The book of Genesis is completely about God’s sovereign providence and the response that he demands form his people. From beginning to end, the book is about how God made world-shaking promises and constantly demonstrated his powerful control by bringing those promises to fruition through and despite the actions of his people and all of humanity – good, bad, faithful and unfaithful.
(God is not just the one who promises and fulfils, he is the one who is completely in control of everything, so that he can promise and fulfil, and all we have to do is trust him and do what he says
As a result, God called his people to act faithfully. That means doing what he called them to do, and not trying to be in control of things that they were not given authority over. When God’s people tried to bring about God’s promises under their own power – whether it be children, wealth or protection – God instead showed that he had a better plan and their unfaithful efforts were futile.
It is important to give this book extra attention because it forms the theological foundation of the rest of the Old Testament and the New. The account of God’s creation of the world, his formation of Israel, and his promises of global blessing (fulfilled in Jesus) for the basis of the rest of the Bible. As such, the massive presence of God’s sovereign control in this text demonstrates that this is a major foundation of all the theology that is to follow.
The following is an extended consideration of Genesis highlighting the themes of providence and human response, and justifying my conclusion above. It was written as I read through the book and has not yet been edited.
The Bible opens with God’s creation. Among the many theological statements that this reality supplies is a powerful foundation for God’s providence. God is in control of everything because he created everything. God’s astonishing power is demonstrated by creating through nothing but a word. There is no effort, not battle, no wrestling with primal forces: he speaks “let there be” and there is.
This complete, effortless, power translates directly into God’s providence. If God created it, then he is in control of it. The focus in Genesis 1 on the great powers of the ancient world – sun, moon, stars, sea monsters etc – highlights that God created even these forces. Therefore, not even these forces lie outside of his absolute control.
I wonder if there is anything to say from the concept of ‘Rest’ in Genesis 2? God’s creation of the world was towards a purpose, so his providential control of that world has the same purpose?
The rest of Genesis 2 expands on the themes of Genesis 1 in God’s control over creation. In this case, we see it as an expression of his care and love of humanity. It is his love for Adam that makes him create Eve so that humanity can live in community and mutual love. His love for creation causes him to set humanity to care for it and tend it.
More has been said about Genesis 3 in Judgement in Genesis, but it is worth noting that God’s actions in punishing Adam and Eve are the out working of his sovereignty. He is in control, he set the rules, and he enacts the punishment. Following this even, however, God re-shows his providential care for his people. In the Biblical world-view, there is an emphasis on the fact that children are not just a natural consequence that can be relied on. Rather, children are a gift from God (see Isaac, Samuel, John etc). The simple fact of having children is a powerful proof of God’s providential care of humanity. The birth of Cain and Abel are evidence of God’s continued care for Adam and Eve, and his continued demonstration of that care through his power.
This cycle is repeated with Cain. It is God who steps in and punishes the crime. In the fall-out of this murder, a new child is born, showing God’s continued care.
In Lamech, we see the first example of God NOT punishing a crime. Here we see a very important challenges to the doctrine of providence – what do we do with people who do bad things but get away with them?
Again, the Flood is an example of God’s providential work through Judgement. However, it is worth noting the scope of the judgement. This is not cursing a single man, it is flooding the entire land up to the mountains. In the context of the splitting of the waters in Genesis 1, this passage is clearly painting an image of un-creation, of reversing the creation. It is literally earth-shattering power that God is bringing to bear. This is not a God who used all his power in creation and then steps back except for a nudge here or there, this is the creation God showing that he is still in complete control of his world and can do what he wants with it. it is an image of total authority.
And, in this case, God calls for his people to participate. Here we see the first example of divine-human interaction in God’s providential work. The pattern we see here is that God is in complete control: he sets the plan, and he makes it work. In that plan, he gives his people a limited role of participation that makes a positive contribution, but is not “doing it”. Noah has the role of saving people and animals from the coming wrath – a redemptive role, not a judging one. God does the judging, and calls Noah to assist in the saving.
It is too early to see a pattern of what kinds of actions God calls his people to do. However, we do see a pattern of how humanity is to respond to God’s providential care. That is: God is in complete control, he is performing his mighty works, our role is to play the part/s that he has set for us and to do them faithfully.
