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No. 22: Three “Falls” and Three Heroes

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 22
February, 1991
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons

The Bible tells us that when God created the earth, He set up three zones of life. The first was the world itself. The second was the holy land of Eden. And the third was the Garden in Eden, God’s sanctuary.

God told Adam and Eve that every tree was for humanity’s food — every tree, without exception (Gen. 1:29). Earlier, however, God had told Adam (before Eve was made) that they were not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17). From these two facts, they could easily reason that the prohibition was only temporary. The Tree of Knowledge would be given them when they were ready. Meanwhile, they were to exercise patience. Patient faith is what they failed to manifest, however, and Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden Sanctuary.

This was humanity’s first fall into sin, a fall with reference to the God-man relationship in the Sanctuary. It was not our last fall, however. In theology, "the Fall" is the fall of Adam in the Garden, but that most significant Fall led to two other "falls," which show the outworking of the first and definitive Fall of man.

The story of Cain and Abel shows the second fall. After murdering his brother, Cain was cast from the land of Eden, the holy land, into a land of wandering. This was a fall with reference to the brother-brother relationship in the Land. Cain’s descendants matured the sin of fratricide into that of oppression by the power of the sword (Gen. 4).

The third fall of humanity is recorded in Genesis 5:1–6:8, which is a literary unit within Genesis (cp. 5:1; 6:9). Here we have the fall of the Sethites. Many today see the intermarriage in Genesis 6:1-2 as a reference to angels marrying men, but such an interpretation fails to account for the context of the incident, which is the record of the line of Seth. See also Matthew 22:30. If Genesis 6:1-2 does not record the fall of the Sethites, then what happened to them? The Sethites fell through the sin of intermarriage. Instead of witnessing to the Cainites, they joined them. As a result, they were cast from the world in the Flood. This was a fall with reference to the believer-unbeliever relationship.

Old Testament History

It is interesting to consider that Old Testament history as a whole displays in a "vague" way this same three-fold movement. Consider first the period of the Judges. Here it is primarily the God-man relationship that is in view, as Israel repeatedly falls into the worship of other gods. As a result, they lose the Sanctuary, the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 4). God had told them in Deuteronomy 17 that eventually they would be given a king, but they were impatient, and demanded a king before God was ready (Jud. 8:22; 9:1-57; 11:9; 21:25; 1 Sam. 8).

Consider next the period of the kings. Here it is the brother-brother relationship that comes to the fore, as Northern and Southern Israel break apart and live in continual tension. At the end of this period, because of their sins, Israel is cast from the holy land.

Finally we can glance at the post-exilic, or better the restoration period. Here intermarriage comes to the fore as a problem as we see in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi. Israel must learn to live among the nations, bearing witness before the emperors of this world, without the compromise of intermarriage. Because the old world fails to receive the truth, it is replaced with a new creation in the New Covenant.

Compare the three falls of King Saul. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul impatiently seizes the prerogative to offer sacrifice, worshipping God wrongly. In 1 Samuel 14, Saul offends against his brethren, and seeks to slay Jonathan. In 1 Samuel 15, Saul compromises with the unbelieving Amalekite enemies of God.

Compare also the progression in the book of Judges from Gideon to Samson. The early part of the Gideon story concerns idolatry (Jud. 6:1 – 8:27), but the later part, when Ephraim opposes him, and when his son Abimelech sets himself up as king, moves into the area of fratricide (8:1-3; 9:1-57). The story of Jephthah focuses on the brother-brother relationship, both as Jephthah’s brothers oppress him, and as he also has to deal with Ephraim (Jud. 11-12). Finally, the story of Samson is played out in terms of the opposition of evangelism (Samson’s gracious offer of a Godly marriage to the Philistine girl; Jud. 14-15) to the sin of intermarriage (Samson’s fall into sin with the enemy; Jud. 16).

In the book of Genesis, we find three heroes that show us how to live in a sinful world in terms of these three sinful tendencies. Genesis is organized in terms of clearly-defined sections marked out by the phrase "these are the generations of x." The story of Abraham is found in Genesis 11:27–25:18. The story of Jacob is found in Genesis 25:19–37:1. The story of Joseph is found in Genesis 37:2–50:26. There is no literary section devoted exclusively to Isaac; his story is linked with those of Abraham and Jacob.

We can see right away, broadly speaking, that Joseph is concerned primarily with the believer-unbeliever relationship, as he plays out his life in Egypt. Jacob is concerned with the brother-brother relationship, as he wrestles with Esau. Abraham is concerned with the God-man relationship as he interacts alone with God. Of course, all three themes are present in each case, but the focus shifts.


