|Topical Bible Study||February 1950|
GOD’S PLAN IN THE BOOK OF GENESIS
The Generations of Esau
“These are the generations of Esau, who is Edom.” Thus are summed up the principal contents of this chapter. Perhaps the most significant point in the chapter is the definite identification of Esau with Edom, and that he settled finally in Seir. Esau is referred to in the New Testament as that profane person who sold his birthright. (Heb. 12:16) And the Edomites as a whole seem to he used in Old Testament prophecies as symbolic of the nominal church which also sold its birthright—its hope of joint-heirship with Jesus as the spiritual seed of Abraham through which all the families of the earth are to be blessed.
Verse 6 presents an interesting sidelight on the life of Esau and his family. His sons were all born in the land of Canaan, yet together with their father, they all forsook the land. This apparently was because they did not cherish the promises God had made concerning the land—a further despising, as it were, of the birthright which he had sold to Jacob for a mess of pottage.
On the other hand, all of Jacob’s sons were born outside of Canaan, yet under the influence and leadership of their father, they came into the land and became the inheritors of the promises God had made concerning it. Thus does the Lord honor those who have respect for his promises, regardless of where they may be born.
A parallel of these experiences may be seen in God’s dealings with the Israelitish nation and his later blessings upon believing Gentiles. The messianic kingdom promises were all made to the natural seed of Abraham, but because they did not appreciate these promises and did not qualify to inherit their fulfillment, God turned to the Gentiles, and from them has been selecting a people for his name. Thus Gentiles, born outside of the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the promises, become fellow-heirs with that small remnant of Israelites who accepted Jesus, while the nation as a whole wandered further away from God and his promises.
The reason given for Esau and his family moving out of the land which God promised to Abraham is that their riches of cattle were so great that the land could not provide for them and for Jacob’s flocks as well. Apparently his riches meant more to him than the promises of God pertaining to the land. And besides it is quite possible that divine providences over Jacob had made Esau realize that his sale of the birthright had been ratified by God, and hence he could not claim any share in the promises and might as well move to where he could further increase his riches. Thus does the way of the ungodly lead ever further from God and from his covenants.
“And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger.” This was the “Promised Land,” but so far as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were concerned they were merely sojourners in it at that time. Their actual possession of the land will not be until they are raised from the dead and take their places among the other ancient worthies as “princes in all the earth.”—Psalm 46:16
Beginning with the second verse of this chapter is the unfolding of one of the most interesting stories ever written, the story of Joseph and his brethren. It possesses all the elements usually found in fictional dramas, yet it is a true story. In it are displayed at their worst the fallen human passions of jealousy and lust manifested in cruel intrigue of brother against brother, of mistress against servant, and friend against friend.
Also there are exhibited in the narrative those noble qualities of mercy and understanding, manifesting themselves in a willingness to forgive past injuries and to give glory to God for overruling the harm that was intended, to the great good of all concerned. And it is more than merely a true story of Joseph and his brethren, for in it are to be found striking similarities to the experiences of another favorite Son, even to Jesus, the beloved Son of God and Redeemer of the church and of the world.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, … and he made him a coat of many colors.” Thus do we have the setting of the story, the reason for the jealousy of Joseph’s brethren. “Jealousy is as cruel as the grave,” the Scriptures tell us, and this green-eyed monster soon was able to stir up Joseph’s brethren to take action against him. (Song of Sol. 8:6) At first it was merely a passive hatred they held toward Joseph, but nevertheless a hatred so intense that they found it difficult to even speak to him in a friendly manner.
When Joseph’s brethren heard about his dream in which they were seen as bowing down to him, they hated him even more. Under the circumstances perhaps Joseph was indiscreet in relating his dream to his brethren, but he was a mere lad and certainly innocent of any desire to impress his brethren with his greatness. But his brethren were quick to grasp the meaning of the dream and their jealousy increased.
Joseph’s second dream carried more sweeping implications than his first, for it signified that even his parents would bow down to him. It was a true forecast of coming events, but his father rebuked him for relating it. Probably Jacob sensed the jealousy of his other sons and realized that the telling of this second dream would but fan the flame of hatred and make it even more difficult to find a peaceable solution.
But Jacob wasn’t jealous, hence his reaction to the forecast of Joseph’s rulership over the rest of the family was quite different. He rebuked him merely for telling the dream. As for what it might portend, “he observed the saying”—that is, he took note of it with the idea of watching the Lord’s providences in connection therewith.
The hatred which Joseph’s brethren bore toward him was not reciprocated. He loved them, and had nothing but their best interests at heart. While apparently for some time they had not spoken to him peaceably, he was quite willing, when his father requested it, to look them up in distant fields for the purpose of seeking their welfare and to report back to his father and theirs. This Godlike characteristic of Joseph continued to manifest itself throughout his entire life.
Those who are pure of heart and who desire only good for others, even for those who may be opposed to them, seem often to be incapable of imagining the evil plottings which go on in the minds of those whose hearts are filled with hatred. A thief always suspects that others are thieves, but the innocent and pure are quite likely to be trustful of others. This seems to have been Joseph’s attitude. Perhaps if he had been warned it still would have been difficult for him to believe that his brethren would take advantage of his insecurity in the open field and lay hands on him for evil as they did.
