Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » How We Taught This Lesson in the Past: Lesson 11: “How Can I Do This Great Wickedness?”

How We Taught This Lesson in the Past: Lesson 11: “How Can I Do This Great Wickedness?”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 07, 2010

The current manual contrasts the righteous behavior of Joseph in withstanding temptation while in Egypt, with the less valiant behavior of his relatives in sinning against both Joseph and God. This lesson from 1965 explores Joseph’s family relations far beyond those in the current lesson, but teaches generally the same ideas regarding the consequences of both righteousness and sin. A second lesson corresponds with the first part of the current lesson focusing on Joseph’s actions in Egypt.

Jacob: Some Family Relationships


The united and proper family in patriarchal times or ours is a source of joy in life and comfort in death. It is also of course the basic unit in the perpetuation of society, good or bad.

Basic Scriptural Sources

Genesis 35:1-15. The Patriarch tries to bring his family into unity at Shechem and Bethel on matters of religion, as he gratefully recalls God’s blessings and renews his covenants.

Genesis 35:8, 16-22, 27-29. Some family deaths and their effect; and the more tragic downfall of a birthright candidate.

Genesis 36. The family of Esau, or Edom, who did not perpetuate the mission of Abraham and Isaac.

Genesis 38. An illegitimate family unit, the heartaches because of it, and the developments in spite of it.

Supplementary Reading

The ideals of family life and the qualities of the ideal family are topics of frequent discussions and lectures to be found in many available books in and out of the Church today. See any bookstore or library for collections on proper marriage and family relations. There is much that will supplement the few basic ideals illustrated positively and negatively in the basic readings suggested above for this chapter.

Study Questions

1. Note that Jacob implied that they all owed a debt to God who had blessed him when in need, and that they should accordingly put away their idolatrous and superstitious accoutrements. What is the relationship between grace, gratitude and loyalty? Why was Bethel an appropriate place to go for renewal and re-establishment of Israel’s covenants?

2. Why do you suppose that the account of the mourning at the burial of Rebekah’s nurse has been preserved in scripture? What does the story do for you?

3. How may the death of a loved one affect family unity? What indications of family reunion do you find in bereavement?

4. What indication is there that those ancient patriarchal families thought of death as, indeed, a reuniting of dead family members? How valid is such anticipation in view of what the prophets of the last dispensation have revealed? Is this one basis for the fact that Jesus could say of those who covenant with Him, “Blessed are they that mourn …”?

5. Where was Benjamin born and Rachel buried? Why, evidently, was she not buried at Hebron, in the family burial cave of Machpelah? (Note that later Jacob is embalmed in Egypt and brought back to be buried there; also, Leah is buried there.)

6. What significance is apparent in the name Jacob gave to his last little son, Benjamin instead of the name his mother called him, Benoni?

7. Is it probably for historical-genealogical reasons that the chapter on Edom’s development is found in the Bible? What difference would it make now in our understanding of the story, or in later stories of Edom versus Israel, if it were not given? Is there any indication that Esau’s descendants did anything as part of Abraham’s posterity toward fulfilling the mission assigned to Abraham and his descendants?

8. So far as we know from the accounts of Reuben’s and Judah’s immoral deeds and their ramifications, what were the effects on the individuals who sinned? on their posterity? While God does not punish children for the sins of their fathers (recall passages in Chapter 5 and see also Ezekiel 18), what suffering sometimes comes to them through society?


A Reform Is Instigated and Covenants Are Renewed
(Genesis 35:1-15)

By divine direction Jacob returned to Bethel and to a divine reminder of the covenants of that place of many years before. Before leaving Shechem, Jacob informed his household of the goodness of the Lord to him pursuant to the promises made in Bethel, and true to his promise that the Lord should be his God, he asked all his household to renounce their idols, cleans themselves (obviously symbolic of entering into a new way of life) and worship the Lord. Having disposed of all idolatrous accoutrements at Shechem, he then took his clan to Bethel, built another altar, and named the shrine “god of Bethel” in commemoration of his experiences there. The Lord appeared to him again there and reaffirmed the later covenants also – made at Peniel, the place of his wrestling – including the new name. Jacob reanointed a stone monument at the place and reestablished its name, Bethel.

Under an oak, a common symbol of persistence and steadfastness, Jacob had buried the symbols of idolatry. It is obvious that others, like Rachel, had brought along from the old home some of the old ways of life. It is to be hoped that Jacob’s reform cleansed his clan completely of these and started them in a better way of life. One wishes that we had more information on their daily was of life.

