The Test of a Lifetime

1 Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.

As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.’”

When he overtook them, he spoke to them these words. They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing! Behold, the money that we found in the mouths of our sacks we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also will be my lord’s servants.” 10 He said, “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.” 11 Then each man quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each man opened his sack. 12 And he searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 Then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.

14 When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell before him to the ground. 15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” 16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” 17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.” – Genesis 44:1-17 ESV

After a wonderful evening of feasting on fine food in the governor’s palace, the 11 brothers of Joseph prepared to return home to Canaan. Their trip had gone far better than they could have ever imagined. They had rescued Simeon from captivity, settled the matter of the missing grain payment, received a large financial gift from the governor, feasted in his home, and were now returning with full sacks of grain. On top of that, Judah was able to keep his promise to their father that he would bring back Benjamin unharmed.

But as they were busy making preparations to leave, Joseph was devising a scheme that would dramatically alter their plans. He was still testing his brothers’ hearts to see if they had really changed or if they were the same self-serving siblings who had sold him into slavery all those years ago.

Joseph’s strategy was aimed at exposing their loyalty to Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob. Joseph must have assumed that, in his absence, Benjamin would have become the natural heir to the coveted position of the favored son. And Joseph appears anxious to discover whether his brothers still suffered from the same jealousy and resentment that had driven them to consider taking his life.

As he had done before, Joseph instructed his steward to put money in the bag of each of the brothers. Then he took an expensive silver drinking goblet and told the steward to place it in the bag of the youngest son, Benjamin. The faithful steward did as he was instructed and the brothers loaded their donkeys and set off on their journey home. Their spirits must have been high as they set off, but the upbeat mood would quickly change when they saw a contingent of men rapidly approaching. Panic must have set in when the brothers saw that it was the governor’s steward accompanied by what was likely a group of armed men from Joseph’s private security force. This carefully designed ruse was meant to scare and intimidate the brothers, and the words spoken by the steward must have struck fear into the hearts of Reuben and his siblings. Joseph had given his steward very specific instructions.

“Chase after them and stop them. When you catch up with them, ask them, ‘Why have you repaid my kindness with such evil? Why have you stolen my master’s silver cup, which he uses to predict the future? What a wicked thing you have done!’” – Genesis 44:4-5 NLT

The brothers were indignant that the governor would accuse them of stealing. They professed their innocence and, in a moment of rashness, made an unwise vow to demonstrate their sincerity.

“If you find his cup with any one of us, let that man die. And all the rest of us, my lord, will be your slaves.” – Genesis 44:9 NLT

Moses doesn’t reveal which brother made this costly guarantee, but it was likely either Reuben or Judah. They appear to have been the two who acted as spokesmen for the group. But whoever made the statement would quickly live to regret it because when the steward ordered a search of their belongings, the silver cup was discovered in Benjamin’s grain sack. According to Joseph’s detailed instructions, the steward began the search with the oldest brother. Reuben’s stomach must have dropped when he saw the money sitting in the mouth of his sack. It was all happening again. And as the steward worked his way down the line, the same scene took place. Each brother’s sack was found to contain the money they had paid for the grain.

But it was Benjamin’s sack that held the most shocking revelation: The very silver cup the brothers had vehemently denied having taken. This was when the real test began. The brothers had been so confident of their innocence that they had pledged to put to death the one among them who had stolen the cup. In addition, they vowed to offer themselves as slaves to the governor. But the governor’s steward had wisely countered, stating, “only the one who stole the cup will be my slave. The rest of you may go free” (Genesis 44:10 NLT).

This condition put the brothers in a very awkward position. Now that the cup had been found in Benjamin’s possession, would they abandon him in order to save their own lives? The steward had clearly stated that only the guilty party would be held accountable. They would be free to leave and return to their father in Canaan, with their grain and the money that was found in their bags. That would have been quite a tempting offer.

But rather than abandon Benjamin, the brothers demonstrated their anguish over Benjamin’s fate by tearing their robes and weeping. There was no way they were going to return home without their brother. They dreaded the thought of having to tell their father, yet again, that he had lost another son. So, they packed up their donkeys and returned with the steward to the governor’s house.

When they arrived, they found the indignant governor waiting for them, and he demanded an explanation for their actions.

“What have you done?” Joseph demanded. “Don’t you know that a man like me can predict the future?” – Genesis 44:15 NLT

Joseph and his steward had agreed to bestow on the silver cup a special significance by claiming it was used by the governor to divine the future. It is unlikely that Joseph practiced divination. After all, it was God who had given Joseph the ability to interpret dreams, not a silver goblet. But by deeming the cup to have supernatural qualities, they had increased its value. The brothers were guilty of having stolen something of religious significance, which made the crime all the more scandalous.

But Judah continued to declare their innocence, begging the governor to show them mercy.

“Oh, my lord, what can we say to you? How can we explain this? How can we prove our innocence? God is punishing us for our sins. My lord, we have all returned to be your slaves—all of us, not just our brother who had your cup in his sack.” – Genesis 44:16 NLT

Not only had they returned, but they were willing to offer themselves as slaves. He and his brothers were pledging their lives as payment for Benjamin’s guilt. It had been Judah who had convinced Jacob to let Benjamin return to Egypt with them, even taking full responsibility for his well-being. He had vowed to bring him back safe and sound, and now he was indicating that he and his brothers would rather be slaves in Egypt than abandon their brother.

But the governor refused Judah’s offer, commanding the men to return to their father. Only the brother in whose sack the goblet was found would remain in Egypt as a slave. The rest were free to go. Once again, Joseph was testing the faithfulness and integrity of his brothers. Were they sincere or was their offer to join their brother as slaves a disingenuous ploy to win their brother’s freedom? Joseph was determined to find out. So, he had Benjamin arrested and gave the remaining brothers his final and rather disconcerting instructions: “as for you, go up in peace to your father” (Genesis 44:17 ESV).

Would they do it? Could they do it? Joseph’s reference to “peace” was meant to test his brothers. The Hebrew word is שָׁלוֹם (šālôm), and while it can mean “a state of tranquility and contentment,” it can also refer to “wholeness” or “completeness.” If they left, they would be returning without one of their own. There would be one of them missing. But could they go back to Jacob in “peace” knowing that they were “incomplete?” That was what Joseph aimed to find out.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


Son, Servant, Savior

19 So they went up to the steward of Joseph’s house and spoke with him at the door of the house, 20 and said, “Oh, my lord, we came down the first time to buy food. 21 And when we came to the lodging place we opened our sacks, and there was each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, our money in full weight. So we have brought it again with us, 22 and we have brought other money down with us to buy food. We do not know who put our money in our sacks.” 23 He replied, “Peace to you, do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has put treasure in your sacks for you. I received your money.” Then he brought Simeon out to them. 24 And when the man had brought the men into Joseph’s house and given them water, and they had washed their feet, and when he had given their donkeys fodder, 25 they prepared the present for Joseph’s coming at noon, for they heard that they should eat bread there.

