God Chose Them to be Patriarchs?

A sermon on Genesis 37 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/3/04

Turn with me in your Bibles to the last book, Revelation, and the second to the last chapter, 21, verse 9. An angel speaks to John, saying:

"Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb."  10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,  11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.  12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed-  13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.  14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Revelation 21:9-14 

Early next year we’ll begin a sermon series on the book of Revelation, so perhaps in June or July of 2005 I’ll preach on this text. But for now, visualize what John sees:

The holy city, the new Jerusalem, picturing the eternal dwelling place of all redeemed humanity with God, descends from heaven – filled with the glory of God. It is perfect, and will be inhabited by perfect people. God is in the midst of this city, and He will dwell with His people forevermore.

Did you note that there are two groups of twelve in this picture? The city has 12 foundations and 12 gates.

That’s quite an honor, isn’t it – to have your name inscribed over a gate of the perfected Jerusalem. It’s much more of an honor than having your face on a box of Wheaties.

What does that lead you to think concerning these men? Does it lead you to think something like this?

We’ve already seen that Jacob’s family was dysfunctional at times:

Today we’ll watch this family become even more dysfunctional. By the end of the chapter, no one looks good: not Jacob, not Joseph, not the firstborn Reuben, especially not the ancestor of Jesus, Judah.

These men don’t deserve to have their names inscribed on the gates of the New Jerusalem! They don’t even deserve to have their faces on that Wheaties box! So why does God choose to put them there?

We’ll answer that question after we consider the passage. We’ll use the following headings:

A Father’s Favoritism

Jacob lived in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. Genesis 37:1-4

These verses begin the last major section of the book of Genesis. The rest of this book will tell of God’s work in this dysfunctional family to change it to one that honors God. But as we’ll see in these first few weeks, from a human perspective things get worse before they get better.

Jacob is now 107. He has 12 sons: the first 11 are between the ages of 24 and 17, while the youngest, Benjamin, is about 1. Verse 3 tells us that Jacob loved Joseph “because he was the son of his old age.” Although Joseph is not much younger than Jacob’s first 10 sons, for about 16 years Joseph was the youngest – and, Jacob must have thought, he looked to be the last. It’s not unusual for the youngest in the family to be treated differently – and Jacob does treat Joseph differently. Indeed, he loves Joseph more than the other boys.

It’s one thing for a parent to love one child more than others – it’s quite another to show favoritism among the children. Jacob evidently did both. Verse 3 tells us he made this favoritism obvious by making him a “robe of many colors.” We don’t know exactly what this Hebrew word means. Rather than a multi-colored robe, some commentators suggest that this was a royal robe – indicating that, having been promised that kings would come from his descendants, Jacob was choosing Joseph as the first such king. But whether he is simply showing favoritism through this robe or declaring that Joseph will rule over his brothers, the robe itself is a constant irritant to Jacob’s brothers – who, like many older children, think that their age gives them a right to tell their little brother what to do.

Given all the problems in this family it would not be surprising for Jacob to look away from his older sons and toward Joseph for leadership. And Joseph may very well have a more godward orientation than his brothers – perhaps the character he displays later was already in evidence in his early teen years. But Jacob doesn’t simply let that character shine through. Instead, he bestows in Joseph an outward, constant reminder of his preference for Joseph. The other brothers perceive that their father loves Joseph greatly – and they don’t perceive love for them. That always is a recipe for disaster within a family.

The Bratty Boy

We see in verse 2 that Joseph was pasturing the flock with four of his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph  “brought a bad report” to his father concerning them. Perhaps Jacob specifically asked Joseph to check on these four, because he didn’t trust them. And perhaps they weren’t taking proper care of the sheep. But older siblings have a word they use when the youngest in the family is reporting to the parent about their wrong actions: “Brat”.

Joseph was clearly favored by their father; their father didn’t seem to love them; and their little brother was ratting on them. Their anger grows.

