The Bible has much to teach about living godly lives in the midst of uncertain times. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in the account of the life of Joseph (Genesis 37–50), the opening scene of which is one of divine calling and provision in the midst of sinful scheming and familial dysfunction.
It’s been said often lately, but bears repeating: We are living in days marked by uncertainty. And, motivated by that, I want us as a church family, to spend a few weeks studying the life of Joseph as recorded by Moses in the final fourteen chapters of the book of Genesis.
A careful and prayerful look into the life of this patriarch seems appropriate for a couple of reasons. First, the story of Joseph is the story of a man whose life was, by no fault of his own, turned upside down. It’s the story of a man who, at least for a season, lost his home, his family, and his freedom. His plans were put on hold, his dreams paused, and his security put in question. It’s the story of a man who was provided every opportunity to be fearful and uncertain, confused and scared, hopeless and frustrated.
I suspect that, many of us today, feel we’ve recently been given opportunity for those same emotions. By no fault of our own, we are experiencing the potent affects of sin in this world.
A second reason to spend time in this section of the Bible is that the account of Joseph is also one of God’s sovereignty in uncertain times; God’s control in chaos. It showcases the truth that, even when a life seems like it’s in a tailspin, God proves his faithfulness and power. It’s the story of how, even in the face of evil and fear, God can be knitting things together for the good of those who love him as Paul reminds believers in Romans 8.
For those reasons, I want to invite you to turn with me, if you have a Bible, to Genesis 37.
It’s been said that “You cannot be [both] faithful and popular, so take your pick.” In other words, each Christian must make an intentional choice between the pursuit of faithfulness to God and the pursuit of friendliness with the world.
To be consistently obedient to him who has saved us, is to, at least on occasion, swim against the stream of a world. It means to, once in a while, do something or believe something that will forfeit at least a portion of popularity.
On the other hand, if popularity with the world is a priority, there will come a time when faithfulness to God will be compromised.
In our study of his epistle last summer, we found the Apostle James making this same point when he writes (4:4): “… don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?”
“You cannot be [both] faithful and popular, so take your pick.”
I have little doubt that, if you’re watching or listening to this message, you truly desire to “pick” the former—you want to be faithful to God. At Oakridge we long to grow in our commitment to be who he’s called and empowered us to be, and to do what he’s called and empowered us to do.
The Divine Assignment
The question is, what has God called us to do? What is the divine assignment placed before us; the divine assignment to which we desire to be faithful?
Before we study Genesis 37 specifically let’s first consider the life of Joseph broadly.
As we do that we notice that Joseph was given a divine assignment; a task from God himself. Admittedly, this was an assignment that Joseph himself had to grow in his understanding of, but it was upon his life nonetheless.
Joseph’s divine assignment was this: He was to be an agent of God’s blessing to his family, to his nation, and, ultimately, to the whole world. He was to be a life-giving conduit.
If we look at the story from a birds’ eye view, we see that, he fulfills this divine assignment.
Joseph becomes a life-giving blessing to his family. He becomes a life-giving blessing to the nation of Egypt and to the Hebrews.
He also becomes a life-giving blessing to the whole world (41:57): “And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.”
God had a divine assignment for Joseph, one that he would fulfill with God’s sovereign help, but one that would require him to endure a lot of hardship in order to remain faithful.
If we zoom out a little further and allow the scope of our vision to encompass most of the book of Genesis we find that the divine assignment that Joseph accomplishes—to be a familial, national, and global blessing—is perhaps an initial realization of God’s promise to Abraham, Joseph’s great grandfather (12:3): “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. … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Ultimately, this promised global blessing would be realized in the salvation provided by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who came in the lineage of Abraham. But in the closing chapters of Genesis we find an initial fulfillment as, through Abraham, the world is blessed by God through the life of Joseph.
Joseph was given the divine assignment to be an agent—a conduit—of God’s blessing to the world around him.
