These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
One of the reasons why the Bible contains stores about people is because very often we can draw strength from these stories. By looking at the way faithful men and women of old have maintained that faith we can help to maintain our own.
Hebrews 11 mentions many people renowned for their faithfulness. Abel, who “offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did,”(1) Enoch, who “was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death,”(2) and Noah, who “built an ark to save his family”(3) through faith.
Today I’m going to talk about Joseph, a man who lead a truly remarkable life. We first hear about Joseph in Genesis 37, verse 2:
“Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” (Genesis 37:2-4)
At first sight, Joseph does not appear to be a particularly appealing character. He is 17 years old, and he brings his father a bad report about his brothers. His father makes no attempt to hide the fact that Joseph was his favourite son, his eldest son by his favourite wife, who was born when Jacob was an old man. Not surprisingly, Joseph isn’t very popular with his brothers.
Joseph also had two dreams, which prophesied of his future rise to power. He told both of these dreams to his brothers.
Talking about the first dream he said, “We were binding sheaves of corn out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered round mine and bowed down to it”. He described the second dream in this way: “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me”
I don’t think Joseph fully understood the meaning of the dreams at that time, but his brothers certainly didn’t like the sound of them. Verse 8 tells us “they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.” And verse 11 tells us of the bothers jealousy, but also tells us that “his father kept the matter in mind.”
I think the best we can say about Joseph at this stage in is life is that he was a rather difficult to live with and unpopular teenager.
Of course, no matter how difficult he was, what happened next was absolutely appalling. Jacob sent Joseph on a journey to check on what his brothers were doing with the flocks. Verses 17 and 18 are very chilling: “Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.”
Reuben, the eldest of the children of Israel, tried to save his brother by having him thrown into a cistern, so he, Reuben, could “rescue him from them and take him back to his father.” The plan went wrong, because as the brothers were eating, they saw a group of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt.
Verses 26 and 27: “Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 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.”
His brothers betrayed him for a small amount of silver, and Joseph was sold into slavery. Reuben was devastated to discover that Joseph was gone and could not be saved. The brothers soaked Joseph’s coat in blood and lied to their father about what had happened. Convinced that his son was dead, Jacob said “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.”
The next time we hear of Joseph, in chapter 39 of Genesis, he has been sold as a slave to Potiphar. Although he had been abandoned and betrayed by his brothers, verse 2 tells us “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.” Joseph proved to be a valuable servant and eventually became in charge of Potiphar’s whole household. Verse five says “From the time Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.”
Of course, Joseph’s life took a turn for the worse. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, and when he refused to be seduced she managed to have him cast into prison, claiming that he had tried to seduce her.
Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s Wife’s request “Come to bed with me” makes interesting reading. Verses 8 and 9:
“But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No-one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?””
Joseph didn’t say that he couldn’t sin against Potiphar by accepting his wife’s invitation, he didn’t say that he couldn’t sin against Egyptian standards by accepting her invitation, he said he couldn’t sin against God. After all that he had been through, Joseph still had respect for the standards of our heavenly father, and no matter how tempted he may have been by Potiphar’s Wife he refused to sin against God.
There is a comment on Joseph’s outlook on life in the Psalms, and I think it is particularly relevant here. Psalm 105.
Verses 17, 18 and 19 “He sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant: Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron: Until the time that his word came: the word of the LORD tried him.” That is from the AV. The RSV says: “he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass the word of the LORD tested him.”, and in the NIV those verses are translated as “and he sent a man before them–Joseph, sold as a slave. They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons, till what he foretold came to pass, till the word of the LORD proved him true.”
There are lots of ways that the word of the LORD tried, tested, or proved Joseph true. In this case I suggest that Joseph was actually interested in taking up Potiphar’s Wife’s offer, but he knew it was wrong in the eyes of God, and that is how the word tried him. It was genuinely difficult for him to turn her down.
Sometimes it’s very easy to think that every character in the Bible is perfect and flawless, but they weren’t. When they encountered temptation it was very real to them. The way that Joseph resisted temptation was through the word of God, exactly as Christ resisted temptation in the Wilderness by drawing on his immense knowledge of scripture. As it says in Psalm 119, verse 105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Paul says the same thing in the second letter to Timothy, chapter 3:
Verses 15 and 16: “The holy Scriptures, … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
After being cast into prison, Joseph’s faith remained strong, and God granted Joseph favour in the eyes of the prison warden. Once again, Joseph rose to a position of responsibility. Genesis 39 ends by saying: “The warder paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”
Remember the NIV translation of the passage from Psalm 105: “They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons, till what he foretold came to pass, till the word of the LORD proved him true.” The word of the LORD proved Joseph true in a perhaps more direct way when he interpreted the dreams of the Butler, the Baker, and Pharaoh. When Joseph was in prison, two of the other inmates – the Butler and the Baker -had dreams that disturbed them. The incident is in Genesis 40. At verse 7 Joseph asks them “Why are your faces so sad today?” on hearing of the dreams Joseph responded “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”
That is very reminiscent of what Joseph said to Potiphar’s Wife. He didn’t say “I can interpret your dreams for you,” he said that “interpretations belong to God.” Once again, Joseph gave the glory to God. He didn’t reject Potiphar’s Wife because he thought it was wrong, he rejected her because to have accepted would have been to go against the standards of God. Similarly, he didn’t offer to interpret the dreams himself, but to allow God to make the interpretation known through him.
