Abraham. Isaac and Jacob (Pt.3)

Part Two

“Israel”

There has been quite a build up to the appearance of the word “Israel” in the first book of the Pentateuch.  When it appears in chapter 32 we get an immediate ethnic link between Jacob/Israel and the sons of Israel (32:32).  This is everywhere the understanding of the name in the Old Testament, and, we shall argue, in the New Testament also.[1]

Genesis 37 and 38 detail two inauspicious moments in the history of nascent Israel; the disposal of the hated Joseph into the hands of Midianite traders going to Egypt by his own brethren, and then Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman and his conjugal encounter with his, unknown to him, daughter in law Tamar.  The passage of time which must be kept in mind as one reads these episodes, plus the one concerning the rape of Dinah in chapter 34, do not augur well for the future of the tribes.  The glorious provisions of the Abrahamic covenant which was their inheritance is put in jeopardy by the sons of Jacob.  Just as with Jacob himself, this shows that the covenant could not hinge upon the characters of the men who were the recipients of it.  Redemption would need to come to the physical descendants of Israel if the full benefits of the covenantal relationship initiated by God were to come about.  But the covenant with Abraham, as the covenant with Noah, did not include soteriological provisions for the establishment of permanent satisfactory Divine – human association.  These provisions, which must affect both humanity and its created environment, are given, as we shall see, in the terms of the New covenant.  The important thing is that Israel holds an enduring place within this covenantal setup.

Joseph’s Dreams

The epic of Joseph is one of the greatest stories in all of literature.  Through Joseph’s faith and discretion and God’s providential supervenience, the prediction to Abraham in Genesis 15:13f. is set in motion.  Joseph, of course, is a Seer (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9).  His rehearsal of two dreams which God gave him only deepened his brothers’ dislike of him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more.  So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.”  And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind. – Genesis 37:5-11

This vision links up with the prophecy in Genesis 15 in that it predicts the arrival of the clan of Israel “in a land that is not theirs” to begin their four hundred year hiatus out of the land (cf. Gen. 15:13).  Though no direct interpretation is given, it appears that his father and his brothers understood the significance of the dreams.[2]  The two are a pair, both featuring the obeisance to Joseph (n.b. “the sun, the moon, and the stars bowed down to me” – v.9).  This presages the eleven brothers coming down to Egypt and bowing down before the Governor-Vizier in the days of famine (42:6).  Jacob thought he and his mother would bow before Joseph, but that did not occur.  The reason being that the purpose of the dreams was to predict Joseph’s future authority, perhaps not so much to describe actual events.[3] But when Jacob came into Egypt in Genesis 46, it was Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh (41:40)[4].

The thing to be realized is that for all its strangeness, the vision was readily understandable to those to whom it came.  The “Sun” was Jacob, the “Moon” was Leah, and the eleven “stars” were Joseph’s brothers.  The vision was of Israel (cf. Rev.12:1).    It was not beyond their ability to comprehend God’s intentions.  This is an important component of revelation, for without it revelation is not really occurring.[5]  Joseph’s second vision is utilized in the last Book of Scripture.  The question which comes up then will be whether it has changed into the Christian Church or whether the actual tribes of Israel are still in view.  A lot is going to depend on the trajectory ones theology takes in the interim.

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[1] See for example Carl B. Hoch, All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology

[2] Ross notices the scorn involved in the retort of Joseph’s brothers.  – Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, 600

[3] Having said this one explanation is to interpret the “bowing down” in terms of the previous vision of Genesis 37:7-8 where only the brothers did obeisance to him.

[4] I think it is worth noting that in this verse we find the only mention of a throne in the Book of Genesis.  Additionally, explicit mentions of God and His kingdom are rare in the OT (2 Chron. 13:8; Psa. 103:19; 145:11-13).  This should at least be borne in mind by scholars who find a kingdom theme in the first Book of the Bible.

[5] One of my chief reasons for rejecting covenant theology is that its eschatology firmly focuses revelation on the Church and not to those to whom it originally was given.  To offset this problem covenant theology has often taught that the Church is in the Old Testament, in spite, as we shall see, of the fact that no Church qua the Body of Christ is possible without the resurrection of Christ.  This makes a nonsense of the idea of a God who reveals Himself in history, and also of progressive revelation.

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3 comments

  1. I came across Rev 12:1 and the Apostle John’s inspired use of that vision during family devotions a few months ago. You are certainly right that the vision was meant to be understandable to those to whom it was given. This means both Joseph and his brothers, and the Apostle John’s audience were expected to “get it.” I recall, from browsing through a few exegetical commentaries a few months back, that non-dispensationalists had a difficult time dealing with the identity of the woman.

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