26 When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present that they had with them and bowed down to him to the ground. 27 And he inquired about their welfare and said, “Is your father well, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” 28 They said, “Your servant our father is well; he is still alive.” And they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. 29 And he lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” 30 Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. 31 Then he washed his face and came out. And controlling himself he said, “Serve the food.” 32 They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. 33 And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at one another in amazement. 34 Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him. – Genesis 43:19-34 ESV

The sons of Jacob returned to Egypt, accompanied by their younger brother, Benjamin. Eleven men made the arduous journey from Canaan to the land of the Pharaohs, not knowing what fate awaited them upon their arrival. They were bringing with them gifts to offer Zaphenath-paneah, the governor of Egypt, who was holding their brother, Simeon, as a hostage. They had also brought the money that had somehow made its way into the sacks of grain they had brought back to Canaan on their first trip. For some inexplicable reason, their payment for the first shipment of grain had never made it to the hands of the royal governor, so they feared they would be viewed as thieves and treated accordingly.

Upon their arrival in Egypt, the brothers headed straight to the governor’s palace, and anxiously explained their predicament to his household steward. They declared their innocence and professed ignorance as to how the money had ended up back in their possession. They wanted the steward to know that they were anxious to settle their debt and to purchase additional grain for their families back in Canaan.

Then the brothers received the first of what would be many surprises. The steward attempted to calm their fears by informing them that they owed nothing. He had received full payment for their initial order. And then, this pagan Egyptian informed them that the money found in their grain sacks must have been a gift from ‘ĕlōhîm, the God of their father Jacob. This statement must have left the brothers speechless and staring at one another in astonishment. Was the steward suggesting that the money had been a gift from God? But before they had time to ascertain just what the steward meant, they found themselves reunited with Simeon. At this point, they had to be wondering why things were going so unexpectedly well.

But the brothers had little time to discuss their good fortune because the steward ushered them into the palace and told them to clean up for lunch. Much to their ongoing surprise, they discovered that they would be dining with the governor himself. These 11 sons of Jacob would be treated to a sumptuous feast in the royal palace as the honored guests of Zaphenath-paneah, the second-most powerful man in all of Egypt. As they prepared for this high honor, they must have debated and discussed the surrealistic nature of their unexpected welcome. All of this would have been a shock to theirs systems. It was far beyond anything they could have ever imagined.

And then, just as they were beginning to wrap their minds around these unprecedented events, the governor showed up. Upon seeing this powerful dignitary enter the room, the 11 brothers bowed down before him as sign of honor and deference. And as Joseph stood looking down on his prostrate brothers, the images he had seen in his long-forgotten dreams must have flooded into his mind.

As a young boy, Joseph had been given a vision in his sleep that portrayed he and his 11 brothers as bundles of grain. But what made the dream so offensive to his brothers when he shared it with them was that their sheaves of grain all bowed down to his. And Joseph had a second dream that conveyed the same basic message. In it, he saw the sun, moon, and 11 stars all bowing down before him. And when he shared this dream with his father and brothers, it was met with the same degree of anger and animosity.

Yet, years later, Joseph stood in his royal palace with his brothers lying on their faces before him. The irony of this moment would not have escaped Joseph. His dreams had become vividly and indisputably true. But Joseph didn’t gloat. Instead, he recalled his aging father back in Canaan and inquired as to the status of his health.

“How is your father, the old man you spoke about? Is he still alive?”  Genesis 43:27 NLT

The brothers affirmed that their father was alive and well, and humbly referred to him as a servant of the governor. They followed this statement by bowing before Joseph yet a second time. This action would have been done on behalf of Jacob, illustrating his humble subservience to the Egyptian governor.

News of his father’s good health pleased Joseph greatly. He probably harbored hopes that he might live to see his father once again. But it was the presence of his younger brother, Benjamin, that drew Joseph’s attention. For the first time in years, he stood face to face with his blood brother, and the experience moved him deeply.

Joseph hurried from the room because he was overcome with emotion for his brother. He went into his private room, where he broke down and wept. – Genesis 43:30 NLT

But Joseph regained his composure and returned to the dining room where he ordered the food to be served. Then he treated his brothers to a royal feast fit for a king. To the brothers’ amazement, the governor ushered each of them to their seat, arranging them in the proper chronological order based on their birth. How would this pagan Egyptian have known who was the oldest and who was the youngest? And, once again, the brothers received an additional shock when the governor took it upon himself to serve their plates with food from his own table. Little did they know that the brother whom they had treated with disdain and contempt was showing them honor and reverence. The innocent young man whom they hold sold into slavery was now performing the task of a lowly household servant. In a sense, he was taking the food from his own table and feeding it to the “dogs” who had treated him as less than animal, throwing him into a pit and selling him for a few pieces of silver.

Without realizing it, Joseph was modeling the life of Christ, long before He left His throne in glory and took on human flesh. Jesus said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT). In a real sense, Joseph had “given his life” when his brothers sold him into slavery. When the Ishmaelite slave traders dragged him away in chains, he had left behind his place of honor in his father’s house. And he soon found himself living as a common slave. He ended up being falsely accused and eventually arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. But, like Jesus, Joseph had been sent to bring rescue to God’s people. But he had ended up humiliated and humbled. But the day came when he was glorified and lifted up, and invested with the power to offer help and hope to those in need. His brothers, undeserving of his grace and mercy, would receive redemption instead of retribution. They would be forgiven and their crime would be forgotten. And, in time, they would discover the true identity of their benefactor. Zaphenath-paneah would end up being their long lost brother and their unlikely savior.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


Like Grandfather, Like Son

1 Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. 10 If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”

11 Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds. 12 Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. 13 Take also your brother, and arise, go again to the man. 14 May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”

15 So the men took this present, and they took double the money with them, and Benjamin. They arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph.

16 When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, “Bring the men into the house, and slaughter an animal and make ready, for the men are to dine with me at noon.” 17 The man did as Joseph told him and brought the men to Joseph’s house. 18 And the men were afraid because they were brought to Joseph’s house, and they said, “It is because of the money, which was replaced in our sacks the first time, that we are brought in, so that he may assault us and fall upon us to make us servants and seize our donkeys.” – Genesis 43:1-18 ESV

Reuben and his brothers were unable to convince their father to allow them to take Benjamin back to Egypt with them. Fearing that he might lose yet another son, Jacob refused to give in to the Egyptian governor’s demands. But eventually, their supply of grain ran out and he was left with no other option but to send his sons back to Egypt to purchase additional grain. But Judah reminded him that the trip would be a waste of time if they failed to take Benjamin with them. The Egyptian governor had made it very clear that their brother Simeon would not be released unless they returned with their younger sibling. Reuben reminded his father of Zaphenath-paneah’s conditions.

