How to Win With God and Men (Genesis 32:1-32)
Dr. James Dobson tells an amusing story which illustrates a common tendency. A certain medical student felt that he could simplistically and single-handedly take on a mental patient who had certain delusions by logically setting everything straight in his mind. You see, this patient thought that he was dead. The aspiring doctor believed that all he needed to do was rationally prove to this man that he could not be dead. Sitting down beside this man, the intern asked him if dead people could bleed. The patient said that he was certain they could not. The intern then pricked the finger of the patient and triumphantly asked him what he thought now that blood appeared. “Well, I’ll be!” he responded, “Dead people can bleed after all.”
Preconceived ideas are very difficult to shed, even in the light of undeniable facts. I was rather distressed to realize that I am like the mental patient when I come to Genesis 32. I am unwilling to admit that verse 28 could be true:
And he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Having a certain theological predisposition, I could not accept these words at face value. How could God possibly imply, much worse clearly state, that Jacob had contended with Him and won? How can man prevail over God? And how can it be said that Jacob contended with men and won? Had not all of his previous striving been in the power of the flesh? Had it not brought about only negative results? Had God not clearly indicated in the record of these events that such conduct cannot be condoned, nor should it be imitated? Why, then, does verse 28 say that Jacob has contended with God and men and won?
I, like the insane man, had it in my mind that my presupposition was correct, and thus no facts could ever successfully contradict it. Men cannot prevail with God, I reasoned, no matter what Moses wrote in verse 28. But I was wrong. Much of Jacob’s striving was wrong. Indeed, all of his efforts at self-help were wrong until we come to Genesis 32. But just because Jacob’s previous striving was sinful does not mean that all striving is such. There is a striving which God commends and to which He even surrenders, so to speak. It is that kind of striving which I would like us to look for as we come to this chapter in the life of Jacob.
Genesis 32 is the pivotal chapter so far as Jacob’s life is concerned. He is a vastly different man here from the person we have come to know in previous chapters. The preoccupation which obsesses Jacob is the necessity of facing his brother Esau, from whom he has deceptively obtained the birthright and the blessing of his father. While the results were consistent with the revealed will of God, the means employed were not pleasing to Him. The result was a “brother offended” (cf. Proverbs 18:19).
When Jacob had left Canaan for Paddan-aram, his mother had told him that he would only need to be gone for “a few days” (27:44), and then, when Esau’s anger had cooled, she would send for him (27:45). Twenty years had passed and, so far as we are told, he had never heard from his mother. That must have led Jacob to conclude that Esau still harbored a grudge against him. Jacob thus had good reason to fear a confrontation with his brother.
From a divine point of view chapter 32 was the turning point of Jacob’s spiritual life. Jacob had been a bargainer, even with God, up to this time. In Genesis 28 after the vision of the heavenly ladder Jacob made a vow, but it was much more of a bargain with God than a surrender to Him:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee” (Genesis 28:20-22).
To me, this was a bargain with God. In return for God’s presence, protection, and provision, Jacob would let God be his God. Of all that God gave to him in the form of wealth, Jacob would return ten percent. In effect, Jacob has made God his agent and offered Him the normal fee. What a far cry from what a man’s response to the living God should be!
All of Jacob’s deceitful practices which we have seen over the years of his life are the result of a fundamental misconception. Jacob felt that spiritual blessings were to be secured by carnal methods and means. Jacob rightly believed that God had promised to make him, not Esau, the heir of promise with the rights of the first-born. He valued this blessing while Esau despised it. What he did not yet know was that he did not have to connive and scheme in order to obtain the promised blessings of God. The encounter which Jacob will have with the Angel of Jehovah will correct this error and will instruct Jacob as to how and why spiritual blessings must be obtained through spiritual means.
An Angelic Reception
Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him. And Jacob said when he saw them, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1-2).
The appearance of the angels in verses 1 and 2 sets the tone for the entire chapter. In his first personal encounter with God at Bethel, angels had played a part in the heavenly vision of Jacob:
And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12).
In that dramatic revelation Jacob came to realize that he was in a holy place, a place where heaven and earth met. In fact, it was a place of access between heaven and earth; it was “the gate of heaven” (28:17).
In chapter 28 it was the presence of God that was stressed. While God promised to be with Jacob, to provide and protect him in the land of Laban, nevertheless God was present in a special way in the land of Canaan. Jacob must someday return. Now as Jacob is returning to the land of Canaan, God sent His angels to meet him in a special way. This was intended, I believe, to underscore the power of God. This is very significant to Jacob at this point in his life.
In chapter 28 Jacob was leaving the land of Canaan. God wanted him to realize the special significance of this land so that he would always look forward to the time of his return. Now, however, Jacob is returning to the land. The fact most prominent in Jacob’s mind is the hostility of his brother Esau. If Laban had been angry and intended to do harm to him, how much more was Esau to be expected to be hostile? What more assuring experience could come to Jacob than to be met by a host of angels, reminding him of God’s infinite power to protect him from Esau’s fury just as He had done in the case of Laban (cf. 31:24). Jacob saw that where he camped there was another camp, normally unseen (cf. II Kings 6:16-17). It was the angelic host of God, who would protect him regardless of what dangers lay ahead.
Jacob concluded that God’s camp was there where the angels met him. What better place for him to make camp than alongside the angelic campsite? Where could a man be any safer? And so the name of the place was called Mahanaim, “two camps.” From such a point of security Jacob would send ahead messengers, who would seek to soften the anger of Esau in preparation for the arrival of Jacob and his household. It would seem that the events of the rest of the chapter take place at this camp.
An Alarming Report
Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He also commanded them saying, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: ‘Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; and I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.’” And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (Genesis 32:3-6).
Jacob felt compelled to contact his brother Esau. To some extent he wished to bring about a reconciliation. He wished to inform his brother of his approach and, even more, to assure him of his kind intentions. The substance of his message to Esau was that he had returned a wealthy man. In this case he was not coming back in order to place a claim on his father’s wealth. Jacob sought to assure Esau that his return was a friendly and non-threatening one. All that he sought was Esau’s favor.
Jacob seems to have a keen sensitivity here toward the feelings of his brother. Perhaps he had gained an appreciation of Esau’s feelings by being the victim himself of one more cunning and deceitful than he. Undoubtedly Jacob’s very recent brush with danger was still fresh in his mind. Jacob is on his way to becoming a different kind of person, and this message is the first indication of it.
The messengers’ report of Esau’s response to Jacob’s message was frightening: Esau was on his way to meet Jacob, accompanied by 400 men. Who could have imagined any intent other than one that was hostile? Esau’s men, like Laban’s relatives (31:24), were not just coming along for the ride. Jacob had little reason for optimism, and any of us would have responded similarly to such a report. Verses 7-12 record for us Jacob’s two-fold response to the word he had received that Esau and company were rapidly approaching:
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.” And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who didst say to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you,’ I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which Thou hast shown to Thy servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me, mother with children. For thou didst say, ‘I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude’” (Genesis 32:7-12).
Assuming the very worst, Jacob divided his company into two divisions. His thought was that while one group might be attacked, the other had a chance to escape (verse 8). Since the group was divided into two camps and the word for camp is the same as that of verse 2, it is possible that Jacob somehow concluded that his encounter with the angels was intended to provide him with a pattern for this decision to divide into two companies. While it was an act stemming from fear and not faith, there was nothing particularly wrong with the division in and of itself.
The prayer of Jacob is the first recorded in Genesis (28:20-22 seems to be only a shadow of a prayer to me). It, too, reveals a decided change in his outlook. Some commentators have criticized it, pointing out certain theological omissions or weaknesses. This, to me, is like a boat full of theologians observing the prayer of Peter, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30), and then criticizing its brevity or the fact that Peter did not say, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” This was a desperate moment, and Jacob prayed fearing that Esau was to be upon him momentarily.
Needless to say, the prayer was uttered with the tone of urgency. Jacob’s plight was a desperate one. This was a foxhole variety prayer. Beyond this, the prayer evidences a new humility in Jacob. “I am not worthy …” (verse 10) is now Jacob’s confession. The smug self-confidence is gone, and so is the bargaining mentality. Jacob has no way to manipulate God as he has done others. God’s promises are the only basis upon which he can make his petition, and so he concluded his prayer, “For thou didst say …” (verse 12).
An Appeasing Response
So he spent the night there. Then he selected from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on before me, and put a space between droves.” And he commanded the one in front, saying, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks you saying, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and to whom do these animals in front of you belong?’ then you shall say, ‘These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau. And behold, he also is behind us.’” Then he commanded also the second and the third, and all those who followed the droves, saying, “After this manner you shall speak to Esau when you find him; and you shall say, ‘Behold, your servant Jacob also is behind us.’” For he said, “I will appease him with the present that goes before me. Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” So the present passed on before him, while he himself spent that night in the camp (Genesis 32:13-21).
Vital faith need not be idle faith. Faith without works, James reminds us (James 2:14ff.), is dead. Thus we ought not be too quick to condemn the actions of Jacob described in these verses. There is certainly a clever strategy behind Jacob’s efforts, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong in what he does. Remember that for many years Esau had observed the cunning character of his brother Jacob. The reception of one large gift would not necessarily be convincing enough to Esau that Jacob had changed his ways. Instead, Jacob sends wave upon wave of gifts to Esau, stressing the new nature he has which makes him want to give rather than to receive and to serve rather than to supplant.
Consequently, Jacob divided the gift of livestock into separate droves, each tended by servants who followed their flocks. First there were goats, next sheep, then camels, cows, and finally, donkeys. Usually the females were accompanied by a smaller number of males, which would serve as breeding stock to make the herds of Esau larger and larger as time went on. It was a gift which would make Esau prosperous.
As Esau approached nearer to Jacob he must pass by each drove of livestock. Those who tended these animals were carefully instructed how to answer Esau’s inquiry as to whose livestock these were and where they were heading. Each was to inform Esau that these were Jacob’s livestock, a gift to Esau, and that Jacob would be found further back. The cumulative effect was hoped to appease Esau’s wrath and soften his anger (verse 20). Again, Jacob and his family spent the night in the camp.
An Angelic Wrestler
Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. And he took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had. Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. And when he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip (Genesis 32:22-32).
For some undisclosed reason Jacob was compelled to break camp in the middle of the night. He first saw to it that his wives and maids crossed the Jabbok, along with their children. Then the rest of the goods were transported to the other side as well. It would appear that while Jacob was making his last trip to the original campsite before joining his family on the other side of the Jabbok he was confronted by a “man” who would oppose his crossing over to the other side and who would threaten to keep Jacob from entering the land of Canaan.
As biblical scholars have observed over the centuries, there is much in this episode that is cloaked in mystery. However, we can make several observations with considerable certainty. First, we know that this “man” (verse 24) was an angel:
In the womb he took his brother by the heel, And in his maturity he contended with God. Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed; He wept and sought His favor. He found Him at Bethel, And there He spoke with us (Hosea 12:3-4).
More than just an angel, this person was the Angel of Jehovah, the pre-incarnate Son of God, Who appeared in human flesh. This is certain in the light of Jacob’s words: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (32:30).
The struggle was not a dream or a nightmare. Never has a man awakened from such a “dream” with a limp! And it was a struggle which God Himself initiated: “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (32:24).
Jacob was mistaken if he reasoned that Esau was the barrier to his entrance into Canaan and the blessings of God. In this wrestling match it was not Esau who opposed Jacob, but it was God Himself. We must marvel at Moses’ report that the angel had not prevailed against Jacob, a man now almost 100 years old. How could it be that God did not prevail over Jacob?
It must be pointed out that Moses did not tell us that God could not overcome Jacob, only that he did not. At this point the Angel disabled Jacob by dislocating his hip. This would be devastating to a wrestler. It would be like breaking the arm of a quarterback or the leg of a running back. Jacob was now unable to wage an offensive battle. He was helpless. All he could do now was to cling defensively in desperation. And this he did.
Jacob, at the very point of being incapacitated, seemed to gain the upper hand. The Angel plead with him to be let go, for the dawn was breaking. It looks as though the Angel did not wish to be seen in the daylight. The Angel implied to Jacob that he now had the winning edge (contrary to the reality of the dislocated hip). Jacob was tested by being encouraged to make a request of the Angel which He was in no position to refuse. For Jacob, the bargainer, this was a tempting situation. Unlike his previous actions, Jacob asked only for a blessing (verse 26). Finally, Jacob had come to realize that the only important thing in life is to be blessed of God. In the words of Proverbs, “It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, And he adds no sorrow to it” (Proverbs 10:22).
Esau could neither provide nor prevent the blessing of God. It was not Esau that stood in the way of Jacob’s blessing in the land of Canaan. On the one hand, it was God Who opposed him. On the other, it was Jacob himself, who by means of his trickery and treachery, his cunning and deceit attempted to produce spiritual blessings through carnal means. The blessing of God must be obtained from God himself, and this must be done by clinging to Him in helpless dependence, not by trying to manipulate Him. That is the picture which is conveyed by this struggle in the night hours between Jacob and his God. A realization of this fact brought about a dramatic change in the character and conduct of Jacob, and thus his name was changed to reflect this transformation.
The Angel of the Lord asked his name, and he had to reply, “Jacob,” which meant “the supplanter.” This must have been as uncomfortable for Jacob as it was for childless Abraham to refer to himself by his name, which meant “father of a multitude.” No longer should Jacob be known as a supplanter, for now he was a man who prospered because of his faith in the purposes and power of his God, and so the name Israel was given him.
No expression is more puzzling than that of verse 28:
And he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
How could God possibly make such a statement? Does this not indicate that somehow God was blessing Jacob because of his previous trickery and deception? Is God commending Jacob for the way he overcame men in the past? The key to understanding this statement is to recognize that it is not a historical statement but a prophetic announcement. God did not refer to Jacob’s past acts here but spoke of his future confrontations, particularly the one which he would have with Esau shortly.
Jacob did prevail with God in his wrestling match, although in many ways he did not really overcome God, for he had been immobilized by the dislocation of his hip. His only act was to cling tenaciously to the Angel of Jehovah and, in the words of Hosea, “He wept and sought His favor” (12:4). In this sense, and this alone, God was “overcome” by Jacob. In this same way we who are His children and the heirs of His blessings can prevail with God.
Having prevailed with God, Jacob was assured of victory no matter what opposition men might offer. This certainly and specifically included Esau. In the words of the apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Prayerfully prevailing with God assures us of prevailing with men. If God is on our side, we cannot be overcome. This is what verse 28 was intended to convey to Jacob. In learning how to prevail with God, Jacob had also found God’s means of prevailing with men.
The lesson which Jacob learned here is one that is vital to every Christian. It is a transforming truth, for it explains the reason why God’s blessings can only be obtained by godly means. It revealed to Jacob the reason why all of his previous “victories” were really disasters, resulting in discord, hatred, and hostility.
Genesis 32 emphatically instructed Jacob that the Christian life is a spiritual warfare. That is why we see so much emphasis upon angels. Angels met him when he entered the land. An Angel opposed him when he attempted to cross the Jabbok. The blessings which God promised Jacob were spiritual blessings, and spiritual blessings cannot be obtained through fleshly means. If Jacob’s life in Canaan were to receive God’s blessings, Jacob must learn to wage spiritual warfare. He must realize that his major obstacle is not his brother, but his God. Once God is with us, victory is certain. Since our God is a sovereign God, no one can resist His will—not Esau, not Pharaoh, not Assyria, Babylon nor Rome.
All of Jacob’s life up until chapter 32 had been characterized by carnal striving to secure divine blessing. Now Jacob has learned the folly and futility of such self-effort. Entrance into a life of blessing will be achieved only on the same basis as Jacob secured the blessing of the Angel of Jehovah, by clinging to God to fulfill His promises and by depending upon Him to provide and protect when we are opposed.
This does not imply that man should therefore be inactive and passive. Jacob was hardly passive in his struggle with the Angel. But our activity should be rightly directed and motivated. We must first be assured that we are seeking that which God has promised. We must begin by striving with God for His blessing. Only then should we engage in activities other than this, and these must be consistent with a genuine faith in God. Just as our goals are to be godly, so must our means.
What a lesson this chapter provided the Israelites. Here is the origin of their name as a nation. Will their blessing as a nation come from any means other than those which Jacob has learned from his struggle with God? I think not. This is what Moses sought to convey to the Israelites as they (like Jacob) sought to enter the land of Canaan and secure God’s blessings. Ultimately it was not the Canaanites, the Hittites, nor the Perizzites who would keep the nation Israel from God’s blessings; it was God Himself Who would oppose them if they failed to hope and trust in Him. And it was God Who would defeat the Canaanites for them if they trusted in him.
Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. But if you will truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will completely destroy them. You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them, and break their sacred pillars in pieces. But you shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water; and I will remove sickness from your midst. There shall be no one miscarrying or barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets ahead of you, that they may drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and Hittites before you (Exodus 23:20-28).
The lesson for us is the same. Our warfare is a spiritual one, and it cannot be won by carnal means:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak (Ephesians 6:12-20).
It is not by accident that the word “struggle” (Greek, pala) is virtually the same as the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament) employed for Jacob’s “wrestling” (Greek, epalaein) in Genesis 32. Because spiritual victory can only be obtained by spiritual means, Paul outlined the spiritual weapons which all Christians must employ.
There is a very significant illustration of the use of spiritual weapons in the book of II Corinthians:
Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, —I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! —I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses (II Corinthians 10:1-4).
Paul’s authority was being challenged by some of those in Corinth. What a time for most of us to get our egos caught up in a contest for supremacy. What an opportunity for us to exert our power and influence and to defend our authority. What a time to use every kind of political and strong-arm tactic. But what did Paul do? He employed the meekness and gentleness of Christ (verse 1). He shunned the use of bravado and fleshly authority. This was a spiritual conflict and spiritual methods must be employed.
“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).
The great tragedy in Christian circles today is that much of what we do is by carnal means. We employ these means because that is what we, by our old nature, are inclined to do. Also, it appears to work; and surely, we think, the ends justify the means. And so when we disagree with one another, we seek to align the key power forces on our side. We do not pray and let God change men’s hearts (cf. Philippians 3:15); we try to politically outmaneuver the opposition. The blessings of God are spiritual, and they cannot, they will not, be obtained through methods which are carnal.
Since God is sovereign, all men must do is to prevail with Him. If He is for us, we have the victory. Neither human nor demonic opposition can thwart the purposes of the sovereign God (Romans 8:31-39), and since God has purposed to bless men as they prevail with Him, we must devote ourselves to this task. But how do we prevail with God? Our text suggests several ingredients. First, we must come to the place of recognizing our own inadequacy and helplessness. We must come to the end of ourselves and recognize the futility of our own carnal devices. Jacob, I believe, came to this realization in Genesis 32. He could not resist Esau, nor could he even defeat the “man” who opposed him. He was helpless because of his dislocated hip. Second, we must trust in that which God has promised to do. Jacob did not prevail with God in some new and uncharted path. He prevailed with God in a matter about which God had repeatedly spoken—the blessings which He would pour out on Jacob as the recipient of the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The word of God was the only claim which Jacob had upon God. Finally, Jacob clung tenaciously to God to accomplish what He promised to do, even when it seemed humanly impossible.
That is the way in which men have always prevailed with God— by recognizing their own inadequacy, by trusting in the revealed Word of God and His promises, and by clinging to God alone to do what He has promised (cf. I John 5:14-15).
The first step, my friend, is to trust God for the blessing of salvation. We are unworthy of this gift, and yet God has offered it to all men (cf. Romans 10:13). We deserve only the eternal wrath of God (Romans 6:23). God has promised to save men on the basis of faith in the work of Jesus Christ, Who died for our sins and Whose righteousness will save any who calls upon His name (John 1:12; Acts 4:12, 16:31; II Corinthians 5:21). Have you made this first step? By clinging to God and trusting Him to do what He has promised, you can have the blessing of eternal life. And all subsequent blessings will come in the same way: by self-distrust and faith in God to accomplish what He has promised.
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him (Colossians 2:6).
Related Topics: Spiritual Life
One Step Forward and Three Backward (Genesis 33:1--34:31)
When our church first began to meet, a man stood up in our worship meeting with some very nice things to say about us. He expressed his sincere opinion that ours was the most New Testament church that he had ever experienced. All in all, it was the kind of thing that most of us enjoyed hearing. After he was finished I felt that it was necessary for me to make a few comments. I stood and said that I had two responses as a result of his compliments. First, I hoped that what this man said was true and that we were coming close to what the New Testament church was and should continue to be. Second, I hoped that, if this were true, none of us would ever believe it.
You see, nothing could be more devastating than to be making progress in a particular area and then to be swallowed up by a sense of pride and complacency. We would then tend to rest upon our laurels and fail to press on to greater growth and maturity.
The same principle applies to the matter of security. While we are forever secure in the salvation that Jesus Christ has provided and we have accepted (cf. John 10:27-29), there is a kind of complacency which can be destructive and counter-productive to our spiritual lives. We can wrongly conclude that since we are eternally secure there is no need to press on, that there is no urgency and no imminent danger in our Christian experience. The moment we feel secure, we are in the greatest danger. The moment we become aloof to the intensity of the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged and the enemy who seeks to destroy us, we are beginning to fall into the enemy’s grasp.
That is precisely what Jacob does in these two chapters of Genesis. In the first portion of chapter 33 Jacob fearfully faces his brother, expecting that the worst might happen. But once this danger passes, Jacob becomes forgetful of the divine command and of his own vow to return to Bethel. A false sense of security made Jacob careless in his actions and brought him to a point of very grave danger. This danger was both physical and spiritual. Except for the questionable actions of his sons and the providence of God, Jacob could have been virtually destroyed.
This passage is particularly relevant to 20th century Christians who live in America, for we have been lulled into a false sense of security by our comfortable and easy way of life. We have Social Security and Medicare, welfare and workman’s compensation. We have insurance protection for our homes, our health, our ability to earn a living, and against all kinds of losses. We never wake up in the morning wondering if we will eat or where we will sleep the next night. Christians can feel even more comfortable, for many believe that when things really begin to get bad (e.g., the great tribulation) they will not be around to face it anyway because of the rapture.1 In the midst of this kind of artificial security, we begin to live carelessly and find ourselves in danger of some serious spiritual defeats. Let us seek to learn from the life of Jacob how we can avoid complacency and over-confidence, which can be hazardous to our spiritual health.
One Step Forward
Then Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. And he put the maids and their children in front, and Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, “Who are these with you?” So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids came near with their children, and they bowed down. And Leah likewise came near with her children, and they bowed down; and afterward Joseph came near with Rachel, and they bowed down. And he said, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” And he said, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” But Esau said, “I have plenty, my brother; let what you have be your own.” And Jacob said, “No, please, if now I have found favor in your sight, then take my present from my hand, for I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please take my gift which has been brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have plenty.” Thus he urged him and he took it. Then Esau said, “Let us take our journey and go, and I will go before you.” But he said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. And if they are driven hard one day, all the flocks will die. Please let my lord pass on before his servant; and I will proceed at my leisure, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.” And Esau said, “Please let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. (Genesis 33:1-6)
As Genesis 32 closes, the wrestling match between Jacob and the Angel of Jehovah had just ended, and Jacob was crossing Penuel as the sun began to rise (verse 31). At that very moment, it would seem, Jacob looked up and saw Esau and his 400 men appear on the horizon. Jacob divided his wives and children into groups, beginning with the maids and ending with Rachel and Joseph. Jacob went to the head of the group so that any harm done would be inflicted on him first. It was he whom Esau hated; ultimately it was a confrontation between these two brothers. As Jacob went out to meet his brother, he bowed repeatedly to the ground, a token of his newly found humility.
Now this was a very dramatic moment. Esau perhaps rode rapidly up to Jacob and then leaped from his mount and ran toward his brother. Jacob must have watched this approach with great anxiety, especially fixing his gaze upon the weapons that Esau carried. It was not until the warm and tender embrace, underscored by tears of genuine joy, that Jacob realized, to his great relief, that Esau came as a forgiving friend and brother rather than as a foe.
The usual small talk began with questions about the wives and children. Then the conversation turned to the droves of livestock that met him on his approach. Jacob explained once again that they were a gift, an expression of love. Esau tried politely to refuse the gift as unnecessary and unneeded, but Jacob persisted and prevailed.
The tenth verse is the key to the peaceful meeting of these brothers:
“No please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably” (NIV).
In the previous chapter Jacob had been taught that to prevail with God was to prevail with men as well. Now that Esau had welcomed him with open arms, Jacob saw that looking on the face of his brother was like looking on the face of God. The one was the result of the other. God, not Esau, had been the obstacle to Jacob’s entry into Canaan. Now that he had prevailed with God by means of petition and clinging to Him by faith, Esau was no longer a foe, but a friend.
Esau is a magnificent picture of graciousness and forgiveness. His words of greeting to Jacob are remarkably similar to those of the father of the prodigal son at his return (compare Genesis 33:4 with Luke 15:20).2 Having accepted Jacob’s generosity in the gift of the droves of livestock, Esau offered to accompany his brother as he journeyed on to Canaan and, I would suppose, to the home of their father (cf. 31:30). Jacob expressed his appreciation but explained that he could not travel at the same pace as his brother and those with him. The young cattle and children would only serve to slow Esau down unnecessarily. To hurry the children and cattle would only result in needless losses.
Jacob’s reasoning made sense, but Esau seemed to feel it necessary for Jacob and his family and flocks to have an escort. Consequently, he urged Jacob to allow him to have some of his men accompany his party into the land. Jacob indicated that there was really no reason to take such precautions and that all he desired of his brother was his favor. And so Esau went on, assuming that he would see Jacob shortly; but, as we know, this will not happen. It would seem that years would pass until these men met once more. While we wish not to believe it and there may be some plausible explanations for his words,3 one does get the uneasy feeling that Jacob has resorted to his old habit of deception. While he said he was going to meet Esau at Seir (verse 14), he may have had no intention of doing so. Certainly that is the way things worked out, and yet without any good reason. The disastrous results of Jacob’s side trip would indicate that Jacob was wrong in going to Succoth and later to Shechem.
One Step Backward
And Jacob journeyed to Succoth; and built for himself a house, and made booths for his livestock, therefore the place is named Succoth (Genesis 33:17).
It is Derek Kidner who aptly summarizes the significance of Jacob’s journey to Succoth: “Succoth was a backward step, spiritually as well as geographically …”4 God had first appeared to Jacob at Bethel, and it was there that Jacob vowed to someday return to build an altar and give a tithe to God (28:20-22). When God instructed Jacob to return to Canaan, He identified Himself as the “God of Bethel” (31:13). Jacob was instructed to return “to the land of your fathers and to your relatives” (31:3). Succoth was in the opposite direction of Seir where Jacob had told Esau he was coming.5
While the text does not inform us of Jacob’s reasons for such a move, several could be suggested. First, Jacob may not have been eager to face his father, whom he had deceived and of whom he should seek forgiveness. Also, Jacob may not have been too excited about spending much time in close proximity to Esau, who was obviously well able to protect his own interests. Furthermore, Jacob had made a vow to pay a tithe to God at Bethel (28:22). Perhaps he was not eager to do this now that God had greatly prospered him. Finally, and perhaps most likely, the pasture was vastly superior in the Jordan Valley where Succoth was located, while Bethel was in the mountains.6 His cattle would normally fare better in the richer pastures of the Jordan Valley than in the mountains.
More distressing than the direction of Jacob’s travels was the duration of his stay at Succoth. We know that Dinah could not have been older than 6 or 7 when Jacob left Paddan-aram, for she was seemingly born later to Leah (cf. 30:21). But by the time Jacob is at Shechem, she is of marriageable age, which would have been at least 12 or 13. Several years must, therefore, have passed between the meeting of Jacob and Esau and the events of chapter 34.7 Some of those must have passed at Succoth. This is further confirmed by the fact that Jacob built a house there rather than to dwell in a tent (verse 17). He was not a sojourner here, but a settler. There is every indication that Jacob intended to “settle down” for some time.
A Second Backward Step
Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram and camped before the city. And he bought the piece of land where he had pitched his tent, from the hand of the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money. Then he erected there an altar, and called it El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:18-20).
We are not given any reason for Jacob’s departure from Succoth to Shechem. That would probably make interesting reading, but Moses does not seek to satisfy our curiosity. All we know is that Jacob arrived “safely” at the city of Shechem (verse 18). His camping near the city is reminiscent of Lot’s ever closer attachment to the city of Sodom, until he was a citizen. Again, Jacob did not appear to be a man passing through, for he purchased a piece of property from a man whose name he would some day like to forget.
From outward appearance Jacob is a religious man, much like his forefather Abraham. He has built an altar, which he called El-Elohe-Israel. Initially this seems very similar to what Abraham had done in the past, but this thought is short lived. When Abraham built altars, he did so “to the LORD” (12:8), and both Abraham and Isaac “called upon the name of the LORD” in worship (12:8; 13:4; 26:25). With Isaac, the altar was the first thing he built (26:25), while with Jacob it was the last (33:20). All of this, in addition to later developments, strongly suggests that while there was a religious formality, there was no spiritual reality. Jacob promised to build an altar at Bethel (28:22), which he later did (35:13-14), but there does not seem to be any great spiritual exercise here, only ritual. It is extremely difficult to worship God in the place where we are not supposed to be.
A Third Backward Step
Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he took her and lay with her by force. And he was deeply attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this young girl for a wife.” Now Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; but his sons were with his livestock in the field, so Jacob kept silent until they came in. Then Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him. Now the sons of Jacob came in from the field when they heard it; and the men were grieved, and they were very angry because he had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done. But Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him in marriage. And intermarry with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. Thus you shall live with us, and the land shall be open before you; live and trade in it, and acquire property in it.” Shechem also said to her father and to her brothers, “If I find favor in your sight, then I will give whatever you say to me. Ask me ever so much bridal payment and gift, and I will give according as you say to me; but give me the girl in marriage” (Genesis 34:1-12).
Jacob, who had always been a “country boy,” must have been ignorant of the dangers of the city. As close as he lived to Shechem, Dinah found it easy to visit with “the daughters of the land” (verse 1). More than likely, this occurred frequently, and so her involvement with Shechem might not have taken place quite as suddenly as it would appear.8 Shechem may have first seen Dinah and been attracted to her when Jacob purchased the land from Hamor, his father. As the most respected in his father’s house, he could have been a party to this sale (cf. verses 2, 19).
On a particular occasion Shechem was able to seize her while she was alone and to force his affections on her. While his rape of Dinah was an abomination, he had a great love for her and desired to marry her. He urged his father to arrange for their marriage as soon as possible, regardless of the price. Dinah may have remained in his tent while these negotiations took place (cf. verse 26).
Hamor’s offer was one that could have been expected from a Canaanite who was a man of prominence within the community. He sought to assuage the anger of Dinah’s brothers by stressing the great love of Shechem for her (verses 7-8). In addition, such a union would pave the way for many other benefits. They could be free to inter-marry with the Canaanites (verse 9) and also to engage in business more freely (verse 10). Furthermore, whatever they required as a dowry would be paid. Probably Hamor felt that a high price for Dinah would do much to appease the anger of these brothers.
Jacob’s sons were not content with such an offer, but they did see it as providing a means for their getting revenge:
But Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor, with deceit, and spoke to them, because he had defiled Dinah their sister. And they said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we consent to you; if you will become like us, in that every male of you be circumcised, then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters for ourselves, and we will live with you and become one people. But if you will not listen to us to be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and go” (Genesis 34:13-17).
I find it of particular interest that these words are attributed to “Jacob’s sons” rather than to “Dinah’s brothers.” The reason must be that in being deceitful they were proving themselves to be sons of their father. We are not entirely surprised by the fact that it is they rather than Jacob who respond to Hamor’s offer. A similar situation is to be recalled in the acquisition of Rebekah for Isaac (cf. 24:50,55, 57-60).
The one concession Jacob’s sons require is stated in such a way that it could be declined only with great difficulty. This is because circumcision is portrayed as a vital part of their religious ritual.9 Circumcision, these sons contended, would unite the Canaanites with the Israelites so that inter-marriage would be acceptable and permissible. If this rite were not followed, then no inter-marriage could take place.
The deceitfulness of Jacob’s sons is in no way defensible. They intended to trick the Canaanites into an arrangement whereby they would be physically incapacitated, especially on the third day of their circumcision. This would make the slaughter of Hamor, Shechem, and all the inhabitants of that city much easier to accomplish. No defense of this plan can be successfully presented.
Jacob’s silence is even more evil than his sons’ schemes. His sons proposed inter-marriage with the Canaanites only as a means to induce them to be circumcised so that they could be overcome more easily. Jacob silently and passively accepted the agreement with the people of Shechem, fully expecting to carry it out. Jacob planned to allow his descendants to inter-marry with the Canaanites, but his sons had no such intention. Jacob, in comparison with his sons, is even more guilty than they!
Jacob’s willingness to inter-marry with the Canaanites is not only contrary to the purposes and promises of God in the Abrahamic covenant, but it is also a direct violation of the instructions which his father had given him:
So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. And may God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you; that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham” (Genesis 28:1-4).
