The Headless Breadman (Genesis 40:1-23)

For 15 years, Locked Up Abroad has told stories of people being jailed while traveling. Some episodes feature people who were kidnapped and at least one tells the story of a British man who was arrested and faced a 14-year prison sentence in the Philippines for the charge of adultery.[1]

I’ve never been on an episode of Locked Up Abroad, but Jacob, Alex, and I have been to one of the prisons featured in a few episodes called Lurigancho in Peru. The internet tells me that the locals call it The House Of The Devil.[2]

Joseph found himself imprisoned after being falsely accused by a lady who tried to commit adultery with him. When all was said and done, he would spend 13 years as a slave and a prisoner.

We aren’t sure how bad the jail was. On the one hand, Joseph had a lot of agency in it. It was a political prison, which might lend itself to better accommodations. On the other hand, it was still an ancient prison. Joseph characterizes it as a pit and dungeon. It’s not where he wanted to be.

At the same time, while he was there, he kept himself busy with ministry. Through his faithfulness, we’re given a powerful example of what the Master commanded His servants in the Parable of the Ten Minas when He said, “Occupy till I come,” or, “Engage in business until I come back.”[3]

Do you feel like you’re tied to your desk or in a dead-end job? Or, if we’re being more cheery, are you hoping to minister to people around you or are you excited to see the promises of God coming to fruition in your life? Either way, Joseph’s experience has a lot to show us.

Genesis 40:1-4 – After this, the king of Egypt’s cupbearer and baker offended their master, the king of Egypt. 2 Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guards in the prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guards assigned Joseph to them as their personal attendant, and they were in custody for some time.

Joseph was 28 years old at the time and has been made the unofficial assistant warden, even though he’s a prisoner himself.

The two new prisoners who arrive are members of Pharaoh’s court: The cupbearer, who is also called the butler in some translations, and the chief baker. We’re not told what they are accused of or if they did it, but the prison warden – maybe Potiphar – assigns Joseph to them as a personal attendant. So not only is he incarcerated but now he’s supposed to act as a servant while in prison. But one translation puts it this way: “[He] assigned Joseph to them and he ministered to them.”[4] It’s the same term that Moses will later use to speak of serving in the tabernacle.[5]

As Christians, we are not to think of life through the lens of circumstances. Had Joseph done that, what result could there be but anger and bitterness and the death of faith? Instead, we can choose to see life the way God sees it. We know that God has scattered us into a particular time and place so that we will grope for Him, be in relationship with Him, and then be used by Him for His glory and as participants in His unfolding work to rescue the lost.

Joseph wasn’t happy about being in that jail. He wants out. But he was serious about opportunities to minister to people and to glorify God even in his terrible circumstances.

Genesis 40:5-7 – 5 The king of Egypt’s cupbearer and baker, who were confined in the prison, each had a dream. Both had a dream on the same night, and each dream had its own meaning. 6 When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they looked distraught. 7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why do you look so sad today?”

Joseph’s example here is remarkable. Remember: On the human level, Egyptians were his enemies. Or, at best, they were in the category of other that he and his family would otherwise try to avoid. These two men represent the oppressive regime that was keeping Joseph in prison. But Joseph was a man with real faith and that faith produced compassion in his heart. He acted like the little Hebrew girl who had been abducted and enslaved into Naaman’s house in Syria. That’s the worst set of circumstances imaginable. But she saw Naaman’s leprosy and said, “If only my master could see the man of God in Israel, he would be healed.”

Joseph sees the anguish on their faces and does not wait for them to ask. He takes the initiative to reach out to them and see if he can provide relief.

The butler and the baker were convinced their dreams were not normal. They were under a lot of stress, but this was different. There was a weight and a prescience to the dreams that they couldn’t shake. Egyptians believed that dreams put a person in direct contact with world where the dead and the gods dwelt.[6]

Joseph and his family also believed some dreams could be sent from God – Joseph’s own father had experienced that. And Joseph seems to have well-established opinions about dreams, their importance, and interpretation.

What about our dreams? Does God still speak through them today? Peter preached in the book of Acts that Joel’s prophecy about dreams and visions still had application in the Church Age, but we shouldn’t assume a strange dream is Divine. Maybe it is, but the primary source of wisdom and prophecy given to us is the Word of God. God says, “If you lack wisdom, ask Me for it and I’ll give it to you.”[7] At the same time, the Bible doesn’t tell us God will never speak to us through a dream. If He does, it will be totally in line with Scripture because Scripture is His Word and our authority.

Genesis 40:8 – 8 “We had dreams,” they said to him, “but there is no one to interpret them.” Then Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

The butler and the baker were convinced these dreams meant something. The problem was that they had been taught that understanding dreams was a complex science that required special people – magicians – to give you the solution to the puzzle. Being in prison meant they had no access to those ‘experts,’ so they felt hopeless.[8]

Joseph responds with this great, culture-breaking moment. He casually says, “You don’t need those guys. What was your dream?” He’s matter-of-fact about it, but there’s a lot for us in this example. First, he gives these guys the impression that God – the real God – is definitely willing to interact with them. There were no hoops for them to jump through before God might give them wisdom.

Second, Joseph explained that their circumstances weren’t a problem. Their thinking was, “If we were in better shape – if we were in a better position, our gods might be able to give us some insight.” But Joseph boldly says, “God is with me and He is a Helper and He is willing to help you.”

Third, Joseph gave them hope but made no promises. He did not say, “I’ll definitely tell you what your dreams mean.” He’s honest but doesn’t exaggerate beyond what he knows to be true.

This is a great example for us as we represent a loving God to needy people. There’s also a great devotional reminder here. These guys were trying to figure out their lives and they assumed they needed the “experts” to guide them. Joseph comes along and says, “What you need is the Lord.”

We’re not against education – we’re not necessarily anti ‘experts,’ but let’s ask this question: These sages that they were so dependent on, these experts in dream science, did they actually know anything about dreams or about the future? No! We want to be very careful about which well of wisdom we’re drinking from. The Egyptians would formally school their wise men in a place called the “Houses of Life,”[9] but Joseph tells these guys, “God knows the truth and He will help you and He wants to explain life to you directly.” The same is true today.

Genesis 40:9-13 – 9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph: “In my dream there was a vine in front of me. 10 On the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms came out and its clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 12 “This is its interpretation,” Joseph said to him. “The three branches are three days. 13 In just three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position. You will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand the way you used to when you were his cupbearer.

Joseph’s interpretation seems impossible. How could the butler go from pit to palace in three days? His reputation is destroyed. Pharaoh doesn’t trust him – he’s furious with him. But Joseph says with confidence and boldness and faith, “This is what is going to happen.”

Genesis 40:14-15 – 14 But when all goes well for you, remember that I was with you. Please show kindness to me by mentioning me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this prison. 15 For I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should put me in the dungeon.”

This is a helpful thing to see. Joseph is not trying to escape. There’s no secret tunnel that he’s been digging. But he does want out and that’s ok! We don’t have to love suffering. It’s not less spiritual to prefer blessing to difficulty. You can pray for deliverance from trials and hurts. But, throughout our struggles, we’re called to be people of faith and ministry, no matter the circumstances.

Genesis 40:16-17 – 16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was positive, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream. Three baskets of white bread were on my head. 17 In the top basket were all sorts of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

In his dream, we see baskets of bread and baked goods. I found it interesting that an ancient Egyptian dictionary has been found that lists 38 kinds of cake and 57 varieties of bread.[10]

As long as Joseph was handing out fortune cookies with winning lottery numbers, the baker wanted to get in on it, too! He knew there were parallels between the two dreams and, on top of that, in the Egyptian culture, birds functioned as symbols of royalty, the king in particular.[11]

What seemed like a very similar dream did have a few key differences. The butler had been very active in his dream. He’s taking the grapes, squeezing them, placing the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. The baker is motionless. Nahum Sarna points out that, in the dream: “The baker has neither the strength nor the presence of mind to drive [the birds] away – an ominous detail.”[12]

Genesis 40:18-19 – 18 “This is its interpretation,” Joseph replied. “The three baskets are three days. 19 In just three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from off you—and hang you on a tree. Then the birds will eat the flesh from your body.”

The baker would be beheaded and impaled on a stick. The goal of such a gruesome execution would be to deny the victim rest in the afterlife.[13]

Joseph, for his part, still gives us a good example here. He didn’t sugarcoat the bad news. As Christians delivering the Gospel, it’s vital that we do not neglect giving the whole message, which includes sin and guilt and judgment and hell. Those are truths that people need to know so that they can receive the Good News about Christ, who will save them from their certain doom.

We’re not given the reactions of the butler or the baker. Did they believe? I imagine the next three days were very awkward around the prison.

Genesis 40:20-22 – 20 On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he gave a feast for all his servants. He elevated the chief cupbearer and the chief baker among his servants. 21 Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer to his position as cupbearer, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But Pharaoh hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had explained to them.

Ron Swanson once said that “birthdays were invented by Hallmark to sell cards,” but he’s wrong about that. The world’s oldest invite was discovered in England in 1973. It’s an invitation to a birthday party written around 100 A.D.[14]

Here in Genesis 40, don’t think balloons and bounce houses – this was a drinking party.[15] Maybe that’s why the butler was so quick to forget Joseph.

Joseph’s prophecies came true. He did have the presence of God with him. He had a connection to heaven’s wisdom, God’s calendar. Of course, Joseph would remember his own pair of dreams that had besieged his sleep so many years ago. If God was speaking and working through the dreams of a couple of pagans outside the family of faith, what great confidence Joseph would’ve had. What great expectation that his deliverance would be swift in coming. Joseph’s heart must’ve swollen with excitement and anticipation and hope in a way he hadn’t felt in over a decade!

Genesis 40:23 – 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

Can you imagine the day after the butler’s release? How Joseph would’ve waited for the sound of a chariot arriving, announcing his release. How he and the captain of the guards would’ve spoken about all that had happened. How they would have marveled at the way God Himself was watching out for Joseph.

But no one came. Ok – maybe tomorrow. After all, a lot was going on with the party and the executions and everything. Then another day came and went. Then a week. Then a month.

Joseph would remain a prisoner for two more years. Now, he has been exemplary for us and I have no intention of criticizing his choices or behavior. But the end of the story gives us a devotional reminder. Back in verse 14, he pressed the butler, firmly: Remember me. Mention me. Get me out! In fact, he asks the butler to “boast” about him to Pharaoh.[16] He said, “Show me kindness.” The word there is that Hebrew word we’ve been talking about in these passages: hesed. “Please, show me hesed.” But the butler had no hesed to give him. Joseph’s plea was reasonable and understandable. But for us, the reminder is that our hope, the hesed we need for our future, comes from the Lord. David preached to himself in Psalm 62: “Rest in God alone, my soul, for my hope comes from him.” The Lord is the One Who will save us from the pits of danger and discouragement and despair. I’m sure Joseph spent time in prayer, asking for deliverance. Deliverance was coming. It was just a few years away.

For us, it’s just a reminder: The Lord is our hope. He is our hesed Redeemer. He is coming for us. Wait on Him.

As we close, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to point out that this chapter in Joseph’s life is not just an example of how we can faithfully minister, even in difficulty. It is also a lovely portrait of God’s salvation.

What do we see? Two men thrown into prison. We don’t know what they’ve done, but they’ve offended their king. The word used there is the word used for sin.[17] They had no hope. But then God sent them an innocent helper – one who was willing to serve them and identify with them and reach out to them. They were both given a message from heaven, one that could not be undone or overcome. In the end, both men were raised up – one to life, the other to death. And the one who lived was told to remember the one who had helped him.

The broad strokes are the same for all of us. We have offended God. We’ve sinned against Him. Maybe in small ways, maybe in great ways, but He is right to condemn us. But, by His grace, He sent His innocent Son to come and identify with us and give us heaven’s message. Now we, by faith, can choose whether we will believe and receive salvation or if we will not take what God has provided. If you believe, you will be raised up to life and to glory and to a position of honor where you will rule alongside the King of Kings. If you will not believe, you too will be raised up to face the Great White Throne Judgment, where you will be condemned for all eternity, never to rest as you endure the punishment of the lake of fire. We who believe are called to remember our Lord, to remember His Word, and to boast of Him to those who will listen. As we live out our faith we’re reminded that our God is our faithful, hesed Redeemer. Our shield. Our glory. The Lifter of our heads. Salvation and blessing belong to Him. May His blessing be on all His people.


3 Luke 19:13
4 Robert Alter The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary
5 Theological Wordbook Of The Old Testament
6 Joseph Vergote, Joseph en Égypte
7 James 1:5
8 Andrew Steinmann Genesis
9 Alter
10 Vergote
11 Jonathan Grossman Different Dreams: Two Models of Interpretation for Three Pairs of Dreams Genesis 37–50
12 Nahum Sarna Genesis
13 Gordon Wenham Genesis 16-50 Word Biblical Commentary
15 Susan Brayford Genesis
16 The NET First Edition Study Bible Notes
17 Grossman

Undressed For Success (Genesis 39:1-23)

How do you define success? That’s a question that Gallup and Populace asked thousands of Americans in 2019. They found that “there is a stark difference between how Americans define success and how they believe others in society define success. Most Americans believe others in society define success in status-oriented…terms, but less than 10% apply this standard to their personal definition of success. The study revealed that there is no ‘average’ definition of success. Instead, everyone tends to have a highly unique, personal view of success.” Important areas listed by respondents included education, relationships, and character.[1]

How do you define success? I ask because there’s a lot of talk about success in our passage tonight. We read it and see a story of an innocent young man being falsely accused of a crime and unjustly imprisoned. But God’s commentary on this situation is: “Joseph is doing great! He’s a successful man in a very exciting position!”

Really? He’s a slave and a prisoner. How is that success? Is the Lord giving us some PR spin here?

What God considers success is brought home to us when we read the Apostles’ descriptions of the Christian life. Paul said, “I’m a slave to Jesus Christ – bound to serve the Lord for all my life.” Peter, James, John, and Jude said the same. In Romans 6, Paul went even further and said, “Thanks be to God that we Christians have become slaves to righteousness.” In three letters, Paul also identified himself as the Lord’s prisoner and invited Timothy to share in the sufferings of the Gospel.

Let’s see how God can call being a slave and prisoner success as we read Genesis 39.

Genesis 39:1 – Now Joseph had been taken to Egypt. An Egyptian named Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guards, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there.

We’re going back 20 years or so from the end of chapter 38. The story picks back up when Joseph was sold by his brothers and he had a very hard time, according to Psalm 105.

As far as being trafficked goes, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He wasn’t sent to a copper mine or a granite quarry. He’s bought into a wealthy house of an Egyptian official.

Linguists struggle a bit with what Potiphar’s job was. The Hebrew words say he was the “chief slaughterer.”[2] Some think he was Pharaoh’s butcher, similar to the chief baker who we’ll meet in chapter 40. Most commentators believe he was the chief executioner and captain of Pharaoh’s guards. That’s reflected in most translations. There is also significant evidence to indicate that Potiphar was a eunuch.[3]

Genesis 39:2 – 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, serving in the household of his Egyptian master.

Joseph became a successful man, yet he had no wealth, no freedom, no friends, no family, and no escape plan. As the tale unfolds, we see Joseph had no intention of fleeing back to Canaan. In fact, chapter 41 shows that, after a while, he was content to forget his home and family.[4]

What made Joseph successful was that God was with him and was working in his life. About two thousand years later, Stephen, the first martyr of the Church Age, would say that, during this time, God was with Joseph and was rescuing him from all his troubles.

In God’s mind, success is all about our nearness to Him and His ability to accomplish His will in and through us. Despite the danger Joseph was in, despite the dead-endedness of his situation from the human perspective, we see that Joseph had an abiding faith in the Lord. He may not have understood, but he certainly believed that God was still worth obeying and honoring and trusting.

One study Bible puts it this way: “[successful] does not mean wealthy, but that he was…making progress in his situation.”[5]

He was making progress because the Lord was with him. The Lord had been with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob. He had not only promised it, but He proved it to be true. Here’s the best part: The Lord is with you. He will never leave you or forsake you. He is with you and that is what brings true success to our lives.

Genesis 39:3-6a – 3 When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful, 4 Joseph found favor with his master and became his personal attendant. Potiphar also put him in charge of his household and placed all that he owned under his authority. 5 From the time that he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house because of Joseph. The Lord’s blessing was on all that he owned, in his house and in his fields. 6 He left all that he owned under Joseph’s authority; he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.

At this point, Joseph is between 17 and 20 years old. God has gifted him with incredible maturity and administrative skill. He would end up benefiting from his experience running this household and later the prison when he’s given the task of administrating all of Egypt. Still, it’s not that God had to get him into this job first. Daniel would have a similar position in Babylon without having any prior administrative experience that we know of. We don’t want to make the theological mistake of thinking God causes bad things to happen to us because it gives us some ability we’ll need later on. These are the events that happened to Joseph, but we shouldn’t say they were God’s idea.

In the midst of suffering, God’s work in Joseph’s life rippled out to the edges of Potiphar’s estate. It was so evident that even this pagan executioner could see, “The Lord is with this kid.”

God wants to bless others through our lives and, when people look at us, He wants there to be a visible testimony of Who He is and what He does. This wasn’t just true of Joseph and Abraham, it’s true of our lives as well. God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29:

Jeremiah 29:7 – 7 Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.

Christians are given this command in First Timothy:

1 Timothy 2:1-4 – I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

In Philippians, we’re told to look to the interests of others. Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Let your light shine…so that people may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Our lives are supposed to proclaim the power of God and the Person of Jesus Christ. Remember, Potiphar was surrounded by false idols. None of these Egyptian deities did anything to help his family or his crops or his nation. Then Joseph came into his life and Potiphar said, “You know what…there’s a real God working through this young man’s life and I need more of that.”

The question is: Does my life proclaim that God is with me? Is that a visible truth to the world? Or does my God seem to function the way Ra did for Potiphar? There should be a profound difference between the gods of this world and the God of heaven and earth. It’s meant to be as different as light is from darkness. God doesn’t want His work in us to be stealth, He wants it to be self-evident.

Genesis 39:6b-10 – Now Joseph was well-built and handsome. 7 After some time his master’s wife looked longingly at Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.” 8 But he refused. “Look,” he said to his master’s wife, “with me here my master does not concern himself with anything in his house, and he has put all that he owns under my authority. 9 No one in this house is greater than I am. He has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. So how could I do this immense evil, and how could I sin against God?” 10 Although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her.

