Man Schemes, God Reigns (Gen 38:1-30) (The "Hidden" God, Part II)


Genesis 38:1-30; Key Verse: Gen 38:26,27

"'She is more righteous than I...' When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb."

Where is God when evil prevails? Today's text graphically depicts the utter sinfulness of sinful man in Judah and his 2 sons (Gen 38:1-11). Yet God, who seems to be hidden, works things out behind the scenes according to his sovereign will and purpose (Gen 38:25-30). Thus, the title of my sermon is "Man Schemes, God Reigns" (The "Hidden" God, Part II). Last week, we studied the "hidden" God in Joseph's suffereing. Today we study the "hidden" God in Judah's sin in 4 parts:
  1. Man Schemes (Gen 38:1-11): The wages of sin.
  2. God Reigns (Gen 38:12-24, 25-30): The faithfulness of God.
  3. The Ultimate Tamar
  4. (5 Practical Applications.)
Sexually explicit. This is the most sexually explicit narrative in Genesis, involving sexual intercourse, coitus interruptus, and prostitution. Thus, this chapter is rarely if ever preached in church on Sun. Perhaps, I may be the first to do so in 50 years of UBF history. One commentator even refers to this chapter as "a secular narrative through and through... The narrative is secular and says nothing of God's action or speech." (Westermann, Claus. Genesis 37-50: A Commentary 1986.). Also, another reason to skip Gen 38:1-30 is that Gen 37:36 flows seamlessly into Gen 39:1. So...why should we study Gen 38:1-30? It shows 3 things:

1st, The continuation of Judah's line. Derek Kidner says, "It contributes to the royal genealogy in Mt 1:3; Lk 3:33. As a rude interruption of the Joseph story it serves other purposes as well. It creates suspense for the reader, with Joseph's future in the balance; it puts the faith and chastity of Joseph, soon to be described, in a context which sets off their rarity; and it fills out the portrait of the effective leader among the ten brothers." The ESV Study Bible says, "It focuses on the continuation of Judah’s family line and concludes with a birth account in which a firstborn twin (Zerah) is pushed aside by his younger brother (Perez). ...these features highlight the potential importance of Judah’s line through Perez (Gen 38:29). Later (Gen 49:9-10), kingship will be associated with Judah’s descendants, and biblical history reveals that from Perez comes the Davidic dynasty (Ruth 4:18-22). Although this chapter shows Judah at his worst, it also accounts for a remarkable transformation in his life (Gen 38:26), which comes through in the remaining episodes of the Joseph story."

2nd, The sharp contrast with Joseph. Judah provides a stark contrast to Joseph in Gen 39:1-23.

Judah (Gen 38:1-30)

Joseph (Gen 39:1-23)

Association with Foreign Women (Gen 38:1-3)

Separation from Foreign Women (Gen 39:6-12)

Sexual Immorality (Gen 38:12-18) 

Sexual Morality (Gen 39:6-12)

Victimizer (Gen 38:24)

Victimized (Gen 39:13-20)

Judgment of God (Gen 38:6-10)

Blessing of God (Gen 39:20-23)

True Accusation of Woman (Gen 38:25) 

False Accusation of Woman (Gen 39:13-20) 

Confession of Sin (Gen 38:26) 

Rejection of Sin (Gen 39:10) 

 (Pratt, Jr., Richard L. He Gave Us Stories: The Bible Student's Guide to Interpreting OT Narratives, 1990)

3rd, "The hidden God" fulfills his sovereign will and purpose both in Gen 37 with Joseph, and Gen 38 with Judah.