Then even more happens to stir up their anger:

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, "Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, mysheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf." His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?" So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?" And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind. Genesis 37:5-11

Now Joseph really had these dreams. And as we shall see, these are prophecies concerning the future. But think, now: Why did Joseph tell the dreams to his brothers? What possible reason was there to do this? They are already angry, hurt by their father’s favoritism – so why feed that anger by telling a dream that can only make matters worse?

Did Joseph have another option? Certainly. He could simply have gone to his father and told him, saying that he was confused by these dreams, and asking for his judgment.

But instead he parades these dreams before his brothers – dreams that exalt him relative to them.

The text also can’t tell us the tone of voice. There’s a lot of difference between:

Although we can’t read tone in the account, Joseph’s telling these dreams to his brothers at least displays bad judgment and probably displays – well, brattiness, thinking that he deserves to be above his brothers.

What about you? In your thoughts, do you seem to be of a higher moral character than your brothers, neighbors, or friends? How does that lead you to act towards them? Are you self-righteous and bratty? Or do you realize that only God’s grace keeps you from becoming worse than they are? Consider these words from a prayer of John Donne:

O Lord, pardon me all those sins which thy Son Christ Jesus suffered for, who suffered for all the sins of all the world; for there is no sin amongst all those which had not been my sin, if thou hadst not been my God, and antedated me a pardon in thy preventing grace.

The Bitter Brothers

All this leads to great animosity within the family. erse 4 tells us his brothers hated Joseph and “could not speak peacefully to him.”After he tells his dreams, his brothers “hated him even more” (v8) and “were jealous of him” (v 11).

I believe some of this anger and bitterness is the understandable response to Jacob and Joseph’s errors. Jacob should not have shown overt favoritism, and Joseph should not have flaunted his preferred position before his brothers.

But the major part of this anger is undeserved. Joseph indeed will rule over his brothers – that is God’s plan. And these brothers are not willing to admit that this little brat could be God’s agent FOR THEIR GOOD in the years ahead. So in rejecting Joseph, they at root are rejecting God.

This culminates in a horrible series of sins, as related in verses 12 to 35:

Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. 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." 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. And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said. "Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." 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. They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, "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." But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." And Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; cast 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. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 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. Then Judah said to his brothers, "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." And his brothers listened to him. 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. When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, "The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?" Then they took Joseph's robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 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." 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." Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 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. Genesis 37:12-35 ESV

Consider also these verses from James:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. James 4:1-2 

These brothers are hating and quarreling with Joseph because of their desire to be over him, and their father’s – and, evidently, God’s – desire that Joseph be over them. They are unwilling to submit to this – and so take matters into their own hands: seeing him dressed in the despicable robe, coming towards them, in an isolated place, they have an opportunity: Kill him now.

So the brothers take Joseph, strip him, and throw him into a pit. While he cries for mercy, they sit nearby and eat lunch while they discuss exactly what method they should use for killing him.

Thus, God’s chosen line, these men whose names will be written on the gates of the new Jerusalem, have become like Cain– the first son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother. Recall also that Cain’s descendants become a picture of all those who reject God.

And that’s exactly what these brothers are doing. Having rejected God’s plan that Joseph be their head, they try to ensure that that plan can never come about. Thus, in deciding to kill Joseph, they are not only breaking God’s moral law, they are also rejecting God Himself. The great-grandsons of Abraham become just like Cain himself, just like all humanity destroyed in the flood. It seems that God’s plan to bring a Savior from the seed of Abraham has failed – Joseph will die and the other brothers will deserve death.

But then they don’t kill him. Why not? The only human motivation is not compassion but greed. As they’re eating, they see a caravan, and Judah sees the opportunity to make a little money. As the NIV puts it, Judah says, “After all, he IS our brother.”

So they sell him to the caravan and, having dipped Joseph’s robe in goat’s blood, return home, pretending that Joseph has been killed by an animal. And this breaks their father’s heart.

