Family Matters | Genesis 35-38
Brian Hedges | February 28, 2021
I want to invite you to turn in your Bibles to Genesis 35; we’re going to be looking at the second half of Genesis 35 all the way through Genesis 38, so several chapters of Scripture I’ll be referencing this morning. This passage of Scripture, as the book of Genesis, is largely about a family.
I’ve reflected in my own life that it’s stories about family and family relationships that have touched me the most deeply. My favorite film of all time is Terrence Malick's wonderful film The Tree of Life. In many ways, it’s a story about a father and a son, about brothers, about these family relationships. I’ve never seen a movie that evokes memories of childhood like this film does, and I can’t watch it without tears. It’s a beautiful, artistic film.
One of my favorite novels is My Name is Asher Lev, also a wonderful story about a father and a son; or you might think of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful Gilead series of novels that really center on the story of a family.
Now, if all of that just feels too highbrow, too high culture for you, just think about the Star Wars movies. The most important sentence in Star Wars is not, “May the force be with you.” What is it? “Luke, I am your father.” That’s the emotional core to Star Wars; that’s why Star Wars—even space opera—touches us deeply, because it’s about family, it’s about family relationships.
These stories about family are so important in our lives because those relationships are the most foundational, formative, primal relationships in our lives. Family matters, and the Bible understands that. The Scriptures understand that. The book of Genesis is not only a book of origins, it is a book about a family.
This morning, I just want us to consider both the centrality of the family, the brokenness of the family, and also the redemption of the family as we see it portrayed in the book of Genesis. Those are the three points for the sermon: the centrality of the family, the brokenness of the family, and the promise of redemption through the family. I think we see all of this right in Genesis 35-38.
1. The Centrality of the Family
First of all, and briefly, the centrality of the family. You really see this in the book of Genesis in three levels. I’m not going to read texts right now as much as I want to help you get kind of a big picture view of what’s going on here in Genesis. There are three levels in which you see the centrality and the importance of family.
(1) First of all, just on the narrative level. Have you ever noticed when you’re reading through Genesis how often it records the birth of someone or the marriage of a couple, the beginning of a new family, or someone’s death? This happens again and again and again. The whole book of Genesis is punctuated with these reports: birth narratives, mariage stories, and narratives of death.
Now, you do see this in Genesis 35, the second half of the chapter. Last week we looked at the first half of Genesis 35, but in the second half you have the birth of Benjamin, who was the twelfth and final son of Jacob, born to his wife Rachel; but when Rachel gives birth to Benjamin, she dies, so there’s sadness attending even the joy of Benjamin’s birth. There’s sadness because Rachel dies.
Then, at the very end of Genesis 35, Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau, dies, and Jacob and Esau bury their father Isaac.
Right there you have birth and you have deaths. Again, it’s kind of punctuating the narrative as the story moves along. You see this on the narrative level.
(2) You also see this on what we might call the structural level of Genesis. By this I mean the literary markers, the structural literary markers that divide up the book of Genesis.
I haven’t said a lot about this in this series, but it’s just worth noting that 11 times in the book of Genesis you have a phrase or sentence that goes like this: “These are the generations of…” and then then you’ll have a name and oftentimes you’ll have, then, a genealogy that follows, or you will have a sentence like that, “These are the generations of Jacob,” for example (Genesis 37:2), and then follows the story of Jacob’s children, centering on his sons Joseph and Judah. In Genesis 36 you have the generations of Esau.
It’s really interesting; you have this 11 times in the book of Genesis. It kind of divides up the book into these sections, and the author is doing something with these genealogical reports. He’s not only structuring the narrative, but he is giving us the origins of not only the nation of Israel but of the various other nations and tribal groups with which ISrael was always either fighting or interacting with.
In Genesis 36 you have a long, long chapter—40-something verses—and it’s the generations of Esau, who is the father of the Edomites. The Edomites will figure in pretty prominently to the story of Israel later on.
The other thing that’s going on is the that the way these are narrated, you always have, first of all, the genealogical record of the son that is not chosen followed by a much more lengthy record of the son that is chosen. You have Ishmael, then Isaac; you have Esau, then Jacob, or the story of Jacob’s sons. That’s the structure, and it’s showing us the centrality of the chosen family, the family of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his children; the centrality of the chosen family to the purposes of God.
(3) Then, of course, on the theological level you also have the centrality of family, and you have this in that great promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12, reaffirmed many times throughout the story in Genesis, ratified to both Abraham and then to Isaac and then to Jacob as well.
