Him, He proves Himself mighty to save.

Esau had a beautiful family by the world’s standards. He was the founder of a dynasty. To be one of Esau’s descendants in that culture was like being a Ford, Rockefeller, or Kennedy in our day. Esau’s sons and grandsons became chiefs and kings. Esau’s wives were no doubt beautiful women, as their names indicate. Their names present a problem, in that the names given in earlier chapters do not correspond with the names listed here. In 26:34, it is said that Esau married Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite. In 28:9 it reports that he added Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael, sister of Nabaioth. But in 36:2‑3, different daughters’ names are connected with each father.

The best solution to this problem is that the wives probably took different names, either when they moved from Canaan to Edom, or with changes in them over time (a common practice; Esau became known as “Red” [“Edom”] over the incident with the red stew which he traded for his birthright.) Names weren’t given just because they sounded nice‑‑they had meaning. So, perhaps, Basemath (“the perfumed one”) later took on the name Adah (“ornament,” “the adorned one”), as her focus shifted from perfume to jewelry and clothes. Mahalath (“the musical one”) took over as the perfume queen and changed her name to Basemath when she developed a formula for homemade Chanel No. 5. Judith (“the praised one”), a young teenager when Esau married her, grew tall and became known as Oholibamah (“tent height,” i.e., “tall, stately”). Note that each of their names focuses on some outward feature of beauty or sensuality.

There is another problem: In 26:34, Judith’s father is called Beeri the Hittite. Beeri means “well‑man.” In 36:2 he is called Anah. But it is mentioned that he is the Anah who found the hot springs (hence, he could easily be nicknamed Beeri, “well‑man”). Also, Anah (Beeri) is called a Hittite (26:34); a Hivite (36:2); and a Horite (36:20). Hittite is a broad term, roughly equivalent to Canaanite. Hivite is a branch of the Hittites, and Horite means “cave‑dweller.” So the terms are not contradictory, but explanatory in a more particular sense, much as we might refer to the same man as an American, an Arizonan, and a Phoenician (resident of Phoenix).

While the precise meaning of many of these names is uncertain, it’s interesting that most of the names are not spiritual, but rather reflect the natural surroundings (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 2:932-933; James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:356). I’ve already mentioned this in reference to Esau’s wives. Eliphaz (36:4) means “pure gold.” Zerah (36:13) means “rising” or “east.” Dishon (36:21) means “gazelle.” Only two names out of 81 may hint at a belief in the true God: Reuel (36:10), Esau’s son by Basemath, means “friend of God”; Jeush (36:14), Oholibamah’s son, means “The Lord helps.” But even these may have been connected with idolatry. One later king has a name of a false god, Baal‑hanan (36:38).

The point is, Esau’s family was outwardly attractive. His wives were beautiful women who bore him children. His kids were born leaders, talented and strong. Esau was a likable, popular man. He was a skilled outdoorsman, a man who loved the taste of game, a man caught up with the enjoyment of the good life. But there was one big problem: God was not a part of this family. Esau, the grandson of the godly Abraham, the favorite son of peaceful Isaac, was a thoroughly secular man who lived for the pleasure of the here and now. He was a successful man whose sons and grandsons after him were successful men, by worldly standards. But they all failed at what matters most because they left God out of their lives.

The most important thing you can impart to your kids is not how to be a worldly success. It’s easy to encourage our kids to succeed in the wrong ways. They may make the football team or be the homecoming queen. They may score well on the SAT and go to the best colleges and get the best paying jobs. But if they fail with God, all that stuff doesn’t matter at all. We need to instill in our kids what it means to succeed with God.

There’s a second lesson we can learn by strolling through Esau’s family cemetery:

2. Material prosperity does not equal spiritual prosperity.

Esau moved east because he was too prosperous to stay near Jacob (36:6‑8). This took place before Jacob returned. Esau realized that the inheritance was going to Jacob, so he looked for a new place to live. It was nice of Esau to be so agreeable. But, sadly, he had no vision for God’s promises to Abraham concerning Canaan. Ever since God called Abraham, He repeatedly emphasized Canaan as the land He would give to Abraham’s descendants. But for Esau, any nice land would do. He had no spiritual vision. He was living for himself, not for God’s purpose. He was materially rich, but spiritually poor.

To his credit, Esau was not greedy. When he saw Jacob after their twenty years apart, he declined Jacob’s gift by saying, “I have plenty, my brother. Keep your things.” But it’s possible to be generous, contented people, but still to be living for material things, not for God. The danger is that our material prosperity dulls our senses with regard to our desperate need for God. The Lord warned the church in Laodicea, “... you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). We American Christians, who have been so blessed materially, need to be careful to become rich toward God by laying up treasures in heaven (Luke 12:13‑34).

These tombstones reveal a third lesson about God’s perspective on success and failure:

3. Political power does not equal power with God.

Esau and his descendants were men of great political power. They are called chiefs (36:15 ff.; 40 ff.) and kings (36:31 ff.). It is pointedly stated that these men reigned as kings in Edom before any king reigned in Israel (36:31). Critics leap upon this verse as proof that Genesis must have been written after the beginning of the monarchy, some 300 years after Moses. But in the previous chapter God had prophesied to Jacob that kings would come forth from him (35:11), a promise which had also been made to Abraham (17:6, 16).

Clearly, the point of 36:31 is to show that Esau’s sons, who walked away from God, had the distinction of being kings long before Jacob’s sons to whom it was promised. Jacob’s sons were a nation of slaves at the same time that Esau’s sons were kings. Esau’s sons could have looked at Jacob’s sons and scoffed, “Where is your God and His promises?”

Isn’t that how it often seems‑‑that the world is winning, while God’s people are losing? We’ll reign with Christ someday, but meanwhile the church is often persecuted and disregarded by powerful political leaders who laugh at God. But we need to remember that political power and power with God are two different things. The world may boast now in its political power, but He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord scoffs at them (Ps. 2:4). It is the Lord who “removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21). While it is fine for Christian people to be involved in politics, we need to keep things in perspective. Political power is always subject to Him who is “ruler over the realm of mankind,” who “bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:17). True power is having power with God.

Esau’s kingdom, Edom, later caused great trouble to Israel. There were frequent wars between the two nations. Edom cheered those who attacked God’s people (Ps. 137:7; Obadiah). Amalek, Esau’s grandson (36:12), became the founder of a people who were a perennial enemy of Israel (Exod. 17:8‑16). There is a repeated emphasis in Genesis 36, that Esau is Edom (36:1, 8, 9, 19, and 43; also, the name Edom and its synonym, Seir, are used frequently). The significance of this otherwise unnecessary repetition seems to be that God wanted His people to see what results when a man lives apart from Him. From this one man, Esau, an outwardly good man, a likable man, a successful man from the world’s perspective, came the godless nation Edom, which often plagued the people of God. So God says, “Remember: Esau is Edom!”

There’s a final lesson we can learn about success and failure from our stroll through Esau’s cemetery:

4. Temporal fame does not equal eternal recognition by God.

In their day, Esau was more famous than Jacob. At the end of their lives, Jacob had about 70 descendants living under Pharaoh’s umbrella. Esau had conquered Edom and established a dynasty there. By Moses’s day (over 400 years later), Israel was a fledgling nation of slaves, recently escaped from Egypt, owning no land of their own. Edom was an established kingdom which had the power to refuse Israel passage over their land.

But this tour through the graveyard of Genesis 36 shows us that God, not man, writes the final chapter of history. These once‑ famous names don’t mean a thing to our world today, but Israel’s name is in the news almost daily. These men, successful by the world’s measure, passed off the scene and were soon forgotten as others clamored to take their place. Today we don’t know anything more about them than is written here. Fame is a fleeting thing.

The Edomite race endured until the time of Christ, when they were known as Idumeans. They disappeared from history in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed. But before that, some famous Idumeans, descendants of Esau, ruled over Israel: Herod the Great and his successor, Herod Antipas. They were wealthy, power‑hungry, cruel despots. Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the newborn King of the Jews. Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded and mocked Jesus just prior to the crucifixion.

In a way it was a replay of history, when Esau’s descendant, Herod, who at that time had far more worldly prosperity, power, and fame, and Jacob’s descendant, Jesus, faced each other. God’s side didn’t seem to be winning. Jacob’s descendant went to the cross, while Esau’s descendant relaxed in his luxurious palace. But God would write the final chapter on that part of history as well. The great Herod, like his ancestor Esau, was a successful man who went to hell. Jesus Christ, the descendant of Jacob, was raised from the dead and is coming again to reign in power and glory.

What really matters is recognition by God, not by this world. We live in a culture that worships fame. If a famous person becomes a Christian, we rush his life story into print and hustle him onto the TV talk shows. The guy may be a babe in Christ, who doesn’t know anything about the Bible, but we listen to his every word as if he’s a spiritual authority.

But the recognition that counts will come soon, when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” The most awful thing would be to be famous on this earth‑‑even famous as a Christian‑‑and to stand before the Lord and say, “Lord, Lord, I’ve done all these things in Your name,” but to hear Him say, “Depart from Me; I never knew you.”


On the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, a man spent five years and a lifetime of savings building a 62‑foot steel yacht that weighed 126 tons. On the day of its launching, he invited a local band to play and the whole town turned out to help him celebrate. He planned a voyage around the world as soon as the boat was launched. The band played, the bottle of champagne was smashed across the bow, and the ship was lowered into the water. But it sank to the bottom of the harbor! What good is a beautiful boat that doesn’t float? That man wasted five years and a lot of money building a useless thing‑‑a boat that didn’t float. What good is a successful life that ends, whether in 25 or 85 years, if the person is not ready for eternity? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Our tour through Esau’s cemetery is over. I hope it’s made you think about the question, “What am I living for?” While we still live, we all have a choice: To join Jacob and his descendants in waiting patiently for God to fulfill His covenant promises to us, as we labor for His coming kingdom. Or, to look over at Esau, prospering in the world, and join him in the pursuit of secular success. If we succeed by worldly standards, but fail with God, we have failed where it really matters. Whether we fail or succeed by worldly standards, if we succeed with God, we will have true and lasting success.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we train our kids to aim for spiritual, not worldly, success? Should we encourage them toward worldly success?
  2. Is financial success an unmitigated blessing, a mixed blessing, or a curse? Give biblical support.
  3. Are Christians wasting their time to run for political office or to work for political causes? Why/why not?
  4. Why does the Christian world give such high esteem to famous people who profess faith in Christ? What is the root of such adulation? What are some of its results?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Failure, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 64: If God is Sovereign, Why Am I in the Pits? (Genesis 37:1-36)

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It is impossible to live in this world and not be hurt by someone else’s sin. You may have been verbally, physically, or sexually abused as a child. Many have been damaged by someone’s drinking or drug abuse. If you’re married, you’ve been hurt by your spouse. Your children may have rebelled and caused you deep pain. Most of us have been the victims of crime.

