Monday, May 01, 2017

A Dream Come True (Almost) - Genesis 42


Twenty years is a long time. And that is approximately how many years had passed since Joseph and his brothers last saw each other. You recall the details of that encounter. Joseph had been sent by his father to check up on his brothers, who were supposed to be shepherding their flocks their flocks in Shechem, but had wandered off to Dothan (37:12-17). When they saw Joseph coming from a distance, they immediately recognized him by his special robe that his father had made for him (37:3, 23). It was their father’s preferential treatment of Joseph that sparked a deep hatred in their hearts for him (37:4). On a previous occasion, he had given his father a “bad report” about the brothers (37:2), and now here he came again to spy on them once more. On another occasion, he shared with them about a dream he had in which all of his brothers were bowing down in homage to him. So, when they saw him coming toward them in Dothan, they said, “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of these pits” (37:20).

Of course, ultimately they opted not to kill him. Reuben had a self-serving strategy in mind to rescue Joseph and restore himself to his father’s good graces, but while he took leave momentarily, Judah devised another sinister plan. He said, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood?” And by profit, he surely meant it in its truest sense, for there just happened to be a band of traders passing by. So Judah said, “Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” In other words, “Since he’s family, let’s not kill him, let’s just sell him off as a slave.” And so they did. Joseph was 17 years old at that time. Over the ensuing 13 years, Joseph experienced many rises and falls in Egypt. He was sold into slavery, but was blessed by God in such evident ways that he became the chief slave of Potiphar. The wife of Potiphar tried to have her way with Joseph, but he was a man of integrity, so he withstood her advances. Nonetheless, he was framed and wrongly imprisoned. In prison, again, the Lord’s blessing on his life became evident to the chief jailer, and he became the man in charge of the prison. After interpreting a dream for the royal cupbearer, Joseph was remembered before Pharaoh on the occasion of Pharaoh’s own unsettling dream. When Joseph was brought before Pharaoh, the Bible tells us that he was 30 years old. He interpreted Pharaoh’s dream concerning a time of 7 years of abundance and 7 years of famine that were coming. He also counseled Pharaoh about a plan to prepare for the years of famine, and Pharaoh took his counsel to heart and implemented Joseph’s plan. As a result of Joseph’s wisdom and insight into God’s word and will, Joseph was advanced to the second most powerful position in the land.

Our text picks up after the famine has begun. The 7 years of abundance have come and gone. That means that at least 20 years have elapsed since Joseph had last seen his brothers there on the plains of Dothan when he was sold off to the caravan of traders as a slave. But this famine had reached far beyond the land of Egypt and was threatening the lives of those in many far away places as well, including Joseph’s homeland in Canaan. Word concerning Egypt’s abundant storehouses of grain had spread around the world, and people came from far and wide to buy grain. Jacob tells his sons in verse 1 of our text in no uncertain terms that with the survival of the family on the line, there is no time to be sitting around staring at each other. They needed to go to Egypt and get grain, in his words, “so that we may live and not die.”

As far as we, the readers, know, Jacob was never the wiser about the truth about Joseph and the horrors that had befallen him at the hands of his brothers. But Jacob knew that his other sons had proven themselves untrustworthy on many occasions. So, when he sent them down to Egypt, he was unwilling to send Benjamin with them. Benjamin was the youngest son of the family, born to his beloved wife Rachel as she died in childbirth. As Joseph’s only full-blooded brother, it seems that Benjamin has taken over the role of “favored child” in the household of Jacob. The last time he sent his favored child out with the others, he didn’t come back. Jacob wasn’t about to let that happen again, so he refused to send Benjamin along. Had he done so, this story would have played out a lot differently. Once again, Jacob’s poor parenting (which he seems to have inherited from his own father) threatens to impede the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

You see, God had revealed His purpose through Joseph’s dreams. The bowing down of the eleven (not ten!) brothers before Joseph was a foreshadowing of how God would use Joseph to save the fledgling nation of Israel and bring the blessings promised to and through Abraham to the world. By bringing the entire family down to Egypt, God would advance His agenda to prepare the promised land for Israel’s possession, and preparing Israel for it as well. He had announced it in advance to Abraham in Chapter 15. But though Jacob’s refusal to send Benjamin on this journey threatened to impede the fulfillment of God’s purposes, Jacob and his sons – and all of us – are about to discover several incontrovertible facts regarding the fulfillment of the ultimate plans and purposes of God in our lives, and in the world. Our passage represents a dream come true – well, almost.