“You won’t see my face again unless your brother is with you.” – Genesis 43:3 NLT

No Benjamin, no grain. It was as simple as that. And Judah informed his father that he and his brothers were unwilling to make the long and arduous trip unless Benjamin accompanied them.

Jacob expressed his frustration that they had ever mentioned Benjamin in the first place. But Judah defended their actions by explaining that they had simply answered the governor’s questions. How were they to have known that Zaphenath-paneah would require physical proof of Benjamin’s existence?  From their viewpoint, they had no other choice but to obey the governor’s demands. If they refused, they would all end up starving to death. So, after a bit of persistent cajoling from Judah, and an assurance that he would guarantee Benjamin’s safety, Jacob finally acquiesced to the plan.

But it’s important to note that two of Jacob’s sons had made solemn pledges to protect and preserve Benjamin’s life. These men had been changed by their disconcerting encounter with Zaphenath-paneah. Reuben vowed to watch over Benjamin, even putting up the lives of his two sons as collateral.

“You may kill my two sons if I don’t bring Benjamin back to you. I’ll be responsible for him, and I promise to bring him back.” – Genesis 42:37 NLT

Even Judah, the one who had suggested that they sell Joseph to the Ephraimite traders, was now willing to put his reputation and his life on the line to guarantee Benjamin’s physical well-being.

“I personally guarantee his safety. You may hold me responsible if I don’t bring him back to you. Then let me bear the blame forever.” – Genesis 43:9 NLT

It should not be overlooked that Jacob, a man who had betrayed and defrauded his own brother, had fathered 10 sons who ended up doing the same thing to one of their own. But now, years later, Jacob watched as two of these same men pledged to protect the life of their younger sibling. While he knew nothing of what they had done to sell Joseph into slavery, he must have been encouraged by the selfless and sacrificial display of love from his two older sons.

Before sending his sons on a potentially dangerous journey into a foreign land where they would face unknown obstacles, Jacob attempted to do what he could to produce a positive outcome.

“Pack your bags with the best products of this land. Take them down to the man as gifts—balm, honey, gum, aromatic resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Also take double the money that was put back in your sacks, as it was probably someone’s mistake. Then take your brother, and go back to the man.” – Genesis 43:11-13 NLT

He reached into his old bag of tricks and came up with the same ploy he had used on his brother Esau (Genesis 32:13-16). If the Egyptian governor was angry that Jacob’s sons had left without paying for the grain, he hoped to assuage that anger with gifts. He doubled the amount of money they should have paid and then threw in some additional agricultural products for good measure.

But Jacob also revealed that he was ready and willing to trust God with the outcome. He was willing to purchase favor with the Egyptian governor but if that didn’t work, he would trust in the sovereignty of God.

“May God Almighty give you mercy as you go before the man, so that he will release Simeon and let Benjamin return. But if I must lose my children, so be it.” – Genesis 43:14 NLT

Jacob had come a long way. In his statement, he reflects the same sentiments that Job expressed when he learned that he had lost all his children in a freak accident.

Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Genesis 43:20-21 ESV

While Jacob feared losing his sons, he also displays a firm belief that God was going to fulfill His covenant promises. By sending his 11 remaining sons to Egypt, he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham. No doubt, Jacob’s father Isaac had told him the story of when Abraham had taken him to Mount Moriah with the intention of following God’s command to offer his only son as a sacrifice. And now, here was Jacob willingly sending his son to Egypt, not knowing if they would ever return. But his decision was an act of faith. If God was going to fulfill His covenant promise, Jacob would need to have sons. And so, he let them go, trusting that God would find a way to allow them to return. But little did Jacob know that God had greater plans than he could ever imagine. All of his sons would eventually return, but only so they could bring their father and families back to the land of Egypt. All in keeping with God’s sovereign and unshakeable plan.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


I Fear God

18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.

26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

29 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33 Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34 Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.’”

35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” – Genesis 42:18-38 ESV

Zaphenath-paneah (Joseph), the governor of Egypt, ordered the sons of Jacob to return to the land of Canaan, with instructions to bring back their younger brother, Benjamin.  This would provide proof that they truly were innocent foreigners is search of food to survive the famine. But Joseph was seeking to ensure that they had not treated his younger brother with the same hatred and disdain as they had shown to him. He wanted to Benjamin with his own eyes. And to ensure that the men returned, Joseph help Simeon as collateral. This was likely a test of his brothers’ character as well. Would they return as ordered and spare their brother’s life or would they abandon him to his fate in Egypt?

When Reuben and his brothers heard the governor’s instructions, they were filled with guilt and regret. They couldn’t help but conclude that this was all God’s divine judgment for what they had done to their brother years earlier.

“Clearly we are being punished because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his anguish when he pleaded for his life, but we wouldn’t listen. That’s why we’re in this trouble.” – Genesis 42:21 NLT

And Reuben made matters worse by reminding them that he had been the one who had tried to talk them out of their ill-fated plan to get rid of Joseph.

“Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy?…But you wouldn’t listen. And now we have to answer for his blood!” – Genesis 42:22 NLT

This only added to their sense of guilt and shame. They freely aired their dirty laundry right in front of the royal governor, thinking him incapable of understanding their language. But as they bickered among themselves, Joseph listened in, taking note of every word they spoke. And upon witnessing the bitter acrimony among his siblings, Joseph was moved to tears. All the memories of his past came rushing in and overwhelmed his emotions. When he regained his composure, Joseph took Simeon as a hostage and ordered the nine other brothers to take their allotment of grain and return home. Their brother would be released as soon as they returned with Benjamin.

Joseph ordered Simeon be bound with ropes as his brothers looked on helplessly. This was meant to be a vivid and painful reminder of their callous treatment of Joseph so many years before. Simeon’s fate was in their hands. And, for the second time, the brothers found themselves returning home with devastating news for their father. But this time, rather than fabricating a lie, they would be telling the truth.

Before they left for Canaan, Joseph had the grain they had purchased loaded onto their pack animals, and then provided them with provisions for their journey. He also played a rather cruel trick on them, ordering that the money they had paid for the grain be returned in full, and secretly dispersed among the bags of grain. When the brothers stopped for the night, they each discovered the money had been returned to the sacks in which the grain was contained. This made them look like thieves. And they immediately concluded that this was a punishment from the hand of God.

“What is this that God has done to us?” – Genesis 42:28 ESV

Could things get any worse? Their brother was a prisoner in Egypt. They were returning to Canaan with grain they had not paid for, making them guilty of theft. And, on top of that, they were going to have to somehow convince their father to send his youngest son back with them to Egypt. It was all a never-ending nightmare.