There’s another element of Joseph’s success here: He was very successful in overcoming temptation. Potiphar’s wife came after him day after day after day. Though this is a very uncomfortable situation for him, it’s instructive for us. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re not strong enough to overcome temptation, but that’s not true. Joseph could not remove this temptation, but he could refuse it. And he refused because he had a firm belief system that told him how to navigate life. His faith determined what was right and what was wrong in his daily life.

Potiphar’s wife commanded him to sleep with her,[6] but he said, “I don’t have to obey you because that would be wrong – Not just an offense against my boss who trusts me, but wrong morally, and a sin against God.”

This chapter and the last have a lot to say to us about guarding our sexuality and the dangers of going outside God’s boundaries. The New Testament explains that sexual sins are unique because not only do you sin against God and another person, but you sin against yourself.[7] We’re told that God has called us not to impurity but to holiness in regard to our sexuality. Ephesians says we’re not to have even a hint of sexual immorality among us.[8] When a person engages in sinful sexual activity, they are rejecting God.[9] But it’s not all about not doing something. When we obey God’s directives concerning our sexuality, 1 Corinthians tells us that we can glorify God with our bodies – and that is a wonderful thing.

So, what are the rules? We live in a society where all sorts of sexual activity is celebrated, especially the perverse variety. So, as Christians, what is God’s definition of holy, successful sexual activity? The Bible’s answer is: The monogamous, heterosexual union of one biological man with one biological woman in a relationship maintained as long as both live. That is what God commands.

Genesis 39:11 – 11 Now one day he went into the house to do his work, and none of the household servants were there.

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient papyrus from around this period that gives a record of all the slaves and their jobs in an Egyptian house. It lists 80 slaves.[10] Potiphar undoubtedly had dozens of workers in the home. Potiphar’s wife likely sent them all out so she could spring her trap.

Some commentators chide Joseph for being where he shouldn’t be, but what was he supposed to do? When you’re at your job and people around you aren’t working, do you say, “I guess I don’t need to work either?” And you’re not a slave! Joseph is being faithful. He goes in to do his work.

Genesis 39:12 – 12 She grabbed him by his garment and said, “Sleep with me!” But leaving his garment in her hand, he escaped and ran outside.

One scholar writes:

“Mrs. Potiphar becomes…aggressive…She drags him by his clothes. The verb implies a…forceful action. [She] was doing more than merely grabbing Joseph.”[11]

In response, Joseph runs for it. It was not the time to talk or reason with her. It was time to remove himself from this situation. Joseph is to be commended.

Genesis 39:13-18 – 13 When she saw that he had left his garment with her and had run outside, 14 she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “my husband brought a Hebrew man to make fools of us. He came to me so he could sleep with me, and I screamed as loud as I could. 15 When he heard me screaming for help, he left his garment beside me and ran outside.” 16 She put Joseph’s garment beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him the same story: “The Hebrew slave you brought to us came to make a fool of me, 18 but when I screamed for help, he left his garment beside me and ran outside.”

It’s safe to say everyone in the house knew what kind of lady Mrs. Potiphar was. She’s bold and brazen. But now she’s been embarrassed and is potentially in legal danger since adultery was a serious crime. So she starts building a case to frame Joseph.

In our culture, there’s a lot of talk about “fake news” and how there are two sides to every story. It’s interesting – she did have “evidence,” right?[12] But what she said was a total lie. The truth didn’t come out for a long time. But the Lord knew and He loves truth and He saw to it that what really happened was brought to light and proclaimed around the world through the Scripture.

Keep the truth buckled around your waist and remember that the Lord knows even when others may believe a lie about you.

Genesis 39:19-20 – 19 When his master heard the story his wife told him—“These are the things your slave did to me”—he was furious 20 and had him thrown into prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. So Joseph was there in prison.

Who was Potiphar mad at? The language is ambiguous.[13] Let’s remember that he was Pharaoh’s executioner. He has a ton of authority. And this crime would have been a capital offense.[14]

Let’s also think back about what we know. Potiphar was likely castrated. His marriage was probably political. His wife wasn’t afraid to have an affair. In fact, she was brash enough that Potiphar felt the need to specifically tell Joseph, “You’re gonna be in charge of everything, but don’t sleep with my wife.” And then, instead of killing Joseph, which would’ve been within his rights, he sends him to the political prison. Some commentators think that Potiphar was even the warden at this prison.[15]

It was a lose-lose situation for everyone. What did Joseph think? He went from being the son of preference to a pit to a penthouse to a prison and, ultimately to the palace.[16] As he was carted off to his cell, was that the end of his success? Had he slipped through the Lord’s loving fingers?

Genesis 39:21 – 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him. He granted him favor with the prison warden.

The Septuagint puts it this way: “the Lord was with Joseph and poured down mercy upon him.” Kindness or mercy there is that beautiful word for God’s love hesed. As far as the Lord was concerned, Joseph was still a success story. They were still together. And, in fact, God said “Joseph is experiencing a downpour of My faithful, tender love right there and then.”

Genesis 39:22-23 – 22 The warden put all the prisoners who were in the prison under Joseph’s authority, and he was responsible for everything that was done there. 23 The warden did not bother with anything under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him, and the Lord made everything that he did successful.

There’s that word again: successful. This does not square with what we’re told to think success is. We’re told by our culture and our sinful hearts that success means more for me. Upward for me. Better comforts and circumstances for me. More power for me and people like me. God stands totally against those ideas in this passage. He tells us, with bold, block letters: Joseph was successful. Success was measured in heaven not by the strength of stock performance but by the strength of faith’s application. It was measured not by earthly power but by the presence of God. The Lord would say, “Am I with you? Can people see My work in your life? Then you’re successful.”

If that is the measure, our efforts in life will look a lot different than those of the unbelieving world because the goals are entirely different. It’s not about us gaining or harvesting or moving up, but simply being with the Lord Who, Proverbs 2 tells us, “Stores up success for the upright.”


1 Success Index Populace + Gallop
2 Susan Brayford LXX Genesis Commentary
3 For a long discussion, see Brayford,. Also, Henry Morris The Genesis Record
4 Genesis 41:52
5 The NET Bible First Edition Notes
6, 11 Brayford
7 1 Corinthians 16:18
8 Ephesians 5:3
9 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8
10 Bruce Waltke Genesis: A Commentary
12 Kenneth A. Mathews Genesis 11:27-50:26 The New American Commentary
13 See Waltke, Davidson, Faithlife Study Bible Notes
14 Robert Davidson Genesis 12-50
15 Gordon Wenham Genesis, August Dillman Genesis Critically And Exegetically Expounded vol. 2
16 R. Kent Hughes Genesis: Beginning And Blessing

No One Cared Who I Was ‘Til I Put On The Mask (Genesis 38:1-30)

Moviegoers love a good reveal. Whether it’s Oz, The Great and Powerful, or Verbal Kint, or Darth Vader, we relish when a character’s mask comes off and their true identity is brought to light.

The Mission: Impossible franchise might take the character reveal too literally. In six movies, they’ve had fifteen scenes when a character dramatically tears off a mask to show who is underneath.[1] My favorites are the ‘masks’ that somehow also change Tom Cruise’s height and weight.

There’s a dramatic unmasking, a shocking reveal, in Genesis 38. The text is sordid, but the story isn’t being told to scandalize us – the Bible isn’t a tabloid. Why has God included this embarrassing episode for us? As we’ve seen many times already in the Book, the Lord doesn’t shy away from telling us the truth, even when it’s ugly. But this text isn’t just about uncovering sin. It’s about revealing God’s grace and His irrepressible accomplishing of good, even when man is doing all the wrong he can. Let’s take a look at those reveals, starting in verse 1.

Genesis 38:1-5 – At that time Judah left his brothers and settled near an Adullamite named Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua; he took her as a wife and slept with her. 3 She conceived and gave birth to a son, and he named him Er. 4 She conceived again, gave birth to a son, and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to another son and named him Shelah. It was at Chezib that she gave birth to him.

The year is around 1,900 B.C.[2] Our text will cover a little more than 20 years, starting after Joseph is sold into slavery. While Genesis 38 plays out, Joseph is serving in Potiphar’s house, then spends years in jail, and then finally ascends to his place of leadership in the government of Egypt. Moses wants us to keep Joseph’s story in the back of our minds as we read this text. We can contrast the struggles of the Godly, self-controlled son with the scandals of the ungodly, selfish son.

Judah is making very consequential decisions in these verses. He leaves his brothers and settles in a Canaanite community. This is what Lot and Esau did to their own ruin. Judah marries a Canaanite woman. This is a purposeful choice to operate outside of the covenant. Judah is going out on his own and, at this point, he has no significant belief or morality to speak of. It was his idea to sell his own brother for a few ounces of silver. And he somehow gets worse from there.

Genesis 38:6 – 6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.

There is no great love story for Tamar. This Canaanite girl will be treated terribly by this family and from start to finish, it’s as if she has no friends or help, no one watching out for her.

Genesis 38:7 – 7 Now Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the Lord’s sight, and the Lord put him to death.

Er’s evil must have been remarkable. Consider the fact that God did not put Cain to death, or Lamech, or Ham, or, as we’ll see, even Judah after this passage!

This is the first time in the Bible where God executes an individual for their sin.[3] There were wider judgments, like the flood and the destruction of Sodom. This was the first individual judgment but it wasn’t the last. Even into the New Testament, we see God, at times, bringing terminal judgment on specific unbelievers (like Herod Agrippa in Acts 12), and also Christians who are in sin (like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 and some of the believers in 1 Corinthians 11). God reserves this right and it reminds us that we are to take sin seriously because God takes it seriously.

Genesis 38:8-10 – 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife. Perform your duty as her brother-in-law and produce offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he released his semen on the ground so that he would not produce offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was evil in the Lord’s sight, so he put him to death also.

When you study the Law of Moses, you encounter what is referred to as “Levirate Marriage,” where a man provides children for a deceased brother. It’s not referring to Levites or Leviticus. ‘Levirate’ comes from the Latin word for brother-in-law. This custom is most famous in the Hebrew tradition, but it was also part of the law for the Assyrians, the Hittites, and other Canaanite cultures.[4]

We’re grossed out by the idea, but in these tribes, you didn’t want a family line to go extinct. On top of that, there was a very real social-welfare aspect to consider. In these eras, women couldn’t just go out and get a job. A woman was protected and provided for by her father until she was married. Then she would be safeguarded by her husband. If he died, she would be looked after by her children. It was a real problem, not just socially, but economically, to be a widow with no kids.[5]

Onan shows appalling selfishness and cruelty. He was happy to use Tamar for his own gratification but refused to help her have children, sentencing her to total bankruptcy for the rest of her life. As things stood, Onan would get a double portion of inheritance from his father. If he sired a son for his dead brother, that baby boy would receive the greater inheritance.

The Lord sees this wickedness and responds justly. Now, we know great things are going to come from the line of Judah. But that does not give these men free rein to disobey and dishonor God. He did not have to use these two wicked men – He would raise up others. The question is: How would Judah respond as the pressure increased?

Genesis 38:11 – 11 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, “He might die too, like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.

Judah responds with a selfish, dishonorable solution. First, he assumes it’s Tamar’s fault, somehow, that his sons are dead. Second, he lies outright – he has no intention of giving Shelah to her. And third, he expels Tamar from his home, refusing to give her any protection or provision. She does not belong in her father’s house – Judah had transacted to bring her into his family.

There’s another layer to his disgraceful behavior here. Judah has decided to throw in with the Canaanites. He lives with them, marries with them, does business with them, is friends with them. It is interesting that in the Hittite and Assyrian laws, Levirate customs extended to the father-in-law. Meaning that, in the culture he had joined, it was now his duty to bear a child with Tamar.[6] Obviously, we come at this from a very different perspective, but according to the choices Judah has made, that was his responsibility legally and culturally and morally. There was no Law of Moses yet. And he had said to his son, “Do your duty!” But now he is not only unwilling to do his duty under the Canaanite system, he won’t even offer his third son as he should.

Genesis 38:12 – 12 After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had finished mourning, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers.

We live in such a different day and age, it’s hard for us to understand the plight Tamar was facing. She has no future. She’s left in bankrupt isolation as a widow forever. Meanwhile, Judah – a man of wealth and freedom – mourns for a while, but then he gets to be done. He goes over to Timnah to party and make a bunch of money and carry on his life.

Genesis 38:13-15 – 13 Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” 14 So she took off her widow’s clothes, veiled her face, covered herself, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had grown up, she had not been given to him as a wife. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.

There’s a lot of debate over this mask she wore. Was it the universal bandana of harlots? The point is Judah did not know it was Tamar. The fact that she was hanging out by the road was the greater signal that she was looking for a John. Now, Tamar was making a very calculated decision. We don’t know a lot about her, but she spent years waiting. She didn’t return to her Canaanite people to find a husband. She was like Ruth in that sense. She seemed to believe that she belonged in this family and that it was her right to have a son and that was being wrongly denied her by her father-in-law.

It’s also interesting to note this piece of historical trivia: In this era, the veil was the garment of a betrothed woman. Think of Rebekah putting on her veil as she approached Isaac. In fact, scholars point out that there was an ancient Assyrian Law that forbid an unmarried woman from wearing a veil.[7] That may not have been in effect at the time, but either way, her disguise should’ve signaled to Judah that she was betrothed to another man and that he had no business hitting on her.

Isn’t it sad that Tamar could count on Judah visiting a harlot? The question is asked: Why didn’t she set the trap for Shelah? We’re left to speculate, but the simple answer may be she knew Judah would take the bait.

Genesis 38:16-19 – 16 He went over to her and said, “Come, let me sleep with you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me for sleeping with me?” 17 “I will send you a young goat from my flock,” he replied. But she said, “Only if you leave something with me until you send it.” 18 “What should I give you?” he asked. She answered, “Your signet ring, your cord, and the staff in your hand.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 She got up and left, then removed her veil and put her widow’s clothes back on.

Judah immediately solicits her in a coarse and vulgar way.[8] His offer of a youngling from his flock is ironic. She needed a kid, but not of the goat variety.

Not only did Tamar assume he would take the bait, she assumed he would lie about it later. And so she asks for these items. The signet ring was used in official contracts, like a notary. The staff was also usually personalized.[9] He shouldn’t be giving these things up. One scholar noted this was like giving up your driver’s license and credit cards.[10] But Judah has nothing but self on the mind. He’s unwilling to wait, even when he’s in the place where all his flocks are! It would’ve taken a very short amount of time to fetch a single goat, but his sinful heart is leading him to ruin, like it always does.

Genesis 38:20-23 – 20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get back the items he had left with the woman, he could not find her. 21 He asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” “There has been no cult prostitute here,” they answered. 22 So the Adullamite returned to Judah, saying, “I couldn’t find her, and besides, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no cult prostitute here.’ ” 23 Judah replied, “Let her keep the items for herself; otherwise we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send this young goat, but you couldn’t find her.”

Judah takes his payout to a prostitute more seriously than the welfare of his own daughter-in-law. Beyond that, we see the corruption of his thoughts: “Oh man, what will the lads think? I don’t want them to laugh at me.” What about what the Lord thinks? God was actively judging this family and Judah is blind to it. He ignores his sons’ sins. He doesn’t think twice about his own sins. He says, “I don’t want to become a laughingstock.” Your version may say, “lest we be shamed.” The word is someone who is worthless, foolish, and disreputable.[11] Spiritually speaking, he’s all of those things.

Genesis 38:24 – 24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law, Tamar, has been acting like a prostitute, and now she is pregnant.” “Bring her out,” Judah said, “and let her be burned to death!”

So, Judah is told, “Tamar has been acting like a prostitute” and his reaction is, “Well, we can’t have that! She’s betrothed to my son!” His hypocrisy is stunning! He immediately sentences her to death, revealing that she still fell under his authority. But he had spent years neglecting her and cheating her and refusing to show her basic decency. Now, he hears a rumor secondhand and he quickly calls for her execution. He wants to get rid of her and this seems like a convenient solution.[12]

Genesis 38:25-26 – 25 As she was being brought out, she sent her father-in-law this message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these items belong.” And she added, “Examine them. Whose signet ring, cord, and staff are these?” 26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her intimately again.

Judah is exposed for all he has done. The staffs of that era sometimes even had the name of their own inscribed on them.[13] What a scene this must have been. In this climactic moment, the masks come off both Tamar and Judah. All is laid bare. To his credit, Judah repents. He acknowledges and confesses and does what is right. This is a turning point for Judah.[14] The next time we see him, he’s back with his brothers and he acts as a servant leader, speaking truthfully and living sacrificially.

Was Tamar right in what she did? It seems like Judah is saying she was. He doesn’t necessarily speak for God, but looking forward, we see that God did bless Tamar’s efforts. Through this pregnancy came David and Christ Jesus, Himself. In the book of Ruth, Tamar is praised. The people say, “May your house become like the house of Perez, the son Tamar bore to Judah.” It’s a tough ethical dilemma when we look at all the Biblical comments. Obviously, the whole thing is very icky to us because we live in such a different time and have so much more revelation, particularly when it comes to personal conduct. We shouldn’t do what she did, but that doesn’t mean she was doing something purely evil.

Tamar could have found herself a Canaanite husband. Judah would’ve been fine with that. Instead, she risked her life because she seemed to believe that she had a place in this Hebrew family.[15] Her scheme wasn’t done out of irrational ignorance, like Lot’s daughters. What she did was within the legal and cultural boundaries that she grew up in. But her act was one of deception and, once the Law of Moses was established, it wouldn’t have been an acceptable arrangement.

Judah is correct that the real fault was his. His sin drove Tamar to a place of desperation. And the scene not only helped him recognize his sin but to remember his place in the plan of God.

Genesis 38:27-30 – 27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife took it and tied a scarlet thread around it, announcing, “This one came out first.” 29 But then he pulled his hand back, out came his brother, and she said, “What a breakout you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread tied to his hand, came out, and was named Zerah.

Once again, we have an instance in Genesis where the younger son is chosen over the older. God would use the line of Perez to bring the kings and the Redeemer, not Zerah.

We learn a lot about the grace of God through this uncomfortable story. First, it shows us that God is not afraid or unaware of our sin. We live in a culture where people are constantly canceled and abandoned by their friends because of things they did in the past. God doesn’t do that when our sin is discovered. He’s not afraid to associate with you.[16] Judah and his tribe would become major players in the rest of the Testament, but God doesn’t paper over his sin – it’s on display in all its shocking awfulness. Of course, God isn’t cavalier about that sin. This story is about the Lord bringing Judah to repentance and turning him back from sin. But the Lord’s love for Judah, and for us, is constant, even though we are wretched sinners who don’t deserve His love.

