To appreciate the biblical narrative one must look for patterns. One of those patterns involves two sons and another involves three sons. Two sons poses the theme of conflict and competition between brothers. The conflict sometimes ends badly as when Cain kills Abel, but often God’s power to restore broken relationships and to heal family wounds is shown.
Another pattern involves three sons and speaks of these as a tribal unity. The three sons of Noah, while not the progenitors of the human race, symbolize the unity of humanity, as Rabbi Hirsch shows in his commentary on Gen. 9:25-27.
Usually one of the three sons is less well known or even hidden in the text. This is the case with the three brothers Magog, Og and Gog. We have to hunt to find Og, but the third brother is in the text. Other tribal units include Huz, Uz and Buz.
When we consider the pattern of three as a unity, we of course thinnk of the Holy Trinity. This great mystery bids us to discover the Son who is also unveiled to those who seek Him.
The pattern of two sons
Two sons are often found to be in conflict. The conflict sometimes results in murder, as when Cain killed Abel, or in a threat of murder, as when Esau threatened Jacob’s life after Jacob stole his birthright. Sometimes God justifies one son over the other, as in the case of the conflict between Moses and his half-brother Korah. Numbers 26:10 tells us that the earth opened and devoured Korah and his fellow conspirators. This is presumed to be an act of God.
The biblical narrative derives structure from the theme of two sons. Consider this partial list to grasp the scope of this theme:
Cain and Abel and Cain and Seth
Peleg and Joktan – Eber’s sons
Abraham and Nahor – Terah’s sons
Moab and Ammon – Lots sons
Ishmael and Isaac – Abraham’s sons
Jacob and Esau – Rebekah’s twin sons
Ephraim and Manessah – Joseph’s sons born in Egypt
Perez and Zerah – the twin sons of Judah and Tamar
Moses and Aaron – Amram’s sons
Eleazar and Gershom – Moses’ sons
Hophni and Phinehas – Eli’s sons
James and John
Andrew and Peter, and two parables involving two sons
While the conflict between brothers is a prominent theme, it would be a mistake to conclude that these were the only sons. We must remember that Nahor (Gen. 22:20-24), Abraham, and Jesse all had eight sons. The youngest of Jesse's sons was chosen to be King in Israel and David's rule would be preserved in Messiah's eternal reign.
The conflict between two sons illustrates God’s power to restore broken relationships. We remember that Jacob and Esau eventually made peace with each other. We remember that Joseph and his brother Benjamin were eventually reunited. The theme also lifts up for us how God is at work in different places at the same time.
The story of Judah and Tamar in Canaan and the story of the Joseph in Egypt is an example. Both narratives are about the loss and gain of two sons. Jacob lost Joseph and Benjamin to Egypt, but gained Perez and Zerah in Canaan. The loss of Joseph and Benjamin in Egypt was temporary and foreshadows the Egyptian captivity of Israel. The gain of Perez and Zerah in Canaan foreshadows the dynasty of David and the coming of Messiah. Chapter 38 constitutes a bridge between two settings of divine action: Egypt and Canaan. We see God working salvation in more than one place.
Joseph would have been about 26 at the time that Judah’s oldest son married Tamar. This son died without issue and the next oldest was enlisted to marry Tamar according to the law of levirate marriage. The second son died when he refused to raise up sons for his dead brother and spilled his seed. Judah was reluctant to marry another son to Tamar so he sent her to her “father’s house” in Edom. Naomi sent her widowed daughters-in-law to their "mother's house". The distinction between houses is important to the story. Judah never intended that Tamar should remarry.
Judah, like his father Jacob, lost two sons. After the death of two sons, he gained two sons by Tamar. His rule was amplified through Perez, the ancestor of David and Messiah.
This theme of loss, restoration and amplification is lifted up when Joseph presents his sons to his father. Then Israel said to Joseph, "I did not think I should ever see you again, and now God has let me see your children as well." (Gen. 48:11)
The theme of two sons also involves reversals. Consider the repetition of the blessing of the younger son over the older. When Israel saw Joseph’s two sons, he asked ‘Who are these?’ ‘They are my sons whom God has given me here,’ Joseph told his father. ‘Then bring them to me,’ he said, ‘so that I may bless them.’ (Gen. 48: 8). Joseph presents his older son to Jacob’s right hand and is surprised when old Jacob lays his right hand on the younger and his left hand on the older.
In the binary framework of the Bible, reversals indicate that God is acting both here and there. The Judah-Tamar shows God working in two places: Egypt and Canaan. The Judah drama in Canaan parallels the Joseph drama in Egypt. This is alluded to in the mention of the women’s association with shrines. Joseph’s wife was the daughter of the priest of the shrine at On. Her name "Asenath" means "holy to Anath", the goddess-consort of the High God. Tamar presented herself to Judah at a shrine in Edom. Asenath is to Egypt what Tamar is to Edom. Both women had 2 sons and in both cases, the younger son was elevated above the older.
What lesson are we to take away from this exploration of two sons? We recognize that although only one son could inherit the territory of his father, God is not restricted by primogeniture. He blesses whom He chooses and his blessings extend in all directions. This is the story of Abraham, Terah’s youngest son. God forms an everlasting covenant with Abraham, telling him that all the peoples of the Earth will be blessed through him. This is the story of Jesse's youngest, to whom the throne of Israel is given as an everlasting kingdom.
The pattern of three sons
Having considered the biblical theme of two sons, we now turn to the equally important theme of three sons. The recurrence of three sons is less evident because this theme is under the surface. The number three represents unity so searching for the three first-born sons enables us to identify a tribal unity. To illustrate how we must hunt for the third son, let us consider the case of Og, the brother of Magog and Gog.
According to the prophet Ezekiel, Gog was chief of the sons of Japheth. The name Gog doesn’t appear in Genesis 10:2-4, but the Prophet recognized that Gog and Magog are associated. When encountering two linguistically related names it is necessary to look for a third related name because Genesis presents familial units of three. We find the third name in Numbers 21:33, so that we are able to speak of the familial confederation of Og, Magog and Gog, with Gog having prominence by the time of Ezekiel (593-571 B.C.).
We note the persistence of the pattern of 3 sons here:
Gen. 4 - Cain, Abel, Seth
Gen. 4 - Jubal, Jabal, Tubal
Gen. 7 - Ham, Shem, Japheth
Gen. 11 - Haran, Nahor, Abraham
Gen. 46 - Jimnah, Jishvah, Jishvi
To this we must add Abraham’s first-born sons: Ishmael (by Hagar), Isaac (Sarah) and Jokshan (by Keturah). The birth order is not clear, which is strange given the importance of primogeniture among Abraham’s people. We are told that Ishmael was born first, but rejected as the heir upon Sarah's insistence, though she had arranged the situation. However, it is not clear that Ishmael would have inherited Abraham's office as chief, if Keturah's son Joktan was born first.
We are told that Sarah couldn't conceive, but finally bore Isaac in her old age. Meanwhile, the order of the narrative implies that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died, which can't be the case, since it was the pattern among Abraham's people for chiefs to maintain two wives in separate households. Sarah was in Hebron and Keturah was in Beersheba to the south. That Abraham was recognized as a chief among the people is evident in Genesis 23:5 where the Hittites speak of Abraham as "a prince of God" among them.
Does Genesis provide clues as to which of Abraham's three first-born sons was oldest? Yes. The clues point to the hidden son, who is Joktan, the first-born of Keturah. He is the veiled son. Even today Keturah's descendents live very much as Abraham did and have spread out across the Arabian Peninsula.
The clues involve Isaac's two wives. Rebecca was his cousin wife and his other wife was a half-sister who lived in Beersheba. This is where Abraham settled after his experience at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:19), which appears to have caused estrangement between him and Sarah. Isaac’s rule in Beersheba is evident in Gen. 26 where we are told that he reopened the wells dug by his father between Beersheba and Gerar. This explains why Abraham’s servant brought Rebecca to Beersheba rather than to Hebron, the home of Isaac’s mother.
Just as Abraham needed two wives to establish himself in the land, so Isaac needed two wives to maintain the territory. We are now able to speculate that Isaac had three sons: Jacob and Esau by Rebecca, and a son by his wife in Beersheba. (Tradition gives her the name “Judith”.) Isaac’s two wives and three sons establish a connection between the Aramaic house of Terah and the Hamitic house of Sheba.Terah and Sheba are descendents of Eber’s sons Peleg and Joktan. Terah descends from Peleg and Sheba descends from Joktan. Now where have we heard that name “Joktan” before? This is the name of Abraham’s first-born son by Keturah. He is the hidden third son, and probably Abraham's first-born. We had to dig to find him.
By paying attention to the two sons and three sons motifs, we see a consistent theme of fraternal conflict. reconciliation, restoration and amplification. The fraternal conflict continues today between the Jews and Arabs, descendents of Abraham and brothers. God has power to reconcile them and He will eventually prevail in the Middle East, though evil men oppose Him.
Exploration of the theme of sons reveals that God is not bound by human custom in His chose of rulers. He chose Abraham’s, Terah’s youngest, to head the line that leads to Messiah. He chose David, Jesse’s youngest, to be the King from whom Messiah would come.
The pattern of the third son prompts us to look for the One who is veiled, Jesus the Christ. Three sons represent a tribal unity, just as the three Persons of the Trinity are one. Jesus Christ is the Son ‘hidden’ in the Father's bosom. He is revealed to those who seek Him.