When they finally returned home and told their father all that had happened, Jacob was beside himself with grief and fear.

“You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” – Genesis 42:36 ESV

It was more than he could bear. His sons had returned with much-needed food, but they had left their brother behind. To make matters worse, the Egyptian governor was demanding that Jacob send his youngest son back to Egypt if he ever wanted to see Simeon again. This put Jacob in the unenviable position of risking the life of one son or possibly both. If he refused to send Benjamin, he would never see Simeon again. If he agreed to the governor’s demands and sent Benjamin, he had no guarantee that either would ever return. In fact, he had to face the very real possibility that none of his sons would return if the governor accused them of stealing the grain they brought back from Egypt.

Sensing his father’s dilemma, Reuben promised to bring back Simeon and Benjamin, offering his own two sons as sacrificial substitutes should he fail to do so. He was putting his own family line in jeopardy by doing so, but he was willing to take that risk to guarantee Simeon’s release. Jacob reluctantly agreed to send Benjamin back to Egypt, along with his 10 older brothers. This decision must have been gut-wrenching as he considered the very real possibility that he might never see any of them again.

In reading this emotionally charged story, it’s easy to overlook a statement made by Joseph that establishes the tone for all the takes place. After placing his brothers in confinement for three days, Joseph had them brought before him. Then he said something that must have caught them by surprise. After all, they believed they were standing before a powerful Egyptian dignitary who was speaking to them through an interpreter. But as the translator relayed Joseph’s message, they must have been surprised and encouraged.

Do this and you will live, for I fear God.” – Genesis 42:18 ESV

They must have looked at one another in astonishment as, out of the mouth of this Egyptian lord, came the name of ‘ĕlōhîm, the God of Israel. While hiding his true identity from his brothers, Joseph was not disguising his faith in God. He wanted his brothers to know that their fate was in God’s hands, not his own. If they would only obey his orders and return with their younger brother, all would go well. Their brother Simeon would be cared for while they were gone and be released upon their return. And it must have surprised these men to have someone whom they thought to be a pagan to encourage them to trust their own God. This Egyptian was showing more faith than they were. It seems apparent that Joseph could see God’s sovereign handiwork behind all of the events of the last three days. And, somehow, he knew that good was going to come from it all.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


An Awkward Family Reunion

1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”

12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days. – Genesis 42:1-17 ESV

Moses now turns the reader’s attention back to Israel (Jacob) and his family, living in the land of Canaan. It has been years since Jacob received the devastating news of his son’s death. He had mourned the loss of Joseph but then had been forced to move on with his life. He was the patriarch of a large and rapidly expanding family. Many of his 11 remaining sons had married and started families of their own, but they remained a close part of the Israelite clan. So, when the famine spread to Canaan, Israel found himself with a crisis on his hands. There was no grain for purchase in the land of Canaan, which made it difficult for Israel to feed his family and livestock.

Upon hearing that grain was for sale in Egypt, Israel assigned his sons the unenviable task of making the long trip to the land of the Pharaohs and returning with as much grain as they could purchase. But Israel and his sons had no idea what awaited them in Egypt. Their objective was to buy temporary relief from their troubles. But God had something far more significant in mind.

Years earlier, God had told Israel’s grandfather, Abraham, that his offspring would end up living in a foreign land for four centuries. But God had also promised that He would deliver them from that land and return them to Canaan.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

So, as Israel’s 10 sons made their way to Egypt, their only aspiration was to return with grain so that their clan could survive the famine back home. But they were about to play important roles in a divine drama that would preface the next chapter in the story of God’s chosen people.

Upon arrival in Egypt, the sons of Israel were ushered into the presence of the royal governor, who was responsible for the sale of all grain in Egypt. It just so happened that this dignitary was their long-lost brother, Joseph, but they failed to recognize him. He was years older and, most likely, dressed in Egyptian garments. And the last thing they expected to find in Egypt was their long-forgotten brother.

But Joseph had not forgotten them. And upon recognizing the faces of the very men who had sold him into slavery, Joseph decided to keep his identity veiled so that he could ascertain the state of affairs back home. He had no reason to trust his brothers and it must have concerned him that they had shown up in Egypt without their father and younger sibling. Had his father died while he was away? Did his jealous brothers do to young Benjamin what they had done to him? Joseph had so many unanswered questions, so he continued to portray himself as Zaphenath-paneah, the governor of Egypt until he could determine the trustworthiness of his brothers.

Moses indicates that Joseph kept up a convincing charade, speaking to his brothers in stern tones and displaying a suspicious attitude toward them.

…he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. – Genesis 42:7 ESV

A wave of emotions must have swept over Joseph as he stood staring into the faces of the men who had treated him with such disdain. Driven by nothing more than jealousy, these so-called brothers had conspired to kill him. And if it had not been for his brother Judah’s intervention, they would have left Joseph to rot in an abandoned cistern. But Judah had come up with the idea of selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. That way, they could be rid of him without being guilty of spilling innocent blood. And each of his brothers had been complicit in their betrayal of Joseph. Even Reuben, who had hoped to extricate him from the pit and return him to their father, had eventually caved into his brothers’ demands.

Now they stood before Joseph, like groveling slaves before their master. And the scene brought to Joseph’s mind the vivid images he had seen in his long-forgotten dreams. It was his sharing of these dreams that had turned his brothers against him.

One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. “Listen to this dream,” he said. “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!” – Genesis 37:5-7 NLT

Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT

And, while these dreams infuriated his brothers, “his father wondered what the dreams meant” (Genesis 37:11 NLT). Now, years later, they were all about to find out. As Reuben, Judah, and their eight other brothers kneeled before the powerful governor of Egypt, they feared for their lives because he was accusing them of being spies. They vehemently denied the accusation and swore that their sole intention was to purchase grain for their families back in Canaan.

“Your servants have simply come to buy food. We are all brothers—members of the same family. We are honest men, sir! We are not spies!” – Genesis 42:10-11 NLT

Their claim to be honest men must have struck a nerve with Joseph. How could these deceivers and betrayers dare to consider themselves to be honest and trustworthy? Nothing from Joseph’s memory could support such a claim. So, he continued to question the veracity of their story.

Desperate to convince the governor of their innocence, they reveal that they have a young brother who has remained at home with their father. But because Joseph knew his brothers to be liars, he was reticent to trust them. How was he to know if Israel or Benjamin were alive or dead? He knew his brothers were capable of just about anything, so he came up with a test to determine whether they deserved his favor or anger.