God’s providential power in judgement is also shown in his providential care of the people and animals in the Ark. He keeps them alive (despite what would be pretty awkward conditions) and brings them safely to dry land. This is not a case of “God judges and humanity saves”, rather it is “God judges and God saves and humanity plays a small part”
Even by chapter 8, when the water has receded and the ark has hit dry ground, it is notable that we are told that God commanded Noah to come out of the Ark. Is this narratival style, or was Noah waiting for his next instructions? When in a situation where God is so completely and obviously in control, maybe Noah’s smarted move was to sit and wait to be told what to do next!
And in verse 21-22, God makes a promise that his providential care for the world will continue for the life of the earth, while at the same time commanding humanity to return to their original task of filling (and, implicitly, ruling) it. This command is followed by the tables of the nations, showing exactly how that command was carried out (at least until Babel). In the Biblical pattern of children being a blessing from God, rather than a taken-for-granted process, this expansion and growth is further evidence of God’s providential care for his people.
Again, Babel is an example of God’s sovereignty in his judgement. this time he expresses his power by scattering the nations and confusing their languages. this is the first example of a major theme in the OT, which is God’s authority over the movements of the nations – even the nations that do not worship him, and do not live in his geographical “sphere of influence” (in contrast to a standard belief in ANE henotheism). God is God of everywhere, and of everyone. He made the nations to be what they are, and controls them as they are. The table of the nations on either side of the Babel incident further emphasises the degree to which God is responsible for the creation of every nation.
12-15 – The Promises to Abraham
In Genesis 12, we see a further example of the response appropriate to God’s sovereignty. In this case, Abraham is told to “go”; to leave the the safety, support and family ties of his homeland and go into a foreign and hostile land. God them promises blessing, descendants and land. From this moment on, the main narrative of the book of Genesis is focussed on how God is going to fulfill these promises given in chapters 12 and 15. Genesis is a book about God’s providence and faithful (and not faithful) responses to it.
The scope of the promises quickly becomes clear. In verses 6-7 we see not only the promise of land, but the promise of a specific land. Not only that, it is a specific land that is already inhabited by another people – a people known for their military power. This is a fundamentally political promise. Abraham wanders freely through the land, but this only emphasizes the immensity of the task at hand. Abraham and his family are small enough to wander around within the society, they are not big enough to conquer it! Secondly, jumping ahead to chapter 15, the promise of descendants is equally fraught. Abraham and Sarah are very old and childless. In human terms, the promise of children is patently ridiculous.
(Note: Further promises 13:14-18, )
The next chapters outline various scenarios that paint a bigger picture of God’s providence, and good and bad responses to it.
The first incident immediately follows the promises of chapter 12. Abraham finds himself In Egypt with Sarah, and worries that someone might kill him to take her, so instead he lets Pharaoh take her as his wife. Was this a good decision? In human terms it was: Abraham found himself in an impossible situation, and he needed to do whatever was necessary to survive so that he could continue on and see God’s promises fulfilled. Not only that, but by getting the blessing and support of Pharaoh, he was putting himself in a better position to make these promises come about.
This is a perfect example of how some people think they should operate within God’s providence. They understand that God has a plan and mission, and so they believe that they are called to do whatever needs to be done to advance that mission. This can be seen in ministries that focus on attraction rather than biblical faithfulness, because they need to attract people in order to minister to them. This can also be seen in any number of consequentialist arguments that justify a particular action because of how itis perceived to advance God’s plan, rather than whether the action itself is a good idea. This is also seen in the just-war arguments that support violent action in order to protect the innocent, or achieve a better outcome. In all cases, the error is the same: thinking that we as humans have to do all the work (often couched in terms of working hard and faithfully for God’s mission). The slightly more self-aware version involves thinking that we should TRY to do all the work, with the recognition that God will pick up the bits that we cannot do.
God’s response showed what he thought of Abraham’s plan. By plaguing Pharaoh and rescuing Abraham and Sarah himself, he demonstrated that he always had the siutuation under control. There was never a need for Abraham to extemporize. Instead, he needed to stay on-script and trust that God had his safety in hand.
