Joseph is an Old Testament patriarch who is undoubtedly one of the greatest heroes in all of Scripture but the family background that he was born into is an amazing picture of dysfunction. In fact, his family just may have been the most dysfunctional family you'll ever find in the Bible. This isn't the Brady Bunch. This family is dysfunctional beyond anything that you could imagine.
We are introduced to Joseph’s family in Genesis 25. Notice some of these dysfunctions and this is just a partial list. The family that Joseph is born into is one of favoritism, rivalry, deception, betrayal, hatred, threats, polygamy, rape, murder, incest and much more - and all of that is prior to the story of Joseph even beginning.
\Let’s begin by talking about Joseph's father. His name was Jacob and Jacob was a twin. His twin brother was named Esau. Jacob and Esau had a horrible case of sibling rivalry. But this case of sibling rivalry didn't begin as young adults. In fact, their sibling rivalry did not even begin as small children. Their sibling rivalry actually went all the way back to when they were in the womb.
The twins’ mother's name was Rebekah. Their dad's name was Isaac who was also one of the four patriarchs of the Old Testament - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Interestingly, Isaac actually lived longer than any of the other patriarchs but he has the least amount said about him in the Bible. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, conceived twin boys and these twins, Jacob and Esau, had a case of sibling rivalry that literally began in the womb.
“But the children (Jacob and Esau) children struggled together while within her.” (Genesis 25:22)
Imagine being pregnant. Next, imagine being pregnant with twin boys. Now imagine being pregnant with twin boys who, while they are in your womb, are struggling with each other. “You're in my space!” Can you imagine what those nine months were like? Can you imagine how difficult that pregnancy must have been? In fact, it was so difficult that Rebekah asks God about it.
“So she went to inquire of the Lord. God, why are my babies struggling with each other in my womb? And the Lord said to her, two nations are in your womb and two people shall be separated from your body. And one people shall be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22)
So the rivalry of these two boys, Jacob and Esau, began while they were in the very womb of their mother. This pre-natal rivalry was seen very graphically when the time of the birth came.
“When her days to be delivered were fulfilled (and I'm sure she was glad when those nine months were over) behold, there were twins in her womb. Now, the first came forth red all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. Afterward, his brother (that's Jacob) came forth with his hand holding on to Esau's heel so his name was called Jacob.” (Genesis 25:24, 25)
In the womb they were struggling with each other and at least part of this struggle appeared to be the desire to be born first. Keep in mind that in the culture of that day being the firstborn son was a position of great honor. Today, being firstborn isn't as big of a deal. Back then if you were the firstborn son, you were the one that carried on the family. You got twice the inheritance of all the other children. It was a position of honor. So they are struggling for this right. This is like the Indy 500 right inside of Rebekah's womb. Who's going to cross the finish line first?
Esau won! He pulled ahead at the end. He got to come out first. But Jacob was fighting to the very end, grabbing a hold of Esau's heel as if to try to pull him back in so he could get out ahead of him. I bet Rebekah wished epidurals had been invented back then. These boys were against each other from their very birth. To make matters even worse, their parents then poured gasoline on the fire of their rivalry. Before we see that, notice first how the boys were described:
“When the boys grew up Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents.” (Genesis 25:27)
Unlike me, Esau would have fit very well into northern Michigan. He was covered with hair. He was a hunter. He spent most of his time out in the woods. That was Esau. While Esau was out hunting the animals, Jacob was home feeding the animals. He was a peaceful man who lived in the tents. Esau was a man's man. Jacob was a mama's boy. As a result of this, favoritism became evidenced.
“Now Isaac loved Esau.” (Genesis 25:28)
That didn’t mean that Isaac didn't love Jacob. It simply meant that he loved Esau more. He favored Esau, and worse yet, he showed it. Verse 28 gives us the reason why Isaac loved Esau more. It says Isaac loved Esau “because he had a taste for game.” In other words, Dad loved the taste of wild game. And what was Esau? He was a skilled hunter. So why did Isaac love Esau more than Jacob? He favored him because Esau could provide for Isaac something that satisfied his own flesh - wild game. You see, Isaac's love for Esau wasn't based on Esau. Isaac's love for Esau was based totally on selfishness because Esau provided for him something that would satisfy his flesh. So Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob.
Isaac’s favoritism towards Esau was not the end of the problem. The end of verse 28 says, “But Rebekah loved Jacob.” Now, why did Rebekah favor Jacob? She did so because he was a mama's boy. He was home in the tent all the time. My guess is that it was through Jacob that Rebekah was finding her sense of security. As a result you have these two boys in a heated sibling rivalry and gasoline is poured on to this fire by their parents when Dad loved Esau more than he loved Jacob and when Mom loved Jacob more than she loved Esau. This was a family in huge dysfunction. How in the world could God ever use a family like this?