You remember what the promise essentially is? It’s that Abraham is going to have a son, and that through him—through this son, through the descendant and the many descendants of Abraham—all the families of the earth will be blessed. It’s God’s covenant to bless all the families of the earth through one family. It’s showing us again the importance and the centrality of family.
Now, all of that you can just kind of see on the big picture level, but there is a very practical application. This just pushes back against the radical, expressive individualism of our culture. Now, every single one of us is infected with this without quite even realizing it.
We live in the single most individualistic culture probably in the history of the earth. Philosophers over the last 50 years or so have called this “expressive individualism.” The mantra of expressive individualism is, “You do you.” Right? “Be your own person! Seek your own satisfaction! What matters is what’s true for you, what’s right for you. Everybody has a right to their own view and to self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction,” and we’re just driven by that, and it’s even infected the church, so that the very way we think about church is usually on a very individualistic level. “Is the church meeting my needs?”
That’s not the way God wants us to think. God doesn’t want us to think primarily about ourselves, he wants us to think about others. One of the very marks of new birth and of regeneration and salvation is that when God saves us he makes us a part of a family, so that the pronouns begin to change in our prayer life, and we’re not mainly thinking about "me" and "my" and "mine," we’re thinking about "us," we’re thinking about "we," we’re thinking about "our."
Remember how Jesus, when he taught his disciples to pray, he did not say, “Pray like this: ‘My Father, who is in heaven…’” He said, “Pray: ‘Our Father, who is in heaven…’”
You see, God "sets the solitary in families," as Psalm 68 says. His goal, his purpose is to redeem a family for himself, a people for himself. Of course he works and relates to us on the individual level, but not to leave us as islands unto ourselves, but to make us a part of a family.
You see that plan in its kind of seed form in the book of Genesis, as God begins his redemptive purposes in the world through a family. It just shows us how important family is in the purposes of God. So we see the centrality of the family.
2. The Brokenness of the Family
But secondly, we also see the brokenness of the family. Now, there is a lot of sin and brokenness in the world, and there’s a lot of sin and brokenness in Genesis. A lot of it shows up in the text in family relationships, in family dynamics.
One of the most unique books on Genesis in my library is a book that’s called The Genesis of Sex: Sexual Relationships in the First Book of the Bible. It’s a book that just chronicles all of the sexuality in the book of Genesis. I tell you, you read the book of Genesis; as I’ve said before, this is not G-rated stuff. There are more sordid depictions of sexuality and sexual sin in Genesis than you’re going to find on many a TV show.
If you’ve read Genesis and paid attention, you know that there are things such as polygamy, there’s concubines, there’s rape, there’s incest, there’s sodomy, there’s prostitution, there’s adultery, and there’s more; and there’s a lot of it right here in the passages we’re looking at this morning.
You especially see this in Genesis 35 and then again in Genesis 38, and then you see another whole level and different kind of family dysfunction in the middle, in Genesis 37. I want to just kind of survey those three sections with you quickly.
(1) First of all, in Genesis 35 you have polygamy. In verses 22-26 you have the record of Jacob’s sons, but as you read through the record—we’ve already seen this earlier in Genesis 29-30—these sons are born to four different women, because Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, along with two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. So these 12 sons, along with their sister Dinah, are born to these four different women into the family of Jacob.
Far from the Bible approving of this arrangement—the Bible does not approve of polygamy; instead, the very narrative is a subtle critique of the cultural institution of polygamny in the ancient world, because when you read the story, what you just see is continual heartache and breakdown and division in this family, and it all roots back to these four different women with whom Jacob has had these children.
You also have a case of adultery, or you might even call it incest, in Genesis 35:22, where Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob and Leah, Reuben sleeps with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. From what I can tell, most of the commentaries seem to think that this wasn’t merely a matter of lust, but it was a power play on Reuben’s part, similar to what you see in the books of the kings, in 2 Samuel, when Absolom, the son of David, sleeps with one of David’s wives when he’s trying to oust David from the throne and kind of take over the kingdom, take over the family. It was a power play. He was marking his territory. That seems to be what Reuben is doing here.
The consequence of this we don’t find until later on in the book of Genesis, when it becomes very clear that Reuben actually loses the rights of the firstborn because of this very act of immorality.
That’s all in just that second of Genesis 35. It’s pretty sordid stuff.
