Sunday, May 07, 2017

From Death to Life (Genesis 43-44)

Surveys are often conducted about the things we fear in life. Invariably, and understandably, the fear of death and dying ranks high on the list. If it were possible to broaden the research out to cover the entirety of human history, based solely on anecdotal and literary evidence, it seems that this has been the most fearful thing for people, regardless of the place or time in which they have lived. Much human behavior and belief is driven by a fear of death, and the subject occupies much conversation today and in ages past, at least as far as we can ascertain.

Just take our passage and its broader context, for example. Joseph’s brothers had plotted to kill him, and deceived their father into thinking he was dead. Then Jacob said that he was going to mourn himself to death because of it. Then there was a famine that caused Jacob to send his sons to Egypt, saying, “so that we may live and not die.” Then Joseph was talking to them about what they must do in order to not be put to death on the charge of spying on Egypt. They had to go back and get Benjamin while Simeon remained hostage in Egypt, where he may die. Then when they told Jacob about all this, he refused to let Benjamin go because he was convinced Simeon was already dead and that Benjamin would die too. Then Reuben offered his own sons’ lives in exchange for Benjamin if he died. Then Jacob again said he was going to grieve himself to death. Then they start starving to death again because the grain is running out, and that is where our text picks up again.

When we think about this family, it is hardly a wonder that they are so filled with anxiety about death. Jacob, of course had deceived his brother and his father. His sons had a rap-sheet a mile long, ranging from incestuous adultery (two-times over), mass murder and pillaging, and the betrayal of their own father following the murderous schemes and human trafficking of Joseph. With all of that on their conscience, who would not dread the possibility of facing God in judgment after death? And perhaps this is the reason that the fear of death is so common. After all, the Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that the wages of sin is death, resulting in an eternal separation from God and experience of unending torment. Even if we are unaware or do not believe the Bible, we see ourselves in the mirror and we examine ourselves when we are alone with our thoughts, and feel the prick of our own consciences convicting us of our moral failures. When we consider our words, thoughts, and deeds, we are aware of the unavoidable truth. We do what we ought not do. We do not do what we ought to do. And this pattern of repeat behavior presents itself in us from the moment we are capable of conscious action. So many people wonder why they are constantly plagued with guilt, but the reason is because we are guilty people before God. And the Bible says that it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment (Heb 9:27).

Perhaps someone may say that all this talk of death and judgment is nonsense, and only creates and fuels an irrational and superstitious fear of death. They may be convinced that death just marks the terminal point of existence, after which life is completely extinguished into nothingness, without any conscious experience of any sort of so-called afterlife. That is a pervasive opinion, but we have to acknowledge that it carries with it some very high stakes. The philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that every person is essentially gambling with his or her life on whether or not God is real. But the truth will be irreversibly revealed at death. Betting with your life that God is real and that we will face Him one day, Pascal says, carries no risk – only the potential of an infinite reward. But betting that He does not exist carries seemingly no reward – only far greater risks. A person betting against the reality of God and eternal judgment carries with him or her a terrible burden of fear of death. The possibility exists that he or she could be wrong, and if wrong, destructively so.

Now, what does all this have to do with our text? Well, we have a situation here in which there is a judgment of sorts that is unavoidable. The brothers must take their stand before Joseph, who remains unknown and unrecognizable to them, and give an account for themselves. Already plagued by a nagging conscience, they are set to come before one who has the power of life and death over them. And in an even greater way, every person must consider what it will be like to stand before the Judge of all the earth when the day of accounting and reckoning comes. So, how can we move from the fear of death to the hope of life? How can we prepare for that encounter? In our text, we see several strategies, which taken together, help us to overcome the fear of death and judgment and stand in the confidence of knowing that we will be received well when we come before the throne of judgment.

I. Trust in works must give way to faith in God (43:1-14)

As Chapter 43 opens, we find Jacob and his family back in Canaan – minus Simeon, who is imprisoned in Egypt awaiting the return of his brothers with Benjamin to secure his release. The famine is still intense, and the grain that they procured on their first journey to Egypt has been depleted. Ever the man with the plan, Jacob’s strategy seems simple enough: “Go back, buy us a little food” (v2). If there is a problem, there must be some simple work that can be done to escape the trouble. But there is a snag in Jacob’s plan. Remember, they cannot go back to Egypt unless they take Benjamin with them. Not only will taking Benjamin secure Simeon’s release, but it also proves that they are not spies, and essentially secures all of their freedom. But Jacob has been, thus far, unwilling to send Benjamin. Always one to play favorites, it seems that Jacob has been content to let Simeon undergo whatever consequence awaits him – in fact, he has already reckoned him dead – so long as his favorite son, Benjamin, is safe at home. But Judah gives him the ultimatum. The brothers will not go to Egypt without Benjamin.

