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"God's Purpose Prevails through Joseph's Pesky Predicaments"

Sept.7, 2014 Gen.(42-44)45:1-15


It was that all-too-familiar sound every driver dreads to hear. The one where you turn the key and: "click-click-click-click-click." The one that brings to mind the title of Bob Dylan's famous 1967 song, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." You can catch the strains in the rhythmic percussion: click-click-click-click-click.

It was last Sunday at lunchtime. Yvonne and I had driven to Oakville to attend The Meeting House church where our son Keith and a woman who suffers from cerebral palsy were being interviewed as part of the sermon. All had gone well, but when it came time for lunch, when we got in the car it just wouldn't start. No problem driving 2 hours that morning to get there; no problems the previous week when we had driven upwards of 2000 kilometres up through Michigan to Sault Ste Marie to visit friends in the area, returning by Sudbury. Not a hint of battery problems! But here we were, stuck in Oakville, going nowhere.

Life's like that - problems crop up unannounced, out of the blue. We're tempted to complain to God, "Why? How could you let this happen NOW?"

Sometimes problems may be allowed to help us learn something, to grow in our character. Sometimes problems become an occasion to demonstrate love for our neighbour or "love one another" as Jesus commanded His followers. The problem actually increases our bonding as we support one another through it. In our case, Keith had also driven to Oakville and his SUV was parked very near our car, so he was able to boost us and get us on our way back home. Bonding through boosting.

Joseph was an Old Testament hero who had more right than anyone to complain about the problems he'd been subjected to: ridiculed by his brothers, sold by them into slavery, falsely accused of sexual harassment and imprisoned, forgotten by those he helped who might have secured his release...But despite all these problems, Joseph did not become bitter or reject God. Instead he detected God's saving plan at work through it all. And his interaction with his brothers shows how tough times can draw us closer, making fractured relationships whole again.


Last time, we left Joseph in a happy place. He'd finally been delivered from imprisonment after God enabled him to correctly interpret Pharaoh's dream about the coming 7 years of plenty and 7 subsequent years of famine. Pharaoh had recognized in him a divinely-gifted manager with great wisdom who could be entrusted with supervision of the whole kingdom through what would become an international crisis.

As chapter 42 of Genesis begins, the effects of the famine are starting to be felt severely, and Joseph's father Jacob back in Palestine sends 10 of his sons to Egypt to buy grain in order to survive. In v6 the brothers arrive before Joseph the governor who looked after selling grain from the precious stockpiles. They bow down to him and he recognizes them; his childhood dreams of his family bowing down to him are fulfulled! Now at this point, Joseph could have revealed his identity to his long-lost brothers. Don't you think his heart must have been aching to do so? But that doesn't happen until chapter 45. Why not? Why must we wade through chapters 42, 43, and 44 first when he could have just cut to the chase at their first meeting?

He puts on a real charade, an expert act of pretending not to know them, even though he grew up with them as a kid brother. 42:7 "As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them." He speaks harshly, like some power-hungry, plot-paranoid oriental despot.

Yvonne and I listened to an audiobook version of Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon over the holiday; much sterner and more severe than Yul Brynner's depiction of him in The King and I, the real king of Siam would fly suddenly into unpredictable rages, his face grotesquely contorted. And this king had power to condemn instantly to death! You would tremble to approach a ruler like that. Perhaps that's similar to how Joseph acted - after all, Pharaoh had delegated to him absolute power. 45:3 "they were terrified at his presence."

Note another aspect of Joseph's charade. 42:23 "They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter." It's always a shock after the bother of having interpretation going on to realize the other person could understand your native language perfectly well all along! (And perhaps a little embarrassing if you've muttered things not meant for them to hear.)

So, why did Joseph drag it out from chapter 42 to 45? Was he just playing with his brothers, like a cat playing with a mouse it intends to have for its next meal? There IS a fair amount of amusing irony in this section. The use of an interpreter; conversation amongst the brothers not meant for him that Joseph nevertheless overhears (42:24). When they're seated at table in 43:33, they're made to sit in order of their ages - this astonished them: how did he know? When their sacks are searched in 44:12, the steward searches from oldest to youngest, again in order of birth. In 44:34 the portion of Benjamin, Joseph's brother by the same parents, is 5 times as much as anyone else's - what's that about? 44:15 Joseph pretends to be able to find things out by divination - when he had actually planned and arranged for the cup to be put in Benjamin's sack. And in 43:32 Joseph is seated separately from the Hebrews as an Egyptian would be.

