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Christ in Genesis, Part 2

December 8, 2006

I. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”

The Suffering of Joseph and the Suffering of Jesus (Genesis 37-41)


You remember, of course, the evil that Joseph’s brothers meant against him in chapter 37.  They conspired to kill him and threw him in a pit.  Why did they do this?  Because he was the favorite of their father Jacob.  You would think Jacob would know better than to show favoritism since he grew up knowing the bitterness of his father Isaac showing more affection to his brother Esau.  But it is seen throughout Genesis that the sins of the father are passed on to the children.  The children often walk in the same foolish paths their fathers walked.


So Jacob by his favoritism afflicted his sons as his father Isaac afflicted him and, predictably, quarreling ensued, and Joseph would have been killed had not his brother Reuben stepped in.  Reuben warned them to shed no blood but instead convinced them to leave him alive at the bottom of the pit, planning to sneak back later and rescue him.  But then his brother Judah had another idea that spoiled Reuben’s plans to save Joseph.  He saw a caravan of Midianite traders going by and thought, “Why should we kill him for nothing when we can sell him and make some money?”  So for twenty shekels of silver they sold him into slavery to the Midianites, who took him down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. 


So ends chapter 37, and the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house continues in chapter 39, but first in chapter 38 we find this odd story about his brother Judah, the one who proposed selling him and ruined Reuben’s plans to rescue him.  Upon a first reading this story seems completely beside the point and we wonder why it’s here.  We read that Judah married a Canaanite woman.   If you were here last week you’ll recognize that Judah is walking in the foolish and bitter path of his Uncle Esau.  Judah had three sons by the Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah.  Then Judah took a wife for his son Er named Tamar.  But Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death.  So according to the custom at that time, Er’s younger brother Onan married Tamar, but he also was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death.  The third son, Shelah, was still too young to marry, so Judah told his daughter-in-law Tamar to wait as a widow in her father’s house until Shelah grew up.  But when Shelah grew up, Judah forgot about his promise to Tamar, and she was not given to him in marriage.


So Tamar took off her widow’s garments, veiled her face, dressed up like a prostitute, propositioned her father-in-law Judah, and became pregnant by him. Three months later when it was discovered that Tamar the widow had become pregnant by prostitution, Judah, in a most shameless display of the double standard, called for Tamar to be brought out and burned alive for her immorality.  But Tamar was able to produce, in effect, a receipt from their transaction and prove that Judah was the father.  So Tamar was spared, gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah, Judah and Tamar went their separate ways, and this whole affair became one of those family secrets that no one talked about anymore.


Now what in the world is this story doing here in the middle of the otherwise cohesive Joseph narrative? If you’ve read much Shakespeare you know that frequently he includes in his dramas a play within a play.  And that little play will illustrate themes that are at work in the larger play.  So here this story within a story in Genesis 38 illustrates a big theme in the larger story of Joseph’s life. This story is not at all beside the point and, believe it or not, it actually has quite a lot to do with Christmas.  For you’ll remember that Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.  He is descended from this line.  In fact in Matthew chapter 1, on the first page of the New Testament where Matthew announces the birth of Jesus the Messiah, he first gives us his genealogy.  And we read that “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, etc.  Matthew doesn’t try to cover up this story, on the contrary, he calls attention to it by naming Tamar, even though none of the other mothers had been named.  Why does he do that?  Because he wants us to see that even the grossest of sins cannot thwart God’s saving purpose. 


Don Carson points out in his commentary that “in this same chapter Matthew introduces Jesus as the one who will save his people from their sins, and this verse may imply a backward glance at some of the better-known sins of his own progenitors.”  The wheels of providence are still turning even in the darkest of human dramas, and what men intend for evil, God will work out for good.  


In Genesis 38 the line of the promised Seed seemed in jeopardy.  Judah’s first two sons had died, his wife had died, and his only remaining son was unmarried and was half-Canaanite.  But God provided for the continuation of the line of the promised Seed, even through the immoral union of Judah and Tamar.  That doesn’t make their intentions any less evil and blameworthy.  It just means that God is so absolutely sovereign and we are so absolutely not sovereign, that our sins cannot thwart the good purposes of God.


