Read the series so far.
Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob (Parts 2 & 3)
The sequel has Isaac making a pact with Abimelech after which the God of Providence gave him water. Since there had been quarreling over water sources the conflict was resolved by covenant (cf. Heb. 6:16), Isaac named the new place “Beersheba,” meaning “well of the oath.” God’s blessing came in conjunction with an oath which was clearly understood by both sides. The chapter ends by noticing Esau’s marriage to two pagan wives and the grief it caused to his parents. Notwithstanding, when it came time for the aged patriarch to pass on the mantle, his intention was to give it to Esau (27:1-4). It was only the subtlety of his brother, with the collusion of his mother, that prevented Isaac’s wishes from becoming a reality (27:11f.).
This brings up an issue which it is wise not to pass over. What are we to make of God’s role in all this? It would be impious to say that He was party to the deception, but as He predicted “the older will serve the younger” (25:23), we must assert that the Lord knew both that the circumstance would come about, and how it would arise. From this we can draw a further conclusion; that God’s “Creation Project” as I have called it, takes some unexpected turns, with the Almighty using even the sins and misdeeds of His creatures to accomplish His purposes. Therefore it is prudent not to envisage pathways to fulfillment from calculations based on our vantage point. We do not know what twists and turns history will take as it wends its way to the eschaton. Fulfillments will come to pass just as Yahweh reveals them to us, but we are in no position to divine the routes they will take.
When Jacob is sent out to Padan Aram to find a wife he is met by God, who, in the strange episode featuring “Jacob’s Ladder,” gives to Jacob the covenant promises:
And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 28:13-14)
We are midway through the Book of Genesis and these pledges of a specified land, seed, and international blessing are a recurrent theme from chapter 11 onwards. But what is the meaning of the language of “spreading out” (paras) in all directions in verse 14? The passage recalls God’s words to Abram after Lot had left for Sodom (Gen. 13:14-17), and the next verse appears to restrict the Hebrew words translated “land”1 to the Promised Land. As Leupold noted, the Hebrew term connotes a breaking through “in the sense of bursting all restraining bonds”.2 From the solitary situation at Luz, which Jacob calls “Bethel” (28:19), in which Jacob found himself as he headed out of the land, it must have looked as if all hopes of an eventual inheritance were wafer thin. At this exigency the word of God reaffirms the covenant oath. Unbeknownst to Jacob, he is going to find more than a wife.
The thirtieth chapter records the change in Jacob’s fortunes3 and his desire to depart from Laban. He departs in the next chapter after Yahweh appears to him, calling Himself “the God of Bethel” (31:13). This prepares us for Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel of the Lord at the border of the Promised Land and his renaming as “Israel” (32:28), meaning perhaps4 “God will strive” or “God strives,” but Jacob’s assailant appears to redefine it to stress Jacob’s struggle.5 As in the case of Abraham, the Divine pronouncement on the new name should be given precedence. The place received the name Peniel6, possibly signifying a change in Jacob’s character and outlook (32:24-30). The Divine faithfulness is seen again in the repetition of the covenant in Genesis 35:9-13.
There has been quite a build up to the appearance of the word “Israel” in the first book of the Pentateuch. When it appears in chapter 32 we get an immediate ethnic link between Jacob/Israel and the sons of Israel (32:32). This is everywhere the understanding of the name in the Old Testament, and, we shall argue, in the New Testament also.7
Genesis 37 and 38 detail two inauspicious moments in the history of nascent Israel; the disposal of the hated Joseph into the hands of Midianite traders going to Egypt by his own brethren, and then Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman and his conjugal encounter with his, unknown to him, daughter in law Tamar. The passage of time which must be kept in mind as one reads these episodes, plus the one concerning the rape of Dinah in chapter 34, do not augur well for the future of the tribes. The glorious provisions of the Abrahamic covenant which was their inheritance is put in jeopardy by the sons of Jacob. Just as with Jacob himself, this shows that the covenant could not hinge upon the characters of the men who were the recipients of it. Redemption would need to come to the physical descendants of Israel if the full benefits of the covenantal relationship initiated by God were to come about. But the covenant with Abraham, as the covenant with Noah, did not include soteriological provisions for the establishment of permanent satisfactory Divine-human association. These provisions, which must affect both humanity and its created environment, are given, as we shall see, in the terms of the New covenant. The important thing is that Israel holds an enduring place within this covenantal setup.
