The story of Genesis gets us to this point: God made that covenant, that agreement with Abraham, and now, it’s passed down through Abraham’s son, Isaac, to his son, Jacob, to Jacob’s sons. To understand where that covenant ends up, we’ll investigate the subsequent chapters of Genesis beginning with the birth of Isaac.
Isaac is pretty much a placeholder between ole Abe and Jacob… except for his childhood. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to “take your sin, your only son, whom you love and go… sacrifice him as a burnt offering”. [Cheating aside: John 3:16 sounds pretty similar doesn’t? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”] There’s part of me that wants to scream, “Abraham, what in the world are you doing?!!” But Abraham goes up the mountain, the obedient son (of the covenant) and the father (of Isaac), too. Isaac asks what’s going on (perceptively) and Abraham says God will provide the lamb (Gen. 22:8). Hebrews 11 will have some things to say about Abraham’s faithfulness but this is a less discerning faith than I think we talk about today. Could you pursue a path that involved sacrificing your own child? I couldn’t. It’s not fair to say “well, God provided…” when Abraham didn’t actually know it wouldn’t be Isaac… Let the arguments begin over that one!
Sarah dies. Isaac gets a wife (Rebekah). And then Isaac has two sons – he picks the manly one, Esau, as his favorite and shuttles his lesser son, Jacob, off to Rebekah. Does the blasé (?) near-offering moment of his childhood cause the disconnect in how he parents, or is it something else? Whatever it is, the favoritism causes discord, the mothering manipulation creates a divide, and Jacob runs away. Jacob prays to a God he doesn’t yet know, who he doesn’t believe can follow him or precede him because his understanding of a god is tied to a place and time. But God shows up, watches over him and he ends up with two wives, children, and lots of “stuff.”
But it’s not until Genesis 32:9 that Jacob really prays: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”
We’re back in Abrahamic covenant territory but this time, the ‘lesser’ (the human) is praying to God with an actual request. And we know God responds because next up, Jacob wrestles with an angel/God, refuses to give up, and earns a new name (Israel) that will be passed down as the name of the Jewish people’s nation. [I’m going to slip past the actual Biblical narrative of Genesis 34’s Dinah – not to be confused with the fictionalized recharacterization by Anita Diamant. But yes, Jacob’s sons are infuriated by their sister’s rape, so they trick a foreign nation into circumcision – and then kill them while they’re incapacitated. I guess there was no March Madness deal at the local urology company.] And then, we get back to the stories of fathers and sons…
Jacob shows favoritism to Joseph (coat of many colors in Genesis 37) and sets off a strange series of events, where Joseph’s death is faked, he’s sold into slavery, he becomes the main man in Potiphar’s house, he gets accused of rape, he ends up in prison, he interprets some dreams thanks to the power of God, and becomes the COO (chief operating officer) of Pharaoh’s storehouses just in time for a famine. You can’t make this stuff up – from top to the bottom, to the top to the bottom, to the top… and all over again several times. It’s like something out of a daytime soap: all of the family drama that plays out again and again.
Fathers who don’t know how to raise men. Men who grow up resenting their father or their brother or both, who then don’t know how to be fathers themselves. Sure, God used these men to pass down the covenant, but sin is out of the bag – it’s loose in the world, and the impacts are embedded in the DNA of family. When we fail as people, as children, as parents, it’s part of the social DNA since the very beginning. [Okay, not the very beginning – everything was good then.] But is it any wonder that we struggle, claw, and scratch our way through our family tree and interpersonal dynamics? We make the same mistakes, or find ways to make new ones. We’re broken.
[Speaking of broken, take a sidebar moment and read Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah takes Tamar as a wife for one of his sons, who dies. By all expectations, Judah’s next son would then take Tamar as a wife to give her sons, but he doesn’t because he doesn’t want the aggravation (and he won’t get the ‘credit.’) So Tamar tricks Judah, her father-in-law, into sleeping with her and gets the son/offspring she needs. It’s another strange sexual interlude – the nakedness of Noah, the drunken use of Lot – in an ongoing plot about Joseph, just hanging out there. Another one we don’t push in Sunday School, but one has to think there’s something we’re to learn about fulfilling our moral obligations, and the price we pay when we fail to put community first. Oh yeah, and you don’t want to mess with a widow!]
But still, somehow God shines through. Somehow, God works in our hearts to “make things new.” Take Joseph as my closing argument. He had plenty of reason to be angry, to hate, to resent, to want revenge. In Genesis 50:19-20, Joseph states, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” God was faithful from Abraham to Joseph, even though bad stuff happened in the DNA of fathers and sons. But each son had to make a choice, and Joseph choose to do life differently: he recognized that he was not God, and he choose forgiveness over hate, love over revenge. Can we do that in a world where families are broken, where daytime soaps are lived out in our cul-de-sacs, where people think relationships are for using, not growing?
It’s about to get rough for the Israelites in Exodus, but thanks to Joseph, Genesis has a happy ending.