Editor’s note: This paper was originally presented at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting on November 18, 2015. It has been slightly edited for formatting and clarity. Its original title was “In the Beginning” and its original subitle was “Seven Principles for Marriage and Family Relationships from the Book of Genesis.”
As the book of beginnings, Genesis has much to say about a multitude of topics, many of which revolve around this year's Evangelical Theology Society conference theme of marriage and family. The purpose of this paper is to discuss seven timeless principles for marriage and family relationships from the book of Genesis. There is nothing particularly profound about these principles from Genesis for the believer. But in a sea of changing opinion on sexual mores and the definition of marriage and family, going back to the beginning provides a foundation for biblical teaching concerning marriage and family that is sadly lacking in today’s society. And even the seasoned believer needs to continue to go back to God’s Word to ensure that he or she is on the right path according to God’s precepts, not man’s.
Two presuppositions inform this study. First, Genesis, like the rest of the Scripture, is inerrant and therefore its principles are relevant and authoritative for mankind in any age, including ours. As Andreas Köstenberger has well stated, what is presented here is “what we believe Scripture itself tells us” about marriage and family. This approach “requires a humble, submissive stance toward Scripture rather than one that asserts one’s own independence from the will of the Creator and insists on inventing one’s own rules of conduct.”1 Given that all full ETS members subscribe to inerrancy, hopefully this presupposition should not come as a surprise to anyone here.
Second, Genesis is not made up of myriads of sources, but is primarily the work of Moses. Sadly, the old JEDP source critical theory of the composition of the Pentateuch (the Documentary Hypothesis, that asserts that the Pentateuch was composed of at least four different written documents authored over 800 years) is not entirely dead in academic circles, but it should be. For criticisms of the theory from an evangelical perspective, see Duane Garrett’s Rethinking Genesis.2 For a moderate critical assessment, see Rolf Rendtorff, The Old Testament: An Introduction.3 Thus, there are not two different creation accounts, as some incorrectly surmise, with a different (and sometimes contradictory) theological purpose.4 Genesis 1 gives the overall account of creation, while Genesis 2 fills in further details concerning the creation of man and God placing him in the garden of Eden–all preparatory for the narrative of the Fall in chapter 3.5
With these presuppositions in mind, let us turn to the examination of God's principles for marriage and family demonstrated in the book of Genesis.
A first principle seen from Genesis 1 and 2 is that marriage is a divine institution given by God as a part of the created order. Marriage was not “figured out” by man; it was instituted by God right from the start. And it is God’s definition that matters, not any later attempts by man to redefine it. Marriage is a part of God’s created order as revealed in Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis 1:26–27 states that on the sixth day of creation “God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Marriage is not specified per se in Genesis 1, but it is clearly instituted in Genesis 2. Genesis 2:18 begins with a striking contrast to the creation account up to this point. Seven times in Genesis 1 God states that His creation was “good” (Heb. תוֺב),6 but now in 2:18 something is “not good” (לֹא-תוֺב). What is “not good” is for man to be alone: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him.” Genesis 2:19–20 makes the point that none of the animals qualify as this helper, so in Genesis 2:21–22 God creates a woman, Eve, out of Adam’s rib. All of this work was God’s initiative and His design from the beginning. Adam had nothing to do with it!7
A second principle that can be seen from the rest of the narrative of Genesis 2 is that marriage is the union of a man and a woman to become one flesh. The woman is fashioned from the man in the first place, indicating that they are from the same essence. In the famous words of Matthew Henry, the woman was “not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”8 Once God makes the woman, he brings her to Adam, who exclaims in 2:23: “this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.” The Hebrew word for “woman, ” אִשָּה, is the feminine form of אִיש, the word for man. So even in the word’s origin, the point is made that the woman is taken from the man, but they are of the same substance. Even more importantly, the following verse (Genesis 2:24) says that they are “one flesh”: “therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This principle is true both on the physical level, as the man and the woman join together in physical intimacy; but it is also true on the spiritual/emotional level, as the two together become one.