Deaths in the Family
(Genesis 35:8, 16-21, 27-29)

It is somewhat surprising to find the account of the death of Deborah, the nurse of Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, recorded in connection with the accounts of the events at Bethel. (Recall the nurse’s attachment to the family at the time of Rebekah’s marriage. See Genesis 24:59.) Whether her death and burial at Allonbachuth (The Oak of Weeping) had occurred earlier or whether in some way she had been brought into Jacob’s entourage since his return is not made known. Mention of her passing, and of the commemoration of the mourning for her by naming the oak that marked her burial “The Oak of Weeping,” all serve to indicate something of the regard held for household servants in patriarchal times.

The most saddening of all bereavements occurring after the departure from Bethel was the death of Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob. The company had moved on toward the old family home at Hebron, and had only reached Ephrath (later called Bethlehem) when she was delivered of her second child. Though the midwife tried to reassure her, she knew that her difficulties in giving birth were serious, and only was able to name her baby Benoni (Son of My Suffering) before her soul departed. Jacob buried her on the way to Bethlehem, and set up a pillar to mark her grave. The name of the little boy born to her he changed to Benjamin, meaning “Son of the Right Hand,” alluding doubtless to the regard he had for the mother and the status he intended for the son.

A brief selection of vital and genealogical records is found in the book of Genesis at this point, without particular regard for chronology. A list of the sons of Jacob in their four family groups is supplied. (In addition a chapter is devoted to listing all of the leading families and tribes of Esau, or Edom, and briefly describing their locations and their form of government. This line is briefly discussed later in the present chapter.)

The death of old Father Isaac, and his burial by his sons, Jacob and Esau, are also recorded here, although the events must have taken place long after the events in Joseph’s life narrated next in the record. Isaac died at age 180, necessarily many years after Jacob’s return from Haran.

The closeness of the family unit of patriarchal times is again evident in the account of death. As noted before, one who has died is described as having been “gathered unto his people.” Moreover, as was noted in the story of the burial of Abraham by his sons, so at the death of Isaac it is recorded that Esau and Jacob buried him.

The Downfall of the Firstborn
(Genesis 35:22)

More tragic than the accounts of the passing of the honored dead is the account of a living tragedy recorded at this point. It is briefly told that the firstborn son, Reuben, committed adultery with Bilhah, the maid whom Rachel had given as wife to her husband Jacob. Nothing more is said of it at this point, but it is one of those events committed in a mortal moment of lust which have eternal ramifications. It is saddening to read later in the old patriarch’s parting blessing on the head of his firstborn:

Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power; unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch. (Genesis 49:3, 4.)

The Family of Edom, Brother of Israel
(Genesis 36)

Apparently a page of the family pedigree of Esau, the brother of Jacob, has been preserved and included here with the detailed family history of Israel. On the face of it, as account is given of the numerous progeny and their prosperity, and the move southward to the hill-country of Seir to avoid strife with Israel, no hint is seen of any cause for the bitterness and strife that later developed between the two fraternal tribes, Israel and Edom. It could indeed be wished that the spirit of the rendezvous of Jacob and Esau at Peniel, where they first met after twenty years, could have prevailed forever between their descendants. It could not have but profited them both. Unfortunately this chapter on Esau’s children, the Edomites, their prosperity, their prowess and their kings, is the last favorable note on them. From the days of Moses to the days of the last prophets of Israel, conflicts and condemnations are common. So characteristically opposed to Israel does Edom become that the very name Edom (Idumea, via Greek transliteration) becomes a symbol of “the wicked world.” (See Doctrine and Covenants 1:36; cf. Isaiah 34:5, 6; Ezekiel 35:15; 36:5.) It is evident that families can be unified in evil traditions and nefarious practices as well as in righteousness. The unity itself is only a means to an end, bad or good.

Causes and Results of an Illegitimate Family
(Genesis 38)

Perhaps for its exemplary value as a thing which “ought not be done in Israel,” and no doubt also for the facts of genealogy and history involved, an indelicate account is given of a sequence of unfortunate and evil events. It all begins with an improper marriage of Judah to a Canaanitish wife, to whom three sons were born who grew up to be evidently unprincipled and wicked young men. One of them married a girl named Tamar and subsequently died in his wickedness before the Lord; and his next brother refused to do his levirate [See Deuteronomy 25:5-10.] duty by his deceased brother to raise up seed to his name. That second brother died also because of his wickedness before the Lord; and Judah failed to give the third son to Tamar to let her have opportunity to bear a son to establish a family for and in behalf of the first husband.

Then Judah’s Canaanitish wife died and in his bereavement he and a friend, an Adullamite (Canaanite), took a trip up to Timnath. The widowed Tamar heard of the intended trip and put herself in the path in the guise of a harlot to tempt and seduce Judah, who succumbed and lay with the “harlot,” not recognizing her, and then left his staff, bracelets and signet with her in promise to pay later for this flagrant prostitution. He later paid, but not as he intended; for in due time (during which interim he failed to find the “harlot” and redeem his pledge) it was told him that his daughter-in-law was expecting an illegitimate child. In hypocritically pious rage he called for her, directing that she “be burnt” in punishment. In a somewhat gratifying climax, Tamar brought forth the evidence of his neglect and his sin, saying, “Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets and staff.”

