Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Story of a Son (Genesis 37)


Essential 100.11
The Story of a Son
Genesis 37

In our study of the Essential 100 texts of the Bible, we have crossed the 10% mark. As we have made our way through Genesis, we have seen a continual narrowing of the plot line, from God’s dealings with humanity as a whole, to His dealings with the family of Noah, and narrower still to His dealings with Abraham and his descendants, then Isaac and his descendants, and then to Jacob and his descendants. With each narrowing, we are tracing the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a redeemer into the world, the seed of woman who was promised to Adam after his sin, the seed of Abraham who would bless all nations of the world. At various points along the way, we have seen how God has preserved His promise of redemption through, in the words of John Newton, “many dangers, toils, and snares.” And today we come again to a narrowing point in the story.

I have pointed out in the past that the book of Genesis is divided into sections by the use of the Hebrew word toledoth. We find another use of that word – the final use of it in Genesis – here in verse 2 of our text. “These are the toledoth of Jacob.” The narrative shifts from Jacob himself to his sons, and in particular one son takes the focus of the final 14 chapters: Joseph. Nearly a quarter of the book of Genesis is devoted to Joseph. We might assume that Joseph is the next in line to receive the promise of the blessing of Abraham. Indeed, our text sets up that expectation in our minds as we read it. But we will find over the course of Genesis’ final chapters that Joseph is not the heir of promise. By God’s amazing grace, Judah will be the one through whom the promise comes to pass. This is proof of God’s sovereignty in choosing how His purposes will be fulfilled in the world, for if it were up to any of us, we would certainly choose Joseph. He is a heroic figure, in contrast to Judah, who leaves much to be desired in terms of his character. Joseph’s story is far more familiar to us than that of Judah. I suppose that most of our Bible story books and Sunday School lessons have focused on Joseph rather than Judah, and the story of Joseph has even made its way, albeit in a greatly modified form, to the Broadway stage and movie screen in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s famous Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Now, if Joseph is not the chosen seed through whom God’s global and eternal purposes will come to pass, why does his story occupy so much focus in Genesis, to the near exclusion of Judah? It is because apart from Joseph, God’s promises would have come to nothing. Though Joseph’s line does not bring forth the One who will save the world, Joseph actually turns out to be the one who saves the promise from ruin as God providentially orchestrates the circumstances of his life for the good of his family and ultimately for the world. His story is the story of a son who points the way forward for a greater Son who is to come into the world.

As we begin to study his life, this story of a son, we find first of all that Joseph’s story is …

I. The Story of a Beloved Son (vv1-3)

Everyone loves to experience a “brush with greatness,” as we find ourselves in the same place at the same time with a celebrity. I’ve had a few of them, but one of my favorite ones was at a restaurant in Winston-Salem when I was a teenager as my family celebrated my birthday. At the table beside of us was none other than Tom Smothers. Now many of you will recognize him as one of the famous Smothers Brothers comedy duo. When I was growing up, I thought these guys were so funny. We had a record that we used to play called “Mom Always Liked You Best.” It was a hilarious bit in which the adult brothers reminisce about their childhood, and it comes to the surface that their mother’s favoritism for Richard was shown in every way imaginable. No matter how many times I heard that, it never got old. It was always hysterical. But if you grew up in a family where a parent showed genuine favoritism for one child over another, you know that it is no laughing matter.

Jacob grew up that way. He was always in the shadow of his brother Esau in the esteem of his father Isaac. And Jacob himself was favorited over his brother by his mother Rebekah. That parental favoritism nearly ruined the entire family. You would think he would have learned his lesson. But the history of human nature shows us that we tend to repeat cycles of behavior that we learn from our parents until we break free of them by God’s grace. Just as Jacob grew up in a family fractured by favoritism, he fostered it in his own family as well. Verse 3 says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons.”

Now, one might think that Joseph had earned the favor of his brothers because of the contrast in character between him and his brothers. Back in Chapter 34, there is a terrible incident recorded in which Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped by a prince in the region of Shechem. In revenge for this horrible deed, Jacob’s sons went beyond the bounds of justice and slaughtered every adult male of the region and looted the city. Another incident is recorded in Chapter 35 in which Jacob’s son Reuben slept with one of Jacob’s concubines. And we have in our text this statement in verse 2, that as the brothers were out shepherding their flocks, Joseph brought to his father “a bad report” about them. We don’t know what the report consisted of, or what it was the brothers were doing, but whatever it was compelled Joseph to inform his father about it.