In addition to that love, Judah’s story shows us how God can redeem and transform really wicked people. Judah was a despicable person in chapters 37 and 38. By chapter 44, he’s a hero. And there’s a lovely moment of restoration in chapter 49. See, by his sin, Judah had lost his staff. In chapter 49, God gives the staff back to Judah and says, “It’s never going to depart from you again.” God’s restoration of our lives is everlasting, and He attends to the smallest details.

We are also reminded of how God helps the helpless. Tamar, like Hagar, found herself in a desperate situation. She had no friends. There was no one standing up for her or trying to shield her. But God was there. He treated her kindly and generously. She was robbed of sons twice, so He gave her twins. She had nothing to do with His family of faith, but He brought her in to be a part.

God’s grace for Tamar, this outsider Canaanite, reminds us of how He has grafted us into His family. Tamar had been ‘bought’ by the father and therefore had the right to bear a child in this family. God agreed. And we’re reminded of how, by His grace, He has given those who believe the right to be children of God.[17] And, unlike Judah, God will not withhold any provision or protection from us. He has brought us in and made us His own. His grace is unfailing and unstoppable and unmatched.


2 Andrew Steinmann Genesis
3 Bruce Waltke Genesis: A Commentary
4 Kenneth Mathews The New American Commentary Genesis 11:27-50:26, Gorden Wenham Genesis
5 Susan Niditch The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38
6 See Waltke, Martha Roth Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor
7, 13 Mathews
8 Robert Alter The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary
9 Derek Kidner Genesis
10 Alter
11 The NET Bible First Edition Notes
12, 15 Waltke
14 ESV Study Bible Notes
16 John Goldingay Genesis
17 John 1:12

Lord Of The Dreams (Genesis 37:1-36)

Have you ever had a good dream that turned bad? In 1963 Martin Luther King told the world that he had a dream. Four years later, he told NBC News, “That dream that I had has…turned into a nightmare.” He went on to speak about the hatred and violence permeating American society. The American people were, in his assessment, insensitive and dull of conscience. While he held out hope for the future, he said, “I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead.”[1] The difficulties would include the loss of his own life.

Genesis 37 centers around two dreams. Those dreams turn into a nightmare period not only for Joseph, but for the whole family of faith. But we know the end of the story. What man meant for evil, God meant for good. It’s easy for us to read this tale and dismiss the difficulty Joseph endured. But imagine you had to live through these dark days. Which of us wouldn’t have prayed to God, “Lord, haven’t You promised us land and blessing and protection? Didn’t You promise to take care and watch over and guard us?”

The truth is, all of us have had the experience of some life dream turning into a nightmare of difficulty. Maybe we haven’t been trafficked into slavery, but we know this life is not always smooth sailing. When we face the troubled waters of life it’s not so easy for us to wave the difficulties away and say, “What man means for evil, God means for good.” But, isn’t it interesting that we know the end of our story just like we know the end of Joseph’s? We may not know the particulars – the dates and times and locations – but we know how this story ends. It ends in glory. It ends in deliverance. It ends with God restoring all things. It ends in an everlasting dream, where you and I are elevated to status of royalty, surrounded by the family of faith, with every hurt and every fear wiped away.

Our paths may not be as harsh as Joseph’s was – or they may be worse. But as we read his story, we can learn about the life of faith, the faithfulness of God, and the foes we face along the way.

Genesis 37:1-2a – Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. 2 These are the family records of Jacob…

The chapter starts with God’s people in Canaan and ends with Joseph forcibly taken from it. There is a spiritual conflict being waged in our world. We have a powerful enemy whose goal is to derail you, destroy you, and devour you if he can. But our Lord is stronger in every circumstance.

Genesis 37:2b – At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended sheep with his brothers. The young man was working with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought a bad report about them to their father.

Other than chapter 38, the rest of Genesis will tell us Joseph’s story. That’s 26% of the whole book! His experience has so much to teach us about suffering and faithfulness and providence and grace and endurance and God’s power and trusting the Lord. Joseph also foreshadows the work of Christ in many ways, particularly how He saves the undeserving and wretched people around Him. While many of Joseph’s circumstances are tragic, his saga is really a triumph of grace.

At age 17, he worked with Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, in a sort of apprenticeship.[2] But Jacob’s plan is to put Joseph in charge of the family business and he uses Joseph to keep tabs on his sons.

Some linguists say the term used for “bad report” is always used in the Old Testament as a false report.[3] Was Joseph being a tattletale in this passage? A lot of commentators think so – they label him spoiled and naive – that he went around boasting proudly. That’s possible. On the other hand, Jacob’s other sons weren’t trustworthy. They were often involved in scandals. Maybe Joseph’s report was his attempt to distance himself from some shady thing his older brothers were doing.[4]

While we can’t clearly grade Joseph yet, we have to question Jacob’s decision-making. If he wanted Joseph to apprentice, well, his other sons aren’t good mentors. On top of that, what does he expect will result from having his teenage son acting as informant (and later manager) over this rough and tumble group of killers that make up his family?

Genesis 37:3 – 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a son born to him in his old age, and he made a long-sleeved robe for him.

What a sad verse. Favoritism was a problem in this family for many long decades, but here Jacob openly flaunts his preference in front of everyone. It’s as if Joseph is the only true son and the rest are employees or slaves. As a result, there is an incredible amount of family tension and it’s largely because the father is not loving his family properly. God was working in his life, but this is a hold-over that Jacob hasn’t let the Lord deal with. And it’s so disappointing to see Jacob acting this way. He knew what it felt like to have a father love someone else and not him. But here he is doing it to a much larger degree. Not preferring one son to another, but preferring one son to eleven others! Favoritism is incredibly destructive and we need to avoid it at home and in the church.

What about this coat? Maybe you noticed my version said it was a “long-sleeved robe.” What’s up with that? Do we need to get Andrew Lloyd Webber on the phone? Scholars admit the words are obscure. The Greek translation of the Old Testament called this a coat of many colors. The consensus is that it could be a multi-colored coat, or it could be a coat that went down to the ankles and had sleeves to the wrists, or it could be a robe with a bunch of embroidery on it. We see a similar coat being given to David’s daughters – specifically Tamar wears one in 2 Samuel 13. Whatever it was, it was meant to be a symbol of favor, of preference, and of Jacob’s plan to give Joseph authority and inheritance over his brothers.

Genesis 37:4 – 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not bring themselves to speak peaceably to him.

Another rendering of this is that they “could not so much as greet Joseph.”[5] They were not just annoyed, they weren’t just a little envious – they had deep hatred for Joseph. They hated that their father preferred him. They hated the idea of him ruling over them. They hated being around him.

Genesis 37:5 – 5 Then Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.

Many commentators say Joseph was being an arrogant brat, but what do we know about dreams thus far in Genesis? Dreams are very significant, especially to this family. Their father would’ve told them many times about the dream of the ladder and the angels that he had in Bethel. Visions like this were one of the ways God spoke to this family. If that is the case, would it have been right for Joseph to not share what had been revealed? Do we withhold the word of God?

Genesis 37:6-8 – 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 There we were, binding sheaves of grain in the field. Suddenly my sheaf stood up, and your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 “Are you really going to reign over us?” his brothers asked him. “Are you really going to rule us?” So they hated him even more because of his dream and what he had said.

The brothers understood that Joseph’s dream was meant to be understood prophetically. Now, they rejected the dream, but it was clear that was the message: In the future, Joseph would be a ruler over the brothers.

God speaks prophetically. People can look at the prophecies in the Bible and say, “That’s not going to happen.” But they’re just as wrong as Joseph’s brothers were. They scoff but, in reality, Joseph was already in a position of leadership over them – at least in his father’s mind and plan.

For the third time we’re told that their hate grew toward Joseph. Hate is never useful or productive or beneficial in the life of a believer. Hate is a cheap commodity these days being hawked from platforms and pulpits and politicians and publications. But Christians, we are commanded by God to walk away from hate. We may not hate our brother or our neighbors or our enemies or our leaders. We cannot hate people and claim that we walk in the light.[6] We are to hate evil, but we are to love others. This is what God has done for us. He hates our sin, but loves us unreservedly.

Ephesians 4:31-32 (NIV) – Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Don’t buy into the hate that infects our culture.

Genesis 37:9-11 – 9 Then he had another dream and told it to his brothers. “Look,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 He told his father and brothers, and his father rebuked him. “What kind of dream is this that you have had?” he said. “Am I and your mother and your brothers really going to come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Jacob wanted Joseph to be in charge of his brothers, which was outside the normal order of things, and he realized that God seemed to have a plan for this younger brother, as He had for Jacob, but when he heard the idea of he, Jacob, bowing down, he was unwilling to accept it. He rebuked his son, even though it seems they understood that when someone had a dream like this twice it was a clear message from the Lord. Listen to what Joseph will later tell Pharaoh:

Genesis 41:32 – 32 Since the dream was given twice to Pharaoh, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and he will carry it out soon.

Jacob asks Joseph the same thing his brothers did: “You don’t really think that’s going to happen, do you?” We believe the Lord. Even when circumstances seem to make His promises impossible, even when the whole world around us is going in the opposite direction, we cling to the Word of God, which will never pass away. Let God be true and every man a liar.

Genesis 37:12 – 12 His brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem.

This raises the eyebrows. Shechem was the place they had to high-tail it out of. But now, a few years later, they felt strong and secure enough to bring their flocks back and make themselves at home. But danger was brewing – not from the Canaanites, but from within the family. It goes to show us that things may look like they’re going well but if the spiritual life is not on track, then disaster isn’t far away. Our enemy is waiting to pounce and devour. This family had wealth and felt secure – they had their run of the place, but they were about to crumble into sin.

Genesis 37:13-14 – 13 Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers, you know, are pasturing the flocks at Shechem. Get ready. I’m sending you to them.” “I’m ready,” Joseph replied. 14 Then Israel said to him, “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are doing, and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the Hebron Valley, and he went to Shechem.

Joseph must’ve been a very capable and responsible young man. This trip would be more than 50 miles – a five day journey from home.[7] Now, Joseph may have been a little naive, but it would’ve been obvious that his brothers really, really disliked him. He didn’t suspect that they were going to try to kill him, but you can’t have this level of animosity without it showing. So we see Joseph ready and willing to step into a very tough job. He’s faithful, even when the going gets tough.

In this way, Joseph is a great example to us. Are we ready to be sent on assignment by the Father? Those assignments won’t always be pleasure cruises. Sometimes they will be into a hostile environment among people who have no interest in showing us kindness. Hopefully when the Father calls we’re able to immediately answer, “I’m ready.”

Joseph didn’t know it, but at this moment he became a living sacrifice. Through his life, through his suffering and faithfulness, multiplied thousands of people would be saved from death. The cost of this heroic feat would be high – it would require that Joseph’s life be forfeit to the plan of God.

Genesis 37:15-17 – 15 A man found him there, wandering in the field, and asked him, “What are you looking for?” 16 “I’m looking for my brothers,” Joseph said. “Can you tell me where they are pasturing their flocks?” 17 “They’ve moved on from here,” the man said. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph set out after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

This is a beautiful moment of providence. All of these stories remind us that when God calls us to serve Him, He doesn’t expect us to do it on our own. He does the heavy lifting. He provides and prepares and pilots for us. It was God who brought the animals to the ark. It was God who provided the ram in place of the son and God who brought Abraham’s servant to the very spot where Rebekah would be. Whether this “man” was a heavenly being or a random individual, it was the Lord who placed him in the right place at the right time twice. It’s a comforting reminder that you may feel lost but God will never lose you. He can find you as you wander in a random field.

There’s also a lovely typology of Jesus here. Joseph says, “I’m looking for my brothers.” The brothers who hated him. The brothers who were going to hurt him. The brothers who wouldn’t speak one peaceful word to him. The brothers who did’t consider Joseph much of a brother at all. In fact, later they’ll say to Jacob, “Does this coat belong to your son,” not, “our brother.” It reminds us of how Jesus came searching for us and He does not shy away from calling us His own. He identifies with us, even when we are at war with Him. And not only did He go searching, like Joseph we see He goes the extra miles to reach us.

Genesis 37:18-20 – 18 They saw him in the distance, and before he had reached them, they plotted to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Oh, look, here comes that dream expert! 20 So now, come on, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits. We can say that a vicious animal ate him. Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!”

There’s a hateful sarcasm here. The name they used means “lord of the dreams.”[8] These men cultivated envy and hatred in their hearts and now the fruit is coming off the trees. Earlier they slaughtered a town because someone defiled their sister. Now they plan to slaughter their own flesh and blood because they’re annoyed with him! And not just kill him, but then throw his corpse in a cistern. One scholar notes that the denial of a proper burial was a horrifying atrocity in this era.[9]

The brothers think they will destroy Joseph’s dreams, but they simply prove once again that men can mock God, they can ignore Him and fight against His work, but they cannot overthrow the Lord. Our God is Sovereign and His will will be done. God cannot fail.

Genesis 37:21-22 – 21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben also said to them, “Don’t shed blood. Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him”—intending to rescue him from them and return him to his father.

Poor Reuben is the Fredo of the family. He tries to make these moves but they never work out. As the oldest, Reuben would bear the ultimate responsibility for this situation. Perhaps he was hoping to deliver Joseph back safely and get into his father’s good graces after his failed takeover bid with Bilhah. He does take charge here, at least in the moment. He’s not suggesting to his brothers, he’s telling them, “We are not going to kill him.”[10] But then he disappears somewhere, giving the brothers the opening they needed to treat Joseph cruelly. Reuben reminds me of Peter in the Garden. He’s got plans and ideas, he’s very self-assured, but without the work of the Spirit, all the plans come out askew and fall to pieces. We need the Holy Spirit to be directing us and empowering us and shaping our lives so that the Lord’s plans can be accomplished through us.

Genesis 37:23-24 – 23 When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s robe, the long-sleeved robe that he had on. 24 Then they took him and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty, without water.

Eugene Roop writes, “Cisterns existed to catch rain so that there would be water for flocks during the dry season. Pasturing flocks where the cisterns are dry seems unusual. But the sterility of the cistern reflects the family situation. There is no life in either place.”[11]

On top of that, we see how sin poisons us. Let’s think it through: They throw Joseph into this empty well, assuming he’ll starve and die. Then, as they graze, they’ll eventually come back to this cistern to water their flocks, only now any water inside will be toxic for their animals – poisoned by the body of their brother. But they’re blinded by hate, ignoring the consequences of their sin.

Clothing is a big theme in Joseph’s story. His father had clothed him in this special robe, God wanted to clothe him with something much better. That first robe was torn off, the way Jesus’ purple robe was removed before His sacrifice. Then they are wrapped in humble clothes – one as a slave, the other for His burial – until finally they are brought out, clothed in majesty!

Genesis 37:25 – 25 They sat down to eat a meal, and when they looked up, there was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying aromatic gum, balsam, and resin, going down to Egypt.

This is a chilling scene. In chapter 42 we’re told that, as they sat eating (probably the fine food sent from Jacob by Joseph’s hand),[12] Joseph cried out in anguish, pleading with them for help. This is sociopathic behavior, topped only by their willingness to sell their own brother into slavery. One interesting side note - Uncle Ishmael was actually still alive at this point.[13] This caravan was full of the Hebrew’s cousins. Genesis 37:26-28 – 26 Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay a hand on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh,” and his brothers agreed. 28 When Midianite traders passed by, his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt.

Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Here we have the Weasel of the Tribe of Judah. He reveals himself here and in the next passage to be utterly depraved and he convinces his brothers to sell Joseph for silver amounting to a stick of butter. 8 ounces.[14]
Genesis 37:29-30 – 29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone! What am I going to do?”

Reuben didn’t want to do anything wrong, but he still went along with it. Maybe he helped tear Joseph’s robe off half-heartedly, but he was wholly guilty of this evil. Now, the 10 brothers work out a conspiracy to trick their father.

Genesis 37:31-33 – 31 So they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the robe in its blood. 32 They sent the long-sleeved robe to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it. Is it your son’s robe or not?” 33 His father recognized it. “It is my son’s robe,” he said. “A vicious animal has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces!”

Once again, Genesis drives home the spiritual truth that we reap what we sow. Jacob had deceived his father by killing a goat, now the same thing is happening to him.

Interestingly, he is immediately convinced. He doesn’t ask any questions, doesn’t investigate. He simply takes their word for it, even though he knew they weren’t trustworthy and that they were absolutely capable of the most vicious kind of violence.

Before Jacob was walking with the Lord he was a very crafty man. Now he is walking with the Lord, albeit imperfectly. But as the Lord works in his heart, we see he’s not the crafty schemer anymore. He’s a meeker man, a more humble man, a man more willing to trust. Overall, that’s a good thing, but in this situation he is deceived.

We’re told the brothers sent the robe – they didn’t bring it themselves. Kenneth Mathews writes, “the text shows them to be cowards as well as liars.”[15]

Genesis 37:34-35 – 34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth around his waist, and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said. “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” And his father wept for him.

Jacob announces that he will never stop mourning. This was a terrible tragedy, but refusing comfort in life is not a good thing. Because of what Christ has done, because of the power of the resurrection, no sorrow is so great that it should swallow up all our hope. The Lord doesn’t expect us not to mourn the tragedies of life – Jesus wept even when He knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead – but just as love, not hate, is to define our lives, so too hope, not despair should define us. 2 Corinthians says that God comforts us in all our affliction then sends us out to comfort others in any kind of affliction. Life is tragic. Be comforted by the hope God has given.

Genesis 37:36 – 36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guards.

It seemed hopeless for Joseph. We know the opposite was true. A marvelous feat of grace was just beginning. God is always in charge. He cannot be stopped. We can trust Him, not just for Joseph’s story, but for our own.

Do you feel like you’re stuck in a bad dream of some sort? Go to the end of the story. Take to heart the hope and the promise that the Lord gives. Don’t make the mistake of giving in to hate or hopelessness or resignation. The Lord of the dreams is the Lord of our lives. Be ready and go after Him as a living sacrifice, knowing He will work His astounding grace through you until you are brought to your glorious completion.