“This is how I will test your story. I swear by the life of Pharaoh that you will never leave Egypt unless your youngest brother comes here! One of you must go and get your brother. I’ll keep the rest of you here in prison. Then we’ll find out whether or not your story is true. By the life of Pharaoh, if it turns out that you don’t have a younger brother, then I’ll know you are spies.” – Genesis 42:15-16 NLT

Joseph was anxious to know that Benjamin was alive and well. After all, he and Benjamin shared the same birth mother, Rachel. And since Rachel’s death, Benjamin had become near and dear to Joseph’s heart. Yet, because of his brothers’ actions, Joseph had been denied the joy of watching his younger sibling grow up. So much time had passed and he longed to be reunited with his father and brother. And God was using Joseph’s desires to instigate a plan that would eventually fulfill the very words that God had spoken to Abraham.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. – Genesis 15:13 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


The Lord Made It Succeed

19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed. – Genesis 39:19-23 ESV

Angered by Joseph’s repeated refusals to accommodate her sexual advances, Potiphar’s humiliated wife falsely and maliciously accused him of attempted rape. And her husband, shocked but also angered by this news, was forced to confine Joseph to prison. Had the master truly believed in Joseph’s guilt, it is likely he would have ordered his execution. After all, for a common slave to attempt to violate his master’s wife would have been a crime worthy of death. Considered to be little more than personal property, a slave had no rights and his life was in the hand of his master. But rather than having Joseph executed for this egregious crime, Potiphar chose to spare his life by confining him to prison.

This echoes the treatment Joseph had received at the hands of his brothers. When he had shown up in Dothan, their first response had been to put him to death.

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” – Genesis 37:19-20 ESV

But Reuben had intervened and spared Joseph’s life. Rather than committing murder, he suggested that they confine Joseph to an empty cistern, where he would be left to die of natural causes. Reuben had hoped to come back later and rescue Joseph. But before he could do so, Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. And that sale had resulted in Joseph’s purchase by Potiphar, which eventually led to his imprisonment for a crime of which he was completely innocent. But, as before, Joseph was spared from death.

While preferable to capital punishment, Joseph’s imprisonment was still undeserved and would have been a far-from-pleasant experience. Yet, Moses points out that “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21 ESV). This theme runs throughout the entire  narrative found in chapter 10. God had been the one to protect Joseph from the murderous intentions of his brothers. And God had been behind Joseph’s sale to the Ishmaelites and his eventual purchase by Potiphar. None of this was blind luck or a case of cosmic karma.

The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. – Genesis 39:2-3 ESV

God had orchestrated every facet of this story, including Joseph’s imprisonment in the facility reserved solely for the king’s prisoners. This factor will become more important and pertinent as chapter 40 unfolds. But suffice it to say that each and every sequence of this story took place according to the sovereign plan of God.

Just as God had shown Joseph favor in the eyes of Potiphar, He also elevated Joseph in the eyes of the prison’s warden.

the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it – Genesis 39:22 ESV

This innocent young man displayed an uncanny knack for leadership that led the warden to place all the prisoners under Joseph’s supervision. And before long, Joseph found himself functioning more as a prison administrator than a prisoner. He wielded power, authority, and great influence. He had entered as a common criminal but, before he knew it, Joseph was functioning as the second most powerful man in the entire prison.

The warden had no more worries, because Joseph took care of everything. The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed. – Genesis 39:23 NLT

Prison walls were an insufficient barrier against the sovereign hand of God. The vindictive plans of a bitter woman could not derail God’s plans for His child. God’s love for Joseph was far superior to anything Potiphar or his wife could try to do to him. As the psalmist wrote, “The LORD is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 NLT). They could falsely accuse Joseph. They could imprison him. They could even threaten to take his life. But as the apostle Paul so aptly put it:

“If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” – Genesis 8:31 NLT

And Paul would go on to remind his readers that God’s love for His children was inseparable and unwavering.

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

God, out of His marvelous love and mercy, was making Joseph a success – even in prison. He was protecting Joseph’s life, expanding his influence, and preparing him for the next phase of his God-ordained journey. The prison would prove to be a doorway to freedom, a portal to salvation, and a divine pathway to Israel’s promised future. No one would have seen this coming, including Joseph. Potiphar and his wife will disappear into the pages of ancient history, never to be heard from again. Joseph’s brothers will go on with their lives, oblivious of Joseph’s fate and ignorant of their own pre-ordained destiny with drought and famine.

Little did Joseph know that his unexpected and undeserved imprisonment would foreshadow another captivity to come. This son of Abraham would become a symbol for the descendants of Abraham who would one day find themselves also living as captives in the land of Egypt. And they too would discover that, despite their unpleasant circumstances, God was with them. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would step into the darkness of their predicament and turn their seeming failure into success.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


From Sonship to Slavery

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 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.” 33 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.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 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. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.  Genesis 37:12-36 ESV

Joseph and his father had a unique relationship. While Joseph enjoyed the privileged status of being his father’s favorite son, he also appears to have served as Jacob’s personal spy, keeping tabs on the activities of his older brothers. Verse 2 reveals that “Joseph reported to his father some of the bad things his brothers were doing.” (Genesis 37:2 NLT). This doesn’t necessarily prove that Joseph was a snitch, but it does help to explain why his brothers hated him so much. They probably believed that Joseph’s royal treatment by their father was a form of compensation for his role as an informant. Joseph’s older brothers viewed him as spoiled, arrogant, and untrustworthy. He seemed to delight in telling them about his dreams, in which they were always cast as his groveling subjects. When he paraded around in the robe of many colors his father had given him, it only served to aggravate the seething envy of his brothers.

Sadly, Jacob appears to have been oblivious to the animosity he was stirring up in his own home. He doesn’t appear to recognize that his favored treatment of Joseph was driving a wedge between his 17-year-old son and his brothers that would soon reach a dangerous tipping point. Without realizing it, Jacob was fostering an atmosphere of distrust and dissension within his own home, and it was about to come back to haunt him.

Unwittingly, Jacob gave Joseph an assignment that would result in his disappearance and apparent death. He sent his young son to check up on his older brothers who were shepherding their flocks near Shechem, some 60 miles north of Hebron. Jacob owned land there, that he had bought from Hamor, the king of Shechem (Genesis 33:19). It was there that the son of Hamor had raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah and that her brothers, Simeon and Levi, had taken revenge by slaughtering all the males in Shechem. Now, years later, the sons of Jacob had returned to the scene of the crime, but rather than slaughtering and plundering, they were shepherding.

Eager to please his father, Joseph donned his multicolored robe and set off with the intention of returning with a full report of his brothers’ activities. But, unable to locate his brothers, Joseph sought the aid of a local resident and discovered his brothers had headed north to Dothan. Moses doesn’t reveal why the brothers left Shechem for Dothan, but the name “Dothan” means “two wells,” so it could be that they went there in search of water for their flocks. It just so happens that Dothan was located on a major trading route between Syria and Egypt. Perhaps the brothers intended to sell or trade some of their sheep or wool.

