Reading Time: 11 minutes

A soap opera of the soul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Genesis 37:1-2

“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

“David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

“After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ”(Matthew 1:1-16).

A strange way to start the New Testament, isn’t it. And remember some of the names in the list: Tamar, who had an affair with her father-in-law and bore Perez and Zerah; Rahab the prostitute; David and Bathsheba. Nine names are found nowhere else in Scripture. Failed families, flawed people, forgotten people. Yet Jesus, the only baby ever to choose his ancestors, chose each of them. Why not you?

We’re learning how to lead lives which God can bless. We’ve discovered foundational principles through our conversations in Genesis. Now we’ll study a story which brings them all to life. A man who faced every problem you and I can possibly experience today, and learned to be blessed by God through them all.

A man who was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his employer’s wife, thrown into prison, forgotten by friends, and rose to become ruler of the most powerful nation on earth. A man whose leadership saved the lives of millions, not the least of which was the very family which had rejected him. If Joseph could be blessed by God through all that, can’t he teach us how to be blessed by God today?

Today we’ll introduce the story, one of the most sordid soap operas in all of Scripture. If it were on television, even with today’s depraved morality, it couldn’t be shown on daytime TV. If God could bless this mess, trust me–he can bless yours today.

Parents you’d never choose

Our story begins: “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and he was a lad with the sons of Bildah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought the evil report of them unto their father.” Who were “Bildah” and “Zilpah”? Why was Joseph tending sheep with them? What have we missed?

Had we read the story from Genesis 12 to here, we would have watched this sordid soap opera unfold.

Remember that Jacob’s parents were Isaac and Rebekah. Rebekah favored Jacob over his older brother Esau, and helped him steal his brother’s inheritance from their aged and blind father. He then had to run for his life, so his mother arranged for him to work for her brother, Laban.

Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel, and worked seven years to earn the right to marry her. On their wedding night, however, his father-in-law slipped the older sister Leah into the wedding tent instead. We’re not sure why Jacob didn’t notice the switch–perhaps he was drunk after the wedding feast, or she disguised her face. Either way, he woke up the next morning to discover that he had married the wrong sister! Conniving Laban gave him Rachel as well, in return for seven more years of hard labor.

Imagine being married to two sisters, one of whom you didn’t love. Imagine being that sister, married to a husband who didn’t love you. Imagine being the other sister, sharing your husband with your older sister. Now things get even more dysfunctional. Our text describes Joseph as “a lad with the sons of Bildah, and with the sons of Zilpah.” “A lad” probably points to his status as a servant or helper, since his age has already been clarified. “Bildah” and “Zilpah” pick up more of the soap opera.

Siblings you’d never want

Jacob’s first two children were by Leah, the older (and unwanted) sister of Rachel.

She named her first-born “Reuben,” “Because Yahweh has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (v. Genesis 29:32; “Reuben” sounds like “he has seen my misery”).

But his birth apparently did not fulfill his mother’s hopes for her marriage, so that her second son was named Simeon, “Because Yahweh has heard that I am hated, he has therefore given me this son also” (“Simeon” probably means “one who hears”).

Her third son was Levi, for “Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have borne him three sons” (v. 34; “Levi” may come from the Hebrew for “attached”). But still Jacob loved Rachel more.

Her fourth child was Judah, “This time will I praise Yahweh” (v. 35; his name sounds like and may come from the Hebrew for “praise”). Again she was sure that a son would bring her marriage together. But none of the children could bridge the gap between Leah and Jacob, or give her life the joy her soul longed for.

When Rachel saw that she was bearing no children, a position of disgrace in the ancient world, she could not stand to lose this competition to her older sister. And so she gave her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob.

The fact that he would consent to the arrangement tells us all we need to know about his character. Today we have surrogate birth mothers, but even in our post-Christian culture they do not sleep with the father. Can you imagine a wife unable to bear children, giving her maid to her husband to be a mother for her? Or the husband agreeing to this arrangement? To say nothing of what it all does to Leah.

Rachel named the first son by this adulterous union Dan because “God has judged [vindicated] me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son” (Genesis 30:6; “Dan” means “he has vindicated”).