The creation of sanctuaries receives much attention in the life of Abraham, although the temporary character of these altar-well-tree "oasis sanctuaries" shows that the Sanctuary is not yet restored to the earth (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18; 21:22-34; 22:9). Abraham is pictured as leading others in worship. The major theme of his life is patience, as God makes him wait on the promised son (Heb. 6:12-15) — though on one occasion Abraham did impatiently seize forbidden fruit (with Hagar).

The focus of Abraham’s life, and of Adam’s fall, is on God the Father. Abraham is set up as the human father par excellence, and this is because he lived in interface with God the Father. Seven times God appeared to him, taking the initiative each time, and each time Abraham obeyed God’s commands (Gen. 12:1-4; 13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:1-27; 18:1-33; 21:12-14; 22:1-19). This is what it means to live in God’s sanctuary, and to be a true son of the Father.

Included in the story of Abraham is the story of Isaac’s early years, when he has the role of promised seed and sacrifice. Here also the priestly, sanctuary focus is preeminent.


Being a member of God’s holy army receives attention in the life of Jacob. Contrary to many expositors, the Bible tells us that Jacob was a "perfect" man from his earliest years. This fulfills God’s command to Abraham: "Walk before Me and be perfect" (Gen. 17:1). Genesis 25:27 says that Jacob was a "perfect" man, though translators, convinced that he was not such, render this as "smoothe" or "peaceful." But did God tell Abraham, "Walk before Me and be smoothe"?

Jacob wrestled with the unregenerate Esau even in the womb, so he was on God’s side even at that early stage of life! Esau despised God’s covenant, but Jacob loved it (Gen. 25:28-34 — notice that it is Esau, not Jacob, who is condemned in the text). Jacob not only had to wrestle with his brother Esau, but with his father Isaac, who was sinfully determined to thwart God’s command that Jacob should be the heir. In a strange land, Jacob wrestled with his relative Laban, who repeatedly cheated him.

Thus, wrestling with sinful brothers, yet without sin, is a major theme in the life of Jacob. Abel was killed by Cain. Jacob learns how to avoid being killed by Laban and Esau. While Christians will disagree on whether Jacob was always right in how he proceeded (perhaps like Abraham he, too, fell on occasion), we should be able to agree on the overall theme.

Wrestling with our sinful brothers is something God brings to pass to strengthen us. Jacob found this out at Peniel. Doubtless, when he was attacked in the dark Jacob initially thought Laban had come back for him, or that Esau had come for him, or even that blind Isaac was seeking to kill him. But it turned out to be God who was wrestling with Jacob, not to harm him, but to train him as a warrior in His holy host (Gen. 32:24-32). God was pleased to let Jacob win the victory over Himself, as a sign that Jacob had become a worthy wrestler (v. 28).

The theme of God’s host is enhanced by the fact that only in the history of Jacob do we find references to God’s angelic host (28:12; 31:1). It is the Son, the Angel of the Lord, who is Captain of that host. It is also interesting to notice also that unlike Abraham, Jacob and his family often are pictured as initiating wrestling with God in prayer (29:33; 30:22; 32:9-12).

The focus of attention in the life of Jacob is on God the Son. Wrestling with evil, and ultimately wrestling with the God who providentially sends evil things our way in order to strengthen us, is what it means to be a true brother of the Son of God. As a result, Jacob found some purchase in the holy land, as Abraham found places of sanctuary. Even so, his occupation of the land was only temporary, for the land had not yet been fully given to God’s people.


Finally we come to the story of Joseph. God never initiates a conversation with Joseph, nor are we ever shown Joseph praying to God (though unquestionably he did so). Here it is the believer-unbeliever relationship that comes to the forefront of attention. The sons of Seth resisted the Spirit (Gen. 6:3), but Joseph yielded to Him (Gen. 41:38, which literally says, "in whom is the Spirit of God"). Neither altars nor the land are in focus in the story of Joseph; rather, the story if played out on the field of the world itself.

If patience before the Father is important for Abraham, and if wrestling next to the Son is important for Jacob, it is service to others that is important for the Spiritual man, Joseph. It was because of his excellent service to his father that Joseph was invested with a glorious robe of many colors, though the envious brothers stripped this robe from him (Gen. 37:3, 23). It was because of his excellent service to Potiphar that Joseph was invested again, though the wife of Potiphar stripped this robe from him (Gen. 39:12-18). Finally, it was because of his excellent service to Pharaoh that Joseph was given the robe of authority over the entire world of Egypt (Gen. 41:42).