On good faith, Hamor and Shechem went to their fellow citizens and convinced them to comply with the proposal of Jacob’s sons:
Now their words seemed reasonable to Hamor and Shechem, Hamor’s son. And the young man did not delay to do the thing because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. Now he was more respected than all the household of his father. So Hamor and his son, Shechem, came to the gate of their city, and spoke to the men of their city, saying, “These men are friendly with us; therefore let them live in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters in marriage, and give our daughters to them. Only on this condition will the men consent to us to live with us, to become one people: that every male among us be circumcised as they are circumcised. Will not their livestock and their property and all their animals be ours? Only let us consent to them, and they will live with us.” And all who went out of the gate of his city listened to Hamor and to his son Shechem, and every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city (Genesis 34:18-24).
On the surface it was a reasonable offer that Jacob’s sons had made, and Shechem was eager to have the marriage performed. The reason why Hamor and Shechem would comply with the proposal was obvious, but the other men of the city were convinced on financial grounds. Hamor must have been the president of the Shechem Chamber of Commerce. How could his fellow-citizens refuse such a temporary inconvenience when they would eventually profit substantially from the arrangement (verse 23)?
Now it came about on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came upon the city unawares, and killed every male. And they killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went forth. Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and looted the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their flocks and their herds and their donkeys, and that which was in the city and that which was in the field; and they captured and looted all their wealth and all their little ones and their wives, even all that was in the houses (Genesis 34:25-29).
Little did the people of Shechem realize the intentions of Dinah’s brothers, whose anger could not be appeased by anything less than the revenge of blood. Weakened by their circumcision, the men of the city were virtually helpless when attacked by Simeon and Levi. It was no less than a slaughter. They killed every male, and the rest of their brothers were quick to share in the spoils.10 All of their wealth along with the women and children was taken.
Jacob’s silence is shattered by the blood bath of his sons:
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, by making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and my men being few in number, they will gather together against me and attack me and I shall be destroyed, I and my household.” But they said, “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” (Genesis 34:30-31).
Surely a word of rebuke was in order, but Jacob’s words lacked force because his reasons were self-centered and not based upon principle, but only on the interest of self-preservation. They brought trouble to Jacob. They made Jacob look bad. They put his life in danger. He might be attacked and destroyed. Jacob seemed to care only about his safety and saving his own skin.
The shallowness of Jacob’s stern rebuke was exposed by his sons response: “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” The issue of morality had never been raised by Jacob. Granted, the sons’ deception and destruction hardly seems moral, but they, at least, had some sense of the abomination that had taken place concerning their sister, while Jacob was strangely silent and passive on this point.
We can make several observations on the matter of safety from a closer look at these two chapters in Genesis.
First, Jacob was never safer than he was in those times of most evident danger. Think through Jacob’s life for a moment, especially those times of great danger. When fleeing from Esau, Jacob was met by God at Bethel (28:10ff.). When Jacob was hotly pursued by his frustrated and furious uncle, God sternly warned Laban that he should not even speak harshly to Jacob (31:24). This sharply curtailed Laban’s plans (31:29). When Jacob entered into a new and threatening existence in the land of Canaan, he was met by a host of angels assuring him of God’s presence and protection (32:1-2). Finally, as Jacob feared his brother as the sole obstacle to his entry into Canaan and the blessings of God, God Himself met him and wrestled with him, finally “succumbing” to his petition to be blessed. Having prevailed with God, into whose face he looked, he was assured of prevailing over Esau in the meeting that was ahead. Never was Jacob safer than at those times when his life seemed in greatest peril.
Second, Jacob was never in greater danger than at those times when he felt most secure. Jacob seemed to feel safest when his brother was out of sight, and yet it seems that Esau came with his armed men in order to provide an escort for him into Canaan. Jacob felt secure when his cattle could feed on the lush grass of Succoth rather than in the more sparse pastures of Bethel. He felt safer near a city of Canaanites than in the seclusion of some place more remote from civilization. But it was in Shechem that the rape of Dinah occurred, and it was there that Jacob could have been killed by the Canaanites.
The reason for this is really quite simple: we are most inclined to trust in God and obey Him when we sense that we are in grave danger and that our only hope is in God alone to save us. It is sad but true that all of us tend to slack up in our diligence and devotion when things are going along smoothly. We think that we can handle things ourselves when dangers seem distant and troubles are far removed, but when there is a crisis or a sudden overwhelming problem, then we rush to God for help. It is a foxhole kind of Christianity, but that is the way we are.
When Jacob was freed of Esau, whom he perceived to be his principal danger, he felt free to handle matters himself. He sought safety in separation from his brother and from succulent pastures and the security of cities and alliances with pagans. And at this time of spiritual decline, he was remarkably passive in the face of evils which should have been appalling to him. He who was so aggressive in seeking material prosperity had no zeal for moral purity. Self-interest and self-preservation were his only concern.
What a lesson this must have been to the Israelites who read this account of Moses, especially as they were about to enter into the land of Canaan. It should have taught them that their only security was in God. It should have warned them that the greatest danger in the promised land was not the size of the inhabitants or their military prowess, but in becoming carelessly complacent about spiritual purity and resisting false pride.
The Israelites, like Jacob, appeared to be in a place of great danger, trapped as they were between the Red Sea and the soldiers of Egypt (cf. Exodus 14:10-12). The fact was that they were never safer because they were in the will of God and walking according to His word. They were safe because they were where God wanted them to be, and so God made a path through the sea for them.
The great danger for Israel was what would happen once they were in the land. During the years in which they wandered in the desert, they were, humanly speaking, in a most dangerous situation, but God miraculously provided for them. Indeed, God used those circumstances to teach them that the most important matters of life were not food and drink, but obedience to the will of God and the keeping of His word (cf. Deuteronomy 8:1-6).
The greatest danger which Israel would ever face was not the persecution of the Egyptians, for that kept them pure. It was not the problem of survival in the desert, for God met their needs for food and clothing. The greatest danger Israel would face was their prosperity and apparent security once they possessed the land.
Beware lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.” But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day (Deuteronomy 8:11-18).
Built into the Law which God gave His people were some factors which were intended to stimulate the faith of the Israelites once they were in the land.
You shall thus observe My statutes, and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land. Then the land will yield its produce, so that you can eat your fill and live securely on it. But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in (Leviticus 25:18-22).
Here God instructed the people not to plant or to harvest in the seventh year. This did, of course, give the land a rest. In addition, it stretched the faith of the Israelites, for it forced them to obey God, even when the normal result would have been a lack of food. They had to trust God to provide for their needs. While Egypt had its river and its very predictable and prosperous farming by irrigation, God brought His people into a land where they must trust Him to provide the rains which the land needed to produce in abundance. These were faith-stimulating conditions, designed to keep the Israelites alert to their dependence upon God for their daily needs. Israel’s only security was in her God, Whom she must trust and Whom she must obey.
If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, then I shall give you rains in their season, so that the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Indeed, your threshing will last for you until grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land (Leviticus 26:3-5).
Man’s security has always been in God, and in God alone. This is not just a New Testament truth; it is an eternal truth.
The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; From His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works. The king is not saved by a mighty army; A warrior is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a false hope for victory; Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, On those who hope for His lovingkindness; To deliver their soul from death, And to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; He is our help and our shield. For our heart rejoices in Him, Because we trust in His holy name. Let Thy lovingkindness, O LORD, be upon us, According as we have hoped in Thee (Psalm 33:13-22).
There is no security in the “arm of the flesh,” only in the “arm of Jehovah.” If we trust in our own devices, we are exceedingly vulnerable. If we trust in God, we are invincible.
The slaughter of the Canaanites by the sons of Jacob, while done in deception, was a necessity. Had Simeon and Levi not slaughtered the men of this city, Jacob’s sons and daughters would have inter-married. There is little doubt of this since Jacob consented to it. Jacob viewed their friendliness and openness as an evidence of safety and security. In reality, it was the opposite. The willingness of the Canaanites to adopt Jacob, the Israelites, and their religion into their way of life would have defiled the purity which God required for this race. While Jacob did not take such activity as defiling and disgraceful, his sons did (34:7,31), and so did God. Thus it was that He would later instruct the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites due to their depravity and decay (Deuteronomy 20:17-18). From this incident in the life of Jacob the Israelites could see the consequences of cohabitation with the Canaanites.
A number of principles arise from this event in the life of Jacob which apply to us centuries later.
(1) Safety is not something we can provide for ourselves. Men are never secure apart from God. Every non-believer must be warned of this truth. As Peter said centuries ago:
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
(2) Safety comes only from God:
In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For Thou alone, O LORD, dost make me to dwell in safety (Psalm 4:8).
(3) The true believer is most secure when he is following the Word of God:
But he who listens to me shall live securely, And shall be at ease from the dread of evil (Proverbs 1:33).
(4) Safety is not the absence of danger, but the acknowledgment of it and the turning to God for protection in it. This was the faith of Daniel’s three companions (cf. Daniel 3:13ff.).
(5) Times of apparent safety which lead to complacency are occasions where danger is at its greatest intensity. The real dangers are most often not seen by the human eye because they are spiritual in nature. These dangers include unbelief, apathy, carnality, compromise, and complacency. And so it is that Christians are urged to be on the alert, attentive to the dangers which are always present, especially when there are times of prosperity and peace:
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12).
While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober (I Thessalonians 5:3-6).
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (I Peter 5:8).
Because 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 (Revelation 3:17).
How different the trials and sufferings of life look in the light of these truths. Life’s trials are not given by God for our destruction, but for our defense. They cause us to cling ever more closely to Him Who is able to give strength in times of need (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16). The trials of life are a gift of God’s grace (Philippians 1:29), intended by a loving Father to strengthen our faith:
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:7-13).
In my estimation most Christians in America prefer to dwell in comfort and complacency rather than to live on the cutting edge of Christianity. Most of us, like Jacob, prefer peace to purity, prosperity to piety, and safety to spirituality. The commands and principles of the New Testament, like the laws of the Old, are designed to cause us to live on the cutting edge of life. That, I believe, is why our Lord told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. That man could not trust in God and gold—it was one or the other. While money is not evil, trusting in it for security is (I Timothy 6:17). God desires to remove from our lives anything which stands in the way of our total trust in Him. May each of us be willing to look only to Him for security and safety, for that is the way God has ordered this universe.
I strongly believe that many Christians desire to live the kind of life that God intends for us to live. The way to do this is intensely simple: trust and obey. Trust leads to obedience to the will and the Word of God. And obeying the Word of God forces us to trust in Him to provide for our every need. May each of us be willing to do as He commands.
1 I, too, believe in the pre-tribulation rapture of the church, but one of the dangers in the Christian life is the misuse of right doctrine. Some twist the doctrine of God’s grace into a license for sin (cf. Romans 5:20-6:23, I Peter 2:16). The doctrine of the return of our Lord was intended to inspire holy living, not carelessness (cf. II Peter 3:11-13), watchfulness, not waywardness (I Thessalonians 5; II Timothy 3).
3 “. . . these words are not to be understood as meaning that he intended to go direct to Seir; consequently they were not a willful deception for the purpose of getting rid of Esau. Jacob’s destination was Canaan, and in Canaan probably Hebron, where his father Isaac still lived. From thence he may have thought of paying a visit to Esau in Seir. Whether he carried out this intention or not, we cannot tell; for we have not a record of all that Jacob did, but only of the principal events of his life.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I, p. 309.
“Few of us could cast the first stone at him for failing to combine grace and truth in refusing an embarrassing invitation. It is also possible, as Delitzsch suggests, that he intended to visit Seir one day, and deceived Esau ‘by deceiving himself.’ None the less, some of the deviousness of the old Jacob comes out, for he could have said plainly that he was under oath to go to Bethel.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 171.
5 “What, then was Jacob’s next step? Actually this: instead of going after Esau to Seir, which was situated southeast of Peniel, he took his journey in an exactly opposite direction, and went to Succoth, northwest of Peniel.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 312.
6 “Finding better pasture at Succoth for his considerable flocks and herds only furthered the delay. The site of Bethel in the mountains does not offer anything comparable to the fields east of the Jordan near the bottom of the escarpment of the Jordan Valley where the waters of the Jabbok offered drink for his animals.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 255.
7 “The implied ages of Jacob’s daughter and his elder sons in the next incident, at Shechem, show that several years were indeed spent in one or both of these places, since Dinah was evidently a child of about seven when the family left Paddan-aram (cf. 30:19-25; 31:41).” Kidner, Genesis, p. 172.
8 “Her action is not prefaced by the phrase ‘Now it happened one day,’ which could then be followed by ‘that Dinah went out. . . .’ It would appear that her visits may have been a frequent occurrence and the event should be introduced by ‘Now Dinah had made it a practice to visit with the women . . .’” Stigers, Genesis, p. 256.
The Way Back (Genesis 35:1-29)
Nearly thirty years have passed since Jacob vowed to return to Bethel, where God had revealed Himself to him during his flight from Esau to Paddan-aram. Far worse, it had been ten years since Jacob had left Laban and returned to the land of promise. Jacob had built a house in Succoth (33:17) and formed alliances in Shechem with the Canaanites, which would have brought about the ruin of the nation that was to emerge from Jacob’s descendants. It was thirty years after Jacob’s vow to return to Bethel that he determined to fulfill it, and this in light of the fact that Bethel lay only thirty miles from Shechem.11
From outward appearances Jacob was not that far from God—only thirty miles distant from Bethel. He had also built an altar at Shechem (33:20), so there must have been some kind of religious observance there. Spiritually, however, Jacob was not near to God at all. Jacob told Esau he would meet him at Seir (33:14), but he went the opposite direction to Succoth, then to Shechem. Jacob somewhat passively accepted the rape of his daughter and even entered into an agreement whereby the purity of the covenant people of God would be lost (chapter 34). Jacob was preoccupied with prosperity and security at the expense of purity and piety. He is near Bethel but not near to the God of Bethel—at least not in chapter 34.
Jacob’s condition is not that different from many Christians in our own time. We may appear to be walking close to God while the opposite is true. We may still continue to preserve the forms and observe the rituals of piety, but, in fact, the reality is not there. Paul described this condition as “…holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…” (II Timothy 3:5). We may be like those in the church at Ephesus, who have “lost their first love” (Revelation 2:4), or those at Laodicea who, due to their wealth and security, considered themselves to be doing well spiritually when they were destitute, cold, and indifferent (Revelation 3:15-17).
Since every one of us will face times when we have strayed from an intimate walk with God, Genesis 35 provides us with a pattern for finding the way back. And so this chapter not only describes the way back for Jacob, but it also outlines the way back for any believer who has grown cold and indifferent by failing to walk in the path which God has made clear.
Back to Bethel
Then God said 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.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. So Jacob come to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him. And he built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him, when he fled from his brother. Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; it was named Allon-bacuth (Genesis 35:1-8).
Insofar as the Scriptures report, God had been silent for nearly ten years, ever since He had commanded Jacob to leave Paddan-aram and return to Bethel (31:3).12 The question must be asked, “Why did God wait so long to instruct Jacob to get on with the matter of returning to Bethel, as He had clearly commanded him earlier?” To me, the answer is quite simple—until now Jacob wasn’t listening.
In spite of his dramatic encounter with the Angel of Jehovah in chapter 32, Jacob quickly lost any sense of urgency about doing what God had commanded. No doubt Jacob intended to get around to going up to Bethel in time, but there was no hurry in his mind. I have previously suggested that Jacob would have felt obliged to give the tithe that he had promised (28:22), which might have been a bitter pill to swallow. After promising to meet Esau at Seir (33:14), Jacob traveled the opposite direction, first to Succoth, then to Shechem. Jacob agreed to allow his children to inter-marry with the Canaanites in order to preserve peace and to enhance his prosperity (34:8ff.). Jacob seems to have little desire to do the will of God which he knows. God had, after all, clearly spoken. Was it of any value to speak again?
The tragic and painful events of chapter 34 greatly improved Jacob’s ability to hear and obey God. His daughter had been raped, his sons had put the men of Shechem to death, and it appeared that neither he nor his family could live safely in that region any longer. You see, while all of the men of the city of Shechem had been put to the sword, the women, children, and cattle had been taken as booty (34:28-29). The relatives of those who were killed and those taken captive were not inclined to take the actions of Jacob’s sons lightly. Jacob was correct in his assessment of the danger of staying in that area (cf. 34:30). It was only at the point where Jacob sensed great danger and where it seemed impossible to stay in Shechem that Jacob was willing to listen to the voice of God reminding him of his duty to return to Bethel.
Surely there is a principle here for all Christians pertaining to God’s will and man’s. The Christian does have a free will in the sense of being able to choose whether or not he (or she) will obey that which God has commanded.13 We can resist the commands of God, but we cannot thwart His ultimate purposes.14 God allowed Jacob to go his own way and to reap the consequences of his disobedience. But in the final analysis we will do what God has purposed. God does not, like many of us do as parents, yell and holler, fuss and fume, over the disobedience of His children. He is, of course, deeply grieved by disobedience, but he will allow us to go our own way and to reap the painful price of sin. And then, when we have gotten our fill of sin and there is no other way to turn, He will speak to us again, reminding us of that which He has previously spoken. Then, too, we shall surely listen and obey. God’s will can be resisted for a season and at a great price, but ultimately God will create an atmosphere in which we will gladly hear and obey. And then His purposes will be realized in our lives.
Jacob was to return to the place of his beginnings, spiritually speaking, and to dwell15 there. While oblivious to divine standards of holiness and purity in Succoth and Shechem, Jacob was intent upon putting off impurity before coming into the presence of God. Jacob had to be aware of the presence of the foreign gods in his camp. Further, he seemed to be content to do nothing about them until now. One reason may have been that Rachel, his favorite, had set the precedent when she took with her the household gods of her father (31:19). But here we are told that the possession of such “gods” was much more common in the camp of Jacob than by just Rachel. Part of the explanation for this is the fact that many foreigners had been added to Jacob’s household. While all of the men of Shechem had been put to the sword, the women and children were taken alive. These Canaanites undoubtedly kept their gods with them (or made new ones) when they were taken captive. Finally this idolatry had to be reckoned with.
The foreign gods and also the earrings, which must have had some unacceptable pagan religious associations (cf. Hosea 2:13), were collected and buried under the oak tree near Shechem. Not many years after the Israelites read of the burial (literally, “hiding”) of these pagan artifacts, they would be called upon by Joshua to put away their foreign gods. Under this same oak tree, it would seem, their gods were put away, and a large stone was set up as a witness to this act (Joshua 24:19-28).
One cannot help but remark about Jacob’s casual attitude toward separation and purity while dwelling in Shechem. He tolerated the possession of foreign gods. He was about to enter into a relationship with the Canaanites which would undermine the purity of this chosen race. But all of a sudden, when God called him to return to Bethel, he was greatly concerned about purity. Jacob knew that there could be no approach to God in an impure condition. Perhaps this explains, in part, his reluctance to “go up”16 to Bethel before now. Following our Lord has always been costly, and men should not do so without counting that cost (cf. Luke 9:57-62). And lest you be too quick to condemn Jacob for this, let me remind you that this is precisely the case today. Many Christians are unwilling or hesitant to fully commit themselves to God for fear of what that commitment will cost them. There is a song which says, “… whatever it takes to be closer to Thee, Lord, that’s what I’ll be willing to do.” I doubt that many of us are willing to make that kind of commitment for fear of what might have to be set aside.
Jacob had every reason to fear some kind of reprisal from the relatives of those Shechemites who had been put to death by his sons. Furthermore, the wives and children, who were taken captive and would be taken away, must have had Canaanite relatives eagerly seeking revenge.17 After all, what had been done to Dinah was committed on a grand scale by her brothers in their killing the men of Shechem and kidnapping the women and children.
Contrary to his fears, not so much as one finger was raised to resist their departure to Bethel thirty miles or so to the south and then beyond this. The explanation is to be found in the great terror that came from God. The Canaanites feared any military action or resistance because they were convinced of the fierceness of the sons of Jacob and of the might of their God. This same terror would again fall upon the Canaanites when Israel marched from Egypt to Canaan (cf. Exodus 15:16; 23:27; Deuteronomy 2:25).
In this experience Jacob learned a lesson which is pertinent to us as well: safety is not to be found in our own strength nor in alliances with pagans, but in the fear of God, which causes us to maintain the purity He demands.
The fear of man brings a snare, But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted (Proverbs 29:25; cf. Exodus 14:13-14; Proverbs 8:13; 10:27; 14:26; Isaiah 8:13-15).
National defense was a prominent issue in the last presidential election. I do not wish to imply that I am in favor of no military defense system or in a weak or obsolete one. But I must say that it is not our military strength that is going to keep us secure. Our security will never come from the “arm of the flesh,” but only from the Sovereign God Who cares for His own (cf. Psalm 20:7, 33:13-22; Isaiah 30:1-3, 15, 31:1, 41:10-16; Jeremiah 5:17, 17:5-8).
In obedience to the command of God, Jacob finally returned to Bethel, and there he built an altar, calling the place El-Bethel, for the God of Bethel had revealed Himself there. Nowhere are we told that Jacob gave a tithe, as he had promised years before (28:22). God did not remind him of this promise as He did of the commitment to return and build an altar. I suspect that this is for two reasons. First, there was no need for a tithe here. What would have been done with it? Second, I am convinced that when Jacob made this promise he did so in a bargaining mentality, and God does not bargain with men. God may thus have chosen to let this promise pass by. Some commitments are rashly made, especially by those who are immature. God seems to have overlooked this one, too hastily made by Jacob.
It was here at Bethel that Deborah, Rebekah’s maid, died. We are not told why or when she came to stay with Jacob. It is possible that she came bearing the news of Rebekah’s death and then stayed on with Jacob. No doubt Deborah was one to whom Jacob felt very attached, especially if he knew that his mother had died. Under the oak18 her body was buried.
God’s Blessing Reiterated
Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, “I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you.” Then God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him. And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a libation on it; he also poured oil on it. So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel (Genesis 35:9-15).
Verse 9 takes us somewhat by surprise, for it seems to suggest that God may have made several appearances to Jacob since he had come up from Paddan-aram.
The word “again” particularly inclines us toward this conclusion. In Genesis 35:1 Jacob was commanded to return to Bethel, where He had appeared to him. The first appearance of God was at Bethel, thirty years previous. The second appearance (“again") was also at Bethel, as recorded in verses 10-13. God did not appear when He commanded Jacob to return to Bethel in verse 1, it would seem, but only spoke to him.
Verse 9 is unusual in that it almost seems to overlook the time which lapsed between Jacob’s departure from Paddan-aram and his going up to Bethel. Moses, under inspiration, wrote in this fashion to suggest something significant for us from the life of Jacob. Verse 9 brushes aside ten years as though they did not exist. Thus, God’s appearance to Jacob “the second time” is recorded as though it happened shortly after he returned to the land of Canaan. The inference I see here is that those ten years were of little or no spiritual value. They were lost years, for they were a time of independence and disobedience on Jacob’s part. Whenever the people of God choose to go their way, they must always return to the point where they departed from the revealed will of God. While it should have taken Jacob only days to get from Paddan-aram, it took ten years. No real growth or progress in Jacob’s spiritual life could take place until he returned to Bethel.
The blessings spoken by God are remarkably similar to those given to Abraham in Genesis 17:4-7. Virtually nothing new was promised Jacob here, and the former promises given to him at Bethel 30 years before were simply reiterated. Jacob would henceforth be called Israel. He would be fruitful and would become a nation and a company of nations, and the land promised Abraham would be his and his descendants. The repetition of the change of Jacob’s name to Israel further assured him that the One he had seen face to face in chapter 32 was the same God who had twice revealed Himself to him at Bethel.
God visibly ascended before Jacob’s eyes from the place where He had spoken (verse 13). Jacob set up a pillar there and poured oil and wine upon it (verse 14). Again, Jacob gave this place, which was presently known as Luz, the name Bethel (verse 6). Once the Israelites possessed this land, it would become known by the name which Jacob had given it.
For Jacob, this event served as a rededication to the God Who had set His love on Him in eternity past and Who had sought him out thirty years before when he was fleeing from Esau. For the sons of Jacob and all those who were in his household, this may have been the first clear evidence and explanation of the faith which he possessed but so poorly practiced before them. Soon they must take up the torch of faith, and the purposes of God will be carried on through them. The faith of Jacob must become the faith of his children.
Heartache in the Family
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor. And it came about when she was in severe labor that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for now you have another son.” And it came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day (Genesis 35:16-20).
Somewhere between Bethel and Bethlehem, Rachel went into hard labor. As the child was being born the midwife tried to encourage Rachel by informing her that it was the son she wanted so badly. We should recall that Joseph, the name she had given her first son, meant, literally, “add to me” (Genesis 30:24), expressing her desire for yet another son. With her dying breath Rachel named this second son Ben-oni, meaning “son of my sorrow.” Jacob would not allow that name to stand, however, and changed it to Benjamin, “the son of my right hand.” Rachel was then buried on the way to Bethlehem, and Jacob and his household proceeded on, having set up a pillar along the way.
Significantly, Moses added that this pillar was still standing in his day. While this may mean little to us, I think that it was of great interest to his first readers, the Israelites, who were about to enter into the land of Canaan. It informed these travelers that if they looked for this pillar when they possessed the land they would find it. What a sense of history this pillar must have helped to create. The events of the past were intended to be remembered and commemorated. Visual reminders had a great place in Old Testament times, not to mention the present (cf. Exodus 13:14ff.; Joshua 4:4-7; I Corinthians 11:26).
Rachel’s death should be viewed from the vantage point of two previous events:
Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1).
Rachel demanded children of her husband out of jealousy toward her sister Leah. She said she would die if she could not bear children. In truth, she would die in the bearing of children.
A second passage is even more striking. In the context of this text, Jacob has fled from Laban, not knowing that Rachel has stolen her father’s household gods (Genesis 31:19-20). After bemoaning the fact that Jacob took his family away before he could give them a proper farewell, he got to the real bone of contention demanding the return of his gods. In response to this charge Jacob hotly retorted:
The one with whom you find your gods shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen point out what is yours among my belongings and take it for yourself (Genesis 31:32).
While the sentence may have been delayed in its execution, it is my conviction that Rachel’s death is the result, to one degree or another, of these words spoken by her husband.
While Jacob was dwelling beyond the tower of Eder, another painful incident saddened his heart:
Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. And it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now there were twelve sons of Jacob—the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, then Simeon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Zebulun; the sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin; and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram (Genesis 35:21-26).
Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, initiated an illicit sexual union with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid and later Jacob’s concubine. This report is given to us here because it fits into the chronological scheme at this point, and it prepares us for the time when Jacob will take away from Reuben the rights of the firstborn (Genesis 49:34).
A careful look at this event suggests that there is more to the story than what is seen at first glance. So far as we are told, there is only one act of immorality rather than an ongoing relationship. Jacob was told of it but did nothing.19 This was probably because the sin had been committed only once and was not repeated. What could be done to prevent what had already happened?
Furthermore, this act is not described in terms of lust or sexual desire, such as the incident with Shechem and Dinah (cf. 34:1ff.). There seems to be little question but what Bilhah was a woman who was far from young. No mention is made of her youthfulness or attractiveness. The deeper significance, I believe, is to be seen in her position as Jacob’s concubine, not in her personal beauty. An incident later in the history of Israel helps us to grasp what prompted this act and the penalty exacted by Jacob.
When David became old and it was time for him to designate who was to replace him as king, he delayed. As a result, Adonijah set out to make a claim to the throne by gaining the allegiance of the leaders of the nation. Only due to the urging of Bathsheba did David designate Solomon, her son, as the heir to the throne. Adonijah then made one last daring attempt to regain supremacy. He did so by asking Bathsheba to intercede with David for one seemingly harmless and innocent request:
Now Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, “Do you come peacefully?” And he said, “Peacefully.” Then he said, “I have something to say to you.” And she said, “Speak.” So he said, “You know that the kingdom was mine and that all Israel expected me to be king; however, the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the LORD. And now I am making one request of you; do not refuse me.” And she said to him, “Speak.” Then he said, “Please speak to Solomon the king, for he will not refuse you, that he may give me Abishag the Shunammite as a wife.” And Bathsheba said, “Very well; I will speak to the king for you.” So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right. Then she said, “I am making one small request of you; do not refuse me.” And the king said to her, “Ask, my mother, for I will not refuse you.” So she said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah your brother as a wife.” And King Solomon answered and said to his mother, “And why are you asking Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him also the kingdom—for he is my older brother—even for him, for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah!” Then King Solomon swore by the LORD saying, “May God do so to me and more also, if Adonijah has not spoken this word against his own life. Now therefore as the LORD lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of David my father, and who has made me a house as He promised, surely Adonijah will be put to death today.” So King Solomon sent by Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he fell upon him so that he died (I Kings 2:13-25).
Adonijah knew that to claim the king’s harem was to possess the kingdom. That was the basis for his request. Solomon knew it also and had him put to death for treason. Is this not also the explanation for the actions of Reuben? He, like Adonijah, was the older brother, who would have been expected to assume the rights of the firstborn. He, like Adonijah, could, by this act of possessing the harem, assume the headship that seemed to be his by virtue of being the eldest brother.
If this explanation is correct, is this not a kind of poetic justice for his father Jacob, who so desired the headship of the family that he would cheat his brother and deceive his father? The chickens, I am compelled to remind you, do come home to roost. That is precisely what happened here, in my estimation.
As Jacob begins to fade from the spotlight, his twelve sons come to the forefront. Moses therefore lists these twelve sons according to their mothers, beginning first with Leah, then Rachel, and concluding with Bilhah and Zilpah. Previous to this time, God had chosen to fulfill His covenant to Abraham through one son to the exclusion of others. Now God’s people will be begotten through all the sons of Jacob.20
The final event of the chapter seems to have been inevitable—the reconciliation of Jacob, his father Isaac, and his brother Esau:
And Jacob come to his father Isaac at Mamre of Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. Now the days of Isaac were one hundred and eighty years. And Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him (Genesis 35:27-29).
Perhaps the most difficult thing in the world for Jacob to do was to stand before his father, whom he had deceived in order to obtain the blessing. Personally, I view Jacob’s reluctance to return to Bethel and to his father as stemming from his sense of guilt and shame. But reconciliation with God and the renewal at Bethel necessitated the reconciliation described in verses 27-29.
One might conclude that Jacob had scarcely arrived at his father’s home when Isaac died, and so it seems that Jacob arrived just in the nick of time. More careful calculations inform us that there was something like ten years or so between Jacob’s return and his father’s death.21 Moses simply did not care to stress this fact. It is time for Isaac to step aside, as well as Jacob, at least for the time being. The burial of Isaac was a cooperative effort of both Jacob and Esau. There is not so much as a hint that Esau still intended to carry out his threat from years past that he would get even with Jacob once his father died (cf. 27:41).
Several lessons may be learned from the events of this chapter. First, I am deeply impressed with the importance of renewal. Christians seem to ever be seeking some new and exhilarating experience. They wish to go from one novel experience to another. In the Scriptures, however, I see little of this happening, either to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. What Jacob did at Bethel was hardly novel, and what God said to him at His second appearance was nothing new. That should tell us something. What was really important for Jacob was that he gain a deeper and deeper appreciation of what he had already experienced but not fully grasped. He needed nothing new, but a greater grasp of that which was old.
It was George Bush (not the Vice President of the United States but the author of one of the old, classic commentaries on Genesis) who most clearly verbalized this truth:
These incidents may teach us that the most precious favors of heaven often come to us, not in the form of blessings or promises entirely new, but in the repetition or revival of those which we have already experienced in times past. And so, on the other hand, it may be that the most acceptable manner in which they can serve God will be, not by engaging in something unattempted before, but by “doing our first works,” by reminding ourselves of our covenant vows, and seeking anew that spiritual communion which is the life of our souls.22
I believe it is precisely for this reason that our Lord has commanded believers to frequently and systematically observe the ordinance of the Lord’s Table.23 It is here, week after week, that we are taken back to our initial encounter with our Lord and reminded that all we are, all that we will be, and all that we will ever accomplish of any eternal value will be on the basis of that which took place on the cross of Calvary 2,000 years ago.
But perhaps I am assuming too much. It may be that I should not be urging you to “go back to Bethel” at all, particularly if you have never been there. If you have never come to that point which Jacob had come to thirty years previous to this time, the point of recognizing your sinfulness and impending peril, the point of recognizing that the only way to God’s heaven is through some means which God Himself provides, then you must come to God by faith for the first time. You must, in biblical terminology, be born again (John 3:3); you must be saved (Acts 4:12; 16:31). I pray that you will do this now by simply acknowledging your sin and your utter inability to gain God’s favor or admission into His kingdom. The way has been provided in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who died in your place and Who offers His righteousness to all who will believe on Him alone for salvation.
Jacob’s renewal at Bethel necessitated several actions on Jacob’s part. First, he came to the point where he stopped going his own sinful way and once again obeyed that which he knew to be the will of God. There cannot be renewal without obedience. Second, there cannot be renewal without separation. Jacob put away those foreign gods which he had so long tolerated and which were so offensive to God. Finally, Jacob’s renewal involved reconciliation with those who had been injured and offended by his sins. We cannot be reconciled to God without being reconciled with men (cf. Matthew 5:23-24).
