The scripture for today also includes Genesis 36:1-37:1, but for reasons discussed in the sermon, that portion of the passage is not included here.
Genesis 35:16-29 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23 The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. 26 The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.
27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
Have you ever tried to honor God, doing the hard but right thing, only to finish second (or third or fourth or last) to someone who cut corners and practiced questionable ethics?
As a new believer I found myself working the worst job I’ve ever held. It involved wearing a full-body suit (including a respirator) for most of the day, in a metal building, without A/C, in the middle of summer. My coworkers didn’t want to be there, complained often, and quit regularly. Nevertheless, I was committed to being a light for the sake of the gospel. I was at an immediate disadvantage because the bosses and coworkers knew that I was only there for the summer. I was disposable and not really eligible for insider club membership. Even still, I did the best I could, didn’t engage in the gossip or negative talk, and even shared the gospel with a number of guys. Yet, no one seemed to be impressed by my “light”.
Maybe the most frustrating experience of all of it came when I was wrongly rebuked for taking too long of a break. The people I’d worked with had devised all kinds of ways of taking more and longer breaks than we were allowed. Again, to honor God and my bosses, I was careful not to do so. I’d start a timer every time. Therefore, when the floor supervisor told me to get inside 10 minutes into my 15 minute break and refused to believe me when I told him that I’d only been out for 10 minutes, it took all I had to continue to let this little light of mine shine.
I was trying to honor God and live by faith (trusting that His will was right and His promises would hold) even thought it felt like I was only making my life unnecessarily harder. I wish I had some great story about how, in the end all of my coworkers saw my good works and praised the Father in heaven, but that didn’t happen. I kept working throughout the summer and then went back to college, never hearing from any of the guys again.
Such is sometimes the life of faith.
In some ways that’s what we have in our passage for this morning. Jacob, the chosen one of God, was called to trust God for the fulfillment of the covenant promises. Certainly, he’d already gotten a taste of that (36:6-7), but there were as of yet no kings or nations which belonged to him. He had twelve sons (which was something), but they still lived as sojourners and in tents (37:1). On the other hand, the report we get of Esau is that he, the rejected, was maxed out in blessings, territory, and offspring (including chiefs and kings).
One day Jacob’s offspring would know a measure of fulfillment of God’s promises that would blow Esau’s out of the water, but that was not until centuries later in part, and over a millennia later in full.
The big idea of this passage and sermon is that delayed, eternal blessings through faith in the promises of God are always better than immediate, temporal blessings through a clear view of the offerings of this world. Let’s pray that God would use this story to help us see these things and more.
JACOB’S FAITH AND SUFFERING (35:16-29)
To this point, Jacob’s life had been anything but stable and predictable. God had made great promises to him, he sought to live a life of faith, and God had blessed him, but both Jacob’s faith and his comfort ebbed and flowed constantly. What’s more, it isn’t nearly as simple as saying that when he trusted God everything went great and things only fell apart when he wandered into disobedience. There was some correlation, but it’s far from perfect.
In other words, we find in Jacob many of the same things we find in our own lives. We come in and out of obedience, even as we come in and out of comfort. There is some correlation between the two, but it’s not constant and rarely clear. In other words, hard things happen to Christians. Even if we walk in exceptional obedience, we still get sick and our relationships still struggle and we still lose jobs and we still struggle to get pregnant or parent the kids we have. Such is the nature of living in a fallen world under God’s good governance and this passage helps us to that. More still, as we remember not just where things are in this passage, but where they’re going (which is what I’ll end with), we find the full measure of blessing this passage is meant to provide.
What we see in the second half of 35 is that even as Jacob rededicated himself to obedience (the beginning of 35), and even as he experienced a measure of divine blessing, he was quickly confronted with three tragedies.
Jacob’s Wife Died (35:16-21)
First, his favorite wife, Rachel, died while giving birth to their child.
16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
“Son of Sorrow” was Rachel’s name for her son as she died. In her sad death we find tragedy and irony. The tragedy, of course, is that Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin. Even though this was fairly common in biblical times, it’s hard to imagine how devastating this would have been. What was supposed to be a time of celebration and gladness (at the birth of a child), turned into a time of weeping and mourning.
But the tragedy is also the irony. You might remember that back in Genesis 30:1, barren Rachel lamented to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” In the end, it was getting her way that led to her death. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I also don’t want you to miss it so I’ll say it again. Getting what she wanted—even something that is good in itself—led to Rachel’s death. Let this be a reminder that to build our lives on, and root our happiness in, anything other than God himself is an invitation for inevitable disappointment and sorrow.
Maybe the saddest line in all of it comes in v.21, “Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.” How lonely that must have been to have to burry your wife in a strange land and then simply journey on.
This is the story of the family of the promise and it is also the story of all who have faith in God. God is enough. He is more than enough. But a life of obedience to Him will include trials and difficulties in this life, even as we await all things new in the next.
Jacob’s Son Committed Incest (35:22)
The second tragedy followed quickly on the heels of the first.