In chapter 14, we see the first war of the Bible and we meet the priest-king Melchizedek. In this war, Lot is kidnapped, and Abraham goes to rescue him with 318 men against the armies of 5 cities. Despite these overwhelming odds, Abraham wins. Then Melchizedek appears and declares that God gave Abraham the victory. Abraham himself rejects the spoils of war offered to him by the king of Sodom because he wants it knownt hat it was God who has made him rich. It seemst hat Abraham is learning the lesson of providence. god can and will look after him. There is no indication that God told him to get his soldiers and attack the captors, and any interpretation of that absence would be a case of reading our theology into the incident. It could be a case of him knowing that God wanted him to fight, or it could be a case of him stepping over the bounds (again) and realizing in retrospect that God had it in hand all along. (More on this incident in War in Genesis)
These two incidents – Egypt and the battle – are sandwiched between the two pivotal promise passages of chapters 12 and 15. In chapter 15, the promise turns to focus more on the promise of descendants – a particularly improbable thing given the great ages of Abraham and Sarah. After God’s promise of descended to as many as the stars,w e have the great line in verse 6.
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
What does this believed mean? This question takes us into the heart of an important theological debate about the nature of faith. In the context, it is clearly a response to the promise, a response that knows that God will fulfil his promise, and I assume on that chooses too act according to that knowledge. Romans and James seem to support his interpretation, emphasising both the need for this faith to be resting wholy on what God will say he will do and not on our own works (Romans) and also on us acting appropriately in response (James). However, this is a biblical theological survey, so I want to stick primarily to what Genesis has to say.
This is also the first time that God identifies himself by his past actions “I am the God who…” This will be a continuing theme of providence in the Bible, as God continues to remind people of what he has done so far as evidence that they can trust him in the future.
Of course, Abraham immediately asks for more proof. This brings in anoint erecting element of faith. Doubt and uncertainty are not the opposite of faith. They are part of the continued relationship with God that is faith. Questions and uncertainties are not unfaithful. Actions contrary to the promise, however, are. It was not wrong for Abraham to ask “how can I know?”. It was wrong for him to give his wife to Pharaoh.
God’s promise in verse 13-16 also show something else about his providential power. He gives a detailed 400 year timetable for the future. That is a scale of power that is difficult to comprehend. God is saying that he is not the perfect chess player who can respond to any situation. No, he is the one who will direct the actions of nations and individual people, far into the future, precisely how he wants them, to achieve his preordained plan. There is nothing – nothing – that any human could do to derail his plan. When we read about the Ishmaelites – who happen to be nearby, and happen to be traveling in the direction of Egypt in order to take Joseph into slavery – we realise that God had been controlling their entire lives up to this point to bring them there, and he had planned their lives, including their ancestry from Ishmael himself, hundreds of years beforehand, if not from the beginning of time. That is the framework of providence that he calls us to live within.
After this event, Genesis begins in earnest to be a collection of (sometimes intertwined) vignettes of how God brings about his promises, particularly the promise of many descendants – usually desp the actions of his people.
16, 17 & 21 Waiting for an heir
The fisrt of these scenes is Abraham and Sarah’s early attempts to bring about God’s promises. Not trusting that God was powerful or faithful enough to fulfil his promise (only just made), Sarah convinces Abraham to impregnate her slave Hagar. Not only is this decision foolish, given God’s previous demonstration of his providential care, but it also creates a rod for the backs of Abraham’s future descendents in the form of the Ishmaelites.
However, the first thing that we see in this story is Sarah and Abraham’s callous disregard for this woman whom they have used, and God’s love and care for her. What is exraordinary is that Sarah’s earler zeal to have a surrogate child is so quickly overwhelmed by pride or envy once Hagar concieves. Not only i she willing to disregard God’s promises and take matters into her own hands, she is willing to throw the result away. All the while, Abaraham lets her do what she wants.
But God has his hand on the situation. He sends Hagar back to Abraham with a promise of great descendents. He will look after Hagar and her family. And God is given the name “”The Lord who sees me”. Not only does he see Hagar, he sees Abraham and Sarah.
