a. Judah walks away. This story begins as many of these stories do by saying that Judah left his brothers, Jacob’s household, and made friends with an Adullamite named Hirah. This is an important point in the story. This is where his sin begins. Remember, that since the beginning, there was a separation between Seth and Cain, between Shem, Ham, and Japheth, between Abraham, Haran, and Lot, between Abraham and the Canaanites. There was a God-created separation between Ishmael and Isaac and between Jacob and Esau. What Judah does by leaving his family and going to stay with Hirah puts the promise of God to Adam and Eve in jeopardy again. Judah has chosen not to remain separate but to lock arms with the world. Let us not be tempted in thinking that this was just for the patriarchs. God reminded the Israelites in Leviticus 20:24, “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples.” Jesus would speak of being in the world and not of the world. Paul after him goes back to the Old Testament to say that Christians are, “to go out of their midst, and be separate from them.” Therefore, Judah has violated this command and desire of God. b. Judah marries a Canaanite. Judah, now being friends with the Canaanites allows his affections to be drawn to a Canaanite woman. You can see the downward spiral beginning. Judah goes against the command of God and the tradition of the three generations of men before him and marries outside the family and the faith. He has unequally yoked himself which only leads to walking in circles. He should have nothing in common with this woman, and perhaps he had little, but she was attractive to him and that is what drove his choice of wife. c. Judah’s sons. We are told in verses 3-5 that his wife had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Moses mentions the place name Chezib here. Judah was at and Shelah was probably born at Chezib. Chezib means false or deception and so we can see the wordplay here as we read the story. Judah and Shelah will act according to the name of this place. They are literally and figuratively in Chezib. Well, some time passes, and Judah took a wife for Er named Tamar. We are not told what Er does but he is notoriously wicked and God puts him to death for his sin. There are some sins, as John says, that lead to death. Er dies without having any heirs and so Judah commands Onan, his younger brother, to marry his sister-in-law and to have children for his brother. This duty, as Jacob calls it, would later be written into the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 25:5. “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go into her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” Onan obeys his father and marries Tamar. But he does not like the idea of having children for his brother and therefore he uses birth control methods to prevent Tamar from having a child. What Onan did was wicked in the sight of the Lord and so God put Onan to death. Judah then goes to Tamar and tells her to live as a widow in her father’s house until Shelah gets older and then they would be married. Jacob told her this because he was afraid that Shelah would die like his brothers. This is an interesting thought because Judah’s sons died because of their wickedness. It was not Tamar’s fault. So delaying the marriage would not spare Shelah but Judah came to that conclusion and therefore acted accordingly. Tamar, in obedience to her father-in-law, goes back to her father’s house.
In chapter 38, we have the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. This is another one of those true and honest looks at the history of the Israelites. This story is not a sanitized version of the heroes of the faith but a faithful retelling of the events as they occurred in history. Last time we finished looking at chapter 37 which was the opening of this book of Jacob that we are looking at for the rest of Genesis. We saw the offspring of Jacob, the one chosen by God to carry on the promises that would counteract the curse. Joseph, the one whom Jacob had chosen to set his love and favor upon, was despised and mistreated by his brothers. His family hated the dreams that he had and were willing to do whatever it took to prevent them from coming true, even if it took murdering Joseph. Through the persuasiveness of the firstborn son Reuben and Judah who desired to make a profit off his brother, God saved Joseph and brought him into Egypt. God had promised to Abraham that his offspring would be sojourners in a land that was not theirs and would be servants there and they would be afflicted for four hundred years. At the end of chapter 37, the timer had begun. As we move into verse 38, we find a story about another of Jacob’s offspring, Judah. We know more about him already than we knew about Joseph. We have heard his words and seen his role at Shechem and with Joseph. He is very much like his other brothers and like his father when he was younger; his heart is very heavily consumed with self and not the well-being of others and not the ways of God. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, this story, though it might feel like a parenthesis in the story of Joseph, does belong here. It ties together the themes of Joseph’s rule and his sons to Judah’s rule and his sons. This prepares us for the later blessing of Jacob where we find out that Judah is the one to whom the promise of the offspring that would crush the head of the serpent would come. And finally, it belongs here in the story because, as Moses says, “It happened at that time.” Around the time that Joseph was sold into slavery, this story of Judah began. This story we have before us is ultimately about the grace of God. It is another piece in this puzzle we have been putting together. It started at the beginning when Satan, Adam, and Eve acted contrary to God and devised their own plans, but God had a different plan in mind. That theme has developed through the generations and will be trumpeted by Joseph when he says that his brothers intended evil, but God intended good. This sin of man and God’s using and changing sinners to bring about his plans has been on full display and will be seen in chapter 38 as well. We will see in verses 1-11 what Judah and his children do is wicked in the sight of the Lord. In verses, 12-23 we find Tamar’s trap of Judah and how this story of sin unfolds. And finally, we hear of Judah’s shame and God’s grace.