The second lesson which Christians need to learn is that even when we do renew our relationship with God, all things will not go smoothly for us. Life, even the Spirit-filled life, is full of sickness (Philippians 2:25ff.), suffering, and sorrow (II Corinthians 6:4-5; 12:7-10). Walking in the path which God has revealed to us is not strolling along some rose petal-strewn pathway, free from the adversities of life. In fact, these adversities and afflictions are the very things which draw us nearer to God and strengthen our faith (cf. James 1:2-4). Had the tragedy regarding Dinah not occurred or the slaughter of the Shechemites angered the surrounding Canaanites, I am convinced that Jacob would have been content to remain amongst the Canaanites, and worse yet, to have become one of them.
The third lesson has to do with “reaping what we have sown” (cf. Galatians 6:7). Much of the heartache which Jacob experienced in this chapter was the result of his previous sins. Now I want to be very clear that Jacob did not suffer the penalty for his sins. No Christian ever suffers the penalty for sins, for Jesus Christ has borne our sins on the cross. But while the guilt and condemnation are dealt with, the consequences of sin remain. David sought God’s forgiveness for his sin and received it (Psalm 51, 32), but the consequences for his acts were not held back (cf. II Samuel 12:9-12).
The final lesson is what we might call the certainty of sanctification. God had purposed that Jacob would someday return to Bethel and to his father. While Jacob dilly-dallied and drug his feet for ten years, he finally arrived. We cannot thwart the purposes of God for our lives. We may, of course, resist them, but we cannot prevent them.
Let us not conclude, therefore, that it matters little what we do. It matters a great deal. There was much needless heartache and sorrow in Jacob’s life because of his waywardness. Sin is never worth the price. We can be fully assured that what God has begun, He will finish (Philippians 1:6). Whether this is done the “hard way” or the “easy way” is determined by our resistance or cooperation, but God’s purposes will be achieved (Romans 8:28-30). Is this not the very thing which motivates us to be faithful and encourages us when we have failed?
The steps of a man are established by the LORD; And He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand. I have been young, and now I am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Or his descendants begging bread. All day long he is gracious and lends; And his descendants are a blessing (Psalm 37:23-26).
For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, But the wicked stumble in time of calamity (Proverbs 24:16).
11 “Bethel was only thirty miles away from Shechem, and yet it was quite ten years since Jacob’s return into Canann. And it was over thirty years since he had made his vow to return to Bethel and acknowledge God’s hand if he were brought back in peace.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 329.
12 We can deduce that some time has passed from two lines of inquiry. First, from the age of Dinah in Shechem as compared to her age at the time of Jacob’s departure. When Jacob left Paddan-aram, she must have been a very young child, for Dinah was born after Leah had borne Jacob six sons (cf. 30:21). By the time Jacob was in Shechem, Dinah was of a marriageable age (cf. 34:1ff.). Secondly, we know that Joseph was 17 when he was sold into slavery, and this seems to be not too long after Jacob went to Bethel for the second time (37:2). Since we know that Joseph was born at the end of Jacob’s 14-year contract with Laban (30:25-26), he would have been about six years old when Jacob left Paddan-aram (cf. 31:41). Thus, there is a period of nearly ten years between Jacob’s departure from Paddan-aram and his final arrival at Bethel.
13 The “bondage of the will” is a soteriological concept, unrelated to our present discussion. By it, theologians refer to the inability of any unsaved person to voluntarily “choose” to obey or trust in God. We are by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Man cannot first choose God, for he is born at enmity with God. That is why the scriptures speak of God first opening the heart of men (cf. Acts 13:48; 16:14; Philippians 1:6,29). Christians can choose to sin by disobeying the revealed will of God (I John 1:8-9), as countless examples in Scripture evidence, but ultimately we cannot thwart the purposes of God. This is a lesson which Jonah had to learn the hard way.
14 Elsewhere I have referred to the commands of God as His “declared will,” the expressions of the desires of God as His “desiderative will,” and the decree of God as His “determined will.” Only the last of these is inviolable. God’s Word is not always obeyed (sometimes we would better say, not often obeyed), even though God commanded it. God’s desires are not always realized (such as the salvation of all men, I Timothy 2:4), even though it would please Him. But God’s determined ends always come to pass, without a hitch and without delay. (For further information on this subject, consult the series “Guidelines For Guidance,” which I did some time ago.)
15 It may appear from God’s command that Jacob was to “dwell” at Bethel (35:1) and that his departure from Bethel after a time was sinful disobedience. But was it not needful that Jacob return to his father to be reconciled to him and to be with him before his death? Leupold removes our difficulties by explaining the meaning of “dwell” or “tarry”:
“He should ‘tarry’ (shebh, imperative from yashabh; here not in the sense of ‘dwell’ but ‘tarry’) just long enough to carry out the injunction laid upon him. Jacob was not to ‘go up to Bethel to live’ (Meek). This rendering creates an unnecessary conflict with what Jacob actually does.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 914.
18 Both in verse 4 and verse 8, the oak tree is called “the” oak, not “an” oak. This is probably due to a combination of two factors. First, trees were not all that numerous there, and so it may have been the only tree around. Second, it designates a specific oak, probably one that could be pointed out in Moses’ day (cf. verse 20).
19 More precisely, Israel was told of Reuben’s sin and did nothing. The name Israel, rather than Jacob, may suggest that here the patriarch responded rightly (as Israel, not the old “Jacob”) to this situation.
21 “. . . Isaac’s death is now reported, though it did not take place for another twelve or thirteen years. For shortly after this, when Joseph was sold into Egypt, he was seventeen years old. When he stood before Pharaoh he was thirty (41:46). Seven years later when Joseph was thirty-seven, Jacob came to Egypt at the age of 130 (47.9). Consequently Jacob must have been ninety-three at Joseph’s birth and at the time of our chapter 93 + 15, i.e. about 108 years. But Isaac was sixty years old when Jacob was born; 108 + 60 = 168 = Isaac’s age when Jacob returned home. But in closing the life of Isaac it is proper to mention his death, though in reality this did not occur for another twelve years. Strange to say, Isaac lived to witness Jacob’s grief over Joseph.” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 929.
23 The command of our Lord, “This be doing in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19, my translation), is a present imperative, suggesting a continuing observance through the ages, till He comes (cf. also I Corinthians 11:26).
Jacob, Joseph, Jealousy, and a Journey to Egypt (Genesis 36:1-37:36)
There is a story (which I am certain is not true) about a man who was the sole survivor of a ship which sank at sea. He was able to make a small raft of some of the ship’s cargo and eventually drift to a desert island. There he constructed a make-shift shelter and lived on what little food he had been able to salvage from the wreckage. Time after time he had attempted unsuccessfully to attract the attention of a passing ship. Finally, he saw a ship approaching more closely and hurriedly set a signal fire ablaze. To his dismay, the ship passed by and was quickly fading from sight. Accidentally, sparks from the signal fire set the thatched roof of his shelter in flames, and the man watched hopelessly and helplessly as all of his provision burned to ashes.
All was lost, he reasoned, and life could not last much longer. Suddenly he noticed that the ship which had passed him by was turning around and approaching the island more closely than before. To his great relief, he was seen by the crew and rescued. Once on board, the grateful survivor went to the captain of the ship to express his thanks. “But what caused you to turn around after you had already passed by me?” he queried. “Why, we saw the signal fire you made by setting your shelter on fire,” the captain responded.
The very thing which seemed to seal the doom of this marooned man was the means of his delivery. What seemed to spell disaster for him became an instrument of his salvation. That is precisely the case with Joseph and Jacob in Genesis 37. A tragic and cruel event occurred which, to Jacob, brought his world to an end. Life was hardly worth living, he reasoned, because he had lost the one thing which meant the most to him. But in the end, the loss of Joseph for a period of years was the means God employed to save the nation from starvation and, worse yet, from a loss of purity by being absorbed into the culture and religion of the Canaanites.
The emotional intensity of the events of this episode in the life of Jacob and his sons is difficult for us to appreciate. We come to this 37th chapter of Genesis in much the same way as we would watch the video replay of a week-old football game. We know the outcome of the story. We know that Jacob was in error when he later cried out, “… all these things are against me” (Genesis 42:36). Only in the throes of crisis or tragedy can we fully appreciate what Jacob is experiencing in this chapter.
Genesis 36: A Few Observations
I have chosen to briefly pass over the details of Genesis 36 because the primary purpose of this chapter has already been realized. You see, the first readers of this chapter were the Israelites who were about to cross over the River Jordan to possess the land of Canaan and to annihilate the Canaanites (cf. Deuteronomy 1:8; 20:16-18). There were, however, some people who were not to be attacked or annihilated, among whom were the Edomites, the descendants of Esau:
And the LORD spoke to me, saying, “You have circled this mountain long enough. Now turn north, and command the people, saying, ‘You will pass through the territory of your brothers the sons of Esau who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful; do not provoke them, for I will not give you any of their land, even as little as a footstep because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession’” (Deuteronomy 2:2-5).
Lest this command be violated, it was most essential for those Israelites of Moses’ day to know who the Edomites were and to have a carefully documented record of the generations of Esau. That record is the substance of chapter 36. As you can see, this has no direct bearing upon Christians in our age, while it was indispensable for the first readers of this account.
Having said this, I do not wish to leave the impression that there is no value for us in these verses. I would like to suggest two avenues of consideration for us today. First, I am impressed with the fact that Esau was a very gracious man. While he had in the heat of anger threatened to kill his brother for his deception, he received him warmly (33:4ff.), and when prosperity necessitated it, he moved out of his brother’s way:
Then Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all his household, and his livestock and all his cattle and all his goods which he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land away from his brother Jacob. For their property had become too great for them to live together, and the land where they sojourned could not sustain them because of their livestock. So Esau lived in the hill country of Seir; Esau is Edom (Genesis 36:6-8).
I have maintained that had God elected one or the other of these twins on the basis of likeability He would probably have chosen Esau. At least that is who I would have chosen. While Esau had no regard for spiritual things (Genesis 25:34; Hebrews 12:16-17), he had many fine qualities. In verses 6-8 above, it was Esau who moved out of Jacob’s way just as Abraham gave way to Lot (13:5ff.). God’s elect are not necessarily more likeable people, nor are they any more gracious and kind. That is why election is apart from works, so that God’s free choice is really free (cf. Romans 9:10-13).
Finally, while Esau was rejected on a spiritual plane, he was nonetheless a recipient of the common grace of God. Abraham begged God to bless his son by Hagar, Ishmael, which He did (Genesis 17:18-20; 25:16). But apart from any recorded request by Isaac on Esau’s behalf, God greatly blessed and prospered Esau. This even extended to God’s command to Israel not to attack the Edomites nor to take any of their territory (Deuteronomy 2:1-7; 23:7; Numbers 20:14ff.).
The Generations of Jacob and the Jealousy of His Sons
Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the records of the generations of Jacob. Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms. Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. And he said to them, ‘Please listen to this dream which I have had; for behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Then his brothers said to him, “Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and his words. Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, “Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And he related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind (Genesis 37:1-11).
There is a tendency to regard the remaining chapters of Genesis as the “story of Joseph,” but this is not technically accurate. Moses referred to chapter 36 as the “records of the generations of Esau” (36:1,9). In Genesis 37:2 Moses entitled this section “the records of the generations of Jacob.” We must not forget that Jacob will not pass off the scene until Genesis 49, where we find the account of his death. This last section, then, is an account of God’s working in the life of Jacob and of his sons through the instrumentality of Joseph. Joseph is certainly the central figure in these chapters, but he is not the only figure. God is forming a nation out of all the sons of Jacob. Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt and his ultimate elevation to the post of prime minister under Pharaoh makes possible the preservation of Jacob and his sons, as well as teaching all of them some valuable spiritual lessons.
One of the great disservices we do to this text is to fail to grasp the fundamental cause of the animosity of Joseph’s brothers toward him. Generally we tend to think of Joseph as a small lad 8-10 years of age who is a tattletale on his big brothers. That is hardly a crime which deserves death, and it does not fit the details of the account. Joseph is not 7 years old, but 17 (37:2). Now in some senses this is young, but in the Ancient Near East girls of this age were often already married (for example, Dinah 34:lff.), and young men were not infrequently kings at this age (cf. II Kings 11:21).
It is my contention that Joseph was rejected by his brothers because of the authority he exercised over them, even though he was their younger brother. Seventeen was not necessarily young for such authority, but it was younger than his older brothers, and this was indeed a bitter pill for them to swallow. Several convincing lines of evidence converge to document this assertion:
(1) Grammatically, Joseph’s authority is not only permissible, but it is preferable. George Bush, author of the classic commentary on the book of Genesis, strongly holds to the most literal and normal rendering of verse 2, of which he writes,
… literally was tending, or acting the shepherd over, his brethren in the flock. However uncouth to our ears the phraseology, this is undoubtedly the exact rendering and the import of the words we take to be that Joseph was charged with the superintendence of his brethren, particularly the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.24
Bush goes into considerable grammatical detail to establish his point,25 and I must say that he has convinced me.
(2) After the sin of Reuben, Joseph was given the rights of the firstborn:
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph), … (I Chronicles 5:1-2).
While it is not until chapter 49 that this transfer is formally stated by Jacob, the sin which precipitated it has already been recorded in Genesis 35:22. It is not unlikely that Jacob expressed his intentions much sooner than this to his sons and even began to give Joseph preeminence over his brothers by this time. Further details seem to demonstrate this.
(3) Joseph’s coat was a symbol of the authority he was granted over his brothers. Jacob’s preference for Joseph was no secret (37:2,3). The coat his father gave him was regarded as evidence of Jacob’s greater love for Joseph above his other sons. Furthermore, this coat indicated more than preference; it symbolized preeminence and superiority of rank.
No one really knows exactly what this coat looked like. Some have suggested that it differed from the coats of Joseph’s brethren in that it had long sleeves,26 in which case it would mark out Joseph as a “white collar worker” while his brothers were mere “blue collar workers.” Just as supervisors are marked out today by the fact that they wear suits, so, we are told, Joseph was set apart by his long-sleeved coat.
While there is considerable conjecture on this matter of the coat, one thing is certain. The term which is used for Joseph’s coat in this chapter occurs elsewhere only in II Samuel 13:18-19. There it is employed for the coat which was worn by Tamar, the daughter of David. While other things may have been symbolized by this garment (such as virginity), the coat was an evidence of royalty.
In the context of our passage I believe that Joseph’s coat was considered to be symbolic of his authority in the same manner as stripes on the sleeve of a military uniform. Joseph’s brothers hated this garment and what it symbolized, for their first act of violence was to strip his coat from him (37:23).
(4) The greatest antagonism toward Joseph was from the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (verse 2), while the two brothers who attempted to release him (Reuben and Judah) were sons of Leah (37:21,26). In verse 2 Joseph was said to have pastured the flocks of Jacob “along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah.” Reuben, and later Judah, sons of Leah, attempted to prevent or at least to modify the plan of the others to kill Joseph. A footnote on verse 2 in the margin of the Berkeley Version27 suggests that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah would be less disciplined since they were the sons of pagan mothers, while Leah and Rachel would reflect the relatively more godly training of Laban.
There is little doubt that both Bilhah and Zilpah would be on a socially lower plane than Leah and Rachel since the former were mere concubines, while the latter were full-fledged wives. This social stratification would naturally be reflected in the sons of these women, and so it is not difficult to believe that Jacob would have put Joseph in charge of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.
(5) Joseph’s report to his father would be a logical and necessary part of his function and authority as a supervisor. Joseph at 17 was no tattletale. This can hardly be the case. Surely this kind of sibling rivalry would be expected but undeserving of such harsh counter-measures by Joseph’s brothers. If Joseph had been placed in a position of authority (a “white collar” job) by his father, then what could be more logical than a report to Jacob on the performance, efficiency, and reliability of those under him?
When Jacob asked Joseph to go to Shechem to check up on his sons and on his flocks (verses 12-14), he was not sending Joseph around the corner to spy upon and then tattle on his brothers. It was 50 miles or more to Shechem and about 70 miles to Dothan! Since Shechem had been the scene of the slaughter of the men of that city years before (34:25ff.), Jacob would not have taken such an assignment lightly. It was the kind of responsibility that he would give only to one who had proven his capabilities as a leader. A sensitive and potentially dangerous mission would not be given to a son without reliability and authority.
(6) The intensity of Joseph’s brothers’ reaction to his dreams indicates that there must have been some substance to their fears of Joseph assuming such great power and prominence. Joseph’s brothers were deeply distressed by his two dreams (verses 8, 11). And when the plot to kill him is first conceived, the dreams are a prominent part of their hostility and motivation:
And they said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:19-20).
Idle or fanciful dreams provide an occasion only for laughter. Under most circumstances the worst that might be considered would be that Joseph needed to be put into a padded cell for his own protection. But if there were already evidence of Joseph’s authority, leadership, and capabilities, fear of even greater status and power would be acted upon with grim determination and zeal.
(7) As a type of Christ, the cause of Joseph’s rejection would most accurately be a refusal to submit to the authority of one who threatened personal power and prestige. Joseph, I have maintained, was rejected by his brethren because they deeply resented the authority his father had granted him over them, especially when they reasoned that it should be theirs. Was this not the very root reason for the rejection of Jesus by the religious leaders of His day? When Jesus taught the people, the response of the masses was significant:
The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).
What a blow this must have been to the pride of Israel’s leaders. This is the reason why they resisted the Master with the challenge, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).
All of these lines of evidence lead me to the same conclusion: Joseph was rejected by his brethren because he, the youngest of these men (save Benjamin, of course), was placed in a position of authority over them. This rejection of Joseph’s authority, coupled with the specter of even greater preeminence as foreshadowed by his dreams, led them to conclude that they must do away with him in order to protect their own position.
An Evil Plot, An Empty Pit, and an Egyptian Purchase
Animosity toward Joseph had continued to build up until the situation was explosive. Now it was only a matter of time and opportunity. That opportunity finally arrived when Jacob sent Joseph to Shechem.
Then his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “I will go.” Then he said to him, “Go now and see about the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a man found him, and behold, he was wandering in the field; and the man asked him, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock.” Then the man said, “They have moved from here; for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan (Genesis 37:12-17).
Jacob’s concern for the welfare of his family and his flocks was not unfounded. Shechem was the city where Dinah had been taken by force and where Jacob’s sons, especially Simeon and Levi (34:30), had slaughtered all of the men. Since Jacob had purchased land there (33:19), it would not be unusual for him to make use of it by sending his flocks there to feed on its rich pastureland under the care of his sons. But there was always the danger of some angry relative of one of those Shechemites who were killed or captured seeking vengeance. This seems to be what Joseph was sent to look into. Only a man with proven skill and wisdom would ever be sent to handle a task as sensitive and volatile as this.
Joseph wandered about the fields of Shechem in search of his brothers. It just so happened28 that a man found him who had further happened to see Joseph’s brothers and overhear them saying they were going on to Dothan. Not willing to give up his search and return to his father without completing his task, Joseph went on to Dothan.
While at a considerable distance Joseph was recognized by his brothers. They immediately conspired in a violent and daring plot which would rid them once and for all of their brother:
When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death. And they said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” But Reuben heard this and rescued him out of their hands and said, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben further said to them, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay hands on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hands, to restore him to his father. So it came about, when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the varicolored tunic that was on him; and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it (Genesis 37:18-24).
It was probably Joseph’s coat that made it possible to identify him so quickly from such a distance. It may also have been that coat which triggered the pent-up feelings of jealousy and hostility toward the beloved son of their father. They saw the great distance from their father and the remoteness of this spot as the ideal opportunity to do away with the threat which Joseph posed. The opportunity for a perfect alibi was also at hand, for wild animals were a threat to life and limb in the open field. They need not even produce a body if they blame Joseph’s absence on his being devoured by a wild beast. Only a bloody robe need be presented to Jacob. His imagination would take care of the rest.
Reuben had good reason to hate his brother, for it was Joseph who would obtain the birthright that could have belonged to him. But it seems that Reuben feared facing his father more than he hated Joseph. He was still the oldest of the family. Whether or not he had the rights of the first-born, he was still saddled with the responsibilities. This may be the explanation for Reuben’s suggestion and his intention to spare the life of Joseph.
Reuben’s actions were hardly heroic. I must admit, however, that I would not have wanted to stand up against these fellows either. They were mean, really mean. These men would make the “nickel defense” of the Dallas Cowboys look like a Boy Scout troop. The slaughter of the Shechemites was only one evidence of their brutal natures. Reuben therefore suggests that they kill Joseph without the shedding of blood. Throw the boy in a cistern and let nature do him in. The idea had some definite advantages, and so the plan was agreed to.
When Joseph arrived, his reception was far from friendly. They tore off his coat, the symbol of all that they rejected, and threw the defenseless young man into a pit. It is significant that this pit was empty, for normally it would have contained water.29 If this had been the case, Joseph would have drowned before the Ishmaelite caravan had arrived. Even the empty pit was a part of God’s providential care of Joseph and his brothers.
The callousness and cruelty of Joseph’s brothers is almost unbelievable.
Then they sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt. Now Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he tore his garments. And he returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is not there, as for me, where am I to go?” So they took Joseph’s tunic, and slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood; and they sent the varicolored tunic and brought it to their father and said, “We found this; please examine it to see whether it is your son’s tunic or not” (Genesis 37:25-32).
Having thrown Joseph into the pit, they sat down to eat a meal. There is no loss of appetite, no sense of guilt or remorse. And there is no pity, for they eat their meal probably well within hearing of the cries that were continuing to come from the bottom of the pit. I can almost hear one of the brothers raise his voice over the petitions of Joseph and say to one of the others, “Want to trade a mutton sandwich for a cheese?” Only later would these cries haunt the sons of Jacob:
Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21).
While they were eating, a caravan of Ishmaelites approached them on their way to Egypt from Gilead (verse 25). This gave Judah an idea which would prevent the shedding of Joseph’s blood altogether. Rather than leaving Joseph to die of starvation and exposure, why not sell him into slavery to these traders? This would dispose of their problem, avoid the messy matter of murder, and get rid of any evidence of wrongdoing. Perhaps most appealing, it would provide them with a profit.
I do not see any virtue in Judah’s proposal to his brothers. While Reuben sought to return Joseph to his father, Judah is not said to have any such intention. He did not question the ethics or desirability of Joseph’s murder, only the benefits. Profit was the one word which best summarizes Judah’s motivation. While slavery may seem to be a more humane fate than death, some who lived in such a state of slavery might challenge this fact. Selling a brother as a slave was hardly more commendable than putting him to death. In the end, Joseph was sold to the Midianite30 traders for twenty shekels of silver, the price which Moses later fixed for a young slave boy (Leviticus 27:5).
Reuben had been gone during the time his brothers sold Joseph to the traders. Very likely this was to distract their attention from Joseph in the hope of their leaving him quickly, so that he could return to rescue Joseph. What a shock it must have been for him to return to the dry cistern and find Joseph gone. Reuben, as the oldest son, is the one who must face his father, and that to him is not a very pleasant thought.
Not only were Joseph’s brothers completely aloof to his suffering, but also they almost seemed to delight in the suffering that their report would bring to Jacob. There is no gentle approach, no careful preparation for the tragic news, only the crude act of sending the bloody coat to him and letting him draw the desired conclusion. It was a heartless deed, but one that accurately depicted their spiritual condition at the time.
Like most of us, Jacob jumped to a conclusion, assuming the very worst had happened:
Then he examined it and said, “It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” So Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. And he said, “Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” So his father wept for him (Genesis 37:33-35).
It was, of course, his son’s tunic, for there was none other like it. And it was covered with blood. Such a blood-stained garment without a body led Jacob to the conclusion his sons desired: Joseph must have been attacked and devoured by a wild animal. Perhaps the brothers of Joseph prided themselves in the fact that they never said Joseph was dead. They simply “deceived” their father into believing this. Isn’t it ironic that this deception involved the killing of a goat, just as the deception of Isaac had (cf. 27:9,16-17,19).
Jacob seemed to have handled the death of Deborah (35:8) and Rachel (35:16-19) with a fair degree of composure, but the death of Joseph simply overcame him. There was no way that his children could comfort him. How hypocritical these efforts must have been anyway. Life for Jacob seemed hardly worth living any longer. The only thing Jacob could look forward to was the grave. For many years Jacob would live with the lie that his son was dead.
In one sense believing this was a gracious thing. Can you imagine the mental torment it would have been for Jacob to know what was actually happening to his son? We have just seen the dramatic conclusion to the hostage crisis in Iran, which lasted less than two years. We know something of the agony of the relatives and friends of these captives, but Jacob would have had to endure such suffering and anguish for over twenty years.31 How his soul would have been troubled by the knowledge of Potiphar’s wife pursuing Joseph day after day (cf. 39:10). What heartache would have been Jacob’s had he known of Joseph’s imprisonment (cf. 39:19ff.). Ignorance, in this case, was not bliss, but it was better than a blow-by-blow account of Joseph’s status.
While Jacob was crying, “Woe is me,” God was working all things together for the good of Jacob, Joseph, and his wayward brothers: “Meanwhile, the Midionites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard” (Genesis 37:36).
Joseph, in fact, was not dead, nor was he outside of the providential care of God. By no accident Joseph ended up in the home of one of the most responsible officers of Pharaoh’s administration. While years would pass by before God’s purposes would become known, the process was under way.
Contextually and historically the sale of Joseph into slavery explains how Joseph (and ultimately the entire nation of Israel) ended up in Egypt, from whence the exodus commenced. More importantly, this chapter tells us a good part of the reason why it was necessary for the 400 years of bondage to occur. The fact that this bondage would take place was no mystery, for God had revealed it to Abraham:
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” (Genesis 15:13-14).
Spiritually, the state of the sons of Israel was at an all-time low. Nowhere have we yet seen any kind of relationship with God such as that of their forefathers. Internally, there was no unity among these brothers. They were simply the sons of four different mothers perpetuating the strife which existed between them (cf. 29:21-30:24). There was no brotherly love, only the seeking of self-interest. There is no better way to stimulate unity than through persecution. A brotherly quarrel is quickly forgotten and family unity is intensified when outside opposition is introduced. Four hundred years spent among Egyptians, who despised Hebrews (46:34), developed and strengthened the cohesiveness of these tribes of Israel.
Later on in the story of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph will test them in this matter of family unity, for he will offer them the opportunity of gaining their freedom for the expedient sacrifice of their youngest brother (chapters 42-44). Then they showed a change of heart which greatly encouraged and touched Joseph.
Doctrinally, we gain insight into several key biblical truths. First, we are reminded of the teaching of Scripture on the matter of election. We almost have to pinch ourselves to be reminded that the roots of Israel’s race and religion go back to men such as these brothers, who have conspired to do away with their own flesh and blood. In the ninth chapter of Romans Paul taught that election is not based upon the works which a person has done or will do in the future (9:6-13). Surely the choice of these sons of Israel illustrates this principle of election. Nearly anyone else in the land of Canaan would have been as qualified or more so than these cruel and wicked men. Most pagans have a deeper sense of family loyalty than this.
Furthermore, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is easily seen in this chapter. In Romans it is summarized by these words:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
In the book of Ephesians Paul has written:
… also we have obtained on inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, … (Ephesians 1:11).
God had purposed and promised to bring about the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through these sons (35:10-12). Neither Jacob nor Joseph nor Jacob’s other sons nor even Pharaoh himself could prevent or even delay the sovereign purposes of the God of Israel.
The means which God employed to accomplish His will is seen in the doctrine of the providence of God. No one has defined the providence of God better than George Bush:
While the recital flows on with all the charm of a highly-wrought tale of fiction, we are still assured of the truth and reality of every incident, and feel that we are contemplating an epitome of the dispensations of 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.32
In its simplest terms, the providential rule of God is the working out of His plan through sinful and willful men, even when they are actively striving to resist Him and His purposes. All the while, God remains sovereign and in full control. He assumes none of the guilt or responsibility for man’s sins; man must bear the full weight of responsibility for his actions.
The providence of God is not His preferred plan of action, but a back-up system which assures the fulfillment of His eternal purposes. Ideally, God works through believing men and women who will do His will as expressed through His Word. When believers or unbelievers choose to resist the will and Word of God, He resorts to this secondary system. It is decidedly less desirable to willful obedience and submission, for the wayward one always faces the consequences of disobedience and fails to find the joy and fulfillment which comes from obedience. The joy of actively and joyfully participating in the plan and program of God is lost. God’s work goes on, but we are unaware of it, just as Jacob and the brothers of Joseph were ignorant to the hand of God in what was taking place. God is never handicapped by man’s sin and disobedience, but we are always hurt by it.
Few have failed to note the typical significance of the life of Joseph, who in many ways foreshadows the life and work of our Lord.33 While this is a profitable avenue of study, we must point out that nowhere do the Scriptures specifically refer to Joseph as a type of Christ. So long as such study is viewed as supplementary and secondary in importance, it can be profitably pursued.
The practical applications of the principles found in this passage are many. First, there is a lesson in the matter of divine guidance. Since we have already dealt with the subject of God’s providence, we shall not do any more than to relate this doctrine to the matter of guidance.
God’s revealed will is given to us in His Word. In this sense it was surely not God’s revealed will that brothers should sell one of their own into slavery. Thus, the actions of Joseph’s brothers were sin. God never guides by circumstances alone, but by the Scriptures, His revealed Word. They did find themselves at a secluded spot, far from the scrutiny of their father. There was a pit near at hand, but it was not the revealed will of God that Joseph be cast into it. There was a band of traders conveniently passing by, but selling Joseph into slavery was wrong.
God’s eternal purpose, as stated to Abraham years before (Genesis 15:13-15), was a period of bondage. Joseph’s brothers had no intention of carrying out God’s purpose—they sought only to get rid of Joseph. The plan of God was for the Israelites to sojourn in Egypt but this was not known to the sons of Jacob at this time. (In fact, God had carefully avoided telling Abram where this sojourn was to be or how it would come about.) Seldom is guidance a matter of not knowing the general principles and precepts that should govern our conduct. Most often we “miss” the will of God by deliberately choosing to disobey what we know to be right. But even when we deliberately step out of the revealed will of God, His purposes will continue through His providential guidance. In this sense, we cannot miss the will of God. And, be assured, God will make us aware of our sin and bring us back to the place of willful obedience, though through the hard knocks of experience.
What a commentary this event is on the matter of suffering. I think an excellent title for the entire episode might be “A Severe Mercy,” picking up on the title of a current and popular book. The two terms “severe” and “mercy” seem to be contradictory, but this is never the case for the Christian. That is why the Apostle James wrote centuries later:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
The writer to the Hebrews has said nearly the same thing in more extensive terms (Hebrews 12:1-13 and, indeed, the entire epistle).
On the one hand, the suffering which we observe in the lives of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers is needless, the result of sin. Yet it is a part of the gracious dealings and discipline of God to bring these men to Himself and to maturity. In the midst of our suffering this is most often not seen because the truth is veiled by our tears. But the end result of suffering is to be faith, maturity, and joy. So it was for Jacob and his sons. So it will be for every child of God.
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
The life of Joseph provides excellent material for a study on rejection. We know, of course, that Joseph was not sinless. His sins are not recorded, I believe, in order to provide a more accurate type of Christ and also to illustrate the matter of innocent suffering. Moses, then, portrays an incident where the rejection of Joseph is without good cause. That informs me, as other passages suggest (e.g., I Peter 2:20-25; 3:17; 4:4-5,12-19), that rejection and persecution may come completely without cause. The Christian must be prepared for rejection in this life. It is the badge of discipleship:
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also (John 15:18-20).
And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (II Timothy 3:12).
Hence let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach (Hebrews 13:13).
Persecution is never to be sought, but it is to be expected and accepted. One part of this persecution is rejection. Few have faced the kind of rejection that Joseph did. He was rejected by his brothers, by Potiphar and his wife (eventually), and by Egyptians in general, who disliked Hebrews. His rejection, and ours, need not indicate any defect on our part, however. It can be an evidence of godliness and purity. Since this is true, our self-image (not self-love) need not suffer self-inflicted pangs of guilt and abuse.
In this chapter God prepared Joseph for the rejection which he was to experience. The two dreams he had were much more for his benefit than for his brothers. They strongly impressed Joseph with the important role he was to play in the outworking of God’s program. In the sight of his brothers and the Egyptians (at least for a time), Joseph was a detriment, an obstacle, and a problem to be removed if possible. To God, Joseph was a key figure for the salvation (in a physical sense) and spiritual instruction of his brethren.
Rejection is an unavoidable part of life for every Christian. If we are living as God desires, we will be rejected of men. Righteous rejection, if I may so label it, is cause for encouragement, not despair. Rejection can best be handled by an awareness that God has a significant role for us to play in His work. Is this not a part of what the New Testament teaching of the body of Christ and the gifts and calling of individual members is all about?
But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our unseemly members come to have more abundant seemliness, whereas our seemly members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (I Corinthians 12:20-27).
The life of Joseph is a wonderful encouragement to parents, who will someday have to turn loose of their children, allowing them to move out from under their control and protection. It may be in the form of sending a child off to a college campus, removed from the supervision of the parents. It may be by a marriage or a job change. All of us as parents will have to face the time when we cannot control the environment in which our children will live. (Perhaps that is more true, even now, than we would like to admit.)
Joseph was abruptly torn from his father and friends and family. He was removed from any godly influences and encouragement. He was placed among a people who did not believe in his God or his convictions. In Egypt he was subject to the strongest temptations. And yet, apart from any Christian friends or fellowship, Joseph not only survived, but he was strengthened. His father could not save Joseph from this, but Joseph would eventually save his father and brothers from starvation.