Now here is where we often find Joseph painted with a bad brush. He is often described as a petty tattle-tale who should shut up and mind his own business. But I think that verse two is here to indicate a contrast in moral character between Joseph and his brothers. Notice that the Bible does not condemn Joseph for what he does here, though it certainly does not earn him any favor with his brethren. He was a morally upstanding man. In fact, there are only three men in the Bible about whom no moral fault is recorded: Joseph, Daniel, and Jesus. This does not mean that Joseph (or Daniel for that matter) was sinless, for he was a sinful man as we all are. Only Jesus is sinless. It does mean, however, that in his moral character, he was blameless and upright. But this is not why he was a beloved son.

Verse 3 says that his father loved him more than all his sons “because he was the son of his old age.” He was the firstborn son to Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, after he had fathered children by Leah and two other women. Joseph was precious to him, and so Jacob honored him above all the others. He made for him a “varicolored tunic,” verse 3 says. We are accustomed to calling this his “coat of many colors.” The translation of the phrase is notoriously difficult. Whatever else it means, we know that the robe was likely richly ornamented, and came to the wrists and ankles. This was not the garment of a working man. It was the robe of a prince. By giving Joseph this robe, Jacob was symbolizing his choice of Joseph as the heir-apparent, passing over his older siblings. And so this robe which was a symbol of his father’s love became the object of his brothers’ hatred.

It was because of nothing that Joseph had done, or anything that the brothers had done. It was because of Jacob’s love for Joseph’s mother, and the station in Jacob’s life at which time Joseph was born. But, as it was in Jacob’s own upbringing, this parental favoritism did not bode well for family harmony. As we look at this series of incidents in the patriarchal family of Genesis, we can make application to our own lives. Defiance of God’s plan for the family – one man and one woman, committed to one another in a lifelong marriage – always bears unintended consequences. The Bible records polygamy as a thing that happened, but it does not ever portray polygamy as something that God blesses. There are always bad outcomes in these situations. And we also see the important role that fathers have in shaping the lives of their children. Jacob, by and large, was a passive father. Though the family trade was largely shepherding, Jacob failed to shepherd the hearts of his sons, and their disappointments in life were the fruit of his passive neglect. And we also see over and over again how parental favoritism never plays out well. It was not Joseph’s fault that his father preferred him to his other sons, but Joseph and all of his brothers reaped the consequences of their father’s failure.

The point we want to see in verses 1-3 is that Joseph’s story is the story of a beloved son. And the second thing we notice in verses 4-11 is that Joseph’s story is …

II. The Story of a Hated Son (vv4-11).

I suppose you could ask anyone who grew up in a home filled with parental favoritism how it works out. The favorite child ends up being the hated child. And it was no different for Joseph. And just as his father’s special love for him was based on nothing that Joseph had done, neither was his brother’s hatred of him. I suppose we could imagine that they hated him for giving their father the bad report in verse 2. Or I suppose that they could have hated him for wearing the special robe his father made for him. I mean, its one thing for Jacob to give it to him; and quite another for him to wear it. It reminds me of the guy who won a medal for his humility, but then had it taken away because he wore it. But, as understandable as these reasons for hatred may be, they are not the reason why Joseph’s brothers hated him. Verse 4 says that they hated him because their father loved him more than them. So great was their hatred for him that they could not even speak to him on friendly terms.

Now we might imagine that things couldn’t get much worse for Joseph, but verse 5 says that something happened to cause the brothers to hate him “even more.” What was it that happened? He delivered to them an uncomfortable message. Verse 5 says that he had a dream, and it was his telling of this dream that took their hatred to a new level. Verse 8 says that they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. In his dream, Joseph said, “we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Now, the content of this dream was evident to the brothers. Joseph was saying that God had communicated to him a vision of things to come, in which his brothers would be subservient to him and he would rule over them. Now look, you’ve got this tattle-tale, spoiled brat of a brother, and he says one day you are going to be his servant. I mean, I can kind of get it, you know. It’s not the kind of thing you want to hear. Maybe Joseph should have just kept this message to himself. But there are some messages that have to be delivered, no matter how uncomfortable they are.

The brothers hated Joseph because of his father’s love, and then they hated him even more because of his words. But then something else happened. He had another dream! And again he shared the message with his brothers and with his father. In this dream, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to Joseph. So the meaning of the dream was the same, but expanded and made more certain. Lest their be any doubt, the “eleven stars” just happen to be the same number of brothers that Joseph has, and they are not bowing down to another star, but to Joseph himself! And this time, the sun and the moon are included – whom Jacob recognizes as a reference to himself and Joseph’s late mother. In short, the message is that the whole family – this nascent nation of Israel – will bow down in humble servitude to Joseph, who will rule over them. Jacob rebuked him. His brothers hatred is now expressed in jealousy (v11). But Jacob files it away in his mind, wondering how this dream might be fulfilled.