Moses indicates that the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance. Most likely, due to his colorful coat. And, as soon as they saw him, their anger reached a fever pitch. No longer content to simply despise Jacob, they began to plot his death.

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” – Genesis 37:19-20 ESV

They may not have understood the meaning behind the dreams or known the source of their content, but they recognized an arrogant spoiled brat when they saw one. And they had had enough of Joseph. But Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, intervened and pleaded with his brothers to spare Joseph’s life. He offered an alternative solution, suggesting that they throw Joseph in a nearby pit or cistern. Since the pit was located in the wilderness, far from prying eyes, the brothers assumed that Reuben was suggesting that they leave Joseph to die by natural causes. But his real intention was to come back later and rescue him. As the firstborn son, Reuben felt an obligation to protect his younger brother.

Having stripped Joseph of his colorful robe, they threw him into the empty cistern and sat down to enjoy a meal together. But their reverie was soon interrupted by a caravan of Ishmaelite traders. These men would have been close relatives of Reuben and his brothers because Ishmael had been the brother of their grandfather, Isaac. And, in verse 28, Moses indicates that there were also Midianites in the caravan. They were also close relatives of Jacob’s sons because Midian had been a brother to Ishmael and Isaac, having been born to Abraham through his second wife, Keturah.

So, this entire transaction was a family affair. The brothers of Joseph sold him to the brothers of Isaac, their grandfather. And it was Judah, a younger brother of Reuben, who came up with the idea of profiting off their brother rather than simply letting him die.

“What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” – Genesis 37:27 ESV

Their dislike for Joseph was so great that they all agreed to sell him as a slave in exchange for twenty shekels of silver. They literally sold out their younger brother. Unaware that this transaction had taken place, Reuben returned to find Joseph gone and he immediately felt the weight of his responsibility as the eldest son. What was he going to tell his father? How would Jacob ever get over the loss of his favorite son?

But his brothers had already come up with a plan. They took Joseph’s infamous robe and covered it with animal blood, then they concocted a story that had Joseph being killed and consumed by a wild animal. These men made a mutual pact to hide their actions from their father and deceive him into believing that his favorite son was dead. And their plan worked. When they returned to Hebron and informed their father, he was deeply distraught.

Jacob tore his clothes and dressed himself in burlap. He mourned deeply for his son for a long time. His family all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. – Genesis 37:34-35 NLT

But while Jacob mourned Joseph’s death, his missing son was actually on his way to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). No longer wearing his signature robe or enjoying his father’s favor, Joseph was transported to Egypt, where he was sold “to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard” (Genesis 37:36 NLT).

Hundreds of miles from where Jacob was living a nightmare, mourning the loss of his favorite son, God was actually paving the way for the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams. This entire scenario was part of God’s sovereign plan for the people of Israel, and He had foreshadowed it in a message He had given Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Genesis 15:13-16 NLT

God had a plan and He was bringing it about through the actions of Jacob and his sons. These men were completely unaware that their decisions were being sovereignly orchestrated by God Almighty in order to bring about His divine will. Jacob’s unwise favoring of his son had caused strife within his home, but God would use that animosity for good. Joseph would pridefully flaunt his status as the favored son and inflame the anger of his brothers. And those men would allow their jealousy and rage to treat their brother with contempt and disdain, selling him out for a few pieces of silver. But as bad as it all seemed, it was all the work of a loving, gracious, and all-knowing God, who was preparing to do something far greater than they could have ever imagined.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Two Deaths, A Birth, and a New Beginning

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.

22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23 The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. 26 The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.  Genesis 35:16-29 ESV

After worshiping God at Bethel, Jacob, now going by his new name, Israel, made his way to the town of Ephrah, better known as Bethlehem. But along the way, his wife, Rachel, went into labor, and gave birth to her second child. But her labor proved to be difficult and she failed to survive the delivery. Just before her death, Rachel was able to verbalize her choice for the baby’s name: Ben-oni, which means “son of my sorrow.” But Israel, while grieved by his wife’s unexpected death, chose to see the positive side of this momentous occasion, and named his new son, Benjamin, which means, “Son of my good fortune.” From his perspective, the loss of his wife was balanced by the birth of his son. His memory of Rachel would always be associated with Benjamin, the son of his good fortune. In a sense, Israel was glorifying the fact that God had brought life from death.

It should not be overlooked that, at one time, the formerly barren Rachel had demanded that her husband do something about her condition. She desperately wanted to bear a child and, somehow, held him responsible for her condition.

When Rachel saw that she wasn’t having any children for Jacob, she became jealous of her sister. She pleaded with Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” – Genesis 30:1 NLT

While Jacob was incapable of doing anything about his wife’s dilemma, God graciously stepped in.

Then God remembered Rachel’s plight and answered her prayers by enabling her to have children. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has removed my disgrace,” she said. And she named him Joseph, for she said, “May the Lord add yet another son to my family.” – Genesis 30:22-24 NLT

And it’s interesting to note that God also answered her prayer, providing her with “another son” as per her request. But while she had believed that her ongoing barrenness would be her ultimate undoing, it was actually the bearing of children that would result in her death. In a way, her barrenness had been a divine form of protection. She had survived her first delivery, but the second one proved to be deadly.

After having provided Rachel with a proper burial, Israel continued his journey to Bethlehem, where he settled for a time. And somewhere near Bethlehem, “the house of bread,” Israel would experience a devastating breakdown in family etiquette. Reuben, his firstborn son born to him by Leah, committed an act immorality with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.

Moses provides no explanation for Reuben’s actions. But, besides the obvious motivation of sexual satisfaction, there is probably more going on here than meets the eye. By committing incest with Bilhah, Reuben may have hoped to diminish her status in Israel’s eyes. With Rachel dead, Reuben’s mother, Leah, would have assumed the role of favored wife. And his illicit affair with Bilhah would assured that she was seen as damaged goods in his father’s eyes. But there is also a good chance that his actions were meant to declare his rightful role as the firstborn son and, therefore, heir to the role of leadership over the clan.

This kind of thing would not have been rare or unexpected. In fact, we see one of Israel’s descendants playing out that very scenario in the book of 2 Samuel. Absalom, the eldest son of King David, aspired to his father’s throne. So, Ahithophel, a former advisor to King David, gave him some advice that he guaranteed would help make his dream come true.

“Go and sleep with your father’s concubines, for he has left them here to look after the palace. Then all Israel will know that you have insulted your father beyond hope of reconciliation, and they will throw their support to you.” So they set up a tent on the palace roof where everyone could see it, and Absalom went in and had sex with his father’s concubines. – 2 Samuel 16:21-22 NLT

Reuben’s actions, while unexplained, were immoral and ungodly. And they mirror the behavior of Shechem, who allowed his lust to get the best of him and ended up raping Dinah, the only daughter of Israel. He eventually died for his behavior but there is no indication that Reuben faced any repercussions for his crime. In keeping with the inaction he displayed at Shechem’s defilement of Dinah, Israel did nothing to avenge his Bilhah’s honor. It appears that Reuben went unchallenged and unpunished for his actions, and his name appears alongside all the other brothers in the brief genealogy found in verses 22-26.

