The life of Joseph is to teach us a great deal of the doctrine of divine providence. The moral of the story is repeated at the end of the book - what man intended for evil, God meant for good. Last week, the big idea was that the more clear our perception of God, the better equipped we are to interpret life events, and this is true in this case of understanding God’s providence. A few weeks ago, we explored together how the doctrine of God’s meticulous providence is a comfort in our trials and suffering. This week, as we look at this first interaction between Joseph and his brothers as they come before him in Egypt, I want to explore how an understanding and trust in God’s providence can restrain us from taking vengeance into our own hands, can protect us from being taken advantage of by wicked people, and can allow God room to work in the lives of ourselves and others.
A Mature View of God’s Providence Can Preserve Your Composure When Everything In You Screams Payback. Imagine what happens here at the start of chapter 42.
Gen. 42:1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. 5 Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
Gen. 42:6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7 Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them.
Just a recap. Joseph was 17, a boy, when his brothers grabbed him, stripped him naked, threw him in a pit, threatened to murder him, and sold him into slavery in a far away land, a land in which he did not know the language or culture, that he had no connections or power, a land in which he knew no freedom, and spent the next 13 years was a slave and a prisoner. He had likely given up any hope of seeing his father or his homeland again. Only through the most miraculous of occurrences did Joseph name it out of the prison, and against all comprehension, Joseph has been raised to second in command of all of Egypt. And so now here are his brothers bowing before him, completely at his mercy. It helps us to remember a couple of things:
Joseph has the motive to immediately get payback on his brothers.
Joseph has the power to immediately get payback on his brothers.
Joseph has the opportunity to immediately get payback on his brothers.
So what stops Joseph”? How does he maintain his composure and not immediately act to get payback upon his brothers? look at verse 9: “And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them.”
It is here that I believe that Joseph begins to understand that it was not his brothers who sent him to Egypt, but God. He sees that the dreams that God had given him 20 years ago when he was a teenager, were actually messages from God telling him of his plan.
Remember Joseph had already committed himself to leaving the past in the past. Remember when his kids were born, he named them “Forget” and “Fruitful”, and now that the past has returned to him, and is literally bowing before him, vulnerable to his mercy, Joseph’s understanding of the outworking of the providence of God in his life allows him to keep his composure no matter how much of him might crave payback.
What do you do when you have the ability to strike out at your enemies? That is the real test. We’ve seen Joseph tested in affliction, we now see him tested in power.
A Mature View of God’s Providence believes that God can bring good from the actions of wicked persons, without requiring that we entrust ourselves to wicked persons.
Again, the overarching theme of Moses’ telling us of Joseph’s story, and indeed, the entire book of Genesis, is that what sinful humanity intend for evil, God works for good. Specifically, that humanity’s sin and wickedness is not only not enough to stop God’s plan of deliverance from unfolding, but that God actually takes what we do in our rebellion as the means through which he brings about his salvation. This is such a mind-blowing and worldview altering concept, that it is so hard for us to understand, but the ultimate expression of this truth is the death of Christ. In our sinful rebellion we tortured and murdered the son of God, yet his death was the means through which God atoned for the very wickedness of the world and accomplished the redemption of his people. All of these story’s in Genesis are simply a part of that greater story. That what we would use and intend for evil, God will use to bring about the salvation of those who will receive him. Will you receive him today?
However, though a mature view of God’s providence allows us to keep our composure when everything in us screams “Payback!”, believing God can bring good through the actions of wicked persons, it in no way requires us to entrust ourselves to wicked persons. In other words, entrusting ourselves to God and his providential care, does not mean that we entrust ourselves to those who would harm us.
This point is proven again and again in the next chapters of Genesis, as Joseph puts his brothers through a series of tests before revealing his identity to them. He hides his identity - not too hard to do since they haven’t seen him for 20 years and he is shaven and dressed as an Egyptian vizier. He also speaks to them through an interpreter, so they do not realize that he can understand their language, and so they openly speak in front of him, which gives him the upper hand as he can understand everything they are saying. It’s a perfect opportunity for Joseph to test his brothers to see if they have in fact changed. And so he concocts a series of tests, each putting greater and greater pressure on them, to observe as to whether it would be wise to reveal himself to them, entrusting himself to them.
Repeated Accusation: Joseph continually accuses them of being spies. Four times he accuses them.
And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.” Gen. 42:12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.”
The charge was credible, as the JPS Torah Commentary notes: “They were foreigners and had entered Egypt from the northeast. This was the land’s most vulnerable border. Incursions into Egypt by Asians coming via “the Way of Horus,” the military highway from Canaan that led through Gaza to El-ʿArish, were a recurrent phenomenon. Frontier guards would routinely check every traveler, for the discovery of spies might herald an imminent attack. Thus an allegation of espionage provided a convenient pretext under which Joseph could have the brothers arrested and subjected to psychological pressure.”
And importantly, the pressure of this accusation gets the brothers to admit some important information to Joseph - that their youngest brother, Benjamin is still alive, and back at home with their father. Once Joseph determines that his brother is still alive, he uses that information against them, basically telling them to prove that their story is true, and that they are not spies by producing evidence: namely by bringing their brother before him.