Human nature is prone to resort to old habits, and Jacob demonstrates that here. In verse 6, he says, “Why did you treat me so badly be telling the man whether you still had another brother?” Deception has been a profitable tactic in his past, and it seems he has not fully outgrown the tendency. Here, as in days of old, his strategy seems to be that of bending the truth to save his own skin. But the judge that awaits the brothers in Egypt knows too much. They cannot hide the truth from him. They’ve already told him that they have another brother – but remember, they didn’t have to, because he already knew. He was not the stranger that they thought him to be. He was their brother in disguise. And as such, he knew all that there was to know about these men. Deception will not work in the courtroom of Egypt because the judge knows the truth, whether or not it is spoken.

Jacob, it seems, has no alternative. His worst fear must be faced, and Benjamin must go with his brothers to Egypt. As I mentioned before, every time these guys leave the house, they seem to come home a man down. So Jacob ups the ante. He tells the brothers to try to bribe the man in Egypt with a sampler collection from Whole Foods. He says in verse 11, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a present a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds. Undoubtedly, he says, “a little,” because the famine is so intense that “a little” is all they could spare. But what they seem to have plenty of is money. That’s the thing with a famine like this. It affects the rich and the poor alike. The poor have no food and no money; the rich have money, but what good is it when there is no food to be bought. So Jacob says that with the little supply of delicacies, they are to take a lot of money – double the amount needed – half to pay back what ended up in their sacks upon returning to Canaan, and the other half to buy more.

This is how some people strategize their encounter with God in judgment. Maybe we can withhold information from Him? No chance. He has complete and perfect knowledge of all that you are and all that you have done. Maybe He can be bought off with some good deeds? You know, we could try to do more good than the bad we have done, and sweeten the deal with some extra money given to church or charity, and some extra hours of volunteer work, and nice things like that? No way. In this fallen world, filled with its imperfections, we find the very notion that justice can be swayed by bribes and schemes to be deplorable. And yet, do we think that God has a lower standard of justice than this world has? God is the very definition of justice. Justice is essential to His nature. There must be a recompense for what has been done, and schemes, deeds, and bribes cannot undo it. It would only add to the offense before God.

In his heart of hearts, Jacob knows that his efforts to secure favor before the judge in Egypt by his own works and schemes is futile. So, he comes to the end of such thinking and resorts at last to casting himself upon the Lord in faith. He says in verse 14, “May God grant you compassion in the sight of the man, so that he will release to you your other brother, and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” He entrusted himself fully to the Lord’s mercy for the outcome, little knowing that compassion was the one thing that the man in Egypt had been longing to show these people all along.

As we consider the prospects of standing before the Lord, we fear because we envision Him as One who desires to do us harm. It is right for us to be concerned about that, because we have done evil in rebellion against Him. But at the core of His nature, God longs to shower mercy and compassion on those who trust in Him. He is described repeatedly in Scripture with these words: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (cf. Ex 34:6-7, et al.). It is not by our deceit, our schemes, or our works that we will escape the torment of eternal judgment. It is by casting ourselves by faith upon His infinite mercy, which He longs to show us.

II. Self-righteousness must give way to confession (43:15-44:16)

The second scene of this narrative unfolds back in Egypt as the brothers are received in Joseph’s home and a meal is prepared before them. They tried to repay the money that they found in their sacks upon their return home, but Joseph’s steward protested and insisted that the grain had been paid for in full. He said, “Be at ease, do not be afraid, Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks” (43:23). In reality, Joseph had paid for their grain without them knowing about it. All that Joseph had been doing behind the scenes in their experiences with him was for their good, but they did not know it and could not comprehend it. He continued to work in ways that they could not perceive. He had them seated around the table in the order of their birth. How could he possibly know that? Verse 33 says they were astonished by this. How could this have happened by chance?

In their last encounter in Chapter 42, we noted how Joseph had subjected them to several tests to see if there had been any change in the character of the men. One of them had been the test of their loyalty to one another. Would they take the money and run, abandoning Simeon in Egypt as they had done two decades before with Joseph? Now they demonstrated that they had passed that test. There would now be two more tests. As the meal was served, Benjamin was given five times as much food as the rest of the men. How would they respond to this clear demonstration of favoritism? In the past, when one of their brothers was shown favor by their father, they hated him and plotted to get rid of him. Joseph undoubtedly watched with careful attention to see how they responded to his lavish generosity with Benjamin. They seemed to give it little notice at all. The text merely says that they all “feasted and drank freely” (v34). They seem to have moved beyond sibling rivalry, and this spoke well of them. So far, things are looking up for them, but one test remained.  

