And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
–Luke 13:30 (ESV)
One of the recurring themes of the book of Genesis is the subversion of the right of primogeniture. Indeed, the claims of the eldest son are often rejected in favor of a younger sibling. Starting all the way back in chapter four, where the younger brother Abel’s sacrifice is preferred to his older brother Cain’s, God’s blessing inverts the cultural norm. The Lord’s preference for the weaker, the younger, and the smaller begins here and continues throughout the Hebrew Bible (most famously in David, the youngest son of Jesse, elevated to the King of Israel). His preference has nothing to do with merit: Isaac is passive and easily manipulated; Jacob is a heel-grabbing liar, homebody, and mama’s boy; Joseph (depending on your interpretation) is either breathtakingly pretentious or hopelessly naïve. Yet God chooses these men to be the patriarchs of His chosen people, His instruments of salvation. Not for nothing is the Lord called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. As Paul says to the Corinthians: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). And so the stories of these men resound through the ages as examples to us of God’s great love and their names are remembered to all generations.
But what of the other sons? In denying primogeniture, did God forget the eldest boys? We certainly tend to. But I think there are lessons to be learned from these forgotten patriarchs and they all center on a word we don’t usually associate with the Old Testament: grace. The stories of Ishmael, Esau, and Judah beautifully demonstrate both God’s grace to us and how to share that grace with those who have hurt us. These three men all dealt with rejection and failure, yet all three found peace, prosperity, and purpose despite their status as outcasts. God humbled these strong men only to exalt them once again at the end. Their lives are a reminder to “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jam. 4:10).
Ishmael: God Hears
The trouble started for Ishmael before he was even born. Abraham had been promised more descendants than the stars in the sky, yet his wife was barren and, now, in menopause. So Sarah offers her servant (or slave, depending on the translation) Hagar to Abraham. Notice the exact phrase though: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram as a wife” (Gen. 16:3, emphasis added). The text really wants us to notice that Abraham’s lawful wife is offering a mere servant to act as a wife to Abraham. As an aside, I will note that while the Old Testament records many instances of polygamy, such arrangements are never approved by God and they almost always end in tears, as we shall see here and in the story of Jacob’s sons. In any case, Hagar proved fertile and conceived a son. Thus, “she looked with contempt on her mistress” (v. 4). Hagar believed herself to now outrank Sarah as both Abraham’s wife and the mother of his only son. Abraham, realizing that he will be forced to choose between his wife and the mother of his child, puts the onus on Sarah to decide how to handle things. So Sarah abuses Hagar to the point that the pregnant woman must flee into the wilderness. It looks like Ishmael will die before he ever sees the light of day.
But God, despite the fact that this child represents an unfaithful act and will bring nothing but trouble in the future, looks with compassion on Hagar. Of course, Hagar would have hardly seen it that way. An angel from the Lord tells her to return to Sarah and “submit to her” (16:9), which means to suffer yet more abuse. To offer some sugar with the medicine, the angel promises Hagar descendants beyond counting and then tells her to name the boy Ishmael “because the Lord has listened to your affliction” (Ishmael means “God hears”, v. 11). Dr. Justin Jackson of Hillsdale College says that these verses practically sum up the entire Hebrew Bible: the Lord has heard your suffering — now go suffer. Despite the promise of suffering, this story shows how God does not forget anyone and sees our sorrow even when we feel that He is far away. I love verse 13, where Hagar returns the favor of naming: “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me” (NIV). Ishmael embodies the fact that, even before a person is born, they are never out of God’s sight: “You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb” (Ps. 139:15, NLT).
Abraham always seemed to have deep love and affection for his firstborn. When God promises to give him a son by Sarah, after falling on his face in laughter and crying out in either joy or disbelief about his age, Abraham says “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (17:18). The promise of a son by his actual wife seems too good to be true, and even if it is true, Abraham does not want Ishmael to be forgotten. The Lord, far from chastising Abraham, honors the request: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (v. 20). Notice again God’s wordplay on Ishmael’s name. He really wants to emphasize that he hears Abraham and Ishmael, even in the midst of their doubt and sin. He will establish his covenant through Isaac (v. 21), but he will never forget Ishmael. Abraham demonstrates this by circumcising Ishmael along with the rest of the family, making him a part of the covenant (v. 25-26).