If you jump ahead to chapter 37 you learn a principle that's worth seeing. The principle can be simply put as “like father, like son.”
“Now Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons.” (Genesis 37:3)
Folks, listen, this is a principle that we must learn. We can’t afford to deny it. We must understand that though children hate the mistakes they see in the lives of their parents, they are prone to make the same mistakes. What parents do in moderation, children often do in excess. The child of an alcoholic hates the fact that their parent is an alcoholic but statistics tell us that children of alcoholics are more prone to become alcoholics themselves. And that's the case in most every situation no matter what the scenario is.
I guarantee you Jacob hated the fact growing up that his dad loved his brother more than he loved him. I’m sure that he despised the fact that his dad showed that favoritism but what does Jacob do when he has sons? He makes the very same mistake. He repeats the mistake of his father. He shows partiality to one of his sons that we'll ultimately create an explosion of violence.
You see, moms and dads, here's the truth. We can't take our own sin lightly. We can't just casually say, “Well, no big deal. We all have weaknesses.” We need to understand that the weaknesses we demonstrate to our children they are prone to repeat when they become adults and they become parents. And that's exactly what happened with Jacob.
Let’s get back to the twin rivals. This sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob lasted throughout their childhood, and when they become young adults, things get even worse. We now move to the part of the story where Jacob and Esau are going to have an encounter in which Esau is going to sell his birthright. Again you need to keep in mind that in the culture of that day the birthright meant that was your portion as the firstborn son. Remember, as the firstborn son, you were the head of the home once your father passed on. As the firstborn son, you got twice as much of inheritance as anybody else.
We now get to the point in the story where Jacob is going to trick his brother out of his birthright. Jacob knows how to deceive people. In fact, the very name Jacob means “deceiver.” He now goes into motion. Esau was out hunting and Jacob knew Esau's routine. Jacob knew that when Esau came back after a long day of hunting, he was going to be famished. So Jacob, at just the right time, prepared a pot of lentil stew.
As is his routine, Esau came home and he was famished. He walked in the door saying, “I am starving to death.” As he did, he got a whiff of the aroma of that wonderful, delicious, succulent lentil stew and fresh baked bread. When you think you're starving to death and you suddenly smell the wonderful aroma of food, what happens to your hunger? It escalates. Esau couldn’t wait any longer. He said,” Jacob, can I have some of your stew?” Jacob had this all planned out. He now has Esau exactly where he wanted him.
“Brother,” Jacob said, “You can have some stew in exchange for your birthright. Sell me your birthright for the stew.” His brother responded, “What good is my birthright if I'm dead from starvation? I'll take the stew.” Jacob took that opportunity to seal the deal.
“Jacob said first swear to me so he swore to him. I'll give you my birthright, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew and he ate and drank and rose and went on his way, thus Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25:33, 34)
The rivalry continued to grow. The dysfunction mounted and reached its climax not long after when their father Isaac has become aged and knew he didn’t have many more years to live. He had also become blind. He went to Esau, his firstborn son, and said, “Esau, it's time for me to give you the firstborn blessing.” We don't really do that today in our culture but back in that day it was huge to receive the blessing of the firstborn. So, Isaac said, ”I want you to go out, I want you to hunt some game, bring the game back, cook me my favorite dinner and then I am going to give you the firstborn blessing.”
Esau had no intention of keeping his word when he swore to Jacob to trade his birthright for the stew, so Esau went out to hunt the game. Meanwhile, Rebekah, the wife who loved Jacob more, overheard the conversation. Jacob was a very good deceiver and you know why? He was a great liar because the apple didn't fall far from the tree. He learned how to do it from his mama. Remember, we tend to repeat our parent’s mistakes.
Rebekah brought Jacob in and said, “Here's what you're going to do. You're going to go in to your father and pretend to be Esau. I'm going to make his favorite dish. You take it in to him and receive your brother’s blessing.” Isaac is hesitant with the plan because Esau was covered with hair. Surely, his father would know that he was not Esau.
But Rebekah had that all figured out as well. She took goat skin and put it on Jacob’s hands and neck so that when Isaac touched him he would feel the goat skin and think it was Esau. She also had Jacob wear Esau's clothes so he would smell like Esau. Remember, Esau was a skilled hunter who spent most of his time out in the fields. His clothes smelled a little bit different than Jacob's. So Jacob put on Esau's clothes and the goat skin and he goes in to his dad.