22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.
In v.22 we find that one of Jacob’s sons committed incest. Such a horrific act simply stated in a single verse. There’s no commentary or detail at all. And there’s no mention of the fact that God’s design for family is one man and one woman (not multiple wives and concubines). Jacob shouldn’t even have had a concubine for Reuben to “lay with”. Any way you cut it, this was a disgusting tragedy. And any way you cut it, it is a reminder of how powerful and destructive the unchecked lusts of the flesh are. May we fight to kill even the tiniest sprouts of sexual immorality in our hearts as soon as we find them, lest they bear this kind of fruit.
Jacob’s Father Died (35:22-26)
The third difficult circumstance comes in the final verses of chapter 25. After a quick recap of Jacob’s offspring (35:22-26), we read of the death of Jacob’s dad, Isaac.
27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days.
Have you ever been to the funeral of someone who had given absolutely no evidence of hope in Jesus? It is among the saddest places we can possibly be. On the other hand, while there’s still a kind of sadness at the funeral of one who gave every evidence of being a Christian, that sadness is absolutely overwhelmed by remembering the unimaginable glory they are in. It must have been sad for Jacob to lose his father, but knowing that he had been chosen by God to dwell with God forever would have been comforting in the highest.
One thing we know for certain is that we will all die (unless Jesus returns first). The main question is where we will go when we do. For those whose hope is in Jesus, eternal life, but for those who remain in their sin, everlasting damnation (Romans 2:6-8). Even if you are 99% sure where you’re going when you die, let us give you that last percent as a gift today. Ask someone how you can know for sure.
The chapter ends with a brief mention of the reunion between Jacob and Esau. There’s no commentary about the tone of the reunion or any of its content beyond, “And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.” That’s the last time the brothers came together and the last time we hear of Esau alive. In fact, that’s also the end (for the most part) of the Jacob story as well. Of course, Jacob plays a big role in the rest of the bible, but this is mostly the end of what we’re told about his time on earth (he reappears briefly as a part of Joseph’s story at the end of Genesis). What a strange end to the story of a strange family. And what a clear reminder that God’s people go through hard things even when (and sometimes especially when) we walk in obedience.
ESAU’S SIGHT AND PROSPERITY (36-37:1)
And that brings us to chapter 36 and the list of Esau’s descendants.
I do think there’s a standalone sermon in chapter 36, but after reading and praying through it, it felt more like it’d be giving into a self-indulgent challenge than doing what’s best to honor God and serve you. What’s more, its main purpose seems to be to provide a lesson in contrast.
For those reasons, instead of a standalone sermon, I want to finish this sermon by quickly highlighting a handful of things from the chapter as a means of reminding us that delayed, eternal blessings through faith in the promises of God are always better than immediate, temporal blessings through a clear view of the offerings of this world.
That is, in this passage and through these observations, the main thing for us to see at this point in redemptive history is the contrast between the tragic experience of Jacob that we just read about and the prosperous one of his brother, Esau; between the hardships of the life of the child of the promise and the abundant life of the rejected son; between the life of faith and of the flesh. Just as bad things happen to God’s people, we see here that good things happen to those who reject God. God is perfectly just, but His justice is sometimes hidden from us.
Consider with me, then, seven quick observations (six and a summary seventh) on Genesis 36-37:1 (37:1 should be a part of chapter 36).
- The ninth toledot (36:1). You might remember that Genesis is divided by ten “toledots”. That’s a Hebrew word meaning “generations”. In other words, Genesis is largely the story of ten “generations”. The first is found in 2:4, and refers to the “generations of the heavens and the earth. In 5:1 we find the second toledot and the “generations” of Adam. 6:9 starts the third in the “generations” of Noah. 10:1 marks the sons of Noah. In 11:10, the fifth toledot tells of the “generations” of Shem. 11:27 are the “generations” of Terah (it’s kind of strange that he, not his son Abraham gets one). Things start slowing down after chapter 11. The next toledot isn’t found until 25:12, in Ishmael. In 25:19 it’s the “generations” of Isaac. And in our passage for this morning, we find the ninth toledot. 36:1 gives the generations of Esau. (The 10th and last is in 37:2, the “generations” of Joseph). The main takeaway for us is that Esau is included as one of the significant people of Genesis and Israel’s history.
- Esau is the father of the Edomites (36:1). Esau is Edom (8, 19, 43)—what a strange statement. The main point here is that the Edomites, who would play a significant and contentious role in the continued development of Jacob’s line, come from the line of his own brother, Esau. Keep this in mind as we continue through Genesis (or as you read the rest of the books of the OT which tell of Israel’s history). Wherever we encounter the Edomites, we are encountering the seed of the brother not chosen by God.