That’s still the divine assignment of God’s people today! We are to be agents of God’s blessing to the world around us. We are blessed to be a blessing. The way we do this is multifaceted, but ultimately and finally, the way God’s people are to bless the world is by sharing the Gospel with them, and inviting them to believe on Jesus Christ for eternal life.
The NT tells us that when Jesus took on flesh and came into this world, “in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4). And God’s people are told that we “were once darkness, but now [we] are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).
We’re told to “let [our] light shine before others” (Matt 5:16) and to “go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19), bringing the light of the good news of Jesus to the world.
That is our divine assignment, brothers and sisters. We are called to be agents of blessing, conduits of the light of life, to the people that God has providentially placed around us.
“[We] cannot be [both] faithful and popular, so take your pick.”
The Potential for Adversity
In this opening scene of the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37), we’re reminded that, as one takes up a divine assignment there is always the potential for adversity; for affliction, hardship, and resistance.
Faithfulness to God is not a conflict-free guarantee. It always has the potential to attract adversity.
Joesph provides an illustration. As we read through the chapter we’ll notice how Joseph is both misunderstood and mistreated by those closest to him.
Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob’s family line. 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.Genesis 37:1–2
We’re not told what it was that Joseph witnessed or heard his brothers do or say but, but whatever it was, it was “evil”; literally the text reads that he brought a report of evil to his father.
At first read this may seem like Joseph is acting like a tattletale but it’s more likely that the brothers were up to no good and that Joseph, a man of integrity, couldn’t in good conscience allow for it to go unaddressed. This is actually more consistent with what we learn about Joseph and his brothers as the story continues.
Now, this may not have been that big of a deal if not for what we’re told next (v. 3).
Now Israel [that is, Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate 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 37:3–4
If any father in history should know the dangers of child favouritism, it should have been Jacob, as his father, Isaac, preferred his brother, Esau over him, and a childhood of preferential treatment instilled a spirit of competition, strife, and resentment between the two brothers, which led to a feud that stretched beyond their lives and into their descendants.
Jacob should have known better to play favourites but apparently he hadn’t learned anything. Jacob had a clear favourite child: Joseph. And he marks his choice with a flamboyant, opulent gift.
Understandably, Joseph’s brothers didn’t appreciate the obvious imbalance of paternal attention and affection. They hated Joseph and not because of anything Joseph did.
And it’s through this pre-existing hatred that they process what comes next (v. 5).
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.’
His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’
When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’ His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”Genesis 37:5–11
I’ve heard this taught in a way that paints Joseph in a bad light, like he’s rubbing his brothers’ faces in his own self-importance. But I don’t think the text gives evidence of malicious intent on Joseph’s part.
Joseph had had vivid, cryptic dreams. And, while later in life Joseph becomes quite adept at decoding dreams like these, at this point there’s no indication that he understands his own.
So, having had these dreams and not knowing what they meant, it makes sense that Joseph would immediately solicit his family’s input into their potential meaning.
In the weeks ahead we’ll find—and if you’re familiar with the story you already know—that these dreams prove to be two connected yet distinct prophesies, the first predicting the future dependance of the family on Joseph for food and the second predicting Joseph’s eventual position of power.
Because we know that, we can see that the interpretations offered by Joseph’s family are not entirely accurate and stink of defensiveness. The family immediately decides these dreams are merely delusions of grandeur, the fantasies of an egotistical, self-centred teenager.
So, they’re of little help in the interpretation department. Instead, the sharing of his dreams only serves as a point of misunderstanding and a catalyst for future mistreatment.
Notice the dramatic contrast the text develops between Joseph’s father and Joseph’s brothers. On one hand, we’re told that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” (v. 3). But on the other hand, the brothers grow in their hatred of him: “they hated him” (v. 4), “they hated him all the more” (v. 5), “they hated him all the more” (v. 8), and, finally, “his brothers were jealous of him” (v. 11). This hatred was so intense, in fact, that they “could not speak a kind word to him” (v. 4).
