Genesis 35-38: You might call him a dreamer

Welcome back! Part eleven of Genesis continues the story of Jacob’s children. Yes, some part still focus more on Jacob himself, but you’ll find that the story steers away from him in a bit. The next few chapters lead into a story rather than focus on a singular line so I’ll refrain from giving an overview and just dive right in.

Chapter thirty-five

This chapter opens with God telling Jacob to go back to the place that He had visited him and build an altar and to make Him the only God for the entire household. I find it strange that this is even necessary, except for the one’s that Rachel has stolen from her father a while back. It just always seemed to me that Abraham’s people had all worshipped the same God and that was part of the thing with him being chosen and his family line and all that, but apparently not. The things were gathered and dispensed with before another visit from God takes place.

Here we have the promise and the renaming replayed before they continue their journey. So far, Rachel has had only had one child, Joseph, and it’s on this leg of the journey that she has a second son. Unfortunately, Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried in that area and Jacob erects a pillar over her tomb. Jacob has now been renamed Israel and has twelve sons.

This is followed by a random mention that Rueben, his first born who came by Leah, slept with one of his concubines and that Israel heard of it. I wonder if that’s going to come in to play later.

The chapter ends with Jacob finally making it back to his father and Isaac’s death at 180 years old and that he was buried by his sons. I also want to note that in this chapter and after, the name of Jacob flips between Jacob and Israel. I found it interesting because Abraham was just Abraham as soon as he was renamed.

Chapter thirty-six

Here we have it spelled out that the boys separate because they have too much stuff to stay together. It is also stressed that Esau is now referred to as Edom and that he is the father of the Edomites. Then they are spelled out, in detail. There are the generations and the chiefs and the kings and on down the line for quite some time.

Chapter thirty-seven

And this is where things really pick up again. It is pointed out that Joseph was the favorite son “because he was the son of his old age”. This sounded strange to me, so let’s take a look at Joseph. He is the first son from Rachel who was the wife that he actually loved. He had also been the baby of the family until Benjamin was born in chapter thirty-five. Now, first borns do have a bit of a preference so far, except in terms of the mother. When Ishmael was first, it was only cool until Isaac was born who was the “true” heir because his mother was the wife of Abraham. Now, we have Joseph who was the firstborn of Rachel who was the wife that Jacob actually wanted. It stands to reason that this why he was the favorite. He was the firstborn he should have had. If you’re thinking that it was because he was the baby, then Benjamin might have usurped that position, except for his mother’s untimely death.

We can rationally say that it wasn’t his fault that his mother died, but people aren’t alway rational and it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Jacob may have not only blamed him, but was mad at him for it. This would preclude him from taking over as the favorite, even if it wasn’t normally a “firstborn” thing. The actual firstborn was Rueben and he had come to Leah. Again, I think it’s the status of the mother that plays the primary role here. Had Jacob not been swindled into marrying Leah, he wouldn’t even have Rueben. He may have occasionally wished that he had only had one wife and one child the whole time. Again, they are just people and we are complex creatures. Let us not forget that rationale given in the beginning to why he was favorite, though. It comes back to the age thing. He was the son of his old age. Perhaps Jacob reacted in a way that is not uncommon for modern men when they wait long enough to really want a kid before they have one and can afford it and relax a little.

There’s what feels like the intro to a story that we don’t get to hear when they talk about Jospeh pasturing with two brothers and giving a bad report to their father because it just goes on to the whole favorite thing. There’s also the inclusion of the “robe of many colors” that Joseph is depicted wearing in all the children’s book versions of the story.

Joseph is the dreamer.

Like for many of us, his dreams don’t appear to be a good thing at first. When he shares his dreams with his father and brothers, they all appear to be annoyed with him. It’s understandable because all the dreams center around him being bowed down to. First it’s just the brothers, and the next dream introduces imagery that the parents will bow as well. I can see how that could annoy me too.

What the brothers do about these dreams is something that is cleaned up and mentioned in children’s Bible stories. Let us not do that. Let’s take a minute and look at this from a real world perspective.