These are the names of the twelve sons of Jacob: The sons of Leah were Reuben (Jacob’s oldest son), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel were Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, were Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant, were Gad and Asher. These are the names of the sons who were born to Jacob at Paddan-aram. – Genesis 35:22-26 NLT

But there is more to the story than Moses relates. It is not until he penned the book of 1 Chronicles that Moses divulged the consequences for Reuben’s actions, and they were severe. Like Esau, Reuben threw away his birthright in a moment of passion.

The oldest son of Israel was Reuben. But since he dishonored his father by sleeping with one of his father’s concubines, his birthright was given to the sons of his brother Joseph. For this reason, Reuben is not listed in the genealogical records as the firstborn son. The descendants of Judah became the most powerful tribe and provided a ruler for the nation, but the birthright belonged to Joseph. – 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 NLT

His little fling cost him dearly. And if he had been hoping to prove his superiority over his father by forcibly raping his concubine, he had made an epic error in judgment. A mistake he would regret for the rest of his life.

But, while Reuben would pay dearly for his lack of judgment, he would hold no grudge against Joseph, his younger brother who inherited his birthright. In fact, as the story unfolds, it will be Reuben who attempts to protect the life of Joseph when his brothers plot to murder him.

But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. “Let’s not kill him,” he said. “Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty cistern here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him.” Reuben was secretly planning to rescue Joseph and return him to his father. – Genesis 37:21-22 NLT

But that’s another story for another day. In this chapter, the defilement of Bilhah is followed by the death of Isaac. At some point, Israel made the long-delayed trip back to Hebron, to visit his aging father. And he made it just in time because, having lived 180 years, Isaac was knocking on death’s door.

With the death of Isaac, the entire focus of the narrative turns to Israel. the son of Isaac formerly known as Jacob. God was bringing the fulfillment of His promise full circle. It had passed from Abraham to Isaac and would now belong to Israel (Jacob). And as Isaac’s two sons buried his body, the stage was set for the next phase of God’s grand plan for the further fulfillment of His covenant promise to Abraham.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

The Sport of Competitive Conception

Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Then Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” so she called his name Gad. 12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 And Leah said, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.

14 In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.

19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. 21 Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.

22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” Genesis 30:3-24 ESV

This story reads like a 1970s television soap opera. The interpersonal intrigues are difficult to keep up with and the sheer number of births is mind-boggling. Moses provides no timeline for this narrative, but suffice it to say, Jacob was a busy man. In the span of 19 verses, Moses describes Jacob as fathering seven sons by four different women. And it’s impossible to read this story and not see the similarities found in the lives of Jacob’s parents and grandparents. But it is if Jacob, Rachel, and Leah have taken the art of conception to a whole new level. It has become a competitive sport, with the women in Jacob’s life batting him like a helpless shuttlecock in a game of badminton.

In fact, it got so bad that Jacob functioned more like a prostitute than as the patriarch of his own family. When his wives ordered him to sleep with their maidservants, he seemed to passively comply. At one point, his wife Leah actually sold some mandrakes to Rachel and used sexual access to Jacob as her bartering chip. Having paid for his services, she simply informed Jacob of the arrangement.

“You must come and sleep with me tonight!” she said. “I have paid for you with some mandrakes that my son found.” So that night he slept with Leah. – Genesis 30:16 NLT

It’s difficult to keep up, but at this point in the story, Jacob has fathered 11 sons. Leah has given him Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Her handmaid Zilpah has added Gad and Asher. Rachel’s handmaid provided Dan and Naphtali. And, after God opened her womb, Rachel delivered Joseph.

Due to her barrenness, Rachel had been unable to bear Jacob any children – until God had intervened. As her husband’s favorite wife, she found herself shamed by her infertility and her frustrating inability to give Jacob the one thing he desired most: A son. So, in an effort to compete with her sister’s prolific child-bearing capabilities, she had come up with the idea to have children through a surrogate.

“Take my maid, Bilhah, and sleep with her. She will bear children for me, and through her I can have a family, too.” – Genesis 30:3 NLT

In a fit of jealousy and driven by purely selfish motives, Rachel ordered Jacob to father a son through her servant. And just as Abraham had followed the same advice from his wife, Sarah, Jacob complied. Not once, but twice. And this little act of competitive conception encouraged Leah to take up the sport. She too offered her servant to Jacob and, once again, he willingly took her up on the offer. The result? Two more sons.

It would be easy to read this story and be left with the impression that things have gotten completely out of control. There is no referee in this game of one-upmanship. Each of these women seems to make up the rules as the game unfolds. And Jacob comes across like a triple-A prospect who suddenly gets called up to the big leagues. This little country boy from Beersheba was going up against the pros.

But, Moses wants his readers to know that this is not some no-rules, make-it-up-as-you-go-along free-for-all. God is fully in control and operating behind the scenes in order to accomplish His divine will. Yes, it’s messy and incorporates all the subterfuge and self-promotion that Rachel and Leah bring to the table, but it is far from out of control. As Moses lists the various names of the boys born to Jacob, his Jewish readers would have recognized the names of their individual tribes. These boys would grow to become men and father 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. And on two separate occasions, Moses deliberately pauses the narrative at the mention of the names of Judah and Joseph. When Leah had given birth to her fourth son, she had named him Judah, then Moses wrote, “Then she ceased bearing” (Genesis 29:35 ESV). It seems that God had turned off the tap. He sovereignly sealed her womb, not permanently, but for a period of time.

As stated in yesterday’s blog, Judah was to become the tribe through whom the Messiah of Israel would be born. Judah was going to play a major role in the national affairs of Israel and the future fate of the world. And the same thing is true of Joseph.

Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob, could not bear children. That is until God sovereignly ordained it. And when He miraculously opened her womb, Rachel gave birth to a boy named Joseph. Little did Rachel know that this long-awaited son would play a vital role in the future salvation and preservation of the people of Israel. Moses readers would have been highly familiar with the story of Joseph. He would grow to become the favorite son of Jacob, a designation that would make him the envy of his 10 older brothers. Jacob would lavish the favored son of his favorite wife with affection and gifts, a move that would make Joseph the target of his brothers’ ire.

Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. So one day Jacob had a special gift made for Joseph—a beautiful robe. But his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him. – Genesis 37:3-4 NLT

Yet, like Judah, Joseph was destined to play a special role in his family’s future. While Rachel and Leah were busy conniving and competing, God had more serious and world-changing plans in mind. He was using the selfish and shortsighted machinations of these two women to fulfill the covenant promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and now, Jacob. As usual, the characters in the story remain oblivious to the unseen actions of God. They believed themselves to be in control and driving the narrative. Oh, they give God lip service.