As the brothers prepared to depart, thinking all had gone far better than they could have expected, Joseph had his steward to place a silver cup into Benjamin’s grain sack. Throughout the passage, it is referred to as a “diviner’s cup.” In pagan cultures, divine mysteries were thought to be revealed through superstitious rituals like the reading of shapes in the cup as oil and water, or wine and water, were mixed together. We find this sort of thing still in the world today, with people reading tea leaves or something like that. Joseph was a man of God. He did not practice this sort of occult ritual. He had a personal relationship with the God who reveals Himself to His people. But as part of the charade before his unknowing brothers, he plays the part of a pagan sorcerer. A cup of pure silver would be a valuable enough item, but one with which the mysteries of the gods could be discerned would be irreplaceable and priceless.

Joseph set up this test to determine if the brothers would abandon Benjamin when he was caught red-handed with the cup. Were they still cold and heartless toward their father as they had been when they sold Joseph? Were they still embittered by favoritism? Would they be loyal to a brother who was out of step with the rest of them in terms of his character and conduct? This test would reveal the truth. So, as expected, the steward caught up with them on their way out of town and accused them of stealing the cup. And it is their response to this which I want to call our attention to.

Notice in verse 7 that they said, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing? Behold, the money which we found in the mouth of our sacks we have brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house?” And then they risked it all on their assertion of self-righteousness: “With whomever of your servants it is found, let him die, and we also will be my lord’s slaves.”

Self-righteousness bristles against the accusation of sin. It demands that no wrongs have been done, and no penalty is deserved. It boasts of its own perfection, and scoffs at the thought that any fault can be found. And such is the attitude that many will have as they strut before the Lord of Glory on the day of judgment. In their minds, they are falsely confident that they will impress God with their upstanding moral character as they rehearse their good deeds and impressive list of accomplishments before Him. But God knows the full truth, and will act on the basis of that truth.

The truth of the matter here of course is that the men were innocent of stealing the cup. But that does not mean that they were innocent men, and nowhere near as innocent as they insist. They are aware of their guilt. In Chapter 42, they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother.” But they had yet to say it to anyone else – not their father, and not their brother who had been standing face to face with them beyond their recognition. Instead, before Joseph, they spoke only of their upstanding character. In the previous encounter they insisted repeatedly that they were honest men. Here, they declare that theft is something beyond the limits of their moral fiber. But these protests are hollow in the face of one who was himself stolen by them, plotted against with murderous schemes, and trafficked away for financial gain. To charge them with the theft of the cup was to let them off easy for far greater crimes than this of which they were plainly guilty. And so, they have reached a dead end in their long journey to outrun their sin. There is only one thing left to do: confess.

In 44:16, Judah says, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s slaves, both we and the one in whose possession the cup has been found.” Remember that Benjamin had not been party to their plot against Joseph. Judah’s statement here does not argue for the guilt or innocence of Benjamin regarding the cup. He is willing for Benjamin to get what he deserves concerning the cup. But moreover, he says that all their lies and excuses, and attempts to present themselves as righteous men have been silenced. He says, “God has found out the iniquity of your servants,” and he subjects himself and his brothers to whatever penalty the Egyptian master sees fit to administer.

This is a true confession. And every one of us must come to the point when we do likewise before God. We must humble ourselves before Him and say, “Lord, all my efforts to excuse, explain away, and erase my guilt are silenced. My mouth is shut.” Galatians 3:22 says that the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin. We know what God requires, and we know we have failed to do it. So the excuse making and the attempts to present ourselves as righteous might fool some people some time, but it will never fool God at any time, so we are just simply shut up before Him, with no other recourse but to confess. We confess before Him that we have not merely sinned, but that we are sinners. As far as Judah knows, the Egyptian before whom he stands has no knowledge of their dealings with Joseph twenty years earlier. But God knows. And though they are innocent concerning the cup, they are guilty of far worse, so whatever consequences they are to experience now are past due and well deserved. True confession doesn’t say, “OK, I blew it and I admit it, so go easy on me.” True confession says, “I have sinned because I am a sinner, and whatever consequences that requires of me are well deserved and I submit myself to them.” And when we come to that place, having cast ourselves on God’s mercy by faith as Jacob did, and acknowledged our sin guilt as Judah did, then the glorious light of the gospel dawns upon us that we may move from death to life and be saved.

III. The sinner must entrust himself to a Savior (44:17-34).

So, here is the dilemma in which we find ourselves. We are sinners who must stand before a holy God and give account on the day of judgment. We cannot do enough good works to compensate for the wrongs we have done, and we cannot appeal to any righteousness that is inherent within us, because we don’t have any. We are silenced of anything but confession before the Lord, and we place all of our hopes in His mercy and grace because we believe that God is good and that He loves us. But we also believe that He is a God of infinite justice and holiness. When He revealed Himself to Moses, He declared that He was a God of grace and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and sin. That is good news. But He also said that He will “by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex 34:6-7). That is bad news. So the great mystery of the universe and the riddle of human existence is this: How can God be so loving that He is willing to forgive sin, and yet so holy and just that He must punish sin? The unfolding narrative of Scripture reveals the answer to this mystery progressively from one generation to the next until the final piece of the puzzle falls into place when Jesus Christ comes into the world. But here in our passage, we see a beautiful foreshadowing of what He will do, and we find that imagery in a surprising place – in the person of Judah.

