Israel into Egypt (On Genesis 32-50)

Saint Joseph, the All Comely  - by  Badri Shengelia  (Contemporary Georgian Iconographer)

Saint Joseph, the All Comely - by Badri Shengelia (Contemporary Georgian Iconographer)

Our third week begins in Genesis chapter 32, where Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious angel. By the end of the night, neither side has prevailed, and when Jacob asks for a blessing, he is given the name, Israel, which means “wrestles with God” or “struggles with God.” While there are other re-namings in the Bible — Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul — this is the most significant of all, because the name passes from Jacob to his descendants. Israel becomes a collective noun, and the narrative shifts to a greater focus on the exploits of Jacob’s sons.

We see in these “sons of Israel” the characteristics of their father. Jacob was always a trickster, from his theft of Esau’s birthright and blessing in Genesis 25 and 27, to his departure from Laban in Genesis 31. In Genesis 34, we see Jacob’s sons tricking the Hivites after the rape of their sister Dinah. And then in Genesis 37, the sons of Jacob turn on one of their own, stripping Joseph of his many-colored robe and selling him into Egyptian slavery. They then trick Jacob himself, putting blood on the many-colored robe to convince Jacob that Joseph had been killed. Jacob the trickster is tricked, and he does not like this taste of his own medicine:

All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Shel to my son, mourning. Thus his father wept for him.” (Genesis 37:35)

At this point, we can be forgiven for wondering what to make of these “fathers in the faith.” They are lying, stealing, and killing; are we to take them as heroes? In fact, one of the central features of Genesis is in revealing the woeful condition of mankind, and demonstrating the remarkable grace by which God works in and through us anyway. The patriarchs are heroes of the faith, but not because of their deeds. They are heroes because of their faith, by which God credited them with righteousness.

This dynamic is poignantly illustrated by the cycle of stories about Joseph in Egypt. There, we see that Joseph is not only a dreamer, but also a gifted interpreter of dreams (foreshadowing the later significance of dreams for Joseph, the husband of Mary). His ability to prophesy from dreams makes Joseph an indispensable advisor to Pharaoh. Pharaoh therefore gives Joseph an Egyptian name, Egyptian clothing, and the power of Egyptian nobility. When the sons of Israel come to Egypt during a famine, it is their brother, who they had sold into slavery, who is finally able to save them. In other words, they are saved entirely by grace.

Genesis ends with the moving depiction of the Jacob’s final blessings and his death. These blessings are be prophetic for later Israelite history, for the tribes which take their names from Jacob’s sons. When Jacob dies, all the Egyptian court travels with the Israelites to Jacob’s burial place in Canaan. And then there is one final reminder of God’s grace upon his people. With Jacob’s death, the sons of Israel become afraid that Joseph will finally take his revenge upon them. Joseph’s response is one of the enduring principles of God’s mysterious providence:

“Do not fear…You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Peter Johnston