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A Picture & Invitation to Salvation | Genesis 37:2-38:30

As preached by Timothy O'Day.


"God works in unexpected ways because his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways."


1) The Lord works unexpected salvation.

2) The Lord gives unexpected grace.


A Picture and Invitation to Salvation

Genesis 37:2-38:30

January 7, 2024


We are all prone to hoist images on to God and to domesticate him into an image of ourselves. That is to say, we think God is harsh and unforgiving because we have experienced—and are ourselves—harsh and unforgiving. 


But God is not like us. He himself makes this point in Isaiah 55:8. After exhorting sinners to turn to him so that he may have compassion on them, the Lord says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Do you see what the Lord is saying here? In calling sinners to come to him for compassion, those who really understand how wicked sin is are want to say, “No way. He won’t have me. My sin is too great.” This sounds modest, but in fact it is thinking less of God than you should. His mercy is so deep it is shocking; his grace is so unrelenting that it seems too good to be true. But here he is, telling us not to domesticate him to the level of our hard heartedness. 


This is always important for us to know and to remember, but particularly so in moments of great loss and hardship. You can think of moments in history and ask, “Why would God let this happen?” Even more, you can think of moments in your life and think, “Why would God let this happen?” In such moments, it is easy to imagine God as cruel, uncaring, or impotent. But the Bible will not allow us to walk away pinning any of those descriptors on God. 


So what are we to say in those moments? Genesis 37:2-38:30 begins to give us the answer. It does does answer the specific “why” for what is happening in your life, but it does help us see that God is not cruel, uncaring, or impotent. These chapters, and the ending of Genesis, show us that God’s mercy and grace is working on a level that we are not yet able to see. 


The story of Joseph and Judah that will occupy the remaining chapters in the book of Genesis display this truth preeminently, and it is these two figures that are the main focus of Genesis 37 and 38. But even as these two men are the figures driving the story of these chapters, who we are ultimately learning about is God and how his ways and thoughts are higher—greater—than ours. So high in fact that we simply do not expect them. Let me show you this by looking at each chapter. 




  1. The Lord Works Unexpected Salvation (Genesis 37)

Genesis 37:2 contains a refrain that is familiar throughout Genesis: “These are the generations of Jacob.” This refrain of “these are the generations of…” have marked out new sections throughout the whole book. This marks our entrance into the last major section of Genesis that depicts the story of Jacob’s children. Each time this refrain is given, we are introduced into what God is doing and who he is using to do it. 


In Genesis 2:4, we are introduced to the generations of the heavens and the earth and quickly land on Adam


In Genesis 5:1, we are introduced to the generations of Adam and quickly land on Noah.


In Genesis 10:1, we are introduced to the generations of the Sons of Noah, and quickly land on the inhabitants of Babel.


In Genesis 11:10, we are introduced to the generations of Shem, which takes us to the generations of Terah in Genesis 11:27, and this quickly lands on Abraham.


In Genesis 25:19, we are introduced to the generations of Isaac, and we quickly land on Jacob.


Now, in Genesis 37:2, we are introduced to the generations of Isaac, and quickly land on Joseph in the same verse, so our eyes should quickly see him as significant. 


In all of these sections, God is moving along his promise from Genesis 3:15 to bring about one who will crush the serpent and reverse the curse that is over the earth. Joseph is God’s chosen instrument to preserve his people and thus this promise, but the way he will bring about this preservation is unexpected. Let me walk through what this chapter says—with a few applications for us along the way—in order to see how this is so.


Joseph is God’s Chosen Instrument

37:3 tells us that Joseph was favored by his father Jacob, and this favor did not go unnoticed. Being his favorite, Jacob made Joseph a special robe that set him apart. Added to this, Joseph also sincerely sought to please his father, so he spoke honestly about his brothers poor work habits to him, as we see in verse 2.


The result of this is clearly set out in verse 4: they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him. 


But this wasn’t the only thing that raised his brother’s ire. Joseph had a dream in which he and his brothers were binding sheaves. In his dream, his sheave rose above all and his brothers sheaves bowed down. In verse 8 tells us how his brothers interpreted this dream, saying “Are you indeed to reign over us.” What was the result of telling them this dream? The latter half of verse 8 tells us, “They hated him even more.” 