So by various means he "puts one over" on his brothers, disguising his true identity. Must have been delicious irony. But was it just for a game, his own amusement, or was there another reason he dragged it out and kept secret who he was? Why does God sometimes allow situations to happen, or to be drawn out, instead of taking a shortcut? There are lessons to be learned. The predicaments become an opportunity for us to learn and grow and be changed.


Joseph, his father Jacob, and Joseph's brothers all learn various lessons through these chapters. Let's start with Joseph. Various times he sees his brothers bowing down to him as exalted ruler of Egypt; each of these prostrations is a fulfilment of the dreams God had given him as a young boy - their sheaves bowing down to his, or the sun moon and 11 stars bowing down to him (37:7,9). So Joseph has the experience of seeing God fulfill His promises; he has it confirmed for him that God is all-powerful, God is in control, bringing things to pass; and God is omniscient, knowing the end from the beginning.

Joseph is also doing some emotional work through this time. It's a process for him to work through re-attachment to the family members who had rejected, disowned, and condemned him to a life of slavery. Several times he cries. 43:30 "Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep.He went into his private room and wept there." Later in 45:2, "And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it." Finally at the climax in 45:14f, "Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping.And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them." It's like he's slowly gravitating back towards those who'd hurt him severely, orbiting closer each pass until he finally reconnects. Healing relationships is taxing emotional work.

These chapters also see a progression in the attitude of Jacob, Joseph's father. In 42:38 when his boys tell him Benjamin would have to accompany them on a second trip to procure food, Jacob won't hear of it, stubbornly protesting: "My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left.If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow." He's protecting himself from further hurt - "MY son / MY gray head", determined not to co-operate, resisting the thought of letting Benjamin go. But listen to how his attitude has changed after time goes by and they're again about to starve in 43:14: "And may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you. As for me, if I am bereaved, I am bereaved." God, not self, is now in focus. God is the One who can grant mercy and preserve life. He has resigned himself to whatever fate God assigns: "If I'm bereaved, I'm bereaved." Like Esther courageously preparing herself to approach King Xerxes in Esther 4:16, "...I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.And if I perish, I perish." Or Job upon learning all his livestock and his own children have been completely wiped out, Job 1:21: "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." So, through these happenings, Jacob learns obedience and submission, trusting God to be in charge rather than being bent on protecting himself.


But it may be the brothers who learn the most over the course of these 3 chapters. Joseph makes it clear up-front that this is a period of TESTING for them. 42:15f "And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here.Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!" Again in vv19f, "If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households.But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die." Joseph is clearly TESTING them: can you be trusted? Are they really "honest" as they claim to be in v11? (Not really, else they would have confessed to their father long before this what they'd done to Joseph!)

The New Testament writers imply that God sometimes allows problems as part of His growth plan for us, so we develop character. Testing's outcome is proven character. Jas 1:2-4 "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (Hear those processing verbs - developing, finishing its work? This is how growth happens.) Also Paul in Romans 5:3f, "...we also rejoice in our sufferings, [HOW WEIRD IS THAT?! WHY REJOICE EVEN IN THE TOUGH STUFF?] because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Problems produce perseverance, character, maturity, completeness. Trials are the Lord's tools in sculpting your personhood to be a better reflection of His perfection.

What areas do we see Joseph's brothers developing in? First, RESPECT. When he originally told his brothers his dreams, they hated him, were jealous of him, scoffed at him, and couldn't speak a kind word to him (37:4f,8,11). But by chapter 43, when he's governor of all Egypt, they're not scoffing any more! 43:3f Judah explains to Jacob how the governor warned them solemnly they wouldn't see him unless they brought their youngest brother with them. They take Joseph's word seriously. Also v28 "they bowed low to pay him honour." They've learned to show RESPECT.

Second, they've learned RESPONSIBILITY. When he was 17, they'd sold Joseph into slavery even though he had done nothing to deserve it; then they lied about it to their father, pretending it wasn't their fault. But 22 years later, they're starting to show signs of maturity. They're starting to draw the connecting lines between their actions toward their kid brother, and the consequences. 42:21 "They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother.We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us."" His distress - our distress: there's a connection. Next verse (22) "Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood."" As in - we deserve the death penalty. They're feeling the weight of their actions; feeling account-able. Listen to Judah's promise to Jacob in 43:9: "I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life." Also note their response to the steward when they're charged with stealing Joseph's special cup in 44:9, a symbol of his authority: "If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord's slaves." They make themselves accountable for their actions; they accept RESPONSIBILITY.