I. Man Schemes (Gen 38:1-11)

What do sinner's do? How do they live? What are they like?
  1. They leave (Gen 38:1).
  2. They live in lust (Gen 38:2).
  3. They ignore God, God's promise, God's word (Gen 38:1-2).
  4. They are wicked (Gen 38:7).
  5. They are greedy (Gen 38:8-10).
  6. They blame others (Gen 38:11).
  7. They are irresponsible (Gen 38:11).
  1. They leave (Gen 38:1). Abram left in response to God's call (Gen 12:1-4). But Judah left to forget his regrettable past. Judah was greedy and callous. He sold his brother for 20 pieces of silver (Gen 37:26-28), and he hardened his heart to his own father being devastated by the loss of his son Joseph (Gen 37:33-35). What did his leadership among his brothers accomplish? 1. The loss of a brother. 2. The lifelong sorrow of his father. After causing such grief to his own family, he left (Gen 38:1). Joseph was forcibly removed from his father's house and his brothers. But Judah voluntarily leaves his father's house and his brothers and befriends the Canaanites. He leaves God's covenant family in order to fraternize with the enemy. He wants to forget and bury his past as though it never happened.
  2. They live in lust (Gen 38:2). Gen 38:2 says, "There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her." The ESV says, "Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite... He took her and went in to her..." The emphasis is that "Judah saw ... took her." Though "take" is a perfectly proper term for marriage, the combination of "see" and "take" has in Genesis overtones of illicit taking (cf. Gen 3:6, 6:2, 12:15, 34:2; cf. Judg 14:1-2). This suggests that Judah's marriage may have been based on mere lust. (Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Vol. 2 of Word. 1994.) Judah, like his uncle Esau (Gen 26:34-35), married a local woman primarily based on how she looked. 
  3. They ignore God's promise/word (Gen 38:1-2). Judah gave no thought to God's promise to his great-grandfather Abram (Gen 12:2-3), which were promises later repeated to his father Jacob (Gen 28:14). He also disregarded Abraham and his grandfather Isaac, who had insisted that their sons not marry the Canaanites (Gen 24:3, 28:1). Judah does not seem to care about God's promises or his family. Nonetheless, in quick succession, Judah has 3 children with this nameless Canaanite woman: Er, Onan and Shelah (Gen 38:3-5). Then Judah got a wife for his firstborn, Er, named Tamar (Gen 38:6), whose name means "palm tree," which would be associated with a beautiful figure (Song 7:7) and fruitfulness. Unfortunately, Tamar was not to be fruitful in her marriage to Judah's sons.
  4. They are wicked (Gen 38:7). "But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death" (Gen 38:7). "Not since the days of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah has God taken the life of one who displeased him, and there it was groups who were annihilated. Er is the first individual in Scripture whom Yahweh kills." (Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. 1995.)
  5. They are greedy (Gen 38:8-10). Er's wickedness was not described. But his brother, Onan's wickedness was described, and God also put him to death (Gen 38:8-10). What was Onan's wickedness? "Judah said to Onan, 'Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother'” (Gen 38:8). Judah is referring to the custom of levirate marriage (levir is Latin for "brother-in-law"). This common Near Eastern custom would later be codified as a law for Israel: "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel" (Dt 25:5-6). Judah did not ask Onan to marry Tamar. Tamar remains Onan's sister-in-law; she does not become his wife. Judah is concerned only about getting offspring for his dead son Er. "But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother" (Gen 38:9). Onan is clearly greedy and wicked. He does not wish to produce a son for his dead brother because then that son would be considered the firstborn and would get a double portion of Judah's estate. As it is, Onan himself is now the firstborn who will inherit the double portion. To prevent a pregnancy, he practices coitus interruptus, a primitive form of contraception, whenever they come together. The Hebrew emphasizes that Onan did this on every occasion of intercourse, not just once or twice. (Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. 1994.) Without fulfilling his obligation, he takes advantage of Tamar for his own gratification. For this, God takes his life. Ultimately, his sin is that his greed causes him to defy the Lord's plan for Abraham's family. The 3-fold reference to "offspring" (ESV, NASB, Hollman) or "seed" (KJV) {offspring/child in NIV} in Gen 38:8-9 allude to these promises, and Onan's action demonstrates his opposition to the divine agenda.
  6. They blame others (Gen 38:11). With only 1 son left, Judah faces a terrible predicament. Custom dictated that he now give Tamar to his third son, but Judah becomes superstitious. He fails to see that the Lord put his 2 sons to death for their wickedness. Instead he thinks that Tamar is to blame for their deaths, and he does not wish to risk his last son on her. "Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, 'Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.' For he thought, 'He may die too, just like his brothers.' So Tamar went to live in her father’s household" (Gen 38:11). Instead of considering his own influence on his sons demise, he blames Tamar, lies to her about his remaining son, and sends her back to her father's house.
  7. They are irresponsible; they could not care less for others (Gen 38:11). This leaves Tamar in limbo. She is betrothed to Shelah and thus cannot marry someone else. Yet it is very unlikely that Judah will ever give her to Shelah. Judah washes his hands of the whole thing by sending her back to her father's house. "Judah's response is also wicked. Judah, with his dignity and status, is expected to care for a defenseless widow. He violates his daughter-in-law by shirking his responsibilities, denying her right to well-being and status in the community, and shifting her problem onto others." (Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. 2001)
Reviewing the lives of Judah and his 2 sons Er and Onan brings to mind Rom 3:23a: "The wages of sin is death." In brief, Judah wanted to live his life apart from God. Such a life is tragedy itself. It is woe upon woe. There is no reprieve and no relief. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is only darkness.

II. God Reigns (Gen 38:12-24, 25-30)

The next act in this drama begins in Gen 38:12. "After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him." Interestingly, the narrator speeds through about 20 years in the first 11 verses (Gen 38:1-11), which is 32% of the narrative, and uses 19 verses to cover less than a year (Gen 39:12-30), which is 68% of the narrative.

Will Judah's line die out? Shelah has now grown up. But Judah has failed to give Tamar to him. She still languishes in her father's house, a childless widow, betrothed to Shelah, and unable to marry someone else. She is boxed in. But Judah is also trapped in his deceit. Having promised Tamar to Shelah, Shelah can hardly marry someone else. If he marries Tamar, Judah fears, he too will die. Now Judah's wife dies (Gen 38:12), thus eliminating the possibility of Judah producing more children with his wife. It is a deadlock--with the prospect of Judah's line dying out.

Tamar takes action. When Judah's time of mourning is over, he goes up to his sheepshearers. The hard and dirty work of shearing sheep was accompanied by a festival that was noted for hilarity and much wine-drinking. "When Tamar was told, 'Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,' she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife" (Gen 38:13-14). When she is certain that Judah has lied to her in promising her Shelah, she springs into rapid, purposeful action to secure her right to a son in Judah's family: She quickly takes off, covers, wraps herself, and sits down at the strategic location along the way Judah will be traveling, posing as a prostitute. She will try to conceive a son by her father-in-law. Although this violated later laws in Israel (Lev 18:15, 20:12), it appears that levirate customs in Tamar's days allowed a father-in-law to raise up offspring for his deceased son. Nonetheless, her plan is risky, for it could cost her her life.

Lust blinds. "When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, 'Come now, let me sleep with you'” (Gen 38:15-16a). Judah and Tamar's encounter takes place at "Enaim" (Gen 38:14), which means literally "opening of (the) eyes." It is ironic that at Enaim, at "Opening of the Eyes," Judah's eyes are closed as to the identity of his daughter-in-law when he sleeps with her. Lust blinds any man or woman.

Tamar asks for an I.D. Tamar excels in playing the part of the prostitute. “'And what will you give me to sleep with you?' she asked. 'I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,' he said. 'Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?' she asked. He said, 'What pledge should I give you?' 'Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,' she answered" (Gen 38:16b-18a). The signet or seal was Judah's mark of identification, much like a picture I.D. today. The staff was a symbol of authority (Num 17:2; Ps 110:2), as well as being practically useful.