In chapter 17, immediately after that display of unfaithfulness, God demonstrates his faithfulness by reiterating his promises to Abraham to have many descendents and to become a great nation. He gives the sign of circumcision as a sign of these promises and covenant. Abraham begs God to count Ishmael as his heir, but God reiterates that the child will come from Sarah, despite her great age. Once again, God is making the point that he will achieve his purposes the way he intends to, and Abraham’s job is to trust God and to be faithful. Again, in chapter 18, God states that Sarah will have a son. this time, Sarah makes explicit the lack of trust in that she has by laughing at the idea. Even when God challenges her about her laughter, she tries to lie to him.
In chapter 21, when God does fulfil his promise and Sarah gives brith to Isaac, she once again demands that Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away. This time, Abraham shows some unwillingness, to his credit, but God assures him that he will look after them. Despite the heart-breaking scene of Hagar believing that her child will die, we see God’s providential care not only for the people whom he has chosen for his redemption plan, but for wider humanity.
The lead up to Isaac’s birth is a litany of faithful promises by God, and spectacularly unfaithful responses by Abraham and Sarah. They doubted God’s promises, or at least his capability to bring them to fruition through his own works. As a result, they sought to bring about the promises through through their own power. These responses are highlighted even more by the faithful actions of Hagar who returned to an intolerable situation on nothing but the promises of God.
18 Sodom and Gomorrah
More in Prayer in Genesis and Judgement in Genesis. However, it is worth noticing Lot’s actions. When faced with overwhelming odds he tries to placate them by offering his daughters. I find it hard to believe that he honestly thought that he was doing the right thing. Instead, he knew that he was violating his responsibility to protect them. This was him willingly sacrificing the welfare of his daughters to protect himself and his guests. This is particularly ironic given that his guests then demonstrated their power to protect him. Did Lot know that he was entertaining angels? If so, then his actions show a particular lack of faith. Even if not, the history of God’s protection of Abraham and his family – which he had lived through – must have given him reason to believe that God would protect him without the need to offer his daughters up for gang rape.
22 God tests Abraham
The very next major incident is where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Stepping away from the ethical questions (see Ethics in Genesis), we see a clear interraction of Abraham’s faith in God’s sovereignty and in his obedience. He knows that God is in complete control, and so he knows that his only correct response is to obey God to the letter. In the context of the previous texts about God’s promise to give Abraham descendents, the command God gives seems absolutely stupid. It would appear to the human eye to be a direct contradiction of God’s plan. Of course, God is in control, and Abraham’s obedience results in the continuation of his plan even though it would have seemed to counter intuitive at the time. As a result, God gives an even more generous promise to Abraham
16 “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Here we see a perfect example of obeying God’s directions, even when we think that we know better. Even when we think that our alternative plan would advance the cause of his kingdom better than his plan. We are not called to extemporise, we are called to be faithful to God plan, and in the way that God has called us to be faithful.
14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
24 Finding Isaac a Wife
After the death of Sarah, Genesis turns to the second generation of God’s chosen people. And, again, we see God’s complete sovereign control of the situation. Abraham’s servant recognises this when he trusts God to find him a wife for Isaac, and God responds swiftly.
It is interesting to consider whether this is a model for responding to God’s providence. Should we simply ask God to give us what we want the first time we look for it, and expect it to happen? Is this the solution for single people everywhere? However we answer this, we need to recognise that this was a unique point in God’s salvation history. He had ordained that this family would continue, and so Abraham and his servant could be 100% certain that God would provide. However, God has shown up to this point a strong tendency NOT to provide in the way that was expected. So was the servant right to effectively demand that God act in a specific way? The purpose of the story is to highlight and celebrate God’s providential care in his continued fulfillment of his promises. It is not primarily there to examine the servant’s actions, and the text is silent on whether he did the right thing or not. Either God worked through this man’s faithful prayer, or he worked despite his inappropriate demand. It kind of depends on what the servant’s plan B was if no one offered him water.