Verses 9-11 tell us about another dream that Joseph had. In this one, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. After hearing this dream, even his father rebuked him. But the result still differs between his father and his brothers. His brothers, as we see in verse 11, are jealous of him. Jacob, though, kept the saying in mind. That is to say, he did not like the idea of it, but he could not help but remember, most likely, that God had exalted him above his brother Esau in an unexpected way. 


Now, before we move on to the next part of the chapter, let me issue a warning that issues forth from these verses. Beware being blinded to God’s kindness by your own prejudice. Jacob clearly showed favoritism and this caused relational conflict. Joseph’s brothers hated him and were jealous of him because he really did receive attention from their father that they did not. But this blinded them to what God was doing. These dreams clearly revealed that God had something special in store for Joseph, but instead of rejoicing in God’s kindness, they were jealous. 


Are you blinded to the good that God is doing because he is using a means or a person that you dislike? Whose kingdom do you want to come? God’s or your own? Beware of prejudice against others and hunger for your own glory to blind you to God’s great work of mercy and grace. 


Joseph Unwanted by His Brothers

Joseph did not express hostility toward his brothers. In verses 12-18, Jacob sends Joseph to go and check on his brothers. When he is unable to find them, he doesn’t simply give up and go tell his dad that his good for nothing brothers aren’t where they are supposed to be. No, he was sent on this mission by his father and he will finish it out for the good of his brothers. 


In verses 18-24, we see what happens when his 10 brothers see him coming toward them. They resemble Cain in their jealousy and plot his murder, specifically calling him a dreamer. Don’t miss this: it is because of God’s appointed role for Joseph that his brothers want to kill him. It isn’t that they believe the dreams are from God and they want to work against them; it is that they hate their brother and view him as a pretender and usurper of what they deserve: glory, favor, and preeminence. 


It is only by the pleadings of Rueben that Joseph isn’t killed right away. He tells them not to take his life but instead to put him into the pit. It isn’t that Rueben is saying, “Don’t kill him.” He is saying, “Don’t use your own hands to kill him; let him expire in the pit.” This was a ruse on his part. He wanted to come back after they left in order to save him and restore Joseph to his father. Notice that Rueben is not excluded from being jealous and hating Joseph. It isn’t love for Joseph that makes him do this. It is love for his father—or perhaps a way to win back favor with his father after laying with his concubine. 


Let’s pause again and check our own hearts in light of what we are reading. Joseph spoke what God revealed to him, and knowing their family history and the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the brothers should have not treated Joseph dreams with such contempt. To say, “we will see what will become of his dreams,” smacks of the same voice as saying of Jesus while he is on the cross, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35). Such a statement betrays a lack of faith in what God has revealed. 


Do you know that when you attack people living out God’s decree, you are really attacking God? This is what Jesus means when, speaking to his disciples, he says “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). 


This is a reality that should comfort and confront you. It is a comfort because you can remember that when you share the gospel and you are rejected, it isn’t personal rejection. You can forget yourself and remember that the Lord is pleased that you spoke words of life. While the message may be rejected, you can forget yourself and plead with this one to receive the gospel. It isn’t about you, and that is comforting and freeing.


But this word should also confront you. If you are an unbeliever and someone shares the gospel with you, you may want to reject it, but you are not rejecting man; you are rejecting God. If you are a believer and a brother or sister confronts you about your sin, you may feel a strong desire to write them off. Don’t do it. You will find yourself rejecting and fighting against God. That will only lead to more pain and trouble. 


Joseph Spared Death

In verses 25-36, we see that the brothers sit down to eat after throwing Joseph into a waterless pit. While they are eating, they come, to a degree, to their senses. They see a caravan of traders going to Egypt, and Judah speaks up: what good is it to kill Joseph? After all, killing their own brother is too extreme an act. Why not sell him? That way they can get rid of him, be free of the weight of murdering him, and make some money at the same time. And that is what they do. They sell him for twenty shekels of silver and Joseph is taken to Egypt. 