When you have been wounded by someone else’s sin, you’ve probably wondered, “Where is God in all this? If God is all-powerful and loving, why is He allowing this terrible sin against me? If He is in control, why do wicked men literally get away with murder? If God is sovereign, why am I in the pits?”

Joseph could have asked that question. Due to his brothers’ sin, he was literally in a pit. From there things didn’t get better. His brothers didn’t kill him, as they originally planned, but they did sell their 17-year-old brother into slavery in a foreign land. As that caravan made its way south toward Egypt, perhaps passing within a few miles of Joseph’s home in Hebron, he must have been overwhelmed with grief and loneliness as he wondered if he would ever see his father again. He must have wrestled with fear, anger, and feelings of rejection as he thought about his brothers’ cruelty toward him. He must have wondered, “If God is sovereign, why am I in the pits?”

It’s interesting that God is not mentioned in Genesis 37. A skeptic might say, “See, God isn’t there when you need Him. If He cared about you, He would stop sinful men from carrying out their terrible plans.” But even though God is not mentioned by name, His sovereign providence runs like a strong river through this chapter, carrying even the sinful plans of man downstream in His overall purpose.

The basis for seeing God’s sovereign hand behind the events of Genesis 37 is found in His earlier word to Abraham (Gen. 15:13‑14, 16):

And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions.... Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

God had this whole thing planned years before! Our next study in Genesis 38 will reveal why God wanted to get His people into Egypt: They were becoming thoroughly corrupt in Canaan. To preserve the nation from assimilation with the Canaanites, He put them into Egypt, where they became slaves for 400 years. This solidified them as a people under God and prepared them for conquering Canaan when the time for God’s judgment was ripe. But the point is clear: God was sovereignly orchestrating all these events according to His eternal plan.

“But,” you ask, “doesn’t that make God responsible for man’s sin?” The biblical answer is clearly, “No!” Men are responsible for their sin and yet God uses men and their sin to accomplish His sovereign purpose. George Bush (a 19th century commentator, not the former President) describes God’s providence as “that overruling Power which is ‘wonderful in counsel and mighty in operation’‑‑which controls the free and voluntary action of intelligent creatures, even when prompted by a spirit of malevolence and rebellion, so as to render them subservient to the accomplishment of those very plans which they are intent upon defeating, while the guilt of the agents remains resting upon them in all its unabated aggravations” (Notes on Genesis [Klock & Klock reprint], 2:219).

There are many verses in the Bible that show that God is sovereign even over men’s sin, yet they are responsible for it (Jer. 8:10; 13:13; 19:3, 9, 15; 25:9; Acts 2:23; 4:27‑28, plus many others). If it boggles your mind as to how God can grant man freedom of choice and yet turn man’s sin so that it accomplishes the very thing they were trying to thwart, then join Paul in exclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). The bottom line of this marvelous story in Genesis 37 is,

Since God is sovereign over all, we can trust Him even when things seem to go against us.

There are three main characters in this drama, each of whom demonstrate the sovereignty of God in spite of their sin or imperfection: Jacob, who is insensitive and foolish; Joseph, who is naive; and, Joseph’s brothers, hardened in their sin. But the real central character is God, who is providentially at work behind the scenes.

1. God is sovereign even when parents are insensitive and foolish.

As we’ve already seen, Jacob wasn’t the world’s greatest father. He made many mistakes with his family. He allowed his wives to engage in a war over who could have the most children, thus creating a climate of rivalry in the family. He seemingly would have let Dinah marry the pagan who raped her. He didn’t deal with the treachery and brutality of his sons after Dinah’s rape. And here he is blind to his other sons’ hatred toward Joseph, whom he openly favors. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have sent Joseph into this dangerous situation. Jacob was an insensitive and foolish father.

Before we point our finger at Jacob, we need to realize how easily this sort of situation develops. Put it into modern terms: A couple has several children early in their marriage. Not having any experience at being parents, they’re overly strict and make a lot of mistakes. At that point in life they didn’t have much money, so they couldn’t do much for them financially. As teenagers, the kids begin to hang around with the wrong crowd. They do some things to get in trouble with the law. They balk at going to church with their parents. They gradually reject their parents’ values and adopt the values of their friends.

Then, later in life, along comes the youngest of the family. He’s a model child‑‑loving, sensitive, obedient. He loves the Lord and wants to please his parents. He makes good grades in school and never gets in trouble. By this time, they’ve got a bit more money than when the older kids were growing up. So, for his sixteenth birthday, they buy him a new car. How will the older children respond to their goody‑two‑shoes brother?

That’s what’s happening here. Joseph’s older brothers are a bunch of rowdy guys who slaughtered a whole village because one guy raped their sister. They don’t fear God. They’re just like the Canaanites around them. But Joseph was a good kid. Besides, he was the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, who had died in childbirth with Benjamin. Joseph was an obedient, responsible young man. You can’t prove it, but Jacob may have put him in charge of his older brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, in their duties over the flocks (implied in 37:2; see Bush, p. 220). His special coat (probably a long‑sleeved, full-length coat) set Joseph apart as “Dad’s favorite.” It may have indicated that Jacob had chosen him as the heir, since Reuben had forfeited that privilege by his flagrant sin (35:22). His brothers hated that coat! The first thing they did when Joseph later came to check up on them was to strip it off him.

In the line of his duties, Joseph brought back a bad report about his brothers to their father (37:3). The sum of all this was that the brothers couldn’t even speak peaceably to Joseph (37:4). And yet Jacob seems strangely blind to the depth of hatred which his favoritism toward Joseph stirred up in his other sons.

Before we condemn Jacob, let’s admit: It’s easy for fathers, especially, to get out of touch with their children. You leave the house early in the morning and don’t get home until dinner. After dinner, the kids are busy with homework and other things. You sit down with the paper or in front of the TV. And so it goes. Your kids are in their world, you’re in yours. You’ve lost touch with the things that are shaping their lives. It’s easy to be right where Jacob was, to be an insensitive parent!

But the point is, while Jacob was not right, and while we need to work at avoiding the same mistakes, God is still sovereign, even when parents are insensitive and foolish. Jacob should have been wise enough not to have shown favoritism to Joseph and to have protected him from this explosive situation. He wasn’t, and he was responsible. But God was still in control.

Maybe your parents did (or now are doing) some dumb things toward you. You can get mad and bitter at them (or even at God) for all the wrong things they’ve done. You can blame them for not protecting you from things that damaged your life or for showing favoritism to your brothers and sisters or for being passive parents. Or you can trust that God has sovereignly put you in your family. Even though you don’t understand everything, you can thank Him because you know that He will work all these bad things out for ultimate good. You can ask Him to take away your bitterness and make you the channel of His love.

But, no matter what our family background or circumstances, we’re responsible to obey the Lord. Joseph’s life shows that it is possible to obey the Lord, even when we’re mistreated and others around us are disobedient. Even if you come from a rotten background, God expects you to deal with your sin by confessing and forsaking it as you obey Him in response to His grace and love as shown to you in Christ. In this drama, God’s sovereignty operates in a second area:

2. God is sovereign even when teenagers are naive.

Joseph had two dreams in which the obvious point was that he would be elevated above his brothers. He told his family about those dreams. Some think he was wrong to do this. I would say that he was naive. He was a 17‑year‑old who lacked the wisdom and maturity that come with a few more years of life. To have shared these dreams in confidence with his father or with a trusted older friend may have been wise. To share them with his brothers, who were already threatened by his favored position in the family, was naive and unwise.

Many times a person like Joseph, who is very competent (as his later history shows), threatens others without even knowing it. It doesn’t seem that Joseph shared these dreams to get a reaction out of his brothers. He seems innocent of any wrong motives. Even as he goes to check on them out in the fields, you get the feeling that he didn’t expect any trouble. He thought they would be glad to see him. He even wore that hated coat. If he’d had any sense at all he would have left the coat at home.

But I don’t know any adult who can look back on his teenage years and say, “I didn’t do anything dumb.” We’ve all done stupid, immature, naive things in our younger days. It’s part of growing up. Hopefully, if we have wise parents and listen to the counsel of older Christians, we’ll minimize those youthful mistakes. But we all do a certain amount of stupid, naive things in our youth, in spite of wise counsel.

But God is sovereign even when teenagers are naive. I assume that God gave Joseph these dreams, since they were prophetically true. Why didn’t God wait until later, when Joseph would have had the wisdom to keep his mouth shut? I don’t know. But I do know that Joseph’s naivete didn’t thwart God’s sovereign plan. While we should seek to live wisely, when we don’t, we can trust that God will overrule and use even the dumb things we did in our earlier years, if we will submit to Him.

There is a third group of characters who show that:

3. God is sovereign even when people are hardened in sin.

Here I’m focusing on Joseph’s brothers. When Jacob foolishly sends Joseph to check up on them, he’s tossing a match on an explosive situation. First you’ve got the darling of his father, a kid who shows up these worldly brothers with his sterling behavior. Then dad unwisely puts junior over his older brothers and gives him a coat to make it obvious. Then kid brother has the gall of reporting two dreams where his brothers bow down to him. You can see how the least little spark will set off the explosion that has been building in these brothers, whose tempers we already have seen after Dinah’s rape.

So when they see Joseph coming at a distance (they could see that cursed coat!), they plot together to kill him and throw him into a pit and say that a wild beast must have devoured him. At this point Reuben, the oldest, intervenes and persuades his brothers not to shed blood, but just to throw Joseph into the pit. He planned to free him later and restore him to his father (37:22), perhaps as a way to get back on his dad’s good side (after sleeping with his concubine). Once Joseph was in the pit, Reuben went off, perhaps to check on the flocks, while the rest of the brothers callously sat down to eat their lunch.

As they were munching their sandwiches and discussing whether to leave him to die in the pit or to finish him off themselves, a caravan of traders came along. (The terms Ishmaelite and Midianite seem to be overlapping or it was a mixed group. In Judges 8:24, Midianites are called Ishmaelites.) Judah gets a brainstorm: “There’s no profit for us if we let Joseph die in this pit. Let’s sell him to these traders. That way we won’t have the guilt of killing our own brother and we’ll make a couple of shekels each besides.” It strikes everyone as a great idea.

Isn’t it amazing how we can salve our consciences against some terrible sin by rationalizing that at least it isn’t as bad as it could have been? Compared to murdering your brother, selling him into slavery doesn’t sound too bad. You can hear them saying, “It will be better for Joseph and better for us this way.” Twenty years later, the brothers still vividly remember poor Joseph’s pleading with them not to do this terrible thing (Gen. 42:21), but here they’re rationalizing their sin by saying, “After all, he is our brother.” Comparative morality is no morality at all!