But it was not to last. One day, Sarah spots Ishmael “laughing” (the sense includes “mocking” or “scorning”, 21:9). Isaac means “laughter”, so the text may be trying to tell us that Ishmael was attempting to appropriate the “laughter” that belonged to Isaac. Either way, Sarah orders Abraham to cast “this slave woman with her son” out of the house (v. 10). Abraham is dismayed, but the Lord gives his assent to the banishment, promising the survival and lineage of Ishmael for a third time (v. 13). So Hagar heads into the wilderness for a second time, but this time she runs out of water. She leaves Ishmael by himself to die (she cannot bear to watch), and then sits down and weeps. The Lord has abandoned them. Except, of course, He hasn’t. Once again, an angel arrives to say that “God heard the voice of the boy where he is” (v. 17). What a beautiful phrase! God hears us not only when we are where we should be (or where we think we should be) but where we are. He reminds Hagar of his promise to her and it is only then that Hagar sees the well that was there the whole time. The parallels with Genesis 22 should be obvious. Here is a parent who is leaving their child for dead in the wilderness, who is visited by an angel, and who only then sees the salvation that has been there the entire time (the well and the ram). The story concludes by telling us that “God was with the boy” even though he could not return home. He stayed in the wilderness, growing strong and crafty with a bow and finding a wife from Egypt. This wilderness experience, full of suffering no doubt, changed Ishmael from a mocking adolescent into a strong and worthy patriarch of a great nation.
The last mention of Ishmael in Genesis is a dry genealogy which confirms that, indeed, Ishmael became the father of twelve princes, just as God had said (25:12-18). God keeps his promises; He does not forget. Despite Ishmael not being a part of His plan for salvation, God blessed him and prospered him. No human being is ever out of God’s sight or beyond God’s love. God hears.
Esau: Foolishness and Grace
For Esau, too, the trouble began while he was still in the womb. The problem was that he was not alone in there. He and his brother were fighting before they were even born. Rebekah, no doubt sleep-deprived, cried to the Lord asking what on earth was going on. The reply: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). Once again, the elder (and stronger) is made subservient to the younger, but also the elder is once again promised a nation. Then the twins are born, still fighting, Jacob refusing to release his grip on Esau’s heel. The parallels between Esau and Ishmael are striking. Both men grew up in the wilderness and became skillful bowmen, and both were beloved of their fathers. The problem for Esau is that his twin was a bit too clever, too much like his crafty mother for his own good….
Esau was handsome, talented, and hairy. But one thing he was not was bright. He was ruled by his appetites, which famously led to him selling his birthright for some red stew. People act like Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, but to me this looks like a trade openly agreed to by both parties (even if Esau claims that he was “about to die”, 25:32). If Esau was foolish enough to sell his birthright so cheaply, he probably did not deserve it (whether Jacob deserved it any more is another question entirely). This story continues in chapter 27 when Isaac, sensing that his death is near, tells Esau to hunt and prepare some game so that he might eat of it and bless his firstborn. Isaac’s love for Esau here seems entirely conditional on his skill at hunting and cooking and little to do with any paternal affection. In any case, you know the story. Rebekah convinces Jacob to get in ahead of Esau and trick his father into giving him the blessing meant for the firstborn, complete with a hairy costume and everything. The wild plan works and Isaac gives him an extravagant blessing (read vv. 27-29). Remember that this blessing was intended for Esau and notice how little he leaves for Jacob. Once Esau returns and figures out what has happened, he panics: “Bless me, even me also, O my father” (v. 34). When Isaac throws up his hands and says “what then can I do for you, my son?” (v. 37), Esau replies again: “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father” (v. 38). Then he starts blubbering. This childish display again demonstrates how just being the firstborn does not make you automatically worthy of blessing. Isaac does give Esau a blessing of sorts (vv. 39-40), but it really sounds more like a curse. The only comfort in it is that when Esau grows restless, “you shall break his yoke from your neck”. Genesis tells us that Esau plans to kill Jacob once Isaac dies, but he must have stupidly said it out loud because Rebekah hears and gets Jacob out of harm’s way just in time. All of Esau’s hopes and dreams are being foiled.
Poor Esau just wants back into his dad’s affections, even going so far as to marry into the Ishmaelites (another connection with that other eldest son) because he heard that Isaac didn’t like his Hittite wives (28:6-9). But this gambit does not appear to work, as we do not hear from Esau for over two decades. One can imagine the amount of bitterness and resentment, or even murderous rage, that can build up in that amount of time. Jacob certainly imagined it, as the bill finally came due for all his deceptions. On the run from Laban, Jacob hears that Esau is on the way “and there are four hundred men with him” (32:6). Four hundred was the typical size of a military unit — Esau was preparing for war. Jacob divides his camp in half, hoping to save some from Esau’s rage. He even puts his less favored wives and children in front, hoping to at least save Rachel and Joseph (more on that below). He continually calls Esau “my lord” and himself “your servant” in an apparent attempt to undo the blessing which promised that Esau would serve Jacob. He also sent lavish gifts, reasoning that “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (v. 20). He is hoping that some vestige of brotherly affection remains. But he doesn’t seem optimistic. He would have a famously sleepless night.
