Genesis 37-38: God’s Will is Exactly What We Would Want if We Only Knew Better

Dr. Thrasher, one of the most popular professors at the Moody Bible Institute, would often say to his classes, “God’s will is exactly what we would want if we only knew better.”  There is no book of the Bible in which this saying could be better illustrated than in the book of Genesis.  The book of Genesis is a big lesson with many specific examples about the truth that God determines, by his own perfect counsel, his own course. God is not beholden to our expectations . . . our wants or even our dreams.  The book of Genesis continues to demonstrate for us that God has a plan and that plan will be accomplished without interruption.  I would also like to add one other fact: God’s Will, though not done according to our plan, will always result in his best for us.


This book has been a book about men attempting to impose their collective will on God’s amazing plan for the world.  Each time the patriarchs would attempt to control their world, their maneuvering would create all sorts of personal problems.  Abraham and Sarah tried to help God out by having the heir to God’s promise through the maidservant Hagar.  With the birth of Ishmael came word that this was not God’s plan and that this solution would not do.  Isaac did everything he could do to ensure that his favored eldest son Esau  would inherit God’s blessing for his life.  Yet, in spite of all he was given he squandered his birthright because he could not control his appetites and he lost his blessing because of his scheming brother.  Jacob tried to run and hide from his father-in-law, yet it was God who ultimately stopped Laban from killing Jacob.  Whenever the main characters of this narrative have tried to manipulate God’s plan, they have been burned in the process.  This text before us continues along this same theme.


In today’s reading we are given two separated stories that seem, in many ways, very much unrelated to one another.  Our introduction into this section begins with the story of Joseph, the eldest son of Rachael and Jacob, and his pronouncement to his brothers who were born of Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.  Joseph had a couple of dreams which made it clear that he would one day rule over them.  Not only did Joseph assert that he would rule over his brothers but also his father and his father’s wives as well.  Had Reuben come to the brothers and made the same claim, they probably would not have been quite as perturbed as they were with Joseph (though, they may have been somewhat annoyed).  This is because Reuben was the eldest son of Israel as he was the firstborn of Jacob and Leah.  As we have read thus far, the eldest son was entitled to the birthright, to have the honor of serving as the family priest as well as the receiving the blessing which was like a wonderful prophesy from God about his future.  There were great privileges given to the firstborn son in the ancient middle east and even today the eldest enjoys a significant degree of  prestige that younger siblings don’t receive. Reuben was the eldest son and Joseph was not and the idea that his older brothers would bow to him was not well taken.


To compound matters more, Joseph was the eldest son of a rival mother.  Rachael and Leah had strained relationships throughout their marriage to Jacob.  One has a hard time imagining what it must have been like for these two sisters to be married to the same man. Even more, to be married to the same man who preferred one sister over the other.  It is becoming clear in the Genesis narrative that while Jacob’s choice in marriage was Rachael, God’s choice for him was Leah.  It was in this place filled with competition for recognition and family position that created another battle of wills about who would carry on the family line. 


Because Jacob loved Rachael, the younger daughter of Laban more than Leah, he treated Joseph like the eldest son. As has been mentioned, these actions would have created a great deal of animosity between the brothers as this would have been a total miscarriage of justice within the culture that this family lived.  To make matters worse, Jacob gave his favorite son a special coat of many colors which further set Joseph apart from his brothers.  Finally Joseph came to the entire family and announced that one day each one would bow down to him. This would have been understood within the context that there would come a day when Joseph would literally rule over the rest of his family like a king his subjects.  This claim by Joseph (along with him giving their dad a bad report about them) pretty much drove them off the edge.  When he went with orders from his father to check on his brothers, they saw him off at a far distance and decided to kill him.  By the time he reached them, they had found a cistern for water that was empty and threw him down into it.  It is critical that we understand here that Reuben, the oldest son, had no intention of killing Joseph but had very desire to deliver him safely back to his father.  With Reuben out of the picture we are introduced to Judah who saved Joseph’s life by offering to sell the young man to some Midianites (Ishmaelites) who eventually bought Joseph for 20 pieces of silver.  Once again, it is very critical that we note that it was not Reuben who saved the life of Joseph — Judah is the one who saved Jacob’s life and it is Judah who would becoem the true heir of God.  