I. God’s Purposes Will Always Come To Pass (vv1-10).

All of us, I imagine, know what it is like to have things not turn out the way we planned them. But God does not know what this is like, because everything always turns out exactly as He plans. That is hard for us to fathom because so many things seem to be so badly out of whack in the world that we cannot imagine that things are going according to God’s divine plan. But this is merely because His plan is still in motion and incomplete in the outworking of it. So, for example, when we pray as the Lord Jesus taught us, and say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” how confident are we that this is going to actually happen? We can be very confident of it, for it is already happening. It is under way as we speak, but it is not yet completely actualized. It is “already” and “not yet.”

The same is true of God’s purpose as it relates to Joseph and his dream. There are ten brothers bowing here before him in Egypt in the context of seeking grain in the midst of a famine. That corresponds almost precisely to his dream in which he and his eleven brothers working in a field, and their sheaves of grain were bowing down before his. But, there are only ten. So, there is a 91% fulfillment of God’s purpose that He revealed in Joseph’s dream. Where is number 11? Is God’s purpose thwarted? By no means. It is in motion. It is already, but not yet. What we will see in this passage is Joseph orchestrating the scenario in a masterful way to bring about the fulfillment of the plan. But this is not a case of mere human manipulation. Behind the scenes of all that Joseph and his brothers are doing here, God is providentially arranging everything as only He can, so that His purpose is fulfilled with precision. It will not be fulfilled 91%, but 100%, completely.

He does this through very ordinary means. He uses human agency to accomplish His purposes. He caused Jacob to send his sons down to Egypt, and used Joseph to prepare Egypt for the famine and to deal with his brothers. The brothers are even a part of this, as they move through successive stages of conviction, confession, and repentance, allowing God to shape them into the men that He desires them to be. God will use other people as He works out His purposes in your life, and He will use you in theirs. In fact, I would suggest that every person God has placed in your life is a part of Him working out His plans and purposes in and through you in ways you may never realize. He uses people. He also uses circumstances. Just as He used slavery and prison to bring Joseph to the place where he stood on that day, so He used a famine to bring the brothers there. As Isaac Taylor observed, “This is the very miracle of Providence, that no miracles are needed for the carrying out of its designs.”[1] Here, people are just doing what people do. None of them decided that morning that they were going to set out to change the world. They were just going to do ordinary things like go buy grain, and go sell grain. But God’s providence had put everything into motion so that His extraordinary purposes would come to pass through these ordinary people and ordinary circumstances. And if it wasn’t fulfilled with exact precision, it was merely because God wasn’t done with it. The dream was coming true, already, but not yet.

So God’s purposes will always come to pass, just as He has promised and planned, through His providence at work through ordinary people and ordinary circumstances.

II. God’s Purposes May Involve the Testing of our Character (vv11-28)

Chapter 42 of Genesis can be somewhat confusing to read. It is hard to know, because we are not told, what Joseph is thinking as he choreographs the scenario around his brothers. But it becomes apparent with careful reading that he is reconstructing, as much as possible, the scene of the crime when he was sold into slavery. This is not, however, an effort to give them a taste of their own medicine or to get even with them. It is designed to discover if there has been any change at all in the character of these men over the last two decades.

The entire project depends upon Joseph maintaining his advantage of being unrecognized by his brothers. It is a relatively consistent principle that our appearance doesn’t change much in adulthood. Joseph’s brothers were grown men when he last saw them, so they the 20 years or so that have passed have not changed their appearance. But Joseph was 17, and is now almost 40. So, essentially this would be like seeing me today and comparing that to how I looked in high school. Big difference. Plus, Joseph would have been clean shaven, typical for Egyptian men, while his brothers would have traditionally worn beards. And he was dressed as an Egyptian ruler, likely with embellishments and elaborate head gear. Plus, this was the last place they expected to see their brother, so they were totally in the dark about his identity.

