Our Old Testament reading for this morning is part of the story of Joseph – not Joseph the father of Jesus, but Joseph one of the twelve sons of Jacob, way back at the beginning of Israel’s history, probably around eighteen hundred years before Christ. The story of Joseph takes up the last 14 chapters of the book of Genesis and it’s well worth a read; I’m going to summarize it this morning and then draw some lessons from it.
Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob had two wives and two concubines, which of course was the way things were done in those days! With these four women he had a total of twelve sons and at least one daughter. Most of them were the children of his wife Leah, but she was not his favourite. The wife he loved the most was Leah’s sister Rachel, and Rachel had waited a long time for her children. Joseph was her firstborn, and she died in childbirth with her second son, Jacob’s baby, Benjamin.
Jacob apparently never learned any psychology, because not only did he have a favourite wife, but he also had a favourite son, Rachel’s son Joseph, and he let the rest of the family know it in no uncertain terms. Not surprisingly, knowing he was his father’s favourite turned young Joseph’s head a little, and he enjoyed playing on his favourite status with his brothers. He was apparently quite a dreamer, and enjoyed recounting his dreams. On one occasion he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and all the other eleven sheaves stood up and bowed to his sheaf. Another time he dreamt he was a star in the sky, and the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed down to his star.
Jacob was troubled by his son’s attitude but he didn’t seem to realize he was contributing to it. For instance, he spent a lot of time working on a coat for Joseph to wear. We call it ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’ although the original Hebrew word simply means ‘a long sleeved coat’. But the point is that he was the only one who got such a coat from his father. Not surprisingly, the other brothers became more and more jealous of him, and their jealousy simmered, waiting for an appropriate moment to boil over.
The moment came when ten of the brothers were away keeping their father’s sheep. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and they seized their chance. Their first plan was to kill him, but Judah, brother number four, talked them out of it. Instead, they sold him as a slave to some slave traders. They took his coat from him, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and took it back and showed it to their father. Not surprisingly, Jacob believed his son had been killed, and he was stricken with grief.
But Joseph was not dead. The slave traders took him down to Egypt where he was sold into the household of an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar, a captain in the king’s guard. The author of Genesis tells us ‘The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man’ (Genesis 39:2). Apparently he was a hard worker, and before too long he was a sort of butler, in charge of the running of Potiphar’s house. And eventually he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife who had something of a roving eye. She tried to seduce him, but he refused; he pointed out his master’s trust in him and said, “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9).
The lady in question tried several times to get Joseph to go to bed with her, and he always refused. Eventually she got so annoyed that she told her husband Joseph had tried to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph out of his household and had him imprisoned. Here the cycle repeated itself. Once again, Joseph’s natural charm and ability asserted itself, and before too long he was the jailer’s right hand man. ‘The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper’ (39:23).
After some time, the Pharaoh – or king – of Egypt threw two of his officials into prison. One night they both had dreams, and the next morning they were troubled by them. In those days everyone accepted that dreams were significant and needed to be interpreted, and the two officials wanted someone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph noticed their distress and said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (40:8). So Joseph interpreted their dreams and his interpretation turned out to be correct; one of the officials was pardoned and restored to his job, and the other was hanged.
One night a couple of years later the king of Egypt himself had two dreams. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows coming up out of the river. They were followed by seven scrawny cows, who proceeded to eat up the fat ones. In the second dream the king saw seven good ears of wheat on a stalk, which were immediately swallowed up by seven thin ears. The king was disturbed by this dream, and when he told the official who had been in prison with Joseph, the official remembered Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream and recommended him to the king.
So the king sent for Joseph. Joseph told him that God was informing him of the future. Egypt was about to go through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, so it would be prudent to make some preparations now for the famine. The king agreed, and proceeded to appoint Joseph to his government and put him in charge of making the preparations!
Sure enough, the land went through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but because Joseph had been storing up food, Egypt was okay. Canaan, however, was not, and Canaan was where the rest of Joseph’s family was still living. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob sent the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to buy food. They saw Joseph there but for some reason they didn’t recognize him; we can speculate that he was twenty-two years older and shaved and dressed as an Egyptian, but we don’t know for sure what the reason was.
Joseph, however, recognized his brothers, and he proceeded to put them through a series of tests to find out if they had changed at all. He accused them of being spies, and when they denied it and told him about their family, he arrested one of them, Simeon, and told the others to go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had stayed with their father in Canaan. Then he would know that they were telling the truth. They did this; on their next trip they brought Benjamin. Joseph contrived to frame Benjamin for stealing something from him, and when he arrested him, the other brothers all protested that their father would die if he lost Benjamin too. Judah even offered to take Benjamin’s place and live as Joseph’s slave.