God made humans to find a depth of meaning to life by living together in families.
From the beginning, then, marriage was to serve a two-fold purpose. First, the one-flesh relationship provided companionship for the man and the woman. That is seen in the narrative of Genesis 2:18, 20. As John Hartley well states, “God, the Creator, knew that a man by himself could not experience the full dimensions of human existence. Although the man had to have a complement in order to have offspring, ‘suitable’ suggests that this helping counterpart would also provide enriching companionship. God made humans to find a depth of meaning to life by living together in families.”9
Second, the sexual intimacy of man and wife would produce children to populate the earth. Immediately after creating man as male and female in Genesis 1:27, in the very next verse, God blesses them and says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” Thus a main reason for marriage is so that the couple can have children and fulfill God’s order to “be fruitful and multiply.” Marriage and procreation are to go hand in hand. It is the natural result of being one flesh, and it is commanded by the Lord. It is all part of God’s plan. In some cases procreation is not physically possible, but that is the norm presented in Scripture.
Genesis 2:24 also indicates that marriage involves the creation of a new family unit. Husband and wife are to leave father and mother. They are still to respect and honor their parents, but theirs is a new family unit. Sadly, some parents do not seem to recognize this biblical truth. While counsel and advice given from parents should never be ignored, the “one flesh” relationship must be given the priority.
In the New Testament (NT), Jesus reaffirms this teaching on marriage in his discussion with the Pharisees. When the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason, Jesus takes the Pharisees back to these verses in Genesis 1 and 2. He says, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4–6). Divorce violates the one-flesh principle. That is why later in Matthew 19:9, Jesus says that other than for sexual immorality, a man should not divorce his wife. They are one flesh.
A third principle that is evident both from Genesis 2 and 3 is that the man and the woman have different functions in the marriage relationship. One is not more important than the other, but they are different. In Genesis 2:18, 20, God creates the woman to be a helper to the man. In the aftermath of the Fall, God tells Eve that she will have difficulty bearing children, while at the same time telling Adam that he will have difficulty in working the soil. It is evident from the remainder of Genesis (beginning in chapter 4) that one of the woman’s primary responsibilities is in childbearing.
Also implied from the Genesis narrative, but not directly stated, is the man’s ultimate headship or authority over his family, including his wife. This truth may be seen (though not clearly until the New Testament revelation) from the man’s creation prior to the woman; the woman being created from the man; the commands in Genesis 2:15–17 being given from God to the man (before the creation of the woman); and God calling to the man first in Genesis 3:9 to account for their actions, even though the woman ate the fruit first. Furthermore, the text of Genesis 3:16 is difficult, but it implies that the husband-wife relationship was marred after the Fall: instead of the wife willingly submitting to her husband’s headship, she now would desire to rule over him.10 What was once a more benign male headship would now be contested, and “headship” would become “domination” instead.
What is strongly implied in Genesis is made clear in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 3:1 Peter says that wives are to submit to their husbands. Similarly Paul speaks of the submission of the wife to her husband’s headship in Ephesians 5:22–33, which says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church.” But Paul also says that husbands have a particular duty in the marriage relationship. In Ephesians 5:25, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” The union of husband of wife is also a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church. Elsewhere, in 1 Timothy 2:12–14, Paul says that the woman should not teach or have authority over the man—and then he goes back to creation and the Fall for the reason vv. 13–14 state: “for Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (see also 1 Corinthians 11:8–9). In fact, presumably because of the principle of headship, Paul says in Romans 5:12–19 that it is Adam’s sin, not Eve’s, that caused sin to enter the human race.