(2) Then, in Genesis 37, you have the story of Joseph, the beginning of the story of Joseph. I’m really only scratching the surface of that this morning, but we’re going to look at Joseph in more detail in the next two Sundays. But in Genesis 37 you have Joseph introduced; it’s the first time he’s really mentioned apart from his birth and then the genealogy there in 35. You read this—well, just pick up in Genesis 37:2-4, and you see the basic problem. It’s a problem of parental favoritism, which leads to sibling rivalry.
Genesis 37:2 says, “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his fathers wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.” Again, you can see the division between the different groups of sons. He’s bringing a bad report about the sons of the concubines.
Verse 3, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age,” and also, we might deduce, because he’s one of the sons of Rachel, his beloved. “And he made him a robe of many colors.” This is the famous coat of many colors of Joseph. Verse 4, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? Jacob’s father, Isaac, had shown favoritism to Esau and Rebekah had shown favoritism to Jacob, and now this sin is being passed on to the next generation as Jacob shows favoritism to his son Joseph. The consequence of this is going to be terrible heartbreak in this family.
It just gets worse in verses 5-11 as Joseph starts having dreams. You remember these dreams? He dreams that all these sheaves will bow down to him, and then he dreams that the sun and the moon and the stars bow down to him; and it’s very clear that the dream is a dream that his brothers and his family are going to bow down to him. Joseph isn’t too smart at this point; he actually tells his brothers about the dream. That just makes them even more angry, they hate him all the more, they’re jealous of him.
By the middle of the chapter, in Genesis 37:18, there is a conspiracy to murder him. They’re ready to kill him. They would, except that Reuben actually intervenes and says, “Let’s not kill him. This is our own flesh and blood. Let’s throw him in a pit and decide what to do with him.”
They throw him in a pit and then Judah comes on the scene and rather heartlessly suggests that they sell him into slavery. A band of slave traders are passing by, so that’s exactly what they do; they sell him to slavery. Joseph, by the end of Genesis 37, ends up in Egypt. Now, as we’re going to discover in the next few weeks, this is actually crucial to the providence and the plan of God for Jacob’s family. But Jacob doesn’t know that yet, and when Jacob gets the report, he is just devastated. You see this at the very end of Genesis 37; pick up in verse 31. I’m going to read verses 31-35.
It says, “Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, ‘This we have found. Please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.’” See how they’re wording this? They didn’t say, “Whether it’s our brother’s”; “Whether it’s your son’s robe or not.” “And he identified it and said, ‘It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his garments, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.”
It’s like the robe is kind of the central motif in this story. I like the way one commentator, Walter Brugemmann, puts it. He says, “The robe began in deep love, then it was torn in deep hate; now it is the main tool for a deep deception.” It brings great sorrow to the heart of Jacob.
Once again, what are we seeing here? We’re seeing family dysfunction. We’re seeing brokenness on the family level. We’re seeing sibling rivalry and hatred, we’re seeing a father making terrible mistakes in the way he’s raised his children.
Maybe some of you have experienced some of this. Maybe you come from a divided home, a divided family; maybe you experience conflict with siblings in your life; maybe you’ve experienced all kinds of terrible things in your family of origin. Well, stories like this in the Bible should give us a little sliver of hope, that if God can work through a family as messed up as this, he can work in our messed-up families as well.
(3) Then you get to Genesis 38. I don’t know if you’ve read Genesis 38, but this is pretty seedy stuff. In fact, when I started this series, my original intention was just to skip Genesis 38 altogether. Then I started working on the text and seeing how Genesis 38 fits into the flow of the narrative, and I decided I think I’d better go ahead and cover it.
There’s one comment that I came across—this is from an old commentator from the 20th century, H.C. Leupold. He wrote this commentary where he included homiletical hints at the end of each section. Those were hints for preachers, like, “Preacher, how can you approach this passage?” On Genesis 38 he said, “It is entirely unsuited to homiletical use.” That means, “Don’t even try. Don’t preach it.”
Well, I’m going to preach it anyway—Genesis 38—what is it? It is a story of injustice and seduction, and it’s all about Judah. Now, it kind of leaves you hanging, because in Genesis 37 Joseph is in prison, and then all of a sudden it switches to Judah, and you’re like, “What does this have to do with anything?” But it’s really important, because this will be crucial to the gradual transformation of Judah’s character, where Judah will play a pretty prominent role in the story in chapter 44. But it all happens through Judah going really down. I mean, it’s a descent into depravity and injustice in chapter 38.