You see, in that day and time, God often spoke through dreams and visions. Today, not so much. Why has that changed? Well, we have something that that generation did not have: the Bible. God has spoken clearly and unmistakably in His Word, and we need not expect Him to provide additional information beyond what the Bible says. Jesus Himself said this in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. When the rich man in hell petitioned heaven that someone return from the dead to warn his brothers of the horrors of hell, the answer he received was, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” But the rich man protested and said, “No, they need something else!” And the response again was, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” “Moses and the Prophets” was a colloquial way of referring to the Scriptures, and Jesus was saying that the Word of God as we have it in the Bible is enough for us all. But prior to the writing of the Bible, God spoke “at sundry times and in divers manners,” as the King James says in Hebrews 1:1. And dreams and visions were some of those manners. Now, as it is today, just because someone dreamed a dream doesn’t mean God is speaking to them. Today, we take every claim that someone makes as a message from God back to Scripture and compare it to what God says there. But in that day, God’s truth was established by multiple witnesses. Just as in a court case under the Mosaic Law, a fact was established by the mouth of two or three witnesses (Dt 19:15). And so, Joseph himself will say in a later text, when Pharaoh has two dreams of similar circumstances, “Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about” (41:32).

So, here in such a short span of time, Joseph has had two dreams which have the exact same meaning, indicating that God has spoken and the matter is settled. Joseph will have authority over his brothers. He has been the recipient of a divine revelation and of divine favor. And this makes the brothers jealous and even more hateful toward him.

As we consider the story of the hated brother, we are mindful that often in the world, the righteous are hated by the wicked for no particularly reason. It may be because they are shamed by the moral character of the righteous. It may be because the righteous have been shown divine favor and been blessed in significant ways. It may be because the righteous speak uncomfortable truths about life, death, judgment and the life to come. I mean, if you want someone to hate you, tell them what the Bible says. That’s essentially what Joseph did here. He spoke God’s truth to his brothers and they hated him for it. Some might say, “Serves him right! That will teach him to keep his big trap shut!” But no! When God speaks, the message must be delivered, no matter how uncomfortable or unpalatable His truth may be, or what response it may provoke in those who hear it.

The story of Joseph is the story of a beloved son, and the story of a hated son. But it is also …

III. The Story of a Suffering Son (vv12-36).

In verse 12, we find the brothers returning to Shechem – where previously they had slaughtered every man in the city and looted the city in vengeance for their sister. This time, they went to pasture their flocks. This obviously caused Jacob some concern. What might they do this time while there? What might become of them there? So, Jacob sends Joseph out to check on them. Now, this says something about how dense Jacob was when it came to his understanding of his family. Does he not know how hated Joseph is? Does he not know how much resentment his preferential treatment of Joseph is? Does he not know how much the sight of that despicable robe makes their blood boil? But for all that this says about Jacob, it says even more about Joseph. Joseph could be trusted to carry out his father’s will. He had proven his faithfulness before in bringing back a true report of his brother’s bad conduct. And Joseph’s willingness to completely obey his father is seen in his response to Jacob’s commission. He says, simply, “I will go.” In the Hebrew, it is one word – hineni. It is the same word that we looked at previously when God commanded Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah. It means, “Here I am,” and conveys the idea of willingness to do whatever is asked. When we looked at that passage, we said that it means, “I am fully Yours, and will do all that you command me to do!” It is the only recorded word of Joseph in this entire chapter.

Joseph proved his willingness to do all that his father required of him by accepting a commission he knew would be challenging, and persevering through even greater difficulties. Having arrived in Shechem, Joseph discovered that his brothers were not there. A stranger found him wandering around in the field and explained to Joseph that his brothers had gone on from there to Dothan. He had already journeyed 50 or more miles, and it would have been understandable for him to return home and tell his father that his brothers were not where they were supposed to be. But Joseph pressed on and found them at Dothan. The sight of him drawing near did not please the brothers. As soon as they saw him, they began plotting how they might put him to death.