Is it OK to ask God to give you that specific job you have applied for? “God, if you give me this job then I will know that you want me in this ministry…”. Perhaps it is appropriate to ask God to act in a certain way so long as you don’t (a) demand it or (b) assume that God has to work in that way and hence fail to think aboout other ways that you can continue to serve God. Maybe it is about the plan B.
26 Isaac in Caanan
After the birth of Jacob and Esau (discussed below), a famine strikes the land. The natural thing to do in Palestine when the rain-dependent crops fail is to move down to Egypt, who lives on the much more reliable Nile. Jewish readers will already associate Egypt with slavery, though of course Isaac himself would not. However, God appears to Isaac and tells him to stay in the land that he has been promised. This is not a new command, but a re-iteration of an existing one. God has given this land to Abraham’s family, and they are to stay there. If things get hard, it is not their job to find an alternative plan, but to stick to the plan as God has given it to them. God gives Isaac a great re-iteration of the promise, and a reminder of the call to be faithful
3 Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. 4 I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” (26:3-6)
And yet, despite this demonstration of God’s faithfulness to his promise, and this reminder to be faithful, Isaac repeats the mistake of his father, pretending that Rebekah is his sister, not his wife. Again, this is because he fears that the inhabitants of the land would kill him and take her. And again this is a lack of faith in god’s ability and/or willingness to protect them in order to fulfil his promises.
However, again God shows himself to be faithful to his promises despite his people’s faithless actions. Again, he causes Isaac to prosper. It is interesting to see how Isaac responds to people coming in to challenge him for the wells that he dug. He just moves on and digs another. Eventually, his growing wealth causes his neighbours to realise that God is truly with him, and they seek a treaty. Again, we see that Isaac does not demonstrate that God is with him through spectacular deeds, but instead by quietly going on with the task that god has given him and letting God do his work.
25, 27 Jacob and Esau
In the birth of Jacob and Esau, we see another glimpse of God’s sovereignty. Not only did he open Rebecca’s womb so that she could conceive, but he shows that he has already planned the international affairs of his people.
23 And the Lord said to her:
Two nations are in your womb;
two people will come from you and be separated.
One people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.
However, in Jacob, we see a different picture of living within God’s promises. From his birth, it seems, he was in competition with Esau. Despite God’s clear promise that Esau and his descendents would serve Jacob and his descendents, Jacob seems determined to get everything that he can through his own cunning.
In chapter 25, Jacob tricks Esau into signing over his birth-right. The first obvious question is: which birth-right is he talking about? The second is: how does either of these two men think that this is in any way binding? If the birth right is physical inheritance, then surely Isaac has some say in what he gives to whom. In the end, we do not actually see any indication of how Isaac divides up his wealth to his sons. Alternatively, if the birth-right is the blessing of the first-born that we see in later chapters, then why does Jacob need to trick his father? Finally, if the birth-right is about who God’s promises descend through, then who thinks that they can change God’s plan based on a deal over lentil stew? When we examine this incident, it just seems like everyone was acting a bit stupid. Jacob is trying to steal what God has already promised him, and Esau is happy to give anything away for a good feed.
In chapter 27, the stupidity continues as Jacob tricks his father into giving him his blessing. This again raises the question of what the previous deal had been about. If Isaac really could sale his birthright for lentils, then Jacob should be able to claim his blessing by right from his father. Regardless, in a slightly farcical scene, Jacob somehow convinces his father to ignore his rather Jacob-sounding voice by wearing goat’s skin.
Isaac blesses Jacob:
29 May nations serve you
and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed.
Which raises the question of what Isaac thought he was doing. God’s statement at the boy’s birth clearly showed that Esau would serve Jacob (the older will serve the younger) – why is Isaac blessing (who he thinks is) Esau by saying that his brother (the sons of your mother) would serve him? the whole scenario seems to be deception laid upon deception laid upon an attempt to subvert God’s promises. The net result of which is that God’s promise in chapter 25 happened precisely as he said.
The interesting thing is that there is no direct approval or disapproval of Jacob’s behaviour, but that is not all that uncommon in the OT. But it does make you ask what would have happened if everyone had played it straight. If Jacob had not tried to steal by trickery what was already promised to him, or if Isaac had been faithful to the plan that God has set out, or if Esau did not then seek to kill his brother for his deception.
