Genesis 37–40: Joseph and Judah’s school of hard knocks

God prepared two self-centered “brats” — Yosef (Joseph) and Yehudah (Judah) — and their descendants to become the saviors of their families. Yosef was a tattle-tale and a bit of a braggart, but Yehudah was willing to throw weaker, younger people to the wolves, either figuratively or literally to obtain a higher status in his society. God really cares about how you treat other people, especially those who are weaker and less fortunate. In the Torah reading וישב Vayeshev (Genesis 37–40), we learn from Yosef and Yehudah their life lessons the hard way.

Genesis 37

The focus changes from Ya’akov (Jacob) to Yosef. Now Yosef is a 17-year-old shepherd, just like his brothers. We are told that Yosef was pasturing the flocks along with the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, and he brought back a “bad report” about them to Ya’akov.

But Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher weren’t the sons who conspired to throw Yosef into the pit and then sell him off, despite the fact that Yosef had sent Ya’akov a “bad report” about them, too.

Ya’akov’s favoritism of Rachel over Leah

Leah’s sons knew that their father did not love their mother. They knew Rachel was the only wife Ya’akov adored and Ya’akov’s adoration of Rachel and dislike of Leah carried on to how he treated his children. It was blatantly obvious to everyone in the family and caused a lot of resentment and jealousy. It was festering under the surface and it was bound to explode eventually. Leah’s sons hated Yosef so much they couldn’t even speak politely to him. They projected their anger at their father onto Yosef, since he was the younger, weaker vessel and couldn’t fight back.

It is in the context of this animosity, that 17-year-old Yosef begins to receive prophetic dreams from God.

“Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Please listen to this dream which I have had; for behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Then his brothers said to him, “Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.” (Genesis 37:5–8 NASB)

The brothers were the ones who interpreted the dream regarding the sheaves (seeing themselves in the sheaves) not Yosef himself.

“Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, “Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” He related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.” (Genesis 37:9–11 NASB)

The dream with the sun, moon and stars was interpreted by Ya’akov, not by Yosef.

As a general rule, it’s not wise for anyone other than God to interpret the dreams that God gives. However, in both of these cases, the interpretations provided by Ya’akov and Yosef’s older brothers turn out to be true.

When God gives someone a dream, He usually gives the dreamer the tools to interpret the dream so it’s not wise for the dreamer to give over the power to interpret a dream given to them by God to others. The fact that we see exceptions to the rule in Pharaoh and later Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t disprove the general rule.

Dream a little dream

Let’s take a closer look at the second dream, the one that Ya’akov interpreted. As he saw it, Ya’akov was the sun, Yosef’s “mother” was the moon and the other brothers were the stars. Yosef is acting out a messianic role in this dream so let’s look at this dream from a Messianic point of view rather than merely a Yosef-centric point of view.

We know that the Sun, Moon and all the stars “bow” down to the Messiah, their Creator. In this dream, the sun, moon and stars represent something on the spiritual level.

The Torah tells us that the Creator created the Sun to “rule the day” for counting the days and the weekly Shabbat. The sun controls when every seventh day happens, we are told about this in Genesis 1.

The Torah tells us the Creator created the moon to “rule over” the months and seasons. This is how we know when we are to meet the Creator for our yearly appointments and holy days with Him.

Messiah Himself told us that He is the Lord of the Sabbath. Messiah is also in charge of the Holy Days. All the Holy Days lay out the Messiah’s mission. Passover foretold His death, First Fruits foretold His resurrection and so on.

“For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8 HCSB)

The stars represent God’s people, as God said to Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, etc. So, in Yosef’s dream, the stars represent those who follow God, including the descendants of Ya’akov’s sons. All of Ya’akov’s sons will both bow down to Yosef literally, as well as the Messiah spiritually.

“’I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back, That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.’” (Isaiah 45:23 NASB)

“That in The Name of Yeshua, every knee shall bow, which is in Heaven and in The Earth and which is under The Earth, And every tongue shall confess that Yeshua The Messiah is THE LORD JEHOVAH to the glory of God his Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11 Aramaic Bible in Plain English)

I will not go into how the idolators polytheists and pagans define the sun, moon and stars. The “mother earth” stuff has nothing to do with Torah and adds nothing to our understanding of Torah.

