In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today we are looking at the last section of Genesis. We’ll do a brief wrap-up, but for all intents and purposes, this is our last week on Genesis. Last week, we looked at the first half of the story of Joseph. Today we’ll wrap up that story. By way of summary, Joseph has been in charge of Egypt, preparing for and administering during a great famine. We find out that, due to the famine, Jacob decides to send his sons, all except Benjamin, the youngest, to Egypt to buy grain.
When the brothers arrive, Joseph recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him. Thus begins a series of interactions between Joseph and his brothers which, quite frankly, are kind of bizarre.
Because Joseph doesn’t tell his brothers right away who he is. Instead, on this first meeting, Joseph accuses them of being spies. He imprisons them and demands that the youngest brother, who the brothers admitted was left at home, be brought to them. Meanwhile, he holds Simeon as ransom.
The brothers return home, with the grain they purchased but surprisingly also with the silver they intended to pay with (Joseph had it returned). They tell Jacob what happened. However, they don’t return to Joseph right away. It’s only when they run out of grain that they decide to return. Obviously, they are afraid to face Joseph again, in no small part because they had discovered that they didn’t pay the silver for the grain after all. Nevertheless, they return to Egypt, making sure to bring the youngest brother, Benjamin, with them.
When they return to Egypt, Joseph, firstly tells them that the returned silver was intentional. He also holds a feast for them, and it’s notable that at the feast, we find out that Benjamin is given 5 times as much as anyone else.
The brothers then head back home, Joseph having given them grain and once again returning the silver which was supposed to be payment for the grain. However, this time he puts a silver cup into their sacks as well (specifically, in Benjamin’s). Joseph sends his men to confront the brothers, accusing them of stealing the cup. Because the cup was in Benjamin’s sack, Benjamin is to be kept in custody.
However, all of the brothers head back to Joseph and plead for Benjamin’s life. After a lengthy plea by Judah, in which he outlines the hardship this would be for their father, Jacob, Joseph finally and dramatically reveals himself. Joseph tells his brothers to go home and get their father and the rest of their families and return to Egypt to live under his care.
There’s a few chapters more of the story after this. I don’t want to suggest that they are not important, but they primarily serve as denouement and epilogue. They are actually important in understanding the beginnings of the formation of the nation of Israel and let’s us know what happened in Egypt before the Exodus. But the climax of our story today is the passage I just described.
In order to understand what might be going on here, it may be helpful to realize that the story we went over today is not, probably, Joseph’s story. Rather the story is about the brothers. In the previous half, chaps. 37-41, we get Joseph’s story proper. It’s the story of Joseph’s “fall” and redemption. Or to put it another way, it’s the story of God redeeming or rescuing Joseph in spite of his earthly circumstances. The story that we’re looking at today is the redemption or rescue of the brothers – the rest of the house of Israel.
I’m sure there’s a lot of other important elements but we will focus on the character development of one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. You will recall that, in the previous sermon, Joseph’s brothers actually wanted to kill him. Reuben, the oldest, says they shouldn’t kill Joseph and they wind up throwing him in a pit. This is where Judah comes into the story. Genesis 37 tells us:
37:26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
28 So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
We probably don’t need to go any deeper than selling your brother into slavery, but notice that, unlike Reuben, there doesn’t seem to be any altruistic motivation here. Judah’s motivation here seems to be what he (they) can get out of Joseph.
Now let’s jump to our chapters today and we’ll see in chapter 44. The brothers have been confronted about the silver cup that Joseph has planted in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers are returned to Joseph’s presence with the understanding that Benjamin, because he has “stolen” the cup is to be taken into slavery. These verses tell us Judah’s response.
44:30 “So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father, and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, 31 sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. Your servants will bring the gray head of our father down to the grave in sorrow. 32 Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’
33 “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. 34 How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.”
Notice the shift in Judah’s response. He has gone from, “let’s sell our brother to make a little cash,” to “Let me take his [Benjamin’s] place as your slave.” It seems likely that Judah’s transformation of character is representative of what’s been going on with all the brothers. And specifically, what I mean is what God has been doing in the brothers, the children of Jacob, in the people of Israel. To put it more bluntly, in the intervening years between selling their own brother, suffering through (probably) guilt and enduring famine, being forced to turn to the great empire of Egypt, God has been forming a people. God is shaping the beginnings of a nation. This is what’s been going on, isn’t it, in Genesis. Remember the covenant promise to Abraham:
12:2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
The fulfillment (or fulfilling – it’s on-going) of this promise is put into further relief in God’s only speech in this story:
46:2 And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
3 “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. 4 I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
Here God makes specific that this is part of His will. We know that in the midst of all of this, God has not left Jacob, He has not left his people.
This point, that God has been in control, is made explicitly clear at the end of the chapter in Joseph’s speech to his brothers. The brothers, at Jacob’s death, are afraid that Joseph will finally take vengeance for their prior actions. But Joseph tells them:
50:19…Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
So What Now…?
So what does this have to do with us? How do we make sense of it, and how do we apply it? So there’s a couple of things that I want to point out, both of which have to be held together.
Firstly, we see today, but also especially in the first half of this story – or Joseph’s story proper – that God cares how you’re doing. That may seem really hard to believe some times. Some days (or months or years) it seems like you’re completely on your own, that all your hardships and struggles go completely over God’s head.
Joseph must have been thinking – when he was in the pit, betrayed by his brothers; when he was sold into slavery; when he was wrongly accused; when he languished in an Egyptian prison – “God, where are you? Why don’t you rescue me? What have I done to deserve this?”
The brothers were probably thinking, “We can’t believe this is happening to us. What is this crazy sequence of events? We just don’t understand what is going on.”
It’s weird how God doesn’t really show up in this story until the end – at least He doesn’t speak like He does to Abraham, guiding Abraham’s steps, telling him where to go. God doesn’t show up until everything is almost settled. There’s no covenant pronouncement, there’s no angels appearing, there’s no burning bush or parting of seas. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if God just told us exactly what’s going on and exactly what to do?
But nevertheless, it’s clear, through implications and insinuations, that God is at work throughout this long, crazy ordeal, both in Joseph’s life and in the lives of Jacob and his sons. And this ordeal reminds us of Romans 8:28 which says:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)
Now the thing about this verse is that it’s often misunderstood. We usually take this verse in Romans to mean that everything will work out. Specifically, we mean that everything will work out for us. If I didn’t get that job, it’s because I will get a better job. If I didn’t get the girl it’s because God has a better girl. If I can’t buy that house it’s because God wants me to be happy with what I have. Now sometimes these things might be true, but it’s all about me, me, me.
But the passage in Romans, while not discounting that possibility, is talking about God’s restoration and redemption of creation. It’s not saying “all things work together for my good”, i.e. my benefit. It’s saying all things work for the good; for the ultimate good; for God’s purposes and plans. The very next verse says:
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
That “in order that” is really important. The “in order that” tells us that it’s not just my good. We don’t have the space to get into an exegesis of Romans here, but Paul tells us that Christ is the firstborn among many, among whom we are a part. It tells us that it’s part of a bigger story.
And this is what we’re seeing in the second part of this long story – the passage that we’re looking at today. Specifically, what we’re seeing is God’s plans, his intention to create for Himself a people called by His name. It’s not just about Joseph, and it’s not just about Jacob or Judah. It’s about the people whom God will bless so that they will be a blessing. When the family settles in Egypt, it’s not just about saving the brothers, it’s about establishing a nation. As we’ve said over and over – it’s God’s story.
I know this is something that we don’t always want to hear. Especially if we’re “what about me?” people, we want to focus on what’s going on with us. And I’m not saying for an instant that God doesn’t care about me or you or us individually. But what I am saying, and what I hope that we understand, is that we are all part of a larger story. What we see in Joseph’s, and what we see in Judah’s journey, and what we see in Israel’s story is God working to make things right. The right that He is making, the good that He is doing, is so much bigger, so much better than we can imagine. And we get to be part of that. We get to be part of God’s story.