- Esau took wives from the Canaanites (36:2). Back in Genesis 28:8-9 we read, “So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, 9 Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.” The very reason Esau married Canaanite women was to spite his father. What was clearly looked down upon even in Esau’s day and outright prohibited in the Law of God (Deuteronomy 7:3) in the years to come, was Esau’s unapologetic practice. He took wives from the Canaanites. This was not a problem, as some have wrongly claimed, because of race or skin color or some other prejudice, but because nations outside of Israel had gods outside of the one true God. The problem wasn’t with their nationality or heritage, it was with their idolatry and sinful practices (Deuteronomy 7:4a).
Perhaps the clearest example of Esau’s indifference to these things is the fact that he married Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter (3). Esau, the one not chosen by God, chose to marry a cousin from the line of Ishmael, the other not chosen by God. Esau chose to make a life for himself apart from the people of God and yet he was blessed. God is perfectly just, but His justice is sometimes hidden from us.
- Esau left Jacob and the Promised Land (36:6-7). The text tells us (from Esau’s perspective) that he left because the land couldn’t support both his family and animals and Jacob’s. On the contrary, however, we know that was not the case. He might have needed to move to some degree, but the Promised Land as a whole was plenty big and fertile enough to support both men. This move was more of a desire to separate himself from the things of God than the land’s lack.
He left and ended up in Seir/Edom (8). And because he quickly became the most powerful man in that land, he came to bear the name of the land and the land his. Esau chose to make a life for himself apart from the land of God and yet he was blessed. God is perfectly just, but His justice is sometimes hidden from us.
In spite of these things (taking wives from the pagans and leaving the land of the promise), Esau was still connected to the promises of God. While his descendants would move further and further away from them, Esau (like his uncle, Ishmael) was still a son of the heir and so, for the sake of his father and grandfather, God was kind to him.
A quick lesson for us from this is that the closer we walk with God, the more the people around us should be blessed. Above all we ought to bless them with the truth of God. In addition, we ought to bless them with divinely commanded and empowered generosity and service and kindness. We ought to seek to be a part of God’s blessing those who reject Him, in order that they might turn to Him! Look for ways to do that this week (and always), Grace.
- Esau had many offspring (36:9-43). As we just saw, God had provided Esau with many livestock, beasts, and property. In addition, God granted him many, many offspring. And what’s more, among them were chiefs (15-19; 40-43) and kings (31-39). In other words, Esau’s children grew not only in possessions and number but also in prominence.
Indeed, the text makes special note of the fact that Edom’s offspring became kings even before Jacob’s (31). And yet, what was probably a source of pride for the Edomites was actually a condemnation. To say that they had kings before Israel was to say that they fell quicker and further into pride and idolatry than did Israel—hardly something to brag about. God is perfectly just, but His justice is sometimes hidden from us.
In this, each of God’s people were faced with the question: If I could get close enough to the promises and blessings of God to have life and health and many descendants and much wealth, would that be enough for me? And in that, all of us must come to grips with our own answer. As I’ve asked you before, if heaven would have everything you ever wanted but God, would you still want to be there? Would it be able to satisfy you?
- Edom closely paralleled Israel in its development as a nation, in its prosperity, and in its prominence (35:16-29, 37:1). Edom came to maturity before Israel, but it’s interesting to note that both nations did so in the same basic way—the parents had more and more children, who acquired more and more possessions and territory, and then more and more prominence. The important thing for us to notice is that all of this is a thinly veiled reminder of the fact that the only real difference between Jacob and Esau is God’s sovereign choice (not any difference in inherent worth). And that leads to the final, summary observation.
- The significant blessing of Esau (36) is meant to provide a contrast with the trials of Jacob (35). This is perhaps most clearly seen in the fact that the very last verse of the passage (37:1) notes Jacob’s modest existence immediately after an entire chapter on Esau’s prosperity. “Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.” Even though Jacob was the son of the promise, he was still dwelling in tents as a wandering foreigner and far less well-off than his brother. That would change, of course, but it hadn’t yet.
Another critical lesson and foreshadowing, then, is that Jacob the chosen, needed to live by faith, while Esau the rejected, lived by sight. The life of sight demands all things now while the life of faith is often one of patient waiting.
Once again, herein is the main point of placing this description of the fruitful line of Esau right in between the descriptions of Jacob’s relative lack (35:16-29 and 37:1). We are meant to see clearly that a life of faith is not always a life of comfort even as a life of rebellion is not always a life of tribulation. In the end all things will be set right, but in this life it’s not always that way.
And in that, we are reminded that we must decide whether we believe God’s promises to us are true or not. Insofar as they are not, we are right to abandon them entirely. It makes no sense at all to live by lies—either in part or in whole. That’s the most foolish thing we could do. If God’s promises are not true, we should have nothing to do with Him or them. Instead, we ought to eat, drink, and be merry as much as we possibly can, for tomorrow we die.
But insofar as they are true, we are right to trust them regardless of any earthly hardship caused by living in light of them. And we ought to do that in perfect peace even if our circumstances crumble. Let’s conclude, then, with the kind of promise that we ought to believe in and live out of come what may. 1 Peter 1:3-9.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.