 Now, notice how Joseph recreates the scene of their crime. Verse 7 says he spoke harshly to them. Back when we first learned about Joseph and his brothers, we saw that they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms (37:4). And when he approached them they spoke harshly about “this dreamer,” and their desire to kill him and his dreams. So Joseph speaks harshly to them, and he accuses them of being spies. Now, you have to understand that at this time in history, Egypt was going through a crisis of paranoia concerning foreign invaders. It is difficult to place Joseph precisely within the reign of a specific Pharaoh, because the Bible is vague here and Egyptian chronology is notoriously inaccurate. But, we know that within a reasonable span of time that could overlap with Joseph’s lifespan, walls were built on Egypt’s eastern front to protect against spies and invaders from Western Asia. Later history would see Egypt controlled by a foreign dynasty.[2] More importantly, and more relevant to the scenario, Joseph had been treated by his brothers as a spy. Like them at this time, Joseph had been guilty of nothing more than carrying out his father’s instructions. But they perceived his faithfulness to their father as some sort of fraternal espionage. So here, as the brothers carry out Jacob’s orders to go and procure grain, Joseph accuses them of being spies.

The brothers obviously protested this false accusation. They pled in verse 11, “We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies.” It is not likely that a band of spies would consist of an entire family, but, “honest men”? Let’s see, these are the guys who tried to kill, and ended up selling off their brother, dipping his robe in blood and telling their father that he was dead. Joseph of all people knows that they were not honest men at his last encounter with them. But the question of character is never what we were, but what we are. If our character were to be based on our past, we’d all likely be sunk! Thank God, because of His grace, our past can be wiped clean in His forgiveness, and He can change us and make us into who He wants us to be. Thus Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 the kinds of sinful lifestyles will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and then he says, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” So, while Joseph is not inclined to believe the brothers’ claim to be honest men, he understands that God can change hearts, and so he gives them opportunity to prove it.

In verse 13 they say, “Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold the youngest is with our father today, and one is no longer alive.” This is the information Joseph has been waiting to hear. Now he knows, after all these years, both his beloved father and his closest sibling are still alive. If God’s purposes and promises revealed in Joseph’s dreams are going to come to pass, then the whole family is going to have to come to Egypt, and now Joseph knows it is possible. If, that is, his brothers are honest men. For all Joseph knows they could be lying about Benjamin just as they had lied about him. They could even be lying about their father. Maybe they killed their dad, or Benjamin, or both. Joseph had to come up with a way to get them to Egypt so that God’s purposes would be fulfilled, and part of those purposes was a reconciliation of this family and a renovation of the hearts of these men. So Joseph says, “Look, I will drop the charges against you on one very simple condition. Let me lock all of you up in prison, except one, and that one has to go get the younger brother and bring him back to prove your story true.”

Just as Joseph had been tossed into a pit, he tosses the brothers into a prison to let them deliberate on whom they will send. This is part of Joseph’s (and God’s) testing of their character. After all these years, is there one of the brothers into whose hands they would all entrust their survival and well-being? Three days went by and they couldn’t decide on a single one. No volunteers, no nominees. Then just as the brothers changed their plans from killing Joseph to selling him, so here Joseph changes his plan. He says, “Tell you what, let’s flip that – one of you stay here, the other nine go and get the brother and bring him back.” Here again, the test will prove their character. Which one of them is so despised that the rest will say, “Let’s leave him languishing in prison here while the rest of us make a run for freedom.” Or which of them is so trusting to say, “I will stay here and entrust my survival into the hands of you all.” Again, there are no takers, either way.