At that point Joseph couldn’t keep it up any more. He made himself known to his brothers and there was an emotional reconciliation. He told them to go back, get the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt where there was plenty of food for them all. So they went and got Jacob and the rest of the family, and all of them came down to Egypt. The king gave them land in Goshen, the best part of Egypt, and so Jacob and his family were saved from starvation and the future of the people of Israel was saved too.
What does this story have to say to us today? Let me suggest three things.
First, suffering doesn’t mean God is punishing us for our sins. Now we might say that Joseph’s conduct at the beginning of the story, when he was lording it over his brothers and enjoying his favoured status, was simply asking for trouble. Nonetheless, later on, when he was thrown into jail in Egypt, it was because of his refusal to sin, rather than because of any wickedness on his part. God was not punishing Joseph, and this is very important for us to remember.
For us Christians this is even clearer than it was for Joseph, because Jesus has died for our sins. Over and over again, when Christian people go through suffering, they come to their pastors and cry out “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve tried to be a good person – why is he punishing me?” The answer is – he isn’t. Whatever else our suffering might be, it’s not a punishment for our sins. How do we know that? Because Romans 8:1 says ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. No condemnation. So whatever else our suffering may be, it’s not a punishment from God.
The second thing I see in this story is that often our lives only make sense when we look back on them. Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery; it was thirteen years before Pharaoh took him out of the prison and put him in charge of famine preparation for the whole of Egypt, and another nine years before his brothers came down to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph would have had to be superhuman not to have wondered during all those years what on earth God was up to, or even if God had forgotten about him. I’m sure that there were many times he cried out to God to deliver him, but it seemed to him that his prayers were not being answered.
And yet, God was at work during that time. Surely Joseph’s experience of suffering humbled him, and helped him learn to depend on God. By the time he was put in charge of famine preparation in Egypt he was no longer the spoiled brat who used to annoy his brothers so much. By the time he saw his brothers again, he understood what God had been up to in allowing him to go through that suffering: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good” (50:20), he said to his brothers.
And not just good for Israel as a people – good for Joseph himself as well. The author of Hebrews says of Jesus, ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (Hebrews 2:10). I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for people with strength and wisdom, I usually look for people who have suffered. I don’t look for people whose lives have been easy; I look for people who have learned endurance and patience by dealing with difficulty in their lives. I don’t believe that God sends suffering as a punishment, but I do believe that he uses it to mould us into wise, patient and compassionate people. I’m sure that’s what happened to Joseph. Looking back on his life, he could see what God had been up to, and that it had been good for everyone involved, including him.
The third thing I see in this story is this: our suffering can’t frustrate God’s purpose for us. We are a part of God’s plan for the human race, and he is going to bring that plan to its successful conclusion.
Throughout the story of the Bible God has been calling together a people – whether the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, or the Church of Jesus Christ in the New – a people who would model for the whole world what God’s kingdom looks like, and would take God’s message to everyone. So you and I aren’t just isolated individuals living our lives in the middle of the accidents of history. We’re a part of God’s great plan, and God isn’t going to allow evil to derail that plan. Sometimes when we suffer we forget that; we think that God’s plan is going to be somehow hindered by what’s happening to us. But the Bible gives us lots of examples of how God can even bring good out of the evil things that happen to us. This story of Joseph is one of those examples.
Suffering is a great mystery, very difficult for us to understand. Many of us have gone through intense experiences of suffering, or sat at the bedsides of friends who are suffering, which sometimes seems even worse. So I don’t say these things glibly or lightly; I’m fully aware of the dreadful – and seemingly random and senseless – pain that many people go through.
And yet, somehow, God is still able to bring about his purposes for us even when we suffer. As Paul says, ‘In all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). This is a truth that we often have to take on trust; we can’t see it when we’re going through the suffering. In many cases, I think, we won’t see it until we see God face to face and see our whole lives from his perspective.
In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. You know, it sounds terrible when I say it, but these verses are not strictly true. Let me explain what I mean. Paul is right; by themselves these things can’t separate us from God’s love in Christ – unless we let them! Unfortunately, so often when we go through suffering we do allow these things to drive us away from God; we get so wrapped up in the suffering and we allow it to make us bitter and full of hate and self-pity.
The thing that impresses me most about the story of Joseph is that he didn’t do that. Surely if anyone had an excuse to indulge in despair and to rail angrily against God, Joseph did! But that was not his response. In every negative circumstance he found himself in, he accepted it, and began to do his best to be faithful to God wherever he was – even in the deepest dungeon. And God honoured that.
Joseph’s story is inviting us to turn to God in our suffering, to be faithful to him whether we feel like it or not, and to ask for his help moment by moment. As we learn to do that, we gradually discover that Paul is right after all, and there is absolutely nothing – even death itself – that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.