Let us stop here and think of the lessons that we can learn from this passage. When Jacob sent his beloved son Joseph to his brothers, he was assuming that Joseph would return in a day or two with a report. He did not know that it would be years before he would see his face again. We are reminded that life is one of change and uncertainty. We never know when we say goodbye to our loved ones if that will be the last time we see them. When we all depart from here today, someone may not return. We should have our hearts prepared not to go to the grave in mourning but with the understanding that each moment together is a gift from God, undeserved and unguaranteed. We are also reminded of how uncertain our own plans and day can be. We all get into ruts. We have our daily routines. Most days begin to resemble each other and we get lulled into this idea that change won’t happen. When Joseph left that morning to go find his brothers little did he know he would never return to the tents of his father. He had no idea what awaited him, the trials and the triumphs, the prison and the palace. James warns us not to boast in our plans because we do not know what tomorrow brings. We should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” We must settle in our minds that we hold our plans in an open hand, happy if the Lord leaves them there or takes them away. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Here is another thought. When many writers and preachers today try to put they’re readers or hearers into this story, who do you think they say they are? We are the Joseph character. People have done us wrong but God has a plan to bless us. Which is true to a certain extent. But many writers of old would remind us that we often act like the brothers in the story. We are often heartless though our brothers are crying for mercy around us we sit down to eat. We must learn as much from the example of the brothers on how not to live and respond. We are responsible for how we act. We do not presume upon God’s providence. God will make everything work together for our good but that does not give us a license to sin. If anything, as we see the hand of God at work and his plan unfolding we should be driven to love God and obey him more and more. JR Miller said, “Few truths are more sustaining to Christian faith than this—that our times are in God’s hands. We forget it too often and sometimes we fret when life brings hard things to endure, when our own plans are broken. But someday we shall see that God knows best.”
a. Where shall I go? Reuben goes back to the pit and presumably missed the selling of Joseph. When he sees Joseph is gone he tears his clothes in a rage and returns to his brothers and says, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” He is the firstborn. Is he supposed to go back to their father and tell him that he allowed them to sell Joseph into slavery? Reuben is thinking of himself, which we see, has been an issue for Jacob as well. And I, where shall I go. Reuben didn’t say, “let’s go after the caravan and get him back.” He was content with Joseph being gone but he didn’t know what he was to do next. Reuben will remind his brothers many years later what he was feeling in this moment. “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” He was afraid of the reckoning. He was scared of what would happen to him because of Joseph. Their answer is to go back to what they planned to do if they had killed Joseph; take his robe and pretend that he had been killed by a wild animal. b. Jacob mourns. The brothers send the robe to their father and ask that he identify it. Jacob sees the robe and believes their deception. The irony cannot be lost on us. The discipline of the Lord continues in the life of Jacob, the deceiver. He tears his garments in grief and puts on sackcloth and mourns many days for Joseph. His sons and daughters try to comfort him but he refuses. His sons must have been poor comforters since they all concealed the truth that would relieve their father’s pain. Jacob vows to go down to Sheol, to the grave, mourning. Jacob’s preference and love for Rachel spilled over into Joseph and now he had lost both of them. Jacob does not see how there will be any more days of joy in his life. What time he has remaining in his life will be spent mourning. He has hardened to his heart with his grief. This is a common occurrence as you well know. Jacob’s desire to stay in mourning has consumed the lives of many people. That is not what God has called us to do. We mourn and we mourn with those who mourn, but we do not mourn as if we do not have hope. God is our hope. c. To be continued. Verse 36 is another one of those connecting verses we’ve seen before. We are told that Joseph is sold to a man named Potiphar who is the captain of the guard to the Pharaoh. So Joseph does not end up in some obscure house in Egypt but at an officer’s house. This sets up for the continuation of the story in chapter 39. But before we get there, Moses takes us on a tangent. In this chapter, Moses tells us about Judah’s role in Joseph entering Egypt. In the next, we have another disturbing story, but in it, we find out about how the birth of Perez came about.