Yosef as a mirror of Messiah

Yosef is playing an example of Messiah — messianic figure — in the TaNaK. It’s mentioned, so it matters. I can’t go into every single example of Yosef’s messianic role in today’s talk. I will touch on a few though.

  1. Yosef was “sent” to his brothers by his father, who gave him all authority. He was given authority to report back to his father about what the brothers were doing, both good and bad.
  2. Yosef’s way was prepared for him by a man who directed him to Dothan, the right place to find his brothers. This is similar to the role of Elijah and John the Baptist.
    • The Hebrew word דֹּתָן dothan (Strong’s lexicon No. H1886) means “new laws,” not Torah law, but a list of instructions.
    • When Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus) shows up, one of His main missions is to show us how to properly keep God’s laws, and how the laws the pharisees had made were incorrect. When Yosef arrived to Dothan, the brothers conspired to kill him as the Pharisees did to Yeshua 2000 years later.
  3. Both Messiah and Yosef had their clothes stripped from them, their honor taken from them.
  4. The Ishmaelites with their load of spices prefigure the female myrrh-bearers who had brought spices to finish burying Messiah but found Him alive rather than dead (Luke 23:56–24:10). Just as the Ishmaelites and/or Midianites were sons of Abraham but had a lower status among Abraham’s descendants than Isaac and his descendants, women also had a lower status in Israelite society than men.
  5. When Reuben came to the pit to try to restore Yosef to Ya’akov, the pit was empty. It was the same when the women came to Messiah’s grave, Messiah was gone. Both Reuben and the women wept bitterly when they realized the one they were search for was gone.

“Where have you taken him?” (John 20:13–15)

  1. The brothers used the blood of a goat, smeared on Yosef’s coat to cover their sin of kidnapping and selling Yosef into slavery.
  2. Both Ya’akov and God lamented the death of their son.
  3. Yosef was sold for silver and was sent to Egypt, which symbolizes sin, bondage, and the world. Messiah was sold to sin, bondage and death. Both ended up being in charge of the entire world, second only to Pharaoh/God.

Genesis 38

There are certain details in this chapter that are valuable to know. We are introduced to Yehudah’s family. This chapter interrupts the flow of Genesis’ narrative of Yosef’s history. However, this story is inserted here because the descendants of Yosef and Yehudah will end up controlling the entire 12 tribes.

The characters of Yosef and Yehudah represents their respective families and how they carry themselves through multiple generations. In Yehudah’s case, he separates himself from his brothers shortly after Yosef is sold off.

Yehudah’s shame

In the 20 years that Yosef is gone, Yehudah marries and has three sons. Two of those sons are old enough to be married and both of them are dead before Yosef’s new identity is revealed to the family and they all move down to Egypt. By the end of chapter 38, we are sufficiently updated about Yehudah’s life so we will understand how he is able to sacrifice himself for Benjamin (who is also a son of the beloved Rachel) in a way he was not able to do for Yosef.

Yehudah was the ringleader of Leah’s sons, who kidnapped and sold Yosef off. Once Yosef was gone, Yehudah became the dominant son in Ya’akov’s family. All the brothers had deferred to him in their conspiracy. With that status comes certain responsibilities. Now Yehudah is the one responsible for the well-being of the entire extended family, even his own father.

Now, imagine how Yehudah felt having to watch his father mourn for Yosef, day in and day out? He was ashamed of what he had done. He left his father and the family so he wouldn’t have to see his father’s daily sorrow. He preserved Yosef’s life but not the way Reuben would have done it. Yehudah was miserable and full of shame at what he had done. He had cursed himself and moved his family deep into Canaanite territory.

Canaanites have a certain religion and a certain way of life. It’s steeped in polytheism with multiple gods of all different flavors. Each season of the year has a different group of gods they worship and praise. Ba’al, Adon, Asherah, Moloch, Chemosh, etc. Each city had its own “ba’al” the citizens of that city would dedicate worship towards.