Amazingly, Judah gives this unknown prostitute his personal insignia as collateral for a little goat. This is equivalent to us handing over to a stranger our driver's license and credit card. "So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again(Gen 38:18b-19). Tamar is safely in her father's house again. But she conceived. She is pregnant by Judah himself.

Concern for one's own honor. Judah, of course, wants his personal insignia back as quickly as possible. Perhaps embarrassed to be seen with a prostitute, he sends his Canannite friend with the young goat to recover the pledge from the woman, but he could not find her. When he inquired the townspeople regarding the shrine prostitute, they responded that there was none (Gen 38:20-21). When Judah heard this from his friend (Gen 38:22), he said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her” (Gen 38:23). Judah is concerned only about his own honor and reputation. He does not want to become the laughingstock of the local population. Yet he is unconcerned about the continuing disgrace Tamar suffers as a childless widow in her father's house.

Still blaming: Burn her to death. "About three months later Judah was told, 'Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.' Judah said, 'Bring her out and have her burned to death!'” (Gen 38:24). Without so much as a hearing, Judah orders that she be brought outside the town gate and be burned. In Israel the usual punishment for adultery was death by stoning (Dt 22:23-24). Judah demands an even more cruel death for Tamar. Why? In his heart, he holds her responsible for the death of his 2 sons. Here was his opportunity to get rid of her and give her her due punishment.

Tamar's strategic move. Tamar waits till the very last moment to defend herself. "As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. 'I am pregnant by the man who owns these,' she said. And she added, 'See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are'” (Gen 38:25). "Tamar has staked her all, chancing her honor and life, so as to get her right and prove her innocence. She takes her stand entirely on the pledge which now, at the very last moment, publicly establishes the father of the child in such a way that Judah himself has to reveal her innocence." (Westermann, Claus. Genesis 37-50. 1986.)

The self-righteous Judah humbled. Suddenly Judah's eyes are opened. While he did not recognize Tamar at Enaim, he now sees clearly what happened at "Opening of the Eyes." Tamar was the prostitute, and he fathered this child. "Judah recognized them and said, 'She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.' And he did not sleep with her again" (Gen 38:26). Judah acknowledges his insignia and publicly declares Tamar's innocence: "She is more righteous than I"; and declares his own guilt: "since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah." This is the beginning of Judah's transformation. After this Judah returns to his brothers; he will show great concern for his elderly father; he will even offer himself as a slave to Joseph for Benjamin's freedom (Gen 44:18-34); and Jacob will give him the greatest blessing of all, "Judah, your brothers will praise you... The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet..." (Gen 49:8-12).

The heroine. In this narrative the Canaanite woman Tamar is the heroine. While Judah was doing her injustice by lying and withholding Shelah, thus placing his family line in jeopardy, Tamar was bound and determined to have a child in Judah's family. "Such determination to propagate descendants of Abraham, especially by a Canaanite woman, is remarkable, and so despite her foreign background and irregualr behavior, Tamar emerges as the heroine of this story." (Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Vol. 2 of Word. 1994.)

God is the only One who chooses. "When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, 'This one came out first.' But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, 'So this is how you have broken out!' And he was named Perez. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah" (Gen 38:27-30). The midwife is shocked. The child that should have been second somehow bypassed the first. "There is no logical or biological explanation for Perez's usurpation over Zerah, any more than there was for Jacob's over Esau. The decisions are God's. The selections are gratuitous." (Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. 1995.)

God's will and purposes prevail. God uses Tamar's deception of disobedient Judah to continue Judah's family line. Tamar's deception of Judah results in twins: Perez and Zerah. Perez's name appears in a genealogy in Ruth 4:18-22 (1 Chron 2:5, 9-15), showing 10 generations from Perez to the great king David; and through David to the King of kings, Jesus Christ. Both Perez and David are younger sons, rather insignificant by human standards, but chosen by God for greatness in carrying forward the line of the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15).

This narrative of Judah and Tamar assured Israel that God can accomplish his plan of salvation even through Israel's disobedience and the deception of a Canaanite woman.

We are often confused about events in this world. We may sometimes wonder if there really is a God who controls this mixed-up world. This narrative shows us that God is in control even when it appears that he is absent. God punished the wicked Er and Onan who defied his plans of salvation, but he blessed the obedient Canaanite woman Tamar with children. Thus, God continued Judah's family line, which eventually resulted in the birth of our Savior. God is in control. We can fully trust him to accomplish his plan of salvation.

III. The Ultimate Tamar

Who is the ultimate Tamar? The ultimate Righteous One? Judah said, "She is more righteous than I" (Gen 38:26). We learn that Tamar, the more righteous one, did everything she could and risked even her life in order to be blessed by being included in the family line of God's people. But centuries later, another Righteous One came who did not just risk his life, but lost his life entirely. For her efforts and decisive action, Tamar was blessed and included in the genealogy of Christ. But for his righteous efforts and decisive action, he was cursed and abandoned to die on the cross in agony all alone. Why? It was for us. Jesus is the true and ultimate Tamar, the truly Righteous One, who lost everything, so that we, the unrighteous, who deserve all the wretched wages of our own sin, can be blessed and be freely included among the "righteous" people of God.