Joseph interpreted the dreams, and foretold that the Butler would be released, but the Baker would be executed. This happened; what he said did come to pass, and the word of the LORD had proved him true. However, Joseph was forgotten by the Butler, and it wasn’t for another two years that he was remembered. When Pharaoh had the dreams that he couldn’t understand, the Butler remembered Joseph, and Joseph was duly brought before Pharaoh.
Genesis 41, verse 15: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, and no-one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”
This would have been an excellent opportunity for Joseph to make himself seem powerful. Instead he replied: “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” Once again Joseph gave the glory to God.
Through the word of the LORD proving Joseph true and through the trials of the word of God, he became second only to Pharaoh. That’s encouraging in itself, isn’t it? Throughout his time in Egypt, Joseph made no secret of his faith. When God did something Joseph made no attempt to claim the honour for himself. Despite his humility he was a very successful person, in worldly terms, because God was with him.
I don’t know about anybody else, but there are times in my life when I have wanted to act in one way, but the Bible has told me to act in another. It is so easy to see the worldly loss that following God can lead to, but ultimately, if we follow God as Joseph did, then God will look after us. If we are humble, as Joseph was when he did not claim that the dreams were interpreted by him, then we will still be on God’s side, and if God is for us, who can be against us?
Joseph was responsible for guiding Egypt through the seven years of bumper crops and seven years of famine that Pharaoh’s dreams predicted, and that job lead to an incident that shows us how remarkable Joseph really was, and how far he had come, with Gods help, from when he bore bad reports about his brothers and boasted of his dreams as a 17 year old.
Eventually his brothers came to Egypt to buy food. On the first occasion, Benjamin stayed with Jacob in Canaan. The brothers didn’t recognise Joseph, but he recognised them. They bought their food and left Egypt with instructions from Joseph that they were to bring Benjamin the next time they came.
The brothers returned to buy more food, and they brought Benjamin with them. Joseph framed Benjamin for the theft of his silver cup and threatened to throw him into prison. The brothers had also matured considerably since selling Joseph into slavery. Judah, the very one who had suggested selling Joseph in the first place, offered to take Benjamin’s place. We can read Judah’s appeal in Genesis 44, verses 33 and 34:
“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. 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 upon my father.”
Judah was willing to sacrifice himself to protect his brother and father.
Now we come to the truly remarkable incident, the thing which, for me, is probably the most beautiful part of the story of Joseph. At the start of Chapter 45 Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.
“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Make everyone leave my presence!” So there was no-one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be ploughing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, `This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay.”
Joseph bore no ill feeling for his brothers. He didn’t have them all cast into prison for what they had done, he didn’t try to punish them in any way. Even those they had done something dreadful to them Joseph had the faith to say “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” Far from punishing them, he brought them to live in Egypt, in tremendous luxury, because they were his brothers and because they had shown definite repentance.
On a very simple level, the story of Joseph should encourage all of us to be humble and forgiving, just as Joseph was. There is a deeper aspect to this story which is a source of strength.
Look at things from the point of view of the brothers just before Joseph revealed himself to them. They seemed to be in the grip of terrible events. There was a famine and the only place to get food was Egypt. Having to go to Egypt was never a good thing, but while they were there their youngest brother got mixed up in a crime and he was going to be taken into slavery as a punishment. That would surely have destroyed their father.
All of a sudden, when things were worst, they found they had a very powerful ally, Joseph their brother, who was the effective ruler of Egypt. He didn’t punish them for what they had done, because they had shown a true change of heart, but brought them into a wonderful kingdom.
One day Christ will return. We don’t know when it will be, but it could really be any time at all. We could be in some desperate circumstances with nowhere to turn, just as the brothers were. When Christ returns our long lost brother will be revealed to us. We will be taken from whatever problems surround us to live in a glorious kingdom. All we have to do is to do our best to live as Christ told us to, to accept the forgiveness we get when we fail, and to remember him, as we are doing here today. Just as Joseph seemed to come from nowhere to save his brothers and take them into his kingdom, Christ will one day come apparently from nowhere to save us and take us into his kingdom.
(1) Hebrews 11:4, NIV
(2) Hebrews 11:5, NIV
(3) Hebrews 11:7, NIV