Notice the evil plot in verse 19: “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits.” These pits were cisterns – essentially holes in the ground intended to hold rain water. In addition to killing him and disposing of his body in a pit, they concocted a lie to tell their father: “We will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’” And then their troubles will be over. “Let us see what will become of his dreams.” Now, Reuben had a better idea. Already in hot water with his father, Reuben realized that this was his chance to get back in dad’s good graces. He said, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit … but do not lay hands on him.” Reuben’s idea was that he would come back later and rescue Joseph and go home as the hero who saved the beloved son. So, this is what they did. They stripped him of that robe that they despised and threw him into the pit, which was mercifully empty. So heartless were they, that they just sat down and started eating a meal.

Reuben apparently went away for a period to wait for the opportune time to come back for the rescue. With Reuben gone, Judah hatched another plan. Seeing some Ishmaelite traders coming across the desert, Judah saw an opportunity. He said, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood?” And to be sure, when he said, “profit,” he meant it in the truest sense of the word. So his plan was that they should sell Joseph to the traders – after all, he said, “he is our brother, our own flesh.” You can see his hypocrisy. Since he’s our brother, let’s not kill him. Let’s just sell him for personal gain and greed. The brothers bought into the plan and so it was done. Twenty shekels of silver was the price – the going rate for a male slave in that day. When Reuben returned and found the brothers counting the money and Joseph on his way to Egypt, all he could think about was how this was going to look for him when they got home. His concerns were entirely self-centered. So, as is so often the case, one evil plot leads to another, and they dipped Joseph’s tunic in the blood of a goat, and brought it back to their father and said, “Hey, we found this bloody tunic out in the desert – does this belong to your son?” And of course it did. Just as Jacob had deceived his father with the skin of a goat when he presented himself as Esau, his own sons deceived him with the blood of a goat. And Jacob assumed the worst – that a wild beast had devoured his beloved son. He wasn’t far from the truth. And he sank into an inconsolable season of grief. Meanwhile Joseph was sold again, this time to an Egyptian official named Potiphar.

In all of this, we see the story of a suffering son. Having done no wrong to deserve it, Joseph suffered at the hands of his own kinsmen because of their hatred and envy. He was betrayed for silver, and carried away into an uncertain future. But that future was certain in the eyes of God. Through all of this evil, God was working out His good purposes for Joseph, and indeed for the entire family and the world. In the coming chapters we will see how Joseph eventually rose through the ranks of Egypt’s government, becoming second-in-command to the Pharaoh himself. And when famine hit the land, forcing Jacob and his family to flee to Egypt for survival, it would be Joseph who saved his brothers and his father, preserving God’s promise to bring the long-awaited Redeemer into the world through their descendants – the One through whom God would bring the blessing of salvation to all peoples of the world.

Every meticulous detail of the entire ordeal was under the sovereign providence of God who was orchestrating it all together for His good purposes. From the delay in Shechem that prolonged him finding his brothers to the timing of the caravan passing by, to the manifold evil schemes of his brothers, God was working all things together for the good of the one who loved Him and was called according to His purpose, as He promises to us all in Romans 8:28. No matter what you are going through, no matter what others do to you, if you belong to the Lord, you can have confidence that He remains in control and will bring about a good end for His own. When the family is reunited in Egypt, Joseph will say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20). And as with Joseph, God is able to take all that we experience in this world and weave it together into the tapestry of His grand and glorious purpose that He is working for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Joseph’s story is the story of a beloved son. It is the story of a hated son, and it is the story of a suffering son. But God was using all of this in order that this beloved, hated, suffering son might be a savior to those who had despised and rejected him. And when we look at it that way, we see that this story of Joseph is more than just a story of a beloved, hated, suffering son. It is …

IV. The Story of a Greater Son.

You see, centuries later, another Father would send His beloved Son on a mission to a people who would reject Him. And this Son would do all that His Father willed for Him to do. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not (Jn 1:11). He was despised and forsaken of men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). He came speaking truth – truths that are hard to hear about our sinful state and our need for saving grace. And in response to the words of His revelation, those who heard Him said, “Let us kill this Dreamer and see what becomes of His dream.” He was betrayed for silver, and the hateful, envious, murderous mob cried out for Him to be crucified. His body was thrown into a pit in the shape of a tomb. But, like that cistern that Reuben found empty in the desert, so too the tomb of Jesus was found empty. And from the pit, He ascended in glory and power, able to save all who bow before him, like the sheaves in Joseph’s dream, in faith and repentance. The day will come when each of us must give report to God the Father for every word, thought and deed of our lives. And like Joseph’s report of his brothers, it will be a bad report for us. But on that day, the Lord Jesus will place His own bloodstained garment into the hands of His Father on behalf of those who have put their faith and trust in Him. And the Father will recognize it as the garment of His Son.

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