IV. (5 Practical Applications)

  1. The wages of sin are devastating. Judah was greedy, callous and heartless. Er and Onan were directly killed by God for their wickedness. Younger brother sins lead to the gutter of the pig pen, while older brother sins lead to deadly self-righteousness. Our sins blind us. Judah's younger brother sins led him to prostitution. Judah's older brother sins made him self-righteous toward one who was more righteous than he.
  2. You can't screw up your own life. We often live dishonestly by hiding or covering up our sins. If we are honest with ourselves, which is always commendable, we may despair because of our habitual and besetting sins. We think, "I can't stop sinning. I'm totally messed up. God will never bless me." Based on the Law, this is true. But God operates by grace. God can even use our sins to fulfill his own glory and purposes. God used Judah's horrible life of lust, blaming others, prostitution, heartlessness, irresponsibility and self-righteousness, and included even him to be the ancestor of Christ. This does not minimize or negate the seriousness of sin. But it does help us to have hope in God in spite of our sins.
  3. There are no real heroes but One. Every person is severely flawed. Even Tamar, the "righteous" one, used highly questionable methods that are clearly not meant to be literally emulated by any believer. If we forget that there is only One hero, we will deceive ourselves into thinking that we can "be like Abraham," and then make ourselves the hero. All Christians who even remotely think that they are heroes become Pharisees, like Judah who condemned Tamar, and like the self-righteous older brother who condemned his younger brother (Lk 15:29-30).
  4. The Bible is about the gospel, not religion. Religion (wrongly understood and poorly communicated) says, "Live like this." The Gospel says, "You can't!" Religion says, "Obey." The Gospel says, "Believe." Religion says, "Conform." The Gospel says, "Be transformed." Religion says, "Disgrace." The Gospel says, "Grace." If we think of the Bible as a book of good moral teachings, examples, illustrations, commandments, and principles, then there is nothing to learn from this chapter. But the Bible is not primarily about what we must do. The Bible is a story about what God has done, and is doing to bring about our salvation, which is entirely by God's grace alone.
  5. Despite our evil schemes, God will always reign. The only question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do I want to be on God's side? Or do I want to resist the truth of God? Whatever you decide, God will always prevail and win the final and ultimate victory.
  1. Greidanus, Sidney, Preaching Christ from Genesis. Chap. 19. Judah and Tamar (Gen 38:1-30). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmas Publishing Co. 2007, 357-377.
  2. Kidner, Derek. Genesis: An Introduction & Commentary. Downers Grove: IVP. 1967, 187-189.
  3. Altar, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: W W Norton & Company. 1996, 217-223.
  4. Duncan, Ligon. The Shame of Judah (Gen 38:1-30). 
  5. The ESV Study Bible (ID: westloopchurch@gmail.com; Password: 12001200).

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The "Hidden" God (Gen 37:2-36)


THE "HIDDEN" GOD (Where Is God When It Hurts?)

Genesis 37:2-36; Key Verse: Gen 37:23,24

"...they stripped him of his robe...and threw him into the cistern."

Where is God when it hurts? 3 years ago, Arthur preached this Tim Keller sermon, The Hiddenness of God, on Nov 30, 2009. I am doing so again (with a shorter title "The 'Hidden' God"), because it deals with a problem very common to all men. The problem is best framed as a question: Where is God when it hurts so bad? The past 3 weeks (including today), we examined 3 key issues from Genesis that universally affects all people:

  1. The (Unquenchable) Search for Love (Gen 29:15-35),
  2. The (Absolute) Need for Blessing (Gen 32:22-32), and today,
  3. A Biblical Understanding of (Unjust) Suffering (Gen 37:2-36).

The "Hidden" God. In the next 3 weeks (including today), we will study the Hidden God in Genesis chapter 37, 38 and 39.

  1. The Hidden God in Joseph's Sufferings (Gen 37:2-36): Where is God When It Hurts?
  2. The Hidden God in Judah's Sin (Gen 38:1-30): Man Schemes, God Reigns.
  3. The Hidden God in Joseph's Temptations (Gen 39:1-23): Is Your Sin Against God or Man?

Is God incompetent? There is a T-shirt that says, "God works in mysterious, ineffective and breathtakingly cruel ways." Others say, “If God is really in charge of things, he must be really incompetent! Look at all the pain, disappointments and sorrows in my life. If God is really in charge of things, he must be incompetent!” This passage is probably the very best place anywhere in the Bible that addresses directly this thought: "God must be incompetent. Otherwise, why are all these bad things happening to me?"

Let the story draw you in. This account in Genesis is not a series of propositions, principles, or moral lessons. It is a story. It is the narrative of the life of Joseph. If you are willing, let the narrative draw you in, get involved in the story, and understand the narrative. Then you will be able to look at your own life differently. You will have a new perspective and a new understanding of your own life. This is a guarantee.

If you want to begin to get that understanding and perspective in your life, especially regarding the bad things that happen to you, notice three "hidden" things in Joseph's life:

  1. The Hidden Depth of Sin (Gen 37:2-11).
  2. The Hidden Purposes of God (Gen 37:12-36).
  3. The Hidden Pattern of Grace (Gen 37:33-34).

I. The Hidden Depth of Sin (Gen 37:2-11)

Before and after a volcano erupts. What does this mean? If you have ever seen a picture of Mount Saint Helens before May 18, 1980, it is a beautiful snow capped mountain in Washington state. There is nothing that looks more permanent than a mountain. There is nothing that looks more stable than a mountain. Then look at this mountain again after May 18, 1980. As permanent and great as that mountain was, inside there was something brewing that was about to blow the top off the mountain.

Jacob's favoritism. It is the same thing with this large, prosperous, and established family of Jacob. But there was something deep inside that was about to blow the top off. What was it? Notice Gen 37:3a: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.” The story behind Jacob's favoritism is convoluted and long. But in a nutshell, Jacob grew up desperately lacking the love and affirmation of his father, because his father Isaac overtly and clearly favored and preferred his brother Esau to him.