There are various analogies that have been used to illustrate the principle of one flesh. One of the best is given by Lindsay Edmonds, who sees an analogy in music. Good music, she says, requires both a melody and a harmony or accompaniment:
They are both very important parts to convey the full harmony of the song. Although the melody is often more prominent than the accompaniment, without the accompaniment and background harmonies the melody has no support or fullness. It does not sound as rich and beautiful without this proper balance. Likewise, in comparison, in a marriage relationship we have two very equally important roles between a husband and a wife, but each has a completely different function. Without one or the other we do not have the full array of beauty and design that God created to be displayed in the marriage relationship, which is then a reflection of the Father and Son’s relationship in the Trinity. If the roles are reversed and the woman is showing disrespect in her attitude towards her husband to such an extent that he feels unworthy and unable to lead his family, we have a conflict of balance. It will sound more like a train wreck than sweet music.11
And that’s also true if a husband doesn’t show love towards his wife—a train wreck, to be sure! So Genesis teaches, and the NT affirms, that both the man and the woman have important, but distinct, functions in the marriage relationship.
A fourth principle that can be seen right from the start in the book of Genesis is that sexual relationships outside of marriage (one man-one woman) are not part of God’s design and are condemned. This principle logically follows from the first two principles already stated: marriage is a divine institution given by God as a part of the creation order, and it is the union of a man and a woman to become one flesh. Violations of God’s divine prescription for marriage include polygamy, adultery, and homosexuality. Andreas Köstenberger cogently observes that polygamy violates God’s pattern of “marital monogamy,” adultery breaks “the sacred bond between a man and a woman pledged to marital fidelity,” and homosexuality is an aberrant rebellion “against the Creator’s design of heterosexual marriage.”12
A casual reader of the Old Testament (OT) might surmise that God has no problem with polygamy. After all, Jacob had multiple wives, as did David and Solomon later in Israel’s history. But the Scripture makes it clear that polygamy is contrary to God’s ideal. First, all that has been said above concerning marriage indicates that monogamy is God’s design for marriage. He did not give Adam two wives, nor Eve two husbands. Genesis 2:24 says that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife [singular], and they shall become one flesh.” There is no room for a second wife if the two are truly one flesh. When some people object that the OT does not condemn polygamy, what they are really revealing is a lack of understanding OT narrative. OT narrative rarely condemns acts explicitly; rather, the narrator expects the reader to draw the conclusions out from what is stated explicitly elsewhere. In their helpful little book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give several principles for understanding OT narrative. They affirm that “an Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere. . . . Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).”13 In fact, most OT narratives teach implicitly. Such is the case with the issue of polygamy. The first person to practice polygamy in Genesis is Lamech. Lamech is the seventh from Adam from the line of Cain, the first murderer. He marries two wives, and brags to them that he killed a man simply because the man wounded him (Genesis 4:18–24). Lamech is presented as an ungodly man in every respect. With reference to Lamech’s acts, Waltke correctly observes, “the escalation of sin is now extended to the marital relationship. Polygamy is a rejection of God’s marital plan (2:24).”14 Esau likewise marries two Hittite wives (Genesis 26:34), and to compound matters (after he realizes that his parents don’t approve) he marries a non-Canaanite woman as well (Genesis 28:9)! Esau’s lack of spiritual sensitivity is displayed throughout the narrative in Genesis, and it is no wonder that he is described in the NT as “godless” (Hebrews 12:26).
There is no room for a second wife if the two are truly one flesh.
Sadly, even otherwise godly individuals are also involved in polygamous relationships. Abraham’s taking of Hagar as a surrogate wife in order to have a child does not work out well at all, and strife abounds until Hagar is finally cast out by Sarah (Genesis 21:9–14). Similarly, Jacob is tricked by Laban into marrying Leah, when he wants to marry Rachel—so he ends up marrying both! The strife that results from the jealousy of Leah, Rachel, and their maids (who also have children by Jacob) pervades the remainder of Genesis. Reflecting on the battle between Jacob’s wives, Hartley notes, “in Scripture, most polygamous families experience deep, bitter conflicts.”15 Such is surely the case with the families of Abraham and Jacob.