We do not know whether Judah sought to repent, as many times we do only when our errors are found out by others, but in any case the damage was done; all he could do was provide properly for Tamar and dishonor her no more.

As noted in the case of Reuben’s sin, the repercussions in such a case can be eternal. Nevertheless as before expressed, the sins of the fathers do not make it impossible for the descendants to excel, although they may for a time suffer disadvantages. one of the surprising later developments from this account is the genealogy of Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David, and the royal line of Judah to Jesus. (See Ruth 4:13-22; Luke 3:31-33; Matthew 1:2-6.) Perhaps this fact may give comfort and a resolve to do well to the heart of any of us who may find something that is not ideal in our genealogy. In any case, it should never be assumed that because the Lord and good men later bring good out of an otherwise evil situation, the evil is thereby justified as the way destined whereby the good was to be brought about. This principle will be further examined in subsequent chapters.

The stories of Jacob’s life and times are not at an end at this point, for his life-span occupies half of the chapters and more than half of the pages of Genesis. The major role from this point on, however, is played by his birthright son, Joseph.

Joseph: Youthful Vicissitudes of Man of Destiny


Sometimes the zeal of a youth looks to his elders like presumptuousness; but if real capacity and proper standards match the zeal, the youth may be a man of destiny in the making.

Basic Scriptural Sources

Genesis 37. Father Jacob’s well-meant favors and the confidence placed in Joseph were so manifest that they perhaps affected his ego, and certainly affected adversely his status with his peers – his peers being his brothers. But the father’s confidence was well placed, for the necessary qualities eventually appeared.

Supplementary Reading

The prominence of the character Joseph and of his role and destiny may be sampled in scriptures supplemental to the Old Testament, such as the Book of Mormon. Reference to his prophetic powers, his writings, his progeny and their future, for instance, may be found in 2 Nephi 3;4-14; 4:1-4; 25:21; Jacob 2:25; Alma 46;24; etc. Look for “Joseph” in the concordance of the Book of Mormon or any other of the scriptures.

Studies in parent and youth relationships are readily available in books and pamphlets, including the course of study in that area in the Sunday School. Many books on adolescence, its problems and potentials, are found in any library. Note that while the naiveté of Joseph in telling his brothers the details of his dream-prognostications was psychologically exasperating to them, no commentary justifies the murderous intent of their reaction.

Study Questions

1. Writers of the Bible narratives and prophecies were predominantly from which of the tribes of Israel? How can we account for the prominence they have given Joseph throughout the last quarter of Genesis and elsewhere? Is it likely that the Lord inspired the preservation of these biographical sketches because of their religio-didactic value?

2. What was the nature of the work which Joseph was doing for his father as a seventeen-year-old boy? What was there about the job itself, and the relationship it demonstrated between Joseph, his father and his brothers, that irritated the brothers? Could it have been managed differently and yet as effectively for its primary purposes?

3. What did Joseph himself as a teen-aged youth do and say that aroused the resentment of his brothers? Was his behavior excusable? Were their reactions justifiable? How could they have been ameliorated?

4. Why, probably, did the Lord give him the two dream-prognostications so early in his life indicating the status and destiny he could achieve? Did he manifest confidence in dream-revelations later in Egypt?

5. Who, among the brothers, manifested some conscionable responsibility in handling Joseph? What were the motives – one good and one bad – in Judah’s suggestion that they draw him out of the pit and sell him?

6. Who were the people who bought Joseph and sold him as a slave into Egypt? While later laws in Moses’ time perhaps would not cover this case, watch for laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy pertaining to selling of family members into slavery. Would you expect it to be prohibited by revealed law?

7. How did the guilty brothers heartlessly contrive to avoid any suspicion of blood-guiltiness on their part? Was there any consideration for the feelings or possible repercussions their story of Joseph’s death might evoke in their father? Watch for some improvement in their feelings for their father in a test which Joseph later contrives to put them through.


While the writers of many of the books of the bible were men of the tribe of Judah, or of the priestly tribe of Levi, and virtually all of the compilers and preservers of the sacred writ were of that same extraction, it is remarkable that great eminence was accorded by them to the character of Joseph. His personal status in the narratives in Genesis; the preeminence of Jacob’s blessings on the heads of the sons of Joseph and upon the head of Joseph himself; and later in Israel’s history the prowess and position of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh in the days of both the united and the divided kingdoms – all these are evidences of the prominence of the Josephite tribes in Israel. Those tribes were not particularly exemplary peoples as portrayed in the historical books of the bible, however, and the prophets of the old Testament speak to them variously with scathing rebukes for their incontinence, sore laments for their decadence, and warnings of their deserved destruction. (See, e.g., Hosea 12-14.) But Joseph himself was exemplary, and his descendants in the latter days are expected to be so, and indeed are to usher in the ideal Kingdom. (See, e.g. Doctrine and Covenants 133:17-35.) Joseph himself appears in his personal role in saving his father’s house, as a prototype of the function of his descendants of the last days who are to be the vanguard of the gathering of Israel, preparing the way for the rest to come.