Jacob sends Joseph to find out how his brother’s are doing and he sets about searching for them. When they see him coming, they conspire to kill him and tell their father that he was eaten by a wild animal. It has said that they hated him a few times before this, but how much do you have to hate your sibling to decide he has to die?

Not everyone felt that way, though, because the eldest stops them. As the eldest, he would likely be considered “in charge” of the others and blamed for his death. At the same time, he would be the one who had the most to gain from Joseph’s absence. He knows that he can’t just dissuade them, so he has the brilliant idea to just get them to throw him in a pit instead of killing him. The others agree that this is a better plan and Rueben apparently goes away. In his absence, Judah has the great idea that they could make a little money off their brother instead of just letting some wild animal actually kill him. So they SELL HIM INTO SLAVERY!

Seriously, how pissed do you have to be at your brother? These are the same brothers, by the way, that conspired to kill that whole other town because the prince of it raped their sister. Murderous rage is not a stretch for them and they don’t quite realize how misplaced it is with their little brother. On the other hand, this had to happen for the rest of Joseph’s story to pan out. I have to wonder what Joseph was thinking. I wonder if it was somewhere along the lines of: Oh, yeah, you really will bow down, if it’s the last thing I do!

If you think about it, this could have been the making of a great Disney villain, but Joseph is far too good a kid for that.

Getting back to our story, Rueben returns and freaks out that Joseph is gone and joins them in covering the whole thing up to their father. Their father, Israel, is understandably upset and mourns his lost son. He has now lost his favorite wife and his favorite son. Things are looking pretty low for Israel right about now.

Chapter thirty-eight

The next chapter then has nothing at all to do with Joseph or Jacob/Israel, which I found annoying but has not been odd for this book. We segue from the main story to hit upon the plight of Judah and his sons. The study section of my Bible notes that while this doesn’t appear important now, it plays a major role later when we get to the geneaologies of David and Jesus later.

Here we find a perfectly good woman in a bad situation. Judah marries his firstborn son to Tamar. Then it says an interesting thing:

But Er, Judah’s firstborn was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death.

This seems a bit extreme. There has been lots of wickedness so far, what did this one guy do to deserve this? Since the original recorder of this story wouldn’t know the full gravity of the coupling, perhaps he was put to death for other reasons or it was an accidental death. It even goes on to say that Judah insisted the next son get with her and at least give her a child to represent his brother’s child but he doesn’t want to. It is said that he also is put to death for being wicked because he “would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother”. Again, this seems a little extreme. Wasting semen is directly punished by God but none of the other horrible acts mentioned so far have been? Personally, I’m not buying it. It sounds like conjecture on the part of the recorder of the story, especially since there isn’t an account of God talking to them as there has been in other stories. Punishment had thus far been preceded by inquiry.

This poor widow must now return to her father’s house and await the youngest son to come of age before they try this again. But Tamar, the widow, isn’t having it. Yes, she goes back to her father’s house, but then she plots on Judah.
Okay, plotting may sound a little extreme. However we word it, though, she has decided that going on without children and living in her father’s house was not about to be what she is going to do. She takes matters into her own hands. Sometime after Judah’s wife dies, she sees her opportunity.
There is no mention of concubines for him, so perhaps he was the first man in the family to not have one, but he seems alright with sleeping with prostitutes and she must have known that before she sets herself as one in order to sleep with him. She thinks the whole thing through, and makes a trade that later clearly identifies him as the father of her children when she does become pregnant from the encounter.
Now, I won’t defend the way she went about it, which was dishonestly. It isn’t excuse by the dishonesty with which she had been previously treated by the family, mostly the sons. At the same time, she is just a person, like the others in this story who have done a multitude of dishonest and sometimes horrific things.
It is from this union that she has twins who seemed to have been fighting over who was coming out first while still in the womb. A hand of one comes out first and then the whole of the other and the whole of the last. As someone who has given birth, though not naturally, this whole seen is just horrifying. I can’t even.

So there are my feelings and impressions on the Chs 35-38 of Genesis. Have you read them? What do you think?

Chapter links go to the ESV translations at but I’m reading from the ESV Global Study Bible, which is available for free on the Kindle Reading App.

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