God knows how to care for His people. No one is on more dangerous ground than the one who is complacent and smugly secure. No one is safer, regardless of their environment, than he or she who is looking only to God for protection and provision for the need of the moment. When our children have left the security of our nest, they will be secure in the hands of the God who created them and cares for them.
There is an interesting analogy between Abraham and Jacob. Both of them were called upon to give up their beloved sons. Abraham did so voluntarily and actively, Jacob unknowingly and begrudgingly. Both sons were given back to them. It was through these sons, whom these fathers gave up, that the future of the fathers was secured.
Throughout the Scriptures, salvation is never secured without great sacrifice. As it was with Abraham, so it was with Jacob also. These two instances only prepare us for the greatest sacrifice of all when God the Father gave up His Son, Jesus Christ, for our salvation. As Joseph was rejected by his brethren and humiliated by slavery and imprisonment, so Jesus Christ was rejected by the Jewish leaders and His brethren and crucified on a Roman cross among criminals. Through the suffering of Joseph, Jacob and his sons were spared from the ravages of a severe famine. Through the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, those who trust in Him are spared from the eternal wrath of God.
The Word of God declares you to be a sinner, my friend, deserving of the eternal wrath of a holy and righteous God (cf. Romans 3:10-18,23; 6:23). But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has come to take the place of the sinner, paying the penalty for his sins and providing the righteousness which God requires for eternal life (II Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:21-22). You may experience the forgiveness of sins and the peace of God by simply acknowledging your guilt and trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, for, “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
26 “The gift of a coat of many ‘pieces’ (not ‘colors’), or rather ‘the tunic with sleeves,’ was about the most significant act that Jacob could have shown to Joseph. It was a mark of distinction that carried its own meaning, for it implied that exemption from labor which was the peculiar privilege of the heir or prince of the Eastern clan. Instead of the ordinary work-a-day vestment which had no sleeves, and which, by coming down to the knees only, enabled men to set about their work--this tunic with sleeves clearly marked out its wearer as a person of special distinction, who was not required to do ordinary work.” V. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 356.
“The outward distinction which the father bestows upon this son is ‘a long-sleeved cloak,’ kethoneth passim. The kethoneth is the undergarment or tunic, which usually was sleeveless--a thing of about knee-length. But passim means ‘ankles’ or ‘wrists.’ Consequently, this tunic was sleeved and extended to the ankles. It was not, therefore, a garment adapted to work but suitable to distinguish a superior, or an overseer. By this very garment the father expressed his thought that this son should have pre-eminence over the rest.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 955.
Not all agree with statements such as these by Thomas and Leupold, Stigers challenges, “There is nothing in any of the texts where the term is used to indicate that the tunic had long sleeves or was of many colors. The AV ‘coat of many colors’ becomes only an attempt to give a meaning to the total term.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 271.
29 “The original word is sometimes rendered ‘cistern,’ a term applied to hollow reservoirs excavated out of the solid rock for the purpose of holding rain water, or to natural cavities containing fountains, which were often walled up with stone to prevent the water from escaping.” Bush, Genesis, II, p. 231.
30 “The alternation of the names Ishmaelites and Midianites in verses 25, 27, 28, 36, and chapter 39:1 would suggest that they were synonymous or overlapping terms, even if no evidence confirmed it. It is in fact settled by Judges 8:24, which says of the Midianites ‘they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.”’ Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), pp. 182-183.
31 Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold into slavery (37:2). He was raised to a position of power under Pharaoh at age 30 (41:46). The seven years of plenty had already passed and two years of famine had gone by before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers (45:6-9). Joseph was therefore 39 when he revealed his identity to his brothers, and so 22 years had elapsed since his brothers sold him into slavery.
33 “Hence the appearance, in our history, of individual types representing the New Testament history of Jesus, such as the jealousy and hatred of Joseph’s brethren, the fact of his being sold, the fulfillment of Joseph’s prophetic dreams in the very efforts intended to prevent his exaltation, the turning of his brothers’ wicked plot to the salvation of many, even of themselves, and of the house of Jacob, the spiritual sentence pronounced on the treachery of the brethren, the victory of pardoning love, Judah’s suretyship for Benjamin, his emulating Joseph in a spirit of redeeming resignation, Jacob’s joyful reviving on hearing of the life and glory of his favorite son, whom he had believed to be dead.” John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), I, p. 581.
The Skeleton in Judah’s Closet (Genesis 38:1-30)
Interruptions are often perturbing, but they are sometimes vital. Some years ago a couple that my wife and I had come to know told us of one such occasion. The wife knew how upset it made her husband to be interrupted in the middle of a project. Consequently, she walked up to him and stood quietly as he worked happily on a project in the garage. In due time he finished what he was doing and looked up, signaling his wife that it was now permissible to engage him in conversation. Her words took him totally by surprise. Calmly she reported, “The house is on fire.” And it really was!
Genesis 38 is an interruption also, but a very significant one. In chapter 37 our attention was focused upon Joseph, who was cruelly sold into slavery, a somewhat more appealing alternative than murder. In chapter 39 the principal character again is Joseph, this time in the house of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer. Chapter 38, therefore, seems to abruptly interrupt the flow of thought. Because of this some scholars of the more liberal persuasion have done a great injustice to this chapter. It is as though the book which Moses has been writing becomes unbearably dull, and this chapter is a kind of literary “centerfold,” spicing up the immaterial with the immoral.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This chapter is absolutely essential to the development of the argument of the book. It occurs by design, fitting beautifully into the context. While chapter 37 has explained how Joseph (and so the entire nation of Israel) wound up in Egypt rather than Canaan, chapter 38 tells us why this Egyptian sojourn was necessary. Chapter 38 provides a backdrop against which the purity of Joseph in chapter 39 stands out the more plainly. Chapters 39 and following describe the price which Joseph had to pay for the sins of his brothers. Chapter 38 suggests some of the consequences of the sin of Joseph’s sale which Judah suffered.
It is true that the chapter might be rated “PG” due to the immorality that is depicted.34 And yet, when you read the story carefully, there is much that is not said that could have added “spice” to the account. Hollywood would have much embellishing to perform before a saleable movie could be made from this record. And while some immoral acts are related, there is nothing here which would in any way entice us to experience these sins personally.
I am especially impressed with the message of this chapter because of its applicability to God’s people today. The very forces which were active in Judah’s day are at work today. The dangers described in chapter 38 which threatened the very ongoing of God’s purposes for Israel are those which threaten to hinder the program of God through His church in our own day. And the same God who providentially overruled the sins of men to bring about the fulfillment of His purposes then is alive and well and unchanging this very hour.
And it came about at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her and went in to her. So she conceived and bore a son and he named him Er. Then she conceived again and bore a son and named him Onan. And she bore still another son and named him Shelah; and it was at Chezib that she bore him. Now Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”; for he thought, “I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house (Genesis 38:1-11).
The sale of Joseph was only the “beginning of woes” for his father Israel. Directly on the heels of this sin flow the events of chapter 38. Unity among the sons of Israel was never a significant force. The selling of Joseph was only one indication of this, and even here, the brothers were not of one mind about it. But now Judah has chosen to leave his brothers and his father for “greener grass,” namely fellowship and union with the Canaanites.
Judah’s troubles began with an association with Hirah, an Adullamite. The events of the chapter as a whole inform us that Hirah was a close friend and a very poor influence on Judah. Wherever Hirah is mentioned there is trouble in store for Judah. While with Hirah at Adullam, Judah saw a certain Canaanite woman whose name is never given. She is only referred to as “Shua’s daughter” (verse 12, cf. verse 2). I take it from the fact that stress is laid on Judah’s seeing this woman (“and Judah saw there,” verse 2) that her outward appearance may have been his only consideration in taking her as a wife. Since this seems to have been influential in Jacob’s selection of a wife, we need not be surprised at this. It was, then, a purely physical choice. Certainly no spiritual considerations were taken into account.
I could not help but look back to chapter 34 where we are told of Shechem taking Dinah. It is said of him that he “saw her, he took her and lay with her” (34:2). There is very little difference between those words and the description we have in verse 2 of chapter 38. Judah “saw” this woman and “took her” and “went in to her.” Only the last expression differs, but both describe a physical union. The act which angered Israel’s sons to the point of murder is very much the same as Judah’s taking of a wife.
Three sons were born from this union of Judah and the Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For the first son, Tamar was acquired for a wife. Er, however, was so evil that God took his life. His sins are not detailed, for they are irrelevant to the point of the passage. Onan was then instructed by Judah to marry Tamar and raise up seed to his brother. Since the headship of the family (the birthright) normally went to the firstborn, this was a necessary act.
We may be somewhat taken back by this early reference to what is later known as “levirate marriage.” Centuries later Moses commanded it as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy:
When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, “I do not desire to take her,” then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, “Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” And in Israel his name shall be called, “The house of him whose sandal is removed” (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Such marriage did not originate with the Law of God given through Moses. It had been a common practice in the Near East for centuries. It served a very practical purpose, that of ensuring the ongoing of the family name. As such, it was commanded in the Law of Moses. More and more, I am becoming conscious of the fact that the Law of Moses did not necessarily initiate entirely new principles and precepts, but simply ratified many of those already existent (cf. also 35:2; 14:20, 28:22).
Onan knew that the offspring from his union with Tamar would only further the cause of his deceased brother rather than his own. Consequently he was not willing to have any children by her. To prevent Tamar from conceiving, Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” (verse 9). Such an act was regularly practiced, and God took the life of this man for his wickedness also.
Many are those who have tried to make this passage the prooftext for banning any method of birth control. Because of the strong emotional and moral implications involved here, we must take careful note of what it is that is called evil. I believe that Onan was condemned for three reasons. First, Onan’s sexual conduct was “contrary to nature.” While Paul was speaking of homosexuality and perhaps other perversions in Romans 1:26-27, what was practiced by Onan was also contrary to nature. It would be difficult, in my estimation, to defend Onan’s actions as “natural.”
Second, Onan was disobedient in his actions. His society at least commended the raising of seed to a brother’s name, and his father had directly commanded it (verse 8). We are led to infer from the story that Judah never knew why children had not been conceived, for only Tamar would have known the cause. From Judah’s biased perspective it was Tamar who must be the jinx, and this prompted him to withhold his last son.
Third, Onan sinned because his motivation was evil. Not only did Onan sin against his father and Tamar, but he sinned primarily against his dead brother. Onan put his own personal interests above his brother’s inability to continue the family line. In essence, Onan’s act was the product of self-seeking at the expense of others. Just as Joseph’s brothers had no “brotherly love,” neither did this son of Judah.35 In this sense he was surely a “son of his father.”
Personally, I think that we do the text an injustice if we conclude that any and every form of birth control is sin on the basis of this passage alone. Birth control in any form would have been evil for Onan, but that is not the same as saying it is wrong in any form for us, for we have not been commanded to raise up seed as he was. Birth control (or any act, for that matter) is evil if it is motivated by self-seeking and if it is clearly an act of disobedience. “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) must be one standard by which we measure our every action. Many, I fear, do prevent the conception of children for purely selfish reasons. Some practice birth control out of a lack of faith, doubting that God will provide materially or emotionally. Since “children are a gift of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3), I believe that one should carefully consider his real reasons for birth control, but I cannot step beyond this to say that it is always wrong. There may be reasons of health, for example, which would dictate that measures should be taken to prevent conception. Abortion, of course, is an entirely separate issue.
Once Onan was dead, Judah became very reluctant to give his youngest (and last) son to Tamar. It never seemed to occur to him that it was his sons who were the problem, not Tamar. Probably Shelah was too young at first to assume the role of husband and father, but more than enough time elapsed to solve this problem. Finally Tamar was convinced that Judah had no intention of giving Shelah to her. If she were to bear children to carry on the name of her first husband, she must force the issue, she concluded.
Now after a considerable time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and when the time of mourning was ended, Judah went up to his sheep-shearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And it was told to Tamar, “Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” So she removed her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gateway of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah had grown up, and she had not been given to him as a wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road, and said, “Here now, let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He said, therefore, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” She said, moreover, “Will you give a pledge until you send it?” And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” And she said, “Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow’s garments (Genesis 38:12-19).
After a considerable period of time two events occurred which set the scene for Judah to depart even further from the faith of his fathers. Already Judah had left his brothers and formed an alliance with Hirah. He had married a Canaanite and produced three children, two so wicked that God had to remove them. In time, Judah’s Canaanite wife, whose name is never mentioned, passed away. In a sensually-oriented and sexually-perverted society36 this placed Judah in a vulnerable position. Also, sufficient time had passed for Shelah to grow up and take Tamar as a wife to raise up children to Er, the eldest brother. But while Tamar was officially regarded as the wife of Shelah, the marriage was never consummated, for Judah had never given Shelah to Tamar.
Judah, along with his unsavory companion Hirah, went up to Timnah to shear the sheep. News of this reached Tamar and signaled her to set into action a plan to provide a son to carry on the name of her first husband. In her society not only were the younger brothers able to raise up seed to her husband, but also her father-in-law, Judah.37 Since Judah was unwilling to risk the loss of his last and only living son, Tamar determined to force the matter, becoming pregnant by Judah. Judah was wrong in withholding Shelah, but so was Tamar by taking these matters into her own hands.
In my estimation Tamar was not taking a “long shot” in what she attempted in the gateway of Enaim.38 The moral atmosphere of the annual sheep-shearing might best be understood when compared to a contemporary television commercial. Visualize a group of hard-working shepherds finishing an exhausting, hot, and thirsty week among the sheep, leaving the fields after having completed this annual task. Suddenly one calls out to the others, “It’s Miller time!” With a girl in one arm and a bottle of booze in the other, the celebration begins. Tamar knew well that this was the kind of thing that took place at sheep-shearing season.39
Not only did she know men in general, but she knew Judah very well. Moral purity does not seem to be one of his virtues. There is little doubt that this wasn’t Judah’s first encounter with a prostitute. He does not evidence any of the naivety of one who is new at this sort of thing. He handled the arrangements like an experienced man of the world. Tamar was convinced that if she could only look like a prostitute, Judah would take things from there and that her purposes would be realized.
With all the savoir-faire of one who was worldly wise, Judah negotiated terms acceptable to both parties. It was probably common practice to ask for some kind of pledge since little could be done to force the “client” to pay after the fact. Judah was therefore not taken back by Tamar’s insistence that some guarantee be given. Not that Tamar had any interest in payment. She wanted only to become pregnant by Judah. But the pledge that was given would serve to prove at a later time that Judah was the father of the child that was conceived from this union.
The seal, cord, and staff were not items purchased from mass-produced stock. Each had distinctive characteristics which were peculiar to the owner. The seal was the ancient cylinder seal used in the making of contracts. It was the counterpart of our Master Charge card today. The seal was a cylinder with the unique design of its owner carved in it. When a contract was made, hot wax was put on the document and the seal was rolled over it, leaving the impression of the owner of the seal. Judah’s seal was one of a kind, as were those of others.40 He would therefore immediately recognize it as his own. The same was true of the staff. Possession of these gave Tamar proof of the identity of the father of her child when he was born.
When this encounter ended Judah and Tamar went their separate ways. Judah never knew the identity of this “prostitute,” and Tamar went back to her normal routine, living as a widow in her father’s house. Normally such an affair would have been quickly forgotten, but several events occurred which made this immoral interlude a nightmare that Judah would never be able to put out of his mind.
When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullomite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. And he asked the men of her place, saying, “Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?” But they said, “There has been no temple prostitute here.” So he returned to Judah, and said, “I did not find her; and furthermore, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no temple prostitute here.’” Then Judah said, “Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this kid, but you did not find her.” Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry.” Then Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” And she said, “Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?” And Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not have relations with her again (Genesis 38:20-26).
Hirah was sent to pay the prostitute and retrieve the pledge which Judah had given her. A subtle but significant change of words occurs here, which is indicative of a serious flaw in Judah’s character. Judah thought that the woman in the gateway of Enaim was a mere prostitute (verse 15, a harlot). But when Hirah searched for her he asked for the whereabouts of the “temple prostitute” (verses 21, 22).41 The religion of the Canaanites was so corrupt that prostitution was a part of their worship of the god of fertility. Judah, in his spiritual and moral dullness, was ignorant of such distinctions. To him it was merely an affair, but to the Canaanites it was an act of worship. Immorality would almost invariably lead to idolatry. Yet Judah was virtually aloof to these dangers.
Not finding the “temple prostitute” and, worse yet, being told that there was no such person to be found, placed Judah in a very awkward and potentially embarrassing position. It would seem that someone had gotten the best of him, but he was powerless to do anything about it. Who would ever report a theft to the authorities under such delicate circumstances. The more he sought to find this woman, the more his folly would become public knowledge. These were the kind of stories that were swapped in jest. Judah had no desire to become the laughingstock of the town. He had tried to find the woman and pay her, better to take his losses and hope this was the end of the matter.
As one month, then two, and nearly three passed by without incident, Judah may have begun to breathe a little easier. It seemed as though he had gotten off easy. The woman had not appeared again, nor was there any sign of his personal pledge. It never entered his mind that the matter would end up as it did.
One day Judah was informed that Tamar was pregnant. This was not mere fornication, but it was adultery, for Tamar was pledged to marry Judah’s third son, Shelah.42 Judah’s righteous indignation must have been awesome. She must be burned! This was an unusually severe punishment, even more than the Law required. The usual punishment prescribed by the Law of Moses was stoning (Deuteronomy 22:20-24). In cases of unusual wickedness, there was punishment by burning (Leviticus 20:14; 21:9). Why, then, was Judah demanding such treatment for his daughter-in-law? It may have been a sub-conscious overcompensation for his own immorality. Often we attempt to cover up our own sinfulness by a severity in our response to the sins of others.
On the other hand, it may have been even more devious. It is possible, in his low spiritual state, that Judah saw this as the solution to a problem over which he had long agonized. Sooner or later he would have to face the fact that Shelah, his only living son, was pledged to Tamar. There was no doubt but that he was old enough to assume the role of husband and father, but Judah feared losing this son also (38:11). If Tamar were put to death, his problem would be solved. No Tamar, no threat. It was almost too good to be true.43 While we can only conjecture on this point, it is not difficult to believe that this could be true at this time in his life. Judah’s sentence set in motion a sequence of events he would not have believed.
Tamar’s response to the situation was incredibly subdued and submissive. Frankly, I would have shouted that Judah was the father of this child from the housetops. I would have sought to maximize his embarrassment. What an opportunity to capitalize on the situation and find satisfaction for the years of delay and deceit in keeping Shelah from her. But she, it would seem, privately presented the evidence to Judah and politely urged him to carefully consider it. She made no condemning accusations but only submitted the seal, the cord, and the staff to Judah.
What a shock this must have been to Judah. It never occurred to him that he was the guilty party who should suffer the penalty he had pronounced with his own lips. Judah, the forefather of the Messiah and the great grandson of Abraham, had to say of this woman, “She is more righteous than I” (verse 26). It is worthy of note that he does not say she is more righteous than he in the matter of the immorality committed, but in that she acted so as to procure a son that was rightfully hers, while Judah refused to give her Shelah as he had promised. As to his act of immorality, Judah had no comment. What a contrast to his response to the report of Tamar’s “harlotry.”
Judah may have had some kind of turnabout here, for he did not again have any physical relations with Tamar. Also, the next time we read of him he is again back with his brothers and father. Some kind of spiritual renewal must have taken place.
And it came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold his brother came out. Then she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. And afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah (Genesis 38:27-30).
The closing paragraph of the chapter describes the birth of the twins that resulted from the union of Judah and Tamar. Since the twin that was first to emerge from the womb traditionally possessed the rights of the firstborn, some kind of identifying mark was placed on the first to issue from the womb. When one of the boys thrust out a hand, a scarlet thread was tied about it, assuming that he would shortly come forth. The hand was withdrawn, however, and the firstborn was the other boy. This firstborn was named Perez, while the next son, the one with the scarlet thread, was named Zerah. As later genealogies will prove, this firstborn son, Perez, was to be the son of Judah who would carry on the messianic line until the time of David, and ultimately, of Jesus (cf. Ruth 4:12; Matthew 1:3).
Historically, this chapter had much to teach the ancient Israelites. To begin with, this event underscores the necessity of a sojourn in Egypt. Spiritual purity was essential for the purposes of God to be realized. Judah, the son through whom the Messiah would be born (Genesis 49:8-12), was so carnal that he was willing to marry a Canaanite woman, to have a heathen for his closest companion, and to enter into an illicit relationship with a cult prostitute. Something drastic had to be done, and the exile in Egypt was God’s remedy. There, living among a people who detested Hebrew shepherds (43:32; 46:34), even if the Hebrews were willing to inter-mingle and intermarry with these people, the Egyptians would not even consider such a thing. Racial bigotry, if not religious piety, would keep the people of God a separate people. While the sojourn in Egypt was in many respects a bitter experience, it was a gracious act on the part of God. Those Israelites who had gone through the exodus experience could begin to sense this as they read this account.
No Israelite could take this record seriously without a deep sense of humility. Israel’s “roots,” if you will pardon me for saying so, were rotten. They could not look back upon their ancestry with any feelings of smugness and pride. There were too many skeletons in the closet for that. Instead, they must acknowledge that whatever good had come to Israel was the result of grace alone.
The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a might hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
This was a lesson too quickly forgotten, for the Israelites of Jesus’ day took great pride in their ancestry and relied upon their “roots” for righteousness:
And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father;” for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:9).
They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?” (John 8:33)
Righteousness comes only from God through faith. Our first ancestor, Adam, failed to live by God’s standards and thus sinned. All of his offspring, like Adam, are sinners (Romans 5:12) and thus in need of a righteousness not their own. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has come to this world to take our sin upon Himself, to bear the penalty for our sins, so that we can have His righteousness and spend eternity with God.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Corinthians 5:21).
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29).
The principal theme of this chapter is divine providence, which draws the entire section together; God is at work bringing about His purposes through men who are actively pursuing sin. In chapters 37 and 39 and following, God is providentially at work to fulfill His promise to make the descendants of Jacob a great and mighty nation (cf. 35:11), and at a time when these brothers were only intent upon diminishing their numbers. In chapter 38 God is at work, providentially assuring the fulfillment of His promise to provide a Messiah through the descendants of Judah (49:8-12).
Ideally, God’s sovereign power and all-wise and loving purposes are accomplished through obedient servants. But when His children go their own way, God’s infinite power is channeled through unwilling, disobedient men and women, who, in spite of themselves, achieve God’s plans. This they do unknowingly and unpleasantly.
Who would ever have thought that there was any chance of the messianic line continuing through Judah from the initial events of this chapter? Here was Judah, the ancestor of Messiah, taking a Canaanite wife, failing to keep his promise to his daughter-in-law, and propositioning a prostitute, who would just have well been a part of a pagan religious cult? In spite of all of Judah’s sins and in spite of Tamar’s impatience, Perez, the forefather of David and of the Savior, was born. Who but God could have brought such a thing to pass?
Many Christians are being taught that God’s purposes can only be achieved if we are faithful and obedient. What can they possibly say about this chapter in that regard? And who of us would want to believe that God’s purposes were contingent upon our commitment and consistency? Nothing could be further from the truth than thinking that God is somehow limited by man’s sinfulness.
The doctrine of the providence of God is one of the most comforting truths in all of the Bible, for it assures me that what God says, He will do, even if I am found to be actively resisting it. If the promise of eternal salvation were not dependent upon God’s character and His power, Who can bring about His will in spite of man, what kind of promise would it be? I might just as well quit now and avoid the rush. But if God’s promises are sure (as they are, Philippians 1:6) then I can diligently work for these goals, realizing that I cannot lose, even when I am faint of heart or go my own way through disobedience or rebellion.
At this point many are frightened by the implications of the sovereignty of God. They fear that Christians will conclude, “Why bother to obey God, to struggle against the desires of the flesh, or to fight the spiritual warfare? After all, if God’s will is going to be done whether I obey or not, why obey?”
There is the danger of God’s sovereignty and my security tempting me to complacency. That is why this problem is addressed in Scripture (Romans 5:19-6:23). But the danger does not disprove the doctrine. Many Christian heresies are the illogical misapplications of biblical truth. In the book of Romans, for example, the expression “God forbid” is an indication that this is the case. The principle is valid, but the application is not. Thus, when Paul teaches that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20), we recognize this doctrine to be true and one that is illustrated in Genesis 38. But to conclude from this that one should therefore sin in order that grace might abound even more (Romans 6:1) is an improper extension of a biblical principle. Some have been inclined to reject the doctrine of God’s sovereignty because of what some have done with it practically. It is the practice which should be condemned, not the doctrine.
Since much of what God does in this world is through His providential guidance, it is vital that we understand its implications for Christians today. The first is that godly living is necessary for the glory of God. Had we not been given the divinely inspired account of the sale of Joseph into slavery, we would not have imagined that it was part of God’s eternal plan. At best, unbelievers would have considered the outcome of the incident good luck or mere coincidence. You see, when God works providentially through disobedient men and women, not only are the instruments unaware of the hand of God, but so are the onlookers.
In chapter 39 we are told, “Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand” (verse 3). Why could this be said of Joseph’s master but not of his brothers nor of the Midianite traders nor of Hirah nor Tamar? It was because God was working through men in spite of themselves. Joseph gave a clear testimony to his faith in God; his good work and divine blessing verified his faith in the God of Israel. Judah did not witness to Tamar as he was bargaining over the price of her services. Hirah probably never learned that Judah was to play a part in the purposes of God.
The point is this: while God can accomplish His purposes without man’s cooperation by His providential working in this world, He can best be exalted and proclaimed to unbelievers through those who trust in Him and obey His will. Lest we be tempted to be lax in our spiritual lives, convinced that God’s will will ultimately be done anyway, let us remember that God desires to be glorified in His saints (cf. Genesis 49:3; II Thessalonians 1:10,12).
The second implication stemming from the doctrine of God’s providential rule is that we Christians must view every circumstance through the eyes of faith. Judah did not realize at the time that God’s promises were being fulfilled through his act of immorality. Joseph did not fully know that his sale into slavery was going to bring about the deliverance of his brothers and father. There will be many times in the life of the Christian when it will appear that everything is falling apart at the seams. Tragedy, disputes, divisions, and heartache will afflict us so long as we are in these mortal bodies. We, too, must trust that in these times of adversity there is a God Who does work providentially in our lives. This is the assurance that we have from Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Only the eye of faith will see the hand of God in the hard times of life.
While the doctrine of the providence of God is the major theme of this chapter, there are a number of implications that can be drawn from the text as well. Let me suggest some of these for further consideration.
(1) Spirituality is not evidenced by the standards which we hold for others, no matter how vigorously. God judges men on the basis of those standards by which they live their own lives. Judah was willing to stone Tamar and then burn her body for the very sin which he committed. In the New Testament we find this same concept:
Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes Judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the some things (Romans 2:1).
(2) In Jacob’s day, as in our own, one of Satan’s highest priorities is the attack on the home of the people of God. The purposes of God were to be realized in the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was the breakdown of the family which seriously threatened (from a human vantage point) the purposes of God. Today the same challenge faces the Christian family.
(3) In Jacob’s day, as in our own, the same basic issues are at stake. The family was under attack, as the church is today, on two major fronts. The first is in the area of purity and separation. Judah eagerly committed the sin for which he (or at least his brothers) put an entire city to the sword. He married a Canaanite and would have had sexual relations with a cult prostitute. Today our children are facing incredible pressure to conform to the world around them, to date and marry unbelievers, and to forsake the faith they have learned from their family.
Separation from the world is especially important in the matter of the friends that we choose. As Judah slipped away from his family, he entered into an alliance with Hirah, a man who was always present when Judah got into trouble. It is the apostle James who wrote so long ago,
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? (James 4:4)
The second front in Satan’s attack on the family and the church is the matter of unity and brotherly love. Joseph’s brothers had no brotherly love and no essential unity. Judah’s son Onan had no sense of obligation to his deceased brother and was motivated only by self-interest and selfish ambition. So far as he was concerned, it did not matter if Tamar ever had a child, but God had determined that she would be the one through whom the Messiah would come.
The New Testament abounds with passages which exhort us to practice brotherly love (cf. Romans 12:10; I Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; II Peter 1:7). The reason why we lack this kind of love and the unity which it fosters is that we, like Onan, are concerned more with our own interests than with those of others. Listen to the solution which Paul has outlined:
If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).
(4) There are times when we must deal with things which are dirty. I am aware of the text which instructs us,
And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them (Ephesians 5:11-12).
It was necessary to deal with the sins of Onan and Judah because the Messiah was to come from the seed of Judah. Sexual sins in Judah’s family had very serious ramifications. The sins of Er were not necessary to instruct us, so they are not even named. While the sins of Onan and Judah are mentioned, there are no unnecessary details given. Our curiosity is not stimulated, nor are we in any way stimulated or encouraged to repeat these sins. Indeed, we are shown the painful price that was paid because of them. Sometimes sin must be exposed. In such cases, let us deal with it as Moses did.
34 Even a great commentator like Leupold suggests that this chapter is “entirely unsuited to homiletical use, much as the devout Bible student may glean from the chapter.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 990.
35 “The enormity of Onan’s sin is in its studied outrage against the family, against his brother’s widow and against his own body. The standard English versions fail to make clear that this was his persistent practice.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 188.
36 “. . . for evidence of the demoralized conduct of the Canaanites has been found on every hand, in the remains of city after city of the Canaanites.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 256. Here, Stigers refers the reader to M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), pp. 168-177.
37 “Marriage customs in this area provided for marriage within the husband’s house. Tamar could be reserved for other sons and even for her father-in-law, but she could not contract marriage for herself.” Harold G. Stigers, Genesis, p. 279. Stigers here refers the reader to C. H. Gordon, Introduction to Old Testament Times (Ventnor, N. J.: Ventnor Publishing Co., 1953), p. 123.
38 This is the view of Leupold, who writes, “She makes calculations that seem to have but one chance in a hundred of being realized, but just that one chance is sufficient.” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 982.
39 “Sheep-shearing was a festive time (cf. I S. 25:4, 11, 36), when sexual temptation would be sharpened by the Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornication as fertility magic.” Kidner, Genesis, P. 188.
40 “The ‘seal’ (chotham) may have been a ring or even a cylinder seal, such as the Babylonians commonly used. This was always carried around upon his person by the well-to-do man, suspended by the ‘cord’ (pethil); cf. Song 8:6. The ‘staff’ may have been like those which, according to Herodotus, the Babylonians carried, having at its head a specially carved figure of an apple, or a rose, or a lily, or an eagle, or any such thing, for no man may carry a staff without a device,’ (Herodotus 1:195, cited by Delitasch).” Leupold, Genesis, II, pp. 984-985.
41 “When Hirah sought out Tamar, he used a different word to describe her (qedesah) connoting a religious prostitute, available to the Canaanites who come to worship at shrines of the fertility goddess. Harlotry was not the stigma to the Canaanites that it was to Israel. A qedesah was distinguished from a zoneh . . . . Offerings to a qedesah were kids, as was Judah’s.* He considered qedesah and zoneh to be the same.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 280.
* S. Talmon, “Desert Motifs,” in Biblical Motifs, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), ii:3.
42 “Tamar was regarded as the affianced bride of Shelah, and was to be punished as a bride convicted of a breach of chastity.” C. F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I, p. 342.
“Yet one may ask, was he willing to let her be done away with in this manner to eliminate having to give her to Shelah? Does the apparent harshness of the sentence support this view?” Stigers, Genesis, p. 281. It should be noted that Stigers considers this a possibility, but is not strongly inclined to believe it to be the case.
From the Penthouse to the Prison (Genesis 39:1-23)
When I was in college (too many years ago to say), a strange thing happened as I was walking between classes. Since I attended college in Seattle, Washington, there was always more than enough rain to go around. Consequently, there was frequently a patch of mud here and there. A fellow classmate who I did not know was walking beside me when, all of a sudden, the girl coming toward us was in trouble. She had attempted to save a precious moment in time by cutting across the grass rather than staying on the sidewalk. As you may have guessed, she found the mud and began to lose her balance. Her books were thrown into the air, and as she was on her way down, she made a desperate grab for the fellow alongside me, who happened to be closer to her than I was.
Failing to grasp the situation as an opportunity to be chivalrous, the young man jumped free of her grasp, and the inevitable happened. She fell to the ground, books and papers flying about her, and she was a muddy mess. As gracefully as she could at such a moment, she snatched up the majority of her belongings and hurried away, hardly unnoticed.
It all happened so suddenly that it was hard to sort things out for a moment. Mechanically both I and the other fellow started out again on our way to the next class. Finally, feeling compelled to give some word of explanation, my companion confessed, “I thought she was going to attack me.”
Many who live in our day would look at Joseph’s actions the same way that we would view the response of my classmate. Joseph, an eligible young bachelor who was quickly rising in power and prestige, missed his chance to make the most of a golden opportunity. The two situations are not at all alike, however. The college student had the opportunity to spare a young woman physical harm and personal embarrassment. Joseph was faced with a married woman who had persistently thrown herself at him. He had little to gain and everything to lose.