Joseph was tempted to lie with the wife of Potiphar, but unlike the sons of Seth, he resisted the sin of intermarriage. He remained righteous in his relationships with the unbelievers, and this resulted in their acceptance of his leadership. In fact, a careful reading of the text indicates that Pharaoh and all his people were indeed converted to the worship of Joseph’s God. We see them blessing God’s people, rejoicing in their happy providences, and finally we see Pharaoh on his knees asking Jacob’s blessing (Gen. 47:10). Thus, if Joseph eventually married an Egyptian woman, it was only after Egypt had converted (Gen. 41:38-45; on v. 38 see above).

What does it mean to be a man governed by God’s Spirit? How are we to relate to the world of unbelief? It is the story of Joseph that shows us. Joseph was ready to serve, but not ready to sin. Such service is typified by his becoming the replacement baker and cupbearer to Pharaoh, and to the entire world (Gen. 40; 41:9-13, 46-49; 44:2). Joseph served bread and wine — the food of kings — to the entire world! (See Gen. 41:57; 42:2.) As with Abraham and Jacob, however, this condition did not endure. God had not yet given the world to the saints.

Summary of the Patriarchs

Here are three sons: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. They show what it means to be God’s son in the three zones of life. The story of Abraham and Isaac focuses on the priestly dimension of sacrifice, where the field of action is the sanctuary, the duty is to guard, and the sin is sacrilege (stealing from God). In sociological terms, this is the locale of the Church.

The story of Jacob focuses on the kingly dimension of wrestling with God, where the field of action is the land, the duty is to rule, and the sin is fratricide and oppression. In sociological terms, this is the locale of the State.

The story of Joseph focuses on the prophetic dimension of proclamation, where the field of action is the world, the duty is to serve and counsel, and the sin is intermarriage. In sociological terms, this is the locale of Mission and Trade (service).


We can follow up this brief study by considering our Lord’s fulfillment of these types, for He was the Son who fulfilled all that the other sons typified. In the wilderness, confronted by Satan, Jesus was tested in these three areas also. We can consider this in two aspects.

First, as the Son of God, and as God’s Holy Wrestler against ultimate sin and evil, there is a close relationship between Christ and Jacob. Jacob first had to wrestle with Esau, whose gamey food was preferred by sinful, blind Isaac. Just so, Jesus was first tempted to turn stones into bread. Jacob second had to wrestle with sinful Isaac, who was determined to set Esau on high over everyone else (Gen. 27:29). Just so, Jesus was secondly tempted to cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, and then be restored. Finally, Jacob had to wrestle with Laban, who was determined to prevent his acquiring dominion and wealth. Just so, Jesus was tempted to receive all the nations of the world from Satan’s hand. Jesus had indeed come to feed men, to be worshipped by men, and to rule men — but He would not receive such things from Satan, but only from His Father. Just as angels met Jacob after he returned to the land after his three wrestlings (Gen. 32:1), so angels met Jesus when He returned to the land after wrestling with Satan (Matt. 4:11).

Second, as the True Patriarch, Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the lives of Joseph, Jacob, and Abraham. Sharply in focus in Joseph’s life was feeding bread to the hungry world. Satan tempted Jesus to do the same. Sharply in focus in Jacob’s life was the question of who would win the wrestling match, and emerge as a member of God’s victorious host. Satan tempted Jesus to trust the angelic host, as their Captain, by casting Himself down. Sharply in focus in Abraham’s life was the promise that he would be the father of many nations, and heir of the world, if he worshipped God alone. Satan tempted our Lord to receive the world from him by worshipping him.

The Father has now given Jesus the kingdom He refused from Satan’s hand. In union with Him we have the kingdom, and we are commissioned to take it to the world. In the lives of the three heroes of Genesis we can see models of how to do this.

From Abraham we see that it is patience and obedience before the Father that will bring the favor of God and gospel dominion, so that we become fathers of many nations. Impatience, disobedience, and idolatry will not work.

From Jacob we see that it is wrestling with God in prayer next to the Son that will bring our wayward brothers into line, as Isaac, Laban, and Esau eventually made peace with Israel. Wrestling through violence instead of prayer will not work.

From Joseph we see that it is true service to others, with bread and wine, under the guidance of the Spirit that will convert the world. Compromise will not work.

Thus, we can receive the blessing of Abraham: May the Lord bless you and guard you.

We can receive the blessing of Jacob: May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and bestow riches upon you.

And we can receive the blessing of Joseph: May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you world peace.

Amen (Num. 6:24-26).