The title: “These are the generations of Jacob” (Gen 37:2) meaning it will be about Jacob’s descendants who have come in the fullness (ten) of time because this is Book Ten. In the book, Jacob recedes more into the background so that his twelve sons are the focus (in particular Judah and Joseph).
The structure is somewhat more difficult to discern than earlier books. It generally follows the same pattern as before: narrative, poetry, epilogue. Except this time the poetry is almost a whole chapter of Scripture. Thus the whole book generally follows the pattern prologue (Gen 1:1-2:3), narrative (Gen 2:4-48:22), poetry (Gen 49:1-28), epilogue (Gen 49:29-50:26). The difficulty comes when you see the chiasm excludes the first story Gen 37:3-36. I am calling this the prologue to the book because of its extensive similarities with the epilogue but it also contains a poetic portion that due to the constraints of the story is not put at the end of the prologue. The poetic portion in the prologue is the content of the dreams and the response of his father and brothers. The parallelism of “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” is obvious. This is the central question of the book. Will Judah or Joseph rule over his brothers?
The prologue tells us that the brothers plotted to take Joseph’s life because they hated him because Jacob loved him more than them and they hated him even more because he told them these dreams. Reuben interceded for Joseph and convinced the other brothers not to kill him. Judah convinced the other brothers (Reuben unaware) to sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And Jacob mourned the death of Joseph because the evidence the brothers returned with was the multicolor robe looking like an animal had attacked him. And the prologue ends: “Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard” (Gen 37:36).
While no one actually died in the prologue, the epilogue tells us about the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob gave them instructions for his burial, died and was embalmed, and buried. There was great mourning at his passing just has he had once mourned for Joseph. The brothers feared because of their sin in the prologue, but Joseph reassured them, saying, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen 50:19-21). Joseph lived to see the third generation of his son Ephraim’s children. And he gave all Israel instructions about burying him when they returned to the Promised Land, then he died, and was placed in a coffin in Egypt.
While the prologue shows that Joseph will reign over his brothers and he is still reigning over them until his death in the epilogue, the poetry of Gen 49 seeks to answer the eschatological question. That is, like the poems in earlier books, this one will point us to Christ. We discover in the poetry that the Messiah will not come from Reuben’s tribe because Reuben had sex with Jacob’s concubine. Simeon and Levi are passed over for the honor because they had responded to their sister Dinah’s rape with violence. So this brings us to the fourth son: Judah. And the text tells us, “Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you” (Gen 49:8). So the answer eschatologically is that Judah will reign over his brothers, not Joseph. After comparing him to a lion’s cub, Jacob says, “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” (Gen 49:10). So not only will his brothers but all peoples will bow down to the Messiah who will come from the tribe of Judah. As for Joseph, Jacob gives him the blessing. For example, he says, “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers” (Gen 49:26). So we will have to wait and see Judah replace Joseph because Joseph and not Judah received the blessing.
The first (Gen 38) and last (Gen 48) stories in the narrative section both have to do with two sons by a Gentile where there is an issue about the firstborn status. The former is about Judah and the latter is about Joseph. The episode with Judah is quite explicit. In this story, Judah took a Canaanite wife and had three sons. Judah took Tamar as the wife of his first son. But his son was so wicked that God struck him down. So Tamar became the wife of Judah’s second son who wasted his semen on the ground because he knew that if he had a child it would not be considered his own. And God struck him down. Judah, afraid the same would happen to the youngest son, sent Tamar away pretending to need to wait for him to grow up. Eventually Judah himself slept with her, not knowing it was her, and she gave birth to twins. She was accused of adultery until it was discovered that the father was Judah himself. The story has a number of similarities with the daughters of Lot narrative. The question of the firstborn is this: When Tamar was in labor with the twins, one put out a hand and the midwife tied a scarlet cord on his hand and said, “This one came out first” but then he pulled his hand back in and his brother came out first. In Gen 48, Joseph’s two sons are by an Egpytian woman and Jacob adopted them as his own children and gave the blessing to the younger of the two brothers (Ephraim).
The second (Gen 39) and second-to-last (Gen 47:13-31) stories are related because in the former Joseph is enslaved in Egypt and in the latter Joseph enslaves all of Egypt. The former is where Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph and because he was unwilling to “do this great wickedness and sin against God” (Gen 39:9) she accused him of doing it and he went from slavery to prison where he ended up in charge of the prisoners. Joseph is compared quite favorably to Judah in this light. In the latter story, Joseph buys everything, even all of the land (except that of Egypt’s priests) for Pharaoh so that all of Egypt has become slaves as Joseph was before.
The third (Gen 40-41) and third-to-last (46:28-47:12) stories are related because Joseph saves people through disfavor or favor at Pharaoh’s court. In the former, Joseph blesses the nations through disfavor at Pharaoh’s court. Here we see him interpreting dreams. In the latter, Joseph saves his family through favor at Pharaoh’s court and Jacob blesses Pharaoh.
The fourth (Gen 42-43) and fourth-to-last (Gen 46:1-27) stories have the brothers travel to Egypt. In the former, at first Benjamin did not go but then the brothers minus one went back and brought him too. Also the brothers went to buy grain and bring it back home. Here we see the fulfillment of the prologue’s poetry as the brothers bow down before Joseph. In the latter, all of the house of Jacob (not already living there: Joseph and his sons) moved to Egypt. The total number of the household was a highly significant SEVENTY people. Jacob did not have them move to Egypt until after being told to do so by God, who promised to bring them back.
At the center of this chiasm are stories (Gen 44 and 45) where the brothers show their love for one another. In the former, as you might expect by now, Judah is highlighted in particular. And in the latter, Joseph is highlighted in particular. In the previous chapter Judah had promised his father, “I will be a pledge of [Benjamin’s] 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” (Gen 43:9). Joseph tested the brother’s love for Benjamin by having him implicated as a thief and Judah stepped up to offer himself in the stead of Benjamin. Judah has come a long way. And we find out in the next story that Joseph has too as he reveals his identity to his brothers and does not seek revenge. Here at the climax we see a theme that Joseph will repeat in the epilogue: “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. … And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:5-8).
At the fullness of time came Joseph and his brothers, a full household of seventy. And yet the book points beyond itself, despite these full and complete numbers (10 and 7) Genesis is not complete in and of itself. Joshua the son of Nun, of the tribe of Ephraim (the younger son of Joseph who received Jacob’s blessing), would lead the nation into the Promised Land. But when would the ruler of the tribe of Judah arise? Ultimately the poems, and especially the final poem, point beyond the initial circumstances to King David and the coming Messiah Jesus. Jesus would show love for His brothers in His death on the cross.