As you would expect, this chapter has some valuable lessons to teach us regarding how to face temptation, but I do not believe that is the central message which God intended for us to learn here. The thread which ties the entire narrative of chapter 39 together is the theme of suffering. Few would disagree with the statement that God was with Joseph in Potiphar’s penthouse, but many would question how God could be with Joseph in the prison. All would agree that Joseph’s prosperity in Potiphar’s house came from God due to his faithfulness as a hardworking servant, but how many can say with as much conviction that Joseph’s purity with regard to Potiphar’s wife rightly resulted in his being put into prison.
Since Christians today seem to think that obedience should always bring success and prosperity, Joseph’s imprisonment should cause us to rethink the success strategies that are so popular in our circles. While Joseph would have made a great after-dinner speaker during the peak of his career with Potiphar, how many would have asked him to lecture during his years in prison? Much of our thinking concerning suffering and success needs to be challenged and changed. I know of no better place to begin than in Genesis 39.
The Results of Righteousness—Promotion and Prison
A brief look at the chronology of Joseph’s life will enable us to gain a better grasp of what takes place in this chapter. When Joseph was sold by his brothers he was 17 (37:2). At the time he was elevated to a position of power by Pharaoh, he was 30 (41:46). Thirteen years thus elapsed between his arrival in Egypt and his promotion to the second highest office in the land. Furthermore, we know that two years passed from the time the chief cupbearer was restored to his former position by the Pharaoh (41:1). That leaves us with eleven years that Joseph was either in the house of Potiphar or in the prison. Joseph’s rise to power was therefore not achieved quickly or easily.
Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there. And the LORD was with Joseph, so he became a successful man. And he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge. And it come about that from the time he made him overseer in his house, and over all that he owned, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph; thus the LORD’s blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and in the field. So he left everything he owned in Joseph’s charge; and with him around he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate (Genesis 39:1-6a).
From these first six verses we can determine a sequence of events which culminated in Joseph’s promotion to the second highest position of power in Potiphar’s household. Joseph was a shepherd, so it would have been natural for him to begin his “career” in the fields of Potiphar. His success would first have been observed by his master there. Good reports reached the ears of Potiphar, who then brought him into his house (verse 2). Now, under the watchful eye of his master, the administrative skills of this Hebrew shepherd boy were even more apparent.
Potiphar not only observed that Joseph was a valuable employee, but also he discerned that his effectiveness was due to his relationship with his God (verse 3). Joseph had to have revealed his Hebrew origins from the beginning (cf. also verse 14), as well as his own faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While he could have taken all of the credit for his unusual abilities, Joseph gave the glory to God. I do not think that Potiphar discerned this from his religious sensitivity44 but from Joseph’s clear and consistent testimony. While no one would have ever guessed that Judah was blessed of God (cf. chapter 38), Joseph’s life was one that brought glory to God. Obedience and purity give glory to God in a way that disobedience and immorality cannot.
Potiphar was wise enough to recognize the extraordinary ability of Joseph. Under his supervision more and more authority was given to this Hebrew. Not only did God bless the areas over which Joseph was given authority, but Potiphar was blessed in proportion to the authority he gave Joseph. Eventually, Potiphar made Joseph his administrative assistant and gave him full charge over every facet of his enterprise. Potiphar was wise enough to stay out of Joseph’s way and let him handle virtually everything, save the food which he ate and the woman he had taken as his wife.
This gradual rise to power over a number of years was not unrelated to the test he was to face in the person of Potiphar’s wife. Had Joseph not proven himself to be such a capable leader, she would hardly have acknowledged his existence. And had he not come to such a position of power in Potiphar’s house, his temptation would have been inconceivable.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And it come about after these events that his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, with me around, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” And it come about as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he did not listen to her to lie beside her, or be with her. Now it happened one day that he went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there inside. And she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” And he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside (Genesis 39:6b-12).
Jacob was a physically attractive young man. Interestingly, the same description of Joseph is used with reference to his mother also (cf. 29:17). But his good looks were not the only reason why he caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. (Incidentally, do you notice that this woman, like the wife of Judah, is never named?) It was “after these events” (verse 7), namely Joseph’s rise to power and position, that the physical attractiveness of Joseph registered with this woman. There is little chance that she would have had any interest in a slave, a mere hired hand. But a man who had great leadership abilities and good looks—well, that was something else. The text indicates that it was over a period of some time that this woman came to the conclusion she must have him.
Joseph probably had his “office” inside the house of Potiphar. He now had the authority to come and go wherever and whenever he pleased. He had constant and ready access to the house of Potiphar. We should not go too far afield if we were to assume that Potiphar was often away from home (cf. 39:16). After all, he held an important position under Pharaoh, and with a capable administrator like Joseph, why should he concern himself with matters at home?
It was inevitable that contact with Potiphar’s wife would be more frequent and under more private conditions. More and more, this woman began to capitalize on this. Finally, she brazenly propositioned him (verse 7). From then on she hounded him, probably engineering opportunities to entice him and persistently trying to break down his resistance.
The temptation of Joseph is strikingly parallel to the test of Adam and Eve in the garden. They had free use of everything in the garden, save the fruit of one tree. So Joseph had access to anything of Potiphar’s except his wife. But while the forbidden fruit just hung there tempting Adam and Eve, Potiphar’s wife actively pursued Joseph.
Joseph dealt with this persistent pursuit in three stages. First, he endeavored to reason with the woman. He explained to her that he had come to a position not only of power, but also of privilege and trust. To possess his master’s wife and satisfy his own personal desires was to violate the sacred trust which was committed to him. Furthermore, she was a married woman, and as such their relationship would be adulterous. For both of these reasons the act which Potiphar’s wife proposed was one that would be a great sin against God.
But Potiphar’s wife was in no reasonable mood. She cared little for Joseph’s logic, and so Joseph had to continually resist her advances. Even her requests which sought to bring the two in closer contact were refused. It appears that at times she appealed to him only to be near her, but Joseph knew all too well that she wanted more, and even this would be inappropriate. He was not responsible to meet either her emotional or physical needs, which were the concern only of her husband.45
Finally, Joseph had to run from her. Day after day she sought to break down his defenses. In fact, she may have been spurred on by his resistance, for this made him even more of a challenge. Always before there had been someone about, it seems, but at last they were alone, hardly an accident I would think. At least there were no men about (verse 11).
I doubt that anyone who worked as a domestic in Potiphar’s house was ignorant of their mistress’ intentions toward Joseph. It does not appear that she cared whether they knew or not, for she daily hounded him. But when they were alone, she must have thought that Joseph would now be persuaded. Was he not resisting because he was afraid of the consequences of being caught? Who would know now? And so she boldly grasped him by his garment and pled with him.
This was no time to reason with the woman. It was not a time to “pray about it” or to meditate. The only godly course of action was to flee from her. This Joseph did by slipping out of his garment and leaving it in her grasp. Hurriedly, Joseph went outside where one would suppose there were others about and no further advances could be made.
As is often the case, the passion of love can quickly turn to hate (cf. II Samuel 13:15). The garment left behind by Joseph was still in the hands of Potiphar’s wife, who hastily devised a plan to make him regret his resistance.
When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had fled outside, she called to the men of her household, and said to them, “See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I screamed. And it come about when he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, that he left his garment beside me and fled, and went outside.” So she left his garment beside her until his master came home. Then she spoke to him with these words, “The Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me; and it happened as I raised my voice and screamed, that he left his garment beside me and fled outside” (Genesis 39:13-18).
Calling the men of the household, whose absence had precipitated her final pass at Joseph, she accused him of attempting to rape her. Not only did she appeal to the emotional reaction that such a crime would bring, but she also highlighted the fact that this “attack” was by a detested foreigner, a Hebrew (verse 14, cf. 43:32; 46:34). Because no one had been about, she could claim to have screamed, which no one could have heard from such a distance. This explains why the “attack” occurred with no apparent cries for help. The scream she falsely reported did explain the garment of Joseph in her hands, however, for she alleged that when she cried out it frightened Joseph so that he left his garment and fled.
It was truly a story worthy of this woman. There is no record of any response on the part of those to whom she told this tale, those who all were under the authority of Joseph. Personally, I doubt that any of them believed her account. Day after day they had observed her giving him the eye (verse 10), but never had he acted inappropriately toward her. Indeed, the only talk of the hired hands may have been about how Joseph avoided her and how some of them were compelled to accompany him into the house.
The response of the other slaves did not really matter, though, for they were no more inclined to report to Potiphar about his wife’s misconduct than was Joseph. Neither were they willing to take Joseph’s side and deny the account of this woman when her husband returned. What husband would not burn with anger and indignation if told this story?
Now it came about when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke to him, saying, “This is what your slave did to me”; that his anger burned. So Joseph’s master took him and put him into the jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; and he was there in the jail. But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 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. The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph’s charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper (Genesis 39:19-23).
Potiphar’s response was predictable. A slave, a Hebrew slave no less, had attempted to violate his wife. Naturally Potiphar was angered beyond words. Joseph is not said to have been questioned, but even if he were, the truth would be harder to bear than the accusation against this slave. If not touched with some sense of compassion, it must at least have troubled Potiphar to have to imprison such a valuable employee, for much of what he possessed was the result of Joseph’s service.
Certainly, Potiphar’s punishment of Joseph is not nearly as severe as we would have expected. As “captain of the bodyguard” (verse 1), he must have had authority to execute criminals. Such a crime as rape, attempted by a foreigner, must have been considered worthy of death. Instead, Potiphar cast him into “the” prison, the place where political prisoners were confined (verse 20). The word for this jail is unique, suggesting that there is something of particular interest here.46
Two passages in chapter 40 make it almost certain that the prison referred to is located nowhere other than in Potiphar’s house, probably in a dungeon in the basement.47
So he put them in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, in the jail, the same place where Joseph was imprisoned (Genesis 40:3).
And he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were with him in confinement in his master’s house, “Why are your faces so sad today?” (Genesis 40:7).
Taken together we know that Joseph was imprisoned in a house which belonged to the “captain of the bodyguard” (40:3), and we know this captain to be Potiphar (39:1). Finally, Joseph is said to have been in confinement “in his master’s house” (40:7). Where else could the prison be but in Potiphar’s house?
This would certainly fit the details of the story as Moses recorded it. First, it explains why the place of confinement was called “the” jail (verse 20); it was the jail that was located on the premises of Potiphar’s estate. It also explains why the chief jailer so quickly placed matters under Joseph’s charge. Joseph was a man well known to the chief jailer if our suggestion is correct. Finally, it is consistent with the doubts that Potiphar may have had concerning the truthfulness of his wife’s accusations. Even if he did believe his wife, Potiphar could continue to benefit from Joseph’s uncanny abilities if he confined him in the prison that was found in his own house.
Joseph, so far as I can tell, was thus demoted. He was banned from the penthouse and bound in the prison. He went from the top floor to the basement. And if that is the way it was, I can visualize Potiphar going down to Joseph each day to discuss the stock market, the economic conditions of the country, and all of the areas which used to be under Joseph’s direct control. Now he was only a consultant.
When we compare the first part of the chapter with the last, we are forced to a very significant conclusion: God was with Joseph every bit as much in the prison as He was in the penthouse. In verses 2 and 3 we are told that the Lord was with Joseph as he worked for his master. We are told the same thing in verses 21 and 23 regarding God’s presence with him while in the prison. Again, in verses 2 and 3 it is recorded that God prospered Joseph and made him successful. This same statement is also made in verses 21 and 23 when Joseph was in the prison.
The conclusion is undeniable: God is present as much with His saints when they are suffering as when they are peacefully prospering. More than this, a man can prosper as much in times of affliction as in times of affluence and ease. God does not grow hot-house Christians. He causes our roots to grow deep in the soil of adversity in order that we may better know and serve Him.48
We might expect Joseph to be cast into Potiphar’s prison if he had committed some terrible sin, but the reason for his captivity was his moral purity. It was because he would not go to bed with Potiphar’s wife that he was wrongly accused and condemned. Righteous living does not always bring about flower-strewn pathways; often it brings about the opposite. Joseph’s experience is only one example of this.
What a lesson this chapter provided for the Israelites who first read this account from the pen of Moses. They should have known that Joseph’s experience was not the exception but the rule, for it was they who had just spent 400 years in Egypt suffering as slaves under the cruel hands of their masters, and through no fault of their own. It was this people who would read from the book of Deuteronomy:
And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
David, later in the history of this nation, was prepared for leadership and the prominence and power of being the king of Israel by being unjustly persecuted by King Saul. Throughout the Scriptures we are taught that suffering is not abnormal, but it is a part of God’s gracious dealing in the lives of His children to develop maturity and obedience. Even our Lord was subjected to the discipline of God which is common to Christians:
In the days of His flesh, when He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and who was heard because of His piety, although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:7-9).
We dare not forget that this time of adversity was designed for Joseph’s good as well as for the good of his kinsmen. Let me suggest three ways in which Joseph’s time of service to Potiphar was profitable to him. In these three areas, and no doubt in many others, we see that the hand of God was good and gracious in this time of affliction.
First, the service to Potiphar was beneficial to Joseph in that it prepared him for the important task which lay ahead, that of serving as the second highest official in the land of Egypt. If one were to know that such a position of power and responsibility was 13 years in the future, how would one best prepare for it? Surely it would be necessary to learn the Egyptian language, as Joseph did (42:23), as well as their culture (cf. 43:32). There were no language schools, especially for foreigners like the Hebrews. In the providence of God we can now see that this experience was, for Joseph, Potiphar’s Prep School. Here he learned the language, culture, and political interworkings of the nation, incidentally but not accidentally.
Second, Joseph’s imprisonment by Potiphar, while unpleasant, was probably the answer to his prayers. Knowing that day after day this woman persisted at trying to break down Joseph’s resistance, I would imagine that one of his most oft-repeated and earnest supplications was, “Lord, protect me from this woman.” And that is precisely what those prison bars did. His imprisonment was the answer to his prayers. Those bars and chains (cf. Psalm 105:17-18) in no way hindered God’s plans for Joseph, but they did keep Potiphar’s wife from him, the very thing he sought, unsuccessfully, to accomplish on his own. How frequently the answers to our prayers come wrapped in a different package than we expected.
Finally, it was in this prison that God had planned for Joseph to have an appointment with a man who would introduce him to Pharaoh and his position of power. Who would ever have thought that a job interview would have been conducted in such an unlikely place. But it was in that prison for political figures (verse 20) that Joseph was appointed to meet with the cupbearer of Pharaoh, the man who would someday tell this ruler of Joseph’s unusual ability to interpret dreams. Humanly speaking, to avoid imprisonment would have meant breaking an appointment which would lead to an incredible future.
The necessity of suffering and adversity is everywhere taught in the Scriptures, particularly that of suffering which is undeserved or results from righteousness. It is to be viewed as a part of the normal Christian life and expected as a result of righteous living.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body (II Corinthians 4:7-10).
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake (Philippians 1:29).
For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know (I Thessalonians 3:4).
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evil doer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God (I Peter 4:12-16).
Since suffering innocently is a part of the normal Christian experience, let me suggest two practical implications. First of all, it suggests to Christian parents that the loving thing to do for our children is not to give them anything too quickly or easily. In our materialistic society, loving our children is equated with indulging them with every kind of material possession and luxury. To condition our children to expect the Christian life to be just like this is to greatly mislead them. They will tend to grow up expecting God to be an indulgent father who gives to His children all that they want and desire and Who will keep them from all uncomfortable experiences and deprivation. A loving father is one who disciplines his children in such a way as to develop obedience and endurance:
Furthermore, we had Earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness (Hebrews 12:9-10).
Second, many Christians have grown up under indulgent parents, who have taught their children not to expect suffering, trials, and hardship in life. I must tell you, my friend, if that is the way you were raised, your experience does not fit reality or God’s revealed Word. Your parents may have been well-intentioned, but they were totally wrong. God cannot be expected (and certainly not demanded) to continue to make your life easy, just as your parents did. In love, God will bring difficulties into your life in order to build up your faith and develop maturity and endurance. If you have been pampered and protected, your whole life outlook needs to be reshaped to conform to the way life is and the way God works in the lives of His own.
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
This chapter also has much to teach us about facing temptation. Two major misconceptions are exposed in the account of Genesis 39. The first is that we are to look for temptation to come in some dramatic fashion and in one momentous event. When we think of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, we think only of the one incident, the one described in verses 11 and 12. The significance of this particular incident is that it was the final attempt to seduce Joseph. By his refusal and running off without his garment, Potiphar’s wife brought about the false accusation of Joseph which led to his imprisonment.
The text tells us plainly, however, that the temptation of Joseph took place “day after day” (verse 10). The temptation of Joseph took place over an extended period of time, then, and in a variety of forms. Joseph did not deal with temptation victoriously in one momentous occasion, but in the day-to-day events of life. More than this, the victory which Joseph won over sin on that last occasion was directly related to his previous decisions.
A mistake that we often make is to look for our tests to come in some dramatic confrontation where the issues are crystal clear. By thinking in this fashion we tend to overlook the necessity for standing apart from sin in the mundane and seemingly insignificant matters of daily living. Joseph had settled the issue at hand long before this final confrontation. That decision had to do with the use or misuse of his master’s possessions. As a slave he faced the temptation of taking things which belonged to Potiphar and using them for his own benefit (cf. Titus 2:9-10). Practicing honesty in the smaller matters made it much easier for him to resist the temptation to take advantage of his master’s wife. How we handle the day-to-day temptations of life often determines how we will face the major issues that arise only occasionally.
Second, the temptation which Joseph successfully resisted was not one that pictures the ideal situation for the Christian. I said to someone the other day, “Most Christians want to resist temptation, but they want to be propositioned first.” For Joseph, just the pursuit by Potiphar’s wife could have been ego inflating. Think of the fact that a woman finds you attractive and desires to be with you. But, you see, Joseph could do nothing about the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. She was the only one over whom Joseph was not in authority. That is why he found it necessary to run from her.
In most of our situations we cannot say that the temptations we face are beyond our control, for we are not a slave like Joseph was. Many of the temptations we face are those which we have allowed, and perhaps even encouraged.
I heard a true story of a man who was an alcoholic. A godly preacher was counseling with him, trying to help him avoid another fall. He asked the man how he happened to walk by the tavern. Was it on his way home? The man had to confess that it was not and that he had to take a longer way home in order to pass by it. The real problem was that the man wanted to be tempted and to fall.
Joseph’s experience gives us valuable insight into the words of our Lord when He taught us to pray, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Our Lord was not suggesting that God needs to be begged not to tempt us (cf. James 1:13-14), but he was telling us that the desire of our hearts should be that we not only resist sin, but also shun situations which will solicit us to sin.49 In this sense, we should never desire to reproduce or repeat Joseph’s victory over this particular temptation. His circumstances do not provide us with an ideal, but his attitude not to encounter the temptation of this woman by so much as having any contact with her whatsoever gives us an example to follow (cf. verse 10).
Our chapter has several other lessons by way of inference. The first of these pertains to the matter of spiritual gifts. Joseph’s gift was one of administration. Do you notice that wherever he was, and no matter what the circumstances, his gift began to bear on that situation? I believe Joseph became a leader and manager in the house of his father, much to the dismay of his brothers. In the fields of Potiphar and then in his house and finally in his prison, he used his gifts to prosper his master. It comes as no surprise that this same ability would become evident to Pharaoh also.
In the New Testament we are taught that every Christian has at least one spiritual gift (e.g., I Corinthians 12:7,11). These gifts are bestowed for the common good, not just for the pleasure or enrichment of the one to whom the gift is given (I Corinthians 12:7). These gifts are to be utilized as a stewardship (I Peter 4:10). Many Christians seem to be waiting for the ideal time and place to utilize their gifts rather than to employ them wherever they are. Wherever there is a need that we are able to meet, we should meet that need. The New Testament teaches us that not only is the gift we are given within the sovereign will of God, but also the place where it is to be utilized and the results it will bring.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons (I Corinthians 12:4-6).
Let us learn from Joseph that no matter where we may be, we are to use the gift(s) that God has given us to the good of those about us and to the glory of the God Who has given them to us.
One final word should be said about the matter of prosperity. Prosperity in the Bible should not always be equated with financial affluence. Of course God may give some financial means, and this is not wrong (cf. I Timothy 6). However, being rich is not the norm for the Christian, even for those who are spiritual (cf. I Corinthians 1:26-29; Matthew 19:23-24). Joseph, we are told, was blessed of God, and the Lord prospered him greatly (Genesis 39:2-3, 21-23)—but he was a slave. He did not work for wages. He was not in the company profit sharing program. The prosperity which God speaks of here is the blessing that God gave in the exercise of his gift so that Potiphar prospered (financially) and so that the chief jailer was successful (probably in non-monetary matters). As the writer of the Proverbs put it, “It is the blessing of the Lord that maketh rich” (Proverbs 10:22). The blessings which God poured out upon Joseph were not to be measured by his bank book, nor will they necessarily be for us.
If you are reading this message without ever having come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I urge you to do so now. But I want you to understand that trusting in Him, while it assures you of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, will not guarantee a carefree and trouble-free life. What it does promise is that every hardship, every injustice, every trial, will be from the hand of God for your good and His glory. He will be personally present in every trial, and His purposes will someday prove to have been good and perfect for the Christian.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
“Not that Potiphar had any spiritual insight into the ways of Jehovah, but being in some sort a religious man, he became convinced that Joseph’s powers must come from a Divine source.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 370.
45 It is possible, though not necessarily probable, that Potiphar was unable to meet his wife’s physical needs. Leupold states: “It seems very strange that a eunuch should be married, as we learn of Potiphar in this chapter. Two possibilities confront us, and the choice between them is difficult. It actually happened in days of old that eunuchs had wives. On the other hand, the term ‘eunuch’ (saris) very likely lost its original meaning and came to signify: prominent court officials.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 992.
46 “An unusual word, sohar, found only in these chapters, is used for prison: the Hebrew root suggests a round structure and therefore perhaps a fortress, which is the term used by LXX.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 191.
“Scarcely, indeed, is there any point in which the notions and practices of the people of the East differ so essentially from ours as in those which relate to the treatment of criminals; for while in Europe there are places reared for the confinement of offenders, and officers specially appointed to have the custody of them, the houses of the highest and greatest persons in the East, are not unfrequently dedicated to the purposes of a prison, and men who fill public and official stations of the greatest dignity, perform the duties of an office which, in our estimation, is the most ignoble. From the earliest times, the jails in the East have been of this description, and under the care of persons of elevated rank; and as it is highly probable that the palace of Joseph’s confinement was some dungeon, or secluded port of the house of Potiphor, who was the principal state officer of Egypt at the time, the knowledge of this circumstance furnishes a natural way of accounting for the freedom allowed to Joseph by the deputy jailer, . . .” George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James and Family, reprint, 1979), II, p. 257.
48 “The symmetry of this chapter, in which the serene opening (1-6) is matched, point for point, at a new level at the close (19-23) despite all that intervenes, perfectly expresses God’s quiet control and the man of faith’s quiet victory. The good seed is buried deeper, still to push upward; the servant, faithful in a little, trains for authority in much.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 189.
49 This petition establishes the principle that the true saint will not only desire to overcome temptation, but he will hate sin so much that he will not even desire to be put to the test. There is absolutely no suggestion that God would ever tempt us in the sense of soliciting us to sin (James 1:13-14). The most effective prayers are those which request that which God has promised. It is the attitude of heart that shuns not only sin but the occasion which solicits it that our Lord is teaching by example.
How to Get Out of the Pits (Genesis 40:1-23)
A couple I know had an experience which resembles events in the life of Joseph which we have studied up to this point. The husband went out to his car one morning only to discover that it wouldn’t turn over because the battery had been stolen. After lifting up the hood, he discovered a note which said something to this effect: “I’m sorry I had to take your battery, but it was an emergency and I had to get to the hospital. I will return your battery as soon as I can.” A little later the battery was returned with another note: “Thank you so much for the use of your battery. To express our appreciation and to make up for the inconvenience we have caused you, here are two tickets to the Dallas Cowboy game this Sunday.”
The couple was ecstatic. They were fans of the Cowboys and were thrilled at the opportunity to go to the game. What a wonderful turn of events this had been. But when they returned home from the game they discovered, to their dismay, that their apartment had been cleaned out. The football tickets had simply been a ruse to get them out of the house.
Joseph’s life, too, had several curious turns of events. Just at the time when things seemed to be going his way circumstances would rapidly change, and hope was seemingly lost. At 17 he was the leader of his brothers, but that only got him thrown into a pit. Due to the band of Ishmaelite traders who “happened by” and at the suggestion of Judah, they sold him instead of leaving him there to die. As Joseph’s abilities became evident to Potiphar, the Egyptian official who had purchased Joseph as his slave, he found himself rising to a position second only to that of his master. Joseph’s refusal to have an affair with Potiphar’s wife resulted in false charges and his incarceration in Potiphar’ prison. And once again in Genesis 40 when it looks as though the butler will be able to make an appeal to Pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf, Joseph’s hopes seem to be dashed on the rocks of reality.
How Joseph handles the “pits” of his life provides us with a key to his ability to live in undeserved and unpleasant circumstances with faith, hope, and love. And what enabled him to live a day at a time also proved to be the means by which God brought about his release and rise to the second highest office in the land of Egypt.
Many of us live “in the pits” too. They may not be the pits of a literal variety, but rather of the unpleasant realities of life, such as circumstances over which we have no control and from which we are not able to remove ourselves. Since those who will live godly lives will suffer persecution and hardship (cf. II Timothy 3:12; James 1:2-4, I Peter 4:12ff.), we must learn from Joseph the way to live life in the pits to the glory of God and for our own sanity and serenity. That lesson, while found not only in Genesis 40, is here to be seen for all those who desire to learn it.
A Divine Appointment
Then it came about after these things the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their lord, the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was furious with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. So he put them in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, in the jail, the some place where Joseph was imprisoned. And the captain of the bodyguard put Joseph in charge of them, and he took care of them; and they were in confinement for some time. Then the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in jail, they both had a dream the same night, each man with his own dream and each dream with its own interpretation. When Joseph came to them in the morning and observed them, behold, they were dejected. And he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were with him in confinement in his master’s house, “Why are your faces so sad today?” Then they said to him, “We have had a dream and there is no one to interpret it.” Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please” (Genesis 40:1-8).
Two of Pharaoh’s officers had committed unknown offenses which greatly angered their master and resulted in their imprisonment (verses 1, 2). One was the king’s cupbearer, whom we shall call the butler; the other was the chief baker. These offenses were not mere indiscretions, but some clear-cut act of disobedience or misconduct, as the original term indicates.50 These two officers, now fallen from the favor of Pharaoh, were placed under Joseph’s authority in the prison where he, too, was held in bonds.
Because of the details given in chapter 40 it is certain that the prison was in the dungeon under the house of Potiphar. In verse 3 we are informed that the prison was the same one in which Joseph was held captive and that this confinement took place in the “house of the captain of the bodyguard,” the official who has already been identified as Potiphar (39:1). In verse 7 the butler and the baker are reported to be kept with Joseph “in his master’s house.” This can be none other than Potiphar. And finally, Joseph pleads, “Get me out of this house” (verse 14), and he also says, “Even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon” (verse 15). The “here” must refer to Potiphar’s estate, where he was brought as a slave and kept as such in the prison.
One must marvel at Joseph’s submissive spirit. He was still regarded as the slave of his master there in the prison. In fact, he was given greater and greater responsibilities there (39:22-23). Evidencing his continued confidence in Joseph’s abilities, Potiphar placed these two officials under Joseph’s authority (40:4). How would you feel toward Potiphar and the task of looking after these men after what Potiphar had done to you? Joseph not only obeyed his master in this, but he made it his business to minister to these men, even to the point of keeping them in good spirits.
After some time had passed, both the butler and the baker had a dream on the same night. The dream of each man was distinct and the meaning different (verse 5). We are told that Egyptians believed that dreams were indicative of future events,51 and so these two were most concerned by the fact that here, in the dungeon, there was no one qualified to interpret their dreams for them. Their futures had been revealed to them in their dreams, but they could not be interpreted, and the realization of this brought great distress to them. Their downcast faces reflected their great dismay.
Joseph was quick to observe that something was wrong. Body language alone told him that there was a need to be met. The confidence which he had gained over the days they had been together in confinement made it easy for Joseph to ask about this and for them to respond candidly. Each had a dream, they reported, but no one was there who was able to give them the meaning.
With a confidence too contagious to resist, Joseph reminded his companions that the interpretations of dreams belong to God. Since this was the case, they need only tell their dreams to Joseph. He, and they, expected an interpretation of the dreams of the previous night. Joseph’s absolute confidence informs us of his spiritual condition. A man in his circumstances might well question whether or not there even was a God. Many Christians, like the friends of Job, would wonder if his imprisonment were not the result of sin. Joseph was assured of God’s love and care. His eagerness to hear and interpret these dreams reveals his confidence of God’s love and care in his life. The eagerness of the butler to relate his dream to Joseph indicates that he, too, sensed God’s closeness to this Hebrew.
The Good News and the Bad News
So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “In my dream, behold, there was a vine in front of me; and on the vine were three branches. And as it was budding, its blossoms came out, and its clusters produced ripe grapes. Now Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; so I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.” Then Joseph said to him, “This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh’s cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer. Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon” (Genesis 40:9-15).
The butler’s dream corresponded closely with his previous position under Pharaoh. The dream must therefore indicate what the future held for him, especially in regard to being the cupbearer of Pharaoh. The vine before him, having three branches, rapidly budded, blossomed, and produced grapes, which he squeezed into the cup of Pharaoh and then put into his hands, just as he had formerly done. The three branches signified three days, Joseph told the butler. The dream foretold the restoration of the butler to his former position. In three days things would return to the way they had been previously.
A man in Joseph’s position could easily have taken advantage of his circumstances. Frequently men in charge of prisoners would give preferential care to those who were willing and able to pay for it (cf. Acts 24:17,26). These two officers were eager to learn the meaning of their dreams, a service that Joseph could have rendered for payment. He did, however, request that he be remembered before Pharaoh (verse 14), for the circumstances which led to his arrival in Egypt, as well as those which brought him to prison, were a matter of injustice which Pharaoh could correct.
We all know that everyone is innocent in their own eyes (cf. Proverbs 16:2), and so Joseph’s claim would not be anything unexpected of one in his state. But his ability to interpret the dream of the butler would prove that he was telling the truth before the God Who had revealed the meaning of this dream. He really was innocent. Joseph asked for no favors before the fact, but only after his words were proven to be according to truth. It was a reasonable request, for it only asked for what was just and fair.
Joseph’s one request of the butler gave further testimony to the great faith of this Hebrew prisoner. He was so certain that his interpretation was true that he made a request of the butler which he never considered in the case of the baker. He asked to be remembered before Pharaoh when his words came to pass. It is one thing to venture an opinion on the meaning of a man’s dream, but quite another to make a request for your freedom based upon the outcome of your interpretation. Joseph was convinced that God had spoken through him. While content to remain in the dungeon so long as God willed, Joseph also made every effort to be removed from that place through the channels legitimately available to him.
The butler was encouraged to share his dream with Joseph on the basis of God’s ability to interpret dreams and because of his confidence in Joseph’s relationship with his God. The baker, however, was motivated only by the fact that Joseph’s interpretation was good news to the butler. He, too, is now eager to report his dream to Joseph and thus to have an optimistic forecast of his future.
When the chief baker saw that he had interpreted favorably, he said to Joseph, “I also saw in my dream, and behold, there were three baskets of white bread on my head; and in the top basket there were some of all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, and the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.” Then Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days; within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and will hang you on a tree; and the birds will eat your flesh off you” (Genesis 40:16-19).
We have already been informed that the dreams of each official were different and distinct, each with its own meaning (40:5). The baker did not seem to realize this because he eagerly reported his dream, thinking the outcome would also be favorable (verse 16). In his dream he had three baskets filled with various kinds of white bread. The birds were coming to him and eating the bread out of the top basket.
There was a certain similarity between the dreams of the butler and the baker. The baker’s dream also corresponded with his previous position under Pharaoh. He was a baker, and so his dream centered about three baskets filled with bread, just as the butler saw a vine with three branches. In both cases the number “three” pertained to the number of days until the fulfillment of the dreams. But here the similarities end dramatically. The bad news for the baker was that in three days’ time he would have his head lifted off, not lifted up. He was to be hanged, and his body left for the birds to feast upon (and also, probably, for the eyes of the people to look upon). It was a horrible prophecy, and Joseph naturally did not ask this man for any favors in the future.
But why is such a gruesome prediction necessary anyway? Was Joseph not unduly candid in his interpretation? First, we should notice that the two dreams, when taken together, tended to strengthen the testimony of Joseph that God was with him and enabled him to interpret dreams. Joseph did not, as is often done, give nebulous and vague predictions. He gave two very specific prophecies to two persons, yet they were exactly opposite in their outcome. If both came true, it would be much harder to attribute Joseph’s accuracy to good luck.
We do not know with any assurance that Joseph’s words were deliberately graphic or intentionally cruel. They certainly are to us. But let us also remember that these dreams were from God. Interpretations were of God, as Joseph claimed (verse 8), because their dreams had come from Him. God gave these dreams to these men in order to prepare them for things to come. Joseph’s task as an interpreter was not to create God’s message, nor did he dare to change it. He spoke as God directed. The message of the baker’s dream was one from God, and it was true. Neither in its content nor in its tone did Joseph dare to edit this divine revelation.
