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Occasional Letters: Why is That Chapter There?

D Newell, Glasgow

I was never good at modelling when I was a boy. My school friends had bedrooms crammed with marvellously detailed Lancaster bombers, Spitfires with accurate squadron markings, and occasionally even bullet-riddled Messerschmitt 109s suspended proudly from their ceilings, while all I could boast was a part-finished and unpainted Wild West stage coach. And my father had done most of the work on that. The Airfix Company did not profit greatly from my patronage. One of my problems was that I couldn’t understand what all those bits of plastic were meant to represent, and was not willing to take the trouble to find out. "What’s that funny little bit for?", I’d ask my father, and he’d tell me to look carefully at the directions, which would explain how each tiny component was necessary to make up the whole. But that seemed to require hard work, so I’d simply give up and return to playing happily with my factory-manufactured toy soldiers. No effort required there.

As we read through God’s Word, we sometimes stumble across passages which do not seem to have any immediate spiritual benefit. Making my way again through Genesis, I was struck by the apparent irrelevance of chapters 23 (describing the death and burial of Sarah), 36 (listing the descendants of Esau) and 38 (with its distasteful tale of Judah and Tamar). Now, to discover why God included such things in His inspired Word, we have to bear in mind

the underlying principle that "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom 15.4). The detailed account of Abraham’s purchase of Sarah’s burial place testifies, for example, to the importance of honesty and courtesy in our dealings with the world. The sad story of Judah and Tamar, if nothing else, informs us why it was so significant that Joseph was "separate from his brethren" (Gen 49.26). Brother Judah’s lifestyle was not one to imitate. Matthew 1 goes even further and shows that our sovereign God so overruled that the fruit of Judah’s folly actually became an ancestor of the Messiah. That’s no credit to Judah but all glory to God.

But let’s spend some time with chapter 36. It is the ninth of those clear sections into which Genesis is divided by the phrase, "these are the generations of" (or its equivalent). This formula provides a structural framework for the entire book. The word "generation" seems to have a range of meanings, but the basic idea is obvious: what follows will be an account of the descendants of a major figure in the narrative. The first lesson from chapter 36, then, is the divine focus. In the historical outworking of His programme God mainstreams some and marginalises others.

His sovereign choice fell on Abraham, not on his relative Lot, even though the latter initially accompanied the patriarch in his migration into Canaan. But given the opportunity to select his own environment, Lot was guided purely by his senses and moved towards Sodom (Gen 13.9-11), while Abraham stayed in the land. The seed through whom blessing would eventually come on all nations was not to be a descendant of Ishmael but of Isaac; and the son of Isaac through whom this promise continued was not Esau but Jacob. The argument, by the way, is not mine but Paul’s in Romans 9. So, in keeping with Moses’ literary practice of dealing first with the non-chosen line, Genesis 36 disposes of Esau and his descendants in one chapter before moving on to a detailed record of "the generations of Jacob" (37.2), a section heading which covers the rest of the book. That’s fourteen chapters as against one. Whether men like it or not, God has chosen Israel as the nation around which all others revolve: "When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance" (Deut 32.8-9). Calvin aptly sums up what that means: "in the whole arrangement of the world God had kept this before Him as the end: to consult the interests of His chosen people." So Esau was sidelined. Now, I know there is always a temptation to fill in the gaps and flesh out the incidentals of Scripture, but what God foregrounds must be our primary centre of interest. As Moses remarks, in the context of practical obedience, "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut 29.29). That’s a basic rule. Speculation about obscure things is not to take the place of submission to plain instructions.

Second, the chapter documents the fulfilment of an earlier prediction. Before Esau was born his mother was told that he would be the progenitor of a nation: "the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels" (Gen 25.23). Jacob of course became the founding father of Israel, but Esau too sired a great people. Thus chapter 36 starts by linking the individual with the nation which stemmed from him: "Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom". God keeps His word. Esau (meaning rough or hairy) was so named because at birth he was covered with a furry down (Gen 25.25); he was later called Edom (red) because of his inordinate longing for red lentil stew (Gen 25.30). His names suggest his nature, for he was a man dominated by the sensual and the material. The spiritual had little place in Esau’s heart. Jacob’s name, on the other hand, was divinely altered to Israel, meaning "a prince with God", because there was, in God’s grace, a spiritual dimension to his life. The difference is important. Both brothers received from God a specific national land-grant, but Jacob also had a relationship with God. To him God said, "Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee" (Gen 31.3), whereas of Esau we simply read, "I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession" (Deut 2.5). Esau had a land but Jacob also had a Lord. Although in the final analysis all our material benefits today are heaven-sent, it is our spiritual blessings which must be dearest to our hearts – for in Christ Jesus we have "redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph 1.7).

Third, the chapter includes a note of foreboding: "Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau’s son; and she bare to Eliphaz Amalek" (Gen 36.12). The name Amalek rings bells in the mind of any reader of Exodus. The hostility between the two brothers which erupted in Genesis 27 continued throughout history for Esau’s descendants became a perpetual thorn in the side of Israel. Settled in the rocky land of Mount Seir, the Edomites refused to let their relatives pass through their territory en route to Canaan (Num 20.14-21). One tribal offshoot, the Amalekites, went even further and deliberately attacked the stragglers amongst Moses’ people as they travelled across the wilderness (Ex 17.8-16). It was a vicious action for which they were to be judged. As Moses said later, "Remember what Amalek did unto thee…How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it" (Deut 25.17-19). And there’s the family feature of Esau: "he feared not God". Those who have no fear of God will have no respect for God’s people. So often a believer’s greatest enemies are his unsaved natural family, for "a man’s foes shall be they of his own household" (Mt 10.36). But we are not alone. How thankful we should all be for the local assembly where we can enjoy spiritual fellowship!

Finally, the chapter contains a foreview of blessing. Introducing a list of Edomite monarchs we are told "these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel" (Gen 36.31). Because his vision is limited to the short-term and the physical, the man of the world often seems to enjoy prosperity before the believer. But those who belong to the God whose name is "I AM" need have no fear, for His plans can never be thwarted. He promised Jacob that "a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins" (Gen 35.11), for it was the divine purpose that out from Israel, not Edom, would come the ultimate king who will establish His righteous rule over all the earth: "I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth" (Jer 23.5). The triumph of Christ can be glimpsed in the genealogy of a godless nation. When next you come upon an apparently odd passage, remember that even in a minor seam of Scripture we can still prize out nuggets of spiritual encouragement.

To be continued.


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