As we noted a couple of days ago, the messiah would emerge from the tribe of Judah because his immediate older brothers, Reuben, Simeon and Levi disqualified themselves by their acts of grave disobedience.  Because these older brothers had disqualified themselves as God’s choice as progenitor of the messiah, the mantle fell upon Judah.  You may be asking the question, didn’t God choose Joseph to be the son of blessing?  The answer to that is no.  While Joseph would receive the birthright from his father, Genesis 49:9-12 shows that Judah received the blessing.  What this means is that while Jacob chose Joseph, God chose Judah.  While Jacob chose Rachael, God chose Leah.  God will often accomplish his will in ways that we would never expect.


We learned at the end of chapter 37 that Judah was sold to the Midianites who eventually Joseph to Potiphar, the captain of pharaoh’s guard.  While Joseph was sold to the Midianites, the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat into blood and gave their father the idea that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.  The news of the death of his son Joseph’s death drove Jacob to the edge of despair.  This man who had so cleverly used deceit to his advantage, now would experience its own ugly consequence in his life. 


During this twenty-two year period in which Joseph was separated from his brothers and father, Judah moved on with his life.  Judah and Joseph had become, for the writer of Genesis, the two competing rivals in the book.   With the priority of Judah in mind, we now are introduced into another strange story in Genesis 38.  Here is one very good summary of the events that we chronicled in this chapter:


“In many societies, ancient and modern, the custom of Levirate marriage is known. According to the OT variety, the brother-in-law of a childless widow was expected to marry her to produce children for his dead brother. Dt. 25:5–10 regards such a marriage as desirable but not compulsory. However, in the earlier time of Judah and Tamar the brother had an absolute duty to marry his widowed sister-in-law, and the father-in-law was expected to see this duty fulfilled.Judah and his sons were reluctant to do their duty, and Onan practised a kind of contraception. This contravened the spirit of 1:28, the letter of the Levirate custom and the promise to the patriarchs, who had been assured they would have numberless descendants. So Onan died (10) because he had resisted God’s declared will. Judah, who should have been concerned to see his next son Shelah fulfil his legal duty and ensure the promise’s fulfilment, did nothing. Tamar, a widow, had no legal redress against her father-in-law’s injustice. So she contrived to trap him. She outwitted him and obtained her rights under the Levirate law and two sons for the household of Jacob. Indeed, one of her sons was the ancestor of David and Jesus. In the process she made a fool of Judah and showed up his hypocrisy, so that ultimately he was forced to confess, ‘She is more righteous than I’ (26). This is not to say that sleeping with one’s father-in-law is approved of; ‘And he did not sleep with her again’ (26; cf. Lv. 18:15) shows it was not. Tamar’s irregular behavior was, however, in this instance, warranted because of her father-in-law’s much greater negligence of morality and theology. It was her offbeat act that brought Judah to his senses.”[1]


In essence, the question here naturally is, what point is the author trying to get across in this story?  John Sailhamer, who had written a terrific commentary has demonstrated very clearly that this chapter is demonstrating that the seed of the messiah, which would come through Judah was nearly jeopardized at the very beginning of the narrative.  Tamar was a notable figure because she ensured that the seed of Israel would continue through Judah as God had promised.  Tamar gave birth to twin boys and in this story we find many parallels to Jacob and Esau.  Consider Sailhamer’s words at this point:


As the Jacob narrative began with an account of the struggle of the twins Jacob and Esau (25:22), so now the conclusion of the Jacob narrative is marked by a similar struggle of twins.  In both cases the struggle resulted in a reversal fo the right of the firstborn and th right of the blessing.  The result of both struggles was that the younger gained the upper hand over the elder.  As Jacob struggled with Esau and overcame him, so Perez overcame Zerah, the elder, and gained the right of the firstborn (vv. 28-29; cf. Num. 26:20, where Perez is regarded as the firstborn)” (EBC, 232).