While we are most inclined to appreciate the fact that the baker’s dream was gorey, let us not forget that it was also, at least in a sense, gracious. The three days were given both to the butler and to the baker not just to agonize, but to prepare for what the future held. Would it have been less cruel for Joseph to have lied to the baker about his future? If he had lied, then there would have been no incentive for him to consider his ways and turn in faith to the God from whom this warning had come. Far better to be warned of the “wrath to come” and to prepare for it than to be deceived and face it unprepared.52
These two dreams and their interpretations contain a striking parallel to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Both the butler and the baker had “sinned” against their master and had rightfully incurred his wrath. Both awaited the condemnation they deserved. One was pardoned and granted a restoration of fellowship and function at the hand of his master. The other received the punishment that he was due and paid the penalty of death.
The Bible declares to us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As guilty sinners we deserve the penalty of our sins, which is eternal death and separation from God, but there is for us the offer of forgiveness through the provision of Jesus Christ.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).
When He comes for His own, some will spend eternity with Him, while others will live in eternal separation from His love and power:
And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day … (II Thessalonians 1:9-10).
The message of salvation, for all who would believe, is this:
Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:31).
Many Christians desire to share with the unsaved only the good news of salvation through faith in the work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. While this is both true and necessary, it is not the whole story. The warning must also be given that to reject Christ is to continue on the path to destruction.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God (John 3:16-21).
I have a friend who shares the gospel something like this: “Well there’s the good news, and there’s the bad news. The good news is that Jesus Christ is coming again. The bad news is, boy is He mad!” The gospel is good news, but its rejection necessitates the bad news of eternal condemnation and separation.
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:4-6,12-15).
The gospel is not our message to men; it is God’s. We can no more alter it than Joseph could change the interpretation of these men’s dreams. We must tell it like it is.
Incidentally, this ability to “tell it like it is” is a vital quality in a leader. We are naturally inclined to gather about us men who will tell us what we want to hear rather than to confront us with what we need to hear. The news Joseph had to share with Pharaoh was not entirely good news, but it was the truth. On the basis of this message from God, provision could be made for the times of adversity which lay ahead. Pharaoh wanted a man under him who would tell him the truth, not give him reports designed only to make him feel good about his administration. This unpleasant task of telling the baker what his future held was not only for his good, but for Joseph’s, who would continue to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Prophecies Fulfilled, But Promises Forgotten
Joseph’s hopes must have soared when the three days passed and both the butler and baker experienced the fulfillment of his prophecies. Surely the butler would not fail to show his gratitude by speaking a word to Pharaoh, and hopefully this would be soon. But this was not to be the case.
Thus it came about on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. And he restored the chief cupbearer to his office, and he put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him (Genesis 40:20-23)
The third day happened to be Pharaoh’s birthday. Such an occasion called for feasting and festivities. On such an occasion the services of both the butler and baker would have been required, and their absence would thus be conspicuous. The impression I get from verse 20 is that both the butler and the baker are brought to the banquet on an equal footing of status and prestige. Then, for some unexplained reason, the butler is given his former post, while the baker is taken out and hanged. Perhaps the butler had responded correctly to the king’s generosity while the baker had not. If this is so, the baker did not take heed to the interpretation to the dream which Joseph had given.
Impossible as it seems, the butler forgot all about Joseph for two years. Perhaps at first the butler intended to keep his promise to Joseph but never found the right moment to mention the injustice done to Joseph. As the days went by, thoughts of Joseph’s sufferings were suppressed, along with all the other painful memories triggered by any recollection of that prison. Finally, Joseph was completely forgotten until the king, too, had a dream which could not be interpreted.
Joseph’s rising hopes were dashed upon the rocks of reality for the last time. As he gained power and position in the house of Potiphar, Joseph must have hoped that he could appeal either to his master or perhaps through him to the Pharaoh so that he could be freed to return to his father and his homeland. His purity in the matter of Potiphar’s wife brought him to the dungeon again, just as his brothers had cast him into the pit. Then, when he had the opportunity to interpret the dream of the butler, it began to look as though Joseph could appeal to Pharaoh through this man once he was restored to his position of influence with the king. Two years of silence from the palace eroded away what little hope must have remained.
Those two years spent in Potiphar’s prison must have been the darkest days of Joseph’s life. These years are passed over by Moses in complete silence. We read in the book of Proverbs,
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, But desire fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12).
If Joseph were ever in the dumps, it must have been now. Yet we are never told that Joseph suffered from the normal emotional reactions to his circumstances that are common to every man. Instead, we find in chapter 40 a beautiful lesson in how to deal with despair and depression.
The first thing that enabled Joseph to endure his adverse circumstances was an absolute and unshakeable confidence in the fact that God was with him in his suffering. Twice in the previous chapter we have been told by Moses that God was with Joseph. In the first instance, we are not taken by surprise that God would be with Joseph on his way up in the organization of Potiphar (39:2-3) But we are told just as emphatically that God was with Joseph while he was in the pits (39:21-23). In chapter 40 no one could have had the confidence Joseph did that God was able to interpret dreams through him, apart from an intimate walk with God in that dungeon. And no one could have convinced the butler of this unless there were evidence of it to be seen.
The tragedy of our day is that some Christians are teaching that if a Christian merely has enough faith, he will never need to suffer, for (they say) that the death of Christ provides deliverance from all adversity and affliction.53 While this doctrine may be considered as encouraging to the saint, it produces just the opposite result.54 Had Joseph believed that if he only had the faith he could have been instantly delivered from his troubles, his faith would have been devastated by the fact that his troubles did not go away. If freedom from pain and problems is solely dependent upon my faith, then when pain and problems come my way, there must be something wrong with my faith. Joseph would then have been questioning his own relationship with God, perhaps even the existence of God, at the very time when he should have been ministering to others and giving testimony to his faith. If our faith does not endure the storms of life, what good is it?
Fortunately, Joseph believed in a God who is not only all-wise and all-loving, but all-powerful. The God he served did place his servants in circumstances that were difficult and unpleasant, but He also gave a sufficient measure of His grace to endure it. The testimony of Joseph in these dark days is a reminder to every Christian that even the righteous will suffer and that such suffering is in the will of God to accomplish His purposes. No promise is more comforting to the suffering saint than this:
I will never leave you, nor will I ever desert you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5).
And lest we fear that such a promise is only for the pious, men like Joseph, we need only be reminded that a rascal like Jacob was assured,
And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:15).
The second reason for Joseph’s serenity in suffering was his assurance that God could and would deliver him from his suffering in His good time and in His way. The dreams of the butler and the baker must have brought to Joseph’s mind the two dreams which he had had as a lad in the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:5-11). In both dreams God confirmed His purpose to elevate Joseph above his brethren and even his father. Nowhere did God indicate the timing or the means of this promotion. Joseph must have smiled to himself as he sat there in that prison, knowing that someday, somehow, God was going to deliver him.
Joseph’s confidence was no wild-eyed optimism. I know that many, even in Christian circles, are advocating a “positive mental attitude” methodology to bring us out of the pits of mediocrity and despair. I believe it is Zig Ziglar, author of See You at the Top, who has been quoted as saying, “I’m such an optimist, I’d go after Moby Dick in a rowboat and take the tartar sauce with me.”
Unless God has instructed us to “pursue Moby Dick in a rowboat,” the mere fact of our optimism will not give us success in such an endeavor. Positive thinking is only biblical insofar as it pursues biblical goals using biblical means and is motivated by biblical desires. The confidence which Joseph had was a confidence based upon divine revelation.
The watchword for Christians in the midst of suffering is not escape, but endurance:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
And after you have suffered for a little, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (I Peter 5:10).
The third reason for Joseph’s ability to cope with his captivity is found in his selfless ambition to serve others rather than to squander his energies in self-pity. One evidence of this is found in verse 4:
And the captain of the bodyguard put Joseph in charge of them, and he took care of them [literally, ‘he ministered to them,’ margin, NASV]; and they were in confinement for some time.
The term “took care of” is normally not an expression used for menial service but for ministerial service. It is employed in the Old Testament for the ministry of Aaron (Exodus 28:35,43) and of the Levites (Deuteronomy 10:8) and the priests (I Kings 8:11). I do not want you to think that this word is used solely of religious ministry (e.g., Genesis 39:4), but it does have decided religious connotations. Personally, I believe that Joseph saw his service wherever he was as an act of devotion toward God and thus as ministry in the highest sense of the word. This would be in accord with what the New Testament teaches servants:
Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (Titus 2:9-10).
There is absolutely no place on earth where some kind of ministry to others is not possible, for even if we are in solitary confinement, we can intercede on behalf of others (cf. Philippians 1:1-11).
Ministering to the needs of others had two very beneficial effects on the life of Joseph. For one thing, it kept him from continually wallowing in self-pity. He did not have time to pity himself when he was busily meeting the needs of others about him. Had Joseph been feeling sorry for himself, he would never have observed the sad countenances of the butler and the baker, nor would he have done anything about it even if they had brought the matter up.
A teacher of mine in college shared a personal illustration of how we save our lives by giving them up in the service of others. He had spent several years of the second world war in a prisoner of war camp in Japan. (Incidentally, he was awarded a presidential citation for promoting peace and harmony among the prisoners by implementing and overseeing a program of careful measurement and distribution of the meager supplies provided for those in the camp.) He observed that those who thought only of themselves, hoarding up what little food they could beg, borrow, or steal, often crawled in a corner and died. Strangely, those who sought to care for others, even by giving generously of their own supplies, survived. Ministering to others has a most beneficial effect upon those who serve.
Beyond the immediate value of Joseph’s service to others was the fact that his service was the means to his final deliverance. Had Joseph not observed the needs of those under his care, he never would have ended up in Pharaoh’s palace. Had he not interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker, the butler could not have told Pharaoh that he knew of a Hebrew who had the ability to interpret dreams. And so an act which, at the moment, seemed to have no great significance was the turning point of Joseph’s career. His faithful ministry in that dungeon opened the door for a far greater ministry in the palace of the Pharaoh.
What a striking parallel is to be found in the New Testament in the life of the apostle Paul. Paul had been falsely accused and thrown into prison because of these charges. While in confinement, the apostle penned an epistle to the saints at Philippi. His great concern was not for himself, but it was for those to whom he had earlier preached the gospel. The first eleven verses record the substance of his prayer life on their behalf.
Paul could have shared many unpleasant details of his imprisonment, but he did not. Even the preaching of some out of impure motives caused him to rejoice because the gospel was nonetheless being proclaimed (Philippians 1:15-18). Far from hindering the work of God, Paul’s imprisonment accelerated it. It gave other Christians the courage and confidence to boldly proclaim their faith (1:14). And it also enabled the gospel to be proclaimed throughout the entire praetorian guard (1:13). Is it any wonder, then, that in the concluding verses of this epistle Paul could write,
All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22).
At the time of his conversion, Saul was told of God’s purposes for his life:
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
Caesar’s household was reached with the good news of the gospel, but in a way that Paul would never have expected and some Christians refuse to accept—through unjust suffering. The most humble circumstances are the occasion of some of God’s greatest works. Who, for example, would have thought that anything of significance could have come from a stable in Bethlehem?
Joseph was a great success, but in a vastly different way than what we are told to expect today. The biblical key to success is found nowhere else than in the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Here, we have the full assurance that we can do anything when empowered by the Lord, Who loved us and gave Himself for us. Nothing is impossible to those who receive their strength from our Lord. Christians should never be pessimistic concerning the possibilities which can be realized in Christ. Pessimism is not befitting the Christian.
In this sense the proponents of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) have a word which many Christians need to hear. Great men through the ages, such as D. L. Moody, have been motivated by the challenge, “The world has yet to see what God can do through a person who is fully committed to Him.” But we must also beware that in fleeing from unbelieving pessimism we do not venture too far to presumption, putting God to the test by overstepping ourselves and expecting God to bail us out—jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, as it were. God is not obliged to make us wealthy, well-liked, or free of woes. God has promised to be with those who belong to Him wherever they are and to bring us to maturity, but not to pamper us or to jump through our hoops.
Second, we need to remember that the “all things” which Paul has said he can do include such things as suffering and doing without. In the context of this verse we read,
Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need (Philippians 4:11-12).
Contentment, not comfort, is the key to successful living.
Third, those great things which I am able to do are not the result of my works, but through His power. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
If by having a “positive mental attitude” we mean having self-confidence, then we have completely missed the point. Our confidence and our enablement is to be found only in Him working through us. When we begin to take some of the credit for ourselves, God has to remind us Who is accomplishing things for His glory. That is why our greatest strength comes at the point of our greatest weakness, so that we must rely upon Him and not on ourselves:
And such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God (II Corinthians 3:4-5).
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not of ourselves (II Corinthians 4:7).
And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (II Corinthians 12:7-10).
May God enable us to face our difficulties as from God. May we be assured that He is with us in our trials and that He will remove us in His time and in His way. And may we determine, by God’s grace, to minister to others in our affliction.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (II Corinthians 1:3-4).
50 “When it is said that they ‘offended’ their lord, the verb used, hate’u implies actual guilt on the part of each, for literally it means, ‘they sinned.”’ H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 1005.
The point of the word is not that the butler and the baker were guilty of some indiscretion or inadvertently offended Pharaoh but that they committed some sin which rightly angered this potentate. The same Hebrew word is found in Genesis 20:6,9; 39:9; 42:22; Exodus 20:20, in this same sense. While Joseph was innocently imprisoned, these two officials were not.
51 “On the dreamers’ part, the conviction that the dreams had a meaning is equally in character: it was common belief in Egypt that they were predictive, and a body of writings grew up on the art of interpreting them.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 193.
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it, if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jeremiah 18:5-8).
This is why Jonah dreaded preaching a message of condemnation to the people of Ninevah (cf. Jonah 3:5-4:3). He knew that God was gracious and not willing that men should perish. In the same way, I believe, the prediction of the death of the baker was intended to bring him to repentance.
53 In his classic work Knowing God, J. I. Packer devotes an entire chapter to the matter of suffering and the error of those who insist that the Christian need not experience it. I will cite several excerpts from this chapter, hoping you will read the entire book:
“A certain type of ministry of the gospel is cruel. It does not mean to be but it is. . . .
“What kind of ministry is this? The first thing to say is that, sad as it may seem, it is an evangelical ministry. Its basis is acceptance of the Bible as God’s Word and its promises as God’s assurances. Its regular themes are justification by faith through the cross, new birth through the Spirit, and new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection. . . .
“The type of ministry that is here in mind starts by stressing, in an evangelistic context, the difference that becoming a Christian will make. Not only will it bring a man forgiveness of sins, peace of conscience, and fellowship with God as his Father; it will also mean that, through the power of the indwelling Spirit, he will be able to overcome the sins that previously mastered him, and the light and leading that God will give him will enable him to find a way through problems of guidance, self-fulfillment, personal relations, heart’s desire, and such like, which had hitherto defeated him completely. How, put like that, in general terms, these great assurances are scriptural and true--praise God, they are! But it is possible so to stress them, and so to play down the rougher side of the Christian life--the daily chastening, the endless war with sin and Satan, the periodic walk in darkness--as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses, a state of affairs in which everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist--or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973), pp. 221-222.
54 Joe Bayly has an excellent discussion on the detrimental effect of presumptuously praying the prayer of faith for healing in the case of the terminally ill in the chapter entitled “Prayer and Terminal Illness.” Joseph Bayly, The Last Thing We Talk About (Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1973), pp. 80-88.
From the Pit to the Palace (Genesis 41:1-57)
The story is told of a man who was drafted into the armed forces. Wherever he went he would stoop to pick up any piece of paper which was on the ground. And every time he picked up a piece of paper, he would look at it, shake his head no, and then throw it away. It didn’t take long for his superiors to become aware of his actions and to determine to find the underlying cause. Finally, in desperation, they granted him a medical discharge. The soldier was summoned to the office of his superior officer and was handed the official form which granted his release. Looking carefully at it, he exclaimed, “This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for!”
Many of us are like that soldier in that we go through life waiting for the one big break that will turn our life around and that will give us riches and fame, prosperity and power. For some, that break is thought to come from Wall Street, and it will be written in the Dow Jones averages. For others, the lucky break is expected to come in Nashville, Hollywood, or Las Vegas. Most of us tend to think of our success as coming from some life-changing, momentous event.
It is very easy to misunderstand Genesis 41 by superimposing this false conception of success on the experience of Joseph when he was exalted to the second highest position in all of Egypt. We may look at the dreams of Pharaoh and the mention of Joseph by the cupbearer as the lucky break of Joseph’s life, which broke the chain of frustrating turns of events which had previously plagued him. Someone has even suggested that Joseph may well have been aware of Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong probably will.”55
Genesis 41 does not tell us the entire story, however. It merely provides us with a vantage point whereby we may look back upon past events and see their part in bringing Joseph to Pharaoh’s palace. We may also look ahead and see the reason why God brought Joseph to his position of power in the way He did. Joseph’s life story was no fairy tale. Moses did not tell us that after Joseph was promoted by Pharaoh he lived “happily ever after.” Joseph has been promoted for a definite purpose, and we dare not overlook this in the joy of seeing him taken out of the pit and placed in a position of power and prestige in Pharaoh’s palace.
Pharaoh’s Revelation and Joseph’s Release
Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And lo, from the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat; and they grazed in the marsh grass. Then, behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and gaunt, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump and good. Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Now it came about in the morning that his spirit was troubled, so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1-8).
Two full years had passed,56 and Joseph is still confined in Potiphar’s prison, forgotten by the cupbearer of the Pharaoh despite Joseph’s favorable interpretation and plea to be remembered after his predictions came to pass (40:14-15). God chose to work through means other than human instruments, and thus He spoke to Pharaoh in two dramatic dreams. Both dreams were very real and most disturbing. After each, Pharaoh was awakened (41:4,7). These dreams were remarkably Egyptian, for the cows came from out of the river Nile, and the grain was withered by a well-known and dreaded east wind.57 The sight of cows cooling themselves in the river and feeding on the lush marsh grass was typically Egyptian.
The dream was distressing to the Pharaoh because it was twice experienced in varying forms, interrupted by his being awakened. The meaning was a puzzle, for the seven lean cows remained lean and gaunt, even after consuming the fat cattle. The same was true with the grain. It was not normal for cows to eat cows or grain to consume grain, but surely the lean things should have been fattened by what they ate. Something had to be wrong, but what was it?
The king’s usual source of information, the magicians,58 were totally baffled, as was Pharaoh. They could not fathom the meaning of the dream. These men should not be confused with magicians of our own day. They did not wear tuxedos and pull rabbits out of hats. They were the wisest, best educated men of Pharaoh’s kingdom, schooled in the art of interpreting dreams. Lest we may be puzzled by the inability of these men to discern the meaning of these two dreams, at least in general terms, let us be reminded of the fact that the two dreams were a revelation from God, and the things of God can only be grasped through His Spirit (cf. I Corinthians 2:10-16).
The king’s frustration at having such impressive dreams and yet being unable to know their meaning was too similar to the experience of the cupbearer to be overlooked. Joseph was finally brought to the cupbearer’s mind, and Pharaoh was told of the unusual Hebrew slave with whom this official had “spent time.”
Then the chief cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh, saying, “I would make mention today of my own offenses. Pharaoh was furious with his servants, and he put me in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, both me and the chief baker. And we had a dream on the same night, he and I; each of us dreamed according to the interpretation of his own dream. Now a Hebrew youth was with us there, a servant of the captain of the bodyguard, and we related them to him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. To each one he interpreted according to his own dream. And it came about that just as he interpreted for us, so it happened; he restored me in my office, but he hanged him” (Genesis 41:9-13).
Nowhere does the cupbearer mention the injustice of Joseph’s imprisonment. The “offenses” of which he spoke (verse 9) do not seem to be related to his forgetting Joseph, but rather to his sins against Pharaoh for which he was cast into prison under Joseph’s custody. The substance of the cupbearer’s words to his master was that this young Hebrew slave was highly skilled in interpreting dreams.
No mention of his character or his religious faith was made. Joseph’s release and the matter of making right the wrongs committed against him were of no interest to the cupbearer, at least as far as his own words inform us.
Pharaoh’s Problem and Joseph’s Plan
Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon; and when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it. Joseph then answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” So Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, “In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile; and behold, seven cows, fat and sleek came up out of the Nile; and they grazed in the marsh grass. And lo, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and gaunt, such as I had never seen for ugliness in all the land of Egypt; and the lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows. Yet when they had devoured them, it could not be detected that they had devoured them; for they were just as ugly as before. Then I awoke. I saw also in my dream, and behold, seven ears, full and good, came up on a single stalk; and lo, seven ears, withered, thin, and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them; and the thin ears swallowed the seven good ears. Then I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me” (Genesis 41:14-24).
Joseph was hurriedly brought out of Potiphar’s dungeon, but he did not face Pharaoh until he had shaved and changed his clothes. This was not just “cleaning up,” which surely was needed; it was a cultural concession. To the Hebrews, a beard was a mark of dignity (cf. II Samuel 10:4-5; Ezra 9:3), but for the Egyptian it was an offensive thing.59 Joseph took the time to shave himself so as not to unnecessarily offend the king of Egypt. When Joseph came before Pharaoh, the distressing dreams of the previous night were immediately brought up. Pharaoh had heard that Joseph could interpret them.
What an opportune moment for Joseph to capitalize upon! If Jacob had been in his son’s sandals, things would have gone very differently, I believe. He would likely have used the occasion to make a bargain with the king—his freedom for Pharaoh’s request. Jacob would have had a special on interpretations that week. At the very least he would have made certain that Pharaoh understood the injustice of his present circumstances. “You see, Pharaoh, I would really like to help you with your problem, but my mind is so troubled with my circumstances just now that I can’t think …”60
As much as Joseph desired to be released from his captivity, he never brought up the subject. His first concern was not with his own comfort, but with God’s glory. The ability to interpret dreams, which Pharaoh had credited to Joseph, was not his at all. Only God can interpret dreams, Joseph quickly corrected. The young Hebrew slave’s words not only clarified the source of his ability, but they also seemed to give Pharaoh hope that the outcome of Joseph’s ministry to him would bring him comfort in his distress (verse 16). With these words, Pharaoh eagerly repeated his dreams to Joseph, closing by confessing the inability of his most able counselors to give him any word of explanation (verse 24).
Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has told to Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same. And the seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind shall be seven years of famine. It is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will ravage the land. So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe. Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about. And now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it. And let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish during the famine” (Genesis 41:25-36).
Joseph skillfully interpreted the two dreams. His interpretation closely followed the two dreams in many particulars, a fact which could hardly have been unnoticed by Pharaoh and which added credibility to Joseph’s explanation. The two dreams, while different in some details, were one in their meaning (verse 25). Both dreams were given in order to indicate the certainty of what was to occur (verse 32). In each instance “seven” was the time involved—seven years. The fat cows and the plump heads of grain were indicative of the seven years of abundance which were to commence soon in Egypt. The seven gaunt cows and the seven scorched and withered heads of grain foretold the famine which was to follow the years of plenty. The bottom line was that Egypt was to have seven years of plenty followed by a famine so severe that all of the previous abundance would be consumed.
How easy it would have been to stop here. There was good news and bad news for Pharaoh—abundance followed by famine. But Joseph was more than a prophet; he was an administrator. Not only was he able to foretell “things to come,” but he was also competent to analyze the situation and determine the best course of action in order to minimize its detrimental effects. And so a decisive plan of action was proposed to Pharaoh along with the predictions that were given.
A capable administrator was required. He should be instructed to take command of the situation and to gather up a double portion of the bumper crops that would be produced by the land in the years of prosperity. Under him, men should be appointed to make collections and supervise the storage of the land’s produce. These surpluses should be brought into the cities for safe-keeping and later distribution. By these means the effects of the famine could be minimized.
I have become more convinced than ever, having gained a deeper appreciation for the character and humble spirit of Joseph, that it never entered into his mind that he should be the one appointed over this project. Self-interest had never been manifest in his character or conduct prior to this. He did not even mention his unjust imprisonment. Furthermore, who could ever have conceived of a Hebrew slave being elevated to the second highest office in the land? Regardless of the person in charge, the plan would have to be followed in order to deal with the famine which was predicted.
A Promotion by Pharaoh
Now the proposal seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his servants. Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen, and put the gold necklace around his neck. And he had him ride in his second chariot; and they proclaimed before him, “Bow the knee!” And he set him over all the land of Egypt. Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Though I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, as his wife. And Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt (Genesis 41:37-45).
While there was a certain amount of relief resulting from Joseph’s interpretation, the greatest comfort came from his proposed plan of action and the evidence of his competence to oversee the matter. Even the magicians unanimously concurred (But then, who among them would have dared to disagree!) that Joseph was the man for the job.
While Pharaoh’s statement gives testimony to his conviction that Joseph had divine enablement, I do not think that his understanding was such as to equip him to write a theology of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. I believe that Pharaoh was willing to grant Joseph’s assertion that God was with him and that he had spiritual enablement. He was thus willing to acknowledge that there was a god who, through a divine spirit, worked through Joseph. At this point his conception of Joseph’s religion was extremely elementary. More time with Joseph likely changed this.
The best that Joseph could have dared to hope for was a release from his imprisonment. How far beyond this was his elevation to a position of power and prestige! Tokens of his new authority were the signet ring, fine garments, a gold necklace, and the royal chariot, preceded by those who proclaimed the fame and position of Joseph (verses 42, 43). That chariot may not have been the Rolls Royce of Pharaoh’s fleet, but it was at least a Mercedes Benz. Just as Joseph was second only to Potiphar, now he was to answer only to Pharaoh (verses 40, 44).
Pharaoh took two other highly symbolic actions which helped to cement Joseph’s new position with the people of the land. First, Joseph was given an Egyptian name. There are numerous conjectures as to what this name meant.61 Frankly, I do not have the slightest idea what that name meant, nor do I care. An Egyptian name, whatever it meant, signified that in Pharaoh’s mind Joseph was not a “mere Hebrew” (which were despised by the people of Egypt (43:32, 46:34), but an Egyptian. Among the American Indians the counterpart to this would have been to make Joseph a blood-brother of the tribe.
This is further confirmed by the gift of an Egyptian wife, Asenath (verse 45). Many Christians are troubled by the fact that Joseph took a wife from among the Egyptians. Let me ask you a very practical question. Had you been Joseph, where would you have gone to find a godly wife? Would you have gone to Judah, who was willing to sleep with a Canaanite cult prostitute? Would you have gone to your brothers, who tried to kill you? Would you go to a man like Laban? Where could a man find a godly wife in those days?
God had not yet given any commandments regarding marriage, but what was later laid down in the law did not forbid a marriage such as that of Joseph:
When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands, and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
Only marriage to a Canaanite woman was forbidden by God:
But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 20:17-18).
We must, therefore, conclude that Joseph did not sin by taking this Egyptian woman to be his wife. The fact that she was the daughter of an Egyptian priest (verse 45) does not necessarily indicate otherwise. I doubt very much that Pharaoh would have given Joseph a wife who would have been an offense to him or a contradiction to his beliefs. I further doubt that Joseph would have taken her as his wife if she would have been a detriment to his spiritual life. The kind of man who could say “no” to Potiphar’s wife would surely have declined Potiphera’s daughter62 if she would hinder his faith.
A Program Implemented
The final section serves several purposes. First, it reveals the accuracy of Joseph’s interpretation. Second, it evidences the administrative astuteness of Joseph in handling the affairs of state in preparation for the famine to come. Finally, it reveals to us Joseph’s continued spiritual commitment to the God of his fathers.
Now Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went through all the land of Egypt. And during the seven years of plenty the land brought forth abundantly. So he gathered all the food of these seven years which occurred in the land of Egypt, and placed the food in the cities; he placed in every city the food from its own surrounding fields. Thus Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure. Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him. And Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” And he named the second Ephraim, “For,” he said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. So when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, you shall do.” When the famine was spread over all the face of the earth, then Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians; and the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. And the people of all the earth come to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth (Genesis 41:46-57).
Just as Joseph had indicated, the next seven years were marked by great abundance. The land produced in such quantity that the grain held in reserve for the future was beyond measure (verse 49). Joseph skillfully carried out the plan which he had proposed to Pharaoh, storing up a fifth of the grain in the cities for later use. At the end of the seven years of plenty, the famine hit Egypt with severity. The people came to Pharaoh requesting bread, and he sent them to Joseph, telling them to do whatever he said (verse 55). Joseph opened the storehouses and began to sell grain to the Egyptians and to those from other lands, some of whom would be his own brothers.
During the years of Egypt’s great prosperity Joseph was blessed with two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The names which they were given give us further indication of Joseph’s spiritual condition during these exhilirating years in Pharaoh’s palace. Manasseh, which means “making to forget” (margin, NASV), was Joseph’s expression of his gratitude toward God, Who had enabled him to forget “all my trouble and all my father’s household” (verse 51). I do not think that this should be understood in a negative way as though Joseph had no more interest or concern for them. Certainly God’s rich blessings had enabled him to blot out the painful memories of the past, especially the hurt and bitterness which could only harbor a grudge against his brothers and seek an opportunity to get revenge.
Nor should we get the impression that Joseph had no more longings to see his father or his brothers I understand Joseph to mean that he was not overwhelmed with a compulsion to return home out of loneliness, but he was content to remain in the land where God had brought him. Had he returned to his home in Canaan, he could not be the deliverer of his family as God had purposed, and the nation would not be strangers in this foreign land as God had indicated to Abraham many years before:
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” (Genesis 15:13-14).
While I do not wish to offer a new translation, this paraphrase may help to express the meaning which I think Joseph was trying to convey in the naming of Manasseh: “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble with my father’s household.” The bitterness was gone. Joseph was able, even now, to see that while his brothers were wrong in their actions, God had meant it for good (cf. 50:20). With this attitude Joseph could exercise sufficient self-control to keep from revealing his identity too quickly, and thus bring his brothers to genuine repentance by a careful program of instruction unimpeded by feelings of anger and vengeance.
The name Ephraim, that is “fruitfulness” (margin, NASV), conveyed the assurance of Joseph that it was God who had given him prosperity and blessing in the land of his affliction. To Joseph, affliction and blessing were not contradictory, for God was able to turn sorrow into joy.
This episode in the life of Joseph brings us to a vantage point from which we may look backward and forward. Looking back, we must realize that Joseph’s elevation is not the result of one lucky break, but rather of a chain of painful but divinely purposed events. Had Joseph not said “no” to Potiphar’s wife and been unjustly cast into prison with the cupbearer, he could never have been recommended to the king. And had Joseph not been cruelly treated by his brothers and sold into slavery, he would never have been in Potiphar’s house. What a beautiful illustration of Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Looking ahead, we see that the story does not end with chapter 42, for while Joseph is the principal character of this section, he is not the sole object of God’s attention and activity. While there is a sense in which Joseph was blessed because of his faithfulness, there is the even broader perspective that Joseph’s promotion was not for his own prosperity as much as for his brothers’ preservation. Joseph’s position of power and prosperity enabled him to become the “savior” of his brethren. We must be humbled by the fact that while God cares for us as individuals, He often has a broader purpose for what He gives to us. Spiritual gifts, for example, are not given for our own benefit so much as for the upbuilding of others:
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (I Corinthians 12:7).
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (I Peter 4:10).
We need to be very careful about using Joseph as a model in the matter of suffering and glory. In the ultimate sense, Joseph does illustrate the truth that suffering comes before glory and, indeed, even prepares us for glory. The Christian life will be marked by suffering, as countless passages of Scripture inform us (for example, John 15:19; II Corinthians 1:3-5; Philippians 1:29; II Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 12:7-13; James 1:2-4; I Peter 4:12-19), but we know that we will enter into many of the joys of our salvation and the glory which is our Lord’s at His return (II Thessalonians 1:3-12; I Peter 1:3-12). Let us be very careful, however, that we do not view Joseph as a promise that all who are faithful in suffering will be brought to glory and prosperity in this life.
Perhaps my point can best be illustrated by a contrast between the lives of Joseph, who lived out these events, and Moses, who recorded them for us. Joseph began in the land of Canaan and ended up in the land of Egypt with the nation Israel under his care. Moses began in the land of Egypt and ended up in the land of Canaan with the nation Israel under his care. Joseph began his life as a shepherd in the pastures of his father and was exalted to the palace of Pharaoh. Moses was taken as an infant into the palace of the Pharaoh, but later he became a shepherd among the flocks of his father-in-law.
Do you see how very differently God used these two men to accomplish His purposes? While it was necessary, in the purposes of God, to elevate Joseph from the pasture to the palace in order to save the seventy people of God (46:27), it was necessary for Moses to step down from the palace in order to lead the people of God out of bondage:
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen (Hebrews 11:24-27).
God’s purposes are not achieved through only one method or pattern for all men. He raises some up, giving them power and prosperity, while He humbles others. We have no right to demand that God treat us just as He did Joseph, for He may choose to deal with us as He did Moses. Or, more likely, He may deal with us is some way that is entirely different from the way he directed either Joseph or Moses. Joseph, then, is no guarantee that faithful obedience will always lead to position, prosperity, and power in this life. One need only recall the life of Job to correct such shallow thinking.