The idolatry of love. This resulted in Jacob's inner neediness, his inner lack of affirmation, which drove him in many ways. Most significantly, it drove him was to utterly fix his heart on Rachel. Rachel was a stunningly beautiful woman. Jacob looked at Rachel and says something like this in his heart, “If I had her, then finally that would fix my lousy life!” He did marry her, and he did fix his heart on her, and she had two sons who were the youngest of his 12 sons. Rachel bore Joseph and Benjamin, and died while giving birth to Benjamin. What we can see here, what the narrator telling us here, is therefore the oldest child of Rachel - Joseph - became the new emotional center of Jacob's life.

A good thing becomes a God thing. Jacob gave him - the text says - “a richly ornamented robe” (Gen 37:3b, NIV '84), or "an ornate robe" (NIV 2011). In other translations, it was “many colored” (Septuagint), “a coat of many colors” (KJV, ASV), "a robe of many colors" (ESV, HCSB), "a varicolored tunic" (NASB), "an elaborately embroidered coat" (The Message). The meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain and hard to translate. This description of the robe is used in one other place in the OT. It describes the robe of princess Tamar (2 Sam 13:18-19). Many commentators have suggested it has something to do with royalty. By this regal apparel, Jacob may have been publicly designating young Joseph as the ruler over the family and over all of his older brothers. Jacob outlandishly and clearly favored Joseph in a way he did not do with any of his other sons. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21). In other words, Joseph had become the idol of Jacob's life, a “god” with a small “g” in Jacob’s life, the source, the central source of joy and love in his life.

The poison of favoritism. What happened as a result of this? It poisoned his entire family. This poison of favoritism seeped into all of his own sons. Favoritism has a long history in Jacob’s family (Isaac’s preference for Esau, Rebekah’s for Jacob, and Jacob’s preference for Rachel). In every case it created major problems. Jacob, of all people, should have understood this. His father loved his brother Esau more than him. While Jacob should have been sensitive to favoritism, he repeats the sin of his parents. What did such favoritism do to Joseph?

First, Joseph became a tattletale and a "liar." What happened to Joseph? He was a young man, just 17 years old (Gen 37:2a). Even though he is young, look at what he did. Gen 37:2b says, “he brought their father a bad report about them.” Commentators explain that the Hebrew word for “bad report” is a word that means a “false report,” a lie, or at least a misrepresentation of some kind. Here you have a kid who is turning into a liar. "The first revelation of Joseph's character suggests a spoiled younger child who is a tattletale." (Robert Alter, Genesis, 1996). "Although the narrator blanks the details, the word report (dibbah) by itself denotes news slanted to damage the victim (Prov 10:18)." (Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary, 2001). "The term dibbah 'tales' is always used elsewhere in a negative sense of an untrue report, and here it is qualified by the adjective 'evil' (cf. Num 13:32; 14:36-37). So it seems likely that Joseph misrepresented his brothers to his father..." (Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 1994).


Second, Joseph became insensitive and self-centered. Even more than his "lies" was his dreams. The first time he tells his brother the dream, it is pretty obvious what the meaning of the dream is (Gen 37:6-7). Understandably, his brothers are furious, as “they hated him!” (Gen 37:5,8) He gets another similar dream, and what did he do? He went right back and tells the dream to them again (Gen 37:9). What does this show about Joseph? We could think he was naive. But perhaps at the very least that he is a sociopath in the making. At the very least he is pathologically insensitive to the impact of his own words and behavior on other people. But at the very worst he is becoming an evil person. He is becoming an arrogant person. He is becoming a cruel person.

See Jacob - the Jacob who adores Joseph - Jacob had to “rebuke him” (Gen 37:10). What it means is that Joseph telling these dreams must have been incredibly hubristic, arrogant and overweening, that even his father who loved him, had to rebuke him.

The growth of hate. That’s Joseph's life. He was on a path to becoming a schoolyard bully. He was spoiled, selfish, insensitive, arrogant, shallow, maybe even an evil person. What about the brothers? Hebrew narrative is pretty spare. It does not say things unnecessarily, doesn't give unnecessary details.  But three times (Gen 37:4,5,8), it says: “Hate!” “Hate” is growing in them. That is the lava. It is going to blow the top off; this whole family will implode. What do we see? Underneath what looks like a really nice, big, prosperous family, there is the deep hidden depth of brokenness and sins that are going to destroy the family, if somebody doesn't deal with them.

Before moving on let me suggest that we can learn two practical matters:

First, the difference between Religion and the Gospel. There is not a page in the Bible that does not give us the contrast between traditional religion and the Gospel.

Traditional religion and the Gospel are two different things, and the Bible is constantly showing us that. The Bible is not a book about traditional religion, but about the Gospel. What does this mean? For example, what is traditional religion? It is saying, “Here are the rules for right living, the exemplars of right living, the heroes of the faith. Here are the stories of their lives. Now live like them, and God will bless you! Is there a problem? There isn’t anybody; there is nobody! Nobody is wearing a white hat. Rom 3:23 says all are sinners. There is no good guy in here. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom 3:10). There is just brokenness upon brokenness; there is hatred; there is bitterness, there is pride everywhere. What does it mean? What are we supposed to make with these stories? What kind of story is this? How is it supposed to help me to live a good Christian life?

Traditional religion and the Gospel are two different things. The Bible is not mainly trying to show you how to live a good life. If it was, why would we be reading this story? Of course negatively, by way of negation, one can find some good ways not to raise children. Therefore, by inference, you can find some ways how to raise children. But did the author of this passage write this down so we can know how to raise our children better? No. The Bible's purpose is not so much to show you how to live good lives. The Bible's purpose is to show you how grace - God's grace - breaks into your life, against your will, and saves you from the sin and brokenness that you would never otherwise be able to overcome. The purpose of these Bible stories is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The purpose of the stories in the Bible - every page - is to show you how God's grace breaks into your life against your will, and rescues you from the sins and brokenness, which you would never see, would never be able to overcome.  That’s what you see on every page of the Bible. That is not religion; that is the Gospel!  