Here lies another danger for the sinful heart to beware: how easy it is to trade in sins for those we think lesser. An idea of lust comes to your mind, but instead of acting on it you simply dwell on it saying, “this is better.” A malicious thought comes into your mind against another person, but instead of slandering that person you merely day dream about doing so because, after all, it is better. “I don’t commit adultery, I just view porn; I don’t steal, I just lie on my taxes; I don’t murder, I just stew in cool anger on my couch.” Brothers and sisters, this isn’t holy or pleasing to the Lord. It isn’t beneficial to your soul. Don’t trade in one sin for another that seems more acceptable.  Flee them all!


Joseph’s brothers don’t flee. They fall for the lie of trading one sin for another. Rueben returns, but instead of finding Joseph and rescuing him, he sees that he is gone. What is he to do? He joins in the lie with his brothers. They cover Joseph’s robe in blood and show it to their father, who falls into deep grief. Upon seeing this grief, they try to comfort him. But the one tool that could possibly comfort him, the truth, they withhold. 


Herein lies another danger for the sinful heart. Sin promises freedom. They thought by taking away Joseph, they would gain their father. But now they have less of him. He is broken by grief. And the only thing that could restore him, telling him the truth about the matter, would make them further from him. Sin promises freedom, but it traps you. After we sin, we have a choice: confess and move toward real restoration, or live in a fake world of your own making. For now, the brothers choose the latter. 


Joseph Saves in an Unexpected Way

But what does any of this have to do with God saving in an unexpected way? It all hangs on verse 36, “Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potipher, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.” 


If you are unfamiliar with this story, chapter 37 is another incident that makes you want to cry out, “how long, O Lord?” Such injustice is hard to take. But, as the story progresses, what you come to see is that while Joseph’s brothers only meant evil in these actions, God meant it for the good of his people. For eventually a famine will develop in the land and Joseph will raise up to preeminence, store food for the time of famine, and this food will be used to preserve Jacob and his whole family. In the very same action that the brothers meant to destroy Joseph, God meant to preserve and save his people from starvation and provide for them so that his promise can come to pass. 


If all you had was chapter 37 and you were told, “See, God is saving and preserving his people,” it would be hard to see, would’t it? It is only as the rest of the story unfolds that it becomes clear. 


Yet, this chapter and the rest of Joseph’s story is given to us as a picture of God’s ultimate salvation to come. How is it a picture for us? In this chapter, we have a son who is uniquely beloved to his father. He is sent on a mission to find his brothers, but his brothers reject him. He was then thrown into a pit, the certain pit of death, but then suddenly escaped that pit only to be taken away to a place where he would be crowned with power and glory. 


Let me make sure you see all of the significance of this. God the Father sent his only Son into the world; he took on flesh and lived a life of perfect obedience under the law. He came to his own people, but they rejected him. He was crucified and entered into the pit of death, but he suddenly escaped death through his resurrection. He then ascended to the right hand of the Father and is crowned in glory. All authority in heaven and on earth is his. 


Joseph’s betrayal, taste of death, and removal led to the salvation of God’s people from famine and physical death. Jesus’ betrayal, taste of death, and removal led to the salvation of God’s people from sin and eternal death.


God did this with Joseph in order to save the brothers who betrayed him; God sent Jesus to die in order to save all who betrayed him with sin. 


What This Means for You

God gave us these pictures of his plan of salvation in the Old Testament so that we could recognize Jesus. If you were sent to meet someone that you had never met before, getting the person’s photograph would be an invaluable help. In giving us these types in the Old Testament, God is giving us pictures of the great salvation to come in Christ. 


Upon seeing this plan laid out in the Old Testament, we should do two things: marvel at God’s kindness to show us the way and believe in Jesus Christ whom he has sent. 


Don’t miss this gift of salvation. When Jesus went to the cross, those who plotted his death meant it for evil, but God meant it for the good of his people. Jesus went to the cross to bear the penalty for sin so that all who trust in him would be forgiven and brought into the Kingdom of God. 


By faith, you can enter into this Kingdom and receive this great gift. 