Adultery is categorically condemned in the OT, as the fourth commandment makes clear (Exodus 20:14: “you shall not commit adultery”). But this truth can be seen even in Genesis. For one, each of the polygamous relationships mentioned above essentially constituted adultery as well. Furthermore, Reuben’s adultery with Bilhah, though mentioned only briefly in one verse (Genesis 35:22) is severely condemned by Jacob in his final “blessing” to his sons (Genesis 49:3–4). A few chapters after Reuben’s adultery, the godly Joseph is repeatedly tempted by Potiphar’s wife to commit adultery with her, but Joseph refuses, saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). Similarly, Abraham looks worse than the pagan kings when he lies about his wife, and in effect allows these kings to commit adultery with her, but the Lord intervenes (Genesis 13:14–20, 20:2–18).16 Later, Isaac does the same thing (Genesis 26:7–11). Each time in Genesis that adultery is mentioned or even hinted at, it is implicitly or explicitly condemned.
Immediately prior to Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s advances, in Genesis 38 Judah is depicted as having sex with a woman whom he thinks is a prostitute. Though not adultery (since his wife has died), his behavior (sex outside of marriage) is implicitly contrasted with the righteous behavior of his brother Joseph, who refuses to commit adultery and winds up in prison as a result. Ironically, the one with whom Judah had sex is Tamar, Judah’s own daughter-in-law.17
Probably the most famous example in the OT of adultery and its consequences is David’s taking of Bathsheba and then plotting to get her husband Uriah killed in battle (2 Samuel 11). Though David later repents (aided by Nathan’s prodding), and the Lord forgives David for his sinful behavior (2 Samuel 12:13), the consequences of David’s actions are immense, both for his family and for his kingdom (2 Samuel 12:10–12, with consequences seen in 2 Samuel 13–20 and 1 Kings 1).
Similarly, the NT makes it clear that such sexual relations outside of marriage are to be condemned. Jesus’ view is made evident when he is asked about divorce (see Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18), while Paul is equally direct in 1 Corinthians 6:16–18: “do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For ‘the two,’ He says, ‘shall become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality.”
One would have to be living in a cave somewhere (with no internet access!) not to realize what a hot-button issue homosexuality is in America today. Acceptance of homosexual marriages has been building for over 40 years, with the tipping point being the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision on June 26, 2015, legalizing homosexual marriages in all 50 states. But the Bible could not be clearer that homosexual relations are a violation of God’s created order and, as such, are strongly condemned. Returning to our presuppositional statements for a moment, if Scripture is inerrant (and it is), then its principles are authoritative in any age, including ours. As has been noted, God designed marriage, not man (principle #1), and marriage is the union between a man and a woman to become one flesh (principle #2). It seems rather straightforward (both from Scripture and from physical anatomy) that a man and a woman fit together wonderfully to be “one flesh”—it’s the way God designed our bodies in the first place. A man and a man can never be “one flesh,” nor can a woman with a woman. They can do all sorts of strange things to pretend that it works, but it doesn’t. In addition, each person in the marriage relationship has a different function (principle #3). It goes without saying that God has innately gifted the woman with nurturing capacities, both physically and emotionally. With two men, that nurturing capacity simply isn’t there. Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up with both a father and a mother function better in life, because of the essential influence of both genders.18 That’s how God designed it! And finally, since one of the purposes of marriage is procreation, it should be evident that having children can’t happen physically with a man and a man or a woman and a woman.