But something marvelous does begin to happen. For the first time perhaps in two decades, the men begin to talk amongst themselves about Joseph. The scenario that has played out in Egypt has taken them back in their hearts and minds to the plains of Dothan. Verse 21 says, “they said to one another, ‘Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.’” There are words of confession and repentance here. Notice the repetition of “we,” and it is emphatic in the Hebrew: We are guilty, We saw his distress, We would not listen.” They reckon that they are reaping what they have sown. Reuben however, demonstrates something different. Notice that he does not join in the confession and repentance. He is self-justifying here with a kind of “I told you so!” mindset. He says, “Did I not tell you, 'Do not sin against the boy'; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” Remember, he wasn’t that concerned about Joseph’s safety; he was concerned about getting back into good graces with Jacob and trying to stage himself as the hero. He isn’t taking any responsibility for any wrongdoing here, he’s just frustrated with the sins of his brothers, and upset that he has to take part in the consequences. This is self-righteousness at its best. It fails to acknowledge one’s own sin and moral responsibility, it magnifies the faults and sins of others to make oneself look better, and it insists that the consequences one is experiencing are undeserved. So, when our character is undergoing testing, let us beware of resorting to self-righteousness to defend ourselves as Reuben did. Repentance is always the key. At almost all times, we are far more sinful that we are willing to acknowledge; we deserve far worse than we will ever experience, because God is far more forgiving than we can ever imagine.

Joseph is watching all of this play out, understanding every word of it – the interpreter there is entirely unnecessary but helps play off the charade. His heart is breaking as watches so he has to turn away to weep. Why the tears? We are not told. The emotional intensity of the moment certainly requires no explanation, but perhaps it is enhanced by seeing indications of heart change in some of his brothers, and seeing none in another of them. He pulls himself together and returns to them. But rather than asking if they have made a decision, he makes one for them. He seizes Simeon and binds him before their eyes, just as they had all likely looked on as Joseph was being bound before them years ago.  

 Speculation abounds among the commentators about why Simeon was chosen. Was it because Joseph really believed that Reuben (the firstborn) had his best interests at heart so long ago, and did not want to seize him, but took Simeon (the second-born instead)? Or perhaps Simeon took some sort of lead role in the events concerning Joseph? Was it because of Simeon’s violence among the Shechemites. Maybe, due to Reuben’s sin with one of Jacob’s concubines, Simeon was the most beloved son of Jacob excepting Joseph and Benjamin. The fact is we are not told and it does not matter. It may as well have been a random selection. Simeon was held, the rest were sent packing back to Canaan, with their grain, in order to retrieve Benjamin and return to spare Simeon’s life.

Now there was one more bit to the test of character going on here. Joseph, when he ordered their grain bags to be filled, also ordered for their money to be returned and put in their bags also. Later on, we will find out that the steward had been paid for the grain, so it must mean that Joseph himself paid for the grain and gave their money back to them. It was a generous act of unwarranted kindness. How would they respond to it? You see, twenty-odd years ago, they considered twenty pieces of silver a fair price for a brother. Now, with likely much more than that being returned to them, would they return for another brother? Or would they think they were being framed for a crime they did not commit? Would they return with grateful hearts, or would they return with a hard-to-believe tale of their own innocence, or would they take the money and run?

This was all part of Joseph’s elaborately orchestrated test of their character. And just as he was able to arrange the circumstances to see what was going on in the hearts and minds of his brothers, so God is even more able to choreograph our life circumstances by His providence in such a way that we demonstrate the nature of our character as we respond to those circumstances. In the outworking of His purposes, He will at times work through our character, and at times work in spite of it, but tests like these display what is going on in our hearts as His purposes and plans come to pass.

III. God’s purposes are often beyond our understanding (vv29-38).

As the scene returns to Canaan and the focus back on the patriarch Jacob, we find another emotionally charged atmosphere. As the sons tell their father a rather sanitized version of the events that unfolded (being sure to include the bit about how honest they are, obviously), we see Jacob migrating through a labyrinth of grief, anger, fear and despair. At no point in any of the process is he remotely interested in sending Benjamin to Egypt with the rest of them. He refused to send him at first, lest something happen to him. Now they’ve gone without him and come back having lost Simeon! It’s like these guys can’t leave the house without coming back a man down. Jacob’s despair is vented in his cry in verse 36: “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.”