Now I have a very important word for those who sloppily have made an arbitrary and unbiblical distinction between the “secular” and the “spiritual,” or between “full-time” Christians and the “laity.” Do you notice that God has brought about the deliverance of His people not through Judah, from whom Messiah would come, and not through Levi, through whom the priestly class would originate, but through Joseph, a paper shuffler, a desk jockey, an administrator?
As spiritual as he was, I can well imagine that many in our own day would have approached Joseph with words similar to these: “Joseph, as spiritual as you are, you should consider attending seminary and going into full-time ministry.” How could a secular ministry ever be fulfilling to a man as spiritual as Joseph? God did not raise up a preacher nor a priest, but an administrator to deliver His people from extinction. Let us beware of categorizing occupations in such a way as to make some more spiritual than others. Everyone is a full-time minister in the Scriptures, but some are called to labor in one sphere while others are called to another. Spirituality is totally independent of one’s occupation. One’s job is a matter of both gift and calling, not of spirituality.
In this same line, Joseph was not promoted by Pharaoh (in human terms) because he was spiritual, but because he was skillful and knowledgeable. Pharaoh recognized Joseph to be a man who had divine enablement, but he could have cared less who his “god” was. He was only concerned with finding a man who could do the job which needed to be done. Many Christians think that God is obligated to bless or that His people are bound to patronize people simply because they are Christians. During our recent elections it was sometimes implied that we should vote for a person solely on the basis of a profession of faith. When I go to a surgeon, I will go to the one who is the best, regardless of whether he (or she) is a pagan, an atheist, or a devout Christian. God is not restricted to working only through saints, you know. Many of us who are Christians are not very good at what we do, either because we are lazy, or we think that God is obliged to bless us only because we give testimony to our faith. Joseph’s testimony would have had little impact if he had proven to be wrong or had failed miserably to administrate the collection of grain. Let us enhance our testimony by doing well what we do. As the writer of the proverb puts it:
Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men (Proverbs 22:29).
While I believe that God elevated Joseph because he trusted in God and obeyed, I am just as confident that Pharaoh elevated him because he was diligent and skillful in what he did. Piety without proficiency is folly. We praise God in our work as well as in our words. One without the other is useless.
Joseph’s life is a commentary on the principle that: “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16:10).
Joseph did nothing different in Pharaoh’s palace than he did in Potiphar’s penthouse or in his prison. In every instance Joseph exercised his God-given ability to administrate. While the features of each job may have differed, the functions were the same. Joseph, I am certain, did well in the palace because he had done his work diligently and faithfully wherever he had been previously.
How often we are like the unfaithful steward who had only one talent and who hid it because he thought it was too insignificant to bother with. How much more others had to offer, he rationalized. But his master called him wicked and lazy (Matthew 25:26). Only those who are faithful with present opportunities and duties have any basis for expectation of greater responsibilities and privileges. Our primary duty is not to dream of what the future may hold, but to do what the present provides us. He is a fool whose “eyes are on the ends of the earth” (Proverbs 17:24), always waiting for his ship to come in, for that one lucky break, but doing nothing in the present.
The biblical principle which we must practice is rather this: “Commit your works to the Lord, And your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3).
It is not wrong to have biblical goals, but it is foolish to devote our energies to future and glorious dreams when present duties are being neglected. It is not wrong to have “high hopes” as the song says it, but it is foolish to keep “butting the dam” when our head is only getting bloodier and bloodier. God has given us a work to do now; let us be faithful in doing that. And let us remember that the things which God has in store for us are even greater than our minds can conceive (I Corinthians 2:9). Our highest dreams may fall far short of that which God has in store for those who do the little things of the present well and leave the future to Him.
Finally, a word about adversity. I think we can all see how God used adversity to prepare Joseph for the promotion and power he receives in chapter 41. But have you noticed that it was national disaster which provided the occasion for this promotion? Pharaoh would never have promoted Joseph unless he knew that there were trying days ahead and difficulties which were beyond him and his wisest advisors. That is when the Josephs are needed, in adversity.
Some of us, as Christians, would do well in the matter of prophecy. We are great prophets of doom. We love to stand up and proclaim to the world that the world is going to Hell on a bobsled. And we stop just at this point, with only the bad news. Joseph did not stop here; he had a message of hope, a message which provided a solution for the problems of that day.
The ultimate solution to the problems of mankind is a spiritual one. The crises of our lives are, at bottom, a result of sin. And the solution to the problem of sin is one that only God, through the death of His Son on the cross of Calvary, has the answer to. Let us be faithful to offer men hope and not just despair. It is in man’s darkest hours that the message of the gospel is most desperately needed and when godly men and women are turned to.
But let us not stop with this, as fundamental and primary as it is. We live in days of tremendous difficulty. It takes little wisdom or ability to confirm the fact that things are bad, but it takes the wisdom which only God gives to offer solutions to the practical problems of hunger and injustice, of energy and ecology. Let us, like Joseph, speak to these issues too, with wisdom and skill, and by this add credibility to the faith which we proclaim.
56 It is not possible to determine, with any degree of certainty, whether this two years begins with the imprisonment of Joseph or with the release of the cupbearer. The value of such a fact would only be to enable us to determine the chronology of Joseph’s life more precisely.
57 “The essentially Egyptian character of this section, and indeed of the entire narrative of Joseph, is worthy of constant notice, for it provides us with one of the watermarks of the Pentateuch enabling us to perceive its historical character and its truthfulness to life. It is not too much to say that at no period after the time of Moses could anything so true to Egyptian life have been written out of Egypt by a member of the community of Israel.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1946), p. 389.
58 “Magicians is another Egyptian-based word, hartummim: it appears to be part of a composite title for those who were expert in ritual books of priest-craft and magic. They appear in Exodus 7:11 where spells were needed; here they would be consulting the considerable literature on dreams . . .” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), pp. 194-195.
59 “The bath and the shave are designed to make Joseph ritually and socially acceptable to Pharaoh. (None of the Egyptians wore beards. Beards shown on the monuments are ceremonial and even Queen Hatshepsut wore an imitation one, as is to be seen on the representations left to her after Thutmosis III had her images defaced or removed.) Change of clothing was necessary to suit Joseph’s status as a wise counselor.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 288.
60 I confess, I may be getting carried away with Jacob’s traits; however, he surely was a schemer and a “wheeler-dealer.” In chapter 43 he will rebuke his sons for telling the truth to Joseph (verse 6). At least this is the way I would have handled the situation with Pharaoh.
61 “The practice of giving foreigners on Egyptian name is very well attested, but no agreement exists on the meaning of Zaphenath-paneah. Egyptian-based interpretations have been offered as diverse as ‘God has spoken and he lives’ (G. Steindortf), ‘He who knows things’ (J. Vergote), and ‘(Joseph), who is called Ip’ ankh’ (K. A. Kitchen).” Kidner, Genesis, p. 197.
The Proper Use of Power (Genesis 42:1-38)
Only those who know me best realize what a sweet and innocent child I was. There were exceptions, of course, but very few. It is one of those rare occasions that comes to my mind as we approach the reunion of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 42. Every summer my sister and I attended church camp. One summer camp was held in what was reputed to be a condemned orphanage (and I still believe it was). I was placed in a small room with a friend from my church, a very quiet and obedient fellow. One day it occurred to me that our room contained the electrical panel for the entire campground. As you can guess, the temptation was too great—for me at least. After darkness had fallen and everyone was dependent upon the lights, I threw the cutoff switch, disengaging the electrical power for the entire camp.
You can imagine the pandemonium this created. I still laugh as I think of it. It took a short time for everyone to fumble about for their suitcases, searching them until they located their flashlights. This was only the beginning, for there followed many pleasure-filled minutes watching the camp leaders walking about the camp, following wires and trying to find the source of the problem. Sooner or later, I knew, they had to come to me, for I was the only one who could solve their problem. I shall, however, spare you the details of what happened when they did, at last, arrive.
If we are honest about it, most of us dream of having the opportunity to be in complete control of things. How glorious and ego stroking it would be to have something happen that would bring the world groveling at our feet. Think of the pleasure such an experience could bring. Think of what you could do in a situation where you had absolute control.
Such was Joseph’s position in Genesis 42. The famine had created an international disaster. People from the surrounding nations heard that Egypt alone had provisions enough to survive the famine that had ravaged the Near Eastern world. And who should arrive to buy bread but Joseph’s brothers, who had thrown him into a pit to starve, while they ate their lunch, oblivious to his cries for help. Can you imagine the thoughts that would go through the mind of someone in Joseph’s position?
Until now, I have always considered the suffering and injustice of Joseph at the hands of his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and his master to be the greatest tests of his life, but I was wrong. What test could possibly be greater than the one which Joseph faced in Genesis 42? Here he was, faced by his brothers, absolutely destitute and defenseless, while Joseph had unlimited power. Without a doubt this was the greatest test of Joseph’s character. It is one thing to be tested when you are powerless to resist. It is quite another to be given the opportunity to get revenge when your enemies are mere putty in your hands.
While poverty, suffering, or injustice may be tests that come our way from time to time, I believe that we, like Joseph, are tested most by the power that is ours and the way that we use it. For this reason, we must take a hard look at what enabled Joseph to use the power at his disposal for the betterment of his brothers rather than as an opportunity to vent all the bitter feelings that could have been his.
While the famine was said to be world-wide (41:57), it was particularly intended to be the cause of Jacob’s family going down into Egypt where they would remain for more than 400 years:
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” (Genesis 15:13).
The events of chapter 42 are thus the occasion for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham:
Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, “Why are you staring at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt; go down there and buy some for us from that place, so that we may live and not die.” Then ten brothers of Joseph went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, “I am afraid that harm may befall him.” So the sons of Israel came to buy grain among those who were coming, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also. Now Joseph was the ruler over the land; he was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers come and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he disguised himself to them and spoke to them harshly. And he said to them, “Where have you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food” (Genesis 42:1-7).
The scene in Canaan is almost amusing. The brothers of Joseph stand in the presence of their father, deeply distressed by the fact that their food supply is nearly depleted, and there is no hope of replenishing it so long as the famine persists. Jacob, aware of the availability of grain in Egypt, prodded his sons into action with the rebuke, “Don’t just stand there, go down to Egypt and get some grain.”
Jacob’s partiality toward the sons of Rachel (which had nearly gotten Joseph killed) is still very obvious. While the other ten sons were sent to Egypt, Benjamin was kept near, under the watchful eye of his father (verse 4). It could not have been because Benjamin was too young, for he had to have been in his twenties by now.63 At the age of 17 Joseph had been sent a considerable distance from home to check on his brothers (37:2,12). Perhaps the circumstances of Joseph’s disappearance were too suspect for Jacob to take another chance by leaving Benjamin in the care of his other brothers.
The ten brothers arrived in Egypt along with many others to buy grain from Joseph. Without realizing they were fulfilling the prophecy of Joseph’s two dreams years before (37:6-11), his brothers bowed low before him, expressing the respect due to one of such high office. How tempting for Joseph to ask them to bow just a little lower or perhaps to do so just one more time. How easy it would have been to bask in the honor and power which was now his. But all we are told is that Joseph recognized these men as his brothers, yet his identity was not known to them. More than twenty years, along with a clean-shaven face, Egyptian clothing, customs, and language, precluded any thought that this potentate might be their brother. He had, after all, been sold as a slave.
From verse 7 alone we might be inclined to think that Joseph was being harsh with his brothers out of a spirit of vengeance. Certainly this would be the normal reaction of anyone as mistreated as Joseph had been by his brothers. His severity, however, was a “disguise” (verse 7), an effort to keep his identity a secret. Character, someone has said, is what we are in the dark, and Joseph was keeping his brothers “in the dark” until their character could be determined.
The key to Joseph’s actions is found in the next two verses. Here we gain an appreciation for Joseph’s motives and methods in dealing with his brothers:
But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, “You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land” (Genesis 42:8-9).
Far more is meant by verse 9 than that Joseph merely remembered his dreams about his brothers and recognized their fulfillment in their bowing down to him. All this would have done would have been to puff up his pride. Joseph not only realized the fulfillment of his dreams but also the reason for them. He saw that God had a purpose for placing him in his position of power, and this purpose was for him to function as the family head, protecting and preserving his family. He had great power and prestige, but God had given these to him for a purpose much greater than merely to seek revenge. He saw that leadership involved power, but that it also brought upon him the weight of responsibility. At times the greatest need is not to be aware of the power at our disposal, but of the purpose for which this power has been given.
I need to digress for just a moment to show how our character affects our understanding and application of the Word of God. It has been observed by saints and sinners for centuries that “you can make the Bible say anything you want.” Like it or not, this is true. Think of what Joseph could have made of his dream. This was a message from God! If he had been dominated by bitterness and hatred, Joseph could have viewed his vision as a mandate from God to make life miserable for his brothers. Hadn’t God revealed to him that his brothers would bow down to him? He could have rubbed their proverbial noses in the dirt and given them a proof text for it, had he wished. It is alarmingly possible for us to justify sinful actions with biblical texts if we choose to, but this will always be at the expense of other clear passages which we have chosen to ignore.
And Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, “You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land.” Then they said to him, “No, my lord, but your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies.” Yet he said to them, “No, but you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land!” But they said, “Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (Genesis 42:9-13).
Joseph’s severity was feigned, not real. He needed to learn more information without his brothers realizing who he was or what he was attempting to accomplish. His harshness was intended to produce fear, for at this point in the lives of his brothers fear produced more facts than faith. In their fear they blurted out the things which Joseph yearned to know. Was his father alive? And how was Benjamin? Desperately trying to talk their way out of the charge that they were spies, they supplied him with facts they would never have given otherwise. Later Jacob would rebuke his sons for what they revealed (43:6). Disclosing the disappearance of one brother and the existence of another in Canaan provided Joseph with the opportunity to test his brothers in the area of their greatest failure.
And Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you, you are spies; by this you will be tested; by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here! Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” So he put them all together in prison for three days (Genesis 42:14-17).
Joseph narrowed the situation down to two options: either they had come as spies, in which case their story about a younger brother was a mere fabrication, or they were telling the truth. The matter could easily be settled by their producing the younger brother. All of the brothers would be detained except one, who could be dispatched to bring back the proof of their honesty. How cleverly Joseph handled this situation to bring about his desired ends without his brothers seeing his purpose in it all.
Joseph then placed all of the brothers in confinement. I cannot prove it, but my suspicion is that the prison was probably one that we know well—Potiphar’s prison. More significant is that Joseph put them in confinement together (verse 17). More than giving them comfort, as opposed to solitary confinement, it caused them to consider the meaning of what was taking place in their lives. This is more fully seen in their conversation recorded in later verses. Even if not bodily present with his brothers in prison,64 his heart must have been with them in their confinement. This was not punishment, but it was preparation, just as his confinement had been. It served to intensify their comprehension of the gravity of the situation.
The outcome of Joseph’s dealings with his brothers was considerably less harsh than what was first threatened. He had first maintained that all of the brothers would be held captive while only one was to be sent for Benjamin (verse 16). But now he has reduced his demands considerably.
Now Joseph said to them on the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die.” And they did so. Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them. And he turned away from them and wept. But when he returned to them and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes (Genesis 42:18-24).
Those three days must have been miserable. They must have been filled with fear and foreboding. Would they ever return to their father? Would they ever regain their freedom? And, most delicate, who would be the one who was released to return to Canaan while the others remained captive? For them, Joseph’s experience, which took years, was condensed to days. Joseph’s words to them were like the sunrise dispelling the darkness. His words are filled with hope and encouragement, not fear and judgment. “Do this and live,” Joseph urged them (verse 18). Life, not death, joy, not misery, was what Joseph desired for his brothers. But certain changes had to occur before this could be their experience. The self-interest and cruelty which had caused them to sell him into slavery must be dealt with. That would not come easily or quickly, but it would come.
Joseph’s statement, “I, too, fear God” (verse 18) should have been the cause of much deliberation in the days and months to come. What could this “Egyptian” despot possibly have meant by these words? I understand this statement to be a technical expression reserved for use only by those who had a genuine faith in the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Abraham stood before Abimelech, trying to explain his deceit in passing off his wife as his sister, he said,
Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife (Genesis 20:11).
The expression “to fear God” was a technical one, I believe, equivalent to our contemporary expression “born again.” It was spoken by Joseph to inspire hope and to encourage contemplation of what was taking place. It was only after Joseph had given expression to his faith that his brothers began to recognize the hand of God in their lives through these events.
Another cause for encouragement was the significant decrease in the demands that were made upon these foreigners. While they were initially told that all must remain captive while one would be allowed to return home for Benjamin, now all but one may return to the land of Canaan. They are expected to take life-sustaining grain to their needy families and then to return with their youngest brother. The words “and they did so” (verse 20) seem to indicate that the ten agreed to the terms Joseph laid down and set out to do them, only to be resisted by their father upon their return (cf. verses 36-38).
It is at this point that the brothers began to talk among themselves, unaware that Joseph understood every word. All along he had used an interpreter, giving them the impression that this “Egyptian” could not speak their language. This kept them from even considering that they might know him, let alone that they might be related to him.
The relationship between their present predicament and their treatment of Joseph was too obvious to overlook. Each of them acknowledged that their difficulties were the result of their sin in regard to Joseph. They had pled for mercy and not received it, just as Joseph had cried for help from the pit and they had ignored him. Reuben then reminded them of his warnings and their resistance. Sin always has consequences, and they were beginning to realize how painful these can be.
The heart of Joseph is openly revealed in verse 24. Having overheard the spiritual soul-searching that went on among his brothers, Joseph could contain his emotions no longer. He had to leave their presence, lest by his tears they should discover his identity. Joseph’s actions were not those of a man who did not care for his brothers, but of one who cared so much that he resisted the urge to identify himself in order to promote their spiritual well-being.
It was Simeon who was chosen by Joseph to remain behind. Was there any particular reason for this choice? It seems so. In a marginal note, the editors of the Berkeley Version suggest,
With Reuben absent when Joseph was sold down to Egypt, Simeon was the responsible leader, being next to the oldest; hence his being retained. 65
This, in my opinion, is worthy of consideration.
Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. And thus it was done for them. So they loaded their donkeys with their grain, and departed from there. And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money; and behold, it was in the mouth of his sack. Then he said to his brothers, “My money has been returned, and behold, it is even in my sack.” And their hearts sank, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:25-28).
It was time for his brothers to return home, for their families were soon to run out of grain. Orders were given to fill his brothers’ bags with grain and to return their payment, but to conceal it within their bags. Probably to ensure that they would not discover the money until it was too late to turn back, provisions were made to meet their needs on the journey home. I would imagine that smaller, separate sacks were provided with food for the men and perhaps their animals, so that the grain sacks with the money would not need to be opened until they arrived home.
Inadvertently, one of the brothers opened his large sack to feed his donkey and discovered his money returned. The brothers’ response was, in my estimation, a sign of positive growth. Evil men would have laughed at the stupidity of the servant who must have misplaced the payment and would have enjoyed having put one over on the Egyptians. Such an event would have been considered a stroke of good luck. Yet these men were distraught, for they saw that this was the hand of God, not fate, and that this might be discovered back in Pharaoh palace where their brother Simeon was being held prisoner. They knew that they had promised to return with Benjamin. If this missing money was made known to Joseph, things might not go so well for them on their next visit. It never seemed to occur to the other eight brothers that their money would be found in their sacks too (cf. verse 35).
Initially I thought that Joseph’s motive for returning their money was in order to test them—a test of their honesty. But why, then, would the smaller provision sacks have been prepared in order to keep the sacks with the money from being opened? Did he wish to see if they would make restitution on their next trip? Perhaps so, for they did sell him into bondage for money (37:25-28). Frankly, I do not think Joseph intended this as a test, though it proved to be so. I believe that he had no intention of selling anything to his brothers, but rather of supplying their needs freely. This would then be an illustration of the principle taught in Proverbs:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink (Proverbs 25:21).
Give, the proverb instructs us, not sell. For me, this is all the explanation needed for Joseph’s actions.
Jacob’s Sons Return and Report
When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, “The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly with us, and took us for spies of the country. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies. We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; one is no more, and the youngest is with our father today in the land of Canaan.’ And the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me and take grain for the famine of your households, and go. But bring your youngest brother to me that I may know that you are not spies, but honest men. I will give your brother to you, and you may trade in the land”’ (Genesis 42:29-34).
Upon their arrival the brothers had quite a story to tell. Jacob certainly insisted on an explanation for the absence of Simeon. Still, there is not the response of grief we might expect if one of his more beloved sons had been taken captive. A blow-by-blow account was given by the nine, ending with the bad news that Benjamin would have to be taken along on the next trip if they expected to see Simeon again or to purchase more grain (verse 34).
Apparently the sacks of grain were being unloaded and opened as the report was given to Jacob, for his response to the whole affair is delayed until the discovery of the money in the rest of the sacks which they brought back.
Now it came about as they were emptying their sacks, that behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed. And their father Jacob said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.” Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you.” But Jacob said, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow” (Genesis 42:35-38).
I find it interesting to compare the response of Joseph’s brothers to the discovery of the money in the one sack along the way (verses 27-28) with that of Jacob here. There the hand of God was seen. Here nothing is said of God, but only of bad luck and of personal disaster for Jacob.
In these chapters dealing with the life of Joseph, three different responses to adversity are seen. For Joseph, his suffering was ultimately from the hand of a loving heavenly Father, Who was near in his affliction (cf. 39:23, 21-23; 40:8; 41:16,51-52). For his brothers, their adversity was punishment from an angry God, Who was getting even with them for their sin (42:21-22, 28). For Jacob, it was no more than the fickle hand of fate or, worse yet, the stupidity of his sons, that made his life miserable (42:36-38). And yet in every instance affliction was the gentle and gracious hand of God, drawing His sons closer to Himself.
Jacob was in a far different spiritual state than his son Joseph. No wonder it fell to Joseph to function as head of the family so that a spiritual lesson would be learned and the faith of all would be strengthened. How self-centered Jacob’s words are. “Poor me!” That is the essence of them. He could not see the gentle hand of God in all of this, but it was there regardless. While affliction drew Joseph ever closer to God, Jacob had seemingly forgotten his faith.
A further indication of the breakdown in Jacob’s spiritual life was his reaction to the necessity of sending Benjamin to Egypt. Reuben sought to assure Jacob that things would work out all right. Jacob was not to be convinced. Indeed, he was not willing to even take a chance on losing Benjamin. In effect, this meant that Jacob was willing to sacrifice his son Simeon rather than run any risk of losing his favored son Benjamin. Partiality was still very much a part of Jacob’s nature.
No wonder Jacob’s sons were willing to sell Joseph into slavery to secure their own selfish interests. For their own gain, they were willing to let Joseph live out his life in Egypt as a slave. This is exactly the effect of Jacob’s decision here. Rather than run the slightest risk of losing his beloved Benjamin, Jacob would allow Simeon to spend the rest of his life in Pharaoh’s prison and give that Egyptian potentate (Joseph) the impression that his sons’ words were untrue. Joseph’s brothers were truly sons of their father.
Jacob could not live without Benjamin, he protested. There was no way that he would ever give him up (verse 38). And yet this was precisely the way God had determined to save Jacob and all his family. Just as Abraham expressed his faith by showing his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (22:1-19), Jacob must be willing to give up his son Benjamin. The very thing Jacob thought would destroy him was to be the means of his salvation. But this is dealt with in the next chapters. How blind we are to the workings of God, especially when we are going our own way.
In order to understand how Joseph was able to handle his position of power and use it in a way which honored God and blessed his family, we must understand some biblical principles of power. Let me attempt to spell these out.
(1) Power, like money, is not evil, but a stewardship. If the power we hold is legitimate power, then it is power that is given by God. From the beginning of the creation, power was given to man by God:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26; emphasis added).
In Genesis 9:5-7, governmental authority was given to man, and this power is reaffirmed in the New Testament:
Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God (Romans 13:1).
When Pilate sought to evoke a response from Jesus by impressing Him with the authority he had, Jesus quickly put this power in proper perspective. It was delegated power, given by God:
Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; …” (John 19:11).
Joseph was well aware that the power he had was given by God. We can see this, for example, when Pharaoh told Joseph that he was aware of his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph was quick to clarify that this power was not his, but God’s:
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph then answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:15-16).
The first step toward pride and misuse of power is to forget the source from which our power has come and to overlook the responsibility it brings upon us as stewards:
For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (I Corinthians 4:7).
(2) Power is not to be sought for self-gain, but used to serve others. Money is only evil when it is sought for its own sake:
But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang (I Timothy 6:9-10).
The same is true of power. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel charged Israel’s leaders with having lost sight of the purpose for their power. They began to use it to serve their own ends:
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them”’” (Ezekiel 34:1-4).
The same evil use of power was evident when our Lord walked upon the earth. He sternly rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their arrogance and pride as leaders:
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:1-12).
No wonder the disciples were continually inclined to think in terms of rank and to strive after preeminence and power (Mark 9:34, 10:35-45; Luke 9:33, 22:24). Greatness cannot be measured in terms of power, but in terms of service. This is why our Lord said of Himself:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Is it any surprise that the basic issue between Jesus and the religious establishment was that of authority (cf. Matthew 21:23)? Here was where the great difference was to be seen in their ministries. Jesus used His power to serve others while they sought it to serve their own ends.
As Joseph recalled his dreams, he must have realized that his power was God-given, not to satisfy selfish desires, but to save the nation Israel from physical famine and from spiritual decadence. Therefore he gave grain freely to his brothers rather than to make them “eat crow” to get it. Power in the hands of a servant is a blessed thing, but power in the hands of a tyrant is a curse.
(3) Power is obtained and exercised in various ways. This is not a principle that is particularly evident in our passage, but it is one that enables us to see the application of the principles underlying Joseph’s use of power to our own day and time. You and I will likely never be elevated to the second highest office in our land. Because power comes in a variety of forms, whatever kind of power we have must be seen in the light of the biblical principles pertaining to power. Let me suggest several types of power which are all about us in our time and culture.
Positional Power. The first form of power is that which comes with office. A sergeant in the army has authority66 over a private simply because of his position. An employer has authority over an employee (some might challenge this nowadays). A manager or supervisor has authority over those under him or her. A parent has certain authority over his child, and so on.
Positional power is not to be confused with personal character or with intrinsic worth. A man who is a rotten person may be a sergeant. Such power is not the product of one’s personal qualities but of one’s position. A father may be a good one or a bad one, and so with any position. The power which should be granted with any position may be used wickedly, righteously, or not at all, depending upon the one in that position. Joseph had positional power by virtue of his political office of second in command, accountable only to Pharaoh. As Pharaoh expressed it, “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, you shall do” (41:55).
Situational Power. While positional power is the formal mechanism for allocating power, circumstances also have a way of putting power into our hands, for a time at least. For example, suppose that you are a used car salesperson and someone comes into your lot to look at cars. They find a particular car they like but think the price is too high. They tell you they will think it over and get into their car to drive off. Just as their engine starts, clattering and banging begins under the hood, followed by billows of smoke, one last gasp, and silence. That salesperson now has situational power.
Joseph had situational power as well as positional power. He was second in command to Pharaoh, but his brothers were not under his authority for they lived in Canaan. Once the famine came and Jacob was desperate to purchase grain to keep his family alive, circumstances were such that his sons were forced to come to Joseph and to be subject to his whims. They had no other alternative.
Many of us fail to appreciate the power that comes to us from time to time because of particular situations that give us the upper hand. We may think of these times as opportunities, and we may view our power as “clout” and our manipulations as shrewd. In reality we may be using situational power to gain the advantage over our fellows. I find it interesting to consider the Old Testament Law in the light of this kind of power. God seemed to make it extremely difficult for a Jew to take advantage of his brother just because he was in dire straits (and thus disadvantaged). Money could not be loaned to him at interest (Exodus 22:25-27), and the poor were to be generously loaned what they needed (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). At the end of seven years all debts were to be canceled (Deuteronomy 15:1-2), and slaves were to be released (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). In the fiftieth year all property purchased from a fellow-Israelite had to be returned to its original owner (Leviticus 25:8-17).
It must be said that a distinction is drawn between Israel’s conduct toward a fellow-Israelite and their conduct toward a non-Israelite. Interest could be charged of non-Israelites for example (Deuteronomy 23:19-20). But never was undue advantage to be taken of anyone, even of foreigners (Exodus 22:21; 23:9,12; Leviticus 19:10). Situational power is never to be viewed as an opportunity to gain an advantage over a brother.
Expert power. Somewhat more pragmatic is the matter of expert power. Normally, though not always, expert power is based upon performance. Few people ask a mechanic where he received his training, or a doctor for that matter. What they really want to know is whether or not that person knows what he is doing.
Joseph provides us with as good an example of this kind of power as can be found. Pharaoh did not really care about Joseph’s past, his prison record, or his nationality. What mattered to him, in his time of need, was whether or not he could interpret his dreams. Beyond his ability to do this, Joseph demonstrated his ability to administrate by proposing a plan of action to deal with the seven years of famine. Joseph’s positional power was granted because of his expert power. Pharaoh was right to place Joseph in a position of power because he had the ability to fulfill the requirements of the job.
Expert power can be easily abused. A “scientist,” in our day of “sciencism,” is regarded as being an expert, when this may not be the case. Some scientists tell us that the world did not begin as the creative product of an infinite God. They need not be right just because they are scientists, even if they are speaking of matters in their own field of study. Einstein, I am told, was wrong in a number of his scientific theories, but people assumed him to be an expert in every area of scientific investigation. Worse yet, Einstein began to make speculations in other areas, such as theology, where he had little knowledge or expertise.
Those of us who have had the luxury of a seminary education are automatically elevated to the level of a religious “expert,” while this need not be the case. The mere mention of a Hebrew or Greek word, or the employment of an unfamiliar theological term can silence the objection of a godly and mature saint who is intimidated by such apparent expertise. Education can greatly sharpen an open and inquisitive mind, but it can also provide ammunition for a narrow mind which seeks only further confirmation of previously conceived prejudices and opinions.
Especially beware of those times when we who stand behind the pulpit begin to speak authoritatively of things concerning which we have little or no expertise. It is a very tempting thing to use the power of the pulpit and the appearance of an open Bible to substantiate our prejudices and theories. Let us not attempt to misuse the power of our expertise by attempting to add force to our opinions on things about which we are ill informed.
Psychological power. There are various forms of psychological power available to most of us. For example, when I taught school I sometimes found it necessary to paddle students. In particularly serious situations I would take the student(s) to the principal’s office and sit them on the floor. Everyone who entered would look down at them and, either verbally or by body language, ask why they were there. In addition to this, I could place the paddle on the desk where they could fix their attention on its every feature (such as the air holes, for added “umpfh”). By the time the paddling time came around, the greatest impact had already been made.
What power Joseph had over his brothers in this area! This was a foreign land, and these Hebrew shepherds could neither speak the language (cf. 42:23), nor were they well thought of by the Egyptians (cf. 43:32; 46:34). They were men from the country, and this was the big city (cf. 41:35). The pomp and circumstance of their surroundings as well as the feigned austerity and harshness of Joseph were just about enough to unnerve these brothers (cf. 43:18). In addition to their fear, Joseph could easily have played upon their guilt, which was not concealed from him (cf. 42:21-22). These men were like putty in the hands of one as shrewd as Joseph. Such power could have been easily corrupted.
Today psychological power is a very common phenomenon. Many men have great power because of their physical prowess, booming voices, and aggressive, assertive personalities (these people make great salesmen). People usually step back and let them control the situation rather than run the risk of confrontation or opposition. Saul had this awesome kind of demeanor, I think (cf. I Samuel 9:1-2). Incidentally, so did Goliath (I Samuel 17:1-12), as well as the Nephilim (Numbers 13:32-33). Women who are striking in appearance also have tremendous psychological power.
Those of us who are neither physically awesome nor attractive still have some opportunities to exercise psychological power, however. Women have the uncanny ability to “turn on the tears,” thereby disarming many of us of the opposite sex. Men who have violent tempers have the ability to control things simply by virtue of everyone’s desire not to trigger an explosion that will scald everyone unfortunate enough to be around at the time of a temper tantrum.
There is a variant of psychological power which is especially effective in religious circles. I have labeled this Christian clout “pious power.” Pious power takes advantage of the impression of greater spirituality by preying upon the insecurity or inferiority feelings of those who feel less spiritual. By the employment of pious expressions, spiritual jargon, or even tear-filled eyes, those we wish to manipulate are inclined to feel unspiritual, immature, or uncommitted if they do not do what we suggest. This may be done either by an aggressive and assertive Moses-like leader, or by a meek and humble appearing “saint.” Who, for example, can turn down a request to teach a Sunday School class by one who tells us that they have prayed about it for months, often in the early morning hours, and God has told them we are the one to perform this sacred task? That is pious power.
Reward and punishment power. While other forms of power have been identified and discussed in the secular arena,67 I wish only to mention one further form of secular power. It is the power that comes from our ability to give or withhold desirable rewards and the power that can execute or stay judgment.
A parent most obviously has this kind of power. Husbands can sulk or refuse to talk to their wives, and the wives have subtle ways of punishing their husbands. Preachers from behind the safety (sanctity?) of the pulpit may praise the efforts of certain “cooperative” individuals, or they may “ask for prayer” for those who are resistant to their plans and programs. Joseph, too, had great reward and punishment power over his brothers. He could imprison them as traitors, or he could bestow an abundance of blessings upon them (cf. 45:10-11,16-20).