Meanwhile, Reuben comes back to the pit, finds it empty, and panics. At this point we can discern his true motive in wanting to protect Joseph: He really was more concerned about protecting himself. As the oldest, he would have to answer to his father for whatever happened to his little brother. He was already in hot water with Jacob over the matter of sleeping with his concubine. He would have assumed that Joseph had escaped from the pit and fled for home, where he would tell Dad what happened. Joseph hadn’t known that Reuben was planning to rescue him. Now Reuben would be in even more trouble! That’s why, when he hears what his brothers did, Reuben is quick to agree to their scheme. If he really was concerned about his brother, he could have gone after the caravan and redeemed him.

These brothers were hardened not only toward Joseph, but also toward their father. The old man was devastated when he saw Joseph’s bloodstained coat and assumed that he had been killed by a wild beast. Can’t you picture them all gathered around the weeping man, patting him on the back, saying, “There, there! It’s going to be all right. Remember Romans 8:28, Dad!” How calloused can you get!

But still God was sovereign. You can see it in several points. First, Joseph did not find his brothers where they were supposed to be. As he wandered around in a field, a man “happened” to come along who knew where the brothers went, so Joseph was able to find them (37:15‑17). Then, Joseph arrived just as this caravan came along, sparking Judah’s idea, which got Joseph into Egypt. You can also see a hint of God’s providence in the ironic boast of the brothers, “Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (37:20). What became of his dreams is that they were precisely fulfilled! God had His hand on this whole process, in spite of the brothers’ calloused sin, for which they were responsible. God sovereignly put Joseph into Potiphar’s house and orchestrated the events that followed there, in spite of Potiphar’s wife’s sin against Joseph. God was sovereign in the timing of the cupbearer’s remembering Joseph before Pharaoh.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of God’s sovereign hand in these events is the remarkable parallel between Joseph’s history and that of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Joseph was loved by his father and sent to seek the welfare of his brethren, so Jesus was loved and sent by the Father. Just as Joseph’s brothers hated him because he spoke the truth about their sin and he convicted them of sin by his righteous life, so with Jesus. Just as Joseph’s brothers sold him for a few pieces of silver, so Jesus was betrayed for the same. Joseph’s brothers sought to get rid of him so that he would not reign over them, but their action resulted in that becoming true. Their rejection of him resulted in his later becoming their savior from the famine. Even so, the Jewish leaders did not want Jesus to reign over them. But their killing Him resulted in His becoming the Savior of all men, exalted in His resurrection as Lord of all at the right hand of the Father, just as Joseph was second under Pharaoh.

Joseph easily could have thought, “If only I hadn’t met that guy in the field, I wouldn’t have found my brothers and all this wouldn’t have happened!” But his wandering in the field and meeting that man weren’t bad luck. Even though God is not mentioned in this chapter, He is obviously at work. Often when God is most silent, He is most present. Years later, Joseph could say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result” (Gen. 50:20). We may see the reason for God’s dealings after a few years, or maybe not until eternity. But, like Joseph, we need to trust God, even when we don’t understand. The bottom line is, We can trust God no matter what happens to us because His sovereign, loving hand is on us even in the little “happenstances” of life.


A dad was holding his three-year-old securely in his arms as he stood in the shallow end of the pool. As the dad walked slowly toward the deep end, he gently chanted, “Deeper and deeper and deeper.” As the water rose higher on the child, his face reflected more and more panic, and he clung all the more tightly to his father, whose feet easily touched the bottom. If the little boy had been able to analyze his situation, he would have realized that there was no reason to panic. The water’s depth in any part of the pool was over his head. Even in the shallowest part, if his dad had not held him up, he would have drowned. His safety anywhere in that pool depended on his dad. So he should have been able to trust him in the deeper water just as easily as in the shallow. (LEADERSHIP, Winter, 1988.)

In various situations, we may feel that we’re in over our head. A terrible tragedy hits us out of no where. We lose our job, someone dies, someone wrongs us, and we feel as if we’re going to be swamped. But, the truth is, we’ve always been held up by the grace and love of our Heavenly Father. If He let us go, we’d drown even in the shallow end. If we’re in deeper waters, we’re still in His strong arms. God is never out of His depth, and so we can trust Him even when the waters seem deeper than we’ve ever been before. If you’re in the pits, remember, God is sovereign over all the details of your life. You can trust Him to work it all together for good! If you’ve never trusted Him before, why not begin now?

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person from a terrible background overcome bitterness toward God, knowing that He allowed it to happen?
  2. If even our sin can’t thwart God’s plan, then what’s to keep a person from a careless attitude toward sin?
  3. A father tells you that his child was molested and murdered and asks, “How can you expect me to believe in a good, all‑powerful God?” What would you say?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1997, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 65: Conformity With Corruption (Genesis 38:1-30)

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If the Bible were not inspired of God, Genesis 38 would not be there. It does not make God’s people, the sons of Jacob, look good. If this episode had happened to one of your family members, you’d want to keep it quiet (unless, of course, you were offered a lot of money to go on Oprah to tell about it!). Why hang your dirty laundry out for everyone to see? But God has a way of hanging in full public view things that we would cover up. Aren’t you glad that you didn’t live in Bible times, to have your embarrassing family secrets put in the Bible?

Hanging dirty laundry in public view is embarrassing not only for those whose laundry it is, but also for those who have to view it. When you’re around someone who shares intimate problems too freely, you feel awkward. You don’t know what to say, so you mumble something and try to change the subject. That’s the way many preachers and commentators approach Genesis 38. They skim it or skip it and move on to the life of Joseph, which is a bit more comfortable. But God saw fit to hang this dirty laundry in full public view. He put it here for our instruction.

Critics allege that some editor mistakenly put the chapter here, out of context. But that view is both arrogant and unnecessary. What at first glance looks like an interruption to the story of Joseph is actually crucial for a proper understanding of the “generations of Jacob” (37:2). This chapter shows us why Joseph, in God’s providence, had to be removed to Egypt: God’s covenant people were becoming conformed to the corruption in Canaan. It’s a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” glimpse of what was happening in Canaan during the 22 years from Joseph’s sale into slavery to Jacob’s family’s move to Egypt. To preserve His people from becoming absorbed into the Canaanite culture, God moved them into Egypt, where they became slaves. This forged Israel into a distinct people and prepared them for the later conquest of Canaan, when God’s time for judgment on that corrupt culture was ripe.

Two themes run through this chapter: The first is how quickly God’s people can become morally corrupt. Judah, marries a Canaanite woman and blends in completely with that corrupt culture. His corruption is contrasted with chapter 39, where Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife. The second theme is the holiness and grace of God. Those two qualities are always in perfect tension: God’s grace never negates His holiness, nor does His holiness nullify His grace. God’s holiness is seen when He strikes dead two of Judah’s sons for their sin. But God’s grace overcomes the gross sin of Judah and Tamar, so that their son, Perez, becomes a part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:3‑16). Thus we learn that ...

While God’s people are prone to corruption, God is marked by holiness and grace.

Since the major part of the chapter deals with the corruption of Judah, I believe that God wants us to take a sober look at how prone we all are to moral corruption.

1. God’s people are prone to corruption.

It would be great if being born into a godly family would somehow protect us from picking up the world’s moral corruption. But it doesn’t work that way. We’re like Pigpen in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip, who is clean after his bath, but who steps outside and‑‑Poof! He’s instantly covered with dirt. Judah, the son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac (who was still living during part of this time), great grandson of Abraham, a member of the chief family God was dealing with on the earth, lived just as the Canaanites lived. You may have been born into a godly family, as I was. Perhaps your grandparents were godly people. But Judah’s life shows that it is very easy for you to become as corrupt as our morally putrid culture. Judah’s corruption follows a progression:

A. Corruption begins when you distance yourself from God’s people.

We read (38:1) that “Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.” That didn’t happen accidentally. It involved a choice on Judah’s part. We don’t know the reason for his choice. Perhaps he saw the way Hirah and the people of Adullam lived and thought, “I don’t want to live a boring life like my grandfather Isaac or my father Jacob. I want some adventure, some excitement, some enjoyment out of life. I’m going to move near Hirah.” Even though his brothers at this point were not a godly bunch, Judah’s move signified a move away from the covenant people of God.

That’s where corruption often begins. Many times it happens in the teen years. A young person is attracted to the lifestyle of the popular kids at school. Perhaps he made a profession of faith as a child, but he’s not interested in the things of God. He thinks his parents must have migrated here from another planet. So at some point the teenager says to himself, “I’m going to hang around with that group at school and distance myself from the church crowd.” It won’t be long until he is just like them in his thought life, his language, and his morals.

But it’s not only true of teenagers. The Bible says to us all: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’“ (1 Cor. 15:33). We may think that we’ll stand our ground, but we’ll drift without knowing it. While we need to build relationships with pagan people for the purpose of leading them to Jesus Christ, to do so for the purpose of camaraderie will corrupt us, not convert them. At Dallas Seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks told us that the two factors which would distinguish us from our classmates ten years out of seminary would be the books we read and the friends we made. Corruption often begins when a person makes the choice to distance himself from God’s people and to build friendships with worldly people.

B. Corruption takes root when you marry outside of God’s people.

Judah saw a Canaanite woman, the daughter of a man named Shua (whose name probably means “riches”‑‑her name is not given), and “he took her [in marriage] and went in to her” (38:2). The emphasis is clearly on the physical, not the spiritual. Judah saw her, he liked what he saw, her daddy was rich, so he took her and had sex with her. That sounds like the basis for a lot of marriages in our day!

Judah and his wife had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. They grew up (marriage at 15 was not uncommon in that culture) and Judah took a wife for his oldest son, Er, named Tamar. So Judah, contrary to his great-grandfather Abraham’s strong warning, has picked a Canaanite wife for himself, and now for his son. Thus, it’s not surprising to read that Er was so evil that the Lord took his life. His sin is not mentioned, but he must have been a wicked man.

Then Judah told his second son to go in to Tamar and perform his duty as a brother‑in‑law to her. This is called levirate marriage (from the Latin, “levir,” meaning “husband’s brother”), a common custom in the ancient Near East which was later codified in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 25:5‑10). If a man died childless, his brother was to marry the widow and the first son was regarded as the heir of the deceased man. Onan apparently married Tamar, but he did not want to give his brother an heir, so he would interrupt the act of intercourse (which, by the way, is not a safe method of contraception). For his refusal to raise up an heir for his brother, God stuck Onan dead. He was not struck dead for practicing birth control, but for his selfishness in wanting his brother’s inheritance for himself.