“He came in to his father and said, my father, and he said, here I am. Where are you, my son? Jacob said to his father, I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Get up, please, sit and eat of my game that you may bless me.” (Genesis 27:19)
Jacob has no trouble lying to his dad but Isaac was suspicious saying, “You say you're Esau but it's the voice of Jacob. Come close that I can touch you.” When he does, Isaac touched him and felt the goat skin. He smelled his clothes and said, “I guess it really is Esau” and he gave Jacob Esau's blessing.
When Esau returned and found out what had happened, he was furious. He was incensed and vowed at that very moment that he would kill his brother. He said, “The days of mourning for my father are near.” In other words, my father's going to die soon. “I'll wait until that's done. Then, I will kill my brother Jacob.” How in the world could God use a family like this? How in the world could God raise up a hero out of a family background like this?
Rebekah was fearful for her beloved son Jacob. She knew that Esau was serious so she sent Jacob to go live with her brother Laban. Jacob was now on the run. He was a fugitive. He went to live with his uncle and that's the last time he ever saw his mother and father again. He would see Esau again but he would never again see Isaac or Rebekah.
As if it wasn’t already, now the story really gets strange. Laban had two daughters who would have been first cousins to Jacob. Back then that wasn't a big deal. Their names were Rachel and Leah. Leah was the firstborn but Rachel was far better looking. According to the Bible Rachel was beautiful in appearance (her face) and in form (her body). In other words, Rachel, the younger sister, was drop dead gorgeous. She was a ten. She was a supermodel before supermodels came on the scene.
In contrast to Rachel's beauty, the Bible says that Leah had “weak eyes.” In our culture today it would be like saying, “Hey, I've got this girl you've got to meet. She has a very nice personality.” In other words, in contrast to Rachel, Leah had fallen out of the “ugly tree” and hit every branch on the way down. So on one hand you had Rachel who was drop dead gorgeous. On the other side you had weak-eyed Leah.
As you can imagine, Jacob fell madly in love with Rachel and said to Laban, “I will work for you seven years if I can have Rachel as my wife.” Laban agreed to the terms so for seven years Jacob worked for Laban and finally the wedding day came. He had been counting down the days for seven years. And he married one of the daughters of Laban. In that culture the bride wore a wedding veil all the way through the consummation of the marriage. When this was complete, Jacob got the shock of his life.
“It came about in the evening of their wedding that he (Laban) took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob and Jacob went in to her.” (Genesis 29:25)
Laban had pulled the old “switch-a-rooney.” Jacob had not married Rachel. He had married “weak-eyed” Leah. SURPRISE! He immediately ran out of the tent to Uncle Laban and said, ”What have you done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why have you deceived me?” Is that not the pot calling the kettle black? This was the great deceiver himself. This was the guy that deceived his brother out of his birthright and deceived his dad out of the firstborn blessing and now he was upset because someone had deceived him. There is a verse in scripture that fits this story.
“Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows this will he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
Jacob sowed deception and now he reaped it. Laban said, “Well, we have a custom here that the older daughter has to get married first.” Now, what does that say about weak-eyed Leah that her dad had to trick somebody into marrying her? Laban said, “I'll tell you what, Jacob. If you'll commit to work for me for another seven years I'll give you Rachel, as well. You can have both my daughters as your wives.” Everyone knows that can’t work but Jacob was so in love with Rachel that he agreed and Rachel became his wife, as well. Suddenly Jacob was married to two women who just happen to be sisters. He's married to the beautiful Rachel and he's married to weak-eyed Leah. And as you might imagine, favoritism again showed its ugly head.
“Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah.” (Genesis 29:30)
I told you earlier that we tend to repeat the mistakes of our parents. Remember what Jacob's parents had done to the rivalry he had with his brother? They had poured gasoline on it. How did they do this? They did it by showing favoritism. So what did Jacob now do to the rivalry that existed between Rachel and Leah? The very same thing his parents had done. He showed favoritism which was like throwing gasoline on this horrible fire.
The story now takes another unbelievable dysfunctional twist. Just when you think the story can't get any weirder, it does. In the culture of that day the greatest blessing of any man was to have sons. Daughters were okay but sons were the real deal. The more sons you had the more blessed you were considered. In the culture of that day the greatest blessing a wife could bestow upon her husband was to bear him sons.
God saw that Leah was rejected by Jacob and He had compassion on Leah. He closed the womb of Rachel and He opened the womb of Leah. Leah was now able to do what Rachel could not do. She gave Jacob not one, but four sons - Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. As a result, Jacob began to be drawn to Leah because Leah had now given him the greatest blessing a man could have - sons.