2 Robert Alter The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary
3 R. Kent Hughes Genesis: Beginning And Blessing
4 Bruce Waltke Genesis: A Commentary
5 Waltke
6 1 John 2:9
7 Gordon Wenham Genesis
8 CSB Study Bible Notes
9 Alter
10 Hughes
11 Eugene F. Roop Genesis
12, 14 Hughes
13 Alter
15 Kenneth A. Mathews Genesis 11:27-50:26 The New American Commentary

Mountain Men (Genesis 36:1-43)

There was once a fight in professional wrestling called the King Of The Mountain Match.[1] In it, multiple fighters enter and only advance by scoring a submission on their opponents. Once they have subdued an adversary, a fighter can attempt to “retrieve…a championship belt and hang it on the hook suspended above the ring with the aid of ladders stationed outside the ring.”

Esau was a fighter. His grappling days started in the womb when his twin brother tried to get the drop on him. Growing up, he became a skilled hunter. Later, he built himself a militia. In our text tonight, we see him become a powerful ruler whose people go out conquering mountains and men. Edom subdues those who stand in his way and, as a result, he climbs the social ladder. He sits at the top of the hill as champion. But by the time Edom’s story ends, the pages read of defeat, ruin, and doom. He would not submit himself to the Lord God of his fathers. He set aside the grace of God, choosing earthly greatness instead of Godliness. And so, ultimately, the champion would be brought down from his high mountain, demolished, and cursed forever.[2]

Let’s consider the rise and fall of this great people, starting in verse 1.

Genesis 36:1-5 – These are the family records of Esau (that is, Edom). 2 Esau took his wives from the Canaanite women: Adah daughter of Elon the Hethite, Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite, 3 and Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth. 4 Adah bore Eliphaz to Esau, Basemath bore Reuel, 5 and Oholibamah bore Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. These were Esau’s sons, who were born to him in the land of Canaan.

Genesis speaks not only about the importance of marriage but also the importance of who you marry. You may recall that Esau’s first wives caused real problems between him and his parents. Marrying a couple of Canaanite ladies was way outside the boundaries of his family culture. Abraham had made it clear that this family was not to marry among the people of the land. But Esau never cared much for his family culture. In disdaining his birthright and marrying these Canaanites, R. Kent Hughes writes, “he formally trashed his…heritage.”[3]

But his wives really bothered his parents. And he saw that Isaac signed off on Jacob marrying someone from Rebekah’s family. So Esau got a bright idea: “I’ll go marry someone from Ishmael’s family.” You see, Esau was still hoping to get a blessing and so he tried to mimic what Jacob did. Of course, Ishmael was not exactly a beloved figure to Isaac – he was Isaac’s oppressive rival.[4]

So he’s got a couple of Canaanite wives and a token wife.[5] But when his sons start arriving, look what he names them: Reuel means “God is my friend.”[6] Eliphaz means “My God is pure gold.”[7] Is Esau trying to build a spiritual family, or is this more tokenism? Hebrews calls Esau an unholy, unrepentant man. His decisions are motivated not by a desire for God but by a desire to get things for himself. His next move reveals what his heart is after.

Genesis 36:6-8 – 6 Esau took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his household, as well as his herds, all his livestock, and all the property he had acquired in Canaan; he went to a land away from his brother Jacob. 7 For their possessions were too many for them to live together, and because of their herds, the land where they stayed could not support them. 8 So Esau (that is, Edom) lived in the mountains of Seir.

Esau moves his family to the south and east.[8] As we’ve seen many times before, in Genesis, movements to the east coincide with a move away from God’s presence, away from His will, and away from His guardianship.[9]

Esau’s choice reminds us of the same one Lot made many years earlier. They both wanted more stuff. More space. More herds. Better trappings. Rather than stay in the presence of God with fewer possessions, they walked away from the Lord in pursuit of greater wealth. It’s hard for us to fathom Lot or Esau saying, “I want to stay here with you, Abraham,” or “you, Jacob,” but things like that did happen in the Bible. Ruth is an example. She was actually a descendant of Lot. But when the time came to choose, she clung to her Hebrew mother-in-law, forsaking any claim she had to her homeland, and said: “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” Ruth was content to live as a servant if it meant she could be with the Lord’s people and in the Lord’s will.

Mephibosheth was a son of David’s friend, Jonathan. There came a point where he had a chance to retain a bunch of land and property that was his by right, but he said, “Give it all to this guy over here. I just want to be with you, King David.” And he lived as one of the king’s sons and his life was saved as a result.

Esau picked possessions instead of promises. This would put his life and his lineage on a course that led farther and farther away from God. And that’s a course that leads deeper into sin.

He set up camp in the mountains of Seir. The territory of Judah was west of these “dramatic cliffs.”[10] Later Jeremiah and Obadiah would describe the Edomites as living like eagles in their nests, high up in these mountains. This spot was not only fortified, it was also strategically placed along trade routes leading from Arabia and the Red Sea.[11] A man like Esau could do very well there.

At this point, God was still showing grace to Esau. We’re told in Joshua 24 that the Lord gave this land to him as a possession. God loved Esau. He was not driven out – he still had access to Isaac. He reconciled with Jacob. But, as Bruce Waltke says, Esau was living by sight, not by faith.

Genesis 36:9-14 – 9 These are the family records of Esau, father of the Edomites in the mountains of Seir. 10 These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz son of Esau’s wife Adah, and Reuel son of Esau’s wife Basemath. 11 The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. 12 Timna, a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz, bore Amalek to Eliphaz. These are the sons of Esau’s wife Adah. 13 These are Reuel’s sons: Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are the sons of Esau’s wife Basemath. 14 These are the sons of Esau’s wife Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon: She bore Jeush, Jalam, and Korah to Edom.

This list of names contains some interesting tidbits. Derek Kidner draws our attention to verse 11 and writes, “The conjunction of the names Eliphaz and Teman in verse 11 points to Edom as the probable setting of the book of Job, where ‘Eliphaz the Temanite’ is prominent.[12]

The name Amalek may have jumped out. He is the father of the Amalekites, who became vicious enemies of God’s people. They were the first to attack after the exodus from Egypt. Deuteronomy 25 records how they assaulted the Israelites from behind, targeting the weak and worn out.

The Amalekites would produce one of the Jews’ arch-villains: Haman, who nearly succeeded in his genocide of the Jewish people, but for God’s astounding providence working through Esther.

So why don’t we know Amalek as an Edomite? Being the son of a concubine may have disqualified him from inheritance.[13] And we’ll see there may have been other political issues at play.

Genesis 36:15-19 – 15 These are the chiefs among Esau’s sons: the sons of Eliphaz, Esau’s firstborn: chief Teman, chief Omar, chief Zepho, chief Kenaz, 16 chief Korah, chief Gatam, and chief Amalek. These are the chiefs descended from Eliphaz in the land of Edom. These are the sons of Adah. 17 These are the sons of Reuel, Esau’s son: chief Nahath, chief Zerah, chief Shammah, and chief Mizzah. These are the chiefs descended from Reuel in the land of Edom. These are the sons of Esau’s wife Basemath. 18 These are the sons of Esau’s wife Oholibamah: chief Jeush, chief Jalam, and chief Korah. These are the chiefs descended from Esau’s wife Oholibamah daughter of Anah. 19 These are the sons of Esau (that is, Edom), and these are their chiefs.

Like Israel, Esau’s line produced not just families but tribes of people. By human reckoning, he has it all. He’s got title, respect, a lot of money, a lovely house in the hills, even some trophy wives. Sure, he had to make some compromises, and he had to cut a few throats on his way to the top, but they were now the Rockefellers of the Seir mountains. In a short amount of time he has spread in numbers and power. While Jacob was still just a family, Esau was becoming an empire.

Genesis 36:20-30 – 20 These are the sons of Seir the Horite, the inhabitants of the land: Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, 21 Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. These are the chiefs among the Horites, the sons of Seir, in the land of Edom. 22 The sons of Lotan were Hori and Heman. Timna was Lotan’s sister. 23 These are Shobal’s sons: Alvan, Manahath, Ebal, Shepho, and Onam. 24 These are Zibeon’s sons: Aiah and Anah. This was the Anah who found the hot springs in the wilderness while he was pasturing the donkeys of his father Zibeon. 25 These are the children of Anah: Dishon and Oholibamah daughter of Anah. 26 These are Dishon’s sons: Hemdan, Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. 27 These are Ezer’s sons: Bilhan, Zaavan, and Akan. 28 These are Dishan’s sons: Uz and Aran. 29 These are the chiefs among the Horites: chief Lotan, chief Shobal, chief Zibeon, chief Anah, 30 chief Dishon, chief Ezer, and chief Dishan. These are the chiefs among the Horites, clan by clan, in the land of Seir.

These verses give us a record of the people who were already living in Seir when Esau and his clan arrived. When the family of Edom got there, they started by mingling and intermarrying with these native folks from Seir. Esau married into a leading family when he made Oholibamah his wife.[14] And Esau’s son brought one of the chiefs’ sisters into the family (she was the one who bore Amalek).

But after a time of mingling came the time of massacring. In Deuteronomy 2 we read:

Deuteronomy 2:12a – 12 The Horites had previously lived in Seir, but the descendants of Esau drove them out, destroying them completely and settling in their place…

Maybe Amalek didn’t appreciate what the Edomites did to his mother’s people and separated himself in order to build up a separate clan.

That chapter goes on to tell us that there were Rephaim in the land – giants – and that the Lord helped Esau’s descendants drive them out. So we see that the Lord was still interested in this family, even though they had no interest in Him. In fact, we learn in 2 Chronicles 25 that they had become polytheists.

Genesis 36:31-39 – 31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites: 32 Bela son of Beor reigned in Edom; the name of his city was Dinhabah. 33 When Bela died, Jobab son of Zerah from Bozrah reigned in his place. 34 When Jobab died, Husham from the land of the Temanites reigned in his place. 35 When Husham died, Hadad son of Bedad reigned in his place. He defeated Midian in the field of Moab; the name of his city was Avith. 36 When Hadad died, Samlah from Masrekah reigned in his place. 37 When Samlah died, Shaul from Rehoboth on the Euphrates River reigned in his place. 38 When Shaul died, Baal-hanan son of Achbor reigned in his place. 39 When Baal-hanan son of Achbor died, Hadar reigned in his place. His city was Pau, and his wife’s name was Mehetabel daughter of Matred daughter of Me-zahab.

Verse 31 highlights the fact that the Edomites established kings long before Israel. Of course, the Old Testament presents this move as an unspiritual one. It is another attempt by man to throw off the Lord’s authority over our lives. These kings were not dynasties – it seems they may have even been elected.[15] But when a democracy is stocked with unspiritual people, unspiritual results will follow.

These sons of Esau have officially become like all the other unbelieving pagans – like the violent masses in Noah’s day, the self-sufficient planners at the Tower of Babel, like the immoral city dwellers in the plains of Sodom. The Edomites take their place in history as another God-rejecting group who refused to acknowledge His grace and love.

And, for a while, it seemed like they had it made. They had quite a heritage full of powerful and important people. They had great settlements and many possessions. But the move away from God would have profound implications.

A few verses ago, Esau embraced his brother, and hoped they would live together. Then we watch as he chooses flocks over family. Then we see them devouring the inhabitants of Seir. Once we get to the exodus, we find the Edomites were unwilling to allow their cousins to travel through their land. Moses promised to stay on the main road and to pay them for any water they drank, but in response, Edom marched out with a heavily armed force, refusing to let them pass.[16]

Fast forward to the time of the minor prophets. The book of Obadiah is written to the Edomites, condemning them for the violence they did against Israel – how they mocked and gloated when Israel was destroyed and how they stood at the crossroads to capture Jewish fugitives and return them to their killers. In Amos we’re told that the Edomites pursued their brothers with the sword, stifled their compassion, and incessantly harbored rage.

Fast forward again to the last Edomites of note: the Herods.[17] They slaughtered the babies of Bethlehem, beheaded John the Baptist and the Apostle James, and abused Jesus with mockery and contempt.

Meanwhile, the Lord’s heart was full of love for these people. Listen to what He commanded in Deuteronomy 23:

Deuteronomy 23:7-8 – 7 Do not despise an Edomite, because he is your brother…8 The children born to them in the third generation may enter the Lord’s assembly.

As always, God made a way that they could’ve been brought into His family had they been willing. At this point someone might say, “Wait just a minute! ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated!’” You find that phrase in Malachi 1 and Romans 9.

Those texts deal with God’s plans for the nations of Israel and Edom. They speak of the consequences of rejecting God. One source writes, “In this context loved refers to choice rather than affection, and hated refers to rejection rather than animosity (which was explicitly prohibited against…Esau’s descendants, in Deut. 23:7).”[18] Another says, “The Hebrew words for loved and hated refer not to God’s emotions but to His choice of one over the other for a covenant relationship. Nor do these words by themselves indicate the eternal destinations of Jacob and Esau. The verbs refer to God’s acts in history toward both of the two nations which descended from the two brothers.”[19] God destroyed the Edomite nation for its “rebellion, pride, treachery, greed, and violence,”[20] not because He wouldn’t love them.

God loved Esau the man and He loved Esau’s children. Esau led his family into material success but spiritual poverty. At first it seemed like he made the right choice, but in the end he proved what God reveals in the book of Proverbs:

Proverbs 16:25 – 25 There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.

We have the same sort of life choices to make. Which mountain do we want to climb? The right answer is the mountain of God, the Hill of the Lord, where we receive salvation and blessing and righteousness from a God Who loves us – the God of Jacob.


2 Obadiah 4, Malachi 1:4
3 R. Kent Huges Genesis: Beginning and Blessing
4 Faithlife Study Bible Notes
5 There is a discrepancy in the listed names of Esau’s wives here and earlier in Genesis 26:34 & 28:9. The issue can be resolved a variety of ways, either with some names being altered in transmission, some wives having more than 1 name (like Jacob/Israel, Esau/Edom), or that Esau had more wives and only certain wives are mentioned in each list. See Derek Kidner, Genesis
6 Bruce Waltke Genesis: A Commentary
7 Kenneth A. Mathews Genesis 11:27-50:26 The New American Commentary
8 Robert Alter The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary
9 Examples include Cain, the builders of Babel, Lot, and Esau. See Mathews and Karen Armstrong In The Beginning: A New Interpretation Of Genesis
10 Mathews
11 ibid.
12 Derek Kidner Genesis
13 Andrew Steinmann Genesis
14 Kidner
15 See Waltke, Kidner
16 Numbers 20:17-21
17 Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews. book 14, chap 15, section 2
18 ESV Study Bible Notes
19 The Bible Knowledge Commentary
20 CSB Study Bible Notes

Funeral March (Genesis 35:1-29)

Genesis 34 was a debacle for Jacob and his family. Now, in chapter 35, he is back on track, walking in obedient faith and we can see the spiritual transformation that God is working in his life.

If this story was a fairytale, we’d expect to read “and they all lived happily ever after.” Instead, Jacob faces some hard days. The truth is, there is no way for us to avoid sorrow, struggle, and loss in this life – not altogether. Some suffering is self-inflicted, as we saw in chapter 34. But even when we’re walking with the Lord we can and should expect there to be trouble. As Jesus said in John 16:

John 16:33 – 33 ”I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

There’s a key difference between Genesis 34 and 35. In 34, there’s no mention of God. No word from Him. No petitions to Him. No remembrance of Him. But He saturates chapter 35. He’s leading and speaking and promising and fulfilling and gathering.

Donald Grey Barnhouse said,

“Chapter 34 does not mention God, and it’s full of lust, murder, deceit, and wretchedness – but chapter 35 is filled with God. His name appears ten times, plus once as God Almighty, plus eleven times in the names Bethel and Israel. The contrast is striking, as it must be in the life of a believer living out of the will of God, and again when he returns to the will of God.”[1]

Jacob faces trouble in both chapters, but in this one God furnishes His peace. As one generation of the family of faith is gathered into eternity, the next takes up the unfolding drama of grace.

Genesis 35:1 – God said to Jacob, “Get up! Go to Bethel and settle there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”

In these clear directions, God encouraged Jacob to keep the vow he made 30 years earlier. But the Lord was also calling Jacob back into a life of pilgrimage. “The command ‘go up’ later became a technical term for going on pilgrimage, especially to Jerusalem.”[2] As shepherds, God’s people would move around a lot. But the Lord always wanted them to live life with the understanding that they were sojourners with Him, being led and used to be a blessing to the lost world around them.

Genesis 35:2 – 2 So Jacob said to his family and all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods that are among you. Purify yourselves and change your clothes.

We’re always shocked when we read about God’s people slipping into idolatry, but it happened quite a lot in the Old Testament. It still does!

At the time, idols were not only a religious item, they were also covered in precious metals.[3] So, Jacob is not only asking them to de-paganize, he’s also challenging them to trust God and give up a major financial resource. Though these idols would have enriched them economically, they were defiling them spiritually.

We see God transforming and strengthening Jacob. In Shechem, Jacob cowered in silence, unable to lead. Now he’s at the head of his family and bringing them back into right relationship with God.

Cyril of Alexandria points out the spiritual analogy here: We, too, must change our garments in order to be purified and made right with God.[4] This is why the Lord gives us a robe of righteousness. As we live out our faith, we’re to continue receiving His purification and washing.

Ephesians 4:22-24 22 …take off, your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on, the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.

Repentance is not simply feeling guilty, but turning from sin toward God and submitting to this process of sanctification that He wants to do in us as He conforms us into the image of Christ Jesus.

This invitation given by God through Jacob to these idolatrous people is particularly amazing when we recall what they did in chapter 34. God’s grace is so ready to save, so ready to forgive, so able to cleanse the detestable sin that defiles our lives if we will turn to Him. “Come, let’s settle this says the Lord. Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow. If you are willing and obedient.”

Genesis 35:3 – 3 We must get up and go to Bethel. I will build an altar there to the God who answered me in my day of distress. He has been with me everywhere I have gone.”

Jacob says we must go to Bethel. When God gives a command, it is a must. You must be born again. The Gospel must be preached. The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone. We must worship God in spirit and in truth. John said, He must increase, I must decrease.

Jacob then reminds his family that the Lord has been with them everywhere they’ve gone. They didn’t need the gods of the land – gods who couldn’t speak or help or give. You have to carry those gods with you. You have to clothe them and protect them. Meanwhile, the One True God walks with us even when we are unfaithful. Jacob could look back on the years of distress and it was clear the Lord was his shield even while they were playing around Canaanite idols.

Genesis 35:4 – 4 Then they gave Jacob all their foreign gods and their earrings, and Jacob hid them under the oak near Shechem.