Essentially, Joseph is mistreated by his entire family—by way of favouritism from one direction and by way of disfavour from the other.
Although he didn’t know it yet, Joseph was being called by God to be an agent of blessing, but already we see him being met with adversity: He was misunderstood and we find the seedlings of mistreatment that only sprout as we continue reading (v. 12).
“Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, ‘As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.’
“‘Very well,’ he replied.
“So he said to him, ‘Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.’ Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
“When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’
“He replied, ‘I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?
“‘They have moved on from here,’ the man answered. ‘I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’’
“So 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.”Genesis 37:12–18
Finally, the pot of hatred boils over. The brothers have had enough. We’re not told yet how it is that they recognized Joseph in the distance—it’s later revealed it was that robe that gave him away—but, regardless, they begin constructing a murderous scheme with Joseph’s dreams as the engine and their collective hatred as the fuel.
“‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ’Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.’
“When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. ‘Let’s not take his life,’ he said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing—and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.”Genesis 37:19–24
With their rage slightly tempered by Reuben’s plea for a measure of mercy, the family tosses Joseph into a cistern like a corpse into a grave with the majority intent being to let him die down there from exposure and thirst as “there was no water in it.”
“As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.
“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.
“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.
“When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes.He went back to his brothers and said, ‘The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?’”Genesis 37:25–30
While Reuben had spoken up previously, trying to spare Joseph’s life, his advice is now clearly rejected, maybe aided by the fact that he had apparently left for a moment only to return after Judah’s leadership had won the day.
What remains of the chapter is the brothers’ track-covering, guilt-hiding, father-tricking activities.
“Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood.They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, ‘We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.’
“He recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.’
“Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days.All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.’ So his father wept for him.
“Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.Genesis 37:31–36
Interestingly, Jacob, a deceiver himself, who, back when he was a boy in Genesis 27, used the skin of goats to cheat his own father now gets cheated by his sons with the blood of goats.
But here, not knowing it’s a trick, Jacob’s response is inconsolable grief.
Joseph, a misunderstood teenager who’s only crime according to this text is being favoured by a misguided parent, is hated by his brothers, thrown like a corpse into a hole, and, instead of being left to die, sold into slavery.
Joseph, called by God to be an agent of divine blessing, is met with adversity.
And you and I need to be prepared for the same. Maybe not the waterless cistern and the murder plot, but if our divine assignment is to be a blessing to the world around us by sharing the gospel, representing Christ, bringing hope, and speaking truth into this world, it’s possible we’re going to be met with adversity.
We may be misunderstood—called bigots, haters of progress, old-fashioned, simple-minded, backwards-thinking, and unnecessarily divisive. We may be misunderstood.
We may be mistreated—shunned, ignored, blamed, slandered, and abused. These things can occur at work, at school, online, or even at home. We may be mistreated.
The question is, will we endure? Will we be faithful to our assignment? Will we ask God to help us, to empower us to accomplish what it is he wants to accomplish through us in this world convinced that the eternal rewards of faithfulness far outreach the temporal and potential relief of compromise.
We’ve been given a divine assignment, one that may bring adversity. Will we endure with faithfulness?
It’s a heavy and important question we need to ask ourselves, a question that quarantine doesn’t exempt us from answering.
But as I already mentioned at the start of our time together, the story of Joseph includes an important, over-arching theme that enables, inspires, and empowers us to answer that question with a resounding “YES”! “Yes, I will be faithful.” “Yes, I will endure.”
How? Because our God is sovereign. The God of our assignment rules over all potential adversity. He is always on his throne and is never surprised. Even when the nights seem the darkest, God is at work behind the scenes, maneuvering people, places, circumstances, viruses, and everything else so as to accomplish what he wants to accomplish—that which is always good.
This truth is best incapsulated in Joseph’s wise and gracious words to these same hateful brothers years later when they met again: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20).