Guess who noticed? Rachel saw that her sister was starting to get their husband's attention. Rachel knew she couldn’t have kids so she needed to stop Leah in her tracks. As a result she went to Jacob and said, “I want you to take my handmaiden, Bilhah. I want you to sleep with her. She will now be your concubine. She will bear you children. The children will come out of her womb but they'll be my children.” For some odd reason Jacob thought that was a good idea. Jacob slept with Bilhah and she gave him two sons, Dan and Naphtali. So if you're keeping score, it was now Leah 4 and Rachel 2.
In the meantime Leah realized that her womb had now closed and she couldn’t bear any more children. She also saw that Rachel was bearing Jacob sons through Bilhah. Leah realized that two could play at that game so she went to Jacob and said, “Jacob, I want you to take my handmaiden Zilpah. She'll be your concubine. I want you to sleep with her. She'll bear you sons. The sons will come out of her womb but they'll belong to me.” Jacob also saw this as a good idea so he took Zilpah and she bores him two more sons, Gad and Asher.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Leah had become fertile again. I don't know if she ate the right herbs or what but she again became fertile. She bore Jacob two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun. Again let me ask, “How in the world could God ever use this family?”
Finally, in her old age, God blessed Rachel and she gave birth to the hero of our story – Joseph! When she gave birth to Joseph, Jacob was 91 years old. Ultimately, Rachel gave him a second son. His name was Benjamin. However, in giving birth to Benjamin in her old age, Rachel died.
“It came about when she was in severe labor that the midwife said to her, do not fear for now you have another son and it came about as her soul was departing for she died in childbirth that she named him Ben-Oni but his father called him Benjamin so Rachel died and was buried.” (Genesis 35:18-19)
Joseph's mom was now gone. This meant that Joseph was now going to get raised by three women who were all mothers in some way, shape or form to all of his older brothers. Do you see the family that Joseph is born in to? Folks, this isn't the Brady Bunch. This is one messed up family.
If you keep reading you will find yet more dysfunction. Leah also gave to Jacob a daughter named Dina. Dina ended up going into a city named Shechem and in that city she was raped. Her brothers decided to get revenge so they went to the city and tricked all the men of the city in to being circumcised. While they were in pain and running fevers that resulted from their surgical procedure, the sons of Jacob killed all of them and took all of their money, women and children as their own slaves. How could God ever use this family?
And if that's not bad enough, Reuben, that's Jacob’s firstborn son of Leah, went in and slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine. The Bible says that Jacob heard of it. But then there's a period. That's part of the problem with this dysfunctional family. Dad knew all that was going on but never stepped up to the plate. Dad never did anything about it. When his daughter got raped, dad didn't do anything about it. When his firstborn son had an affair with one of his concubines, dad didn’t do a thing about it. How in the world could God ever use this family?
But somehow, some way, from this messed up family comes a man named Joseph. A man who would save thousands upon thousands of people from starvation and a man who would become, next to Jesus Christ Himself, the greatest example of the power of forgiveness in all of the Bible. And believe it or not, he came out of this highly dysfunctional family.
In the day and age in which we live today, all of us can look back and see dysfunction in our family history, can't we? In fact, many of us today are still living with the scars of that dysfunction. We carry it around like a chain and ball wrapped around our ankles. As a result, we are laden with thoughts that tell us that we can't amount to much. God could never use me - not with my family history.
I want you to understand that dysfunction does not have to be permanent. There is a little poem that says,
“Though you can't go back and make a brand new start, my friend, anyone can start from now and make a brand new end.”
You can't go back and change the dysfunction of your past. You can't go back and change your family history. Joseph could not go back and change his father Jacob. He could not go back and change Grandpa Isaac and Grandma Rebekah. He couldn't go back and change his brothers. But Joseph was able to do something that none of the others in his family did. He was able to break the cycle.
He was able to say, “Enough is enough. I will not make the same mistakes that my dysfunctional family made in the past. I will break the cycle. I will make a new future for my children and my grandchildren.”
While you can't do much about your ancestors, you can influence your descendants greatly.
Isn't that good to know? Folks, listen. I don't know what kind of background you come from. I don't know what kind of dysfunction or hurt is in your family history. But I know this. Joseph is living proof that you can break the cycle of dysfunction through the power of God. And even though you can do little about your ancestors, you can influence for the positive your descendants greatly. You can make a difference in the lives of your kids and your grand kids and your great grand kids. And Joseph is living proof.
It wouldn't be easy for Joseph. We'll see that Joseph's dysfunction will land him in a pit and though he'll only spend several hours in the pit from there he'll go to a prison, to a dungeon, where he'll spend years before he's released and elevated. It wouldn't be an easy road but Joseph would break the cycle of dysfunction.
So can you!