But inevitably, when we hear about this great salvation, we rightly do not feel worthy of it. Truly, we are not worthy of it. We do not expect God to be kind enough to do this, which is why he gives us Genesis 38.


  1. The Lord Gives Unexpected Grace (Genesis 38)

In Genesis 38, the story of Judah is laid out before us. Verse 8 tells us that after Judah instigated the sale of Joseph into slavery, these events occurred. Chapter 38, then, is contemporaneous with much of what happens as we read about Joseph in the following chapters of Genesis. So what happens in this chapter?


Judah walks in the ways of Esau. He marries a woman of the land and has sons that are wicked like him. He takes a wife, Tamar, for Er, his oldest, but Er is so wicked that the Lord kills him. No other information is given because it is not pertinent for the point of this passage. All we need to know is that Er died. 


What comes next is strange to us in our day and age. Er’s younger brother, Onan, was called upon to raise up children for his brother Tamar. Later on in the Mosaic Law, there is a code given for brothers to raise up offspring for deceased brothers so that their names will not die out. That law shows us that culturally this was a normal duty of the brother and the widow in order to honor the deceased man. 


Onan, knowing that the children would not be counted as his own, despised this duty. Like his father before him, he did not want to see his brother honored. So instead of raising up children, he played at doing so and spilled his seed on the ground instead. For this, Onan experienced the same judgment of God that Er experienced: death. 


Instead of seeing the cause of death as the wickedness of his sons, Judah blames Tamar. You see that he does this in that he promises his youngest son to her, but claims he isn’t old enough yet. So she needs to wait. But once he is old enough, Tamar isn’t given to him. So she has to wait. She is in her father’s house, but she is not free to remarry. Judah has trapped her with this lie. 


After some time, Judah’s wife dies. When he goes up to shear his sheep, Tamar gets an idea. This plan is not a pure one: she pretends to be a prostitute, lies with Judah, and becomes pregnant by him. That she thought this plan would work on Judah shows you just how wicked he is. When he propositions her, he leaves his staff and ring as a pledge that he will send a young goat to her. But when he sends the goat, she is gone with the items.


Three months later, it is reported to Judah that Tamar was pregnant by immorality. Judah is incensed. He calls for her to be brought out and burned. The man who has no problem laying with a prostitute also has no problem condemning them. He is wicked in his pursuits and in his judgments. 


But Tamar sends to him the signal ring, the cord, and the staff. Irrefutable evidence that he was the father. His response is recorded in verse 26, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah.” 


Judah is humiliated by his wickedness, but he is also changed. The indication of this change comes at the end of verse 26, “And he did not know her again,” but it is soon most cogently in what Judah does in future chapters in Genesis. Like Jacob, Judah is humiliated in his wickedness and changed. 


Judah and Tamar Are the Line of Jesus

What we also see now, in verses 27-30, is that Tamar gives birth to twins. In this birth, Zerah seems to be coming first, as the midwife ties a scarlet thread around his hand. Then, however, he retreats and his brother Perez comes out first. This should draw our minds back to Jacob and Esau, where Jacob was born second but took preeminence. Without making an explicit statement, in the course of the narrative we are to connect these two events and see that Judah’s line, particularly his union with Tamar, is the line that will lead to the child of promise. 


And, sure enough, when you read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew one, it is Judah and Tamar who are in that line. 


Don’t Count Yourself Out of This Gift of Salvation

After reading about Judah in chapter 37, and then Judah and Tamar in chapter 38, this is simply not what you would expect. You would expect the child to come from Joseph. After all, he is the one should into slavery and continues to entrust himself to God. Why Judah? Why Tamar? 


So that you would read in the genealogy of Jesus and say, “those sinners? They are part of the line of promise? They are in the family of the Savior?” And so they are, but not because they are good. They are in the line because God is good and gracious. And this reassures us that sinners like you and me can be part of God’s family, too. 


Don’t miss God’s gift of salvation in Christ. Don’t count yourself out of salvation. His ways are higher than your ways and his thoughts are higher than your thoughts. HIs grace for sinners is greater than you have ever dared to dream. So leave your life behind and come to Christ. He will claim you; he will change you; he will protect you.

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