Bilhah conceived a second son whom Rachel named “Naphtali” because “With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed” (v. 8; the name means “my struggle”). In other words, she is winning the procreation contest with her older sister.

But the battle isn’t over. Leah had stopped having children, so she continued the competition by giving her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob. Now Jacob has two wives and two concubines. She bore a son whom Leah named “Gad” because she was “Fortunate!” (v. 11; “Gad” means “good fortune”). Zilpah bore a second son whom Leah named Asher because “daughters will call me happy” (v. 13; “Asher” means “happy”). She continued to seek significance from children, whether they were hers or not.

All this time, Jacob apparently spent each night with Rachel, his favorite wife. So Leah, his first wife, bribed Rachel with some mandrakes, a kind of root which was thought to induce pregnancy (Gen 30:15). In return she purchased a night with her own husband, and became pregnant again.

She bore Jacob a fifth son, named Issachar because “God has given me my hire, because I gave my handmaid to my husband” (v. 18; “Issachar” sounds like the Hebrew for “reward”).

She then bore a sixth son, named Zebulun because “God has endowed me with a good dowry; now will my husband dwell with me” (v. 20; “Zebulun” probably means “honor”). She bore a daughter named Dinah as well (34:1). But apparently Jacob continued to sleep with Rachel each night.

As a result, finally Rachel bore a son whom she named Joseph, “saying, Yahweh add to me another son” (v. 24; “Joseph” means “may he add”). The poor child was named not for himself but for his mother’s wish that she might have another child after him! Imagine naming your child, “Hoping for another one.” Rachel had that other child, a birth which cost her life; she named him “Ben-oni” (Genesis 35:18; “Ben-oni” means “son of my trouble”), but Jacob changed his name to “Benjamin” (meaning “son of my right hand”). And with Benjamin’s birth and his mother’s death, Jacob’s family was complete.

Let’s add up the soap opera cast: one father, two wives, two concubines, 12 sons, and one daughter. No wonder the deceit, anger, competition, and jealousy we find in our story today. The apple did not fall far from this tree.

Conclusion

Fortunately, there’s a hero in this tragic tale: “Joseph, being seventeen years old.” The story of Joseph equals the story of Abraham in the number of chapters in Genesis (14 each), and exceeds it in length by 25 percent. And we have more spoken words of Joseph than any other Old Testament character.

Joseph may be the most complete type or foreshadowing of Jesus to be found in the entire Old Testament.

He was innocent and beloved by his father (v. 3).

He was sent by his father to see his brothers (v. 13).

His own family “hated him” out of jealousy (v. 4).

They threw him into a pit, in effect burying him.

Judah led the brothers to sell Joseph for 20 shekels of silver (v. 28); Judas would sell Jesus for 30 (Matthew 26:15).

He was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

He was jailed between two criminals.

He predicted the salvation of one and the death of the other.

His family thought him dead, when he was alive.

He saved his family and the entire nation as well.

From the pit to the prison to the palace: has anyone come from a worst family to a greater position? If God could do all that with Joseph, what can he do with you?

What part of your past most troubles you today? What have you done, or what has been done to you, which seems most to exempt you from the blessing of God? Where do you most need to make peace with your past today? Where have you been limiting what God wants to do with your life?

At age 17, C. S. Lewis told a Christian friend, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” When he was wounded in the trenches of World War I, he boasted that he “never sank so low as to pray.” God turned this atheist into the greatest defender of the faith in the 20th century.

John Newton was a slave trader who himself became a slave before he met Jesus. He wrote of that encounter, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

The American Red Cross was gathering supplies for the suffering people of Africa. Inside one of the box sent to them was a letter. It said, “We have recently been converted, and want to help. We won’t ever need these again. Can you use them for something?” Inside the box were Ku Klux Klan sheets. The Red Cross tore them into strips and used them to bandage the wounds of Africans.

Charlotte Elliott asked a friend how she could become a Christian. He replied, “It is very simple. You have only to come to Jesus.” She said to him, “But I am a very great sinner, will he take me just as I am?” “Yes, he will take you just as you are, and in no other way.” She said, “If he will take me just as I am, then I will come.” She went home to her room, sat down at her desk and wrote the hymn, “Just as I am without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Will you sing it today?