It seemed to be the desire of all Joseph’s brethren with the exception of Reuben to kill the “dreamer,” but Reuben persuaded them to modify their plans and to cast him into a near-by pit. His thought was that when he had the opportunity, and unknown to the others, he would restore Joseph to his father. This was to Reuben’s credit, although his effort was not wholly successful.
In agreeing to cast Joseph into a pit, Reuben’s brothers had no other thought apparently than that of leaving him there to die. But having left him in the pit, Judah’s intentions softened toward Joseph, and seeing an opportunity to dispose of him short of murder, he proposed that they do so; that is, by selling him to the Ishmaelites to be taken to Egypt as a slave. The others agreed to this, and it might be said on the part of all of them that this change of plans indicates that none of them were hardened criminals. They had been caught in a snare of jealousy and hatred, but when it came to the real test they proved not to be of the ignoble type who think nothing of committing cold-blooded murder.
Reuben had not counted on his brother’s changing their minds about Joseph, and was evidently not with them when he was sold to be taken to Egypt. He returned to the pit with the evident intent of freeing his younger brother and returning him to Jacob, but he found the pit empty. He reported the matter to his brothers, and asked whither he should go—for the purpose, evidently, of finding Joseph.
Bible stories seldom give all the details involved, and there is nothing said here of how Reuben was reconciled to the sale of Joseph, for the report that was prepared for their father would have the same tragic consequences as though his beloved son had actually been killed. Perhaps Reuben decided that it was useless to continue opposing the plans of his brethren, so joined in the plot to deceive their father.
And they did deceive Jacob. When he saw Joseph’s coat of many colors smeared with blood he reached exactly the conclusion his sons had reasoned he would, for no doubt was left in his mind that the boy had been slain by a wild beast. Jacob was heart-broken. It was almost more than the aged parent could bear. He wept bitterly, and rent his clothes and put sackcloth upon his loins, “and mourned for his son many days.”
His family tried in vain to comfort him. He explained that he would continue to mourn for Joseph as long as he lived. But he didn’t express the thought in just this way. He said, rather, “I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning.” This is one of the very important texts of the Bible, although seldom thus recognized because the translators have used the word “grave” to translate the Hebrew word sheol used by Jacob in his statement, which reveals that he expected to continue mourning until he joined Joseph in sheol—believing, of course, that his son was dead.
This is the first time the word “sheol” appears in the Bible, but it is used many times in later books of the Old Testament. However, it is not always translated grave. Thirty-one times this same word is translated by the English word “hell,” and, as a matter of fact, it is the only word in the Old Testament that IS translated hell. In other words, this word sheol is descriptive of the only hell that is mentioned in the Old Testament; and in Jacob’s use of it, he reveals that according to his understanding, Joseph—whom he thought to be dead—was in hell, or sheol, and that he expected to join him there when he died.
Thus we find that this expression of sorrow on the part of Jacob is most revealing, for it shows that the righteous as well as the wicked go to the Bible hell when they die. The Bible hell, however, is not a place of torment, but merely the state of death, a condition which the Scriptures liken to sleep, and from which there will be an awakening in the morning of the resurrection. In Ecclesiastes 9:10, where the Hebrew word is again used and translated “grave,” we are told that in this condition there is no knowledge, wisdom, nor device in other words, it is a state of unconsciousness.
In verse 36 we are informed that Joseph was sold to Potiphar in Egypt by the Midianites, whereas in verse 28 it is stated that his brethren had sold him to the Ishmaelites. In Chapter 39:1 we read that it was the Ishmaelites who sold him to Potiphar. This might seem to be contradictory, but is not actually so. The Ishmaelites were Arab descendants of Abraham through Hagar, whereas the Midianites were Arab descendants through Keturah. Apparently they were more or less associated, and sometimes were called by one name and sometimes by the other.
The army of Midianite Arabs defeated by Gideon and his little army of 300 had Ishmaelites among them as revealed by Joshua 8:24. Apparently they were distinguished from the Midianites only by the fact that they wore golden earrings. It is possible that the band of traders to whom Joseph was sold by his brethren was made up of both Midianites and Ishmaelites, hence they are referred to first by one name and then by the other.
A LINK IN JESUS’ GENEALOGY
In this chapter we have a detailed account leading up to the birth of Pharez, a son of Judah. The narrative breaks into the sequence of the story relating to Joseph, and we might wonder what useful purpose it serves, since not even a good moral lesson is suggested by it. However, the purpose of the narrative is apparent when it is discovered that Pharez is one of the links in the genealogical chain from Abraham to the birth of Jesus. See Matthew 1:3.
In this connection some interesting sidelights might be mentioned. For example, in the Book of Ruth we have an entire book of the Bible devoted to a story, the evident and chief purpose of which is to identify another link in the line of genealogy leading down to Jesus, namely, Obed. See Matthew 1:5.
In this narrative we also have an illustration of what is evidently the Lord’s choice, that is, Pharez, although an attempt was made to establish his twin brother as the firstborn. (Verses 28-30) We have something similar to this in connection with the birth of Jacob and Esau. “God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”