Judah didn’t know why his sons were dropping dead. All he knew is, they married Tamar and died. So he wasn’t about to have his third son marry her. He told her to go back to her father’s house and wait until Shelah was old enough to marry, but he didn’t intend to go through with it (38:11). In Judah’s mind, Tamar was jinxed.

For centuries Satan has used intermarriage with ungodly people to corrupt those from godly homes, and it still works like a charm. Judah was a nominal believer at best, but when he married this Canaanite woman, it was insured that their children would be thoroughly pagan. She didn’t train them to fear the Lord. If God hadn’t struck them dead for their sin, these sons of Judah would have turned his descendants toward paganism. So if you’re single, it’s crucial that you wait on the Lord for a godly mate. Corruption begins when you distance yourself from God’s people. It takes root when you marry outside God’s people.

C. Corruption comes to fruition when you live in conformity to a corrupt culture.

Several years go by (38:12). Shelah is old enough to marry, but it’s becoming obvious to Tamar that Judah isn’t going to keep his word on the matter. Since she’s been twice widowed, her chances of finding a husband and having children are slim. Not having children was a disgrace, and as a childless widow, Tamar wouldn’t have been provided for when her parents died. So she concocts a plan to trick Judah into getting her pregnant so that she will be the mother of his heir.

Judah’s wife had died, he had mourned for her, and now it was time for shearing his sheep. This was a festive time, “when sexual temptation would be sharpened by the Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornication as fertility magic” (Derek Kidner, Genesis [IVP], p. 188). So Tamar took off her widow’s garments, dressed up as a cult prostitute, with a veil, and sat in a conspicuous place where she knew Judah would pass by.

Sure enough, Judah saw her, assumed she was a prostitute, and solicited her services. (She probably disguised her voice. Not expecting it to be Tamar, Judah didn’t detect that it was her.) They negotiated the price (one kid goat) and she took some collateral so that he would pay later. But it was the collateral, not the pay, she was after. She took his seal and cord‑‑kind of like their Visa card. A man wore his special cylindrical seal on a cord around his neck, and when a business deal was transacted, he would roll it in hot wax to sign the deal. She also took Judah’s specially carved staff.

They had sex, Tamar conceived, went home and put on her widow’s garments again. When Judah sent his payment by the hand of his friend, Hirah, he couldn’t find this prostitute. This put Judah and Hirah in an embarrassing situation. If Judah reported the theft of his seal and staff by a prostitute, or pressed looking for her, it would become public knowledge that a prostitute had gotten the best of him. These kind of stories were swapped in jest all over town. So Judah decided to absorb his losses and move on.

Three months later, word comes that Tamar is pregnant because of harlotry. She is officially engaged to Shelah, Judah’s son. Even though Judah never intended to go through with the marriage (he thought Tamar was jinxed), he acts highly offended and calls for the death penalty. Tamar would be out of the picture and Shelah could take another woman as his wife.

Or, it could be that Judah’s harsh reaction reflected the common double standard. Men could go to prostitutes all they wanted, but women had to remain faithful to their husbands. So he hypocritically condemned Tamar for the same sin of which he was guilty. Of course, in condemning her, he was really condemning himself.

But Tamar had her bases covered. As they were taking her out to execute her, she calmly sent Judah’s seal and staff to him with the message, “I’m pregnant by the man to whom these things belong. Do you recognize them?” Judah was had. He admitted that he had been wrong in not giving Tamar to Shelah as he had promised.

The striking thing about this story is the way Judah was thoroughly conformed to the corruption of the Canaanite culture. He’s on his way to party with his pagan friend, Hirah, when he sees a prostitute. Without a thought of God, he turns aside to her. His readiness to do this and the calm way he handles the negotiations show that this wasn’t the first time he had done this. Tamar knew this also, or she wouldn’t have dreamed of trying it. When Judah finally gets caught, he doesn’t say anything about his sexual sin. He just admits that he had done wrong in not keeping his promise to give Tamar to his son in marriage. The final sentence of verse 26 may indicate a degree of repentance or it may simply be reporting that Judah didn’t marry Tamar.

We’re often shocked when we hear of Christians, especially Christian leaders, who fall into gross sin. But this story is here to warn us that we all are prone to moral corruption. If you think, “Why I could never fall into this kind of sin,” then you don’t know your own heart. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). It can happen to anyone who drifts away from the Lord and His people. We all must wage war daily against the lusts of the flesh. We live in a culture as corrupt as that of Canaan. And our enemy, the devil, is much more concerned to make Christians fall into sin than he is to bother with those who make no such claim.

But we don’t have to be conformed to the corruption around us. The story of Joseph in chapter 39 shows that moral purity is possible, even in the face of aggressive evil. The power for holiness comes from our God, who is both holy and gracious toward sinners. Our text shows not only how God’s people are prone to corruption, but also that ...

2. God is marked by holiness and grace.

A. God’s holiness means that He judges sinners and disciplines His people.

In our day, it is common to sacrifice God’s holiness on the altar of His grace. Christians excuse sin with the glib phrase, “We’re under grace.” But God’s grace does not exclude His judgment and discipline. Remember, it’s in the epistle which champions God’s grace that Paul writes, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7‑8).

You may wonder, “Why did God strike down Er and Onan for their sin, but not Judah and Tamar?” The answer lies hidden in the inscrutable sovereign purposes of God. For reasons known only to God, He chose to make Er and Onan examples of His judgment, but Judah and Tamar the objects of His sovereign grace. But both cases show that God, in His holiness, judges sinners and disciplines His people. Although Judah wasn’t struck dead, he was disciplined by the Lord. He lost two grown sons. He would later go through the famine in the land and have to bow before his brother, whom he had despised.

But the real toll of Judah’s sin wasn’t in his own lifetime. As I mentioned earlier, this chapter shows the reason for the 400 years of slavery the nation had to go through. Judah’s descendants went through 400 years of hardship, in part, because of his sin. We may think we get away with our sin and that it doesn’t hurt anybody. But sin always exacts a toll. We reap what we sow, and our sin is often visited on our children to the third and fourth generation. God is a holy God, and that means He must judge sin and discipline His people so that they will share His holiness. But just as God’s grace doesn’t eliminate His holiness, so His holiness doesn’t negate His grace.

B. God’s grace means that on account of Christ, He shows favor to those who deserve judgment.

We see God’s grace here in that this morally corrupt Canaanite culture was allowed to continue in its sinful course for another 400 years, until “the iniquity of the Amorite” was complete (Gen. 15:16). During those 400 years, any Canaanites who had heard of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants probably mocked. Abraham’s descendants were in slavery in Egypt. Canaan and its godless, pleasure‑seeking culture was thriving. That’s always the danger, that during a period of God’s grace, sinners will mistakenly think that things will go on that way forever. They won’t!

But the real beauty of grace in this chapter is revealed in Matthew 1:3, where we learn that Tamar and her son Perez, born through this sordid affair, are included in the genealogy of Jesus. Judah and Tamar were living for themselves and for pleasure. Yet God used them to produce the ancestor of the Messiah. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more!

Jesus Christ, the descendant of Judah through Tamar, was born without sin through the virgin birth, so that as the spotless Lamb of God, He could die as the substitute for sinners. Thus God is able to be both holy and gracious through Christ. He is holy in that all sin is punished. If a person rejects Christ, he bears the penalty for his own sin‑‑ eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. If a person trusts Christ, Christ’s death pays for that person’s sins. God is gracious in extending forgiveness apart from human merit to every sinner who will receive it. There is grace abounding for the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Jesus promised, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Every sinner will find mercy at the cross.


The well-known writer, Ernest Hemingway, was raised in a solidly evangelical home in Oak Park, Illinois. His godly grandparents had graduated from Wheaton College. His grandfather, Anson Hemingway, shared a close friendship with the evangelist, D. L. Moody. Ernest’s physician father had wanted to be a missionary doctor, but his mother was too much of a city girl, and refused to go. But Ernest was raised in the church where he tithed his allowance, sang in the choir, and read completely through his King James Bible and passed a comprehensive exam on it.

After high school, he moved to Kansas City to become a reporter. He stopped going to church and began drifting from his upbringing. He enlisted in World War I, was wounded, and took to drinking to ease the pain. He once offered his sister a drink. When she refused, “he told her not to be afraid to taste all of what the world has to offer just because Oak Park had labeled it sinful and off-limits.” He married a worldly woman and moved to Paris to further his writing career. Totally alienated from his parents, eventually he would go through four wives. He was notorious for his drunkenness. In his late years, “he grew distant from everyone. He would not stand up straight and, he stopped communicating verbally.” A friend said that his “every hour was filled with the pain of being truly lost and alone.” Hemingway’s own description was, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” Finally, on a sunny Sunday morning in Idaho, at age 61, Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. (Culled from, “Ernest Hemingway: Tragedy of an Evangelical Family,” by Daniel Pawley, Christianity Today [11/23/84], pp. 20-27.)

Hemingway’s tragic life did not have to go that direction. He made some bad choices: to distance himself from God’s people; to marry outside of the faith; to be conformed to this corrupt world. He could have availed himself of God’s grace and been conformed to Jesus Christ. His godly children and grandchildren could have followed in his steps. Instead, his beautiful, famous granddaughter took her life last year. His descendants are far from the Lord.

We all are prone to corruption. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on [Christ]” (Isa. 53:6). We don’t have to be conformed to corruption. If we avail ourselves of God’s grace through the descendant of Judah and Tamar, the Lord Jesus Christ, He will keep us from the corruption of this evil world.

Discussion Questions

  1. In light of 1 Cor. 15:33, when should we pursue a friendship with an ungodly person and when should we drop it?
  2. How can we live in this evil world and yet avoid being corrupted by it?
  3. If D. L. Moody were to step into our century, at which points would he say the American church has become corrupted?
  4. How can we maintain God’s grace without licentiousness and His holiness without legalism?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Failure, Fellowship, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Singleness

Lesson 66: Moral Purity in a Polluted World (Genesis 39:1-20)

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It’s not news that we live in a culture obsessed with sex. Of course, sexual immorality is nothing new. But it used to be hidden and generally viewed as wrong by our culture. Now it’s blatant and shrugged off as no big deal.

It would be wonderful if Christians had resisted this moral breakdown, but that’s not so. Many pastors (some famous, some not) have fallen into sexual sin. A Christianity Today ([10/2/87], pp. 25-45) survey reported that one out of eight pastors admit to committing adultery since being in the ministry! Among CT’s subscribers who were not pastors, it was one out of four! In answer to, “Since you’ve been over 21, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?” 45 percent of lay persons and 23 percent of pastors answered “yes”. Remember, this wasn’t with Christians in general, but with subscribers to Christianity Today, a magazine aimed at church leaders.