In other words, Joseph was the chosen son of Jacob but would not be the one God would use to carry on the messianic line.  Once again a pattern has been developed and sustained throughout the patriarchal narrative.  Abraham chose Ishmael but God chose Isaac; Isaac chose Esau, but God chose Jacob; Jacob chose Rachael but God chose Leah;  Jacob chose Joseph and God chose Judah; Judah would have chosen Zerah but God chose Perez. 


God doesn’t always do things the way we think they ought to be done.  His will often seems to be a mystery to us and his ways certainly aren’t our ways.  Yet, given the way things turned out after all of these confusing events I think that we can agree with Dr. Thrasher’s assessment is correct:   God’s will is exactly what we would want if we only knew better.

cf compare

[1]Carson, D. A.: New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition. 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA : Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, S. Ge 38:1


8 Responses to “Genesis 37-38: God’s Will is Exactly What We Would Want if We Only Knew Better”

  1. smithmother Says:

    Buce, you talked about the Levirate code, the Law was not given, at that time. It must have been expected, traditionally, but it was not part of the Law. The next son would take the childless widow of his brother to raise up children to the elder brother. I believe that this also means that the child of the eldest brother stands to inherit the double portion that went to the eldest son. So that could be the reason the 2nd brother did not want to give the widow a son. The Tribe of Levi, redeemed themselves at Mt. Sinai. Though Moses & Aaron were chosen to bring Isreal out of Egypt, & they were of the Tribe of Levi, they were not considered the priestly Tribe, yet. The book of Genesis has been a favorite of mine, also every time I was expecting a child, for some reason, I liked reading the Book of Genesis. Mom

  2. Bruce Smith Says:

    You would read Genesis before having us? If I may speak for my brothers and sisters, thanks for not giving us any of the following names: Oholibamah, Jobab, Lotan, Manahath, Shepho. Zepho and Timna, et. al., 🙂

    You make many excellent points in your comments. It is true that the Mosaic Law didn’t exist during the time of Judah and Tamar’s incident yet was handled in a way very similar to Deuteronomy 25:5-10. The only difference between the two appears to be that for Judah and Tamar, there was no way out of this dilemma for the family, while in under the Law a way is provided for a man to refuse to marry his sister-in-law if marriage was something that he did not want.

    So what is the thought that we are supposed to draw from this? I am glad that you brought up this issue as it is one that I have wanted to address for some time. Throughout the book of Genesis, and particularly in Abraham’s actions, many of the patriarchs actions are shown to be carried out consistently with the stipulations of the Mosaic Law. For example, we notice particularly in chapter Genesis 14 and the war that Abraham engaged in. If you compare Genesis 14 with Deuteronomy 20:1-15 you will notice that Abraham acted in ways very similar to the way the Law would require centuries after Abraham’s death. OT scholar John Sailhamer has this to say about this particular issue:

    Abraham’s actions are described in ways reminiscent of the conduct of warfare against “cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby” (Deut. 20:15). Abraham did not hesitate to go into battle with an army greater than his (cf. Deut. 20:1). Thus the author informs =us that Abraham took with him only 318 men, a number that brings to mind Gideon’s 300 men in Judges 7:6. Abraham went into battle specifically with the only “trained men born in his household” (v. 14). . . . The use of the word here [trained], however, provides another link with Deuteronomy 20:5 where it is said that one who goes into battle should be only one who has already “dedicated” his house. . . Though he rejected the offer of a reward from the king of Sodom, Abraham laid claim to rightfully own that which his young men had eaten. In Deuteronomy 20:14b it is explicitly said that those who go into war with nations afar off may “eat” of the spoils taken in battle. Abraham also recognized that his three friends had their own rightful share in the spoil (v.24), which corresponds to the provisions of Deuteronomy 20:14. on the other hand, the offer to take from the possessions of the king of Sodom was flatly rejected by Abraham (v.23), as was prescribed in Deuteronomy 20:17 for the spoils of those nations who live within the boundaries of the land of inheritance.” Sailhamer goes on to list many more parallels between this story that we read of in Genesis and that which will be required in Deuteronomy.