Religion says, “If you obey then you'll be accepted.” But the Gospel says, “If you are absolutely accepted, and you are only by God's grace - then and only then - would you ever begin to obey.” Religion and the Gospel are two utterly different things. Every page of the Bible alludes to this. Every page the Bible shows us the difference.

Second, you are NOT the result of your own individual choices. Modern western people do not want to hear this. They screen this message out. For instance, you know your parents’ sins, and flaws, and character flaws. You know how much it bothered you. You did not like them growing up. Guess where they are now? They are in you, even if you excessively did everything you possibly could do to be utterly different from them. In either case you are not the product of your own choices, just as Jacob's life was not the result of his own choices. You are not a self-made person. The things that have been done to you are every bit as important as the things that have been done by you, to make you what you are.

What does this mean? You did not get into your troubles through individual choices. You got into your problems, the problems in your life, the flaws and the bad habits, the things that are wrong with you, they didn’t get there through individual choices. You got them through relationships, through bad relationships, such as Isaac's favoritism toward Esau which caused Jacob to have a void in his soul. Therefore, you can only get out of it through relationships. We have problems; we know we do. We got things in our life, fears, pride, selfishness, resentments, and all these problems. What are we going to do about it? 

Does self help and positive thinking improve your life? If you are not a Christian, you buy self-help books, and you do the exercises in the back, which says, “Now identify what is wrong with you. Next, make an action plan. Now do it.” You can read, "The Power of Positive Thinking," or "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Perhaps, they might help to some degree. But our flaws, problems and sorrows did not happen through an individual action. It happened through relationships. We will never, even see our flaws except through relationships. The people around us can see us much better than we can. We do not know what is wrong with us. We did not get into what is wrong with ourselves through individual choices alone, and we are not going to get out through our individual choices alone. We need parties acting into our lives with remarkable love and grace. That is what will heal us. We need to put ourselves in communities where this can happen. Most of all, we need to be in a relationship with God. We need to have His power ricochet around in our lives, showing us what is wrong with us (because we do not know what it is), leading us on a journey (to deal with what is wrong with us). We did not get into our troubles through individual choices but mainly through relationships, and we are not going to get out any other way. That is “the hidden depth of sin”

II. The Hidden Purposes of God (Gen 37:12-36)

If we are going understand our own life better, we need to see the hidden purposes of God in Joseph's life. Under the surface of our lives is sin. But under the surface of our lives, God is also at work. Notice 2 things: the dreams and then the accidents.

1st, the dreams. These two dreams are pretty interesting. Let us put it in a historical context. The people here are living in ancient societies, which were incredibly and extremely hierarchical and patriarchal. The basic iron law of the social structure of the day was this: The younger always bows to the older! The older never bows to the younger. On the one hand it means the children always bow to the parents. No matter how old you get, you bow to your parents. So, children always bow to the parents; and the younger children always bow to the older children, especially the oldest. The oldest always received the lion's share of the estate and the wealth. That was the iron law of primogeniture (the right of the firstborn child/son). That was the iron law of that hierarchical society.

These dreams therefore, are radically, socially subversive. These dreams are words from God that says, “I'm going to bring into this family a salvation that absolutely turns on its head the values of the world.” God had a dream for the salvation of His family from famine, and from sin. But the dream was utterly different - completely, radically different - than what the society believed was possible. One of the reasons why the brothers, even the father Jacob was so absolutely outraged by the dreams, is that it is impossible! This could not happen. It is totally ridiculous, outrageous, maddening, impossible. It could never ever happen!  

But it begins to happen. How? Through a series of accidents.

2nd, the accidents. Why might we call it “accidents”?

In this chapter, the narrator describes a series of coincidences, which on the surface, look like chance happenings. Jacob decided to send Joseph to see his brothers, who were grazing herds at Shechem. But the brothers just happened to decide not to stay in Sechem but to go to Dothan, which is a very remote place, where whatever happened there no one would know.  Joseph just happened to come to a place where they had been, and just happened to run into a stranger, who just some days before happened to hear a group of people say they were going to Dothan. Then Joseph was just happened to run right into this stranger. Then when Joseph came, they grabbed hold of him. It just so happened that Ruben was there to save him from being killed, but happened not to be there to save him from being sold. The whole series of events all happened in a certain precise way.

Coincidence? But get this: If Joseph had not been killed, but also not been sold; or if Joseph had been killed, and therefore not sold; if Joseph had not been killed or sold…unless everything happened exactly the way it happened, just in that order, everybody dies. Because the famine is going to come, and Joseph has got to get himself to a place where he has power. The point is that every single little tiny detail; every one of these coincidences could not have been a coincidence. Because if any one of them did not happen, not only the whole family dies, but tens of thousands of other people will die by famine, and thus, the entire messianic line (and God saving the whole world) would die too.

Is God Really Absent? What does it mean? There is no mention of God anywhere here. God never speaks. God does not do any thing. God is never even referred to. God seems to be utterly, absolutely, completely absent. But that is the artistry of the author. Though God seems to be completely absent on the surface, yet He must have been managing down to the minutest detail of every little thing that happened: all the chaotic things, all the awful things, all the terrible things, all the things that seems to make no sense. Yet every single one of them had to happen. God was arranging things for the salvation of His family.

Is God's Redeeming Love Compatible with Unbearable Suffering and Injustice Happening to you? What do we learn here? Consider this proposition: God's wise redeeming love is completely compatible with terrible things happening in the lives of those He loves. God's wise redeeming love for us is compatible with terrible disappointments, and terrible things happening to us.