These earrings probably belonged to the idols rather than the people. There’s archaeological evidence that shows these sort of statues would be given jewelry, including earrings.[5] It’s also possible that they were amulets or images of foreign gods that the people might wear.[6]

Why would Jacob choose the oak where God met Abraham as the spot to dump this devilish treasure? We’re not told. But I suppose if one of his sons decided to go and dig it up one day he would have to face the fact that while he was shoveling through the dirt to retrieve these lifeless “gods,” he’d be standing under the shade of the tree where God Almighty spoke face to face with their great-grandfather – a God Who really speaks and really acts and Who accomplishes the impossible on behalf of His people.

Genesis 35:5 – 5 When they set out, a terror from God came over the cities around them, and they did not pursue Jacob’s sons.

The thing that Jacob had been so afraid of – the people of the land attacking him – was a nonissue thanks to the grace of God. In the last chapter Jacob let that fear drive him into some terrible choices. But when we walk with God, we don’t have to be afraid. Because, as Eugene Roop wrote, “The triumphant presence of God accompanied them on their pilgrimage.”[7]

Genesis 35:6-7 – 6 So Jacob and all who were with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. 7 Jacob built an altar there and called the place El-bethel because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

Thirty years earlier, Jacob left Bethel as one, lonely man. Now he returns with a host. He was just 20 miles from Shechem, but what a difference obedience makes! We see how Jacob’s thoughts are full of God. This isn’t just Bethel (the house of God), it’s El-Bethel, (God of the house of God).

But now, in the wake of this beautiful moment of obedience and worship and thanksgiving, the all too frequent tragedies of life come knocking.

Genesis 35:8 – 8 Deborah, the one who had nursed and raised Rebekah,, died and was buried under the oak south of Bethel. So Jacob named it Allon-bacuth.

We are left to wonder why Deborah was found with Jacob rather than Isaac. When did she join his camp? Way back in Genesis 27, when Jacob was first fleeing from Esau, his mom said, “I’ll send for you and bring you back here.”[8] But by now Rebekah was dead. Perhaps when that happened Deborah came to be with the man who had been like a son to her.[9] They had a close relationship – Jacob wept at her loss, even naming this tree in memory his grief.

We can sense the Godly changes in Jacob’s heart. In chapter 34, when his daughter had been violated, Jacob did not weep or act. He was numb to her suffering. Now, walking with the Lord, we see him obeying and leading and worshiping and testifying and weeping appropriately.

Genesis 35:9-13 – 9 God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. 10 God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; you will no longer be named Jacob, but your name will be Israel.” So he named him Israel. 11 God also said to him, “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation, indeed an assembly of nations, will come from you, and kings will descend from you., 12 I will give to you the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac. And I will give the land to your future descendants.” 13 Then God withdrew, from him at the place where he had spoken to him.

Bruce Waltke points out how, once again, it was God Who took the initiative to renew the covenant. If we were scoring the performance of Jacob and his family, well, I don’t think he’d get a callback. At best we would’ve put Jacob on probation or changed the offer, knowing he probably couldn’t live up to the deal. Not the Lord. It was the same promise that He made to Abraham and to Isaac, because it was God Who was going to accomplish this work, not man. And so, He came down from heaven in a Theophany so He could bless Jacob and tell him (once again), “I’ve got a plan for you, Israel. A plan that’s going to last for thousands of years!” There’s so much grace in these stories.

The Lord says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” as He had to Adam and Noah. God’s grace has been the same from the beginning and it’s the same for us. We’re also called to be fruitful and multiply, though it has a different connotation in this Church Age. We’re to multiply by making disciples and we’re to be fruitful by bearing spiritual fruit and allowing the Gospel to operate.[10]

Genesis 35:14-15 – 14 Jacob set up a marker at the place where he had spoken to him—a stone marker. He poured a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

There’s no immature bloviating this time. Last time after God appeared to him at Bethel, Jacob said, “Well, IF God does this and that, I suppose He can be my God.” This time around, just worship.

Genesis 35:16 – 16 They set out from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth, and her labor was difficult.

The question is, if God told Jacob to settle in Bethel and if Rachel was this pregnant, why in the world would they all set out on such a journey?[11] Maybe Jacob received word that his father was dying and he felt the need to fulfill the rest of his vow where he talked about “returning safely to his father’s house.” Even if it wasn’t about the vow, Isaac was soon to die and it was very important for the sons to be there to bury their father. We saw that also with Isaac and Ishmael.

So Rachel is very pregnant and (apparently) starts hemorrhaging during a breech birth.[12]

Genesis 35:17-18 – 17 During her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.” 18 With her last breath—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin.

Ben-oni can mean either “son of my sorrow,” or some linguists make a case that it can mean “son of my vigor.” The former seems more likely since Jacob feels the need to overrule his wife and call him Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand,” or it could mean “son of the south.”[13]

We’re saddened at the loss of Rachel, but then surprised by what happens next.

Genesis 35:19-20 – 19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 20 Jacob set up a marker on her grave; it is the marker at Rachel’s grave still today.

It is a big deal that Rachel was not buried in the family tomb in Mamre. Jacob’s body will be carted more than 200 miles from Egypt so he can be put there. It was an important family ritual. Yet, as one commentator noted, Jacob commits his beloved wife’s corpse to a roadside grave.[14]

We’re not specifically told the reasoning, but it is interesting to note that, from antiquity, many cultures had specifically different burial customs when it came to women who died in childbirth. One paper published in the Journal Of Biblical Literature cites examples from Assyria, the Philippines, Nigeria, Benin, and elsewhere. For one Liberian ethnic group, the tradition was to bury a woman who died in childbirth in a shallow grave. And, in England, “starting in the 15th century, the bodies of English mothers who died in childbirth were frequently interred outside the sanctified walls of their local churchyards.”[15] It’s possible that tradition and superstition were the deciding factors for leaving Rachel where she was. But we also see Jacob’s grief and desire that Rachel be remembered. He sets up a monument for her that is so solid it seems it was still standing at least 860 years later.[16] And in chapter 48 he talks about the great sorrow he felt at her loss.

Genesis 35:21-22a – 21 Israel set out again and pitched his tent beyond the Tower of Eder. 22 While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard about it.

Commentators agree this wasn’t about Reuben’s lust, it was a power play. Think of when Absalom does the same thing to his father. It’s also possible that Reuben, the firstborn of Leah, wanted to take revenge against Jacob because his dad had never loved his mom. And, his dad had sat idly by when Reuben’s sister was raped and held hostage. Now, as Jacob mourns Rachel, the only wife he actually loved, perhaps Reuben wanted to push his dad out of the way, seize control of the family, while also twisting the knife. Bilah was Rachel’s servant, and Reuben was disqualifying her from any sort of future family activity by defiling his father’s marriage bed. Perhaps the wives were still in some sort of competition, especially after God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.

Whatever the reasons, this was terrible and sordid. Reuben’s power play doesn’t work. He loses his position as firstborn. With Simeon and Levi also disqualified after Shechem, the lead falls to Judah. But we’ll see, Jacob chooses to give the birthright to Joseph, citing this incident as the reason why.

It’s sad: Reuben will later be described as a man who excelled in prominence and power. But instead of walking by faith, he walked in the flesh. He joins the list of firstborn sons who the Lord passes over. Cain, Ishmael, Esau, now Reuben, because they would not honor God and fell into sin. Frankly, even Adam fits this list. But praise God the Second Adam came from heaven to save us!

Genesis 35:22b-26 – Jacob had twelve sons: 23 Leah’s sons were Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 Rachel’s sons were Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Rachel’s slave Bilhah were Dan and Naphtali. 26 The sons of Leah’s slave Zilpah were Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

That closing phrase is obviously a generalization – Benjamin was born in Canaan. It’s interesting that of all the heads of the tribes of Israel, only one was actually born in the Promised Land.

The list is categorized not by birth order, but by mother. All was not well, relationally, among this next generation. Their many problems are seen in the story of Reuben, their treatment of Joseph, and the sin of Judah. They remind us that humanity is not going to someday produce a perfect person or generation. We need a perfect God to step in and make right what we’ve done wrong.

The focus is on the sons, but it’s worth noting that Jacob also had other daughters. They make an appearance in chapter 37.

Genesis 35:27-29 – 27 Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. 28 Isaac lived 180 years. 29 He took his last breath and died, and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. His sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Jacob would’ve been 120 years old at this point, meaning that Isaac died around 12 years after Joseph was sold into slavery.[17] All of the patriarchs were familiar with sorrow and loss. But, in the end, they were gathered to their eternal home. God’s work would march on, with all the grace and help and faithfulness that each previous generation had known.

Following God did not mean the absence of difficulty or suffering. But those who walk with God are able to face the trouble of life with peace and assurance and confidence that our Lord is by our side and leading us forward in grace, forward in growth, leading us home. As we grow older, hopefully we are growing stronger in the Lord and closer to His heart.

2 Corinthians 4:8-11 – 8 We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; 9 we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. 10 We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh.


1 Donald Grey Barnhouse Genesis
2 Gordan J. Wenham Eerdmans Commentary On The Bible: Genesis
3 Deuteronomy 7:25-26
4 Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Old Testament II Genesis 12-50
5 Victor A. Hurowitz “Who Lost an Earring? Genesis 35:4 Reconsidered.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 1
6 Bruce Waltke Genesis | Robert Alter The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary
7 Eugene Roop Genesis: Believer’s Church Bible Commentary
8 Genesis 27:45
9 CSB Study Bible Notes
10 Colossians 1:5-6
11 John Goldingay Genesis: Baker Commentary On The Old Testament Pentateuch
12 Augustine Mensah The Death Of Rachel: An Interpretation Of A Biblical Story
13 Alter
14 Benjamin D. Cox & Susan Ackerman Rachel’s Tomb Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 128, No. 1 Spring, 2009
15 ibid.
16 1 Samuel 10:2
17 Kenneth A. Mathews Genesis 11:27-50:26 The New American Commentary

Blood Brothers (Genesis 34:1-31)

Our passage tonight is a truly shocking depiction of sin. The story is full of ruin and violence, and waste. The most shocking thing is how much of it is carried out by God’s people.

Genesis shows what sin does to the world but also what God does to rescue us from it. It’s about how God gives grace to the undeserving, uses the unworthy, and accomplishes His plan by the power of His love. But, as that work unfolds, human beings continue to sin and the horrible consequences spread around the world, impacting both the guilty and the innocent.

Reading this awful tale might make us ask, “Where was God in this tragedy?” Martin Luther did. He wrote, “Who is on guard here? Who is keeping watch? God and the angels close their eyes and pretend not to see. God ignores the matter and acts just as if He did not know [it was happening].”

Was God ignoring His people? If He promised to protect them, why is the most innocent family member brutally assaulted and held hostage?

We know that God was there and, more importantly, we know that He had an unfailing love for His people. He does for us, too. When asking, “Where was God,” there’s one sure answer: Not on the minds of Jacob’s family. They don’t mention Him, speak to Him, or obey Him. He’s totally absent from their thoughts, words, and actions. The result is grim.

In our last study, we saw that Jacob began to walk by faith, but after the Lord delivered him from danger, Jacob stopped short of full obedience. He was meant to go to Bethel. Instead he set up camp 20 miles away. That’s close enough, right? Chapter 34 gives the answer. We’ll watch with breaking hearts the downfall of being outside the will of God.

It’s not that bad things never happen to God’s people – they do – but it becomes clear that this bad thing would not have happened if Jacob had kept walking by faith.

Genesis 34:1-2 – Leah’s daughter Dinah, whom Leah bore to Jacob, went out to see some of the young women of the area. 2 When Shechem—son of Hamor the Hivite, who was the region’s chieftain—saw her, he took her and raped her.

Dinah is around 15 or 16 years old. I would like to say right up front: She is not to be blamed for what happened to her. Almost every commentary immediately criticizes her for going out of the house. Yes, they say, Shechem did the worse thing, but Dinah was partially at fault or acting in disobedience or impropriety. Medieval commentators are particularly harsh toward her. They insist her rape was the punishment for her “curiosity,” which (they say) all women should avoid. Going back to Luther, he uses this text as a basis for teaching that women should be like “a nail driven into the wall,” not leaving the house. He wrote, “They should not form the habit of strolling about and looking out of the window and lounging around the door.”

Does Dinah share any blame? They had lived in this spot for years. We know women like Rachel would go out as shepherdesses alone. Jacob had developed personal relationships with the people of this village. Dinah had, no doubt, made many trips into town. This poor girl is not at fault.

If you want to blame anyone besides this scumbag, Shechem, then blame Jacob. Throughout this text, we are given the impression that he was totally indifferent to the plight of his daughter. Jacob, the master shepherd, let his most precious lamb go in and out of the fold without help, shield, or guide. He would never let a sheep graze this way, but it’s as if he has no care for his little girl.

If you read commentaries on this passage, a few will try to suggest that this may not have been rape at all but that it was a consensual relationship. That is a needless and heartless attempt to implicate an innocent girl in this sin. It doesn’t fit the context or the language, as explained at length by resources like The New American Commentary.

Genesis 34:3-4 – 3 He became infatuated with Jacob’s daughter Dinah. He loved the young girl and spoke tenderly to her. 4 “Get me this girl as a wife,” he told his father.

Shechem is repulsive. But, this was normal, Canaanite behavior. It’s normal sin behavior. Genesis teaches us that sin is no small thing. It’s not a joke. And it pervades human culture. Shechem was living out the advice that every Disney movie and romantic comedy preaches: Follow your heart! In a few verses, Shechem’s dad will say, “His heart is set on Dinah.” But our hearts are corrupted by sin. Look what that motivated Shechem to do. Your heart is the worst possible thing you could follow. The Lord says, “I’m going to rescue you from all of this and the first thing you need is a new heart!” Shechem really did “love” Dinah, but with a sin-soaked love – one that harmed and held her hostage. To him, it was real and it was passionate and it was good. What kind of love would it have been to Dinah? Were his words tender in her ears?

Genesis 34:5 – 5 Jacob heard that Shechem had defiled his daughter Dinah, but since his sons were with his livestock in the field, he remained silent until they returned.

There’s no record of Jacob sending word. It seems like he didn’t want his flocks disturbed. He was silent. We’re not given any indication that he was even upset. We might think, “How can that be? Of course he was upset.” That’s possible but remember: Moses has been quick to tell us other times that Jacob was emotional or upset or all the times he bursts into tears. But not here.

R. Kent Hughes contrasts Jacob in this scene with how he acts when it comes to Joseph being hurt or the mere suggestion that something might happen to Benjamin. The comparison is not pretty.

Now, on the one hand, what could he do? He’s just one man, right? But what did we see in the very last passage? As one man he stood as the defender between his family and the four hundred troops of Esau. Then he was walking by faith. But now, for some years, he has been indifferent to the Lord, and that indifference has influenced him profoundly.

Genesis 34:6-7 – 6 Meanwhile, Shechem’s father Hamor came to speak with Jacob. 7 Jacob’s sons returned from the field when they heard about the incident. They were deeply grieved and very angry, for Shechem had committed an outrage against Israel by raping Jacob’s daughter, and such a thing should not be done.

The brothers had a deep, grieving, blazing fury when they heard what had happened. Jacob is still silent and indifferent. For Jacob, this was about being outnumbered. For the brothers, it was an outrage. When Shechem and Hamor come to negotiate, the brothers arrive and take over the situation. Jacob, in his indifference, is sidelined.

Genesis 34:8-10 – 8 Hamor said to Jacob’s sons, “My son Shechem has his heart set on your daughter. Please give her to him as a wife. 9 Intermarry with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. 10 Live with us. The land is before you. Settle here, move about, and acquire property in it.”

Hamor thinks he has a lot to offer. But did you notice that he only offers things that God had already promised to Jacob? God had already promised them offspring and the land and abundance in it. In fact, God had guaranteed much more.

This is what the world does. It comes and whispers to us about all the things it can offer. It offers you pleasure. It offers you purpose. It offers you power and position. But everything it offers comes at a brutal price and what it delivers can’t compare to what the Lord wants to give. The pleasure of sin is fleeting and rancid. The Lord’s joy is forevermore. The purpose the world offers you is built on things that have no eternal value. It’s like the grass of the field. But the purpose the Lord gives makes us shine like stars forever and ever. The power and position the world holds out are not theirs to give. Compare that to what God promises through Paul in Ephesians 1:

Ephesians 1:18-19 – 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.

The world has nothing to offer you that can last forever. And all its offers come at a brutal price. Look at what Hamor and Shechem did to Dinah. And then consider that, at that very moment, she was being held hostage in Shechem’s home. We learn that in verses 17 and 26.

I can see why Hamor made this offer. Jacob signaled that this was what he wanted. He spent years cozying up to these Canaanites like Lot had with Sodom. Throughout the scene, Jacob remains silent. They got all these signals, so Hamor says, “live with us.” The word can mean “remain sitting down.” It’s telling that the first thing God says to Jacob is, “Get up, go to Bethel and settle there.”

Genesis 34:11-12 – 11 Then Shechem said to Dinah’s father and brothers, “Grant me this favor, and I’ll give you whatever you say. 12 Demand of me a high compensation and gift; I’ll give you whatever you ask me. Just give the girl to be my wife!”

Now Shechem wants to do things honorably. He has no fixed morality – only desire. The Canaanites show us how different the life of faith is meant to be. Your life isn’t meant to be lived from one impulse to the next, with your desires ruling your thoughts and choices. We’re to be anchored to the truth of God, building our lives on it, and allowing it to conform us into the image of Christ.

Genesis 34:13-17 – 13 But Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully because he had defiled their sister Dinah. 14 “We cannot do this thing,” they said to them. “Giving our sister to an uncircumcised man is a disgrace to us. 15 We will agree with you only on this condition: if all your males are circumcised as we are. 16 Then we will give you our daughters, take your daughters for ourselves, live with you, and become one people. 17 But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and go.”

It is astonishing to realize that Jacob himself signed off on this plan. You see, he also didn’t know what the brothers were planning to do. He, too, was deceived. And like Hamor, he goes along with it. Look at what his indifference is doing. It left his precious daughter unprotected. It blinded his heart to right and wrong. And now, his indifference has just signed off on a plan that would be the end of the chosen people. The Canaanites immediately recognize that they will simply absorb this Hebrew family and they’ll be gone forever. But Jacob agrees to this plan. It’s a spiritual tragedy.

The story pivots to focus on the brothers, who are also part of the downfall of living outside the will of God. In Jacob, we see incredible indifference. In the brothers we see ruthless destruction. Their anger started out righteous, but their methods were completely outside God’s boundaries.