Not only is homosexuality ruled out by the teachings of Genesis 1 and 2, but it is also judged by God as part of the wickedness of Sodom in Genesis 19. Genesis 13:13 states that “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord,” but the visit of two angels (in the disguise of men) to Lot in Sodom demonstrates the nature of that wickedness. These “men” want to spend the night outside, but Lot insists that they stay with him. At night, young and old men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that he bring out his visitors so that they can have sex with them. Lot offers his daughters instead, but the men insist and try to force their way in. At that point the angels pull Lot back in the house and strike the men with blindness.19 The next day the Lord judges Sodom and Gomorrah, raining fire and brimstone upon the cities and utterly destroying them because of their wickedness (Genesis 19:24). The city of Sodom is used 28 times in the Bible outside the book of Genesis as a byword for utter perversion and God’s judgment upon it.20 Our word “sodomy” comes from this infamous city that was judged by the Lord in Genesis 19.21
Genesis 19 is hardly alone in its condemnation of sodomy. Judges 19:22–28 depicts another account very similar to Genesis 19 in which men want to have sex with a traveling Levite. This incident occurs during the very wicked time of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit homosexuality, calling it an “abomination” (Heb. תּוֺעֵבָה). This word is used only six times in Leviticus, and of all the horrible sins talked about in chapter 18, the only sin that is specifically called an “abomination” is a man having sex with another man. There are four more references to these sins as abominations in chapter 18, and then the only other time the word is used is in Leviticus 20:13, where again homosexuality is mentioned. Such strong language is used because this act is a direct affront to God's order in creation.
The New Testament similarly affirms God’s condemnation of homosexuality in four passages: Romans 1:24–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11; 1 Timothy 1:8–10; and Jude 7 (see also 2 Peter 2:6–8). In particular, Romans 1:24–27 clearly condemns homosexuality. Beginning in Romans 1:18, Paul talks about those who deliberately reject God. It starts with a rejection of God's work of creation in v. 20, continues in a failure to glorify God or be thankful to Him in v. 21, and results in elevating man's wisdom above God in v. 22 and worship of the creation rather than the Creator in v. 23. The result is that God gave them up to their own sins. This expression is repeated three times: in v. 24, then in v. 26, and finally in v. 28. First, in v. 24, Paul says that God gave them up to uncleanness—the rest of v. 24 seems to indicate that Paul is talking of a sexual nature. They were given over to lusts of all kinds, dishonoring their bodies by their sexual immorality. God's truth was exchanged for the lie of idolatry: worship of the creature rather than God. As bad as vv. 24–25 are, vv. 26–27 indicate an even greater perversion with the phrase “God gave them up” repeated in v. 26. Lesbianism and homosexuality are here described in vivid detail, prefaced by the words “vile passions” or “shameful lusts.”22 The foolishness of lesbianism and homosexuality are here exposed by Paul, as they are both so obviously “against nature” (v. 26). Note that rejection of the God of creation leads to man's living entirely contrary to God’s design and order in creation (back to the principles of Genesis, once again!). Paul’s commentary on homosexuality is plain: he says that it is against nature, it results from uncontrolled lust, and it is shameful.
A fifth principle that can be readily seen from Genesis is that moral compromise produces great problems in the future. It is never wise to compromise God’s biblical standards. Moral compromise can be seen in all the examples under principle #4: deviation from God’s way, whether it be in polygamy, adultery, or homosexuality, leads to disaster later. We have already spoken about Abraham lying twice about his relationship to Sarah. And Isaac does exactly the same thing—only in Abraham’s case, Abraham was telling a half-truth, since Sarah was the daughter of his father (Genesis 20:12). Now in many ways, Abraham was a fantastic example to his son Isaac—but not in this way. No doubt Isaac heard of what his father had done, and so when he is in a difficult spot, he does exactly the same thing (Genesis 26:7)—but in Isaac’s case, what he says is a total lie! A half-truth told by his father became a full-fledged lie told by the son. That’s the way it is with moral compromise: it may begin fairly innocently, but it usually degenerates rapidly. It also shows a lack of faith: wasn’t God able to deliver Abraham and Isaac from these situations without them telling half-truths or complete falsehoods to help God out? As Waltke remarks, “If we act out of fear, we are not acting out of faith. . . . The coward denies God the opportunity to glorify himself.”23
But perhaps one of the saddest examples of moral compromise is Lot. He begins in Genesis 13:11–13 by relocating “as far as Sodom,” despite the reputation of the city. Undoubtedly he thinks that he can change the behavior of the people of Sodom (the men of the city complain that “he keeps acting as a judge” [Genesis 19:9, NKJV]); instead, Lot himself is changed, as is his entire family. When the men of the city want to have sex with his visitors, Lot offers his virgin daughters to them instead, stating that “you may do to them as you wish” (Genesis 19:8). Undoubtedly, as many commentators have noted, Lot is exhibiting tremendous hospitality here, but it is a misplaced sense of values.24 As Waltke states, “The story of Lot’s offer of his daughters seems to reveal Lot as sincerely desiring to do right, but failing miserably. So corrupted by the city he had embraced, he offers an equally immoral act to stop an atrocity.”25
Lot’s moral compromise ends up affecting his whole family.