We should notice that Joseph is making this beautiful declaration with the privilege of hindsight. He looking back over the adversity of his life and, with such a view, he’s able to see God’s hand at work. However, this doesn’t mean he could always see it. In our text today, for example, we’re not told that Joseph saw God’s hand in his sale to slavery.
But at the same time, the moments in his life that Joseph was unable to understand exactly what God was doing didn’t mean that God wasn’t working. At the end of the story, looking back, he can now see that God certainly was.
By the end of the story it’s clear how God used the evil of the brothers, used the favouritism of Jacob, used the misunderstandings and the mistreatments of Joseph in order to eventually bless, through Joseph, his family, his nation, and the world.
And this sovereignty of God, while it’s seen in high definition by Genesis 50, we see it hinted at in our text this morning as well.
In verse 15 there’s this seemingly odd cameo of an unnamed man who finds Joseph wandering looking for his brothers. We don’t know who he is, how he found Joseph, or how he knew where the brothers had ended up. We don’t know and he disappears from the scene as mysteriously as he appeared.
Why would Moses included these three verses?
One commentator put it this way: “This interlude rehearses the whole Joseph story in a moment, provides a sort of cartoon sketch of the larger canvas. While between father and brothers, apparently lost, Joseph is nonetheless directed appropriately. Joseph temporarily marooned, will be directed by strangers and by God. A man has the crucial information and imparts it effectively; Joseph obeys. It might seem at first that the “helper” hinders, that his information pushes Joseph into the pit instead of returning him to his father, unsuccessful but safe. But in fact the pit is safety for the whole of Jacob’s family, and so the nameless and faceless man is in fact quite a significant helper.”
In other words, this three-verse cameo of an unnamed man illustrates the major truth of the Joseph narrative in its entirety. God is in control even when everything seems lost and out of control and dangerous and adversarial. God is in control.
COVID-19 has not caught him off-guard. It did not surprise the Almighty.
So, with Genesis 37 in mind, what are we to do as God’s people? We’ve been reminded of our divine assignment, warned of potential adversity, so now what is our call to action?
I want to suggest that God is calling you and I to expect and endure!
Expect the adversity, know it could be coming and know that when it comes it can take many forms, and ask God help us endure that adversity with faithfulness to our assignment. Expect and endure!
I don’t think Joseph, as he lay in the bottom of that waterless cistern, could have guessed what God was up to in the midst of his hardship. And so, in the same way, I want to admit that I don’t really know exactly what God is doing and what he will cause to come of this current pandemic. I don’t know.
Perhaps he’s giving us unique opportunities for faithfulness to our divine assignment. New ways of communicating and interacting. Challenging traditions, complacency, apathy, and comfort.
God may be using this time to expose in some of us latent sins or long-ignored holes in our godliness. God may be using this time to shine a light on our homes, our families, and our personal lives.
Maybe he’s killing idols through this season, advocating a slower pace of life, or demanding trust in him where some of us have lacked it but, until now, have been able to hide it behind a wall of self-sufficiency.
Again, I want to reiterate, I don’t know what God is doing in your life, the life of this church, or in the world.
But I do know we have a divine assignment to be agents of divine blessing to the world. I do know God calls for faithfulness in spite of potential adversity. And I do know that God is sovereign no matter what happens.
I want to encourage you, when this recording ends in a few moments, take a minute to speak with God directly.
If you’re not a Christian, then I plead with you to remedy that first and, if you don’t know what that means and would like clarity and guidance you can find our contact information online. We’d count it a privilege to talk to you about these things.
If you’re a believer, I want you to, in the silent moments that follow this recording, to ask God three things: 1) Help me see troubles through your eyes; 2) help me be faithful; and 3) help me rest in your sovereignty.
1) Help me see troubles through your eyes; 2) help me be faithful in spite of them; and 3) help me rest in your sovereignty.
He’s calling us, and has equipped us, to expect and to endure. Let’s do that, with his help, for his glory.