He marries a Canaanite woman, never named; that’s one of the first mistakes he makes. He’s already shown his inhumanity in suggesting they sell Joseph into slavery. Then he marries a Canaanite woman. He’s not supposed to do that. Remember in Genesis 24 the instructions of Abraham; remember the instructions of Isaac to Jacob. He’s not supposed to do that, but he marries a Canaanite woman; and he has three sons.
Of course, Genesis is always focused on the next generation, the coming seed, the descendants. This was the promise, descendants that God will give. But Judah’s sons are so wicked that God keeps killing them.
You see this in Genesis 38:6. I’m going to read verses 6-11 because it sets the stage for what’s going to follow. It says, “And Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.” Tamar will become a very important character. “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” Verse 8, “Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her and raise up offspring for your brother.’”
Now, stop right there. This is important to understand. This was a law in the Old Testament; it was called the law of levirate marriage. It essentially meant that when a man died without offspring, it was his brother’s duty to raise up offspring for him. This actually gets codified in the levitical law, the Mosaic law, in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. So Onan has a legal obligation to do this, according to the law at that time.
But verse 9, “Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so whenever he went into his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.” So God has killed two of Judah’s sons; he has one left.
Verse 11: “Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house till Shelah my son grows up.’” Now, Tamar probably is very young at this point, probably just a teenager. We don’t know how old Shelah was, but it’s pretty clear from the narrative that Judah has no intentions whatsoever of actually giving Shelah to Tamar. He’s not intending to do that, and here’s the reason. He says this, “‘Remain a widow in your father’s house till he grows up,’ for he feared that he would die like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.”
That’s the setup for the story that follows. Now, here’s the key thing to understand. Tamar is the victim in this story. She is a victim of injustice, as she is being treated illegally by Judah. Judah is legally obligated to give Shelah to Tamar to obey the law of levirate marriage, and Judah is refusing to do that.
So Tamar sees that Judah’s not going to do this, so in desperation she concocts a plan, and the plan is to seduce Judah. That’s what she does. She disguises herself as a prostitute, she tricks Judah into sleeping with her, and as a pledge for payment she takes his marks of identification, his signet, his cord, and his staff. It’s like the equivalent of giving a call girl your driver’s license and Visa card.
Judah is seen in this story to have a very unsavory character. Just recount everything we’ve seen so far. He is heartless in his relationship to Joseph his brother, selling him into slavery; he is compromising because he marriages a Canaanite; he is faithless because he’s indifferent to the covenant promises, he’s not thinking about descendants (Tamar is); he’s fearful of losing another son by death; he is unjust in refusing to give Shelah to Tamar; and now he’s lustful as he sleeps with Tamar, thinking he’s sleeping with a prostitute.Then, when Tamar becomes pregnant, Judah is indignant. In verse 24 he learns of this and he says, “Bring her out and let her be burned.” That’s the most severe possible consequence he could impose. It’s death, but it’s not only death, it’s death by torture, to be burned at the stake.
Then look at verses 25-26. “As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’” And Judah is exposed. “Then Judah identified them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not know here again.”
Through this series of events Judah is exposed for his double standard of sexuality. He seems to have no compunction at all with having slept with a prostitute, but he’s willing to burn her at the stake because he finds out she’s pregnant out of wedlock. He is exposed, he is humbled, she is vindicated, and the promised seed continues.
I’ll come back in a minute and show how the end of the chapter points us forward to something really glorious. But what I want us to see here is that in all these stories we see the brokenness and the dysfunction of the family.
You know, most of the emotional pain we experience in this world is related to brokenness in our personal and in family relationships. Apart from God’s grace, every single family experiences this. I would say even under grace we experience it to some degree. We are corrupted by sin and the fall so that we experience brokenness in our lives, but these biblical stories show us that we are not alone.
Note this—this is so important—if you have doubts about the Bible, this should help you: These stories show us the realism and the credibility of the Bible about sin and its consequences.
Let me read to a you a statement from Dale Ralph Davis, Presbyterian pastor and an Old Testament scholar. He says, “Here [Genesis 38] is a lurid moral mess conducted by one of the fathers of Israel. What is so astounding is that it is told. The lying and the lechery, the warts and wickedness; all are there. No one gave the biblical writer hush money, yet Israel had every reason to launder her traditions of the nation’s fathers. Why besmirch her past by telling the seamy, unvarnished truth about her ancestors? But the fact that she did tells me I can trust this record. This is a book that dares to let the truth fall where it will.”
The Bible is very honest. It’s very honest about sin and brokenness, and that should help us to be both honest in our own lives with the brokenness in our own family relationships, and it should also show us the need we have for redemption and point us forward to the hope and the promise of redemption that God makes through a family.