Stripped and Abandoned. Gen 37:23-24 tells us the brutal thing that happened to Joseph: So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing—and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it. The words “stripped” is a word, "a term also used for skinning animals" ( (Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Vol. 2 of Word. 1994.) It means they violently ripped off his clothes, and he was probably thrown naked into that cistern. The word “threw,” from “they took him and threw him,” is a word that has the meaning of to dump a dead body into a grave. It is the same word when Pharoah commanded the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt: "Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile" (Exo 1:22). If this Hebrew word is used with a person who is alive, it means to abandon them to death. Although it doesn’t say here, but in Gen 42:21 when the brothers were reminiscing, they said, "We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen." When they stripped him, and threw him into the cistern, Joseph must have cried. He screamed. He cried out. He asked someone to save him, “Don’t keep me in here! Help me! Get me out of here!” He cried to God. He cried to his brothers. He cried to the darkness, “Why, why?”

The Agony of Suffering in Silence. Look at how violent this was; how a brutal this was! They seized him. They stripped him. They threw him in naked; they abandoned him to die. He cries out, he screams, and nothing happens.

The Only Way to be Saved. If this had not happened, if it did not happen just like this, everybody would have been lost. Not only would they have been lost physically because the famines were coming, and all of them would’ve been wiped out, but they would have been lost spiritually because - as we are going to see - only because Joseph was rejected, only because Joseph was sold into slavery, only because all these awful things happened, will Joseph himself be saved from his pride that was turning him into a wicked person; only will the brothers be saved from the hate which was turning them into a violent person, and even Jacob would be saved from his idolatry of his favorite son Joseph. If all of these awful things that had not happened, there would not have been salvation.

Just Tell Me What My Problem Is, Instead of Putting Me Through Hell! Somebody might say, “Why? Wait a minute, wait a minute!” There are always people who have contrary thoughts with what the preacher says. They say, “Why does this have to be so brutal? I have another way God could have done this: some effulgent angelic being could suddenly appear! He looks at everyone. Wveryone would be smitten to the ground. He says, ‘'I come from the Lord. You, Joseph, are a spoiled brat! You, brothers of Joseph have become bitter and hateful, and a murder is about to happen. I'm here to stop it. You, old man Jacob, you have become an idolater, and you have ruined the lives of all your sons. Don’t you see what are you doing?” Then everybody has an epiphany moment, saying, “I see. I see.” Then they hug each other with tears, saying, “I'm so sorry.”

Nobody Learns By Just Being Told. The fact is, if an angel shows up and tells you about your faults and problems, it won’t work. Nobody ever learned about their faults by being told, they have to be shown. Life has to show you. Nobody ever learns that "God loves you" by being told. They have to be shown.

Another Story in Dothan. Centuries later another remarkably similar thing happened in Dothan? In Joseph's time, Dothan was a remote place. In the time of the prophet Elisha, Dothan was a city. Elisha and a servant were in the city, which was surrounded by an enemy army. The army was going to capture them and possibly kill them. But Elisha cried out to God from the pit as it were, and God sent chariots of fire (2 Ki 6:17), a heavenly angelic army that came and blinded the offending army and everyone was saved (2 Ki 6:13-18).


Likely, we would say, “That's the kind of God I want! That's the power of prayer! That’s my idea of how prayer ought to work: You cry out from the pit: ‘please save me!’ Then chariots of fire, angels spring into immediate action!”

Why 2 Different Responses? But wait: same Bible, same God, same place, 2 people crying out similar prayers, “Save me, I’m about to die!” In one case: nobody comes, no chariots of fire, nobody! In the other case: chariots of fire!" Why?

A Simple Salvation and a Complex Salvation. Elisha’s salvation was a simple salvation. All Elisha needed was physical salvation. Joseph’s salvation was a complex salvation. If he had been saved from what he wanted to be saved from, he would have been lost in a more profound way. He had to actually be lost to be saved, and if he had been saved, he would have been lost. He had a go on a journey.  

God's Seeming Silence and Hiddenness is Not His Absence. In other words, God was caring as much for Joseph in His silence, hiddenness, and seeming absence, as He was caring for Elisha with all that immediate dramatic action. Do you understand that? God was caring for and working as much in Joseph’s life as in Elisha's. God's love was active in Joseph's life - in His hiddenness, silence and seeming absence- as He was in Elisha's life of dramatic action. Do you know that?

Peter and John the Baptist in Prison. Do you believe that? Once, Peter gets put into prison and everyone prays and the angel comes and opens the prison door. But John the Baptist gets put into prison and all his disciples pray and he is beheaded. Do you believe that God is working in both kinds of situations?

Think how strong you would be if you really knew that? In other words, if you believe that sometimes God doesn't seem to be answering prayer, but He is actually working out some other way, how strong you would be?

God Turns All Our Deaths into Resurrections. On Easter, we sing: Christ the Lord Is Risen Today: “Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia! Ours, the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!” Do you believe and know in the depth of your being from the narratives here, that God was working just as much lovingly in Joseph's life as he was in the Elisha's life; just as much working in his hiddenness as working in His dramatic intervention? If you believe this, you could really sing this verse: “Ours, the cross, the grave, the skies.” If you don't believe this, then this verse is weird. We sing, "the cross, the grave, the skies." The cross and grave are not my enemies anymore. The words mean, “Come on cross! Come on graves! The lower you lay me, the higher you will raise me! Suffering, come on!" There are 2 or 3 things suffering can do to me: 1) hurt me. But because I know what God is doing, I trust in Him. Then all you are doing by bringing suffering is 2) makes me richer, deeper, better, wiser, and ultimately happier person. Or the worst thing you can do is 3) kill me, take off my head, and you will make me happier than before. Because I have a God who turns all deaths into resurrections - literally as well as figuratively! I have a God, who doesn't create the pride, the evil, the cruelty we see here, but he arranges it, overwhelms it, overrules it, so that all the evil in this passage eventually destroys itself. I have a God, who turns all deaths in the resurrections! Come on, graves! Come on crosses!” (Rom 5:3-5; Jas 1:2-4) That's why Paul taunted death saying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