Lot’s moral compromise ends up affecting his whole family. Lot himself has to be dragged out of the city by the angels, even after being warned of its imminent destruction (Genesis 19:15–16). But Lot’s wife looks back, longing for her life in Sodom, and she is turned into a pillar of salt. All that is left of Lot’s family are himself and his two daughters. But here, in a tragic aftermath, one sees that the morals of Sodom affect Lot’s daughters as well. They conspire to get their father drunk, take turns having sex with him (apparently without his conscious knowledge), and end up each bearing a son as a result of their incestuous relationship. Indeed, the text of Genesis is clear that moral compromise produces even greater problems in the future.
A sixth principle seen in the latter portion of the book of Genesis (after Abraham’s death in Genesis 25:8) is that favoritism causes irreparable harm to the family. Much of the favoritism stems from the practice of polygamy (thus further illustrating principle #5, that moral compromise produces future problems), but it actually doesn’t begin there. It begins with Isaac and Rebekah after the birth of their twin sons, Esau and Jacob. To be sure, there is conflict right from the start in the birth of the twins, and the parents were hardly at fault at that point! The two children struggle in the womb, and while Esau is born first, Jacob comes out grabbing Esau’s heel—signifying the struggle that would ensue (Genesis 25:22, 24–26). But the Lord had told Rebekah prior to the twins’ birth that the older would serve the younger. No doubt she tells Isaac of what the Lord said, but Isaac seems later to have simply ignored the Lord’s declaration. The favoritism of the parents is indicated directly in Genesis 25:28: “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” The reason behind Isaac’s favoritism of Esau does not rest with spiritual character qualities, but instead rests entirely upon Isaac’s senses. He liked Esau’s food! As Ross observes, “The favoritism was thus based on natural senses rather than enduring qualities.”26 Rebekah’s choice is a wiser one, since it is based upon the Lord’s declaration as well as presumably on her observations of her sons’ character. The narrative later makes it abundantly clear that Esau’s actions are based on his senses alone: he sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, where even the narrator comments, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34); and mentioned earlier, he marries two Canaanite wives (without regard to their faith), who were “a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35).27
But the account in Genesis does not give any indication that Rebekah and Isaac try to discuss or work out their respective views of their children. Indeed, the subsequent narrative only heightens the degree of favoritism shown by both parents: Isaac wants to bless Esau, but doesn’t tell Rebekah; Rebekah consults with Jacob and implements a plan to fool Isaac (ironically based on his senses!); then (after Jacob tricks Esau into giving him the blessing) Esau and Isaac are again together in a sorrowful scene, where it appears that Isaac realizes that his actions were wrong.28 Noting that there are six scenes that comprise Genesis 27:1–28:5, Ross observes that “in the six scenes the family is never together: in the first it is Isaac and Esau; in the second, Rebekah and Jacob; in the third, Isaac and Jacob; in the fourth, Isaac and Esau; in the fifth, Rebekah and Jacob; and in the sixth, Isaac and Jacob. In fact, Jacob and Esau never meet in the story; nor do Rebekah and Esau. In four of the six scenes we find the parent with his or her favorite son.”29 The favoritism drives a wedge through the normal family dynamics, and effective communication is fractured. In fact, all four family members come out looking poorly, ironically with godless Esau looking less deceptive than either of his parents or his brother. The result is that Rebekah never sees her favorite son again, and Jacob must begin a new life with his brother’s hatred and the help of neither of his parents.