Let’s shift our perspective to Esau’s. The next morning, he sees his brother Jacob coming in all his finery, with his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven sons. But Jacob seems different now, more humble and wiser. And, unless his eyes are deceiving him, the younger twin seems to be limping. If Esau wanted to kill him, he would never have a better opportunity. So Esau, whose blessing promised that he would break the yoke from his neck, throws himself upon his brother’s neck…and embraces and kisses him. The two brothers, reunited after twenty years, openly weep. Just as laughter is a motif in the life of Isaac, so are tears in the life of Esau. He weeps with hunger when he sells his birthright and weeps with rage when he is tricked out of his blessing, and now he weeps in joy. What a beautiful picture of grace and forgiveness! Jacob introduces Esau to his in-laws and nephews and Esau refuses the gifts Jacob has brought. In light of such astonishing grace, Jacob sums it up perfectly: “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough” (33:10-11). Esau has shown Jacob, and all of us, what the face of God looks like. It is a face that accepts even a schemer and backstabber like Jacob and restores broken relationships. Indeed, with the grace of God, we “have enough”.
Esau’s story ends just like Ishmael’s: with a genealogy (although this one takes an entire chapter, Gen. 36). Esau became the father of the Edomites, named for the red stew for which he sold his birthright (and also, perhaps, his copious red hair). He still had to live with the consequences of his bad decisions, watching his younger brother become the father of God’s chosen people and ancestor of the Messiah. But God’s grace was upon Him and God’s promises were true. He became, in spite of himself, a great nation.
Judah: From Cub to Lion
Unlike our previous two patriarchs, Judah was not the eldest son of his father. He was the fourth son of Jacob (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi were the others), all born to Leah, while Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, remained barren (29:31). In an inversion of the story of Esau, Judah (which means “praise”) is beloved of his mother but rejected by his father. In time, Rachel finally gave birth to a son, Joseph, and he immediately became preferred by Jacob over his ten older brothers. We see this in the scene I mentioned above from chapter 33 that Jacob used his concubines and their four sons, then Leah and her six sons as a buffer between the potentially-murderous Esau and his favored wife and child (see v. 2). The resentment only grew as Jacob gifted Joseph a sumptuous robe and used his youngest son to spy on his brothers and bring back reports (37:2-4). To top it off, Joseph relates a pair of dreams to his brothers that indicate none-too-subtly that they would bow down to him. Like Esau, the brothers are filled with murderous rage toward a brother who seems to have stolen their father’s favor and blessing. Only Reuben and Judah object to this plan, though neither does so for purely altruistic motives of brotherly affection. Reuben, the eldest, just wants to get back into his father’s good graces, while Judah sees a chance to make some quick cash and get rid of the little twerp for good. Even so, Judah does say, “come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh” (37:27). Perhaps even at this early date, Judah has compassion upon his unworthy sibling. If they had hoped that this gambit would soften Jacob’s heart toward them, the brothers were disappointed. Jacob refuses any comfort and says “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (v. 35). Jacob would rather die than transfer any affection to the sons of women he does not love.
The curse of poor parenting passes on to Judah. He has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er took a wife named Tamar, but he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” and he died childless. By the law of Levirate marriage, Onan was required to provide an heir for Er by Tamar, but Onan practiced coitus interruptus because he knew the resulting child would not be his (v. 9, this in not a story about masturbation, but let’s not get into that). So Onan was also put to death by the Lord. Judah decided not to risk his only remaining son, despite the need for an heir, and forced Tamar to return to live with her father in disgrace, childless. In doing this, he was thwarting the will of God even more than he knew, for Judah (as we know) was chosen by God to be the ancestor of the Messiah. It should also be noted that at least two of his three sons were wicked men, which is not a great endorsement of Judah’s character. All of this would not end well. Judah’s wife died, and Tamar saw her opportunity. She disguised herself as a cult prostitute (veil and all) and tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her, being careful to first secure his signet, cord, and staff. When she turned up pregnant three months later, Judah, in a breathtaking act of hypocrisy, wanted to burn her at the stake. Tamar’s forward thinking proved valuable, as she showed Judah his own signet, cord, and staff. Notice Judah’s response: “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Judah knew that his cowardice and lack of faith was an even greater sin than his lechery — he had shown the impulsiveness of Esau. Tamar’s only real sin was wanting an heir and using trickery to get him (Judah’s mother and grandmother would have been proud). Here we begin to see the first glimpse of a changed heart within Judah.
