Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #11 "How Can I Do This Great Wickedness?"

(Genesis 34; 37-39)


As near as we can guess, the Book of Genesis covers approximately 2,500 years. During this 2,500-year time period, a remarkable man lived whose name was Joseph. The very last verse of the very last chapter of Genesis tells us how long he lived: 110 years. 110 years is 4.4% of the time span of the Book of Genesis, yet the story of Joseph's life begins at Genesis 30:24 and ends at Genesis 50:26--40% of the book of Genesis is used to cover the 110-year history of Joseph! Obviously, the story of Joseph is very important (Russell M. Nelson, "Remnants, Gathered, Covenants Fulfilled, Voices of Old Testament Prophets, p. 4).


How would you describe water to an alien from Mars? What does it look like? What color is it? What shape is it? The answer is that it depends upon the situation it is in: what is behind it, what is in it, what is underneath it, what is above it. The water of Bear Lake, Utah is a stunning turquoise blue in sunny weather. The water in the Black Sea of Russia is black in stormy weather. Yet the water in both has the same chemical composition: H2O. If you put water in a box, the water is square. If you put water in a vase, it's a cylinder. If you spill it on the floor, it's flat. If it evaporates into the air, it becomes invisible. If it gets too cold, it becomes solid.

A rock would be much easier to describe. Each individual rock is slightly different from another. You could say what shape it is, what size it is, what color it is. A rock does not change to match its environment. If you drop it on the ground, it's still the same shape, size and color. If you put it in a box, it's still the same shape, size and color. If it is larger than a vase, it will not change in order to fit, and you won't be able to put it in there. A rock is solid and stable.

This lesson is about water and rock.


To understand the story of the family of Jacob, renamed Israel, we need to know the characters.  Here are Jacob's sons, listed in order of birth.

1) Reuben, son of Leah
2) Simeon, son of Leah
3) Levi, son of Leah
4) Judah, son of Leah
5) Dan, son of Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid
6) Naphtali, son of Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid
7) Gad, son of Zilpah, Leah's handmaid
8) Asher, son of Zilpah, Leah's handmaid
9) Issacher, son of Leah
10) Zebulun, son of Leah
11) Joseph, son of Rachel
12) Benjamin, son of Rachel


In Old Testament times, the father was the patriarch of the entire family.  His rule was nearly absolute, as was his responsibility for the welfare of his family.  He decided upon the marriage partners of his children.  He provided training, employment, and land for all his sons.  Any single women or orphaned children within the family had claim upon his care.  When he died, the right and responsibility of the patriarchy of the clan fell to the son who was born first, hence the term birthright.  Each of the sons would receive an equal inheritance at the father's death, except the birthright son.  He would receive double in order to carry out his responsibilities.

It was clear to see who was the birthright son when there was only one wife.  But with multiple wives, the question became confusing.  In addition, if the birthright son did not prove himself worthy in terms of righteousness and ability, he could lose the privilege to another son, as in the case of Jacob and Esau.

BYU Professor Victor Ludlow considers Joseph to have been second in line for the birthright:  "As the firstborn son of the first wife, Reuben was the birthright son. When Reuben proved to be unworthy by committing adultery...the birthright went to the firstborn son of Rachel (see 1 Chr. 5:1). Although Joseph was the eleventh-born son in order of birth, he was second in line for the birthright because he was the firstborn son of the second wife. Jacob had a special coat made for Joseph so that the other brothers would recognize Joseph’s right to preside over the family upon his father’s death" ("Question and Answer," Daniel H. Ludlow, Liahona, Sept. 1981, p. 33).

The writers of the Old Testament Student Manual for the Religion 310 Institute class, however, see most of the brothers as possible birthright candidates. The oldest child of Leah would be the obvious choice, she being the first wife. If he failed to earn it, it could fall to the oldest biological child of the second wife, which would be Joseph, but it also could likely fall to each of the remaining sons of the first wife, because they were all older than Joseph. The first sons of the concubines could also qualify, since their mothers were handmaids or property of the first and second wives. Each of them was older than Joseph (p. 93).

Israel, however, chose Joseph to be his birthright son.  Many Bible experts agree that the special "coat of many colors" likely was an expression of this pending privilege.  On his deathbed, Israel officially pronounced Joseph as the birthright son.


The Old Testament often teaches great principles by juxtaposing severely opposite stories.  Genesis 34 tells a ghastly tale.  Jacob's and Leah's daughter, Dinah, is raped by a local prince, Shechem, who then decides he wants to marry her (v. 2-3).  He's important enough that the area was probably named for him (33:18).  His father asks Jacob to let his son marry Dinah, offering any dowry they might ask (v. 6-12).  Apparently, she is being held at their city.  Jacob's response is not recorded, but her brothers, Simeon and Levi, tell these Canaanites that they will agree to the marriage if the Canaanites will all be circumcised.  Shechem did not delay (v. 19).  He and his men trusted the little fledgling clan of Israelites (v. 21).  Every man that "went out of the gate of his city," in other words, every man who was fit to go out in battle in defense of the city, was circumcised (Harper-Collins Study Bible).  When they were all in the worst pain, three days after the procedure, Simeon and Levi (probably with a band of their servants, their own fighting men), marched into the city and killed every one of the men (v. 25), including the king and his son (v. 26).  They grabbed Dinah, all the women and children of the city, and every bit of property (v. 27-29).  Jacob, who apparently was not privvy to these goings-on, chastised them and said, "Now we have to move.  Everyone here is going to be repulsed by us, and we are just a little band.  We'll be wiped out if we stay here" (v. 30).  And the sons reply, "Well?  He started it!" (v. 31).  They justify a premeditated, horrific massacre because of a crime against a single person, committed in passion, which the perpetrator was trying to rectify.

The next two chapters detail their move and their genealogy. 

Sandwiched in between these factual recitations, we find another appalling event:  Reuben, who is Leah's oldest son, and would normally be the birthright son, goes in and lays with his father's wife, Bilhah!  Bilhah is a concubine, or a servant-wife, and may not have had much say in the matter (35:22).  (See "Abraham's Wives" in a previous post for more about concubines.)  So now three of the possible top contenders for the birthright have committed heinous crimes, and their father knows they are all unworthy.  Later in the story (Gen. 38), Judah, the fourth, commits adultery with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who was masquerading as a prostitute.  The double standard of the day is clearly evident as he is prepared to burn her at the stake when he finds out she's pregnant, until she proves he's the father.  The reason she committed this grossly immoral deception was that Judah and his sons had cheated her out of progeny, sent her back to her father's house, and consigned her to life as a childless widow, a state that would undoubtedly lead to devastating poverty in her old age. 

And all of Joseph's brothers, as we know, were willing to either kill their younger brother or sell him into slavery because of jealousy, and then tell their father the heartbreaking lie that he had been killed.  Their jealousy was over the birthright, doubly emphasized by Joseph's dreams in which his family bowed in obeisance to him.  Ironically, the harm they did to Joseph was the exact opposite of the way a birthright son should treat a younger brother.  Clearly, they were each totally unfit to be the family patriarch.

So, all of the older brothers of Joseph gave up blessings because they yielded to temptations, emotions, and circumstances.  In the traditional deathbed blessing from his father Israel, the oldest son Reuben received the chastisement, "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel" (Gen. 49:4).


We are all very familiar with the story of Joseph's kidnapping, enslavement, labor, and imprisonment in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-40).  Its position in the Book of Genesis directly following the stories of his brothers' lack of integrity and of their heinous crimes clearly shows that Joseph was their polar opposite.  It did not matter in which land he lived, which woman he was with, whether he was a best-loved birthright son, a prosperous servant in an Egyptian's household, or a prisoner in a dungeon: Joseph was always the same.  He was kidnapped, beaten, nearly murdered, enslaved, lied about, tempted, framed, and forgotten, yet his integrity remained unchanged.  Joseph was a rock.  Because of his integrity and his unwavering faith in God, he excelled at home in his father's household, in Potipher's home as his chief servant, in prison as the guard's assistant, and in all of Egypt as Pharoah's right-hand man.

On his deathbed, Father Israel said of Joseph: "Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall: The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; from thence is the shepherd, the stone [or rock] of Israel" (Gen. 49:22-24).  (See the comment from reader Steve below this post for an explanation of this scripture.)

Joseph was always faithful to his God, Jehovah, and Jehovah was therefore always with Him.  As Chapter 39 details the rags to riches to rags to riches story of Joseph in Egypt, four times we read one significant phrase:  "The Lord was with Joseph" (v. 2, 3, 21, and 23).  Joseph always qualified for the companionship of the Holy Spirit, and always followed the direction he knew was right, regardless of what the consequences would be to himself.  Why?  Because he trusted in the Rock.  "Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel. He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall" (D&C 50:44).

"And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall" (Helaman 5:12)


Brenda said...

I just ran across your blog and I hafta say-- Wow! So helpful, and especially useful for breaking things down for teaching the OT lessons to teenagers. Thanks so much for doing this!!

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

Thanks, Brenda!

Kris King said...

I have been referring to your blog the last few weeks to give some background information to my 16 year old kids. The context of the stories are so important and you describe the traditions of the day that helps me explain some of these awkward old testements stories. I love your blog!

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

That's great! So glad it's helpful!

Steve M. said...

Of course, Christ did not descend from Joseph, the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, along with multiple other scriptural references, assert his legitimate right to the throne of David - Christ was from Judah, he was a Jew.
Gen 49:24 "from thence" uses a KJV era archaic meaning: "because of" or "the reason for" and hence means "the shepherd, the stone of Israel," Jehovah, is the source of Joseph's strength in overcoming all his difficulties.
In fact, the KJV translation rather awkwardly translates the original Hebrew which carries multiple levels of metaphorical meanings with reference to birthright blessings and responsibilities, Joseph's role thru Ephraim and Manasseh in the latter-day gathering, as well as Christ fulfilling the type set by Joshua, an Ephraimite, in leading Israel into Canaan, the promised land (just as Christ leads repentant and faithful covenant keeping Israel into the eternal promised land).
Here are some of the scriptures that support the metaphorical scenarios I just described: JST Gen 48:8-11, Deut 33:17, Psm 80:1, Gen 48:13-22, Jer 31:9, Num 13:8, 16, Rom 9:6-8, D&C 113:3-6, Isa 59:20 – 60:1.

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

Oh, right you are, Steve. Thanks for the correction.