As we set sail through Genesis 37–38, these chapters are going to expose once again the unfaithfulness of Jacob’s family and the faithfulness of God.
And here our attention turns to the eleventh son of Jacob, a young man named Joseph. Genesis 37:2 tells us he’s a teenager, and he’s out with his brothers shepherding their flocks. He sees his brothers misbehaving and goes home and tattles on them. Now I had younger brothers growing up, and nothing irritated me more than when they tattled on me (I was usually in enough trouble already).
To make matters worse, we’re told in verse 3, “Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than any other of his sons.” No doubt this was at least in part because Joseph was the firstborn of his beloved wife, Rachel, who had died some years earlier.
Jacob gives Joseph a special, long-sleeved coat of many colors (verse 3). This tunic would have communicated the position of a supervisor and indicated Jacob’s preferential treatment of placing Joseph first, as it were, in line. No wonder we read in verse 4 that his brothers hated him.
The next few verses tell us that Joseph had two dreams, which he naively shared with his family. Both dreams portrayed his family bowing down to him. He probably should have kept these dreams to himself. In fact, verse 5 tells us that as a result his brothers “hated him even more.”
Sometime later, Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are out in the fields. When they see him coming, they conspire together here in verse 20, saying,
“Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.”
The eldest brother, Reuben, talks them out of killing Joseph with their own hands. He convinces them to just throw him into a pit and let him die there. However, we discover in verse 22 that Reuben planned to come back later and rescue Joseph from the pit.
While Joseph is in that pit begging for mercy and his brothers are eating dinner—if you can imagine that—a band of merchants come by on their way to Egypt. Reuben evidently has left dinner for a while, and Judah suggests they sell Joseph to these merchants. And before you know it, Joseph is heading to Egypt to be sold as a slave.
When Reuben returns and discovers what has happened, he says, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” (verse 30). Reuben is the firstborn son, and he’s going to be held responsible; he might even lose his inheritance. So, he joins his brothers in a plan to deceive their father.
Here’s the plan: They rip up Joseph’s tunic and spread some goat’s blood on it. And when they present it to their father, Jacob assumes that his son has been killed by a wild animal (verses 31-33).
This divided, deceitful, hateful family is the family chosen by God to give the world the nation Israel, and the coming Redeemer.
There must be a better family for God to deal with! Oh, but listen: there isn’t one family on the planet that deserves God’s grace, not your family and not mine. We have received from God far more than we deserve. We’re all sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy. And by the way, God is planning on doing something special down there in Egypt, which reminds us that God can use even people’s sinful actions to set the table for His plan and purpose.
Chapter 37 wraps up by telling us in verse 36 that in Egypt Joseph is sold to Potiphar, a military captain serving under the pharaoh, the king of Egypt.
Chapter 38 rather abruptly turns our attention away from Joseph and to his older brother Judah. God is going to show us a stark contrast between Joseph, who will resist sexual temptation, and Judah, who will not.
Remember, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob all wanted their sons to marry Hebrew women who followed God. Judah marries a Canaanite woman, and we’re told in the opening verses of chapter 38 that she bears three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah finds a wife for him, a woman named Tamar. Verse 7 tells us Er is “wicked in the sight of the Lord,” and the Lord takes his life in judgment.
During these ancient days, if a husband died before having children, his brother was to marry the widow and have a child by her who would serve as the deceased brother’s heir. This was Onan’s responsibility. But instead of honoring his brother’s name, whenever Onan had sexual relations with Tamar, the Bible says, Onan “would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother” (verse 9). In other words, he didn’t want to share any inheritance with anybody. We don’t know how long this went on, but it was a wicked way to treat his new wife, Tamar; and God put Onan to death because of it.
So, Judah tells Tamar in verse 11, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up.” But when Shelah is grown, Judah doesn’t keep his word. So now what?
Well, we’re told in verse 12 that Judah’s wife dies. It’s possible that Tamar was influenced by the Hittites living nearby, whose law stated that if the brothers of the deceased don’t perform this inheritance duty for the widow, then it’s the responsibility of the father-in-law. Well, let me say, no such law existed for the Hebrews, and what a mess this is about to make.
Tamar goes out to where Judah is shearing his sheep; she’s dressed as a pagan temple prostitute. She catches the attention of Judah, who yields to the temptation, not recognizing her. But verse 17 informs us that he doesn’t have any money to pay her. So, he hands her his signet ring and cord and his staff as a pledge that he’ll pay her later. However, when he sends the payment later on, she’s nowhere to be found.
Judah’s signet ring officially sealed documents; it hung on a cord, which was typically custom-made. His staff would have been carved uniquely. It would’ve been one of a kind and identifiable as Judah’s alone.
Tamar conceives by Judah, and verse 24 tells us that about three months later, she’s discovered to be pregnant. Judah is outraged and demands that she be put to death. What a hypocrite, by the way. Isn’t it interesting how we quickly condemn the sins of others and overlook our own? I can see that speck in your eye, but I can’t see the telephone pole sticking out of my own eye.
Well, Tamar comes walking out of the house carrying Judah’s staff, signet ring, and cord and says, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant” (verse 25). Oh my!
To his credit, Judah humbly responds in verse 26, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
Six months later Tamar gives birth to twins. And get this: Judah, Tamar, and these twin boys are all listed by Matthew’s Gospel in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3)!
Can you imagine? The Messiah will descend from Judah through Tamar—two sinners who needed a Redeemer. The Messiah who died for their sins died for your sins and mine too, so that by faith in Him we too can be forgiven and become a part of the family of God. This is the marvelous story throughout history of the amazing grace of God.