Spiritual power. All of the previous types of power can be used to the glory of God, but they are, in reality, a secular type of power. In contrast to these we must make mention of what I shall refer to as spiritual power.
Spiritual power does not originate from within man, but it comes from God, Who is the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This power is available to every believer.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves (II Corinthians 4:7).
So David blessed the LORD in the sight of all the assembly; and David said, “Blessed art Thou, O LORD God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Thine, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Thine is the dominion, O LORD, and Thou dost exalt Thyself as head over all. Both riches and honor come from Thee, and Thou dost rule over all, and in Thy hand is power and might; and it lies in Thy hand to make great, and to strengthen everyone” (I Chronicles 29:10-12).
… and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might (Ephesians 1:19).
Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Spiritual power is inconsistent with human devices and manipulative techniques.
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (I Corinthians 2:1-5).
Spiritual power is manifested through the Spirit of God.
“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Spiritual power is not given to those who are humanly capable and confident, but to those who are weak and dependent upon Him for enablement.
For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isaiah 53:2-3).
For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ, we are weak but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things even until now (I Corinthians 4:7-13).
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (II Corinthians 12:9-10).
He gives strength to the weary, And to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary (Isaiah 40:29-31).
Spiritual power is the divine enablement to save, to keep, to sanctify, to serve, and to rise from the dead when our Lord comes again.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).
… who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (I Peter 1:5).
… seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (II Peter 1:3).
And Jesus come up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Romans 8:11).
Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power (I Corinthians 6:14).
(4) Spiritual results are the product of spiritual power, not of political power. The great temptation for Joseph was to employ his political power in order to get even with his brothers for the evil they had done to him. While Joseph did employ his secular power to benefit his brethren, it was, in my opinion, his spiritual power which had the greatest results.
Did you notice that while Joseph’s feigned harshness produced fear, it was his graciousness that resulted in spiritual awareness and the beginnings of repentance? The gruff accusations of Joseph did produce the facts he sought about his father and brother (42:8-13), but it was grace that caused his brothers to consider their circumstances as coming from the hand of God. It was only after Joseph released his brothers from prison and relaxed his demands and offered hope and life by assuring them that he, too, feared God (42:18) that they began to consider God’s hand in their dilemma (42:21-22). And it was after they realized that their money was given back to them in the grain sack that they said, “What is this that God has done to us?” (42:28).
How clear this all becomes in the light of the teaching of the apostle Paul in the book of Romans:
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the LORD. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).
That is what Joseph’s dealings with his brothers are all about. He was in a position to employ secular power to vent all of his feelings of anger and bitterness but, instead, he used the spiritual power of God, manifested in serving and setting the interests of others first. That began a process of restoration in his brothers.
The selfless spirit of Joseph is a remarkable contrast to the self-seeking spirit of Jacob and his ten sons. Joseph could never expect to see his brothers restored by the exercise of secular power, motivated by selfish desire. There is a law of physics which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Human power, motivated by carnal motives, brings about similar reactions. Spiritual power, exercised from godly motives, brings about spiritual ends. Like produces like.
What kind of power do you employ, my friend? And how do you exercise that power that is in your hand? Fathers, do you employ mere physical superiority to bring about only compliance from your children? Or do you use spiritual power to bring about spiritual submission? Do we frustrate our children by a misuse of our power? Do we discourage and embitter our wives by using the authority God has given us in our marriage only to serve our own interests rather than to enrich and enhance our mate? The question which Joseph poses to every Christian is this: How do we exercise the power which is at our disposal? Do we use it to serve others or to seek our own selfish ends?
Perhaps we have resorted to secular, worldly power to achieve our goals, even godly goals, simply because we are more accustomed to it. I fear that much that we attempt to accomplish for God is done through merely secular means. Many of our churches could probably be taken over by unbelieving executives and administrators, and we might not even know the difference. Mere religious forms are no guarantee of spiritual power:
… holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power … (II Timothy 3:5).
May God enable us to employ spiritual power through spiritual means for His glory and our good.
63 Joseph was born at the end of Jacob’s 14 years of service to Laban, and at the time Jacob asked to be released (30:25). We know also that Jacob served Laban another 6 years before leaving to return to the land of Canaan (cf. 31:38). Adding to these 6 years several more spent dallying in Succoth and Shechem (33:18-34:31), we conclude that Benjamin must have been ten or more years younger than Joseph. Joseph was 30 when he entered into Pharaoh’s court (41:46) and the seven years of plenty had passed, with the famine under way. That would make Joseph around 39 and Benjamin no older than 29. Since Benjamin was alive when Joseph was sold into slavery at the age of 17 (37:2), and he was now 22 years older, Benjamin would have to be at least 22 and not older than 29. In other words, he was not a child.
64 The appearance is that Joseph sent the ten brothers to be confined for three days, during which he is not said to have visited them. It would seem that what occurs in verses 18-23 is that Joseph summoned his brothers to him from the jail and spoke to them from his quarters. If this is so, that which is overheard is not spoken in the jail, but in Joseph’s headquarters.
66 Technically, there is a difference between power and authority. Authority refers to the right one has to command, while power refers to the ability. In many instances there are two chains-of-command, a formal one and an informal one. This is the result of giving authority to people who lack the power to carry out their task. As a result, some one with power (legitimate or otherwise) arises who gets the job done, but outside the system.
67 For a more thorough treatment of the various types of power, handled from a secular point of view, see Joseph L. Massie and John Douglas, Managing: A Contemporary Introduction (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 337 ff.
The Fears of Jacob and the Tears of Joseph (Genesis 43:1-34)
I have long been under the impression that the events of Joseph’s life were as much, if not more, for Jacob’s sake as for his sons. Compared to his father, Judah is a spiritual giant in Genesis 43 and 44. The only one who is resisting Benjamin’s return to Egypt is Jacob, who has firmly rejected Reuben’s proposal:
But Jacob said, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow” (Genesis 42:38).
When the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews speaks of the patriarchs in the “hall of faith” of chapter 11, he has only these words concerning Jacob:
By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff (Hebrews 11:21).
To me this is incredible. The only example of faith which this writer finds worthy of mention is an event in the flickering years of his life. It is not until he has one proverbial foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel that his faith is worth writing about!
The first 15 verses of Genesis 43 center about Jacob and his debate with Judah over the matter of the return to Egypt for grain. Jacob desires his nine sons to go, but without Benjamin. Judah refuses to go without Benjamin and seeks to persuade his father to let him go. In this dialogue we find the faith of Jacob exceedingly weak. His leadership in this time of crisis is not a pattern for us to follow. His fears are completely unfounded; and if he had gotten his way, his family would not have been saved.
Verses 16-25 focus our attention upon Joseph’s brothers. The predominant theme of these verses can be summarized by two words, “fear” and “works.” The brothers’ fears, like their father’s, are completely unfounded. They sought by the works of their hands to win Joseph’s acceptance and favor. When Joseph brought them to his house for a feast, they feared that it was designed to be an opportunity to take them as slaves. Joseph, however, wished only to shower them with blessings.
Verses 26-34 fix our attention on Joseph. Jacob hoped only that he would be kind enough to let Simeon go and not to detain Benjamin. Joseph would do far more than this. Joseph’s brothers hoped that Joseph would believe them and not make them his slaves (as they had made him a slave); instead Joseph brought them into his home and gave them a magnificent meal. If Jacob and his sons were filled with fears, Joseph’s eyes were filled with tears, tears of love and compassion. His only desire was to see a change of heart in his brothers and to once again see his father.
Jacob and Judah
We men are going to find Jacob’s response to his circumstances most distressing, for it serves as an illustration of leadership very poorly exercised. The characteristics of Jacob’s leadership are all too familiar today.
His first response was to “put it off,” to delay in taking action until the matter had reached crisis proportions. Joseph had made an agreement with his brothers that they would take the desperately needed grain home and then return with Benjamin:
“… if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in our prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die.” And they did so (Genesis 42:19-20).
This is what his brothers purposed to do, but they were prohibited by Jacob, who refused to let Benjamin leave his side (42:38). Not until their grain had virtually run out did Jacob face up to the matter:
Now the famine was severe in the land. So it come about when they had finished eating the grain which they had brought from Egypt, that their father said to them, “Go back, buy us a little food” (Genesis 43:1-2).
Judah put his finger on Jacob’s procrastination when he chided, “For if we had not delayed, surely by now we could have returned twice” (Genesis 43:10).
If the first principle of Jacob’s administration was “put it off,” the second was “play it down.” One of the ways we can put things off is by convincing ourselves that they are not really all that important. Jacob minimized this matter of the famine, Simeon’s captivity, and the inevitable fact that all his sons would have to return to Egypt. I find a clue to this in verse 2 where Jacob said, “Go back, buy us a little food.” Why would he possibly tell his sons to buy only a little food? Why would they not buy all the grain they could carry? Naturally, he did not know that the famine was to last another five years (cf. 45:6), but he was aware that the famine was severe (43:1). Rather than face the problem head on, Jacob wanted to dabble with it a piece at a time. More than anything, I believe he hoped that if only a little grain were sought, perhaps the governor (Joseph) would not hold to his original demand that Benjamin accompany his brothers on their next trip.
Judah, however, was unwilling to accept the minimizing of his father. After all, it was not Jacob who would have to stand before that Egyptian governor and explain Benjamin’s absence. Joseph had insisted that he would not see these men again unless their youngest brother was with them. The leadership of their father, authority seldom challenged, was firmly rebuffed. They would not return for more grain unless Benjamin accompanied them.
Judah spoke to him, however, saying, “The man solemnly warned us, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you do not send him, we will not go down; for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you’” (Genesis 43:3-5).
Jacob was shaken by the stand which his sons took, but he was not willing to succumb to their demands that easily. The next verses display a further attempt to deny reality and to defer sending Benjamin to Egypt.
Then Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man whether you still had another brother?” But they said, “The man questioned particularly about us and our relatives, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ So we answered his questions. Could we possibly know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” (Genesis 43:6-7).
Hoping to alter the course of history, Jacob sought to change the minds of his sons by placing the responsibility for their circumstances solely on them. In effect, Jacob said to his sons, “It’s all your fault. None of this would have happened if you hadn’t told the Egyptian about your youngest brother.” If it were all their fault, then why should they be belligerent about trying to solve the matter on their own without jeopardizing the life of Benjamin and the happiness of their father?
But the matter went much deeper than this. It was not just a matter of telling family secrets out of school—it was an issue of being truthful. The information they gave to Joseph was in response to very direct questioning (43:7). The reason for this directness would only be learned at a later time when Joseph disclosed his identity. Jacob, then, was rebuking his sons for telling the truth. The old ways of deception were still there, and in times of adversity Jacob did not hesitate to employ them. Jacob’s response might be summarized, “Why didn’t you do as I would have done? Lie about it.”
While Reuben’s efforts to persuade his father to let Benjamin return to Egypt with the others had been resisted, Judah begins to emerge as a leader in the family. His words encourage Jacob to make that painful decision to let Benjamin go:
And Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, we as well as you and our little ones. I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame before you forever. For if we had not delayed, surely by now we could have returned twice” (Genesis 43:8-10).
Reuben promised to assume full responsibility for the safety of Benjamin and offered his own two sons if he were to fail:
You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you (Genesis 42:37).
At that point in time, Jacob had no intention of letting go of his favored son. In addition to this, he may not have had much respect for Reuben because of his previous sin of laying with Bilhah, his concubine (35:22).
Judah’s offer is once more forcefully made. He urged his father to stop thinking of himself and to act in accordance with his responsibility for the entire clan. While Jacob spoke only of “I,” “me,” and “my,” Judah thought in terms of “we,” “us,” and “our” (contrast 42:36,38 with 43:8). Judah seems to speak for all his brothers in refusing to go again to Egypt without Benjamin. He also rebukes Jacob for his needless delay in sending Benjamin to Egypt. Whereas Reuben offered only his sons in return for his failure, Judah offers himself as the guarantee of a successful mission (verse 9).
I believe it was a combination of all these forces—the severity of the famine, the depletion of the Egyptian grain, the threat of the brothers not to return to Egypt without Benjamin, and the assurances of Judah—which persuaded Jacob to consent to release Benjamin for the journey to Egypt. The verses which follow indicate that Jacob is only passively and reluctantly surrendering to his circumstances. His leadership at this time lacks any sign of spiritual maturity or great faith.
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a present, a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds. And take double the money in your hand, and take back in your hand the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks; perhaps it was a mistake” (Genesis 43:11-12).
Jacob’s first thought is to “sweeten the pot” with a few of the choicest products68 of the land of Canaan. Undoubtedly this is not thought of so much as a bribe as a token of benevolence and respect (cf. I Samuel 16:20; 17:18). Certainly these delicacies would not offend the governor of Egypt and might even win his favor. In addition to bringing these gifts, Jacob instructed his sons to take both the money they had found in their sacks and the additional money needed to buy a new supply of grain, and they were to give this double amount to the governor. Perhaps the money was misplaced in their sacks and their returning it would be further evidence of their honesty.
Finally, Jacob gave Benjamin into the care of his sons and his God.
“Take your brother also, and arise, return to the man; and may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man, that he may release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” So the men took this present, and they took double the money in their hand, and Benjamin; then they arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph (Genesis 43:13-15).
Some biblical scholars such as Bush, Thomas, and Leupold69 believe that here, at last, we see Jacob rising to the occasion with faith and maturity. I cannot agree with them. I see more carnality than spirituality in these events. Let me give several reasons for my conclusions.
First, the release of Benjamin has been reluctant and only in the face of insurmountable pressure, both from the famine and from his family. Jacob said, “If it must be so, then do this …” (verse 11). Jacob is not active, but passive, and he is more influenced by fear than faith. Second, while Jacob refers to God Almighty, El Shaddai,70 he is not praying as much as wishing. We do not pray by saying, “May God do such and such,…” but by speaking to God Himself, “God, I ask that you …” Finally, the words, “If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (verse 14) are not evidence of faith, but an expression of fatalism.
The words of Jacob are similar in tone to those of Queen Esther: “… And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). Many feel that Esther is demonstrating godly faith here also, but there are numerous reasons for challenging this. The name of God is never found in the book of Esther; neither is one instance of prayer to be found. The feast of Purim, which was instituted in the book (9:20ff.), was never sanctioned by God. The book portrays the fate of those Jews who chose to remain outside the promised land when God had made it possible to return (cf. Esther 1:1; Ezra 4:6). As a result, we see that the Jews were no more saved by Esther’s secular shrewdness than Jacob was enriched by peeling those poles while tending Laban’s flocks. God, acting providentially, spared the Jews from annihilation at the hands of their enemies. Esther’s words, like Jacob’s, were fatalistic. “What will be, will be” may be true, but the attitude which underlies this is often contrary to faith.
Taken as a whole, we can suggest the principles which seemed to have governed Jacob’s actions at this time in his life. I do not recommend them to anyone, but at least we shall spell them out in order to stimulate a re-appraisal of our own leadership.
Jacob’s Seven Laws of Leadership
(1) Whatever problems arise today are best dealt with tomorrow. Jacob delayed acting decisively on the issue of sending Benjamin to Egypt until the situation reached crisis proportions. Given enough time anything could happen, Jacob reasoned, and he was willing to wait indefinitely on this slim hope.
(2) No problem can possibly be as bad as it seems. If the first principle betrays a “manana mentality,” the second is the effort to minimize the problem to the point that it hardly seems worth giving time to its solution. If the problem is not serious, then it can be put off indefinitely.
(3) Honesty is not the best policy. Jacob still had a lot of the old deceiver in him. He believed that good communication only causes problems. He thought that the less others knew about him, the better off he and his family were. Judah was thus rebuked for telling Joseph any facts about the family. Many Christians today operate on this same principle. They think that keeping others from knowing them well avoids problems, but they, like Jacob, are desperately misled. Sin loves secrecy and darkness, while righteousness loves the light (cf. John 3:19-21).
(4) Always look out for number one. Jacob’s leadership was consistently exercised in the light of his own personal interests. It was Judah who urged his father to think of others rather than himself (cf. verse 3). No leader is harder to follow than the one who seeks only his own interests. Conversely, no leader is easier to follow than the one who seeks the best interests of those he leads (cf. Ephesians 5:22ff.).
(5) As much as is possible, see to it that others receive the blame for any problems. Jacob sought to place the responsibility on Judah and his brothers because they told the truth (verse 6). A good leader is one who is willing to accept the responsibility for his mistakes.
(6) If our efforts to solve a problem fail, add money. Jacob hoped that his presents, along with double payment, would help achieve his desired ends. Christians are often accused of being the last to reach for their wallets. Whether this is true or not, we are all tempted to resort to monetary solutions to our problems. We may pay our children for behaving as they should or offer to pay whatever it takes to solve their problems. Money seldom solves problems, while it causes many.
(7) When all else fails, trust God. It is no accident that Jacob mentions God last. It never seemed to occur to him as it did to Joseph that God was active in all of his troubles. His wish that God would be with his sons is only a last ditch effort when it should have been his first line of defense. “Foxhole religion” is not new, and it did not cease with Jacob.
Joseph’s Brothers—Fears and Futile Efforts
Joseph’s brothers came with a plan of action previously outlined by their father. They would offer the Egyptian governor a gift of some of Canaan’s best products (verse 11), and they would give back the money which had been returned in their sacks (verse 12). As events began to develop on their return to Joseph in Egypt, the situation seemed even more foreboding, and these two strategies were now pursued with desperate diligence.
When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to his house steward, “Bring the men into the house, and slay an animal and make ready; for the men are to dine with me at noon.” So the man did as Joseph said, and brought the men to Joseph’s house. Now the men were afraid, because they were brought to Joseph’s house; and they said, “It is because of the money that was returned in our sacks the first time that we are being brought in, that he may seek occasion against us and fall upon us, and take us for slaves with our donkeys.” So they came near to Joseph’s house steward, and spoke to him at the entrance of the house, and said, “Oh, my lord, we indeed came down the first time to buy food, and it came about when we come to the lodging place, that we opened our sacks, and behold, each man’s money was in the mouth of his sack, our money in full. So we have brought it back in our hand. We have also brought down other money in our hand to buy food; we do not know who put our money in our sacks.” And he said, “Be at ease, do not be afraid, Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks; I had your money.” Then he brought Simeon out to them (Genesis 43:16-23).
When Joseph looked out and beheld Benjamin with his older brothers, he set a plan in motion, apparently without talking to them. He instructed his servant to take these men into his house and to prepare a meal for them in a way that parallels the reception of the prodigal son in the New Testament (Luke 15:11-32).
Unaware that they were being taken into Joseph’s home to partake of the noon meal, they thought it was they who were destined for slaughter. Their fears were largely due to being taken to his house (verse 18). We must remember that prisons were located in the homes of well-to-do political figures. Now what do you suppose was to be found at Joseph’s house? These brothers were not so much concerned with being conducted into this house as they were with being confined under it, in the dungeon. Perhaps this was the dungeon where Simeon was being detained.
In desperation they took the steward aside to explain how they had found their money in their sacks and that they had brought it with them to repay it. The steward sought to calm their fears71 by assuring them that he had received the money for their grain. Indeed he had, but he did not mention to them that it was he, under Joseph’s orders, who also returned it. In keeping with later biblical instruction on giving (cf. Matthew 6:2-4), the steward informed these men that it was their God and the God of their father who had provided this money (verse 23). To further assure them, he brought out Simeon and returned him to them.
Then the man brought the men into Joseph’s house and gave them water, and they washed their feet; and he gave their donkeys fodder. So they prepared the present for Joseph’s coming at noon; for they had heard that they were to eat a meal there (Genesis 43:24-25).
By this time the men had learned that the reason for their being brought to Joseph’s home was to partake in the noon meal with him (verse 25). Anticipating Joseph’s arrival, they first were given water to drink and freshen up and fodder to feed their animals. After this, they set themselves to the task of preparing the gift which they would present to Joseph when he arrived (verse 25).
I think they must have put a great deal of effort into the preparation and presentation of the gift. For one thing, it appeared that they had gained some favor in the eyes of Joseph, to be invited for a meal. What better time to follow up with their gift? Also, their efforts to give back the money found in their sacks had been brushed aside. It had seemingly not made the impression which they had hoped for. Everything seemed to ride on how they handled matters when they again met Joseph. I can imagine these men arranging their goods, first one way and then the other. How important this gift was going to be, they supposed.
Joseph’s Brotherly Love
What a contrast we find between the fears of Jacob and his sons in the previous verses and the tears of Joseph in this last section. Joseph’s deep love for his brothers is, of course, not yet evident to them, but it is made known to us. It makes the fears of previous verses look as foolish as they really are.
When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present which was in their hand and bowed to the ground before him. Then he asked them about their welfare, and said, “Is your old father well, of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” And they said, “Your servant our father is well; he is still alive.” And they bowed down in homage. As he lifted his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, he said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me?” And he said, “May God be gracious to you, my son.” And Joseph hurried out for he was deeply stirred over his brother; and he sought a place to weep; and he entered his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face, and came out; and he controlled himself and said, “Serve the meal.” So they served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is loathsome to the Egyptians. Now they were seated before him, the first-born according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, and the men looked at one another in astonishment. And he took portions to them from his own table; but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. So they feasted and drank freely with him (Genesis 43:26-34).
To Joseph’s brothers nothing was more important than those pistachio nuts and almonds. These nuts, along with the other products of the land of Canaan, were expected to win Joseph’s favor. He never gave them a glance. He did not ask how they were grown or what year they were produced. He didn’t care. Joseph was only concerned with people, not pistachio nuts; he cared about his brother Benjamin, his father Jacob, and the rest of his brethren. His first utterance sought information on the health of his aged father (verse 27). Next he turned his attention to Benjamin, who he had not seen for over twenty years. Joseph pronounced upon Benjamin a blessing which should have sounded strange coming from an Egyptian (cf. Genesis 33:5,11; Numbers 6:25; Psalm 67:1).
Seeing the only other son of his mother was too much for Joseph to contain. Quickly he left the presence of his brothers to weep and to regain control of his emotions (verse 30). After regaining his composure and washing his face, Joseph returned and ordered the meal to be served. In complete harmony with the Egyptian culture (and to continue concealing his identity), Joseph ate at one table, his Egyptian servants at another, and his brothers at still another table, somewhat separate, yet in front of him. A situation similar to that which existed between Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament period must have dictated this separation.
Most puzzling of all, Joseph had arranged for his brothers to be seated in the order of their ages, from the oldest to the youngest. While all of his brothers were well fed, Benjamin received a portion that was five times greater than his brothers. The seating arrangement did not pass Joseph’s brothers by without notice, and they were amazed at how this could be done. While it did not suggest to them that Joseph was their brother, it did convince them that this man had a knowledge and insight that was far from normal. He possessed a power greater than others (cf. 44:15).
I have always felt that the preferential treatment of Benjamin was a part of Joseph’s plan to test his brothers, but I am less impressed by this view after studying this chapter. I do believe that giving Benjamin five times as much as any of his brothers served to remind the rest of his preferential status (mainly from his father, but even from Joseph). It did provide the setting for the test of Joseph’s brothers in chapter 44, for they were now given the opportunity to do away with Benjamin, with no real blame to themselves.
While Joseph’s generosity to Benjamin served to highlight the fact that he was now, in place of Joseph, the favored son, I don’t believe this was Joseph reason for his actions at the table. This, like the return of the money to his brothers, was motivated by genuine love and benevolence. Joseph did have a more intimate relationship with Benjamin, and he did not hesitate to reveal it. This act provided more food for thought for his brothers to digest. I do not in any way see this multiplied portion as anything sadistically or improperly motivated. I view it as an indication of Joseph’s deep love for his brother.
I must admit that somehow I have had it in my mind that Joseph had the entire encounter with his brothers mapped out from start to finish. I viewed him as almost mechanically going through each step of the program, knowing exactly how his brothers would respond and what he would do in turn. I don’t really think this is how it happened. I am convinced that Joseph understood his responsibility as head of the family and as God’s instrument to bring his father and brothers to the point of spiritual insight and genuine change. I believe that he did this in just the same way that we serve as God’s instruments, one step at a time. The kindness which Joseph showed to his brothers in chapter 43 was with no hidden or ulterior motives, but only to bestow blessing upon them. The test of chapter 44 is seen to be necessary in the light of their departure, yet without fully revealing their character. The blessings at Joseph’s disposal were to be poured out on men who had shown genuine repentance. That repentance would become evident in the test which was to follow.
Contextually and historically, chapter 43 serves at least two functions. First, it reveals the fears of Jacob and his sons to be entirely groundless. The best that these men could hope for was the release of Simeon and the safe return of all the men (verse 14). Little did these men know that the governor of Egypt was the son of Jacob and brother to his sons. What God had planned for them through the instrumentality of Joseph was more than they could ask or think (cf. I Corinthians 2:9). While Joseph had faced his trials with faith, his father and brothers agonized in their testing, plagued with unfounded fears.
In a very special way, chapter 43 prepares us for the “acid test” of chapter 44. We might be inclined to view Joseph as engineering this plot in order to vent some of his hostilities toward his brothers. Was this not a cruel and inhuman test? The answer is a resounding “No!” as evidenced by the genuine tears of love and compassion he shed, unknown to his brothers, in chapter 43. Why did Moses inform us of the emotional feelings of Joseph (42:23-24, 43:30) if they were not known to his brothers? Simply because he intended for us to understand Joseph’s motivation for his actions. Every test and every hardship which Joseph imposed upon his brothers was an act of genuine love.
What a lesson this gives us in the area of discipline. We are inclined to glibly tell our children, “This hurts me more than it does you,” when we correct them, and I would hope from the example of Joseph that this is really so. Discipline that makes us feel better should be subject to careful scrutiny. Discipline that brings genuine tears to our eyes is from a heart filled with love. I believe this is consistent with what Paul intended when he wrote,
Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourselves, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
I learn another lesson from Joseph. I see that in his dealings with his brothers he found it necessary to control his emotions in order to do what was right. Now his emotions were not wrong, and thus to be denied or repressed. Joseph’s tears were the proper response to his circumstances. His tears were shed in private to conceal his identity, but his emotions were brought under control so as to do what was best for his brothers. Had Joseph’s emotions reigned, his brothers would not have been brought to genuine repentance. If Joseph had merely “done what his heart told him,” he would have immediately revealed his identity, but stimulating their spiritual growth was more important.
Our emotions are God-given, and most of us (men, at least) are always trying to deny them. Tears were not a shame to Joseph; they simply did not further his purpose. It is a commonly held viewpoint that we should do what our heart tells us to do, that we should let love lead the way. I do not believe this is true if we equate “love” with our emotional feelings. Biblical (agape) love is not an emotion so much as it is a commitment. Acting in love may involve acting contrary to our feelings.
Let me seek to illustrate this. Those of us who believe in spanking our children (as the Bible instructs us, Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 23:13-14) know how this works. We hardly have gotten the paddle into our hand when our child begins to wail as if he or she is dying, but we haven’t done anything yet. Those cries tug at our heart strings, and our hearts plead with us to put down the rod. At this point our emotions must be controlled, and love must will to do what is right. It should be no pleasure to punish our children, and the pain we cause ourselves may indicate that what was done was in genuine love.
This is what the apostle spoke of when he wrote,
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9).
Love, that is, real love, must always be regulated by and subject to knowledge and discernment. What may appear to be loving, may be the opposite.
What a beautiful picture this chapter provides us of the discipline which God exercises in the lives of His children. Only Joseph fully recognized all of these things as coming from the hand of a loving and caring God (cf. 45:5-8; 50:20). Jacob and his other sons saw it mainly as the “fickle hand of fate.” When some did realize that their trials were from God, it would appear that they perceived an angry God who was only seeking vengeance (cf. 42:21,28). This is just the way they viewed Joseph, as a harsh and angry man (cf. 43:3). But just as Joseph’s severity was feigned (42:7), so God’s apparent harshness toward His children is unreal. The discipline which comes from God, like that which came from Joseph, is from a heart filled with grief and injured love (cf. Hebrews 12:1-13). Its desired end is not revenge, but restoration. It seeks to bring us to the place where His blessings may once again flow freely into our lives. But so long as we choose to go our own wayward way, we will discover that “… the way of the treacherous is hard” (Proverbs 13:15).
Joseph’s brothers provide us with an excellent illustration of salvation. In their current spiritual state they faced Joseph with the greatest fear. They perceived their only “salvation” to be in their “works” of returning the money they found in their sacks and in the pistachio nuts and other presents they brought from Canaan. The first was refused by the steward, and the second was ignored by Joseph. It was not their works that endeared these brothers to Joseph; it was their relationship to him. That is what they did not yet realize.
In the same way today sinful men dread the thought of standing before a righteous and holy God. The future must be faced with great fear. Frantically men and women seek to gain God’s favor and acceptance by their “pistachio nuts” of good works. Such things as trying to live by the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount, joining the church, and being baptized, are unacceptable to God as a basis for salvation. What saves a man or a woman is a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.
When we stand before the throne of God, the only thing God will be interested in is our relationship to His Son, Jesus Christ. As our Lord Himself put it,
I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6).
This is the consistent message of the Bible:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16-18).
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:11-12).
Have you come into a relationship with Jesus Christ? I urge you to acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal wrath. Let your eternal destiny rest in Jesus Christ, Who died in your place and Who offers you His righteousness and eternity with Him. Realize that any work which you may do will do nothing to gain God’s favor; He is pleased only with the work which Christ has already done on the cross of Calvary.
From Jacob we can learn a number of lessons. First, as we have already pointed out, Jacob provides us with an excellent example of how we are not to lead. Second, Jacob reminds us that it is our efforts to save ourselves that lead to our ruin. It is only when we give up striving to save our life and accept God’s provision that we are saved.
For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it (Matthew 16:25).
Jacob was putting all his hopes for the future on his son Benjamin (42:38; 44:29-31). Without Jacob’s realizing it, God had purposed to save him and his sons through Joseph, who was rejected by his brothers, marked for death, and who was, so far as Jacob knew, dead. Later this son who “was no more” was elevated to the throne where he was able to save his brethren. Jacob’s hopes were placed on the wrong son. It was through Judah, who offered himself in place of Benjamin, and Joseph, who was rejected and then exalted, that Jacob and his sons were saved. Jacob would be saved God’s way or not at all. God had to systematically pull out all the props from under him before he was willing to accept things God’s way. How characteristic this is of us.
Finally, Jacob reminds us that the only reason the saints persevere is because God perseveres to bring about the accomplishment of what He has promised. Humanly speaking, if Jacob had gotten his way (by keeping Benjamin home with him, where it was “safe”), the nation would never have gone to Egypt where it was spared from physical famine and spiritual disaster (e.g., Genesis 38). Jacob was in no way furthering God’s purposes; he was fighting them. God saved the nation in spite of him. How encouraging it is to know that our ultimate destiny is in His hands, not ours.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
68 “. . . a little balm and a little honey (. . . either new honey from bees, or more probably honey from grapes,--a thick syrup boiled from sweet grapes, which is still carried every year from Hebron to Egypt), gum-dragon and myrrh . . . , pistachio nuts and almonds,’ . . . which are not mentioned anywhere else, are, according to the Samar. vers., the fruit of the pistacia vera, a tree resembling the terebinth,--long angular nuts of the size of hazel-nuts, with an oily kernel of a pleasant flavor; it does not thrive in Palestine now, but the nuts are imported from Aleppo.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I, p. 360.
69 For example, note these words of Thomas: “At length Jacob recovered his spiritual equilibrium, and consented to let Benjamin go. He also told them to take a gift to the great man in Egypt. In the old days he had tried to appease his brother Esau, and here again he adopted the same policy. Not only so, they were to take double money in their hand, and the money that was brought again in their sacks. He also commended them to the God of Power (El-Shaddai), praying that the Mighty God would give them mercy before the man and send back Simeon and Benjamin. The old man’s closing words indicate a fine spirit of acceptance of the Divine will: ‘If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”’ W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 417.
In addition, Leupold states, “Jacob’s words at this point are not a timid wish but a powerful benediction spoken in faith.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 1066.
Perhaps Bush is the strongest in his position, for he writes, “It is not the sullen consent of one who yields to fate while his heart rebels against it. No; he yields in a manner worthy of a man of God; proposing first that every possible means should be used to conciliate the man, the lord of the land, and then committing the issue of the whole to God.” George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James Family Christian Publishers, 1979), II, p. 313.
70 “God Almighty . . . was a title specially evocative of the covenant with Abraham (17:1) and therefore of God’s settled purpose for this family.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), pp. 203-204.
“As El Shaddai, or ‘the almighty God’ the deity is seen to be not only creator and sustainer of the universe, but also the initiator and keeper of covenants. As such He is seen to move clearly in the human sphere shaping natural forces to spiritual ends.” “God, Names Of,” H. B. Kuhn, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), II, p. 763.
It was by this name that Isaac blessed Jacob before his escape from Esau (Genesis 28:3). It was also by this name that God identified Himself as He reiterated the covenant first made with Abraham (Genesis 17:1ff.) to Jacob at the time of his return to Bethel (Genesis 35:11).