Yehudah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, was Canaanite and with her Yehudah has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Er means “awake” or “appear.” Onan means “strong” or “strength.” Shelah means “your request” or “your petition.”  Shelah was born in a Canaanite town called Chezib, which means “failed” or “false.” These four proper nouns made into a sentence means: “Awaken your strength. Your request has failed.” These names were not written into the Torah randomly and his sons were a prophecy against him.

Tamar’s ascent

Tamar (whose family history is completely unknown) was most likely a Canaanite as well although we don’t know that for certain. God used Tamar and her marriages to Er and Onan to reveal to Yehudah that those sons were evil. God refused to allow those evil sons to have a bloodline living in Israel.

Tamar may have been young, but she was no dummy. When she saw that Shelah was old enough to be her next husband and Yehudah withholds Shelah from her, she created a plan that would fulfill her duty to bring forth heirs to Yehudah’s family. If Yehudah refused to let her fulfill this duty with Shelah, she would fulfill it through Yehudah himself.

Religious harlotry was common in Canaanite culture. When Tamar disguised herself and went to the city gate to “play the harlot” with Yehudah, she was simply engaging in a common Canaanite practice of the time. Recently engaged young women would present themselves at the gate of a city a week before their wedding to have “sacred” sexual relations with strange men as a sacrifice to Asherah.

Canaanite culture was based on mercantilism. They were notorious traders. They were very good at the art of making money. We saw this in Sodom and Gomorrah, too. They cared more about money than they did about people.

Egyptian culture, on the other hand, was a much more militaristic culture. Egypt was very good at the art of war. Yosef’s experience immersed in Egyptian culture is very different from Yehudah’s immersion into Canaanite culture, by intermarriage. In Canaan, money is more important than people while in Egypt, people are more important than money.

Tamar asks Yehudah for three items as a pledge of payment: staff, cord and signet ring. All of these are symbols of his identity and authority as the head of his family. Tamar takes Yehudah’s identity from him but when he acknowledges the fact that she was more righteous than him, he regains his identity again. He sees his corruption. In her actions, through her “sin,” she redeemed Yehudah and gives him two sons to replace the evil sons God had to take away.

God ends up killing two of Yehudah’s three sons and the third son becomes an insignificant, unimportant family in the tribe of Yehudah. Perez and Zerah, Yehudah’s sons through Tamar dominate the tribe. Perez, in particular, is very important. He is the direct ancestor of King David and Messiah Yeshua. Through Yeshua, Yehudah and all of humanity are redeemed. God, in a sense, rewarded Tamar’s actions by making her the matriarch of Yehudah’s family, usurping “the daughter of Shua” from that role.

Yehudah’s sin caused Tamar to sin. Tamar is the victim in this story but God restores her and vindicates her. If Yehudah had followed through and given Tamar to his son Shelah, as the law demanded, he would not have had to endure the public humiliation of everyone finding out that he had treated Tamar so horribly that she had to “play the harlot” with him and nearly burn at the stake for it, just to receive what was rightfully hers in the first place. If Yehudah had followed Reuben’s lead and restored Yosef to his family rather than selling him off, he would not have had to experience the shame of Ya’akov’s tears and running away from them and leaving his family.

Many have noted the hypocrisy Yehudah shows when he demands the burning of a “prostitute” after hiring one himself. No matter how some try to spin it, even though Yehudah redeems himself later on, he is not as consistently righteous as Yosef. Yehudah treated both Yosef and Tamar terribly.

Both Yosef and Tamar were younger, and weaker than him and he had shown himself willing to throw both of them to the wolves when it was convenient for him to do so. It was only when Tamar brought his sin out for public humiliation that he relented and admitted that he was the sinner, not her. It also started him down the road to realize that in his relationship with Yosef, he was also the greater sinner.

God really cares about how you treat other people, especially those who were weaker and less fortunate.

Yehudah’s story is inserted here so that later on when we see Yehudah’s bravery in his willingness to give up his life for Benjamin’s, the reader will understand how Yehudah changed from the wicked brother who sold his youngest brother into slavery into a man who would willingly give up his life for his brother.

Banner Photo: Two lion cubs play fighting, learning how to fight for real when they grow up. Photo by Kessler Designs via Creative Commons License

Summary: Tammy









Recent posts in Discussions

Recent posts in Torah

What do you think about this?