If you want to marvel still further at the wheels of providence, turn with me to the book of Ruth. At the end of the book when Boaz marries Ruth the elders of the city bless their marriage in 4:12 saying, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring/seed that the Lord will give to you by this young woman.”  Now that’s a strange and awkward blessing, isn’t it?  If I said that at your wedding you might punch me in the nose.  Why bring up this unpleasant story at Ruth’s wedding?  Because the book of Ruth is also a story about God’s mysterious providence saving a family line in jeopardy.  Ruth and Naomi were widows and the line of Elimelech would have perished if God had not provided Boaz the kinsman-redeemer.  And in the final paragraph of the book, we get another genealogy, the genealogy of David, which is of course part of the genealogy of Jesus, and it begins with Judah and Tamar’s son Perez.   “Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron,  Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed,  Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”  If you were counting you would have discovered that David was the tenth name in that genealogy.  Why 10?  Because there is a law in Deuteronomy 23:2 which says that “No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD.”  Judah and Tamar was a forbidden union.  But by naming ten generations, the author of Ruth is showing us how God has preserved the line of the promised Seed all the way through to the expiration of this exclusion from the assembly, and assuring us that David is legally qualified to be the anointed King of Israel.


The wheels of providence are always turning, and his ways are beyond tracing out.  We are foolish to think we can understand the meaning of our few days.  But stories like this help us to trust that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted, no matter what evil might befall us.  If you are in Christ, the promised Seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah, then you can know that no matter what happens to you, God meant it for your good.


Let’s go back to Joseph and see this principle working in his life.  In chapter 39 in Potiphar’s house, he once again suffers evil at the hands of another.  Potiphar’s wife tempts him to and then falsely accuses him of sexual sin.  And he is thrown in prison.


But God meant it for good.  And God is with him in prison and he meets a man there who, albeit not until two years later, will report to Pharaoh of Joseph’s God-given ability to interpret dreams.   Pharaoh then summons Joseph to him, tells him his dream, and Joseph reveals that it is a warning that there will be seven years of famine and he makes plans for the stockpiling of grain that will save multitudes from famine, including his own brothers


The prefiguring of Christ here is clear.  Jesus also, though he was innocent, suffered evil at the hands of men.  But God meant it for good, that it might bring about the salvation of many.  Indeed surely we could agree that the crucifixion of Jesus was the most evil deed ever done by men.  And yet the apostles pray in Acts 4:27-28, “truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”   What man intended for evil (the crucifixion) God intended for good (the salvation of the whole world).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2006 3:28 pm

    Wow! Too many good things to comment on! Thanks first for the explanation of Judah and Tamar. I knew that Jesus was of the line of Judah, and I had read Jacob’s foretellings for his sons in Genesis 49 a while ago, and I had puzzled over the Judah and Tamar story, and could not imagine how the whole thing was supposed to fit together. Thanks also for the explanation of what some of the genealogies mean. It is easy to get bogged down in them and this is a new and better way of looking at them. And thanks for the totally necessary reassurance that whatever happens to us, we should trust that God means it for good. Also, thanks for the sermon last Sunday – your explanation of Paul’s married, then widowed, then remarried metaphor as it applies to Mosaic law was excellent (not to mention funny) and after weeks of being mostly confused, I feel like maybe now I finally get it. (I think.) :)

  2. December 10, 2006 10:02 pm

    Haha I agree with Ellie… too many good things. I love how you bring together so many different parts of the Bible, demonstrating so well its perfect unity. Connecting Ruth with Deuteronomy… crazy =P! I especially love the point about how our sins cannot thwart God’s eternal purposes. And, that God decrees evil for good to result, in both the cases of Joseph and Christ. Sweet, again, the unity of the Bible =).

    Keep up the good work proclaiming the gospel! My friend commented that he liked your sermons on Romans better than Piper’s :D; ultimately no competition though, it’s all for the building up of God’s kingdom anyway. Just want to say that I am really blessed by your preaching, and hope I can be an encouragement to the church.

    I’ll be gone over winter break, so hope the plans for the new building goes smoothly, and thanks for halting Romans for us =).

  3. December 11, 2006 3:07 pm

    This post is a perfect example of why I say I LOVE the fact that you are, in MBTI terms, N to the nth. Thank you so much for giving us this kind of teaching week after week, year after year.

    I feel like the wonder and glory of God is lost when people focus on what the laws of marriage were or what some detail means . . . but oh so magnified when you see the big picture laid out of God using sinful men and their wicked desires to bring to fruition his own marvelous plan for salvation. MMM, good stuff!

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