With statistics like that, you begin to wonder, Is it possible to be morally pure in our polluted world? The story of Joseph in Genesis 39 says, “Yes!” If Joseph, a young man reared in a society as morally corrupt as ours, who had no Bible, no church, and not much parental training, alone in a foreign culture, could resist the direct proposition of his master’s wife, then we can resist sexual temptation.

We CAN be morally pure in a polluted world.

But it’s not going to happen accidentally. You don’t win wars without knowing your weak areas, knowing the enemy’s tactics, having a strategy, and being willing to pay the price. I want to give you four principles from our test that will help you gain and maintain moral purity in this polluted world.

1. Be aware of situations where you’re vulnerable.

The stage is set in verses 1-6. Joseph had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. He was the security chief, also responsible for executing anyone Pharaoh didn’t want around. You wouldn’t want to get on Potiphar’s bad side!

Because the Lord was with Joseph, he did well under Potiphar. There is no mention of the struggles this 17-year-old boy must have gone through when he arrived. He was torn from his father, taken to a strange culture where he couldn’t understand the language, and sold as a piece of property to this powerful man. Yet with God’s strength, he adjusted to the situation. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Joseph had been put in charge of everything Potiphar owned. Potiphar trusted Joseph so much that he didn’t even check up on him. And, as the NIV translates, “Joseph was well-built and handsome”. That sets the stage for the temptation that follows. Satan hits you with temptation when you’re most vulnerable. Joseph’s situation reveals four situations where you’re vulnerable.

A. You’re vulnerable when you’re in different circumstances, where no one else will know.

Joseph was a single man in his twenties, with the normal sex drive of any young man. He was a country boy in a sophisticated foreign capital, working in a home frequented by the rich and famous. He had no friends who shared his belief in God. As far as he knew, this tempting situation was private and would never be known to anyone else. He didn’t know that his story would be recorded in the world’s most-read book. He was vulnerable!

If you travel in business or if you find yourself alone in a different city where nobody will know if you give in to sexual temptation, be on guard! Satan will hit you. You may think that no one will ever find out, but the Bible warns, “…be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). God knows everything. Sin is never private.

B. You’re vulnerable when you’re successful and attractive.

Success always opens up new temptations. We read, “after these events” (Joseph’s success) Potiphar’s wife looked with desire at Joseph (39:7). It wasn’t just his good looks, but also his success that attracted her.

If you’re good-looking, be on guard! Only three men in the Bible are called good-looking: Joseph, David, and Absalom. All three were hit with sexual temptation; two failed. If God has given you good looks, you need to be careful not to dress seductively (that applies to men as well as women) or to use your looks to manipulate people.

Studies have shown that besides good looks, women are attracted to men who are financially successful, confident, competent, who have power and influence, and public recognition. Also, women are drawn to men who are compassionate, gentle and attentive listeners. Except for financial success, most of those factors fit many pastors. Men in ministry need to be on guard! Joseph didn’t let his success or good looks bring him down.

C. You’re vulnerable when you’re alone with an emotionally needy woman.

Potiphar’s wife was needy. Her husband was busy with his important job. Every time Pharaoh traveled, he was gone, sometimes for weeks at a time. Being a “macho” man, Potiphar probably didn’t excel in sensitivity to his wife. Her bitterness bleeds through when she blames her husband for her problem with Joseph (39:14. 17). This neglected wife longed for attention and intimacy. She mistakenly thought she would get it through sex outside of marriage.

Any time someone of the opposite sex begins sharing his or her marriage frustrations with you and telling you how kind and sensitive you are, look out! If you’re not careful you’ll think, “Why that no good brute she’s married to! She deserves better than he is. She just needs someone to be kind to her.” You’re vulnerable to sexual temptation.

D. You’re vulnerable when you’re emotionally needy.

Joseph must have felt lonely. His mother had died. He was separated from his father. His brothers had rejected him. He was a slave without any friends who understood or shared his background. Any normal young man desires the companionship of a woman. He might never be able to marry and have sexual relations. Potiphar’s wife could have met many pressing needs. But Joseph didn’t yield!

Sexual temptation is never just physical. There’s always the good feeling that comes from being desired by someone else. God designed marriage and sex within marriage to meet our needs. If we try to meet our needs through sex outside of marriage, we’ll have immediate pleasure but long term pain. We end up enslaved to sin.

If you’re married, you need to cultivate companionship with you wife. Don’t let emotional drift set in. If you’re single, pray for a wife! And use lonely times to deepen your intimacy with the Lord, while maintaining your commitment to moral purity. The first step to moral purity is to be aware of situations where you’re vulnerable.

2. Be aware of how temptation works.

First, as we’ve seen, the stage is set: A needy woman and a vulnerable man who is also a servant of God. Satan won’t leave that situation alone. Next, there is flattery and surprise, the direct approach: “Lie with me”. Probably she had dropped hints before, but now it hit him head on. Joseph must have felt strangely good: “This important woman desires me?” But Joseph said no and the problem went away. Right? He said no, but the problem didn’t go away.

The next stage was her persistence: “…she spoke to Joseph day after day (39:10). She tried to get him to reconsider, to wear him down by sheer repetition of the idea, the way TV advertisers do. That’s how Delilah caused Samson’s downfall.

The last step was her sudden ambush, where Joseph had to give in or flee. She waited until he was alone in the house. Concentrating on his work, Joseph probably didn’t realize that the two of them were alone or he would have taken precautions. But she knew. She grabbed him by the coat and again said, “Lie with me!” Joseph left his coat in her hand and ran outside.

That’s how temptation often works: You’re vulnerable; there’s a surprise opportunity which flatters you; if you resist that, there will be other opportunities, pressure to get you to reconsider; then, there will be the sudden ambush, where you hardly have time to think. You must act immediately, and your decision in that instant determines everything. Because of that, the third step toward moral purity is the most important:

3. Make a commitment to purity and develop a strategy before the temptation hits.

Joseph’s resistance wasn’t accidental or natural. He had made a previous commitment to moral purity and he had a strategy for resistance already in place.

A. Make a commitment to integrity in all of life.

Joseph was a man of integrity in all areas of live. Verses 4-6 repeat four times that all Potiphar owned was in Joseph’s charge. He could be trusted with Potiphar’s money.

Integrity affects all of life. If Joseph had been cheating on business matters, it would have been easier to cheat with Potiphar’s wife. Any time there is adultery, there is deception. If you’ll make a commitment to integrity across the board, it will be easier to maintain that integrity when the opportunity to cheat sexually comes knocking.

B. Make an up-front commitment to inner purity.

When Potiphar’s wife surprised Joseph with her offer, he just said no. If he had been toying with it in his mind, he could have yielded. He had thought about it and the answer was no. A lot of folks want to be delivered from temptation, but they’d like to keep in touch. But you’ve got to decide up-front that you want to be morally pure. It begins by confronting lustful thoughts. No one ever committed adultery who didn’t first entertain it in his mind.

Derek Kidner points out that Joseph’s arguments for refusal (39:8-9) are the same that another man could have used for yielding. His master trusted him, so he was free from close supervision; he had control over all matters except this one—why not take it too? Many men would view sex with a prominent woman like this as the path to social and political opportunity. Besides, she was his master’s wife. Shouldn’t he submit to her?

It’s easy to rationalize sin. With the same circumstances, you can construct arguments either in favor of obedience to God or against it. It all depends on your focus, on what you’re aiming for. You’ve got to decide beforehand that you want to be a man or woman of God and that you will say no when temptations to sexual immorality come, as surely they will.

C. Focus on your responsibilities, not your needs.

When Potiphar’s wife propositioned him, Joseph didn’t think about his needs; he pointed out his responsibilities toward his master, toward her, and toward God (39:8-9). If he had focused on his needs, he could have built a case for yielding.

I’ve found this helpful in dealing with sexual sin on the thought level, where it always begins. I am responsible as a Christian witness, as a father, and as a pastor. Even if you’re single, you never sin alone; your sin tarnishes the name of Christ. If I confront lustful thoughts, it stops right there. If I entertain them, rationalizing. “I’ve got needs,” I expose many others to Satan’s attacks. If I fail morally, I’m failing my family, my church, the lost, and my God. So I’ve got to be responsible to judge my lustful thoughts.

D. Consciously live in the presence of God.

Joseph was alone with Potiphar’s wife in Egypt, far from is family. But he knew that he was not alone, that if he gave in to her desire, he would sin primarily against God. Four times in this chapter (39:2, 3, 21, 23) it says, “The Lord was with Joseph.” Of course, being omnipresent, the Lord is with everybody, but that’s not what this means. It means that God was with Joseph in a special way. Joseph lived with an awareness of God’s presence. He didn’t want to trade that blessing for the passing pleasure of sin.

Ask God to give you a constant sense of His holy presence. All sin is done in His sight and is primarily against Him. If we covet God’s blessing in our lives, we will fear Him and flee temptation.

E. Call sin sin.

Joseph calls this “a great evil”, a “sin against God”. One of the ways Satan gets us is by swapping the labels on sin, so that it doesn’t sound quite so bad. How often in the press do you read about someone doing a great evil? Usually it’s called an affair or a fling. It sounds fun!

When you’re tempted, focus on the evil of the sin, not on its pleasure. All sin has its attractive side, or we wouldn’t give it a second thought. Adultery has a certain thrill. But it also wreaks destruction and tears apart families, not to mention the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, which can be fatal. When Eve was tempted, she focused on the attractiveness of the fruit and she fell. Joseph focused on the evil of adultery and stood firm.

F. Avoid the opportunity to be tempted.

We read that Joseph “did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her” (39:10). This relates to the up-front commitment to be pure. If you want to be pure and you know that someone or someplace will tempt you, then avoid that person or place. If you’re tempted by pornography, don’t go into a store where it’s readily available. If a woman at work is flirtatious, avoid her as much as possible. Don’t lead her on by listening to her. Give strong signals that you’re not interested.

G. Flee when you need to.

When she finally went so far as to grab Joseph’s coat, he ran. The Bible never says that we should stand and pray and quote precious verses when sexual temptation hits. “Flee immorality!” (1 Cor. 6:18). Resist the devil (James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9), but flee youthful lusts (2 Tim. 2:22). As one of my older professors in seminary said, “Men, they aren’t just youthful”. You’ve got to flee them all your life. You won’t yield while you’re running the other way.