First, they start by deceiving. Second, their plan uses their sister as bait, exposing her to more abuse. The brother’s plan to “help” her would leave her captive for several more days, being subjected to unspeakable harm and fear. Third, their methods were sacrilegious. They took something Godly and perverted it so it could be used as a weapon. This is not how God’s people are supposed to contend with the enemy.

They said, “Do this or we will take our daughter and go.” That’s exactly what they should have done. But none of them were walking by faith. In fact, we’ll learn that Jacob’s family had become pagan idolaters. And so, in this terrible trial, they are not bearing the fruit of love but of sin and violence.

Genesis 34:18-20 – 18 Their words seemed good to Hamor and his son Shechem. 19 The young man did not delay doing this, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most important in all his father’s family. 20 So Hamor and his son Shechem went to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city.

Archaeology indicates the town wouldn’t have been a major city, but it was large enough to have a wall and gates. There the men of fighting age gathered to discuss the plan. Shechem was their prince and had a lot of influence. He’s designated a “young man” here and leads them all to their doom. There’s a subtle warning about the dangers of putting youth in charge. Shechem isn’t wise, even by the world’s standards. He has no concern other than him getting Dinah.

Genesis 34:21-24 – 21 “These men are peaceful toward us,” they said. “Let them live in our land and move about in it, for indeed, the region is large enough for them. Let’s take their daughters as our wives and give our daughters to them. 22 But the men will agree to live with us and be one people only on this condition: if all our men are circumcised as they are. 23 Won’t their livestock, their possessions, and all their animals become ours? Only let’s agree with them, and they will live with us.” 24 All the men who had come to the city gates listened to Hamor and his son Shechem, and all those men were circumcised.

Their end goal was not just to take Dinah but to take everything from Jacob and his family. Remember all those promises of power and possessions and freedom? It was a lie – a ruse so that their enemies could bleed them dry. That’s what sin wants to do to you. Don’t take the bait.

The name Hamor means “male donkey.” He had invited Jacob to dwell with them, to enjoy all the pleasures they could offer. If they did, they’d be swallowed up. It reminds me of the old Pinocchio cartoon when the boys rush off to Pleasure Island, only to become donkeys, enslaved forever.

Genesis 34:25-29 – 25 On the third day, when they were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords, went into the unsuspecting city, and killed every male. 26 They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with their swords, took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went away. 27 Jacob’s sons came to the slaughter and plundered the city because their sister had been defiled. 28 They took their flocks, herds, donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. 29 They captured all their possessions, dependents, and wives and plundered everything in the houses.

Simeon and Levi were full brothers of Dinah. So were Reuben, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun but we aren’t told why they weren’t involved in the mass murder. And that’s what this was. It would’ve been a prolonged, savage undertaking. We’ve never known carnage like this.

This is not justice. They butchered many innocent people. But revenge had taken hold of their hearts like indifference had taken hold of Jacob’s, and the result was maybe the worst act of sin this book has recorded, carried out by the family of faith. We are not immune from sin. We’re rescued from it, but if we think sin is only a problem for the pagans, we need to pay attention. God’s people are just as able to bring ruin and destruction to this world when we’re not walking with the Lord.

If the slaughter wasn’t bad enough, we see it was followed up by the plundering of the city. The text isn’t specific, but it would seem that while the two brothers did the killing, the rest did the stealing. It makes us wonder: Was Joseph part of the raiding party, too?

Let’s notice one more thing about this appalling deed: They took the wives and children from all these houses. So, in the end, they effectively are doing what Shechem did. But, they hide that sin behind a phony veil of religion. “We’re so offended at this unrighteous act that we have to turn around and do the same thing many times over to you!”

Compare the murderous spree of Levi, who claimed to be motivated by righteous anger, to Levi’s descendant Phinehas, who really was motivated by righteous anger and slew two people who were in open sin, mocking God, and bringing judgment on the nation. He executed them and no one else. That’s not what’s happening in this chapter. This is not justice. It is not righteous. They could not appeal to heaven’s morality because they had utterly violated it themselves.

There are things done under the banner of faith that have nothing to do with the truth. Sometimes people say, “Well, Christianity had the crusades,” as if that proves God doesn’t exist. The crusades had nothing to do with genuine Christianity any more than this vicious mass murder did. Today, prominent Christians will commit acts of sin and will expect to get a pass on it because of who they are. But that’s not how truth works. That’s not how holiness works. God expects real faith from us.

Finally, Jacob speaks. Let’s see what he has to say.

Genesis 34:30-31 – 30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. We are few in number; if they unite against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.” 31 But they answered, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

Earlier, Jacob showed no emotion. Now he’s all worked up. Did you notice that Jacob doesn’t talk about his daughter? He says, “they’re going to attack me and I and my household will be destroyed!” Where is the Jacob of chapter 33? That guy is nowhere to be found.

It’s interesting, the Lord renamed him “Israel” in chapter 32 which signaled the beginning of something wonderful. But after that great scene, Jacob stopped pursuing the Lord. He settled where he didn’t belong. He’s not Israel in chapter 34, he’s Jacob again. Once he returns to the Lord in chapter 35, the Lord will again rename him Israel. Jacob took two steps forward, one step back, but the Lord was still with him. This period of his life was a mistake – a very painful mistake – but God did not give up on Jacob. His mercy is new every morning.

As the chapter closes, we see a great divide in this family. The boys defy their father. They openly rebuke him. There is no resolution to their argument. The account just ends. Jacob, it seems, resented these two sons till the day he died, and we’ll see that the consequences of these spiritual missteps continue to impact the family in terrible ways.

Jacob worried about how “few” they were. But he should know by now it didn’t matter how few they were. If the Lord was for them, who could be against them?

Sin is a scary thing. Being outside of the will of God is a dangerous thing. This is why God has intervened to save us and draw us to Himself. He placed no barriers between Jacob and Bethel. It was Jacob who stopped short for commercial, strategic reasons. But this delay proves what Proverbs says more than once to us: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.”

I don’t mean to suggest that as long as you follow God no one in your family will ever suffer or be hurt. Following God does not shield us from every attack. Bad things happen to God’s people even when they’re right where the Lord wants them to be. But this terrible story should remind us of how dangerous sin is in the culture around us and how dangerous it is when left to operate in our own hearts. And we see here how dangerous it is for us and those we love to be living life outside the will of God. We don’t need to live in fear of failure – just live in the fear of the Lord. “How happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways!” “the Lord keeps his eye on those who fear him— those who depend on his faithful love to rescue them from death.”

Genesis 33:1-20 – You Take The South Road, I’ll Take The North Road, And You’ll Be In Seir-land Afore Me!

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy had a momentous meeting with Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. He arrived wearing “a field marshal’s uniform…and [carrying] a long swagger stick.” He and JFK had a series of gatherings over the next few days. The President, who suffered from severe back pain, graciously stood at attention while Selassie spoke.

He said he came to “explore ways and means of strengthening…cooperation” between the US and Ethiopia. He came hoping to receive JFK’s full support in Ethiopia’s dispute with neighboring Somalia. He also invited the President to come and visit Ethiopia personally.

“In [their] meetings, the President spoke simply and directly…even when he knew it might disturb or displease the Emperor…and he promised to give careful consideration to Ethiopia’s request.”

“The undisclosed U.S. strategy was to partially satisfy the Emperor’s request as inexpensively as possible while assuring a…friendly government in Ethiopia.” As to the invitation to visit, JFK “expressed his desire to arrange such a [trip] as soon as his schedule permitted.” Whether that was true or not didn’t matter. The President was killed seven weeks later in Dallas.

In our text tonight, Jacob and Esau have a meeting with many similarities to JFK’s and Selassie’s. Esau, a military leader, stands before his counterpart, Jacob, who is crippled and in pain. Esau hopes this will lead to new cooperation between their peoples and that Jacob would come and visit his homeland. Jacob has no intention of doing so but speaks tactfully so as not to offend his brother. Though he says he’d love to come down to Seir, he never takes Esau up on the invitation.

There’s one more interesting similarity. Haile Selassie’s fuller title was “Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and King of Kings.” Of course, Selassie wasn’t God, but during his reign, there were those who really saw him as God.

In verse 10, Jacob says: “I have seen your face, and it is like seeing God’s face.” Was Jacob just being polite? Was he buttering Esau up? When we’re thinking about Bible characters who serve as types of our Lord, we never put Esau on that list. Hebrews describes him as an immoral, irreverent, unrepentant man. We don’t want to emulate Esau.

And yet, there’s something about this encounter that reveals God’s grace through Esau’s actions. Cyril of Alexandria said this scene foreshadowed the reconciliation of Christ with Israel. But it’s not just about God and Israel. We’ll find that the words describing Esau are almost exactly how Jesus describes the Prodigal Son’s father in Luke 15. Gordon Wenham writes, “Though Jacob’s comparison of Esau’s action with God’s sounds too [complimentary] (Wenham’s word is fulsome), it is not inappropriate, for God’s mercy is like this according to Scripture.”

Through this scene, we can revel in the mercy of God through the example of Esau, and then we’ll see the misstep of Jacob, who follows the example of Abraham too closely.

Genesis 33:1-2 – Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming toward him with four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two slave women. 2 He put the slaves and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.

There are several moments where it may have been helpful to have a window into Jacob’s thought process, but those windows are left closed. We’re left to wonder what he was thinking. We wonder if he was afraid at this moment. Many commentators think he was and that his dividing of the family here was a defensive measure, hoping a few might survive an attack from Esau.

In the last passage we were told plainly when Jacob was afraid, but it’s not said here. This makeshift parade wouldn’t have been much of a strategy. They’re all pretty close together and on foot.

Sadly, what is clear is that Jacob is arranging his family according to how important they are to him. The text doesn’t bother to even name two of the wives or any of the children other than Joseph. Jacob’s heart is being transformed and he is finally starting to walk by faith, but he’s not perfect. He has allowed favoritism to taint the way he relates to his family. This has already been a huge problem for this family and it will continue to be a huge problem in the coming years.

The New Testament reminds us that God shows no partiality and we are not to show partiality. Not in the home, not in the house of the Lord, not in the halls of justice. It is a weed that kills fruit.

Genesis 33:3 – 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed to the ground seven times until he approached his brother.

The Lord has strengthened Jacob, but he doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Unlike before, he faces his brother without fear. He moves in front of his family, bowing as he goes.

There’s an ancient tablet that explains how, in that era, bowing seven times was customary when you met a monarch. It signals Jacob’s absolute surrender and humility. He was emboldened, and the Lord had taken away his fear, but that didn’t make him swagger. He walked humbly. John Goldingay writes, “Release from fear does not mean release from deference and submissiveness.”

Genesis 33:4 – 4 But Esau ran to meet him, hugged him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. Then they wept.

If you were to turn to Luke 15, where Jesus delivers the beloved Parable of the Lost Son, you would read: “…while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.”

This is God’s heart of compassion and care for you! You and I were the prodigals the Father ran to save. He doesn’t hold us at arm’s length – the Lord rushes to embrace us – to fold us into His active, life-changing love. One commentator notes how “whole-heartedly” Esau acts. This meeting which could’ve been defined by anger or bitterness or argument, was instead defined by mercy and joy.

Bruce Waltke points out that while Esau runs, Jacob limps. No matter who we are or what we’ve accomplished, on the spiritual level, we come to God limping. We’re helpless and without hope. But then the Savior swoops in and takes us in His arms, covering us with His love, wiping out all our past wrongs, replacing all of that history with grace and tenderness and plans for a glorious future.

Esau had the right to hate Jacob. Jacob had cheated and wronged him. Even Jacob wouldn’t have blamed Esau for destroying him right then and there, taking everything away from him. But instead of wrath he found warmth. This is an affection these brothers never had for each other. It wasn’t that they used to be close – they weren’t. But despite the wide gulf of guilt between them, all Esau pours out in this scene is love and forgiveness and grace and assistance.

This is how God runs to you! We have a sneaking suspicion that God is fed up with us, don’t we? That He was willing to go to Calvary, but He’s not going to go farther for us. It isn’t true. Esau took a long trip – a hundred miles at his own expense – to embrace his brother. Our Lord crossed heaven and earth, time and eternity, death and the grave out of His love for you. In Jeremiah 31, He says:

Jeremiah 31:3 – I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued to extend faithful love to you.

If your heart is whispering: “I’m a worthless, limping failure. God must be disappointed with me,” then go to Psalm 136 where 26 times in 26 verses we read “His faithful love endures forever.” That hesed we talked about last time. A faithful, repairing, embracing, merciful love that endures forever.

Genesis 33:5-7 – 5 When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he asked, “Who are these with you?” He answered, “The children God has graciously given your servant.” 6 Then the slaves and their children approached him and bowed down. 7 Leah and her children also approached and bowed down, and then Joseph and Rachel approached and bowed down.

Scholars tell us that Jacob used terms that are the unmistakable language of “submitting oneself…to be a subject.” In fact, we see a foreshadowing here how when the Lord arrives, “every knee will bow.” Jacob, the wives, children, and servants all bend their knees before Esau.

Christ Jesus is our Savior and Friend, but He is also Master and Commander. We owe Him our allegiance, our service, our loyalty, and our strength. He is no taskmaster, but we are to live every day with our knees bowed to the King. Read Ephesians 3 where Paul talks about the power and importance of kneeling before our Lord, Who loves us and enriches us and glorifies us as we kneel.

Genesis 33:8 – 8 So Esau said, “What do you mean by this whole procession I met?” “To find favor with you, my lord,” he answered.

Esau demonstrates how the Lord interacts with us. He speaks to us and invites us to respond to Him. We think of those times Jesus said, “What do you want Me to do for you?” Jacob’s answer here was, “Give me grace!” He calls Esau “Adonai.” That’s a term men would use for a master, but most of you know it’s also a term the Bible uses for our Lord. It’s a word that means “owner, master, father,” and it is used of the Messiah in passages like Psalm 110.

So we see that Jacob’s heart is spiritually calibrated just as it should be. What do you want? Grace. As we speak to the Lord, the greatest thing we can ask for is His grace and the great news is that He does not withhold it from us. It overflows in abundance to us.

Genesis 33:9-11 – 9 “I have enough, my brother,” Esau replied. “Keep what you have.” 10 But Jacob said, “No, please! If I have found favor with you, take this gift from me. For indeed, I have seen your face, and it is like seeing God’s face, since you have accepted me. 11 Please take my present that was brought to you, because God has been gracious to me and I have everything I need.” So Jacob urged him until he accepted.

Jacob continues to call himself a servant and Esau his lord, while Esau consistently calls Jacob “my brother.” What an amazing thing God has done, not just sparing our lives, not just giving us entrance into heaven, not just allowing us to become His servants, but doing so much more in His affection toward us. The Lord says, “I’m going to make you citizens of My Kingdom. And I’m calling you friends. And I’m giving you the right to become children of God.”

This is the “acceptance” of God. Jacob said to Esau, “You have accepted me.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament tells us this is a term that means “to be favorably received” and “describes God’s pleasure with His servants.” It’s the word God the Father uses in Isaiah 42:1 when He says He delights in Christ, the Son. That delight is what He feels about you, too!

In Psalm 147 we read:

Psalm 147:11 – 11 The Lord values those who fear him…who put their hope in his faithful love.

“Values” there is the same root word we see here as “accepted.” On the authority of God’s Word we know that when we come to Him in faith and receive His free gift of grace, He accepts us, He values us, and He delights in us. Just like Jacob, we don’t deserve it – quite the opposite. The Lord’s acceptance and forgiveness are unmerited, but He extends it all the same. And now, much more than God just meeting us at the crossroads and saying, “Alright, this squares us,” He gives us more than we could ask or imagine. As people who have received the grace of God, we can say like Jacob, “I have everything I need.” Your version may say “I have enough” like Esau said back in verse 9, but in the Hebrew, Jacob is saying something different. He says, “I have everything I need.” Those words remind us of Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have what I need.”

We can see God’s peace ruling in Jacob’s heart. Where would they live? Where would they go? What about famines or foes? What about his limp? Those are fair questions but in this moment, Jacob has the splendid certainty of faith and can correctly say, “I have everything I need.”

Genesis 33:12 – 12 Then Esau said, “Let’s move on, and I’ll go ahead of you.”

Like all Biblical types, we can’t press too hard otherwise the analogy crumbles. But here we still see a shadow of our Lord’s goodness. Esau says, “Let’s move out together,” or your translation may say, “Let us take our journey.” At the same time, he says, “I will go before you.” What a great statement of how the Lord leads and of His constant presence. He walks with and goes before. He is not some far removed Deity Who will answer one question if we can survive the climb up the mountain to reach His temple. In Deuteronomy we read: “For the Lord your God is the One who will go with you; He will not leave you or abandon you.” Of course, Jesus said the same in Matthew 28.

While this gives us one last, beautiful reminder of the Lord’s care for us, this is the moment when the scene of grace begins to fade, like a dream sequence coming to an end. We find the brothers there on the road and Esau has just made an offer to Jacob. He says, “Why don’t you all come with me, I’ll lead you on down to my territory.”

This is a dangerous offer. Esau’s plan would put an unbeliever in a position of leadership over the family of faith. He would be leading them out of the land of promise and out of the will of God. This is definitely not what God had directed Jacob to do, so how would he answer?

Genesis 33:13-14 – 13 Jacob replied, “My lord knows that the children are weak, and I have nursing flocks and herds. If they are driven hard for one day, the whole herd will die. 14 Let my lord go ahead of his servant. I will continue on slowly, at a pace suited to the livestock and the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.”

Some criticize Jacob, saying he was lying here – that it was old Jacob back in action. Others point out that the Bible doesn’t call this a lie. Earlier, the Holy Spirit labels Jacob’s actions as deception, but not here. In fact, if we had been there, it would’ve been obvious that he was saying, “I’m not going to go with you. We need to separate.” He’s just doing so in a very polite way. Esau wouldn’t need to travel hard and fast. In fact, now that he had nursing flocks given to him by his brother, he too would have to travel slowly. And we see he gets the message, he leaves that very day.

We’re not given all the details of their talk or their time together. We’ll find in chapter 36 that they figured out they wouldn’t be able to live together, just as Lot and Abraham had discovered. The land couldn’t support them both. So

Genesis 33:15 – 15 Esau said, “Let me leave some of my people with you.” But he replied, “Why do that? Please indulge me, my lord.”

Without Esau’s people to guide, how would Jacob find his brother in Seir? It would be possible, but obviously Jacob is doing what we all sometimes do: “Yeah we should totally get lunch sometime…”

I do see one last echo of the Lord’s grace in Esau’s final word. Our Lord, Who has gone before us, was faithful to leave some of His people with us. The Church is given not just out of convenience or simple tradition. God gives us each other so that we might encourage, support, protect, and guide one another as we are built up together. We’re meant to take the road of faith together.

