Genesis is a story of generations, especially the lives of Abraham’s lineage. The first book of the Bible colorfully recounts the endurance of the covenant-heirs. To this point in the narrative they have survived threats from within and without, and at each step God’s redemptive plan worked through both the faithfulness and failure of His covenant partners.
At the beginning of Genesis 37, the text portrays the same kind of internal strife that characterized the covenant family since the early days of Jacob and Esau (25:27-34; 27:1-46), noted most recently in Jacob’s fragile relationship with his sons (34:30-31). But Joseph’s brothers went farther, selling their brother into slavery. While the perceived loss of Joseph was not a technical obstruction of the covenant (Jacob yet had eleven other male children), the fact that Jacob lamented so upon hearing that a wild animal had eaten his favorite son displays no small setback for the covenant family (Gen 37:33-35).
Judah’s aggressive personality can be seen in his intercession for Joseph in Gen 37:2-27 and in his immoral behavior in Genesis 38. While Judah’s pursuit of a prostitute in Gen 38:15-18 is repulsive, Judah’s initial sin was his lack of faithfulness as a family leader. He should have disciplined his son Onan for not having children by Tamar following the death of her husband, Er (Gen 38:8-9). Judah should have arranged for Shua to marry Tamar (Gen 38:11-12, 26). Judah was ultimately convicted of his sin and he confessed of Tamar, “She is more in the right than I” (Gen 38:26).
There may be more to the arrangement of Genesis 38-39 than a recounting of the life and times of various members of the covenant family. Judah’s violation of Tamar in Genesis 38 is placed just before Joseph’s ardent moral capacity in Genesis 39 so as to highlight the contrast between the two. While Joseph was unjustly punished, his situation in prison was the same as that in Potiphar’s house: the Lord was with him (Gen 39:2, 21, 23). God ultimately met Joseph’s need there—even causing his work to prosper (Gen 40:23). God enabled Joseph to interpret the dreams of the baker, cupbearer, and Pharaoh (Gen 40:12-41:14).
The narrative of Genesis 37-41 introduces a geographical framework that provides structure for the metanarrative of the Bible—especially the relationship between the nation of Israel and Christ. Earlier in the narrative of Genesis, the Lord told Abraham, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be strangers in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterwards they will go out with many possessions” (Gen 15:13-14). Joseph’s slavery and exaltation in Egypt was the initial fulfillment of this prophecy. Later, Jacob and all of his descendants followed Joseph to the land of Egypt (Genesis 46). Initially, their sojourn south was to sustain the patriarchal family during a time of severe famine. Ultimately, however, God sent Jacob and his family to Egypt to enrich them there and then bring them out by His mighty power demonstrated in the exodus (Exodus 5-15). The patriarchal family’s escape to the land of Egypt is mirrored in the initial scenes of the life of Christ recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Though the vast majority of the Bible’s references to Egypt are pejorative (see Isa 19-20; 30:1-17; 31:1-5; Jer 44:1-14; Rev 11:7-10), Egypt was a place of refuge for both the young nation of Israel and the young Son of God. In the storyline of Scripture, the former always points to the latter. When King Herod was planning to eliminate the potential threat of the newborn King of the Jews, Matthew wrote that an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take his family and escape to Egypt for refuge. This would fulfill the word of the Lord to Moses in Exod 4:12-23 and to the prophet Hosea in Hos 11:1. Out of Egypt, the Lord called His Son (Matt 2:13-15).