We begin a study called “God’s Grace To Overcome” and in this study we are going to examine God’s word concerning the life of Joseph found in Genesis 37-50. But I look forward to examining these scriptures in a different way than in previous times. It is easy to study the life of Joseph and only note what Joseph did and moralistic lessons are made out of those events. For example, from Genesis 37 the lesson is taught that parents should play favorites or cause hatred between siblings. Or sometimes the message is that Joseph has bragging about his dreams, so be sure not to brag. But are these points the true reason why these scriptures were recorded and maintained for us? Are these the points that God wanted us to learn? Consider a strong reason why we should discard this kind of approach toward the life of Joseph. When the writer of Hebrews speaks of the faith of Joseph, he simply says, “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22). There is nothing about the faith of Joseph to avoid the temptation to sexual immorality or the faith to not kill his brothers when they come to Egypt. Perhaps we should look at the life of Joseph, and any of the people recorded in the scriptures, and consider what we learn about God and what God is doing through these people. As we study through the life of Joseph our focus is not going to be on Joseph, but what we learn about God in the life of Joseph. In this I hope that we will be able to have more tools for overcoming life’s struggles, trials, and difficulties by God’s grace.
The Dreams (37:1-11)
Joseph is 17 years old. It is easy to forget how young Joseph is when these events unfold in his life. The tension begins when Joseph gives his father, Jacob, a bad report concerning his brothers who are pasturing the flock. For whatever reason, Jacob does not have Joseph with the brothers doing the work of tending the flock. Rather, he seems to be the one to give messages to Jacob. We don’t know what the brothers were doing. We do not know if the report was deserved. Jacob loved Joseph more than the other sons and made him a robe of many colors. We are not exactly sure what this robe was. The other two times this word is used in scriptures it refers to a royal robe (cf. 2 Samuel 13:18-19). The robe was an indication that Joseph was special to Jacob. The robe has a long hem and sleeves, which is not conducive to working in. Joseph is given special privileges by Jacob. Therefore the brothers hate Joseph and cannot speak peaceably to him.
But Joseph has a dream which caused his brothers to hate him all the more. The dream was that the sheaves of the brothers bowed down to Joseph’s sheaf which stood upright. The brothers understand this dream to mean that Joseph is going to rule over them. Then Joseph had another dream with a similar meaning. The dream was of the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing down to him. No one is happy with this dream either. Even Jacob rebukes his son for this dream, though Jacob did keep this saying in his mind. But I want us to think about what is happening to Joseph. God is the one giving Joseph these dreams. These dreams are going to cause everything to unfold in Joseph’s life. Say what you want about Joseph, these are dreams given by God predicting what the future holds for this family. The family knew this. This is not a culture like ours where a dream means we probably had too much coffee before bed. Remember that dreams were a means by which God communicated to people before the Law of Moses was given. Dreams were not viewed as dreams but as messages from God. But notice that no one wants to listen to this message given by God to Joseph. This is a family rejecting the message of God, which we will see clearly in just a moment in the scriptures.
The Crisis (37:12-36)
In verse 12 we see that it is another day and the brothers are tending to the flock and again Joseph is not with the brothers working. He is at home with his father. His father sends Joseph to find out if the brothers and flock are doing well. Joseph has difficulty finding his brothers and after great effort and time finds where the brothers and the flock are. As Joseph approaches, listen to what the text tells us in verses 18-20.
They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (Genesis 37:18–20 ESV)
Notice the end of verse 20 carefully. “…And we will see what will become of his dreams.” These brothers hated God’s decree concerning Joseph. They hated the thought that Joseph would be superior to them in some way. So here is the plan. Since we do not like the plans of God, we will kill this Joseph and then see how true these words are! Friends, this is a reflection of the human condition. The human nature is to rebel against God. This is what David wrote in Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1–3 ESV)
This is the essence of the mockery that occurs against Jesus as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35 ESV)
Jesus said he was the deliverer of the people, the Savior of the world. The wickedness of human hearts rejected the purpose of God and said, “We will see about that! We will kill him!” The brothers are doing the same thing to Joseph. “You are not going to rule over us! So we will kill you and show you that!” This is what we do with God’s plans: we rebel against it. God has great and powerful promises and as unrighteous people we strive against God repeatedly. As David said in Psalm 2, it is foolishness and vanity on our parts to strive against the plans of God. Yet this is what we do. Sin makes us blind to our only hope. The one who will eventually rule over them and save them from death, Joseph, these brothers hate. They hate the dreams that God has given and they hate the meaning of the dreams. In the same way, we hate the one who rules over us and would save us from death, Jesus. We see in the brothers the human condition and how sin makes us blind to the purposes of God.