Can you Persevere with Confidence and Assurance in Unbearable Suffering? Think of how strong you can be if you could. Or put it this way, God has a dream for His people. God has a vision for our glory, just like a dream for our salvation. But until it is all over; it looks stupid. Joseph has dreams and was told by everybody “that's ridiculous.” Then in the middle of God’s program for Joseph, it still looks ridiculous. It looks ridiculous to Joseph. It looks ridiculous to everybody. God has a dream for your future glory. God has a dream for his people. When you are in the midst of it, you never can figure out what is He doing. But God will not let anything kill the dream for your future glory, not even you. Do you believe that? Do you believe you really cannot mess up your life? Do you believe He works very often the most when He seems the most hidden? Do you believe that “in all things God works for the good of those who loves him” (Rom 8:28)? Do you believe it?

If you really believe it, think how strong you would be. But someone says, “I'm having trouble, could you help me? How can I know that? How can I really know that?”

III. The Hidden Pattern of Grace (Gen 37:33-34)

The third thing we see in Joseph's life is not just the hidden depths of sins and hidden purposes of God, but the hidden patterns of grace.

Just 1 Sorrow is Enough to Completely Destroy Me. Years ago, a brilliant Christian, George Herbert, one of the great poets of the 17th century, applied the story of Joseph's coat to his own life practically. He wrote a poem called “Joseph's Coat.” The essence of what Herbert says in that poem is so germane, so relevant to this story and to us. In the poem he talks about suffering, and says that any suffering can completely ruin his life. It says, “If but one grief (or sorrow), among my many, had its full career; it would carry with it, even my heart.” What he means is that any suffering that comes to our life, any disappointment, any trouble can really destroy us spiritually. It can turn us to be hard, bitter, cynical, untrusting, and kill all our joy. It can make us a very bad person. Herbert says that "almost every grief, every suffering that comes in my heart has the potential to completely ruin and destroy me; it can potentially completely ruin my heart."

Do You Know How Much God Loves You? But, he says, when suffering comes into my life, I get something else. He says, “But God has spoiled suffering, and given to my anguish a joyous coat enticing it with relief.” In other words, Hebert says, “I'm suffering and it could make me a really bad person, but along with it God has given me a coat.” What does he mean? He is referring to the whole narrative of Joseph. Here Joseph's coat was a token of how much his father loved him. Joseph's coat was proof that his father adored him. Herbert is saying that “in the midst of my suffering God gave me a coat, a coat of His love. God gave me a token assurance of certainty that he utterly loves me." What was the result? The whole poem can be summed up as such, “Grief can ruin me but I got this coat! God gave me this coat: His assurance of love.” It is like saying, “Wounded I sing, tormented I write and rejoice.” What he sang was that when you mix one part suffering with one part deep assurance of the Father's love, you get a wiser, deeper, happier person. You get a person who understands people better, who can help people better, who understands their own hearts better and who can learn limitless patience in suffering.

Suffering Reduces the Assurance of Love. Suffering all by itself can ruin anyone. But suffering plus an absolute assurance of the love of God can turn us into something great. Some say, “That's nice, except that is not what happens is it?” Because when bad things come in your life, you know what happens: Even if you say “I'm not a Christian”, even if you say “I don’t believe in God”; when suffering come into your life, almost immediately you struggle with this thought: “Maybe I am not living right. Maybe I am not doing right.” When suffering come into your life, you have less assurance that God loves you. You feel like "God had abandoned me," so how the heck this is going to work?  It didn’t make sense.

How Do We Handle Suffering? Is Herbert is right in saying, "If I had a joyous coat, if I had the coat of the Father on me, then I can handle suffering." But how do you get it? The pattern of salvation in Joseph's life was so weird to his brothers. It is so against the world's thinking, because it points to the ultimate pattern of salvation.

Do you Know of One who Suffered for You? Centuries later another One came to his brethren. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (Jn 1:11). "He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain" (Isa 53:3a). He was sold for silver, and betrayed by the people closest to him. He was stripped naked, and abandoned to die, crying out in the dark, “Why?” And nobody heard him. Nobody came. No one answered. Not even God His Father who loves him. That was Jesus.

Why Jesus is the Ultimate Joseph? But there is a difference: Joseph is being turned into a savior, the only way God’s salvation would have worked; Jesus was being turned into a savior through weakness in suffering and rejection. Do you see that? Joseph can only save the community because unless being rejected by the community, he could never be their savior - though eventually he was - unless he was first lost, unless he was humbled, unless he was rejected, unless he was sold.  Joseph was being turned involuntarily into the savior for one human family. But Jesus Christ came, and the pit he fell into was vastly deeper. The cry of his dereliction was vastly greater. His nakedness and his sense of abandonment was infinitely beyond anything that Joseph went through. In other words, Jesus came voluntarily to be the savior of us all. Because when Jesus was on the cross, He wasn't just physically naked. He was stripped of His Father's love. Why? He was being punished for our sin (Isa 53:4-5).

I Deserve This Suffering. When suffering hits us, we will always get back in touch with the subliminal deep profound sense that every human being has. It is, "I really deserve some punishment for the way in which I have lived." No human being can get rid of that. It does not matter how much therapy or counseling or Bible study we go to. It is there. It is cosmic. It is part of "the image of God," part of who we are as human beings. When suffering comes, we default to losing any sense of God's love ... unless we see and know this: Here is The One who lost the Father's coat, so we can be assured that we have it. Here is The One who lost the Father's love, paying our penalty so we could know that - in spite of our imperfect life - God loves us. When I ask God to accept me because of what Jesus has done, I get the coat. I know He loves me. If you know that, that means if right now today you are in t

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