The Precarious, Precocious Stage
(Genesis 37:1-24)

“Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren.” Thus the stage was properly set, and so far all was well; but then came adverse factor number one: “… and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.” Some like to do, or even to be evil, but no one likes to be of evil report.

Factor number two: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.” Some favoritism upon the basis indicated might have been understandable and perhaps even tolerable to the older brothers, but not such an overt, demonstrated favor. The long-sleeved, embroidered coat was the sort the high ranking and wealthy wore. It was no worker’s garment. Reaction and counter-action: “… they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.”

Factor number three: “And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.” No soothsayer was needed to interpret to them the implications of either the first dream about the sheaves or the second dream about the sun, moon and eleven stars making obeisance to Joseph. Their reaction: “Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. … And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying.”

Factor number four: The brethren were herding sheep in the Shechem-Dothan area, and Father Israel said to Joseph, “Come, and I will send thee unto them. … Go, I pray thee, see whether it be well with thy brethren, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again.”

As Joseph made his way from Shechem to Dothan to find them, the brothers saw him coming and the ultimate in fraternal mischief arose in their hearts; they conspired to do fratricide. They proposed to kill him and cast him into a pit. Reuben, the oldest of them, showed a sense of responsibility and compassion in contriving to have him thrown alive into a pit [Mention of the fact that “the pit was empty, there was no water in it” suggests that it was a storage cistern for rain-water. Such facilities were common in that arid land. It was possibly in such a pit that Jeremiah was confined. (Jeremiah 38:6)]

Joseph’s Slave Status
(Genesis 37:26-36)

The same dreams which aggravated the brothers’ resentment and motivated some of the machinations against him must on the other hand have sustained and encouraged Joseph throughout the vicissitudes he later suffered. What he knew of Reuben’s plan, or what indeed he had at all to hope for in the pit, is not made known. If he heard the spur-of-the-moment thought of his fourth brother, who saw a merchant caravan approaching and suggested that Joseph be sold as a slave, it must have been terrifying to the boy. Whether before he was cast into the pit or after he was drawn out to be sold is not indicated, but at some time during the process, and probably all during his suffering in their hands, he besought mercy of them, and they saw the anguish of their young brother’s soul but would not hear him. (This is according to their own later review of the affair – Genesis 42:21, 22.) Despised and sold by men who considered him not as their brother, and bought and bound by men who considered him not as their fellow human being, he had need of sustenance and encouragement from God above. And Joseph’s bond with Him was never broken; how effective it was throughout his life is evident in each episode that has been preserved in the record.

The merchantmen themselves who purchased him and sold him were cousin-people to Israel’s sons. Apparently both Midianites and Ishmaelites were involved in the caravan; it is said that Ishmaelites bought him at the pit, but that Midianites sold him in Egypt. Either these cousin-peoples (both descended from Abraham) were working together, or there was some interchange of possession en route. The caravan was carrying, as nomadic peoples have continued to do until recent times, spices, gum, balsam and myrrh for sale also in Egypt. Ishmaelites must have been expert cameleers; among David’s officers centuries later on was one Obil, the Ishmaelites, who was supervisor of the royal camels (I Chronicles 27:30). The strength and endurance of the camel for desert travel is legendary to this day with the Arabs.

In Egypt, Joseph became the slave of Potiphar, who may also have been of a distantly related people, for most chronological studies indicate that the Asiatic-Semitic Hyksos were the “foreign Pharaohs” of Egypt through three dynasties (Fifteenth-Seventeenth) between 1720 B.C. and 1550 B.C. This period would almost certainly encompass the lifetime of Joseph. The whole royal retinue would, of course, be comprised of the conquering, ruling invaders.

Back home at Hebron, Father Jacob awaited Joseph’s return and report on the welfare of his sons and the livestock; but there came to him the false, shameless report from those sons that Joseph was dead. Mercilessly they showed him the tattered, blood-drenched coat of Joseph as mute, mock evidence that he had met tragedy at the hand of beasts. (It was almost true.) Jacob could not be comforted by the sons and daughters who rose up to try to assuage his grief. “I shall go down to my son mourning, unto Sheol,” he said. [A bit more literally translated than the usual rendition: “I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning.” (Genesis 37:35.) Note that in the Old Testament Sheol commonly denotes the place of the spirits of the departed dead; e.g., see Isaiah 14:9-20. Sometimes it embraces also the concept of the grave, but this is not its primary meaning.


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