So, Joseph ran away and God rewarded him for his righteousness. Right? Not quite. That leads to the final step toward moral purity in a polluted world:

4. Be willing to pay the price for your convictions.

Potiphar’s wife was humiliated by Joseph’s refusal and her humiliation quickly turned to rage. As the poet wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”. So she framed Joseph and he spent the next few years in prison.

There is reason to think that Potiphar didn’t believe her story. If he did, he would have executed Joseph that day. The text says that his anger burned (39:19), but not that it burned against Joseph. He could see his wife’s flirtatious ways. He knew Joseph’s integrity. But he had to do something to get her off his back. He would lose a servant who had brought him great prosperity, but he couldn’t let it slide. If he believed Joseph over his wife she would have made life difficult for him. Potiphar couldn’t have missed the way she blamed him: “This Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me…” (39:17). She was blaming Joseph and her husband.

Because the world is so polluted, you can expect to pay a price when you take a stand for purity. People will slander you. They’ll blame you for their sin. You could even lose your job. Joseph had plenty of time sitting in prison to replay the scene and think about what he would do if he had the chance again. Satan always comes to you after you’ve done the right thing and gotten stung for it and whispers, “Next time just give in and all this won’t happen. See how your God takes care of you”.

But Joseph still had the presence and blessing of God, even in prison (39:21-23). It wasn’t worth trading that, even with prison, for the fleeing pleasure he would have enjoyed with Potiphar’s wife.


An old priest was asked by a young man, “Father, when will I cease to be bothered by sins of the flesh?” The priest replied, “I wouldn’t trust myself, my son, until I was dead three days”.

The battle for moral purity in a polluted world is a lifelong war. But it is winnable if you’ll be aware of situations where you are vulnerable and be on guard; be aware of how temptation works; make a commitment to purity and develop a strategy before temptation hits; and, be willing to pay the price that purity in a polluted world has cost every disciple of Jesus Christ.

If you’ve already defiled yourself with sexual sin or you’re presently ensnared by it, Christ will deliver you and give you victory if you turn to Him. No sin is beyond His Grace. To every sinner who comes to Him, He says, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more: (John 8:11). Let’s commit ourselves to be men and women who are pure in thought and deed!

Discussion Questions

  1. To what degree should we try to shelter ourselves and our kids from sexually explicit movies, TV, books, magazines, etc.?
  2. Discuss this statement: No one ever falls into sexual sin without first entertaining it in his or her mind.
  3. Where do we cross the line between temptation and sin?
  4. Is “sexual addiction” a disease? Is it proper to refer to it by that term? Why/why not?

Copyright, 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Marriage, Sexual Purity, Sexuality, Singleness, Spiritual Life

Lesson 67: True Success (Genesis 39:1-23)

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Each of us wants to succeed in life. But if we want true success, it’s crucial to work out a biblical definition of the term. Otherwise, you’ll be like the guy who climbed the ladder of success only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. You’ll waste your life pursuing the wrong goals and making wrong decisions. If our target is wrong, we will fail even if we hit it.

Our American culture defines success primarily in financial terms, throwing in, perhaps, the ideas of power, fame, and the elusive quality, “happiness.” As Christians, we can easily see the fallacy in defining success in those terms, and yet often we are influenced by our culture more than we care to admit. Many pastors succumb to the prevailing definition, thinking that if you pastor a large church, or gain national recognition through writing a book or speaking at important gatherings, you are successful. Christians reveal their skewed definition of success when they rush out to buy the latest story of some celebrity who has made a profession of faith, or when they parade famous athletes before the church as if they were spiritual authorities. So we need to bring into sharp focus the biblical answer to the question, What is true success?

Genesis 39 is a rags to riches to rags story. At the beginning of the chapter, Joseph is at the bottom, a slave sold into a foreign culture. But God prospers him and he rises to the top in the house of Potiphar, security chief to Pharaoh. Life was about as good as a slave could expect at that point. But then Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. When he refused her demands, she falsely accused him. He ended up in the dungeon, seemingly worse off than when the chapter started.

There are some parallels between Joseph’s rise to the top spot in Potiphar’s house (39:1‑6) and his experience in the prison (39:21‑23):

*Verse 2: “the Lord was with Joseph”

*Verse 21: “the Lord was with Joseph”

*Verse 4: “So Joseph found favor in [Potiphar’s] sight”

*Verse 21: “the Lord ... gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer”

*Verse 4: “[Potiphar] made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge”

*Verse 22: “And the chief jailer committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it”

*Verse 6: “with [Joseph] there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate”

*Verse 23: “The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph’s charge”

*Verse 3: “[Potiphar] saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper”

*Verse 23: The chief jailer also put Joseph in charge because he saw that “the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made to prosper.”

Clearly, Joseph was truly successful, whether he was in Potiphar’s house or in the prison, because God’s hand was on him. I believe that is the biblical definition of true success:

True success is to have God’s blessing on your life.

If you have God’s blessing, you have everything, even if you’re poor and unknown; if you lack God’s blessing, you ultimately will have nothing, even if you’re rich and famous now. But, we need to be careful to think biblically about what God’s blessing means.

1. God’s blessing is not necessarily related to favorable circumstances.

Was Joseph more blessed by God or more successful when he was at the top of Potiphar’s household than when he was in the dungeon? Clearly not! They were just different phases of God’s training program in which He was preparing Joseph for the job He had for him under Pharaoh. We are mistaken when we think that if everything is going well, God is blessing us, but that when trials or problems hit, He has withdrawn His blessing. His blessing isn’t necessarily related to favorable circumstances.

Joseph’s circumstances in the prison were anything but favorable, at least at first. Psalm 105:18 gives us a glimpse of reality when it states, “They afflicted his feet with fetters, he himself was laid in irons.” The NIV translates, “They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons.” The dungeon was most likely beneath Potiphar’s house (Gen. 40:3), probably with no windows, a dark and unpleasant place, especially if you had irons on your feet and neck!

For a while, Joseph must have wondered what was going on. He had been obedient to the Lord in resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He knew that God had spoken to him in his dreams years ago, about how the sun, moon, and stars would bow down to him. But where was God now? Why was this happening? He must have felt like Tavye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who says, “Lord, I know that we are the chosen people.” But as he considers the trials the Jews have gone through, he looks up toward heaven and pleads, “Couldn’t You choose someone else for a change?” Most of us have felt like that: “If this is God’s blessing, what must His curse be like?”

But God’s blessing often comes through trials. Every person God uses must go through times of training and testing, where character is refined. You see it in Moses, who was the most competent, gifted man you could have chosen to lead Israel, a man trained in all the knowledge of the Egyptians. But he had to spend 40 years in the wilderness in order to be trained in the ways of the Lord before he could lead God’s people to Canaan.

You see the same thing in David, the man after God’s heart. He was a teenager when the prophet Samuel anointed him as the future king. He was still in his teens when he slew Goliath. Yet he had to spend his twenties running as a fugitive from the mad king Saul before he was ready at 30 to lead the nation.

You see the same thing in the apostle Paul. When he was converted, he was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. In our day, we probably would have him teaching in a seminary within a few years. But God sent him into Arabia for two or three years and then into obscurity in Tarsus. It was about ten years after his conversion that he finally began to minister with Barnabas in Antioch, where the Lord began to use his mighty gifts. If you’ve read his epistles and the book of Acts, you know that the training didn’t end there. Throughout his ministry, Paul was continually trained in the school of Christ through many trials.

You can even see the same thing in the life of the Lord Jesus, who, though he was the perfect Son of God, learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). I marvel when I think of the fact that Jesus was 30 before He began His public ministry. If there ever was a competent, godly young man, ready to minister at 20, Jesus must have been the one. In terms of modern standards of success, we would have to admit that Jesus didn’t make it. He alienated the religious leaders. He only ministered for three years and left behind a ragtag band of confused followers. If God’s blessing means favorable circumstances, large numbers, and everything going your way, Jesus wasn’t blessed.

We each need to recognize that God is using our circumstances to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. We don’t know what He has ahead for us. He may elevate us to a position of prominence, as He did with Joseph. He may use us in a quiet, behind-the-scenes ministry which never gains attention. But in Joseph’s story, it’s obvious (to us, not to Joseph) how God was using these trials to shape Joseph into a mature man of God who could handle the success which later would be thrust upon him.

But what if Joseph hadn’t submitted to God’s hand in these trials? What if he had sat in jail, complaining, “It’s just not fair! If that’s how God is going to treat me when I obey Him, then I’m not going to obey Him!” If Joseph had responded like that, he wouldn’t have been ready for the job God had for him a few years down the road. I think that Joseph must have clung to God in faith while he was in that dungeon, praying, “God, You promised me through my dreams a position of importance. I don’t understand how this dungeon fits in with that, but I trust that You know what You’re doing.”

That’s how we need to trust God when we’re in the dungeons of life. Someone has said, “Interpret your circumstances by God’s love, not God’s love by your circumstances.” It’s crucial that each of us learns to turn to God, not away from Him, in a time of suffering. Just because you’re going through trials doesn’t mean that God has withdrawn His blessing. It means that He is training you to become like His Son.

You may be thinking, “Well, if God’s blessing isn’t necessarily related to favorable circumstances, how can I know for sure when I’m experiencing it?”

2. God’s blessing is related to personal integrity in every area of life.

If you have come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and thus know that your sins are forgiven through His blood, and you’re living with a clear conscience before God and man, then you can know that His hand is on your life. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more that you could be experiencing from the Lord. Nor does it mean that if you maintain your integrity, you can demand God’s blessing as your due. Even when we’ve done what we ought, we can only say, “We’re unworthy slaves” (Luke 17:10).

We see this in Genesis 39:21, where it states that the Lord ... “extended kindness to [Joseph], and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” “Kindness” and “favor” both point to God’s unmerited favor, or grace. Even though Joseph walked uprightly before God, he could not demand God’s kindness and favor as his right, but only accept it as undeserved grace.

It’s important that you catch this distinction, because it has everything to do with your attitude when you’re treated unfairly. And the right attitude is central to integrity. If you think, “I’ve been good, therefore, God must bless me by sparing me from harsh circumstances,” you’ll develop a bitter attitude when that doesn’t happen. But if you think, “As far as I know, I have confessed all my sin and there is nothing between me and God or between me and any other person. But even so, I’m still an unworthy sinner, and I can’t demand anything from God. Any goodness He bestows upon me is due to His mercy and love.” Then, you’ll maintain your integrity before God and experience His blessing, even in the midst of trials.

Let’s face it, Joseph could have developed a rotten attitude. He had been terribly mistreated by his brothers. After a few years, he had finally overcome that by rising to the top in Potiphar’s house. He obeyed the Lord by resisting Potiphar’s wife, only to be thrown in this dungeon. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him being a difficult, disagreeable prisoner. Yet I believe that Joseph was an agreeable, cheerful prisoner who did his duties with a positive attitude. If he had been disagreeable, the jailer wouldn’t have promoted him as he did.

