There are some great stories in the Bible. And there are some important life lessons. For many people, the life of Joseph is one of their favourite portions of Scripture. We learn about God’s presence in conflict, how He shapes us through adversity, and the power of forgiveness. The biblical account seems ready-made for a biography. And it can be profitably enjoyed at this level. But if that’s our grid for reading all of Scripture, there will be many things that don’t make sense and we can miss some important truths that God is trying to communicate to us. As you grow in your reading of Scripture, it’s helpful to look for the ‘big story’ even as you’re enjoying the ‘little stories.’ The big story is the overarching story that often can be traced through a book of the Bible as well as the entirety of the Scriptures. Let me explain how this works with the story of Joseph.
The story of Joseph is recounted in the book of Genesis. At first, Genesis seems like an odd collection of ancient historical vignettes (Genesis 1-11) followed by an account of a couple named Abram and Sarai and their descendants (Genesis 12-50). We saw last time that what God purposed to do through Abram and his descendants was to bring a solution to the problem of human sin. So in a sense, that is the big story of Genesis, but there’s more to it than that.
As you’re reading through Genesis you see a phrase repeated again and again: “These are the generations of…” It shows up an even ten times (Gen 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1/9; 37:2), each time introducing a new section. The life of Joseph isn’t labelled, “This is the story of Joseph,” but rather “These are the generations of Jacob” (Gen 37:2). You’re left asking, why is Genesis so concerned with the “generations” or offspring of people? The answer is found in Genesis 3:15.
When God cursed the serpent for leading Adam and Eve into sin in Genesis 3:15, He says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” It is a chilling statement that warns that because of the serpent’s temptations and the resulting human rebellion, there will be hostility and conflict between them for generations to come. There is also great hope, however. While the conflict will eventually leave both the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman “bruised,” it is the offspring of the woman who will deal the serpent the fatal blow. The war with sin and temptation will one day end – and it will end in victory! This is the big story of the Bible. But it’s also why Genesis is so concerned with people’s offspring.
As the offspring of each successive character is introduced the question the reader is asking is whether this might be the offspring, or at least the lineage, of the woman who will finally bring down the serpent. Understanding this helps explain the story of Isaac blessing Esau and Jacob, for instance. Jacob deceives his father to get his father’s blessing but the reader is left asking why Isaac doesn’t just bless both of his children. Esau, in fact, asks the same question (Gen 27:38). Normally, a father would, but the answer is that this isn’t just any blessing. It’s the blessing promised to Abraham’s offspring. It’s the blessing promised in Genesis 3:15. Both Jacob and Esau were blessed in a sense, but it is through Jacob not Esau that the ‘serpent crusher’ was to be born.
As we come to the “generations of Jacob,” while we’re enjoying the amazing stories of sibling conflict and the grace of God, we’re also thinking about the big story: which one of Jacob’s sons will form the line of the serpent crusher? It appears, at first, that it must be Joseph. He’s Jacob’s favourite (Gen 37:4), he rises to a position of great authority as Pharaoh’s second-in-command (Gen 41:41), and in the end he receives the double portion usually reserved for the eldest son, as both of his sons are blessed by Jacob (Gen 48:20) and eventually receive a share of the Promised Land. But a closer reading reveals that ‘Joseph’s story’ is really a tale of two sons.
Judah is a more minor, but highly significant, character in the generations of Jacob. He is credited with saving Joseph’s life (Gen 37:27) but, like his brothers, he is still guilty of sin. While Joseph was made humble through his suffering, Judah was transformed through his shame. The turning point in his life comes as his Canaanite daughter-in-law puts a mirror to his life and he admits, “she is more righteous than I.” After that, he appears a changed man. He offers to bear the responsibility for Benjamin to save the family by returning to Egypt (Gen 43:9). He makes the longest speech in all of Genesis in order to save Benjamin from punishment (Gen 44:14-34). And when his father blesses him, he receives the promise of kingship and preeminence among the brothers (Gen 49:8-12).*
The tale of two sons that begins in Genesis gets played out further in Israel’s later history as Judah’s offspring take the throne, only to see it divided and Joseph’s offspring, the descendants of Ephraim, form a rival northern kingdom. But it is through Judah, that King David arises, and through him, Jesus came as the serpent crusher.
It’s impossible to notice all of this your first time reading through the Bible. But an awareness that there is a big story that ties together all of the little stories in Scripture leads to more fruitful reading and clearer interpreting of what God has said. May God reveal Himself as you seek Him in His word today.
In awe of Him,
* For these and other connections, see John H. Sailhamer's, The Pentateuch as Narrative.