“God has vindicated me! He has heard my request and given me a son.” – Genesis 30:6 NLT

“God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband as a wife.” – Genesis 30:18 NLT

“God has given me a good reward.” – Genesis 30:20 NLT

“God has removed my disgrace…” – Genesis 30:23 NLT

But they were operating according to their own agendas and in keeping with their own selfish desires. Yet, God was righteously redeeming their flawed actions in order to bring about the plan He had developed long before any of them ever existed.

With the birth of Joseph, a new chapter in the story will begin. For nearly two decades, Jacob had been living in Haran with his father-in-law Laban. He had been waiting on word from his mother, Rachel, informing him that Esau had forgiven him and it was safe to return home. But that message had never come. In all likelihood, Rachel had died while Jacob had been away. He now had two wives, two concubines, and 11 sons. God had blessed him and he realized it was time to return to Canaan. According to God, it was there that his inheritance would be found. When Jacob had stopped in Bethel on his way to Haran, God had appeared to him in a dream and said:

“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

Now, it was time to go back to the land because Jacob knew that Canaan was where the promises of God would be fully fulfilled.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

The Improbable But Providential Will of God

31 When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” 33 She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. 34 Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. 35 And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing. 

1 When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Genesis 29:31-30:2 ESV

Verses 31 flatly states that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Having allowed Laban to trick him into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Jacob found himself struggling to display any signs of affection for his unexpected and unwanted wife. In the same way that his mother had shown favoritism for him over his brother, Esau, Jacob poured out all his attention and affection on Rachel. She was the only one he had ever wanted. Leah was nothing more than a burden and a constant reminder of Laban’s treachery. Her very presence must have rubbed Jacob the wrong way. But while Leah was avoided like the plague by her new husband, God chose to see her affliction and show her affection.

the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. – Genesis 29:31 ESV

Once again, we see the sovereign God of the universe inserting Himself into human affairs and orchestrating the fulfillment of His divine will. None of this is a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. He had not been caught off guard or surprised by the actions of Laban. When Jacob had woken up the morning after his wedding night and found himself lying next to Leah, he had been shocked. But not God.

Laban must have been proud over how he had pulled a fast one on the unsuspecting Jacob. He had tricked the younger man into marrying his older and less-attractive daughter. And having successfully secured her future, Laban had been more than willing to let Jacob have Rachel as well. After all, his little trick had netted him 14 years of free labor from the gullible and easily manipulated Jacob.

It seems clear from the context, that Jacob intended to raise a family through Rachel. But there was a problem. She was barren. Like her mother-in-law, Rebekah, and her grandmother-in-law, Sarah, Rachel was unable to bear children. Jacob was operating under the impression that Rachel was to be the vehicle through which all the promises concerning offspring would come. Jacob remembered the words of his father, Isaac, spoken as he was preparing to go in search of a wife.

“God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples.” – Genesis 28:3 ESV

He also recalled the vision he had in Bethel and the words that God had spoken to him.

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” – Genesis 28:13-14 ESV

But despite all the promises, Jacob was facing a bleak future because he had a barren wife. How were any of these promises to come true if Rachel couldn’t bear children? Yet, what Jacob failed to realize was that he had two wives for a very good reason. It had been the will of God. And while Jacob despised Leah, God had great plans for her.

Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” – Genesis 29:32 ESV

The woman whom Jacob never wanted was the one to give Jacob that which he most desired: A son. And she was far from done. In seemingly rapid succession, Leah produced four sons for Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. And the fact that she kept getting pregnant would clearly suggest that Jacob had changed his attitude toward her. All during this time, Rachel remained incapable of bearing Jacob any children, so he turned his attention to the more obviously fruitful older sister. With each new pregnancy and birth, Leah revealed her great desire that Jacob would truly love her.

At the birth of Reuben, she stated, “The Lord has noticed my misery, and now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32 NLT). But despite providing Jacob with a son, she still felt rejected by him, because at the birth of Simeon she declared, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me another son” (Genesis 29:33 NLT). Yet, even with the birth of Levi, Leah was still waiting for some sign that Jacob loved her.

“Surely this time my husband will feel affection for me, since I have given him three sons!” – Genesis 29:34 NLT

It seems that Jacob’s interest in Leah was purely utilitarian in nature. She was effective in producing sons and heirs, but this apparently failed to elicit any signs of affection from Jacob. He gladly welcomed each new son into the world, but still treated Leah as a second-class citizen.

But something happened with the birth of her fourth son. When Judah came into the world, she declared, “Now I will praise the Lord!” (Genesis 29:35 NLT). Judah’s name means “praised,” and reflects Leah’s gratitude to God for His gracious provision of four healthy sons. She recognized that each of her pregnancies had been the handiwork of God and an expression of His love for her. While Jacob remained aloof and reticent to display love and affection for her, Leah knew that her fruitfulness had been a gracious gift from God. And, as the text makes clear, with Judah’s birth, Leah “ceased bearing” (Genesis 29:35 ESV).

Leah wasn’t done having children, but there is a pronounced and obvious break between the delivery of Judah and that of her next son. If you take the time to study the family tree of Jesus found in the opening chapter of the book of Matthew, you will find the name of Judah.

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, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. – Matthew 1:2-6 ESV

Judah is the only one of the 12 sons of Jacob to be mentioned in the genealogy because it was through his line that Jesus came. This fourth son of Jacob, born to the unwanted older daughter of Laban, would be the conduit through whom the promised Messiah would come into the world. It was not through Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob. In fact, while Leah had been busy bearing sons for Jacob, Rachel had remained completely incapable of even conceiving an heir for her husband. And this situation left her angry and resentful of her older sister.

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” – Genesis 30:1 ESV

This response reveals a great deal about Rachel. She comes across as a petulant and spoiled woman who was used to getting her way. And the ludicrous demand she makes of Jacob further reflects her naturally controlling nature. She didn’t like her circumstances and she was expecting Jacob to do something about it. She even seems to be threatening to kill herself if she doesn’t get her way. But Jacob is angered by the unjustified blame she has heaped on him. It wasn’t his fault she could not bear children. In his mind, it was the hand of God. And yet, what is noticeably missing in all of this is any sign that either Jacob or Rachel took this matter to the Lord. There are no prayers lifted up. No cries for assistance are uttered. Neither Jacob nor his wife bothers to take the situation to the throne of God. He seems content to rely upon the child-bearing capabilities of Leah. And Rachel seems resigned to passing blame and demanding her way. And as the story unfolds, Rachel will take a page out of Sarah’s playbook and come up with a solution to her own problem. Rather than call on God, she will choose to play god and right what she believes to be an injustice.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.