Genesis is a story of generations, especially the lives of Abraham’s lineage. The first book of the Bible colorfully recounts the endurance of the covenant-heirs. To this point in the narrative they have survived threats from within and without, and at each step God’s redemptive plan had worked through both the faithfulness and failure of His covenant partners.

At the beginning of ch 37 the text does not offer a new kind of threat to the covenant family, but an elevated degree of the internal strife that had plagued them since the early days of Jacob and Esau (25.27-34; 27.1-46), noted most recently in Jacob’s fragile relationship with his sons (34.30-31). Yet these moments of tension were surpassed by the successful ruse Jacob’s sons arranged against young Joseph; nowhere before did a covenant rival have both the opportunity and the power to successfully harm another in the family. While the perceived loss of Joseph was not a technical obstruction of the covenant (Jacob yet had 11 other male children), the fact that Jacob lamented so upon hearing that a wild animal had eaten his favorite son displays no small setback for the covenant family (vv. 33-35). What would come of God’s promises when the behavior of the descendants of Abraham sinks to new lows?

Just when one cannot imagine more wicked behavior in Jacob’s sons, the biblical author recounts that family strife was not the only threat to the covenant; the greed of sexual immorality would shame them as well. As Esau lustfully sold his birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen 25.27-34; cf. Heb 12.16-17), so too Judah went in to Tamar. While Judah’s pursuit of a prostitute is repulsive, one should not overlook the fact that the underlying error of the matter was his lack of faithfulness as a family leader—he should have disciplined Onan for not having children by Tamar (Gen 38.9), and ultimately arranged for Shua to marry her (Gen 38.11-12, 26). Judah’s conviction for his lack of covenant leadership in the family, together with his sensual avarice, lead him to confess of Tamar, “She is more in the right than I” (Gen 38.26).

There may be more to the arrangement of Genesis 38-39 than a recounting of the life and times of various members of the covenant family. Judah’s decadence with Tamar may be placed just before Joseph’s ardent moral capacity to highlight the contrast between the two; Judah exploited his liberty through sexual sin (ch 38), while Joseph the slave hotly pursued purity (39.1-19). While Joseph was unjustly punished, his situation in prison was the same as that in Potiphar’s house: the LORD was with him (Gen 39.2, 21, 23). This statement is compelling in itself, but its repetition in this ch 39—coupled with Joseph’s steadfast devotion to God—provides some helpful points of application:

  1. God extends empowering kindness to us in situations of need.       God was not surprised that Joseph was in prison; He allowed it to happen, and He ultimately met Joseph’s need there—even causing his work to prosper (40.23). Further, God enabled Joseph to interpret the dreams of the baker, cupbearer, and the Pharaoh. Is He not able to help you today?
  2. God often allows us to experience ‘layers of difficulty,’ which we may ultimately recognize as the means of our deliverance. As Joseph came to the aid of the cupbearer, he would also come to the aid of the Pharaoh—yet having to wait two years for the opportunity (Gen 40.12-41.14). The fundamental question here is this: “will we complain and doubt when difficulty is multiplied, or will we faithfully await the smile of Providence through those difficulties?”
  3. God may use the difficulties you’ve endured to bring exaltation from humiliation. Church history is full of examples that illustrate these chapters; you may be next in line.

These chapters introduce a geographical motif that provides structure for the storyline of Scripture—especially the relationship between the nation of Israel and Christ. Earlier in the narrative of Genesis the LORD told Abraham, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be strangers in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterwards they will go out with many possessions” (Gen 15.13-14). Joseph’s slavery and exaltation in Egypt was the initial fulfillment of this prophecy; later Jacob and all of his descendants will follow Joseph to the land of Egypt (Genesis 46). Initially this was to sustain the Patriarchal family during a time of severe famine, but ultimately it was purposed both to show God’s redeeming power, and enrich His people (Exodus 5-15). While many believers are familiar with the move of the Patriarchal family to the land of Egypt, they may not recognize how this movement is mirrored in the initial scenes of the life of Christ. Later in the storyline of Scripture —when King Herod was planning to eliminate the potential threat of the newborn ‘King of the Jews,’—Matthew records that:

“An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Get up! Take the child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.’ So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son’” (Matt 2.13-15; cf. Hos 11.1; Exod 4.21-23)

While the vast majority of the Bible’s references to Egypt are pejorative (Isa 19-20; 30.1-17; 31.1-5; Jer 44.1-14; Rev 11.7-10), it was a place of refuge for both the young nation of Israel and the young Son of God; in the storyline of Scripture, the former always points to the latter.



*For a complete list of references, please see