a. No remorse. We see in verse 25, that the brothers, after leaving Joseph to die, sit down and eat. At this point, they have no remorse. In Genesis 42, when the brothers talk to each other about what they did, they admit that they did not care at all. They said they saw the distress of his soul and that he begged them not to do what they did but they did not listen. They were merciless and the fact that they heard the cries for mercy from Joseph and then threw him away and then sat down to eat shows just how callous these men were. b. The brothers make a quick buck. At some point in the storyline, Reuben is separated from the rest of the brothers and so he is not aware of what happens in verses 25-28. As the rest are eating, they see a caravan coming from Gilead on their way to Egypt. They are called Ishmaelites, Midianites, and Medianites. The term Ishmaelite came to be an umbrella term for several different people groups including the Midianites and Medianites. So this group of traders appears and who speaks up? It’s Judah, of course. Judah suggests to his brothers that they not kill Joseph since he is their brother after all. But they could make a profit by selling him into slavery. There would be no profit in just leaving him to die. And so they pull him out of the cistern, make a deal with the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. We assume that they felt this was an equally valid way of keeping his dreams from coming true because how could a slave in Egypt rule over them? It is important to note that even though Reuben had plans to save Joseph, it was ultimately by Judah that Joseph would live. This is another clue that God had rejected Reuben and chosen Judah to be the one by which the Promised Seed would come.
a. Conspiracy to commit murder. Here we find the brothers at Dothan, taking a break from Joseph and his supposed delusions of grandeur, and who should come strolling down the path? It’s Joseph. The time apart has done nothing for their jealousy and hatred and so as they see him coming from far away they take the time to plot murder. We know, and they know, what they are planning is pure evil. Several generations before them, God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” This is the family, Jacob’s sons, by whom the story of Noah and this command would come and they passed it down to the next generation until Moses and his generation, who wrote it down for the families of these brothers. They are without excuse. Many generations later, Jesus would explain that evil thoughts and murder come from the heart. It’s not Joseph’s fault or Jacob’s fault or God’s fault. It’s not the external people or circumstances that are causing the evil thoughts and desire for murder. Jacob and Joseph are only targets for the evil that is within the brothers already. We have already seen this evil spill out of their hearts when they destroyed and plundered Shechem. And here the evil and murder have found a new outlet in Joseph. They call him “the dreamer” and so their motivation to kill is based on the dreams that God gave him. They think that by killing him they will stop the dreams from occurring. “We will see what become of his dreams,” they say. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. The brothers are raging and plotting in vain. You can almost hear God laughing throughout this story. Little do the brothers know that they are actually putting into motion what will lead to the dreams coming true. And so they plan on killing Joseph and throwing his body into one of the nearby pits. Then they’ll take his robe of many colors and say that a fierce animal ate him. b. Reuben’s rescue plan. Reuben, the firstborn, and the leader of the group has a moment of clarity in the fog of rage and suggests to the brothers that they don’t just murder him on the spot but that they throw him into one of the empty cisterns. Why bloody their hands when they can throw him into a cistern and he’ll either starve to death or a wild animal might just come and kill him thereby rendering their tale true? We are told that Reuben’s motivation for his suggestion is that he might rescue Joseph and return him to Jacob. Is this an act of kindness from Reuben? Well, before you applaud Reuben as the hero, we have to read the rest of the story. The brothers agree to Reuben’s suggestion and they take Joseph’s coat and throw him into the cistern.