3. The Promise of Redemption through a Family
That’s point number three: the promise of redemption through a family, and I want you to just look at the end of chapter 38:27-30. “When the time of her labor [this is Tamar] came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out, and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.”
These are the twin sons of Judah through Tamar. Looks like just another genealogical story, doesn’t it? But it gets picked up two more times in the Bible. Let me give you the passages. Ruth 4:18-22. The story of Ruth, by the way, is another story that has to do with levirate marriage; someday we’ll study that together.
Look at Ruth 4:18-22. You have a genealogy here. “Now these are the generations of Perez. Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.” King David. So, Perez is King David’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, ancestor.
Then, when you turn to the New Testament, the very first book, Matthew 1:1-3, this is what we read. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” Here’s another genealogy, the most important one of all. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.”
Now, here’s the amazing thing, Matthew 1: There are five women in the genealogy of Jesus Christ: Mary (the virgin Mary, who was his mother) and four other women. We might call these women together the five mothers of Jesus. They are Tamar; Rahab the prostitute from the book of Joshua; Ruth the Moabitess, a Gentile; the wife of Uriah the Hittite (that’s Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery); and then Mary. Five mothers of Jesus, all in some way or another with scandal in their stories.
Why? Listen to what commentator Victor Hamilton says. “Each of these four women [Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba] had a highly irregular and potentially scandalous marital union. Nevertheless, these unions were, by God’s providence, links in the chain to the Messiah. Accordingly, each of them prepares the way for Mary, whose marital situation is also peculiar, given the fact that she is pregnant but has not yet had sexual relations with her betrothed husband, Joseph. Thus the inclusion of the likes of Tamar in this family tree on one hand foreshadows the circumstances of the birth of Christ, and on the other hand blunts any attack on Mary. God had worked his will in the midst of whispers of scandal.”
You know what this is showing us? It’s showing us that there is light breaking in the darkness. It’s showing us that there is good news coming out of the bad news and the scandals of the world. It’s showing us that in the brokenness of broken family relationships, dysfunctional family, sexual sin, all of the rot and all of the mess; in and through all that brokenness, God is working out a plan, he’s working out a purpose, he’s sending a Messiah, he’s sending a Savior. Brothers and sisters, this should give us great hope. It should give us hope that God’s grace is greater and more powerful than human sin, hope that even in broken family systems there is the possibility of redemption, hope especially in seeing how God’s gracious, saving purposes have been fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen the importance of the family, we’ve seen the brokenness of the family; now we see the promise of redemption through a family. When you look at your own family, what do you see? Maybe you see brokenness, maybe you see sin. Maybe you look at a history, a family tree, that’s just littered with regrets. Maybe you have regrets of your own. Maybe you’ve made some big mistakes. Maybe there are skeletons in the closet nobody else knows about. God knows. God knows and God is able to bring a redemption, he’s able to bring healing, and even through the mess of our lives there is the hope of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
The book of Genesis is a wonderful book, not just because it’s a book about family, because it’s a book about hope, as it’s pointing us to the hope we have in Christ the Savior, Christ the Messiah. Whatever your situation is this morning, I encourage you to look to Christ, trust in him for the forgiveness of your sins, for the redemption of your life, and for the healing of the brokenness in your own family relationships. Let’s pray.
God of grace and mercy, we thank you for these wonderful stories from your word. They’re wonderful in the result, as they point us to Jesus Christ our Savior, but we thank you that they are unvarnished and realistic and don’t gloss over the sin and the pain and the wickedness and the brokenness of the world. Lord, that gives us hope, and we thank you for that hope this morning.
Lord, whatever our situations are right now, and none of us are untouched—there’s not an innocent person, there’s not a righteous person in this room this morning; we’re all sinners by nature and by practice, and in large and small ways we have sinned against the most important relationships in our lives, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children. Lord, we come to you right now with repentant hearts. We ask you to forgive us for those sins, we ask you to help us see them clearly and turn from them. We ask you for renewal, for restoration, transformation, for change. We ask you especially that you would help us to lay hold of the promises of the gospel and the power of Jesus Christ to remake us in his own glorious image.
As we come to the table, may we come this morning with both hope and with faith; hope in the new world that Christ is bringing, faith in Christ’s finished work, the cross and the empty tomb, that brings that newness about. May we experience the power of that newness in our own lives. Draw near to us as we worship you; we pray it in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.