Sadly, the show of favoritism continues in the next generation, with even greater negative consequences. Jacob is tricked by Laban into marrying the wrong woman, Leah (divine payback for his trickery in acquiring Esau’s birthright and blessing?30), and ends up marrying his beloved Rachel as well. As noted earlier, polygamy brings its own set of problems, but the favoritism shown by his parents surely adds fuel to the fire. Leah and Rachel enter into a childbirth competition that would be humorous if it were not so tragic. Though Leah continually thinks that Jacob will love her if she bears him sons, Jacob’s love never materializes. Rachel’s maid Bilhah and Leah’s maid Zilpah also bear Jacob children, further complicating the family structure and Jacob’s loyalty. As Derek Kidner aptly notes, “in his family relations Jacob continues to sow bitter seed.”31 Rachel finally bears Jacob a son, Joseph; tragically, she dies in giving birth to a second son, Benjamin, so that the childbearing competition comes to a sudden end.
Jacob’s favoritism passes on from the wives to the wives’ children. When Jacob is worried that Esau might attack his young family, he strategically places the maidservants and their children in front (so they would be killed first if a battle with Esau ensued), Leah and her children behind, and beloved Rachel and Joseph last (Genesis 33:1). When Dinah (the daughter of Leah) is raped, Jacob does nothing about it, so two of her brothers, Simeon and Levi, take matters into their own hands and ruthlessly kill the perpetrator and his family (Genesis 34).
But the worst result of Jacob’s favoritism happens to Joseph. Genesis 37:3 states directly that Jacob loved Joseph, because he was the son of his old age, and also presumably because he was the son of his favorite wife Rachel. He demonstrates that favoritism by making Joseph a special tunic that none of the other brothers had.32 When Joseph tells his brothers about the dreams that depict him ruling over them, the brothers’ anger reaches a boiling point, and the brothers decide to kill Joseph. Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery instead, so they could even profit from their actions (Genesis 37:26–28). Certainly the brothers’ actions were reprehensible, and they are portrayed as such; but the seeds of hatred were sown by the favoritism shown by their father Jacob.33 The often bitter rivalries among the 12 tribes that came from these sons show that Jacob’s favoritism had lasting negative repercussions for centuries.34
It is natural to have certain affinities for the character traits of some children over others. But showing favoritism is wrong. James 2:9 states, “if you show partiality, you commit sin.” As these chapters in Genesis demonstrate, favoritism destroys family unity and causes irreparable harm.35
The examples provided for principles 4, 5, and 6 above surely show man’s sin and brokenness at every level, right from the beginning. While there are some positive examples of marriage and family relationships in Genesis, there are far more examples of problems caused by man’s disregard for God’s precepts. Frankly, rehearsing all these negative examples of even some of the greatest OT saints can be quite disheartening. But what is amazing about the Scripture is that God’s grace continually shines through man’s sin. In particular, with respect to marriage and family in Genesis, principle #7 is that God’s grace shines through broken family relationships. Yes, there is punishment for disobeying God’s precepts, but God continually makes something good out of something bad. Consider the following five examples of the Lord’s grace.
There is punishment for disobeying God’s precepts, but God continually makes something good out of something bad.
First, despite Abraham’s sin (twice!) and Isaac’s sin in pretending that their wives were their sisters, the Lord intervenes in each case in order to preserve Sarah and Rebekah. Abraham and Isaac are rebuked by pagan kings, and their actions demonstrate fear rather than faith, but the Lord is gracious, so that no harm comes about that would threaten God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac concerning their descendants. That is undeserved grace, to be sure!
