Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Joseph and His Brothers

At this point, if you are reading Genesis 31-50 every day, or even reading ahead, you know that you are deeply immersed in a family drama of the first order. Novels with plots like this sell well, and movies do well at the box office. Starting with chapter 31 of Genesis, you realize that Jacob is in a family sandwich. He has a father-in-law who lies and continually tries to cheat him, but since he loves the daughters, he’s not sure how to escape. He also knows that if he goes home as God commands him to, he faces a potentially angry and vengeful brother when he gets there.

Of course, Jacob has contributed to the situation, at least in part. He has been encouraged by God to do some practices around animal husbandry that have worked out in his favor. And his mother had helped him steal his brother’s birth rite. He is as wily as anybody else in the story, and we see this wiliness front and center when he sets out on the journey away from Laban towards Esau, away from Paddan Aram, across the Jabbok, back to Canaan.

Chapters 31-33 are set up in a really interesting parallel. First, Jacob has to sneak away from Laban, but then is pursued by him. When he finally gets away from Laban, he has to “sneak” up on Esau, presenting gifts and sending his group ahead in appeasement. At the very center of this parallel is Jacob’s wrestling match with God. Jacob received a blessing, but also receives a limp. He survives his departure, and we will learn he survives his arrival, but it is the very dangerous in-between that God confronts him and wrestles with him.

This would be a fruitful topic for conversation and reflection. Have you ever been in a situation like this, a kind of Scylla and Charybdis, caught between a rock and hard place? What happened there? What did it feel like to be wrestling with God? What blessing did you receive? How do you still limp?


The children of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, are the twelve tribes of Israel. So it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the genealogy that is listed in these chapters. The descendants of Jacob are the Israelites (remember that Jacob is re-named Israel by God when they wrestle). The descendants of Esau are the Edomites, a people group that neighbors Israel. The rest of the story is going to be a drama of the relationship between these brothers, with a special focus on Joseph exiled by betrayal to Egypt.

This story is important for two reasons. First, because it helps establish our understanding of the twelve tribes of Israel. But also, because we learn it is through the brother’s betrayal that Israel ends up as slaves in Egypt to begin with. It is interesting that they go to Egypt initially of their own choice. Jacob (Israel) himself goes to Egypt at the end of the story, at the invitation of Joseph. The first chapter of Exodus indicates that as soon as the kings of Egypt forget about Joseph (who was beloved and embalmed), then they enslave the Israelites.

So, in this story, family history is also national history, and it leads to the most important and central story in the whole Old Testament—the Exodus!

As you finish reading Genesis over the next two weeks, read the story as a profound family drama. Read it also watching for clues as to how God is at work in and through this family narrative. But read it also as a national story, the beginning of the story of the people of God, Israel, a nation that will be led out of Egypt by the same man who tells the Genesis story in the first place—Moses.

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