Regardless, the net result is that Jacob flees to his uncle Laban, where the next chapter of deceit begins.
28 Jacob’s Dream
Before he arrives at Laban’s house, Jacob has a dream in which God appears in a spectacular – almost apocalyptic – vision. In it, God reiterates his covenant, and demonstrates that the covenantal blessings will continue through Jacob, as he had stated at the twins’ birth. Note again how big the promises are:
13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said:”I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Again, there is no doubt as to who will achieve these promises. Jacob’s response, however, seems a little bizarre to western ears:.
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
What does he mean by the “if”? Is this a test for God, or does it mean more like “since”, which the Hebrew could infer? There does seem to be an element where Jacob is thinking of God as a bit of a Genie who will look after him in return for worship. Either way, Jacob continues on his journey, and does not act as if he is trusting God with everything that he does…
29-31 Jacob in Padan Aram
When Jacob meets Rachel and falls in love, he and his soon to be father-in-law begin a cycle of scam and counter scam. First Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the wrong girl, and so squeezes an extra 7 years labour out of Jacob for both wives. Next, a major rivalry develops between the wives about bearing children, which includes giving their hand-maidens to Jacob to bear children in proxy (a strong echo of Abraham and Sarah’s error). Again, it is made consistently clear that only God allows a woman to conceive (29:31, 30:2, 6, 17-18, 20, 22-23). This again is a continuation of the theme of God’s sovereign control in action to fulfil his promises and his purposes because the birth of the children is a key story point of the genesis of the nation of Israel and the twelve tribes.
Next, Jacob and Laban begin a scam and counter-scam surrounding the size of the flock that Jacob would take as his earnings (Jacob was to get all the spotted and striped ones). Interestingly, Jacob’s trick of placing branches beside the watering hole to cause striped children would have had absolutely no effect whatsoever. Again, it is God who gives him the large flocks, not his (genetically ignorant) cunning. This is a fact that Jacob recognizes in his speech to his wives:
5 He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. 9 So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.
10 “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob. ‘ I answered, ‘Here I am. ‘ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land. ‘” (Gen 31:5-13)
So Jacob obeys God and prepares to head back to Canaan, but not before Rachel continued the family tradition and stole Laban’s household Gods. Jacob sneaks away (with a massive flock) while Laban is out shearing, and they flee towards Canaan. Angry, Laban pursues, but God tells him “not to say anything, good or bad.” (31:24). Instead, when he catches up, Laban shows the first sign of reconciliation of either side, and expresses his sorrow at losing his daughters and grand children without being able to say goodbye. His real gripe is the theft of his household gods, which Rachel’s continued deceit prevents him from finding.
What are we to make of this account? At the time, Jacob and Laban both seem to think that they are being extra cunning in gaining wealth and power for themselves. Clearly, from both a theological and a scientific standpoint, they have had little to do with it, and God has been in complete control. While the text does not provide any direct commentary on the behavior of the two men, the constant references to deceit and trickery give a strong indication that this was not faithful living. What would have happened if Jacob had simply trusted God’s clear promises, and had acted faithfully towards Laban despite being tricked and under-paid? Clearly Jacob would still be just as rich and powerful (because Good created the wealth), but his relationship with his Father-in-Law would be better, ad he would not have given such an example for his wife (and, later, children) to follow. This section is a more subtle consideration of the dangers of taking control into our own hands, in this case through trickery. If instead we simply act faithfully and lovingly, God will continue to be in control and bring about his purposes.
Finally, the men make a covenant and go on their way. Jacob heads towards Canaan and prepares to face his next reckoning.