Let me ask, “How is your attitude when you’re treated unfairly at work, at home, or at school?” You have a choice: You can either become sullen and disagreeable, angry at God and at the world. Or, you can think, “God doesn’t owe me anything but judgment, yet He’s shown me so much mercy.” And you can be cheerful and agreeable, doing your work with gladness in your heart as unto the Lord. As Paul instructed slaves, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col. 3:23).

Note, too, that Joseph didn’t seek his own advancement, but rather sought to prosper his master, whether Potiphar or the jailer. These men noted that and advanced Joseph. That’s a key principle in any situation, whether at work or at home: If you seek to make the one over you prosper, God will see to it that you’re advanced in due time. That is directly opposite to the ways of the world, where you sabotage the guy over you so that you can grab his spot.

So live with integrity, which includes having the right attitude and maintaining your purity, as Joseph did, and you’ll experience God’s blessing, even in the dungeon times of life. There’s a third principle here related to success and God’s blessing:

3. God’s blessing should be used as a witness to others.

God never gives His blessing to be bottled up or squandered on ourselves, but only to be channeled through us to others. And the greatest blessing He gives is not material wealth, but the contentment that accompanies godliness. Joseph had something which both Potiphar and the chief jailer lacked. Both men were fairly successful in worldly terms, which Joseph was not at this point. But Joseph, like Paul, had learned the secret of being content whether he was living in splendor or in squalor. That is far better than worldly success! I’ve heard that John Muir, the famous naturalist, was a Christian. On one occasion he claimed that he was richer than a wealthy business tycoon because, as Muir explained, “I have all the money I want and he hasn’t.”

It’s obvious that Joseph didn’t hide the source of his attitude, his competence, or his purity. Verse 3 states, “Now his master saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand.” He didn’t just see that Joseph prospered, but that it was the Lord who prospered him. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he didn’t just give her the impression that he was a moral guy. He said, “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (39:9). The implication of verse 23 is also that the jailer recognized the Lord’s hand on Joseph. He didn’t hide the source of his moral purity, cheerful attitude and competent work.

Both Potiphar and the jailer recognized God’s hand on Joseph because they saw it in his work habits. I doubt if he announced his prayer and quiet time in front of them. They were impressed by the results in the workplace. When they commented on that, then Joseph was careful to give the glory to God, not to himself. All too often, we’re quick to tell people that we’re Christians, but the results on the job are a bit shabby. So the employer thinks, “If this guy is a Christian, give me a pagan anytime!” But Joseph’s life teaches us that we need to be cheerful, diligent and faithful in our work, even when we’ve been mistreated, so that others will ask, “How can you be so happy and hard‑working when you’ve been treated as you have?” Then we have a platform to tell them about our Savior.

We ought to view any promotion or job success as a platform for greater witness, not as a means to gratify ourselves or promote our personal welfare. William Carey, the great missionary to India, became deeply concerned by the attitude of his son, Felix. He had professed to be a believer and had promised to become a missionary, but he reneged on his vows when he was appointed ambassador to Burma. Carey requested prayer for him in these words: “Pray for Felix. He has degenerated into an ambassador of the British government when he should be serving the King of kings” (in “Our Daily Bread,” Spring, 1979). God blesses us so that we can be a channel for witness, to bring His true blessing of salvation to others, not just to make us happy or give us a better lifestyle. If God gives you a promotion or a position of influence, ask Him to show you how to use your position to bear witness for Jesus Christ, both by your character and your words.

Thus true success is to have God’s blessing on your life. His blessing is not necessarily related to favorable circumstances. It is related to personal integrity in every area of life. And God’s blessing should be used as a witness to others of His grace. So the bottom line is,

4. God’s blessing should be sought above all else.

Whether we succeed in business or not, whether we have material prosperity or not, whether we become well‑known or powerful or not, what counts when all is said and done is that the Lord is with us. Four times this chapter repeats, “The Lord was with Joseph” (39:2, 3, 21, 23). True success is not where you are, but whether God is with you where you are. Worldly success is fickle. Potiphar and the chief jailer were riding high, but one little change of circumstance could have plunged them into the dungeon, as the cupbearer and baker could testify (chapter 40). But success with God goes with you from Potiphar’s house to the prison. Success with God is the only success worth striving for.


Watchman Nee has a sermon which I’ve come back to repeatedly in my life and ministry. It undergirds my prayer life and is a driving principle in all I do. It’s called, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (in Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], vol. 2, pp. 48-64). The sermon is based on the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000. Nee makes the point that everything in our life and service for the Lord depends on His blessing. With reference to the needs of that hungry multitude, he states, “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.... It is of fundamental importance that we realize this. Whether our loaves be few or many is of little consequence. If man’s hunger is to be satisfied one thing is needful. That one thing is the blessing of the Lord” (pp. 48‑49).

Nee later defines God’s blessing as a working of God not based on and all out of proportion to our working (p. 58). If we calculate that a certain amount of effort and activity should bring in a certain amount of results, and it happens, that’s not God’s blessing. But when the results are far beyond what we might reasonably expect, that is God’s blessing!

I covet that for myself. I’m not satisfied that I have it yet, so I continually ask God to reveal any wrong attitudes or actions in my life which would hinder it. I ask Him to give me His blessing. I want each of you to covet God’s blessing for yourself. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we all should say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). You can live a comfortable Christian life, serve in the church and succeed in worldly terms. But if you lack God’s blessing on your life, you’ve missed true success. True success is when it can be said of us, whether we are in Potiphar’s house or in prison, “The Lord is with that man or woman.” Being blessed by God, we then will be used as His channels of blessing the nations through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways the American view of success has filtered into the church? How can we fight this?
  2. Is it wrong to seek to be successful in our jobs? How do motives fit in? How can we sort out whether our motives to succeed are selfish or for God’s glory?
  3. Is there a proper place to “fight for your rights” when you’re mistreated on the job? Should Christians be in labor unions?
  4. How can a Christian know how aggressive to be in verbal witness on the job?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Evangelism, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 68: High Hopes, No Hope- But God (Genesis 40:1-23)

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We all struggle with disappointments in life. The most difficult disappointments to deal with are when you have prayed about something for a long time and it looks like finally God is going to answer. But then it doesn’t happen and your hopes are dashed. At times like that, it’s hard not to be disappointed with God. It’s easy to feel like God is playing a cruel game with you. Why did He make it look like He was going to answer, only to dash your hopes? If it happens more than once, to protect yourself from further hurt you may stop praying and hoping at all.

Joseph could have been there in Genesis 40. When his brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt, there was no hope on the horizon for Joseph. But, through his hard work and integrity, with God’s hand on him, Joseph had risen to the top spot in Potiphar’s house. Things were looking up. Then, for refusing to yield to Potiphar’s wife’s advances, Joseph was unfairly thrown into prison. His hopes were dashed. There, as God’s hand on his life became evident, the jailer put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. His hopes rose again and Joseph prayed that God would get him out of there.

We don’t know how much time passed, but after a while, two new prisoners joined Joseph: Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker. These were important men in Pharaoh’s court. The cupbearer was more than the man who tasted the wine before Pharaoh drank it, to make sure he didn’t get poisoned. He was always with the king and was one of his advisors and confidants. The baker insured the quality of all food served at Pharaoh’s table. These men had offended Pharaoh and ended up with Joseph in the dungeon.

Then one night, both men had a dream. By God’s help Joseph interpreted their dreams. The cupbearer’s dream meant that in three days he would be restored to his position. The baker’s dream meant that in three days he would be executed. Joseph appealed to the cupbearer, “When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison” (40:14, NIV). Three days later as Joseph’s predictions came true, you can picture the cupbearer giving Joseph thumbs up as he headed out the prison door, saying, “Don’t worry, friend! You’ll be out in no time!” Joseph’s hopes were the highest since he had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Finally, it looked like God was going to answer his prayers.

Maybe he folded up his bedroll and collected his few things as he thought about how great it would be to see the sunshine and feel its warmth on his back. He imagined running to his father’s tent and feeling his embrace as they would weep in each other’s arms, his ordeal over at last. But night came and there was no word from the jailer about his release. He unfolded his bedroll, thinking, “Maybe today was too busy. Tomorrow the cupbearer will mention my situation to Pharaoh.” But the next day came and went with no word about Joseph’s release. Perhaps Joseph asked the jailer, “Haven’t you heard anything about my situation yet?” “No, nothing yet. Not a word.” A week went by, then a month. Joseph’s high hopes were dimmed and finally extinguished as he realized, “The cupbearer forgot me.” Joseph went from high hopes to no hope‑‑but God alone. This story teaches us how ...

God uses disappointments to bring His servants to the place where their only hope is in Him.

It’s a painful process, but God must strip us of every human hope, even of the people whom God can use, until our hope is centered on Him alone. We’ve got to come to the place where we know experientially that God alone is to be trusted, that He alone is our hope of salvation. To do that, He uses disappointments, where we go from high hopes to no hope‑‑but God Himself.

1. Disappointments begin when high hopes for answers to our problems are not met as we expect.

Most of us come to Christ with high hopes for answers to life’s problems. The gospel promises a lot: Peace, joy, restored relationships, forgiveness for all our sins, emotional healing, meaning and purpose in life, and much more. We hear stories about other Christians and how God miraculously answers prayer. So we begin to pray that God would deal with the major problems in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. It’s not that God doesn’t deliver, but rather that we assume (or are led by other Christians to think) that these things come quickly, miraculously, and painlessly.

No doubt Joseph prayed daily that God would get him out of prison. He had high hopes that God would answer that prayer. After all, it was based on the dreams he had when he was a teenager, which he knew were from God. So when these two men were put in the prison and had these dreams and Joseph interpreted them, his hopes soared. This was the way God would get him out of prison! Finally, an answer to his prayers! So he touchingly appeals to the cupbearer, saying, “Remember me ...” when you get out (40:14). Some think that Joseph was wrong to appeal to him in this way. But I see no reason to think that. Joseph probably saw this as the means of God’s provision to his prayers. He had high hopes. That’s not wrong, since we serve a God who does mighty things on our behalf. We should be people of hope. But, disappointments begin when our high hopes are not met in the way we expect.

2. Disappointments can move us either to despair or hope.

Our text does not indicate what happened in Joseph’s heart as he waited in vain day after day. It just ends with the bleak words, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:23). Then notice the place in your Bible between that verse and the next. It’s a white space, a chapter break. But that little break represents two years in Joseph’s life, two years in a dungeon, two years out of his twenties, the prime of his life. That white space in your Bible represents the maturing of Joseph, when he dealt with his disappointments and moved, not into despair, but into hope in God alone.