Turn Up the Heat: Having gotten the valuable information out of them, Joseph turns up the heat. He does this in two ways. He first tells them that all of them will remain in prison, and one of them will be released to go and fetch their brother. Notice that he tells the brothers that they are to select the brother to send. And then he puts them in prison to think about what they are going to do. Will the brothers turn on each other? How would they stand the strain of imprisonment? What rivalries would surface as a result of their awareness that only one would return to Canaan and that the fate of all others would depend on that one? man, I’d love to see the director’s cut of this story to see how these brothers selected who would go free, and how much drama was in that cell. But we don’t know, because on the third day, Joseph throws them into chaos again, but telling him that he’s had a change of heart and instead of them all staying in prison while one brother goes free, they are all free to go, while they choose one brother to stay behind. Imagine how this tested the brothers! Joseph knew these guys as wicked, selfish, violent, self-seeking men, and I’m sure that he expected this strain to tear them apart. Yet something amazing happens. The brothers don’t crack, they don’t attack or accuse each other. They in fact, for the first time confess their sin, collectively, openly.
21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”
Their confession in verse 21, emphasizes the fact that they were all united and complicate in the sin against Joseph, and therefore they all share in the guilt, so that not one of them is more guilty than the others. Reuben’s point in verse 22, is not to say, “I told you so, I am innocent and you all are guilty” but to recognize the justice in Joseph’s requirement that one brother stay behind, for they had also taken the life of one brother.
And Joseph is emotionally moved by the solidarity and the humility evidenced in the words of his brothers, to the point athlete he has to turn away from them into another room and weep. However, there is still another test that he puts them through before he will entrust himself to them.
Heighten the Consequences:
Gen 42:24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.
Gen. 42:26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”
Now why does Joseph do this? There could be a couple of reasons, but they each point to the reality that if the brothers are to do the honourable thing and free Simeon from prison by bringing Benjamin to Egypt, it is going to be much more difficult for them to do so, because they know that they may be charged as thieves. In other words, it is going to be potentially damaging to them to do the right thing. To be honest, that is the greatest test of repentance that I know of, if a person is willing to do the right thing, to their own harm, that’s when it becomes evident that they have truly repented and have had a change of heart.
And so that’s what these tests by Joseph are designed to do. Joseph has already learned to trust God’s providence, knowing that God can bring good from evil, yet this does not require him to trust his brothers without testing their repentance. Which brings us to the final point:
A Mature View of God’s Providence Allows God Time to Work in the Lives of Others.
When you can keep your composure and not seek immediate payback to those who have hurt you, and when you don’t just entrust yourself to wicked people but take time to test and evaluate their character and repentance, you allow God time to work in the lives of others, so that God might work good in and through them as well.
So the brothers return home and have to explain to their father what has happened to Simeon, and explain to him that they can’t get Simeon back unless they return with Benjamin. However,
Gen. 42:35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
Get what happens here. Jacob gives an indication here that, while he might not know exactly what his sons had done to Joseph, he finds it more than a little suspicious that at least on two occasions his sons have returned to him missing a brother, and here they come back with a bunch of loot. Like, if I sent Aiko and Keiden out with some money to buy a TV, and then Aiko came back without Keiden, but with the TV and the money I gave her, it would look a bit suspicious, and I definitely wouldn’t send Noemi out with her to go back out.
The thing is Reuben does seem to be sincere. He after all wanted to return Joseph to his father in the first place, before his brothers sold him into slavery. Yet Jacob is not ready to trust his sons again by placing Benjamin in their hands.
Yet as their food is diminishing and their situation becoming desperate yet again, the most surprising thing happens. Another brother steps up and takes the responsibility for taking Benjamin to Egypt and delivering him back safely to his father. The shocking thing is that this brother is Judah. Judah pledges his own life to his father, that the boy will return.
8 And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. 9 I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. 10 If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”
What is shocking about this is that every picture of Judah so far is the he is the fallen son, the faithless son. He was the one who suggested that killing Joseph was not good enough, that they should profit off of him by selling him into slavery. Then remember Moses interrupts the story of Joseph to tell us how Judah went beyond the wickedness of his brothers over the course of decades of immorality, treachery, and hypocrisy. Only after his daughter-in-law Tamar humiliates him does Judah recognize his wickedness. Now I don’t know if that episode with Tamar is directly tied to Judah’s change of heart and character here, but I would only note that it is shocking that Judah steps up here, and without spoiling the rest of the story for you, I’ll just say here that God is not done working in Judah’s life. And Israel, Judah’s father sees that he himself is in a place where he has no other choice but to trust God’s providence, and to trust that God is indeed working in his sons.
Gen. 43:11 Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds. 12 Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. 13 Take also your brother, and arise, go again to the man. 14 May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”
Gen. 43:15 So the men took this present, and they took double the money with them, and Benjamin. They arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph.
This is the patience and the hope that a trust in God’s providence instills in us. Because we believe that God is ultimately in control, we can keep our composure when everything in us wants payback. Though we recognize that God can bring about good through the actions of wicked people, we are not required to entrust ourselves to wicked people, but we can pray and act in the hope that God will in his timeworn in them as well.
Who has hurt you? How are you trusting God in that hurt? Are you preparing your heart to get payback at any moment? Are you giving the hurt over to God and allowing time for him to work in the hearts of those who hurt you? Are you praying for those who have hurt you, repaying them blessing for cursing? You say, “I can’t see that. I can’t do that”, yes, but God can, and he can do it in you as you fix your eyes on Him and his plan.