By Don Ruhl
Dramatic plot twists and endings surprise us as we read the development of Abraham’s family. A man of faith begged for God’s mercy. A woman of faith laughed at God’s promise. The same woman became jealous over a concubine she provided for her man of faith. They received a son as a promise from God, only to have to sacrifice him later.
In their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the drama and surprises increase. We see love and envy, anger and reconciliation, deceit and integrity. Something in the story captures our attention, challenging us on how God could use such people, but then we discover the goodness of these people as they grow and develop, then we understand God’s purposes for using them. The Bible does not ignore character flaws and sins in its heroes.
Isaac offered a calm in the storm. As he was submissive to his father Abraham, and silent during the attempted sacrifice, so we see him living before God. He missed his mother dearly when she died, but his new wife Rebekah consoled him. Then the story turns our attention to their twin sons, especially the younger one and his family. God told Rebekah,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body;
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
Imagine you are the expectant mother of these twins. The Lord speaks to you, revealing that two nations fight within you, that one shall be stronger than the other, and that the younger one shall prevail. What would you think? How would that influence your raising of the children?
Deceiving For a Blessing
The first thing Genesis shows of the adult twins was an incident that highlighted the different natures of the sons. Notice primarily the trickery of Jacob and the fleshly Esau by reading Genesis 25.27–34.
Esau was a skillful hunter. He was a man of the field. Whereas Jacob was mild. He dwelt in tents. However, Isaac loved Esau, and Rebekah loved Jacob. Did this mean that each parent did not love the other son? No, it just meant that each loved that son more than the other. Why did Isaac love Esau? Esau was a skillful hunter and he would get game and bring it to his father who loved that kind of food.
Moses introduced a narrative that showed more of the character of Esau and Jacob. Esau came in hungry and wanted some of Jacob’s stew. Jacob used the opportunity to get the birthright. He wanted it enough that he would manipulate to get it. Esau did not value it enough, but sacrificed it for his needs. Today if we speak of something as “a mess of pottage” we mean someone has traded a great treasure for something of trivial value. That use came from this story.
God’s plan went through Jacob rather than Esau. The dream God gave Jacob as he fled his brother showed that God was with the younger brother, “Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Gen 28.12). God continued to speak to Jacob’s descendants, using dreams, visions, angels, and prophets.
When Jacob arrived at his uncle’s place, Jacob met Rachel and fell in love with her. He served her father for seven years to marry her. However, Laban tricked Jacob. Read Genesis 29.23–27.
Was this not poetic justice? Jacob tricked his father and brother. Jacob reaped what he sowed.
An Unusual Wrestling Match
Moses reminded us constantly that a greater power worked behind the scenes in the life and family of Jacob. From time to time, we get glimpses of God’s activity. For example, as Jacob escaped his brother, God gave Jacob a dream and later as Jacob escaped his uncle, God visited Jacob in another way. Genesis 32.22–32 shows the unusual meeting.
How long did this wrestling match last? It appears that it lasted all night.
Did Jacob’s dislocated hip stop him from wrestling? No, he held onto the Man until receiving a blessing.
What did Jacob conclude from this struggle? He concluded that he had wrestled with God, yet, God allowed him to live. Finally, Jacob met Esau for the first time in twenty years (Gen 33.1–17).
What did Jacob do to bring a reconciliation? Jacob and his family bowed down to Esau, and Jacob gave his brother a gift of livestock.
How did Esau respond to Jacob’s humble actions? Esau ran to Jacob, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him, and wept. Esau insisted that he had enough and did not need the gift. He also offered to lead the way back home.
What did Jacob say to his brother that persuaded him to take the present? To receive the gift would be a sign of favor that Esau had received his brother. Also, Jacob kept insisting.
The Story of Joseph
While the Genesis story is about Abraham and his family, the story of one of his great-grandsons covers more than a quarter of the Book of Genesis. The story of Joseph has many plots, including serious sibling rivalry, deception, slavery, seduction, imprisonment, famine, dreams, interpretation of dreams, forgiveness and several pieces of clothing.
Genesis 37 shows the brothers of Joseph hating him for a couple of reasons, “This is the history of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers. And the lad was with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to his father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him” (Gen 37.2–4).
Joseph’s coat is well known and has been turned into a play, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Joseph’s coat was not the only piece of clothing in the story.
- 37.3 – the coat
- 37.29 – Reuben tore his clothes
- 37.32 – the brothers deceived their father with the bloody coat
- 39.12 – Potiphar’s wife grabbed Joseph’s garment
- 39.12–18 – Potiphar’s wife deceived her husband with Joseph’s garment
- 41.14 – Joseph changed his clothes
- 41.42 – Pharaoh clothed Joseph in fine linen
- 45.22 – Joseph gave clothes to his brothers
Moreover, God gave Joseph two dreams that showed him in a position of great power and the rest of the family bowing down to him. Joseph told those dreams to his brothers, agitating them even more. Yet, it fit a pattern from earlier, the younger ruling over the others.
The story of Joseph shows patterns. For example, there are three sets of dreams with two dreams each about the same events. God gave Joseph two dreams of his future exalted position. However, he did not receive an interpretation of his dreams immediately. God did not give Joseph a direct interpretation, but he saw its interpretation when the events started to unfold twenty-two years later. God gave two servants of Pharaoh each a dream. Joseph provided the interpretation immediately. God gave Pharaoh two dreams of impending prosperity followed by adversity. Joseph again provided the interpretation immediately. Therefore, the story shows the work of God in the young man’s life, and even through difficult times, God worked through the life of Joseph, which he was able to see later (Gen 45.4–9; 50.20).
It is interesting to see Joseph’s life repeat some earlier Genesis experiences. With sibling rivalry, favoritism, conflict, reconciliation, and perhaps others things, his life repeated Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Leah and Rachel. Also, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and the sons of Jacob deceived him. Jacob’s family went to Egypt, as did Abraham and Sarah. Notice the pattern of trickery that Moses revealed in the Book of Genesis:
- Jacob tricked Isaac
- Laban tricked Jacob
- Jacob tricked Laban
- Rachel tricked Laban
- The brothers tricked Jacob
- Potiphar’s wife tricked him
- Joseph tricked his brothers
The Children of Israel
Interestingly, Jacob called in Joseph, who was the second to the youngest, placing him, in a sense, over his older brothers, and then blessed the sons of Joseph, putting the younger one before the older, just as Jacob was blessed above his older brother (Gen 48.17–20).
Then Jacob called all the sons together and placed the fourth oldest over them all. After stating why Reuben, Simeon, and Levi would not rule, Jacob said,
“Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s children shall bow down before you.”
In verse 9, Jacob likened Judah to a lion. Jesus is the lion from the tribe of Judah. Interestingly, Haile Selassie I, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, used the title “Lion of Judah” to refer to himself.
By placing the younger over the eldest, God was showing that it is not the flesh, but the spirit that makes people children of God (Rom 9.6–13).
Abraham’s Influence in Modern Thought
Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Buber wrote about Abraham’s experience in sacrificing Isaac. Kierkegaard called Abraham a “knight of faith,” because God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac for the good of the people, as a family might do when giving a son to war or some other high purpose. What God asked of Abraham seems arbitrary and absurd, but it was truly a “leap of faith,” hoping that he would receive his son back. Kierkegaard wrote, “He who walks the narrow path of faith no one can advise, no one understand. Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is united is passion, and faith is a passion.”
George Segal used the story as the basis for a statue memorializing the Kent State shootings. The university wanted a more literal rendition, but Segal refused and now his statue is on the campus of Princeton University.