I say that because of the product we see coming out at the other end. We don’t see a cynical, angry man, but rather a godly, mature man who is able to handle the heavy responsibilities thrust upon him. Psalm 105:19 says of this time that “the word of the Lord tested him.” Those two silent years in the dungeon after his disappointment with the cupbearer were a time of learning to hope in God.

But probably there was a transition between Joseph’s high hopes for release and his readjusted hope in God, a time when he had no hope. There almost always is that time of despair, however brief, during a trial. David felt it when he was running from King Saul. Even though God had promised him the throne, at a low point he said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul” (1 Sam. 27:1). The apostle Paul, though a great man of faith, said of the trials he went through in Asia, that he was burdened excessively, beyond his strength, so that he “despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8).

Even though Joseph, I think, was trusting in God, not in the cupbearer, he probably had to fight off feelings of despair. The man had let him down. Whenever you’re disappointed by people, it’s a short step to grow disappointed with God: “Lord, You could make him remember me! Please bring my situation to his attention so that I can get out of this prison.” But two long, difficult years dragged by with no answer from God.

Disappointments like this almost always involve flaky people. This incident shows how vain it is to put your trust in people. The only consistent thing about people is that they will let you down. You can be sure that the cupbearer didn’t forget in the sense of not thinking of Joseph. He forgot in the sense of not wanting to risk bringing up his past by mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh. Joseph easily could have moved from disappointment with this flaky man into disappointment with God. But Joseph processed his disappointment so that it didn’t lead to crippling despair, but rather to hope in God alone.

3. Hoping in God alone is the key to overcoming disappointment and despair.

The disappointments strip us of hope in ourselves and in others. The only thing left is to hope in God. Joseph, by faith, clung to God, who did prove Himself faithful in His time. You ask, “How do you know Joseph hoped in God? How can you tell when your hope is in God?” My experience has been that sometimes, even when to the best of your knowledge your hope is in God, He will test you to prove it. But there are three signs in Joseph’s life that he was hoping in God, signs which can help us check ourselves.

A. If your hope is in God, you will not be focused on self‑pity, but on serving Him by serving others.

If we were in Joseph’s situation, most of us would be so consumed with self‑pity that we wouldn’t give any thought to the needs of others. But Joseph was sensitive to the needs of these two prisoners. He observed the dejection on their faces the morning after they had their dreams and he was concerned enough to ask them about it (40:6, 7). If he had been self-absorbed, he would not have noticed.

You can also see Joseph’s consideration for others in his plea to the cupbearer (40:14, 15). In defending his innocence, Joseph could have run down his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and Potiphar for the way they had mistreated him. But Joseph tactfully says that he was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews and that he had done nothing to deserve being thrown into prison. He wasn’t having a pity party, blaming everybody else for his trials, even though in this case everybody else really was to blame.

B. If your hope is in God, you will have a positive, not a cynical, attitude.

I’m not talking about Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking,” which is not biblical; but rather, about the joyful hope that comes from trusting in God and His promises. Joseph could have become a total cynic by this point in life. When these men mentioned their dreams, he could have sneered, “Yeah, I used to believe in dreams. Look where it got me!” But instead he had a positive, cheerful attitude, saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please” (40:9).

Having a positive attitude means that you focus on the things you can do in a situation, not on the things you cannot do. Joseph could have thought, “What’s the use of telling these two characters the meaning of their dreams? That won’t get me anyplace.” But instead, he focused on what he could do for them, and did it cheerfully.

During this time in prison, as he did in Potiphar’s house, Joseph was building a reputation through the little things he did. It wasn’t a pleasant task to tell the baker that he would be executed in three days, but Joseph spoke the truth. It was no big thing, but it fit the overall pattern of integrity which marked his life. The cupbearer finally did tell Pharaoh Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and his integrity in telling it like it was, not only to him, but to the baker as well. The jailer also would have vouched for Joseph’s personal character and cheerful spirit.

You can’t control many of the things that happen to you, but you can control your attitude in response to the things which happen to you. If your hope is in God, you will have a positive, cheerful attitude. That doesn’t mean denying reality or overlooking problems. The Bible never does that. But we will have the kind of hopeful joy that the apostle Paul exudes in Philippians, in spite of his circumstances.

Adoniram Judson, the great pioneer missionary to Burma, had been thrown into a horrible prison run by the toughest Burmese prisoners. The torture was awful. He had almost no fruit to show for his years of hardship in Burma. He wasn’t sure whether or not his years of translation work would be destroyed. In those conditions, suffering from fever and weakness, he received a letter from a friend who asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” He replied, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God.” It always is. There’s a third test to measure your hope by:

C. If your hope is in God, you will be quick to include Him in dealing with problems.

As soon as these men mention their dreams, Joseph responds, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” He wasn’t being arrogant, but as Donald Grey Barnhouse puts it, his reply was rather “the simplicity of a child who knows just where his father is and how to reach him” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:175). Joseph walked so closely with God that he automatically mentioned His name when these men told him their problem. And he had such trust in God that his answer assumed that God would reveal to him the meaning of the dreams.

If your hope is in God, He will be the first thing you think of in a crisis, not the last. So often, we try everything else and then finally say, “Well, we’ve tried everything else. Now all we can do is pray.” Often you can do more after you pray, but you should never do more until you pray. Calling on the Lord ought to be the first thing that comes to mind when a problem comes up. What a great way to witness to lost people, to tell them, “ I know God and He has an answer to your problem. I’ll pray for you.”


There are five practical lessons here to remember:

(1) God is always sovereign, even when it seems He has forgotten you. It’s obvious that God was sovereign in all these events, even down to the petty quarrels of a pagan king. He put these two men in the same prison as Joseph. He gave them their dreams. And even though it seemed like the timing was wrong, in that He “wasted” two years of Joseph’s life, God gave Pharaoh his dream at precisely the right moment. As the master weaver, God was bringing all these strands together so that all was working according to His schedule. Nothing is outside of His sovereignty, even though it seems like it to us as we sit in a dungeon for two more years. Never doubt God’s sovereignty. But, coupled with God’s sovereignty, we also must remember:

(2) God is never unfaithful or cruel, even when circumstances seem otherwise. God’s people down through history have gone through terrible trials. A skeptic might say that God is cruel to allow such things. But a skeptic doesn’t have God’s eternal plan in view. A skeptic doesn’t understand how God lovingly disciplines His people to share His holiness. As the psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67‑68).

In Psalms 42 & 43, the psalmist is taunted by his critics, “Where is your God?” He answers with that great refrain, “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance, and my God.” When the enemy taunts us by saying, “Look at your circumstances and you will see that your God is unfaithful or cruel,” we need to say to our soul, “Hope in God.” None who have hoped in Him have ever been disappointed. Don’t doubt His goodness when He is lovingly purifying your faith through trials.

(3) God’s promises are true in His timing, not ours. If Joseph had been released at this time, he never would have been appointed as second in the land to Pharaoh. God’s way and timing were clearly best, although Joseph had to take that by faith until years later when he could look back on how God worked it all together for good. Like it or not, there are certain lessons, such as patience and endurance, which we cannot learn except through waiting on God.

I read of a young woman who dedicated herself to serving Christ in India. Through repeated tragedies, she was forced to remain in the United States to care for her disabled mother and then for her dying sister. After this she had to care for her sister’s five children when their father suddenly died. Regretfully she set aside her plans, and for 15 years she devoted herself to meeting their needs. Three of those five children headed for service in India where 20 years before she had longed to serve. In God’s time, His better plan made sense.

But we need to remember that sometimes we won’t be able to discern God’s timing until eternity. We’re so quick to judge things by our temporal perspective rather than by His eternal perspective. As someone has said, “God judges things at the end of the age, not at the end of the meeting.”

(4) We are not responsible for others’ behavior, but we are responsible for our own behavior and attitudes. Joseph could have become very angry toward the cupbearer, and let his resentment burn into bitterness and revenge. Let’s face it, he had good cause to be angry. The cupbearer wasn’t willing to risk his neck enough to talk to Pharaoh about Joseph until it looked like it might gain him some advantage. But in spite of the flakiness of the cupbearer, Joseph had to deal with his own attitude. Later, when he was number two under Pharaoh, he never sought revenge against the man, nor against his brothers.

People may have mistreated you and disappointed you because they were being selfish, uncaring jerks. You have a choice: You can grow bitter and angry, blaming them for your troubles. Or, you can trust in the sovereign God and rejoice in His grace toward you. They will give an account to God for how they sinned against you. But you will give an account for your attitude and behavior in response to their sin against you. When you walk in the Spirit, you will be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and kind (Gal. 5:22).

(5) God’s grace is always sufficient if we will receive it. Joseph came through these trials stronger, not weaker, gentle, not bitter, because he hoped in God. Even though he was in prison, the Lord was with him. Even though the cupbearer forgot him, God never did. Joseph experienced what Paul and every other believer undergoing trials has experienced, that God’s grace is sufficient for our need, if we will just receive it.

The 19th century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was riding home after a heavy day’s work, feeling weary and depressed, when suddenly the verse flashed into his mind, “My grace is sufficient for you.” He said, “I should think it is, Lord,” and he burst out laughing. It seemed to make unbelief so absurd.

He said, “It was as if some little fish, being very thirsty, was troubled about drinking the river dry, and the river said, ‘Drink away, little fish, my stream is sufficient for you.’ Or, it seemed like a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt after seven years of plenty fearing it might die of famine, and Joseph might say, ‘Cheer up, little mouse, my granaries are sufficient for you.’ Or it was like a man up on a mountain saying to himself, ‘I fear I shall exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere.’ But the earth might say, ‘Breathe away, O man, and fill your lungs; my atmosphere is sufficient for you.’” You can’t exhaust the grace of God to meet your need in every trial.

Some of you are in the middle of some difficult disappointments. Maybe it’s a marriage that’s gone sour. It could be a child who has rebelled and turned against you. It may be the loss of a job, a serious health problem, a friend who has maligned you, or some other serious situation that hasn’t turned out as you wanted it to. You had high hopes, but now you have no hope. Ah, but you do have hope! There is God! Hope in God, and you shall again praise Him, the help of your countenance, and your God.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a Christian who was disappointed with God? What steps should he take?
  2. How would you answer a skeptic who said that hoping in God is just “pie in the sky when you die” wish fulfillment?
  3. How can a believer who has a consistently negative, cynical attitude develop a proper joyful attitude?
  4. How can a believer who has been through a terrible tragedy, such as the loss of his family, keep from doubting the sovereign goodness of God?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution