This set of passages comes from Genesis 25-39, and related genealogies from 1 Chronicles 1 and 2. As you may recall from last week, Abraham and Sarah had given birth to Isaac, through whom God had promised to fulfill his covenant with them. I’m going to give a short synopsis of the events that happen in these passages, and then focus my comments on three themes that stand out in them: prescriptive vs. descriptive bible passages, the significance of names, and God’s promises.
Abraham and Sarah had received the promise from God that they would have many offspring, yet they were old and had had none. Sarah gave her servant to Abram and he slept with her, producing Ishmael. God told him that Ishmael was not the promised heir. Sarah then become pregnant (when she was 90!) and gave birth to Isaac.
When Isaac was 40, he went to his uncle’s house in their former land. because Abraham didn’t want him to marry in the surrounding Canaanite peoples. Isaac met Rebekah and she became his wife. They had twins, named Jacob and Esau (more on that later). Jacob later went also to the land of their relatives and stayed for 20 years. He married two sisters (Leah and Rachel) and a great competition of child-bearing began. Leah ultimately had 6 boys and a daughter, while Rachel had 2 sons. Each of them also gave Jacob their servants as wives during times of infertility and those two servants each had 2 sons as well, bringing his total number of sons to 12. These sons eventually became the 12 tribes of Israel.
Of all the children of Jacob, he had a favorite – Joseph. Joseph became a source of jealousy among his brothers and the brothers plotted to kill him, but instead sold him into slavery. Joseph ended up being taken as a slave to Potiphar’s house in Egypt, where he was ultimately wrongly accused and thrown into prison there. We’ll look at Joseph’s story next week.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Bible passages
One thing that people sometimes get confused about is the principal of using the Bible as a guide to life. It does offer wisdom for a variety of situations and prophecies, but there are a number of genres of literature included, one of which is history. When reading the Bible, as I mentioned last week, we must always approach it from the standpoint of it being God’s story about God’s work. All humans are sinners and their history and actions in the Bible are not always exemplary. Yet God chose to work out His plan through them anyway, even in spite of their sins and sometimes less than exemplary choices. That’s what I mean by distinguishing between prescriptive vs. descriptive passages. Not all human activity as described in the Bible should necessarily be seen as God’s optimal design or intent. For example, when Abraham and Sarah decided to procreate through Sarah’s servant, Hagar (producing Ishmael), this was not according to God’s instructions or plan. Ultimately, Isaac, the promised heir, was born through divine intervention (because of their old age). Likewise, even though God had promised his covenant through Jacob, Jacob’s betrayal and deceit of his brother Esau did not exemplify brotherly love, but God used it to fulfill his purposes nonetheless.
The Significance of Names
Names in the Bible often carry much significance. I want to point out three ways in which to consider the names used. First, a name may be given to a thing or place to signify some particular event. The idea is that the name can serve as a reminder to future generations of that event. As an example, when Jacob was fleeing from Esau after stealing his birthright and blessing, he encountered God at a place called Luz. He saw a vision of God’s throne there and, later, God reaffirmed his covenant with him there.
And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. (Genesis 28:17-19)
Bethel means “the house of God” and its named served as a reminder to later generations of the covenant God made with Jacob.
Second, names of people in the Bible frequently serve as a reminder of the character of that person. Still keeping with the example of Jacob, read this account of his birth.
And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. and the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. (Genesis 25:21-26)
Esau means “hairy or red”, and Jacob means “heel or deceiver”. Interestingly, Jacob’s story is filled with deception. He takes advantage of his brother and trades him food in exchange for his birthright, and then later Jacob stole the firstborn’s blessing from their now blind father, Isaac, by pretending to be Esau. This prompted the need for him to flee to his relative Laban’s house, where he met Rachel and fell in love.
Laban agreed that Jacob could work seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but when the time was completed, Laban deceived Jacob and provided Rachel’s sister, Leah, to him as his wife instead. Jacob then had to promise to work another seven years in exchange for Rachel.
When one hears the name of Jacob (knowing it means “deceiver”) one can easily remember Jacob’s deceptive character and how deception led to the dysfunctional marriage relationships he had.
Third, sometimes a person’s name will be changed by God simply to signify some specific promise or prophecy. The new name may mean something in particular, but frequently the new name is similar and simply is to serve as a reminder of the new work God is doing in that individual’s life. For example, Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Jacob became Israel, with all the name changes occurring at a crossroads or decisive turning point in God’s plan.
The Promises of God
As you may recall from last week, God promised Abram that he would make him into a great nation, make his name great, and in him all families on earth would be blessed. This same promise was reiterated to Isaac.
And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (Genesis 26:2-5)
Notice the same elements are present as in the original promise: land, offspring, and earth-wide blessing. Also notice that the promise is being offered, not because of anything Isaac has done, but because of the obedience of his father, Abraham. This is a great picture of God’s blessings to us through Jesus. His relationship with us is not because of us, but rather because of the obedience of Jesus.
God’s promise to Jacob was a bit different.
God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 35:9-12)
He promised the land to him, but this time he mentions a nation of nations, which foreshadows the twelve tribes of Israel. He also foretells the fact that kings would be coming along as well, pointing toward David and ultimately toward King Jesus.
One last promise that I’ll mention is one made to Abraham earlier (in last week’s passages), which is the setup for the next part of Genesis which we’ll look at next week. Genesis 15:13-16 says
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.
Notice the foretelling of Israel’s future captivity in Egypt, and also of the fact that when they do return, it will be at the appropriate time to serve as God’s tool of judgment for the sins of the Amorites. We’ll look at that a bit later. I mention it here, though, simply to point out that God’s plan has eternal and long-term purposes. The new nation of Israel (to whom Genesis was originally written) needed to understand their place in God’s plan and how His plan and promises go beyond them to encompass all of history and all of the world.
Next week we’ll explore the rest of Genesis and then begin Job’s story.
For Further Investigation
- John Piper’s sermon on the Covenant of Abraham
- John Piper’s sermon on How the Offspring of Isaac Blesses the Sons of Ishmael