Prior to this passage, the Judah whom we have seen has many obvious moral flaws. It was Judah who suggested the plan of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites as a slave for financial profit. He unwisely married a Canaanite woman. You have to understand that the prohibitions in the Bible against intermarriage are never based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. They are based on spiritual compatibility. God’s people, in both the Old and New Testament, are commanded to not marry unbelievers, lest they be led astray by them. Judah knowingly violated this prohibition and reaped what he sowed in his children. He became sexually immoral and committed fornication unknowingly with his daughter-in-law. But by the time we come to Chapters 43 and 44, a change has taken place in him. We see him rise up to be the leader of his family –more noble than even his father Jacob. We see him taking personal responsibility for his brethren.

Here we see a picture of the glorious grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, a deplorable sinner has been transformed from the inside out. He has had a change of heart that leads to a change of action. We now longer see Judah as typifying all of us in our sinfulness. Now we see him typifying the Lord Jesus, who acts on behalf of others to save them. It was Judah who insisted to his father that the brothers must go down to Egypt to rescue Simeon, and it was Judah who insisted that only by taking Benjamin could such a thing happen. It was Judah who pledged himself as personally responsible for Benjamin’s safety, saying to Jacob in 43:9, “I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame before you forever.” For a while, it looked as if all was going according to plan, and he would not have to follow through on his promise to save Benjamin from harm. But when the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, Judah had a decision to make. He could go back and stand before his father to confess his failure, or he could follow through on his promise and offer himself up in Benjamin’s place.

In 44:18, he petitions the Egyptian overlord for a sidebar conversation. In this conversation, he sets out the full facts of the situation. He declares that he has been sent on this mission by his father to rescue and secure the welfare of his brothers. Over and over again, he makes his case on the grounds of carrying out his father’s wishes and will for his brethren. And finally he says in verse 32, “For your servant became surety for the lad (Benjamin) to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.’ Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me—for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my father?” He offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin in order to save Benjamin from judgment.

Centuries of history would come and go before the dawn of what Scripture calls “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) when God would act to save humanity from sin. I suppose that God could have done this in any number of ways, but there was only one way that would preserve both the mercy and justice of His nature. And so we read, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.” John 3:16 says it so well: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” In “sending His Son,” God was becoming a man. Choosing to be born into the human race, God could have chosen any vessel of humanity to bring about the birth of His Son, but He came into the world as an earthly descendant of this man Judah. Jesus Christ is “the lion from the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5). And He came to do the will of His Father.

Just as Judah came down to Egypt from Canaan to do the will of his father to save his brother, in an infinitely more gracious and glorious way, the Lord Jesus has come down into this sin-wrecked world from heaven to do the will of His Father to save humanity from sin. He said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise Him up on the last day” (Jn 6:38-40). And this is how He did it. He stood in our place and took our condemnation that we deserve upon Himself in His death on the cross. The full penalty of our sin was placed upon Him that our sins might receive their just judgment in the substitute sacrifice, that we might be set free and forgiven, saved, and transferred from death to life. In Jesus Christ, and His death on the cross, God was demonstrating Himself to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

So, all of us who are as guilty before God as the Judah we see prior to this passage, must come to commit ourselves by faith to the One who is from Judah and greater than Judah, who has pledged Himself as our surety before His Father, and took our place to receive our judgment in Himself. We have the assurance that we will be brought alive into the Father’s presence forever, because our elder brother Jesus has become our substitute under wrath. Through Christ’s death, we have been set free from the fear of death if we have trusted in Him (Heb 2:14-15). The fear of death, for the follower of Jesus, is replaced by the hope of life everlasting.

The day is coming for all of us when we must, in the words of Amos 4:10, “prepare to meet your God.” If the prospect of that day causes us to fear, then this passage helps us to overcome that fear as we turn from trusting in our works to trusting by faith in the mercy of God; as we turn from boasting in our self-righteousness to confessing ourselves as sinners who sin against the Lord; and as we turn from the ways of our past to entrust ourselves to Christ, who has become a surety for us in laying down His life to rescue us. If you never have before, then today, surrender yourself fully to Him and be saved. And if you have, then go and share this good news in word and deed with those around you who are enslaved to the fear of death. Bring them into the hope of life as you make known to them that Jesus Christ the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has overcome sin and death for us and will save forever those who draw near to God through Him (Heb 7:25).

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