The epic of Joseph is one of the greatest stories in all of literature. Through Joseph’s faith and discretion and God’s providential supervenience, the prediction to Abraham in Genesis 15:13f. is set in motion. Joseph, of course, is a Seer (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9). His rehearsal of two dreams which God gave him only deepened his brothers’ dislike of him.
Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind. (Genesis 37:5-11)
This vision links up with the prophecy in Genesis 15 in that it predicts the arrival of the clan of Israel “in a land that is not theirs” to begin their four hundred year hiatus out of the land (cf. Gen. 15:13). Though no direct interpretation is given, it appears that his father and his brothers understood the significance of the dreams.8 The two are a pair, both featuring the obeisance to Joseph (n.b. “the sun, the moon, and the stars bowed down to me,” v.9). This presages the eleven brothers coming down to Egypt and bowing down before the Governor-Vizier in the days of famine (42:6). Jacob thought he and his mother would bow before Joseph, but that did not occur. The reason being that the purpose of the dreams was to predict Joseph’s future authority, perhaps not so much to describe actual events.9 But when Jacob came into Egypt in Genesis 46, it was Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh (41:40)10.
The thing to be realized is that for all its strangeness, the vision was readily understandable to those to whom it came. The “Sun” was Jacob, the “Moon” was Leah, and the eleven “stars” were Joseph’s brothers. The vision was of Israel (cf. Rev.12:1). It was not beyond their ability to comprehend God’s intentions. This is an important component of revelation, for without it revelation is not really occurring.11 Joseph’s second vision is utilized in the last Book of Scripture. The question which comes up then will be whether it has changed into the Christian Church or whether the actual tribes of Israel are still in view. A lot is going to depend on the trajectory ones theology takes in the interim.
1 See for example Carl B. Hoch, All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology.
2 Ross notices the scorn involved in the retort of Joseph’s brothers (Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, 600).
3 Having said this one explanation is to interpret the “bowing down” in terms of the previous vision of Genesis 37:7-8 where only the brothers did obeisance to him.
4 I think it is worth noting that in this verse we find the only mention of a throne in the Book of Genesis. Additionally, explicit mentions of God and His kingdom are rare in the OT (2 Chron. 13:8; Psa. 103:19; 145:11-13). This should at least be borne in mind by scholars who find a kingdom theme in the first Book of the Bible.
5 One of my chief reasons for rejecting covenant theology is that its eschatology firmly focuses revelation on the Church and not to those to whom it originally was given. To offset this problem covenant theology has often taught that the Church is in the Old Testament, in spite, as we shall see, of the fact that no Church qua the Body of Christ is possible without the resurrection of Christ. This makes a nonsense of the idea of a God who reveals Himself in history, and also of progressive revelation.
6 Verses 13 and 14b use the common eretz, but verses 14a and 15 use adhama which is usually translated as “earth.” There is no discernible difference between “the land (eretz) on which you lie” (v.13), “your descendants will be as the dust of the earth (eretz)” in verse 14a, and “[I] will bring you back to this land (adhama) (v.15). They all have the land given to Abraham in view. But the extended promise “in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth (adhama) be blessed” can scarcely be taken that way, since the promise has future Jewish and Gentile salvation in view. See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 242.
7 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 2, 774.
8 William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 30.
9 The precise meaning is uncertain. Cf. John D. Currid, Genesis, vol. 2, 137.
10 See the discussion in Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 17:27-50:26, 559.
11 Heb. “The face of God.”
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.