The Impotent Eldest Son

Reuben, the oldest, is an interesting character. As verses 21 and 22 tell us, Reuben delays the murder by suggesting they throw Joseph into the pit. He plans to return and rescue his brother – perhaps hoping to get back in the good graces of his father after the disgrace of having sexual relations with Bilhah. But the plan fails. Reuben evidently is away when the caravan comes by, and when he returns, Joseph is already sold.

We’ll see this again later in Genesis: the disgraced Reuben makes plans, but they are always frustrated. He no longer has any leadership role in this family.

It is tempting to feel sorry for Reuben – he, after all, did have at least a modicum of compassion for Joseph. But was there really nothing else he could have done?

He could have done much more. Initially, instead of just suggesting to throw Joseph into a pit, he could have exercised leadership. He could have said, “No! This is wrong! Whatever Joseph has done to us, it doesn’t merit this response! Let him go!”

True, he would have been risking the anger of his brothers. But that’s what leadership – not to mention God’s law - requires.

Later, when he returns and finds Joseph gone, he tears his clothes and cries out, “The boy is gone and I, where shall I go?” He is frustrated that all his plans have gone awry.

But where indeed could he have gone? After the caravan! He could have pursued the Midianites and bought Joseph back. Surely the purchase price would have been more than what the Midianites had paid for him – but if he really wanted to be a leader, if he really cared for his brother, he could have caught the caravan and brought Joseph back. He does not.

The Sovereign God

Did you notice that the word “God” does not appear even once in this chapter. So does this chapter concern God?

By all means. God is behind every action. Consider:

·        Joseph’s dreams: At this point in the story, it’s not clear whether Joseph’s dreams are the result of a teenager’s illusions of grandeur or a revelation from God. But we will see that they are indeed from God.

But consider also God’s use of the sins of the brothers:

These men are responsible for their actions. Indeed, at each step they are choosing to do what they think will be best for themselves. They choose to sin.

But God is so much in control that he uses even their sins to accomplish His good purposes.

God is not mentioned – but He is very much in control.


Having seen the extent of the sin of these men, let’s return to our opening question:

Why does God put the names of these scoundrels on the gates of the New Jerusalem?

Consider: Do you remember whose names are on the foundations of that city? The apostles! And who are the most prominent apostles? Peter, James, and John. What kind of men were they?

Why are their names on the foundations of the city?

Because God transformed them and saved them by His grace! Their names do not honor THEM – their names are a testimony to God’s amazing grace.

Just so with the 12 patriarchs: As we will see in the next 13 chapters, God works all things together for their good and His glory, so that these despicable men

The world honors those who have skill, determination, persistence, and luck. Every Olympic champion this year had a healthy dose of all four. Whoever wins the presidential election will have the same. Such people the world honors.

But not God. Whom does God honor?

Where are you this morning?

Know this: The end of this story is reconciliation: Reconciliation between brother and brother, but, most of all, reconciliation between these men and God. God in His grace will use EVEN THEIR SIN AGAINST JOSEPH for the good of Joseph AND for the good of these sinners.

And then God inscribes their names over the gates of the New Jerusalem!

There are three conditions for being great in the kingdom of God

(1)     To be a sinner,

(2)     To humble yourself before God, and

(3)     to call upon the Name of Jesus.

You too can be great in God;s kingdom - not because YOU ARE great, but because God is a great, merciful, loving God.

The names of these men are over the gates of Jerusalem to show that even those who would murder their brother can be saved by God’s grace, and can become great in His kingdom.

Whatever you have done, whatever you have thought, whatever has been done to you: Know that God’s grace abounds to you. As we sang earlier:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/3/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 2, Genesis 12-36, Baker, 1985, 1998) were especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The John Donne (1572-1631) quote is from the prayer in the tenth devotion in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; this is available in its entirety at www.ccel.org/ccel/donne/devotions.html . The hymn quoted at the end is from “Before the Throne of God Above” by Charitie Lee Bancroft (1863).

Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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