After some time, a famine hits Canaan, and Judah and his brothers must go to Egypt to get food. Well, not all of his brothers. Jacob, having learned nothing, holds back his youngest son Benjamin, the only remaining child of his now-dead wife Rachel, to protect him. With plenty of time to think about this slight, the ten brothers bow before pharaoh’s governor and he, bizarrely, accuses them of being spies. Just as they had hated their brother Joseph for spying on them, so this man hates them. Indeed, their punishment is linked to their crime against Joseph, as the brothers say, “in truth we are guilty concerning our brother [Joseph], in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (42:21). The governor orders them to bring their youngest brother with them back to Egypt, keeps Simeon in prison as collateral, and puts money in their sacks (unknown to them). When the brothers return to Canaan, they discover the money and know that their goose is cooked (notice that this is justifiable payback for selling their brother to slave traders for money). Furthermore, Jacob flat out refuses to let Benjamin go, even though it means he will never see Simeon again. Judah re-enters the story here to point out to his father that the only way they are going to get food is if they bring Benjamin with them (43:3-5). Jacob immediately rebukes them for even telling the governor that Benjamin existed. But Judah replies that this governor specifically asked about their father and if they had another brother. Finally, Judah says: “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (43:8-9). Whether this is courage, self-sacrificial love, or just desperation is unclear. Whatever the reason, it is Judah’s boldness that finally causes Jacob to relent and all the brothers, Benjamin included, return to Egypt.
Upon returning, the brothers again bow before the governor, who seems more gracious now and weirdly emotional upon seeing Benjamin and hearing that their father is still alive. The governor extends grace to them about the money, and then prepares a banquet for them. Notice verse 33: “And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at one another in amazement.” They are amazed because (1) this governor knows their birth order, and (2) they are finally being given preference by their age — order is being restored (although Benjamin does get five times as much food [v. 34]). They eat bread and wine together in a prefiguring of the Eucharistic feast, a thanksgiving meal for the grace that God had bestowed upon all of them, especially this mysterious Egyptian governor. The next day, the mercurial governor accuses the brothers of stealing his silver cup. The brothers are aghast, but the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Here is the turning point in the story. The brothers could once again sacrifice the favored son to save themselves. Instead, Judah again takes the lead. He tries to protect Benjamin by claiming collective guilt for the theft (v. 16). The governor demands that Benjamin alone stay with him, so Judah replies with an impassioned speech. Explaining that returning without Benjamin would literally kill their father, and that he had promised to preserve Benjamin at cost of his own life, Judah offers to put himself in Benjamin’s place. The man who recommended selling Joseph into slavery now offers to himself become a slave on behalf Benjamin because, despite it all, he loves his father Jacob. This act of self-sacrificial grace breaks the dam of hostility and finally the governor reveals himself to be Joseph, their long-lost brother. Thanks to Judah, Joseph forgives the brothers for all the wrong they have done to them and the relationship is restored.
Judah’s story ends not with a genealogy, but with a blessing. In chapter 49, Jacob blesses all of his sons, but Judah, as befitting his new leadership role in the family, receives a special one. It’s worth quoting in full:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.Genesis 49:8-12
Now it is to Judah that the other brothers will bow, for the cub has grown into a lion. Judah will rule not only his brothers, but other peoples. Here we see the establishment of the royal line that will produce the great King David and an even greater King of Kings who will rule and save all of humanity. From selfishness, impulsiveness, and vanity, Judah has grown into a worthy ruler, full of wisdom and grace. It is one of the most remarkable redemption stories in Scripture. The parallels with Christ are striking. The day after feasting with 12 brothers on bread and wine, the lion of Judah sacrifices himself on behalf of a (seemingly) guilty party because of his love for Jacob/Israel, that is, his love for the Father. This act of complete self-abnegation, of unmerited grace, saves not only his brother, but many more in Canaan and restores broken relationships. God’s plan of salvation comes through the rejected son.
The “other” sons of Genesis demonstrate to us the eternal, relentless grace of God. None of these three men were admirable, at least to start: Ishmael was a snotty, mocking adolescent; Esau was foolish, impulsive, and violent; Judah was greedy, lecherous, and cowardly. But all three were shown grace by God and (Esau and Judah at least) shared that grace with the brother who had wronged them. Ishmael and Esau became fathers of great nations, and Judah (along with crafty Tamar) became an ancestor of the Messiah Himself. Grace does not depend upon our character, but upon the character of God and our willingness to participate in His activity of mercy and love in the world. May the overlooked patriarchs of Genesis encourage us that no matter what is in our past, we too can participate in God’s grace and share it with this broken world.