So, in verses 1 through 15, Jacob enjoys the grace of God through the example of Esau. But this chapter which shined so bright at the start ends with storm clouds gathered on the horizon. Jacob makes a serious mistake. It seems as though, in the aftermath of these incredible events, he sort of sighs a breath of relief and instead of continuing in faithful diligence, he simply imitates the things he heard that Abraham did and calls it good. It starts with a small move.

Genesis 33:16-17 – 16 That day Esau started on his way back to Seir, 17 but Jacob went to Succoth. He built a house for himself and shelters for his livestock; that is why the place was called Succoth.,

Jacob doesn’t go to Hebron to live with Isaac. He moves 4 miles to the north and west of his meeting with Esau and he lives there for a while in a house. We’re not sure how long he’s there, but after some time, he moves on, not to where God led, but simply copying the footsteps of Abraham.

Genesis 33:18-20 – 18 After Jacob came from Paddan-aram, he arrived safely at Shechem in the land of Canaan and camped in front of the city. 19 He purchased a section of the field where he had pitched his tent from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of silver., 20 And he set up an altar there and called it God, the God of Israel.

We know this was not a good decision because of the disaster that comes in the very next chapter. And after that tragedy, God is going to speak directly to Jacob and say, “Get up! Go to Bethel and settle there.” Now, Bethel was only 20 miles from Shechem. So it seems like Jacob knew he should probably get himself back to Bethel, but once in Shechem thought, “Eh…close enough.”

How is this possible? The truth is, like the song says, our hearts are prone to wander. Walking by faith requires a daily determination to follow God. You don’t eat by accident. You make choices and put those choices into motion. King Joash is a powerful warning about our propensity to wander from the Lord. For 40 years he honored God, for 40 years his life was all about repairing the temple. That was his focus and his passion. But then, after those 40 years, the priest Jehoiada died. Jehoiada had been like a father to Joash. And Joash stopped listening to the truth. He abandoned the temple. He abandoned the Lord. And he even had Jehoiada’s son killed when he tried to direct Joash back to the Lord. Prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.

Jacob was wandering from where God wanted him. Of course, it was only 20 miles. But what seemed safe to Jacob wasn’t safe at all. R. Kent Hughes calls this faith mixed with partial obedience. Genesis consistently described cities in Canaan as bad places for God’s people to be. But there’s Jacob, camped right outside of Shechem. Why did he do this?

It seems he was trying to mimic what Abraham had done. Abraham came to Shechem, built an altar there, and bought a piece of land as a burial plot. Jacob does the same thing. The land he bought would be used for his burial, according to Joshua 24. But, like Abraham, this time in Shechem was a prelude to disaster. At the same time, we see he wants to worship God. He wants to follow the Lord. Yet, he stops short of complete obedience in his choices. Instead, he mimics what his grandfather did and probably thought, “That’s good enough, right? I did the thing, so I’m good.”

Jacob assumed Laban was going to hurt his family. He assumed Esau was going to hurt his family. Ironically, now he assumes the people in Shechem would be good for his family. The opposite was true, as we’ll see next time.

God’s gracious love does not give us a blank check to do whatever we think is best. The Lord is still the Decider. Jacob’s walk of faith was not just about getting away from Laban or not going with Esau. It was about being where the Lord wanted him to be. And, at this point, that place was Bethel. Not a day’s journey from Bethel.

Jacob wasn’t perfect – he still had a lot to learn, just like we do. At the same time, his failure here did not diminish God’s grace for him. No, the Lord was still faithful to come alongside His limping son and faithfully complete the work He began, just as He will for us. His faithful love endures forever!

Footnotes & references can be found by visiting

Genesis 32:1-32 – The Long And Fighting Road

How many different ways could you take home tonight? The farther you live, the more options you have. I live about a mile from here and there are two direct ways we use. If I were trying to go in a roundabout way, say to avoid certain spots, there are all sorts of detours we could take.

God told Jacob to go back to Canaan. He didn’t give him a specific address. We’ll find he doesn’t return to Hebron where Isaac is. He’s got a lot of options. But, as we read, we’ll see he takes the one road that puts him on a collision course with his brother, Esau. That might be a problem because the last Jacob heard, Esau was in a killing mood.

Jacob’s route home is even more conspicuous than we realize. Sartell Prentice writes:

“From Mahanaim there are two roads by which Jacob may enter Palestine. One road turns westward…this is the easy road, the safe road, and the natural one for Jacob to follow. It [would] bring him…into a land of walled towns and fenced cities, where his ancestors lived in alliance and friendship with kings and peoples. The other road runs…to the south…[turning and] plung[ing] down the steep descent of nearly 5,000 feet…This road is difficult and dangerous…Here weakness finds no place of refuge. [For] Jacob the risk is doubly acute, for he cannot travel that Southern route without coming face to face with Esau. When there are two roads running out from Mahanaim, why does [Jacob] reject the easy, safe, and natural path, and choose the one which is full of danger?”

The answer is: While there were many roads he could’ve taken, only one led to Israel. Not Israel the land – Israel the man. A tremendous spiritual journey will take him from Jacob to Israel. There was only one way to get there. It was God’s road of surrender, submission, and reconciliation. Physically, Jacob would be weaker than ever before. But on the spiritual level, he would finally be strong – finally be where he was supposed to be, all thanks to this road and the encounters along the way.

Genesis 32:1-2 – Jacob went on his way, and God’s angels met him. 2 When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he called that place Mahanaim.

We tend to think this was a reassuring rendezvous that reminded Jacob of God’s protection. But that may not be what’s happening. Prentice suggests this wasn’t a friendly meeting at all. One Hebrew scholar translates verse 1: “The messengers of God accosted him.” Other linguists admit that the best sense of the word “met” is to oppose or harm.

Something is going on here. The term Jacob uses for “camp” has a military sense to it. These angels make sense of why Jacob took the dangerous, straight-toward-Esau road to the south out of Mahanaim instead of taking the easy road to the west. Remember: God drove Adam and Eve from Eden, then placed cherubim to bar them from returning to the Garden. And so, Jacob turns south.

Genesis 32:3-5 – 3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the territory of Edom. 4 He commanded them, “You are to say to my lord Esau, ‘This is what your servant Jacob says. I have been staying with Laban and have been delayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, and male and female slaves. I have sent this message to inform my lord, in order to seek your favor.’ ”

Jacob had no army – no 318 armed men like his grandfather had. His brother, on the other hand, had always been a hunter. Jacob had probably heard that while he was developing livestock, Esau was developing might. So Jacob sends out a diplomatic delegation to assess Esau’s mood.

Our primary focus tonight is on Jacob and how following God means surrendering to Him and allowing Him to direct the course of our lives. But there is a sub-theme about serving the Master that comes from these servants. They provide some exceptional insights for us. Jesus once told His followers that He was sending them out “as lambs among wolves.” Jacob’s servants look like that. They’re sent into hostile territory with a message to share and no certainty they would succeed.

It’s evident that the angels of verse 1 made no promises to Jacob. God did not appear and say, “Don’t worry about it, Esau isn’t going to harm you.” Jacob makes these plans because he is afraid. And he has good reason to be afraid. In this message, he hints to his brother, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of wealth to spread around. If you’re mad about the birthright thing, let’s talk.”

At the same time, we can already see a new Jacob emerging. When had his servants ever seen him speak with this kind of humility? We’ve seen Jacob struggling for twenty years to throw off his last master – Laban. Now he’s talking about being Esau’s servant. Something is going on in his heart that hasn’t happened before.

There’s an application for us: The more truly spiritual a person is, the more they are willing to serve. Jesus was a Servant, and He is the image we’re being conformed into. He didn’t come to be served but to serve. If you want to know if someone is truly spiritual, look to see if they’re serving others.

Genesis 32:6 – 6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau; he is coming to meet you—and he has four hundred men with him.”

This would’ve been terrifying news. Esau sends no message back but instead mounts up with 400 men, which was the typical number in a militia or raiding party. Think about it: You don’t get 400 guys together just because. That’s a lot of effort and gear and hassle. Esau is making a statement.

After all these years, after all he had worked for, all he had clawed to make for himself, all he had overcome to get to this point – Jacob is powerless to defend any of it with nowhere to run.

Your life is not your own. You cannot control what today holds, let alone tomorrow. So, in all your efforts, engrave Psalm 127, verse 1 on your heart:

Psalm 127:1 – Unless the Lord builds a house, its builders labor over it in vain; unless the Lord watches over a city, the watchman stays alert in vain.

Genesis 32:7-8 – 7 Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; he divided the people with him into two camps, along with the flocks, herds, and camels. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the remaining one can escape.”

Jacob is in panic mode, but he’s also in prudent mode. Some of you are facing very scary situations or dangers of one kind or another. While we trust the Lord and allow His peace to rule in our hearts, making prudent plans is ok. Jacob assumes Esau is coming to kill him, so he puts together a plan hoping that at least some of his family might survive.

Being prudent isn’t a bad thing. Proverbs 14 says, “The sensible [person] watches his steps.” If the Lord has given you direction in life, follow it and don’t turn back. If you’re waiting for His direction or His deliverance, wait in hope, but also use sanctified common sense as you wait.

The walls are closing in. He can’t go west from camp – there are angels there. He can’t go back the way he came – that would violate his treaty with Laban, who also might kill him. Now, not only is he heading toward Esau, he knows Esau is charging toward him. So Jacob pairs prudence with prayer.

Genesis 32:9-12 – 9 Then Jacob said, “God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, ‘Go back to your land and to your family, and I will cause you to prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. Indeed, I crossed over the Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please rescue me from my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him; otherwise, he may come and attack me, the mothers, and their children. 12 You have said, ‘I will cause you to prosper, and I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea, too numerous to be counted.’ ”

This is Jacob’s first recorded prayer, but it’s a beautiful debut. It’s so different from how he spoke about God back in chapter 28. In this prayer, Jacob acknowledges who he is and Who God is. He recognizes that God has already done many incredible things on his behalf. He presents God as One Who intervenes and is long-suffering, One Who understands and Who speaks and Who gives generously. This is a God Who helps and loves and Who restores and Who forgives and Who approaches and is approachable.

As he prays, Jacob holds firm to the spoken word of God. Jacob moors himself to those promises as if they were true and literal. Jacob also recognizes that he has no hope outside of God’s salvation. He says, “Lord, You have to save me like you have before.” We are watching him pour out his heart to the Lord. He’s completely open and honest. He says, “I’m afraid, I’m helpless, and I’m unworthy.” But in this prayer, we also see God’s tender, loving care. Jacob realizes that this is Who God is. He calls Him Yahweh in verse 9. Not just some powerful Being, but the revealed, personal God of heaven and earth – the God of this family – of Abraham and Isaac and now, finally, of Jacob, too. He prays about the Lord’s kindness and faithfulness. These are key terms in the Old Testament. One of them you might have heard before, it’s the Hebrew word “hesed.” These terms describe when a superior freely acts to help an inferior who is in need, not out of obligation but out of love and loyalty. Scholars tell us that these terms speak of love, action, forgiveness, certainty, and mercy. This is Who God is. And Jacob asks this God to rescue and prosper him.

What does that mean? To us, prosper has such an economic quality to it. It doesn’t help that the “prosperity gospel” is so prevalent in the pseudo-Christian culture around us. Biblical prosperity is more than sheep and goats. The word means “deal well” or “do good,” and it indicates a purpose or result. One source says that verse 12 is literally translated, “You have said, ‘I will do good for you.’” True prosperity is when God accomplishes what He desires in your life to make you spiritually strong and fruitful. It is independent of your physical circumstances. It is independent of your bank account, or your blood work, or your career track. Of course, God may enrich those areas for His glory, but prospering is not about getting. It is about the good-ing of God in your life.

I wish we could spend more time in this prayer. Just one more thought: Jacob clearly believed and yet he was afraid. It is natural for us to be afraid of death, afraid of suffering, afraid of the unknown. But, God doesn’t want us to live in fear. He wants His peace to rule in our hearts and minds. And so, when we are afraid, we can follow Jacob’s example. Call out to the Lord. Remember what He has already done. Remind yourself of the Word God has spoken, and believe those promises. Ask the Lord to save. Remember that He is in covenant with you and will not leave you, but He is a Savior.

Genesis 32:13-21 – 13 He spent the night there and took part of what he had brought with him as a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, 15 thirty milk camels with their young, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys, and ten male donkeys. 16 He entrusted them to his slaves as separate herds and said to them, “Go on ahead of me, and leave some distance between the herds.” 17 And he told the first one, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to? Where are you going? And whose animals are these ahead of you?’ 18 then tell him, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau. And look, he is behind us.’ ” 19 He also told the second one, the third, and everyone who was walking behind the animals, “Say the same thing to Esau when you find him. 20 You are also to say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is right behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I want to appease Esau with the gift that is going ahead of me. After that, I can face him, and perhaps he will forgive me.” 21 So the gift was sent on ahead of him while he remained in the camp that night.

Do you remember in Aladdin when Prince Ali comes to town with his “white Persian monkeys” and “purple peacocks” and “world-class menagerie?” Imagine that. There was less singing and dancing, but we’re talking about more than 550 animals moving in herds down the road. This is a huge gift.

Again, the servants are sent out as living sacrifices. This time there is even less hope that they’ll return safely. But I love their faithful obedience. They go, armed only with the message and the gifts that they’ve been assigned. This is an excellent devotion about how to serve the Lord. He assigns which gifts we’ll get. Some had cows, some had bulls, some had goats, some had donkeys. Each would move at its own pace, depending on the type and size of the herd. But, they all had the exact same message. As Jacob sent them out, he said, “I’m entrusting you with this duty, but say this. Not your message, mine, because lives depend on it.” And then the master sent them out in wave after wave to speak to their adversary with humility and generosity and grace.

Was this plan one final fleshly scramble on Jacob’s part? Was he failing to trust God? In the end, this gift was unnecessary – Esau refused it. The Lord was also working on his heart the whole time.

On the other hand, Jacob did take the family blessing by deception. Jacob, it seems, is trying to make things right. I don’t think we can say he was doing a bad thing. It wasn’t a bribe, but it demonstrates that fear often makes us do unnecessary things. Jacob assumed some things about Esau’s heart that were no longer true. But he also owns up to his guilt before his brother and is seeking forgiveness. When he says “appease” there it’s a word used for atonement.

God’s way will always include admitting when we’re wrong. Our culture hates that idea. But real Christianity includes confession and reconciliation. It’s not that we have to keep asking forgiveness from God for the same sin, but that we’re humble enough to admit when we’ve made mistakes. Jesus’ letters to the seven churches are full of pleas that they would admit their failings and turn back to the Lord so they could spiritually prosper. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about settling disputes and how we should reconcile when we have wronged those around us. So, while Jacob’s strategy here wasn’t ultimately necessary, it came from a place of humility and repentance.

Genesis 32:22-23 – 22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two slave women, and his eleven sons, and crossed the ford of Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, along with all his possessions.

This decision reveals how frightened Jacob really was. It was a perilous thing to ford waters at night. But it’s a risk he’s willing to take to try to give one last layer of protection to his family. His situation reminds us that we must face God on our own. When you stand before your Creator, it will not be in a crowd or in a family. It will be you and Him. If you are a Christian, then you will stand in your Savior. But no family member can sub for you or shield you. It’s just you.

Genesis 32:24 – 24 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

The Jewish rabbinical tradition says that this was Esau’s guardian angel. Some suggest it was a demon. The prophet Hosea tells us precisely Who it was: He declares it was Yahweh Himself. We call this a Theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament.

It was Jesus who initiated the fight. Jacob had been gearing up for a battle with his brother, then this happened. It reminded me of the scene when Johnny Ringo is waiting to fight Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, but instead Doc Holliday shows up. The difference is that the Lord didn’t want to kill Jacob. Jacob had prayed for rescue, and the Lord was on the job. He was there to save him!

“Lord, this doesn’t feel like salvation…it feels like You’ve got me in a headlock!” Maybe. But this was the rescue Jacob needed. Commentators point out he had been wrestling all his life. Wrestling his brother in the womb – wrestling with him as they grew up. Wrestling with his father and then his father-in-law. Wrestling with wives and with rocks and with herds. Now it’s the title fight. He had admitted his need for God. He had owned up to his guilt. He had willingly followed this road to reckoning. But he still had his own strength. Remember, Jacob had incredible vigor. But if he was going to get to Israel, he could have no self-sufficiency. And so the Lord grabbed him. R. Kent Hughes writes, Jacob “was in the grip of God’s relentless grace.” This fight was his rescue.

Genesis 32:25 – 25 When the man saw that he could not defeat him, he struck Jacob’s hip socket as they wrestled and dislocated his hip.

How is it possible that the Angel of the Lord “could not defeat Jacob?” Obviously, that isn’t true in the most literal sense because, after all, He simply touches Jacob’s hip and cripples him instantly. One linguist says the term is not really “struck” but “to touch” or “to barely touch.”

What we are seeing is a lovely type of Jesus’ future work. Andrew Steinmann writes, “Here God is depicted as…imposing upon Himself the physical limits of a man until the very end of the struggle.” That is what the Lord did to rescue you as well. He emptied Himself, taking on the likeness of humanity and humbled Himself so that those who surrender to Him might be rescued.

Genesis 32:26 – 26 Then he said to Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

It may have taken hours, but Jacob figured out this is no ordinary man he’s fighting. If you read it thinking Jacob is angry, allow Hosea to change your perspective. There we’re told that, in this moment, Jacob “wept and sought the Lord’s favor.” And so we see the transformation. Jacob isn’t fighting anymore. Now he’s purely clinging. He isn’t holding the Angel down, he’s holding on!

More than once in the Revelation, our Lord says, “Hold on to what you have till I come.” Hold on to God’s grace and His word and His promises. Don’t let them go. Cling to your Savior.

Even in this very difficult circumstance, even though Jacob is exhausted, crippled, and brought to the end of himself, he still counts on God’s kindness and he realizes that personal strength isn’t going to save him. Buying his way out of guilt isn’t going to work. Taking some different road won’t save him. Only by God’s grace will he be able to survive and thrive and lay hold of goodness in life.

Genesis 32:27-28 – 27 “What is your name?” the man asked. “Jacob,” he replied. 28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said. “It will be Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.”

The new name means “contends with God.” But there’s more: When ‘El’ is at the end of a name, it makes God the subject of the verb. The name also means “God will strive” or “God will preserve.”

