We begin today’s reading with a chapter about Esau. We again have two sons put in juxtaposition to each other to distinguish the worldly line of sin from the godly line of promise. We even see a familiar pattern (which we saw with Abraham and Lot) where the families physically separate for practical reasons, and the godly line remans in the land of Canaan. This distinction between Jacob and Esau is referred back to in the Bible multiple times to show the sovereignty of God in choosing whom the promise passes to.
Note also that we see four different times that Moses reminds his readers who we are talking about. By the time he wrote Genesis, Edom was an established nation, and somewhat powerful at that. It exists into the New Testament (Idumea). So Moses again wants to remind Israel that Edom is their brother, so he points out that Esau and Edom are the same in 36:1, 8, 19, and 43. God is encouraging alliance between the two nations. But as we will see, Edom will betray their brother multiple times, and be punished for it.
In chapter 37, we begin the final act of the book* as the focus of the story shifts from Jacob to Joseph. However, the promise is never passed to Joseph, and God never confirms the covenant with him. The covenant with Jacob will, in one sense, extend to all of his sons as the physical nation of Israel. It will also, in the ultimate sense, along with the promise, pass through one son, as we will see; but that son is not Joseph.
These final chapters are meant to show God’s sovereignty in preserving the physical nation. Moses wanted to encourage Israel on the other side of the Exodus that God is in control, and His promises will stand, even through seemingly impossible circumstances. Ultimately, what we see is God’s preservation of the nation that will birth Christ over a millennium later.
Joseph’s story begins with young Joseph’s dreams. His dreams foretell the future and point to his role in the preservation of the family and the nation. The symbolism of his second dream of the sun, moon, and stars is used later in the Bible as a symbol of the nation of Israel (Rev 12:1**). And we see that sin still abounds. Nine of his brothers want to kill him, with Reuben, the oldest, trying to preserve the life of Joseph. When Reuben is away, the other nine see an opportunity for profit, and sell Joseph into slavery. Then all ten come up with a plan to deceive their father, who says he will mourn for Joseph the rest of his days. The chapter ends by revealing where Joseph ends up: Egypt.
Chapter 38 recounts another horrible story. Sin certainly abounds. We don’t know what Er’s sin was, but it was so bad that God strikes him dead. Onan’s sin*** was failure to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law.” This refers to a man’s responsibility to give a son to his childless sister-in-law when his brother dies. This is not revealed as a command of God until Deuteronomy 25 when it is part of the Mosaic Law, so this, once again, shows that God has already revealed many commands to His people.
And this story seems, at first glance, to be an unnecessary aside. There is sin on the part of almost everyone involved: Er, Onan, Judah, and Tamar. The only time God is mentioned in this chapter is in terms of judgment, the sins are so terrible. I do not know what Moses thought the purpose was in including this story, or what his first readers must have thought. Is it a warning against violating the commands of God? Against sin, in general? I’m open to suggestions. But what I do know is that the ultimate purpose is to show, once again, regardless of sin, regardless of earthly circumstances, God’s purposes will stand. One of the twins, Perez, carries on the promise as part of the genealogy of our Lord (see Matt 1:3 and Luke 3:33).
Esau is out of the story, separated from the people of God. Joseph is out of the story (or so you would think). There is sin absolutely everywhere. We are left with a despondent child of promise in Jacob, and ten very sinful sons. What can God do with this hopeless situation?
Well, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And yet, God’s purposes will stand.
*Notice how throughout the book, the major sections all being with “these are the generations of…” – we see it in 2:4 with the creation of man, 6:9 with Noah, 11:10 with Shem, 11:27 with Terah/Abraham, 25:12 and 25:19 with the sons of Abraham, 36:1 and 37:2 with the sons of Isaac. The book of Genesis gets its English name from the Greek word for “generations.”
**Note in that chapter how the dragon (Satan) tries to hinder the nation from giving birth to the child (Christ). It is not unfair to read that back into this section of Genesis and realize that Satan tries multiple tactics to stop Israel from becoming a nation, but God, in His sovereignty, makes sure His promise stands. This can also help us understand why Moses would have written the book of Job (if he did). That is the story of Job: God’s sovereignty trumps the wiles of the devil. That is the story of Genesis, too. And the whole Bible…
***Genesis 38:9-10 is often used to advocate for the sinfulness of using birth control. Because Onan had sex without intent to procreate and God struck him down, it must be sinful to have sex without intent to procreate. That is not his sin. His sin is his not just intent to deceive, but his high handed sin against the command of God.