Why This? Why That? Genesis 37:12-36


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Genesis 37:12-36

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v.12     A distance of about 50 miles. From 20 miles south of Jerusalem to 30 miles north. Far enough, in any case, for Joseph to be beyond the range of his father’s protection. It would have taken him perhaps 4 or 5 days traveling on foot.

v.14     Jacob had reason, of course, to be concerned about his sons, for Shechem is where two years before they had made themselves odious to the Canaanites when they massacred the sons of Hamor. It is surprising that they returned there but it was an area of rich pasture land. Clearly Jacob, dull-witted in family matters as we have found him to be, was worried about dangers from without, not about the lack of peace and love within the family. But, fact is, Joseph was safer in the hands of a Canaanite stranger than he would be the hands of his own brothers.

v.17     That is, another 14 miles farther north and farther from Jacob and the prying eyes of family acquaintances. Dothan was in a valley also famous for its rich pasture. [Sarna, 258]

v.18     They could recognize him at a distance because he was wearing the distinctive robe his father had given him (v. 23). It was probably a reminder of their hatred of the brash young man who had dreamed of his brothers bowing down to him. They hated that robe!

v.19     “Dreamer” was said sarcastically, no doubt. They would prove his dreams wrong by killing him. In fact they were intending to kill the future, but you can’t kill the future when it is God’s plan! Remember, Esau planned to kill his brother Jacob as well.

v.20     As some of us learned recently on a biblical archaeological tour of Israel, there are cisterns from ancient times – large pits hewn out of rock for the storage of water – everywhere in Israel. An empty cistern made for an excellent dungeon. [Waltke, 502]

v.22     Reuben apparently showed up after the plot to kill Joseph had already been hatched. Whatever Reuben’s motive was in seeking to rescue Joseph, his plan was overtaken by events. He did not seem to be an effective leader, even though he was the eldest brother. After all, if Reuben had taken Joseph back home to Jacob, wouldn’t he have spilled the beans to his father and told on his brothers?

v.24     We are left to imagine what Joseph’s response to all of this must have been. But, later, in 42:21, when the brothers recollected the scene, they remembered how terrified he was as he pleaded for his life.

v.25     With their brother stripped and imprisoned in the cistern, they callously sat down to eat. That would have consumed some more time, as it happened. Now it happened that Dothan lay close to the main trade route through Palestine. These Ishmaelites will also called Midianites in v.28.

v.27     Perhaps Judah really was bothered by the prospect of murdering his brother; but, in any case, he seized on a way both to soothe his conscience and turn a profit. For the first time we see Judah as a leader in the family. His brothers listened to him in a way they had not listened to Reuben.

v.28     They had disposed of Joseph and his dreams, so they thought. 20 shekels was the standard price for a slave in those days. [Sarna, 261]

v.30     Reuben apparently wasn’t present when the plot to sell Joseph into slavery was proposed by Judah. Perhaps he had been guarding the flock.

v.31     There is real irony here. For Jacob had deceived his father by taking his brother’s clothes and with the use of an animal. Jacob’s youthful sins had found him out now in his old age.

v.35     Titanic hypocrisy. They were attempting to comfort their father in the death of his favorite son when they knew very well he wasn’t dead and that what had happened to him had been their own doing. But Jacob’s grief was so intense, he could not be comforted and continued to mourn long after the accepted period had concluded.

v.36     The narrator reminds us that while Jacob struggled to adjust to the tragedy, Joseph was beginning a new life in Egypt. Remember, as we learned in v. 2, he was but 17 years of age. There is ample evidence that the buying of slaves from Palestine was commonplace in Egypt in Joseph’s time.

Joseph has through the centuries been taken by Christian readers of the Bible to be a Christ figure; a type; a prophecy in flesh and blood and history. He too was a witness to the will and purpose of God and was rejected by his brethren for it. By his innocent – or largely innocent – suffering at the hands of his brethren, Joseph reconciled his brothers to himself and to one another. As the Savior will be much later and so much more significantly, Joseph was an example of one who must die to himself to make peace with his brothers. All of that is true, I think, one more way in which the great meaning of the biblical history, the great, final purpose of it all, was woven into the very fabric of that history as it unfolded. We have seen such a fingerprint of God already at different times in our study of Genesis.

But, of course, all of that is still to come, for in chapter 37, the outcome of Joseph’s suffering has not been revealed. But what makes the story so powerfully revealing is precisely that, as we read it, we in fact know how the story ends and what will come of all of this hatred and murderous jealousy.

We said last time, though, to be sure, a month has passed since the sermon on the first paragraph of chapter 37, one of the great themes of all of this material from chapter 37 to the end of the book is the providence of God, his ordering of all events, down to the least detail, to ensure that his divine purpose comes to pass. And all through this history, the knowledgeable reader sees that divine hand, controlling, ruling, orchestrating events to ensure that we arrive safely at the happy end of the story in Genesis 50. The brothers at the time could not see the divine hand; nor could Joseph. That is an important part of the lesson. We remain in the dark as God works out his plan. But now we can see it; we are intended to see it; because we read the story already knowing its outcome. And when the story is read that way, even what would seem to be the most inconsequential or the most baffling or the most discouraging development, proves to be the wisdom of God, a stitch in the tapestry of his sovereign will.

We could illustrate this lesson at any number of points along the way in these 14 chapters. We could, in effect, preach a faithful sermon on the providence of God at every turn in the history of this family from the time Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. Think of it. If Joseph hadn’t been sold to Potiphar he wouldn’t have been beset with the temptations of Potiphar’s wife, he wouldn’t have been thrown into prison, he wouldn’t have met the baker and the cupbearer of the King (who, had they not offended Pharaoh when they did would not have been thrown into the prison at a time when Joseph had, effectively, become the warden of the prison, though a prisoner himself), and on and on.

As Pascal says in the Pensees, “If Cleopatra had only had a shorter nose, the entire history of the world would have been changed.” Cleopatra was a famous beauty in part because of her striking nose. If she had been plainer, Mark Antony wouldn’t have thought her so beautiful or been so smitten by her; wouldn’t have divorced Octavia (Augustus’ sister, if you remember) to devote his full attention to the Egyptian queen; there would never have been the final break with Augustus; no battle of Actium, and so Augustus would not have become the Emperor of all Rome. Without Augustus there would have been no pax Romana that made it so easy for the gospel to spread in the days of the apostles and thereafter, and on and on. “If only Cleopatra had had a shorter nose!” If only…

Everything is connected to everything else; even the smallest and seemingly unimportant details. But it is God who plans, who orders, and who makes those connections, precisely to ensure that everything turns out according to the counsel of his will. He sees, as we cannot, as we never could, the infinite complexity of connections between everything and everything else, stretching both backward and forward in time.

We have a particularly interesting and important illustration of that already here, at the very outset of the story, in what seems at first glance to be a very inconsequential detail, one we might easily pass over without notice. You find it in v. 15.

            “When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’”

Here too is the hidden hand of divine providence that the careful reader is to note and ponder. If Joseph hadn’t “wasted” his time looking for his brothers at Shechem – that is what Joseph must have thought, that he had “wasted” his time – but if Joseph hadn’t “wasted” that time in a fruitless search, he wouldn’t have reached his brothers in Dothan just when the Ishmaelite caravan was happening by, providing his brothers with an ideal way of disposing of him without killing him, and, unbeknownst to them, sending Joseph ahead of them to Egypt.

To get Joseph to Egypt, there was needed a means that would surface at the very moment his brothers were, in their murderous frenzy, ready to kill him, and that means was a caravan of Ishmaelite traders. But, had the traders’ caravan arrived too early or too late at the place where the brothers were, Joseph would either not yet have arrived or have already been killed. So it was that Joseph wandered for a time in the fields near Shechem looking for his brothers, so he thought, but, in fact, in the plan and purpose of God, he was killing time to ensure that he arrived at Dothan when the Ishmaelites did.

Do you see? Joseph never would have been enslaved in Egypt; he never would have faced the temptation posed by Potiphar’s wife; he never would have been thrown in prison and so would never have met Pharaoh’s baker and the cupbearer; he never would have had the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and as a result rise to the highest position in the Egyptian government save that of Pharaoh himself; he never would have rescued the Egyptians from famine and so gained virtually unquestioned authority in the kingdom; and, consequently, he never would have been in a position both to save his family from starvation and, more important still, save them from the sins that had overspread their life as sons and brothers. Without this history there never would have been an exodus from Egypt, the defining redemptive act of Israel’s history and the precursor of the atonement of the Son of God. None of this would have happened, could have happened, if Joseph had gone straight to Dothan and hadn’t lost time looking for his brothers near Shechem, and if he hadn’t happened upon that stranger when he did; a man who knew where the brothers could be found because he happened to have overhead them talking! He happened to have heard them say they were going to Dothan. The French have a saying: “Coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous.” [R.J. Neuhaus, FT (Feb 1998) 68]

That is the providence of God as it works itself out in the daily life of human beings. In your daily life and in mine. I imagine there have been any number of times when you have found yourself “wandering around” and “wasting time”, not realizing, not conscious of the fact that what seemed to you to be aimless, wasteful wandering in life was also God’s plan and purpose for you, even if, as is a large point here, even if that wandering, that aimlessness, that period that seemed so pointless and so wasteful to you, was also shaped, even brought about, by sins; yours and those of others.

The whole biblical doctrine of divine providence, of God’s absolute control of everything so as to bring everything to pass according to his will, is slipping away from the consciousness of the church in our day. You have so-called evangelical theologians and pastors now publicly doubting that God even knows the future, much less is in absolute control of it. This diminishment of God’s sovereign rule over human life is part of what David Wells has called the “weightlessness of God” in modern life, even modern Christian life. Insurance companies used to call hurricanes and tornadoes and mudslides and forest fires “acts of God.” No more. The exaltation of man in a secular society, together with the growing sense of purposelessness and emptiness in the world, have crowded out of mind the conviction of a God who is over all and in all and through all and that we have to do with him in every circumstance of our daily lives. We find it hard to believe that God could in any sense be responsible for the mayhem and the futility of modern life on the one hand, and find it difficult even to be conscious of God in a day when human achievement crowds into our lives so constantly and so noisily as to drown out all other thoughts. Modern culture has robbed us of our faith or the conviction of our faith, even if we still theoretically believe in the sovereignty of God. [God in the Wasteland, 154-162]  The Bible teaches you that your ordinary daily life – every moment of it – is supercharged with significance, because every piece of it is falling through the fingers of your Heavenly Father.

Our failure to reckon with God as a people is, of course, God’s judgment, his abandonment of us as a people. That is, of course, a common theme in the Bible: that God leaves his people, takes his presence from them, when they forsake him. There is always a remnant of those who have not forsaken him, with whom he keeps his presence, but many he has left. He left Israel on more than one occasion; he left the Jews in the first century. They did not know that he had left them; they still imagined that he was with them, but their lack of an active consciousness of his presence, his majesty, and his holiness was the proof that he had deserted them because they had deserted him. The lack of real conviction that God is in control is a characteristic sign of a people’s lack of faith.

All through the Joseph/Judah story you will find people overwhelmed by events and completely unnerved by them, unable to find God in them or really to believe that God lies behind and above them. But, their lack of faith notwithstanding, his hand was still guiding everything, his will was being done even through human sin and even in the midst and by means of human tragedy.

You and I only see that hand from time to time. We only recognize it now and then. The divine providence is to our life what the granite formations are to the other strata of the earth. They underlie and sustain them, but they only crop out, so as to be seen, here and there. Florence and I had a striking instance of this on our trip; nothing earthshaking, but still noteworthy. A sudden decision to do an inconvenient errand resulted in an utterly unexpected deliverance from what could have been a serious problem, a problem of which we were at the time utterly unaware. And in your life as in ours there will be literally innumerable illustrations of this divine providence by which some small event or circumstance makes possible something very much more important if only you are sharp-sighted enough to realize what has happened.

I have any number of recollections of such a providence as we have read here in Genesis 37:15. I have told you before that I’m married to Florence as the consequence of one such seemingly inconsequential circumstance. She was thinking of going to seminary for a year following her graduation in music from Drake University. She applied to Covenant Seminary because it was closer to home and an Orthodox Presbyterian minister the family knew taught there. Florence had been raised in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and so it was natural for her to think first of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia to which the OPC had a special connection historically. She sent an application to Philadelphia too, and because Edmund Clowney, then the president of Westminster, knew the Roskamp family, he put it on his desk to respond personally. Dr. Clowney was a busy man. I knew him and admired him greatly. But, perhaps he wasn’t as good an administrator as he was a biblical theologian! In any case, by the time he got round to writing to the Roskamps in Iowa, Florence was on her way to St. Louis. If Dr. Clowney hadn’t wandered in the fields as long as he did, I would be a bachelor today and Florence would be married to a Westminster grad. Whew!

But take a more striking example. Some of you who were in Inter Varsity in college days will know the name T.C. Hammond. Hammond wrote an excellent introduction to theology for college students entitled In Understanding Be Men long published by Inter-Varsity Press. He was Irish, a minister of the Church of Ireland (that is the Anglican Church in Ireland), and was famous in Ireland for his evangelism in that Roman Catholic and often, in his day, rabidly anti-Protestant country. He wrote a famous book of Protestant replies to Roman Catholic theology entitled The Hundred Texts which was a classic in its day. Hammond was born in 1877 and died in 1961 and was at the height of his powers in the 1920s and 30s.

While a young preacher in Ireland in the late 19th century, Hammond fearlessly took the gospel to the streets, though heckling, abuse and even violence against Protestant preachers was common in the Ireland of that time. One day Hammond was preaching in the streets of Cork. The crowd was in an ugly mood and the police arrived to prevent a riot. One young man broke through the crowd and snatching Hammond’s Douay New Testament from him – Hammond always used the English version of the Bible approved for Roman Catholic use when preaching to Catholics – and began to set the book on fire. Before being pushed away from the young man by the crowd Hammond had time only to shout, “that is the Word of God you are burning and what’s more it is your own version.” It was one incident among hundreds like it from those days of Hammond’s street ministry.

Years later, however, Hammond was in Dublin and was approached by a Christian worker from a mission Hammond knew well. John O’Keefe had been told by his doctor that he needed a warmer, drier climate and he asked Hammond if he would be willing to recommend him to an Australian bishop. Hammond said he would.

            “There was, however, a further complication, as O’Keefe then went on to explain. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and had been converted; but he had never really joined any church since. Would Hammond officially “receive” him into the Church? Hammond agreed, but explained that as a matter of policy he never “received” people without hearing their own explanation of why they wished to become church members.

            “Only then was an amazing coincidence unveiled as O’Keefe described how he had once tried to break up a meeting [in Cork] by burning’s the speaker’s book, and how the speaker had said it was the Word of God he was burning. [Those] words had burned into his soul, and he had been driven to read the Scriptures for himself, leading to his conversion. Preacher and erstwhile heckler realized they were meeting again.”

The story continues, however. O’Keefe emigrated to Australia before the First World War, and died there while still a comparatively young man, as people with lung problems often did in those days, but not before he had been instrumental in giving spiritual help to many in his work as a catechist in the Church of Australia (the Australian Anglican Church). He is buried in a grave in Victoria among fellow Irishmen and Chinese immigrants who had gone to Australia during the gold rush days. When in Australia on his first visit T.C. Hammond visited the grave. On that same visit to Australia,

            “Hammond also spoke at a meeting [after which he was] approached by a man with a remarkable story. The man had lived in Bendigo and had been addicted to drink. Again and again O’Keefe had spoken to him about it, but to no avail. Then the man moved up into the bush in search of gold and lived out a lonely life in a shack; he slid further into [the world of perpetual drunkenness], punctuated only by occasional visits from O’Keefe in his horse-drawn buggy. One day as he lay in his shack suffering from a bad bout of delirium tremens [he] became dimly conscious of O’Keefe by his bed pleading with God for his soul. That settled the matter for him. He said to Hammond, ‘and that’s why I’m her today a sober man and a Christian.’” [Warren Nelson, T.C. Hammond, 38-41]

A remark snapped at a young man in a Cork street who had grabbed his New Testament saved a drunk years later in the Australian wilderness. The one thing was directly connected to the other; without the one the other could not have happened. That is the providence of God. And it is a reminder to us that if that is the providence of God, so is everything else in our lives whether we can see it or not. Even the things we think and say and do out of the freedom of our own wills; even, mysteriously, and without in any way diminishing their evil or our guilt, the sins we commit against God and man. Everything, in the infinitely capacious mind of God, is connected to everything else; and those connections are ensured by the rule and control God exercises over all things.

Which means, of course, that one could, if he only had the knowledge, start from anywhere and end up anywhere else, past, present, or future. Or, as Alexander Whyte put it,

            “…accordingly each individual life, had we courage to feel it, is the centre of the whole providential scheme. Had you, had I, lent to us the gift of divine intelligence, we would see all life radiating from our own souls. Every life is the centre and key of the great whole.” [Sermons 1881-1882, 38]

You have no idea how significant your life is simply because it is God who is orchestrating every moment of it with a view to what he intends to accomplish. It matters not where you find yourself today: wandering aimlessly in the fields of this world, trying to find what you have not found, or in an Egyptian prison, or seated at the right hand of Pharaoh, or starving in a famine in Canaan, or even plotting some evil against your brother. You have not escaped, you will not escape, the hand, the rule, the plan, and the purpose of Almighty God.

And no fact should bring greater comfort to the children of God, just as no fact ought more to send a shiver through the enemies of God, and set them seeking God’s mercy for themselves. As Dante has it, “In his will is our peace.” Our heavenly Father is orchestrating our lives, moment by moment. We know his love; we know his wisdom; we know his faithfulness because we know his Son, Jesus Christ and what he did for us. That love is ruling every detail of our lives. That kindness is ordering our steps. Someday we will see so much more than now we can of the goodness of God to us. See how kind he was to his son Joseph, making him wander in order to save his life and make him the savior of others. And so he is and always shall be for all who trust in him!