Psalm 2 tells us that the nations, the kings of the earth, and the rulers all gathered together and in a rage the plot against the Lord and his anointed. They want to get rid of their authority over them. But all of their anger and plotting is done in vain. It’s pointless. It’s comical. For them to think that they can go up against the God of the universe is the height of foolishness. God, who sits in heaven, looks upon them and laughs with a laugh of contempt, with disdain, with hatred toward the evil they are planning. All the Anointed has to do is ask the Lord and he will be able to smash the nations like a rod iron hitting a clay pot. At the time of its writing, this psalm described what the nations thought they could do against the king of Israel. We also know that this psalm, according to Hebrews 1, is about Jesus who is the anointed and Son of God. But how the people plotted and how God laughed at their plans was not something new when the psalmist wrote those words down. We have seen this happen many times in the book of Genesis. Man knows what God has chosen and what is right and they plot and scheme to try and go against God. Every time, even if their plans succeed, ultimately they fail. In Genesis 37, we find the patriarchs, the leaders of the tribes of Israel, plotting to destroy one of their own. God had spoken. God had chosen Joseph. And his brothers rage and will plot in vain. In verses 18—24 we read of the brother’s evil plan and how they rage against Joseph. Then in verses 25-28, Moses explains to us how Joseph is sold into slavery. And finally, we read of the cover-up and Jacob’s reaction to the supposed loss of his beloved Joseph. The last time we left Joseph, he had received the coat of many colors which was a symbol of his favorite status. His brothers saw it and grew jealous. God gave Joseph two prophetic dreams, both with the same meaning, which was that he was to rule over his family. This stirred the brothers into a murderous rage. They took the flocks and left eventually making their way to Dothan. Jacob, curious about the welfare of his sons, sent Joseph to find out and to bring back a report. This is where we pick up the story today.
As we finish with the passage today, let’s consider the lessons that we ought to learn. First, favoritism in a family is destructive. Jacob’s favoring of Joseph lead to anger, resentment, and eventually to thoughts of murder. I wonder if Paul had in his mind this story when he wrote, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” As parents, we must be careful not to act in such a way that would disgrace God and the authority he has given to us as parents. We are not to drive our children to anger through our sin and disobedience. Now they may be driven to anger because of our obedience to God if they are unbelievers. We should expect that. We should actually welcome that. Over the years, I’ve seen parents give up their God-given authority as parents, compromise, or worse, they allow their unbelieving child to dictate what they do all in the name of keeping the peace. Didn’t Jesus say that children will rise against their parents and have them put to death? It is better to be put to death by your children than not endure to the end and be lost for all eternity. In Joseph, we can see a boy who is obedient to his father. Putting aside his motivations, his actions are true. He goes to his brothers, alone, knowing that they hated him. Maybe it was naivete or perhaps he chooses to obey rather than cave to fear, either way, he follows his father’s command. Children, you need to follow Joseph’s example. What your parents tell you to do may not be what you want to do. You might be afraid. You might not like what they want you to do. But God has told you to honor your father and mother and so that’s what you do. Remember that God is watching over you. He will care for you as you obey. He will work everything out for your good if you love God. Finally, we see here the beginning of another story of providence. All the events of Joseph’s life are planned by God and he is unfolding them before Joseph’s eyes. The favoritism, the dreams, the jealous hearts of his brothers, his obedient heart, are all tools in the hand of the master. Joseph will one day conclude that his brothers had a plan but God had a plan as well. And God’s plan will win. Know today that God’s plan includes your life as well. He does not make accidents or coincidences. He made a plan. The trials and the good things in your life are there for a purpose. The narrow escapes and those quick life changes are all a part of how God is bringing you to the end of the story. If you do not know Christ as your savior, the planned end is destruction. But he instructs you to come to him today. Surrender your life to him and he will take the life of hardship and pain that ends in eternal destruction and replace it with an end of eternal joy. He is calling to you today. Repent and believe in him today. For those of you that are following God, be encouraged. Like Joseph, obey what your Father in heaven has commanded. He has set a path before you. He has told you where to go. Now go with the knowledge that there is a plan and a purpose and God will make everything beautiful in its time.
