Dr Clifford Denton.
Vayeshev: Genesis 37:1-40:23.
9th December 2023/Kislev 26. 2nd Day of Chanukah
There we were binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed, your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf (Genesis 37:7).
Picture by Helen McNeill
Much of our view of Jacob’s family comes with hindsight. Thousands of years have passed since they lived. We know so much more of God’s Covenant plans through Israel’s later history: what God spoke through the Prophets, the fulfilment of all God’s purposes manifest in Yeshua HaMashiach, and the clarity of the teaching from the Books of the New Testament. Hindsight is a great aid to understanding of course, but we can still grieve over the events that took place in this specially chosen family.
Nevertheless, those without such biblical insight could judge the day-by-day life of Jacob’s family simply as having the ordinary struggles that many families have today. Sibling rivalry is widely accepted as a normal process of family life. Anyway, didn’t Jacob do well to provide for his family? With large flocks and teaching his children how to care for them, they would have prosperity as they grew older. There was always food to eat and a home to live in despite the pressures of society around them. We might hope for the same for ourselves, doing what we can to bring up our families within today’s pressures of life.
Yet the Bible is available for us to study, and it is foolish to ignore its lessons – a great privilege for us which Jacob did not have! James spoke of the Torah as a mirror where we can look and see ourselves – our own nature – and learn the path of wisdom (James 1:23-25):
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law (torah) of liberty and continues in it and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul wrote of Moses teaching being examples from which we should learn.
We are not looking at just any family when we consider the family of God, and we are to study the Scriptures and apply the teaching to our own lives. We have already read much about Jacob, his wives and the children who were born to be the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Jacob was both a man like us but also, with his new name Israel, he was appointed for God’s special purposes as head of the chosen people. But he made mistakes which spoilt the better outworking of his family responsibility. The wrestling at Peniel typifies the struggle between the natural man and the call of God. There are many “ifs” that we might consider, including the taking of more than one wife as the bearer of his children. It was not completely within his control as we recall what Laban did to him, causing Leah to be a wife as well as Rachel. But should he have taken their maidservants as wives too? This as well as other incidents with his children impacted the testimony of his life before God. Theologians have their differing views as to the power of personal choice compared with the sovereignty of God. God was indeed sovereign in ensuring that the covenant thread of history would not be broken, but to try to put answers to all the “ifs” into theological boxes will always fall short of the mark. Our logic is far inferior to the thoughts and ways of the God of Creation and the God of history.
Yet learn we must, and that learning is so that our lives will bring forth the best testimonies possible in our walk with God. On the one hand, we should find ourselves full of worship to God for all He does to help us. On the other hand, are the frailties of natural man. Take, for example, the incident that brought Judah and Tamar together to bring forth children. A deeply sad moment for the forefather of the Jews, yet even that did not prevent the Messiah’s human genealogy from including Tamar and Perez. In Yeshua’s genealogy, listed in Matthew 1:3, we read, Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. The redemptive purposes of Yeshua’s birth, death and resurrection is far higher than Judah’s error of judgment.
This is a deep encouragement when we find circumstances in our own lives that we regret but they can still be wonderfully redeemable through faith in our Saviour. Nevertheless, as the Apostle Paul strongly warned us (Romans 5), we must not sin that grace may abound!
As we consider this week’s Torah portion, we may well find grief in our hearts at some of the things we read. It is a grief from an expectation of a better account of this special family, but the grief may also reflect on our burden for our own world – we are looking into a mirror and see ourselves through the act of others. Family life is very much in tatters for many people today. There is difficulty to face for our own family in treading a perfect path. The Torah is indeed a mirror to help us.
We might wonder at the favouritism shown by Jacob to Joseph, making his other sons jealous and angry. However, we recall how precious Joseph was because of Jacob’s beloved Rachel who took so long to bear a child and was now believed to be dead. God Himself showed special favour to Joseph, but did Joseph respond wisely in the way he told of his dreams? Where did this tendency for the reactions of most of Jacob’s sons originate? As we asked last week, had Jacob failed as a father in some ways already?
An emphasis of the importance of Jacob’s family responsibility lies in the first few words of our portion: This is the history of Jacob. Joseph…….. Jacob’s story was the story of the whole family especially the outworking of his children’s lives. We must be careful of a commonly held view in our modern day that we must not live our lives through our children – our own life history will be viewed, as was Jacob’s, as integrated with our family, especially our children in their years of growing up. Many of today’s children are given too much freedom while their parents pursue their own interests independent of them. Jacob’s life was described in our portion, and it was also manifested in the life of his sons. As Psalm 127 says (verse 3), Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Our children are precious gifts from the Lord, which we recall was clearly so for Jacob and his wives.
We will observe many things relating to family, from the mirror of our Torah portion. Last week, we considered the responsibility of parents to teach their children the ways of God. But children also have responsibility. Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 6:1-4 is very relevant: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
Jacob’s unwise favouritism of Joseph provoked the other brothers to wrath, but the brothers also must bear blame. Their actions were wrong, and they knew it when they sold their brother into slavery and brought huge grief to their father. One detects a love and respect within the family beside this incident, but they were not strong enough to withstand temptation to sin, revenge and evil. We will discover that God’s plans were not thwarted, but at what human pain?
Whether we are a child or a parent, or both, whether we have brothers and sisters or not, we are building a testimony through the way we live and grow together. It is a high calling to bring up our children in the ways of God and, within it, for our children to live together in harmony. It is achievable, but less and less families achieve it as the world in general turns away from God’s ways. This makes it even more important for us to study the Scriptures and mirror its teaching in our lives for the good.