But God intervenes in these wicked plans. Rather than killing Joseph as he approaches, Reuben tells the rest of the brothers to throw him into a pit in the desert. Verse 22 tells us that the reason Reuben did this was so he could rescue Joseph and return him to his father. Now this may be an attempt to get into good graces with Jacob because Reuben committed a horrible sin, as recorded in Genesis 35. He slept with Jacob’s concubine. So Reuben is not a righteous person but attempts to save the life of Joseph and be a hero to Jacob. So the brothers strip Joseph of his robe and throw him into the pit. The text specifically says that there was no water in this pit (37:24). The point is not that Joseph was thirsty down there. The point is that this is a dried up cistern in the desert and the providence of God is moving in Joseph’s life that he was not thrown into a 20 foot cistern to drown. The text is explaining why Joseph did not drown when he was thrown into this pit. Please hear the callousness of sin in verse 25. “Then they sat down to eat.” They have thrown their brother into the pit and they hate him so much that they have no problem sitting down to lunch while he screams from the hole.
A caravan of Ishmaelites comes along and is on its way to Egypt. Judah realizes that they can make money off of their brother by selling him into slavery. Why kill him if we can make some money? After all, he is our brother. So they sell Joseph to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. Reuben was apparently gone during this whole transaction, returns to the pit to rescue Joseph, and fits the pit empty. Reuben is outraged and in fear as the eldest brother who has responsibility over his younger brothers. Now one of their brothers, the favorite son of Joseph is missing. What are they going to do? The plan is to take Joseph’s robe, dip the robe in the blood of a goat, and present it to Jacob.
Listen to the horrible, callous words of the brothers in verse 32. “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” Joseph is not their brother. The brothers are not distraught. They say to Joseph, “Hey, is this your son’s robe? We found it.” Jacob draws the conclusion that an animal has killed Joseph and torn him to pieces. Jacob tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and mourns so greatly that no one could comfort him. The paragraph ends with the declaration that Joseph had been sold into Egypt by the Midianites to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
1. Obedience does not guarantee success or ease now. In the life of Joseph we immediately see that by doing what his father had instructed him to do, all of this disaster was brought on him. Faithfulness brings suffering from the disobedient. Not only did Joseph suffer because he obeyed his father, but the text tells us that Joseph because of the dreams God gave him. It is a reminder to us that what God calls us to can cause our suffering. This is a truth that we will see throughout Joseph’s life. Too often we have an idea that the plan of God is for our comfort and convenience. People will make decisions, believing it is the will of God, because the course of that decision appear to be simpler, easier, or more comfortable.
God is not in the business of making our lives easy while on this earth. I think we could look in the scriptures at the lives of every faithful follower of God and observe the opposite truth. God often messes up our life plans to carry out his purposes and make us what we need to become for his glory. God messes us the plans of Joseph. This was not the life plan for Joseph at age 17. Here is this teenager with aspirations of the future, which now have all been flushed away. God constantly challenges our life plans and messes them up. For Abraham, God messed up the plans of Ishmael and made him be sent away into the desert only to turn around and ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God’s goal is not for us to have an easy, good life on earth. God’s goal is to bring glory to himself and bring you and me to eternal life. This means many of our life plans have to be wrecked so that we can become what God desires.
2. We cannot see how God is accomplishing his purposes. Joseph was told that he was going to rule over his family twice in the dreams given by God. Now he has been sold into Egyptian slavery. How can Joseph be exalted over his brothers when he has been sold out of the family? The message of God seems impossible to happen. The scriptures tell us that he did not understand it. Listen to the words of the psalmist concerning Joseph.
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 kept testing him. (Psalm 105:17–19 NRSV)
Joseph does not know how God is working these things out. The word of the Lord was continually testing him. But what we learn is that God is using the evil of others to accomplish his plans. God’s saving victory happens through sin and suffering. God used the evil deeds of his brothers to begin fulfilling his plan as revealed in Joseph’s dreams. Jesus is the ultimate example of this truth. God was working his plan through the evil others: the evil of Judas who would betray Jesus, the evil of the Jewish leaders who wanted Jesus execute, and the evil of Pilate who would not listen to what Jesus had to say. God can overcome when we are sinned against. God can overcome our circumstances. God uses what we are enduring to accomplish his plan. People plan against God and rebel in vain because God will be victorious. You are not forgotten. You are not forsaken. We are being tested as we wait for the Lord.