Lessons from the Life of Joseph (2)
“Triumphing in Trial” (Genesis 37:23-36 & 39:1-7)
Last week we began our series of messages looking at the life of Joseph. Even though he lived 3,900 years ago the incredible story of this young man speaks powerfully to us today. Joseph grew up in a complicated and dysfunctional family. He had ten older brothers who were very unkind to him. Joseph’s father Jacob sent him to see how his brothers were getting on with the family flocks. Joseph happily agreed to go. He must have been excited to finally find his brothers but little did he know they were far from happy to see him. Unbelievably, when his brothers saw Joseph approaching they plotted to kill him. Hatred in the heart & mind can so easily boil over into violence. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him because he was his father’s favourite and they hated him because of his dreams. However the fact he had a very different outlook on life to them also upset them. The God of their father Jacob, their grandfather Isaac, and great grandfather Abraham seemed somehow to be with Joseph in a special way – and that irked them.
Do not be surprised if after becoming a Christian some of your family and friends no longer seem as friendly. Don’t be surprised if they no longer welcome you as part of their inner circle as perhaps they once did. When we become Christians and seek to live a godly life not everyone is happy about it. Non-believers, & even nominal (in name only) Christians, sometimes feel embarrassed and even threatened by the presence of a sincere follower of Jesus. Not everyone is happy when light shows up the bad things that previously were unseen.
Oldest brother Reuben did not think that killing Joseph was a good idea. He said, “Let’s not take his life. …Don't shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don't lay a hand on him.” (Gen 37:21 & 22) The other brothers didn’t know that Reuben was intending to later rescue Joseph and so they went along with his suggestion. They stripped Joseph of his coat and threw him into the dry cistern.
We know from Genesis 35 that Reuben had on one occasion slept with Bilhah one of his father’s concubines. Clearly he had a problem in the area of sexual lust. However, he did have some good points. His brothers wanted to kill Joseph but Reuben wanted to save him. Lust was one of his weaknesses but one of his strengths was being able to show compassion. The other brothers clearly struggled with hatred & jealousy. All of us have different areas of weakness. For some it is self pity or doubt. For others it is pride or the desire for control. For some it is anger. For some it is lust. For yet others it is envy, or bitterness or an unforgiving spirit. Let us be honest with ourselves, admit our weaknesses, and ask God to help us overcome them. He will not reject us. He gives grace to all who humbly seek His help.
Joseph’s life was spared but throwing him into the dry cistern was still a very cruel thing to do. How would Joseph ever get out? He could easily die down in there – from thirst & starvation. Incredibly v. 25 tells us that after they had thrown him into the cistern his brothers, “…sat down to eat their meal…” How unfeeling could they be? That is what sin does – it hardens our hearts.
Just at that moment, we read in v. 25, “…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.” Another brother, Judah, had a new idea. Rather than leave Joseph, their teenage brother, to die in the cistern, rather than kill him, why not sell him to these foreign traders on their way to Egypt! It seemed a good plan, and so for a pathetic twenty shekels of silver they sold Joseph as a slave. I wonder what they bought with that money? Not much, probably.
Just imagine how Joseph felt! He must have been terrified. He cried out to his brothers to show mercy, but they went ahead with their cruel plan anyway. We know from later in the story (Gen 42:21) that in fact the brothers never ever forgot the cries of Joseph that day. