The Christian life is an ongoing war against our own flesh (Romans 8:12–14; Colossians 3:5). Sin is an ever-present threat that requires believers to be on constant alert. But the greatest danger isn’t always the “big” sins, like murder and adultery. Sometimes the obscure sins pose the greatest hazard because they’re simply not on our radar and they don’t yield immediate consequences.
The sin of partiality is a great example. We are so naturally inclined to play favorites that we can do it without even knowing. And the consequences simmer like a resentful volcano, waiting to erupt when you least expect.
The story of Jacob, the father of Israel, is the classic biblical example of partiality. Of his twelve sons, he had an obvious favorite—Joseph. Based on the godliness and wisdom exhibited throughout Joseph’s life, Jacob probably had good reason to favor Joseph. He had many godly qualities that should be esteemed.
But by making Joseph a special multicolored coat to signify that favoritism (Genesis 37:3), Jacob was shoving his partiality in the rest of his sons’ faces. The issue was likely exacerbated by Jacob’s giving Joseph authority over his brothers while they roughed it in the wilderness as shepherds. The growing resentment among Joseph’s siblings (Genesis 37:4) was hardly surprising. A gigantic wedge had been driven between him and his brothers, who longed to be rid of the well-dressed and privileged Joseph.
While Jacob’s other sons were shepherding in a remote location, he sent Joseph to pay them a field visit. When the brothers saw Joseph approaching in the distance, they sensed the opportunity for murder to appease their petty jealousies (Genesis 37:18). But one of the brothers—Reuben—pleaded for a less severe form of retaliation. They decided to leave Joseph trapped in a pit as a more civilized form of punishment (Genesis 37:21–22). Tellingly, the brothers stripped Joseph of his fancy coat—the coat that perpetually reminded them of their father’s favoritism—before throwing him in the pit.
While Joseph sat there with no means of escape, his brothers planned their next course of action. They decided that it was unconscionable to murder their own brother, and instead chose to fake his death and sell him into slavery. The twenty shekels of silver from the slave traders certainly helped ease their consciences (Genesis 37:28).
Jacob’s partiality towards Joseph triggered a disastrous chain of events. That’s usually the result of playing favorites—the scale of disaster may vary, but the wheels of trouble are always set in motion. What’s more, the dangers of favoritism aren’t isolated to the family. Consider the strife in the early church caused by partiality—it was so commonplace in the early church that James issued this major warning in his epistle:
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? (James 2:1–4)
James’s words make for sobering reading. They bring us face-to-face with our own natural tendency toward giving preferential treatment. Moreover, James describes a kind of behavior that’s antithetical to the way God treats us. “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). He withholds His just wrath, mercifully giving us time to repent (Romans 2:2–4).
That is not to deny the special love God has for His elect and the privileges that entails. But He doesn’t make a spectacle of that privileged status by adorning His elect with fancy coats, or with anything else for that matter. Instead of giving us insight into His electing work, we are called to preach the gospel to all people (Matthew 28:19), and to trust God to draw to Himself those who belong to Him (John 6:44).
If anything distinguishes God’s elect, it is not worldly privilege but Christlike suffering. God’s chosen people are promised trials and persecution in this life (John 15:18–20; 1 Peter 2:19–21)—and blessed communion with Christ in that suffering (Philippians 3:10).
It’s worth noting that suffering played a vital role in preparing Joseph to fulfill God’s purposes for his life. He rose from slavery and wrongful imprisonment to become governor of Egypt—all through God’s providence. In fact, God sovereignly used Joseph to save his father and his brothers from a global famine—preserving Israel for God’s future redemptive plans.
The story of Jacob and Joseph is a great way to conclude this series on the Bad Dads of the Bible because it reminds us that our mistakes and failures—especially as parents—aren’t necessarily the end of the story. Joseph himself made that point as he reconciled with his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Jacob’s partiality and its fallout in his family were used by God to orchestrate His perfect plan.
The Bad Dads of the Bible provide all of us with powerful cautionary lessons. Whether single or married, with children or without, we can spare ourselves a lot of grief and anguish by avoiding their errors. Most of all, we need to remember that even when we fail, God is still sovereign. Our failures don’t take Him by surprise or derail His plans for our lives.
A few last words of encouragement if you’re a parent who thinks it may be too late to learn these lessons. Perhaps you came to saving faith long after becoming a parent, and it was too late to apply biblical principles with your children. Or perhaps you raised your kids in the fear of the Lord, only to see them apostatize in adulthood. Or maybe, like the men we’ve been studying, your sins have had direct consequences in the lives of your children.
Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that God is ultimately sovereign, both in your life and in your children’s. While we are accountable to God for our parental failures, He still providentially uses those failings for His great glory (Romans 8:28).