    The point of this is that Abraham, though not having the Mosaic Law lived in accord with it because he had a law written on his heart. The Law written on his heart was consistent with the Law that would one day come. It is from this that we notice in the story of Judah that the customs of the patriarchs, particularly the chosen patriarch Judah, following the law’s prescription of Levirate marriage. Once again, the point was to show that while the patriarch’s did not have the written Mosaic Law, they had the law of God written on their heart.

  3. Derek Taylor Says:

    Wow, this is fascinating stuff. It is also interesting that God does reserve certain blessings for Ishmael, Esau, Joseph and Rachael. God doesn’t totally invalidate their decisions, even though He overrides them.

    Ishmael becomes a great nation; Esau is greatly blessed and also fathers many nations; Rachael was barren, but then God gave her Joseph, one of the most remarkable and inspiring men in Scripture. The pattern of Genesis 20:13, where God says:
    “And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring”
    … seems to repeat itself.

    What do you make of this? Is there any significance to this?

  4. Bruce Smith Says:

    Derek, I really think that what you say bears great significance, particularly for those who weren’t chosen to bear the favored line. One thing that this line of thinking has done for me is force me to not look so narrowly through Genesis. It also helps me also remember that God is a generous God and was concerned for everyone in these stories, not just the messianic line. Thoughts?

  5. smithmother Says:

    I have read, also something about the Hummerian law. ( I don’t have any idea about the spelling, but I think you can figure it out) If we go back to the times of Abraham & that, according to the time schedule in the back of my bible, Shem was probably still alive when Abraham was born. Propably the principles were laid down by the Lord and passed on to the suceeding generations. I believe that as people moved away from each other, they had a general idea of the Lord’s principles, and then turned them into their own as they forgot the original source.

  6. Bruce Smith Says:

    You may be thinking of Hammurabi’s Law code which I believe the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has a copy. Hammurabi’s code was written close to the time that Abraham lived and probably a little later. It seems that the book of Genesis, rather than giving the idea that Abraham continued on a previous tradition of law, etc., it demonstrates that God did something new with the former pagan, Abraham. The text seems to be leading us in the direction of demonstrating that the patriarchs, namely, Abraham and Judah obeyed the law because the law was written on their hearts even before the law was given. This is the same basic argument that Paul gives in Romans 2:15 for the reality that those who haven’t lived under the Mosaic Law, yet who are still responsible for their own sin because God has written his law on their hearts. It appears that that author is pointing out to us that while the patriarchs did not have the law, he lived in accord with it because it was written on his heart.

    So, in conclusion, it does not appear that the author is saying that the patriarchs lived according to the law because it was preserved through someone like Shem and then subsequently lost by the descendants of Abraham. It appears that the argument is that they walked with God and conducted their lives in a way that happened to be consistent with God’s later written law before Moses happened to receive it from God. They were able to live in accord with it, even though they hadn’t received it, because it was written on their hearts (e.g., Romans 2:15).

  7. Derek Taylor Says:

    My chief takeaway from this is that we should never underestimate God’s ability – and desire – to make lemonade out of our lemons. As you said, it demonstrates the heart of the father – compassionate, gracious and generous. Why wouldn’t we want to turn to Him after we’ve made a complete mess of things?

    • Bruce Smith Says:

      As usual, you have excellent insight on this. Isn’t it great that it is God’s desire to make all things glorious? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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