a. Joseph is obedient. After hearing the dreams of their brother and seeing the favoritism of their father, Jacob’s sons take the flock and go to pasture the animals near Shechem. I find it interesting that they tell Jacob that they are going to take the flocks back to Shechem. This is the city that they destroyed. They are the ones that the Canaanites and Perizzites wanted to exact revenge upon. I think you can get a little insight into how these men think. After some time passes, Jacob has a growing concern toward his sons and the flock. And so he calls Joseph to himself and tells him that he wants him to go to his brothers and see how they are doing. Notice a couple of things here. First, Joseph is not out keeping the flock with his older brothers. The coat of many colors was Jacob’s way of separating Joseph from the dirty and common work of keeping the flock. He was a boy of 17 and would normally be out with the flock. Second, Joseph answers his father’s request to run an errand with “Here I am.” Even though he is the prized son, and no doubt Joseph enjoyed that position, he answers his father’s request obediently. Jacob sends Joseph from the Valley of Hebron to Shechem to see if everything is ok. Now, we could debate the wisdom of Jacob on sending his son on this errand with the knowledge of his other sons’ resentment toward Joseph. Nevertheless, this is what Jacob decides to do and Joseph obediently goes. b. Joseph searches. Joseph arrives at Shechem and begins to wander around the fields looking for the flock and his brothers. As he is looking, a man found him in the fields and asks him, “What are you seeking?” Joseph tells him that he is seeking his brothers and asks him if he knows where they went. The man says that they left but he did overhear them talking about going to Dothan. And so Joseph leaves Shechem and makes his way to Dothan. Now Joseph’s errand is done. He went to find out if everything is going well for the brothers. He knows they’re alive and well and had moved on to Dothan. He could return home and tell his father that they weren’t at Shechem but had moved on. And yet, Joseph chooses to follow his brothers to Dothan. It is clear that we are meant to see the difference between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is obedient to his father and is willing to travel all the way to Dothan for his brothers. In the next part of the story, we find the brothers wanting to kill Joseph and then they choose to deceive and lie to their father. In theology, we talk about people or events called types. These foreshadow what is to come after. There are many types of Christ in the Old Testament. Joseph is one of those types. Different events and actions that occur in Joseph’s life point forward in time to Jesus. They are to prepare the people for his coming. The apostles would use many of these types as they used Scripture in their writing. The book of Hebrews is full of this use of types. Now, Matthew Henry explains the type that is found in Joseph. “Joseph was here a type of Christ. Though he was the beloved Son of his Father, and hated by a wicked world, yet the Father sent him out of his bosom to visit us in great humility and love. He came from heaven to earth, to seek and save us; yet then malicious plots were laid against him. He came to his own, and his own not only received him not, but consulted against him.” c. A man found him. One last observation before we are done. Joseph was in the fields wandering around looking for his brothers and man saw him out there and this man just had happened to overhear the brothers talking about going to Dothan. We as followers of God, know there is no such thing as chance or accident. The events that allowed the man to meet the brothers and to hear their plans and then to encounter Joseph out in some random field were not an accident. It was the hand of God. He is planning to move Joseph to Egypt and he chose to use some guy in a field to bring that into being. That’s providence.
a. The dream of sheaves. And so with the brothers raging, God gives Joseph a set of dreams that have the same meaning. As Joseph will later tell Pharaoh when he has two dreams that mean the same thing, “the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.” The first dream that Joseph has is about sheaves. His sheaf stands upright and his brothers’ sheaves are bowed down to his. The brothers interpret this dream as meaning that Joseph would rule over them. The division and rage they were already feeling and they hate him even more. Before they could not speak to him, and now things are worse. b. The dream of the sun, moon, and stars. Then Joseph has another dream and he shares that with his family. Whether it was prudent for Joseph to share these dreams or not has been debated, but these are messages from God and would not only affect him but his whole family and the world. This second dream is about the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. When Jacob hears the dream his rebukes Joseph. “Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Just as a side note. When Jacob says your mother, he is probably referring to Leah as she was the matriarch of the family and because Rachel had died.) But he doesn’t do it out of a completely skeptical heart because Jacob kept the saying in mind. Even though he checked Joseph he did not do so out of complete disbelief. Jacob knew full well that if the dreams were from God, it would happen, even though, at the time, he couldn’t see how it would happen. If Jacob’s response was one of caution his brothers’ response was one of jealousy. c. Ruling and Reigning. After this chapter, the narrative jumps to Judah and the story of where his two sons come from. Since the narrative is focusing on Joseph and how he will rule over his family, why are Judah and his sons important? Like we have encountered so many times already in Genesis, this is foreshadowing. Moses speaks of Joseph’s future rule but then jumps to Judah’s offspring and their future rule. When Jacob blesses his sons he tells Judah that the scepter would not depart from him nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet. His father’s sons would bow down to him. All the nations would bring tribute to Judah and would obey him. Joseph would rule in his generation as his dream foretell, but Judah would reign forever.