In this moment, God wipes away Jacob’s past mistakes. 120 years of selfishness and failure gone because of grace. The Lord says, “You’re not Jacob anymore. You’re not defined by your sin or your shortcomings, but by My future for you.” God made him new.

You and I have victory in Christ because He gives it to us when we believe by faith.

Genesis 32:29-30 – 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he answered, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 Jacob then named the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.”

In the Old Testament, it was assumed that if you saw God, you would die. Gideon and Manoah express this idea in Judges. Jacob is surprised he survived. So, what gives? Don’t we read in Exodus 33, “Humans cannot see Me and live?” We do, and it’s true! Human beings cannot see God the Father and live. We cannot approach God without being destroyed. Because that is true, God made a way to rescue us as He did with Jacob. He sent His Son to put on flesh to come to earth and interface with us so that we could be hidden in Him, redefined by grace, and reconciled to God.

Jacob recognizes that God has already rescued him. He says, “God should’ve killed me, yet my life has been spared.” If you’re an unbeliever here tonight, the Bible declares that you are dead in trespasses and sins, and the fact that you’re not physically dead yet is because of the grace of God. The breath you’re breathing belongs to Him. He allows you to live in hopes that you will surrender to Him, be born again, and become one of His children. It’s a free gift if you’re willing to take it.

Genesis 32:31-32 – 31 The sun shone on him as he passed by Penuel—limping because of his hip. 32 That is why, still today, the Israelites don’t eat the thigh muscle that is at the hip socket: because he struck Jacob’s hip socket at the thigh muscle.

The sun set when Jacob was at Bethel, running for his life out of the Promised Land. Now the sun rises as he returns, limping. Though the text isn’t explicit, most commentators agree that this crippling was permanent. And it’s commemorated in the diet of Jacob’s descendants. No filet mignon for kosher Jews.

God’s road for Jacob led him straight to his brother, with no physical help, not even legs strong enough to run away. That’s the kind of rescue Jacob needed – a crippling. Bruce Waltke writes, “The limp is the posture of the saint.” Hughes says, “His end was his beginning. His defeat wrought victory. His weakness birthed strength. Israel prevailed when [Jacob] came to the end of himself.”

Now Jacob was ready. Now he was safe. Now he had arrived.

Could Jacob have gone another way? Certainly, this is one of those stories where God’s providence looks more heavy-handed than we experience in a day-to-day sense. When we are making life decisions – if you’re choosing between two jobs – I doubt you’ve had a group of angels standing over your shoulder saying, “No, you’re not doing that one.” But even though God’s Providence might not be as forceful, His attentiveness is equally passionate for us as it was for Jacob. God has definite opinions about the direction of your life and the choices you make because His desire is to prosper you – to do good for you and through your life. There are choices He wants you to make and others He doesn’t want you to make. Look at Paul’s missionary journeys to see a New Testament example that mimics the principles we see in Jacob’s story.

So, what is the way forward? What do I choose? Is it south or west? Well, through Jacob and Paul, we see how to navigate these issues. There’s prayer, there’s the Word of God, and there’s the presence of God. Jacob kept returning to what God had said and clung to those specific words. His great transformation began when he finally began to pray. All was made right when he experienced the presence of God. He still faced uncertainty, he went forward limping, but he became strong that night when he surrendered. He became strong as he obeyed God’s directions and submitted to His charge. It wasn’t his physical vigor or his flocks or his schemes that he needed. It was the Lord bringing his heart from Jacob to Israel.

God has set many directives in front of us. We have a lot of markers already in place that show us what God’s heart and opinions are for our lives. It may not always be the easy road, but it’s the only one worth taking.

This Land Is My Land, That Land Is Your Land (Genesis 31)

Anaxagoras was a philosopher who lived about 500 years before Christ. He is called “founder of monotheism in Europe” by academics both ancient and modern who ignore the Bible. He’s also credited with this phrase: “If you cheat me once, it’s your fault; if you fool me [twice], it’s mine.”

After 20 years in Haran, Jacob is done being cheated. But going home wouldn’t be as simple as packing up and heading out. He and Laban were like a couple of crooks whose partnership was based on what they each could get from the other, not honor or loyalty. It was only a matter of time before these two schemers’ conspiracies would boil over, and in Genesis 31 it happens. In the end, Jacob and his family finally break free from Laban’s cruelty, but it’s a very close call.

Genesis 31:1-2 – Now Jacob heard what Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s and has built this wealth from what belonged to our father.” 2 And Jacob saw from Laban’s face that his attitude toward him was not the same as before.

Laban had stolen all the speckled and spotted animals in violation of their deal. Jacob bred the strong animals for himself and the weak ones for Laban’s flocks. There was only so long everyone could keep all the undermining secret. Now, six years after they made the deal, things had become obvious. Laban’s sons weren’t happy, neither was Laban. I can’t imagine he and Jacob were ever on very friendly terms, but their fragile peace was falling apart and you could see it on Laban’s face.

Jacob became a wealthy man, but because he had spent this long detour outside of the place where God wanted him, he could not say (like his grandfather Abraham), “I have raised my hand in an oath to the Lord, God Most High…that I will not take a thread or sandal strap or anything that belongs to you, so you can never say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ There was a challenge, an asterisk.

Genesis 31:3 – 3 The Lord said to him, “Go back to the land of your ancestors and to your family, and I will be with you.”

Scholars tell us that where it says Laban’s face was not the same, the Hebrew literally says, “Laban’s face was not with Jacob.” But, in that moment of rejection and isolation, as always, here is the Lord making Himself known, reminding Jacob that He was always present.

There’s an opposite thing happening here. It’s like a reboot of a classic movie. In Genesis 12, God spoke to Abram in this very same land – Haran – and said, “Leave the land of your ancestors, leave your family and go where I show you.” Now, Jacob is told, “Go back to your ancestral land, go back to your family. Get back to that place I showed your grandfather and your father.”

God has a well established place and plan for your life. He has provided a great amount of information and revelation, and the presence of His indwelling Holy Spirit. We have been shown the way to go. The question is not what the way is, but whether we will trust and obey.

Genesis 31:4-9 – 4 Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field where his flocks were. 5 He said to them, “I can see from your father’s face that his attitude toward me is not the same as before, but the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that with all my strength I have served your father 7 and that he has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God has not let him harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The spotted sheep will be your wages,’ then all the sheep were born spotted. If he said, ‘The streaked sheep will be your wages,’ then all the sheep were born streaked. 9 God has taken away your father’s herds and given them to me.

Here we see that loveliest of Bible phrases: But God. Laban is combative, Laban is a cheat, Laban stands in the way, but God. All these years, all these difficulties, but God was present with him and God provided for him and God protected him.

Jacob finally looks back over twenty years and realizes what the Lord has done. It all comes into focus and he sees that God’s presence is and has been a constant reality.

One of Jacob’s sadder phrases is, “You know that with all my strength I have served your father.” What a waste. Not, “With all my strength I have served the Lord,” or, “with all my strength I have served my father, Isaac,” but this spiteful, loveless pagan. Our masters matter. Who are we spending our strength on? What masters? What pursuits? What desires?

Genesis 31:10-13 – 10 “When the flocks were breeding, I saw in a dream that the streaked, spotted, and speckled males were mating with the females. 11 In that dream the angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see: all the males that are mating with the flocks are streaked, spotted, and speckled, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you poured oil on the stone marker and made a solemn vow to me. Get up, leave this land, and return to your native land.’ ”

Like Abraham, Jacob heard God’s call but hesitated in Haran. The Lord was faithful to call again. But, on a relational level, it’s a little sad – the Lord had to re-introduce Himself. “Hey, remember Me? I’m the God who appeared to you at Bethel…you know…the One you made a big vow to.”

God spoke to Abraham seven times in Genesis. When He did, the Lord would talk to Abraham like you would to a friend, because they were friends. Jacob isn’t really a friend yet. And he hasn’t kept his vow. The Lord reminds him it’s time to do so. After all, when was Jacob going to get around to it? He’s already over 100 years old and he seems to have forgotten the promise he made. God cares about us making good on our promises to Him.

Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 – 4 When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it.

Genesis 31:14-16 – 14 Then Rachel and Leah answered him, “Do we have any portion or inheritance in our father’s family? 15 Are we not regarded by him as outsiders? For he has sold us and has certainly spent our purchase price. 16 In fact, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. So do whatever God has said to you.”

A theme of this passage is that Jacob’s family – God’s people – are distinct from the rest of the world. It begins here: Rachel and Leah say, “We are outsiders” or your version may say “strangers.” They felt it emotionally, but it’s a reminder to us of something that is true, spiritually. If you are born again, you are no longer a citizen of this earth. You are a stranger, an outsider, an alien to the unbelieving world. In 1 Peter and Hebrews we are identified as strangers and sojourners on earth.

If that sounds like a lonely life, being a stranger to the world, like David Banner thumbing it down the highway, be encouraged that Christianity does not end in exile. The Apostle Paul explains the other side of this stranger life:

Ephesians 2:19 – 19 So, then, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household

In the custom of the times, Laban should’ve provided his daughters with money when they were given as wives. But, he not only cheated Jacob, he cheated his own flesh and blood.

Genesis 31:17-21 – 17 So Jacob got up and put his children and wives on the camels. 18 He took all the livestock and possessions he had acquired in Paddan-aram, and he drove his herds to go to the land of Canaan, to his father Isaac. 19 When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household idols. 20 And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, not telling him that he was fleeing. 21 He fled with all his possessions, crossed the Euphrates, and headed for the hill country of Gilead.

We’re not given Rachel’s motivation. These idols were probably what Laban used for divination, so maybe she was trying to keep him from finding them. Maybe she was clinging to some idolatry of her own. Or maybe she was acting spitefully, having never forgiven her dad for what he did on her wedding night 20 years ago. No matter why, it’s going to cause some big trouble, in fact, that may have been the factor that sent Laban over the edge into a murderous frenzy. And it was a big risk. According to the Code Of Hammurabi, such an act would have been a capital crime.

Genesis 31:22-24 – 22 On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. 23 So he took his relatives with him, pursued Jacob for seven days, and overtook him in the hill country of Gilead. 24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night. “Watch yourself!” God warned him. “Don’t say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Laban gets his sons, his brothers, maybe the whole clan, and they arm themselves and ride hard for 300 hundred miles to catch Jacob. Based on what God said and what Laban himself will say, his intent was clearly to do Jacob and the family harm. But the night before the fight, God appears to Laban and I love what He says: “Watch yourself.” It was enough to scare Laban into obedience, as it had been for Pharaoh and Abimelech. Derek Kidner points out that all three of the patriarchs had to be “ingloriously extricated” from a mess they got themselves in.

In the Old Testament we see a lot of these kind of Divine dreams. Why doesn’t that happen more today? God still can speak in a dream, but we have something so much better: 66 Books of reliable, infallible, inerrant inspiration. Compared to the clarity and power of the Scripture, do you really want to rely on a dream? Since my stroke, my dreams have been absolutely crazy. I’m glad I can go to the Living Word, rather than have to wade through a hazy dream.

Genesis 31:25-30 – 25 When Laban overtook Jacob, Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban and his relatives also pitched their tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26 Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You have deceived me and taken my daughters away like prisoners of war! 27 Why did you secretly flee from me, deceive me, and not tell me? I would have sent you away with joy and singing, with tambourines and lyres, 28 but you didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters. You have acted foolishly. 29 I could do you great harm, but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Watch yourself! Don’t say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 Now you have gone off because you long for your father’s family—but why have you stolen my gods?”

Laban talks a big game – he’s a windbag – but don’t think for a minute that he loved his daughters and grandchildren. In the same breath where he talks about kissing them, he says, “I could do you great harm,” using the plural word for “you.” His intention was to hurt them all.

He asks, “Why have you stolen my Elohim?” Remember, that’s not a proper name for God, it’s a generic term for divine beings. But what a wonderful, exciting, important reminder that our God cannot be packed up. He is not carved from wood or stone. He is not made in our image. No, He is all-powerful, He is immutable, He is unique, and He is matchless in every way.

Genesis 31:31-35 – 31 Jacob answered, “I was afraid, for I thought you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 If you find your gods with anyone here, he will not live! Before our relatives, point out anything that is yours and take it.” Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the idols. 33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, Leah’s tent, and the tents of the two concubines, but he found nothing. When he left Leah’s tent, he went into Rachel’s tent. 34 Now Rachel had taken Laban’s household idols, put them in the saddlebag of the camel, and sat on them. Laban searched the whole tent but found nothing. 35 She said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I am having my period.” So Laban searched, but could not find the household idols.

In one moment, Laban declares his loving affection for his daughters and grandkids. In the next he’s ransacking all their stuff.

Jacob had no idea Rachel had stolen the little teraphim, and in his anger makes a rash vow. Had they been found, Rachel may have been executed and Jacob could’ve been brought back as a slave, shamed before the entire clan. Don’t make rash vows. It doesn’t work out. We have many examples in the Bible of rash vows and their bad consequences.

Genesis 31:36-37 – 36 Then Jacob became incensed and brought charges against Laban. “What is my crime?” he said to Laban. “What is my sin, that you have pursued me? 37 You’ve searched all my possessions! Have you found anything of yours? Put it here before my relatives and yours, and let them decide between the two of us.

Laban hasn’t said anything about the flocks. Despite Laban’s efforts, all Jacob’s wealth was rightfully earned. You could look right at his herds to see the proof. No doubt, six years ago Laban had laughed with his buddies about how he was gonna cheat his son-in-law – how he had removed all the animals he promised to give and how there was no hope for Jacob to build a flock of his own. But the Lord was on Jacob’s side. And now Jacob brings charges against Laban before the clan.

Genesis 31:38-42 – 38 I’ve been with you these twenty years. Your ewes and female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams from your flock. 39 I did not bring you any of the flock torn by wild beasts; I myself bore the loss. You demanded payment from me for what was stolen by day or by night. 40 There I was—the heat consumed me by day and the frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes. 41 For twenty years in your household I served you—fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks—and you have changed my wages ten times! 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, certainly now you would have sent me off empty-handed. But God has seen my affliction and my hard work, and he issued his verdict last night.”

Jacob went above and beyond what hired shepherds normally did, partly because Laban demanded it, but also to be blameless when it came to his work. You may not like your job, that’s ok. But, as a Christian, do it as unto the Lord and go above and beyond what you have to do. It will yield spiritual benefits. That way of life worked well for Daniel and his friends. Peter said:

1 Peter 3:16 – 16 Yet do this with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame.

Laban had cheated Jacob. That was common knowledge. God does not like it when people short those who work for them. Be fair, be generous, do what’s right in regard to payments.

Genesis 31:43-44 – 43 Then Laban answered Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters; the children, my children; and the flocks, my flocks! Everything you see is mine! But what can I do today for these daughters of mine or for the children they have borne? 44 Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I. Let it be a witness between the two of us.”

Anaxagoras is also attributed with this quote: ““Men would live incredibly calm if these two words, mine and yours, were removed.” Laban throws a tantrum. He’s humiliated as his business practices are shown to be indefensible, his idol-theft accusation appears to be totally made up, and his own daughters who he’s saying he’s rescuing, clearly side with their husband. He’s completely out of touch with the situation. He wasn’t rescuing his daughters. God was saving this family from him! But, looking around, he sees he’s beaten. And he’s afraid of this God who invades dreams and overcomes schemes.

Genesis 31:45-50 – 45 So Jacob picked out a stone and set it up as a marker. 46 Then Jacob said to his relatives, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a mound, then ate there by the mound. 47 Laban named the mound Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob named it Galeed. 48 Then Laban said, “This mound is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore the place was called Galeed 49 and also Mizpah,, for he said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. 50 If you mistreat my daughters or take other wives, though no one is with us, understand that God will be a witness between you and me.”

Laban has the audacity to tell Jacob, “I’m not allowing you to marry any other wives. That wouldn’t be right.” When he’s the one who made Jacob a polygamist in the first place!

The names they give this pile of rocks both mean “Witness heap.” Laban uses Aramaic, Jacob uses the Canaanite language. Again we see the separation. Moses keeps calling Laban “the Aramean.” And here we have two different names, two different deities invoked, two different lands divided by this monument.

Genesis 31:51 – 51 Laban also said to Jacob, “Look at this mound and the marker I have set up between you and me.

You’ve got to appreciate how self-involved this guy is. He didn’t set up the marker, Jacob did along with the rest of the people there. But to Laban, the only person that matters is Laban.

Genesis 31:52-54 – 52 This mound is a witness and the marker is a witness that I will not pass beyond this mound to you, and you will not pass beyond this mound and this marker to do me harm. 53 The God of Abraham, and the gods of Nahor—the gods of their father—will judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. 54 Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his relatives to eat a meal. So they ate a meal and spent the night on the mountain.

Some commentators try to suggest that they all had a big, happy meal together. But this is a bitter parting. “You’re a Canaanite, I’m an Aramean. You don’t come this way and I won’t go that way. We’re done.”

To his credit, Jacob would not swear by these false gods, but only by the Fear of his father. Maybe that was a little jab at Laban, reminding him that he’s the one who needs to be afraid, lest he offend the One true God Who is fighting on Jacob’s behalf.

Genesis 31:55 – 55 Laban got up early in the morning, kissed his grandchildren and daughters, and blessed them. Then Laban left to return home.

What sort of affection could they possibly have for him at this point? W.H. Griffith Thomas writes, “Love expressed so late as this cannot be worth much. It is what we are prepared to do for our loved ones while they are with us, not he the kind of things we say of them after they are gone, that is the real test and genuine measure of our affection.”

Laban goes his way. After seeing a vision of God and hearing His voice, Laban did not fall down in worship like the Philippian jailer. He has too much pride. So he returns back, having wasted the clans’ time, to his godless house to live out his days exposed as a liar and cheat. What a sad commentary on how hard a human heart can become. God Himself took the time to speak directly to this man and he immediately turned his back on the Lord. And so, in the end, he is judged as the enemy and outsider and sent away empty-handed into darkness.

As chapter 32 opens we’re told: “Jacob went on his way, and God’s angels met him.” What a great contrast showing the blessing and provision and grace of God. Jacob was going the way he was commanded, but with God’s commands come all the promises and benefits that He applies to those who will obey Him.

God has called out to you, too, just as He did to Jacob and to Laban. Your choice is whether you’re going to turn toward Him or turn away from Him. Go with God. Obey His commands. Receive His blessings and His provision, knowing that He is with you and He is for you and that He will never leave you on your own.