Second, as discussed earlier, the aftermath of Lot’s moral compromise in Sodom is the reprehensible account of Lot’s daughters conspiring to get their father drunk, then have sex with him, so that they could have children. The children born eventually become the Moabites and the Ammonites, two nations who continually fight with Israel (Genesis 19:37–38). So for sure, there are negative consequences to Lot’s daughters’ actions. But that is not the end of the story. One of the descendants of Moab is a godly Moabitess named Ruth, who comes to believe in the Lord, accompanies the mother of her now-deceased husband back to her homeland in Judah, and eventually marries Boaz, a godly man of Bethlehem. Ruth’s godly actions are especially notable in the godless judgeship period in which she lived. And the closing verses of the book of Ruth explain that Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, the greatest king of Israel (Ruth 4:18–22)! Surely God’s ways are not our ways!
Third, Judah’s sin in having sex with a woman he thinks is a prostitute also ends up having a positive result. Tamar, the Canaanite wife of Judah’s first son, becomes pregnant after having sex with Judah, and ends up giving birth to twin sons, Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38:27–30). According to Ruth 4:18–22, Perez is the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Boaz, himself the great-grandfather of David! So that makes both the Canaanite Tamar and the Moabitess Ruth, despite some despicable acts in their past or their relatives’ past, both a part of the Davidic line, and ultimately the line through whom (humanly speaking) the Messiah would descend. Indeed, the first six verses of the first book in the NT contain the names of both Tamar and Ruth in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1–6).36
Fourth, despite Jacob’s polygamy, Leah and Rachel’s infighting, and the resultant jealousy among the children, the sons born to Jacob by Leah (six sons), Bilhah (two sons), Zilpah (two sons), and Rachel (two sons) become the twelve tribes of Israel. Yes, there is much tribal rivalry, but they still end up being the twelve tribes, with significance that apparently endures to the end time, since Revelation 7:4–8 states that these tribes are sealed in the end time.37 Interestingly, though Joseph is certainly depicted as a godlier man than Judah, nonetheless the most important tribe in Israel’s history is Judah, since David and ultimately the Messiah come from this tribe (see Isaiah 11:1; Matthew 1:1–17). It is ironic that Jacob favored Rachel and her son Joseph, but the Lord ends up exalting Leah and her fourth son Judah. A continual theme of Scripture is the Lord’s compassion on the downtrodden, and His delight in lifting up the seemingly obscure (see, for example, Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10; and Mary’s song in Luke 1:46–55).
Finally, though a direct result of Jacob’s favoritism was his sons’ hatred of Joseph, resulting in Joseph being sold into slavery, the Lord’s grace shines through even here. The actions of the brothers are horrendous, yet they ultimately serve God’s purpose. The Lord raises up Joseph from being a servant (and later an unjustly accused prisoner because of his moral integrity) to becoming an officer second in command to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is responsible for apportioning the grain during a time of intense famine, and ultimately Jacob’s family is welcomed in Egypt and given a separate portion of land, because of Joseph’s influence with Pharaoh. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers (to their amazement), he tells them, “do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5, 7–8). Once their father Jacob is dead, the brothers fear that Joseph will finally repay them for all the evil they did, but Joseph reassures them: “‘Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19–21). Joseph knows that their actions had an evil intent, but he forgives them anyway, and ends up comforting them!
The book of Genesis demonstrates that the Lord has basic guiding principles that are essential for marriages and families today, and there are grievous consequences for ignoring or breaking these principles. As has been seen throughout this paper, the principles that are first set forth in Genesis are carried through into the NT as well. God’s principles on marriage and family do not change, despite the shifting sands of public opinion. There are grave consequences for violating these principles. But it is also heartening for this sinner to realize that even in man’s sin, the Lord’s grace shines through. A family or individual is not doomed to failure or insignificance because of one person’s sin, though there will be repercussions for that sin. Even David, after he commits adultery and murder, is still regarded as a man after God’s own heart and a model for future kings (1 Samuel 13:14; 1 Kings 15:5; Acts 13:22).38 He joins the ranks of Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah in the book of Genesis, all of whom demonstrate serious shortcomings in the area of marriage and family (some far more serious than others), but all of whom are used by the Lord despite their flaws. It is an excellent reminder, as Paul states, that God often chooses “the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise” and the weak, base, and despised things so “that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29). Indeed, Paul writes, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). To God be the glory!