Thus far in Genesis, we have covered some shocking passages. But the events recorded in Genesis 38 move us even further up the scale of sin and shock. Genesis 38 takes us on an abrupt break in the unfolding events of Joseph’s life in order to fill us in on what is happening in Judah’s life. Genesis 38 is a condensed narrative that probably covers a twenty-year time span. In other words, when we pick up the narrative of Joseph once again in Genesis 39, the events of Genesis 38 are most likely happening concurrently. In fact, what is happening in Judah’s life as recorded in Genesis 38 is covering the same time as the entire time that Joseph is down in Egypt, before his brothers go down in Egypt in Genesis 42. While the Lord is preparing Joseph for what He is going to do through him, Judah must also undergo preparation. Specifically, the strong exemplary leadership of Judah shown in Genesis 43-44, will be hard to believe as the events of Genesis 38 unfold. What the Lord did in Judah’s life to bring about such a transformation of character is the question that gets answered in this chapter.
As Joseph heads to Shechem, he can’t seem to locate his brothers. Then out of no where, an unnamed man asks Joseph, “What are you seeking?” (37:15). When Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers who are keeping the flocks, the man answers, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” (37:17). This mysterious man knows who Joseph’s brothers are and where they said they were going. But then he disappears without further ado. It is hard to say if this man is a man, an angel, or even an appearance by the Lord Himself, but we should pause and realize that what is about to happen to Joseph, at the hands of his brothers, is also being directed by God (45:5-9; 50:19-20). As Joseph’s life is about to take a plunge into many troubles, the ultimate designs surrounding the following series of events are under divine control.
God appears to Jacob at Bethel once again. Only this time, the Lord speaks even more comprehensive blessings upon Jacob. During both encounters at Bethel God promised Jacob descendants in the land (28:13-14; 35:11-12), but now the Lord adds that kings would come through Jacob (as the Lord said to Abraham in Genesis 17:6, 16). Like what God said to the like of Adam, Noah, and Abraham, now Jacob hears: “be fruitful and multiply” (35:11). And as God has similarly said to Abraham (17:4-5), the Lord promises to Jacob: “a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body” (35:11). Royalty and a multi-national scope are in the future for Jacob’s line.
Jacob finally comes out of his coma of silence and speaks. As horrible as the chapter has been thus far, the focus of Jacob, revealed through his words, should be the greatest cause of our stomach’s turning: “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household” (34:29-30). It would have been better if Jacob stayed quiet. No concern is voiced for his daughter, no gratitude is offered for either his daughter’s rescue nor for being spared from intermarriage with the Canaanites, and no moral outrage is expressed over his son’s deception and over-the-top butchery. No, Jacob’s focus is for himself and on the potential problems that his son’s actions might possibly bring upon him in the future.
But not only had God done a marvelous change in Jacob’s heart, he also profoundly stirred in Esau, who “ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:5). What an unexpected twist. God has delivered Jacob from his brother’s revenge. Both parties of this ruptured relationship rejoiced in each other’s arms. Jacob, the brother who connived and manipulated in order to take advantage of his brother, sought to put things right. Esau, who had vowed his brother’s death (27:41) wept for joy over the return of the one whom he tenderheartedly now calls his “brother” (33:9). But these unexpected responses between these two brothers are not simply due to their own resolve; they were manifestations of the inscrutable working of God! While Esau does not explicitly mention God in this chapter, he was content: “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself” (33:9). The Lord had prepared Esau and taken good care of him. Jacob was also content: “‘Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.’ Thus he urged him, and he took it” (33:11). Jacob clearly saw the presence of the Lord through the life of his brother: “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (33:10). Perhaps as ill deserved as Jacob’s opportunity to see the face of God and live in the previous chapter, so now Jacob is acknowledging that the response of Esau too is ill deserved.
As Rachel finally has a son, who was named Joseph, Jacob begins sensing the need to return home. We already know that Jacob loved Rachel; we will soon learn that Joseph will be Jacob’s favorite. Even though Jacob has had ten sons already, perhaps it was in Joseph, that Jacob felt that his true heir has arrived. Therefore, Jacob wants to go back home with his entire family–especially his heir apparent. It was time for Jacob to return home and make amends. So Jacob approaches his father-in-law Laban: “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you” (30:25-26).
While Leah obtains children but not Jacob’s love, Rachel, on the other hand, has Jacob’s love but no children to love. Neither wife seems truly satisfied, but for different reasons. Rachel feels not only envious toward her sister but also slighted by her husband and demands: “Give me children, or I shall die!” (30:1). Jacob angrily passes the blame: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (30:2). When Jacob’s parents, Isaac and Rebekah, were barren for twenty years, it was noted that Isaac prayed (25:21). There is no mention of prayer in this case. Instead, Rachel goes with the option that Jacob’s grandmother chose–provide a maid servant. Even though Genesis 16 records God’s displeasure with the concubine route; nevertheless, Rachel tells Jacob “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her” (30:3). Rachel wants what she wants when she wants it, taking matters into her own hands.
As we have seen in Abraham, such faith in the Lord triggered worship in Isaac’s heart, as Isaac, like his father, travels to Beersheba to worship. Also like his father’s, God initiates Isaac’s worship in response to God’s Word: “the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake” (26:24). At the outset of this chapter, the Lord promised Isaac, “I will be with you” (26:3) and now he switches from the future tense to the present: “I am with you” (26:24). Isaac is stirred to build “an altar,” and call “upon the name of the Lord” (26:24).
The Lord’s oracle to Rebekah reveals that she was carrying two nations of people who were already at battle with each other. Heightening the nature of the conflict, the two brothers will emerge with the older and stronger brother nevertheless serving the younger (and weaker) brother. While that is not how conflicts between either nations or brothers normally end, it is the outcome that God was ordaining. God was reversing both the normal social constructions of that time (the first born gets the preferred blessings) as well as just common sense predictions (the strong win out over the weak). But Jacob would be given the place of supremacy, not by virtue of natural order or by human effort, but by divine decree. Jacob would have done well to rest in the promises from God’s oracle and Esau should have submitted to the will of God, but neither seems willing or able to do so at this point. From the womb and for years to come, each brother will contend against the will of God. All of Jacob’s subsequent scheming and striving will be to obtain through deceit, what has already become his by divine promise. He will be the heir of Isaac who is in line for the Abrahamic blessings; his people will become the dominant nation.
The main emphasis in Genesis 24 is the attention given to securing a wife for Isaac. While we were subtly introduced to Rebekah in chapter 22, we do not discover why she was mentioned until now. Abraham is described as well advanced in years, but also blessed by the Lord in all things (24:1). After a long and eventful life, the need for another generation of promise to be raised up is the burden of Genesis 24. By the time this chapter is complete, there will be a shift from Abraham being noted as master of the servant (24:9) to Isaac being called master by the servant (24:65).
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