32- Jacob, Esau and God
When Jacob prepares to meet Esau, he appears to have learned some lessons about God’s control. Terrified that his brother would be seeking to kill him, he prepares logistically for the possibility, but he also prays. The prayer shows a lot of growth in Jacob’s understanding of God’s providence and his place in it:
Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted. ‘” (Gen 32:9-12)
Within this story, Jacob finds himself suddenly wrestling a man who turns out to be God (or a manifestation of God, or the “Angel of the Lord”). Much can be written about this battle and the re-naming of Jacob to Israel (“struggles with God”). At the very least, the naming suggest that Jacob’s process of coming to terms with who God is and how to respond to him is being shown as paradigmic for the nation of Israel and God’s people. In the struggle, Jacob seems to be winning – or at least holding his own – through his own efforts, but a single touch from God disables him, and shows how God could completely destroy him at any time. Jacob’s response is to simply to beg for blessing in a move that shifts from contesting with God to clinging to him.
Even so, when Jacob does reconcile with his brother, he tricks Esau into going ahead of him to Seir, and instead heads to Padan Aram. What was the rationale behind this? Surely after such a forgiving reunion, Esau would have been happy for Jacob to go anywhere. While Jacob has changed to a degree, it seems that he still has further to go in the process of trusting God and not needing to use deceit to protect himself.
In chapter 35, Jacob shows his recognition of God’s providence in his life:
Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”
2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. 3 Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”
2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. 3 Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.”
With a little hint of God’s continued protection
5 Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.
And a final reiteration of God’s promises, the international scope of them, and his power to fulfil them.
11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty[f]; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants. 12 The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.”
the Joseph cycle is notable in Genesis because of the sheer size of it. Clearly it is important in the story arc of Genesis and how God is fulfilling his promises, and explains how Israel came to be in Egypt. But considering the importance of other events – the birth of Isaac, the covenant promises – the length of the Joseph story brings even more focus to it. This account is the cap-stone of Genesis, and the thing we see so clearly in it is God’s sovereign power to achieve his purposes despite the evil of other people. Importantly, we also see in Joseph a paragon of cooperation with God. Joseph does what he is called to do, lives a quiet faithful life, submits himself to the persecution of others, and allows himself to be vindicated and protected by God without any need to take control himself.
In chapter 37, Joseph is persecuted by his brothers for recounting his dreams. Finally, they attack him and sell him to slavers. Throughout that second half of the chapter, there is no account of what Joseph himself is doing or saying. He is a passive recipient of suffering. In chapter 39, Joseph responds to his captivity by working hard and faithfully in the situation where he finds himself, and God blesses him. This is not a moral story about the virtues of working hard, but a clear statement of God’s control in the situation.
2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.
When faced again with injustice (this time in the fake accusation from Potiphar’s wife) Joseph is sent to prison. Again, we have no account of what Joseph says or does in the face of the accusations. Instead, his next actions are to work faithfully and hard in his new situation. Again, God worked through this
21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.
It was not Joseph’s hard work that got him out of prison, but God’s supernatural intervention through the dreams of his fellow prisoners and Pharaoh. Through Joseph’s God-given interpretation he finds himself in a position of power in the country. But, again, his response is the same as it was when he was in slavery or prison: he works faithfully and hard, and serves his master.
Joseph’s story is given to us as a contrast to his ancestors. While Abraham and Jacob, in particular, kept trying to make God’s promises come into fruition through their own clever schemes, Joseph simply trusted God, and lived his life faithfully in whatever situation he found himself.
The second section of the Joseph cycle (chapters 42- ) are almost a comedy of errors, where we see Joseph’s brothers given opportunities to show their own growth in maturity. Finally, Joseph and his brothers are reconciled, and he forgives them for their crime saying
5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (45:5-8)
When Jacob was convinced that his son was alive, he headed to Egypt, and God spoke to him, once again showing his control over the situation.
2 And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” 3 Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. 4 I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (46:2-4)
So, through Joseph’s position, Jacob’s family settle in Goshen – the best land in Egypt – and live safe lives throughout the famine.
A critical moment in our understanding of God’s sovereignty occurs in the closing scene of Genesis, in chapter 50. Joseph tells his brothers: ‘You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result – the survival of many people’.Through the actions of individuals – some faithful, some incredibly unfaithful, and some outright evil – and through the actions of rulers and nations, God showed his sovereign power over his world to effect his plans.
Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 434–8.
Millard C. Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1980), 36–7.
Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 490.