“All these things are against me.” That is the cry of a man who cannot see beyond his immediate circumstances. That is the cry of a man who has lost sight of the blessings of the past and the promises of the future. That is the cry of a man who has chosen to live as a practical atheist, regardless of his personal creed, leaving no room for God’s intervention in his life at all. And I would suggest that we treat the poor old man kindly, because each and every one of us has been there, or will be at some point. Because of the hardships in which he found himself, Jacob had forgotten that the Lord said to him long before, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go … I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15). There is never a point in which a child of God may accurately say, “All these things are against me.” Oh, we may say it, and do say it often enough, but it is not accurate. The truth of God is this: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose … If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8: 28, 31).

From where Jacob is sitting, it is hard to see how God is for him. It is hard for him to see how any of this is working together for his good. But that is because he cannot see the end. The dream is almost come true, but not yet. As Taylor writes, “What a mixed condition of affairs we often find on earth, and how many tears are shed that would never have wet our cheeks if we had known the true state of the case!”[3] We are looking at singular threads on the backside of a canvas and it appears to us as such a chaotic and senseless mess. But if we could see the finished product from the right side of the canvas, we would see that God has woven together a beautiful tapestry of glory and grace as He has worked out all of His purposes for us and for the world. Jacob will see it that way eventually. At this point he does not know that God’s intentions for him are to restore his son whom he thought was dead, to reconcile his family, to rescue his people, and to reach the world with the blessings of God’s promise. But when he finally realizes it later, we can imagine him giving praise to God, saying, “Now I understand what was beyond my grasp before. When I was kicking against the goads and tasting the bitterness of a single trial, I forgot the faithful mercies of Your friendship that had sustained me through my life. I praise You that You were for me, not against me, and that You could turn all these things for my good. My light and momentary afflictions were producing for me a weight of glory beyond all comparison.” And even if it is not until we enter heaven, we know that we will see the grand tapestry as well, and though we do not understand the outworking of God’s purposes here and now, we will understand it one day, and we will glorify God for the grace that enabled us to take part in His plan.

Again quoting Taylor: “If God had wished our destruction, or any absolute evil to befall us, he needed not have sent his Son to make atonement for our sins. But the very fact that He has done that proves that He desires our highest welfare, and will make all things subservient to our everlasting good. Therefore, if we would not fall into despair under our trials, let us recognize  God’s hand in them, and let us think of Him as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. … We may be sure of this, that trouble never yet overhwlemed a man so long as he could see God in it.”[4]

God’s purpose in your life may only be 91% complete at this point, or far less! But it will come to pass with 100% precision in His timing. He will use the ordinary means of people and life circumstances to bring it about. As He does, He may test your character – not that He needs any convincing of what is going on in your heart and mind, for He already knows. But He tests us so that we ourselves, and others, may discover our character as we see our own responses to His providential arrangement of circumstances. And as God’s purposes progress toward completion in our lives, there may be much that we do not understand. There may be much that appears to be not good, and stacked against us. But we have to trust that God is for us, and He is working all these things together for our good, and for the completion of His purposes in our lives. We will understand it more as He completes what He has begun.

Of course one of the greatest purposes God seeks to accomplish in all of our lives is that of reconciliation of ourselves to Him. Just as Joseph was working to bring about reconciliation between himself and his brothers who had sinned against him, so God desires to do the same with us, in spite of our persistent rebellion against Him. In the spiritual famine of sinfulness into which we were born, we must bow ourselves down before the One we do not know, yet who knows us full well – the One whose words and will we do not understand, but who understands us perfectly. If He treats us with harshness, it is that we may feel the pressing weight of our sin and come under conviction and into repentance. And whatever He does that brings us to repentance is an act of His kindness, for His ultimate purpose is to restore us to Himself and rescue us from perishing. The brothers before Joseph give us a foreshadowing of ourselves before Jesus. We are perishing in a famine of sin, and He is the bread that can save us. Will we bow before Him and be saved? Behold the kindness and severity of God (Rom 11:22) – a kindness that is entirely undeserved, and a severity that is far less than deserved.

[1] Quoted in William Mackergo Taylor, Joseph, The Prime Minister (New York: Doran, 1914), 111.
[2] Joyce G. Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12-50 (Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986, 180.
[3] Taylor, 116-117.
[4] Taylor, 120. 

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