Third, the brothers learn SOLIDARITY. They've learned to stick together; they don't abandon a brother (an "easy out") but become willing to share their fate together. 44:16 "We are now my lord's slaves - we ourselves AND the one who was found to have the cup." SOLIDARITY, we're "in this together." By the way, there's a hint this oneness was precious to Joseph because when he sends them on their way back to Palestine in 45:24 he tells them, "Don't quarrel on the way!" Get along; be united.

Fourth, SACRIFICE. In 44:17, to test their solidarity and sincerity when they say they'll all be slaves on account of the stolen cup, Joseph offers them an "escape hatch": leave Benjamin behind, because the cup was found in his sack, and the others can return to Palestine. But Judah shows real leadership by a lengthy 6-paragraph speech in which he pleads with Joseph to let HIM (Judah) remain in Egypt as the governor's slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers (44:33). Jesus Christ centuries later would be revealed as the "Lion of Judah" - from Judah's tribe, the royal tribe. Hear the note of substitution, springing another one - the guilty one - free? There's a foreshadowing here of what Jesus did on the cross for us guilty sinners. He takes our place, the penalty we deserved, so we might go free. This is grace - He steps in, SACRIFICES Himself in solidarity with us who don't deserve it.


The amazing thing about the overall story of Joseph is, despite all his brothers put him through - the rejection, the slavery, the resulting imprisonment, those lost decades of his life - he's not bitter towards them. He doesn't go around with a huge chip on his shoulder, he's not vengeful towards them or "out to get them". Amazingly, Joseph discerns God's overarching purpose, God's superintending wisdom and plan superceding and even using and making allowance for their sinful actions. God used their hate, their jealousy and rejection, their murderous attitude, to get Joseph physically to Egypt where he could be elevated to a position of power that would protect Abraham's descendants in a saving way. God MEANT to get Jacob's family to Egypt (about 70 males overall) so He could multiply them to millions by the time of the Exodus a few centuries later.

Joseph really underscores God's saving sovereign role in this in 45:5,7f: listen for "God sent me" three times - "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt." Cleary, God was behind it all!

And to what purpose? V5 "to save lives", v7 "to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance." God's purpose through all the problems was positive, preserving, saving, getting people where they needed to be both in their personal growth AND geographically.

So, next time you think you're being hard done by - when you question whether there's any purpose behind all the trials you're going through - remember Joseph, and all the hassle he had to put up with! But at the end he could look back and say, without a touch of animosity to those who had treated him so cruelly, "God brought this about - for good."

Joseph saw God's hand at work, orchestrating even people's flaws to save them (v7) "by a GREAT deliverance." God is greater than our problems. 46:3 God speaks to Jacob in a vision, "I will make you into a GREAT nation there" (in Egypt). Think about the miracle of Joseph's simple statement in 45:9, "God has made me lord of all Egypt." Stunning! A lowly Hebrew made Pharaoh's "right-hand man"? Unheard-of! God's about GREAT things and we may not see the outcome right away.

God's GRACE becomes manifest through His GREAT deeds. 43:29 Joseph blesses his long-lost brother Benjamin saying, "God be GRACIOUS to you, my son." In 45:27 we read that when Jacob's sons shared with him the good news of Joseph and showed him the carts he'd sent as proof, "the spirit of their father Jacob revived." His supposedly long-dead son was alive! God's grace revives us though we may think sometimes all is lost, our problems are too great, or our sins and guilt are unforgivable. That's when Jesus steps in in solidarity with us, steps up to the plate like Judah, offering Himself in our place - because He loves us.


Once South African pastor Andrew Murray faced a terrible crisis. Going into his study, he sat a long while quietly, prayerfully, thoughtfully. His mind went to his Lord Jesus, and he wrote in his journal:

"First, He brought me here, it is by His will that I am in this strait place: in that fact I will rest.

"Next, He will keep me here in His love, and give me grace to behave as His child.

"Then, He will make the trial a blessing, teaching me the lessons He intends me to learn, and working in me the grace He means to bestow.

"Last, in His good time He can bring me out again - how and when He knows.

"Let me say I am here: (1) By God's appointment, (2) In His keeping, (3) Under His training, (4) For His time." Let's pray.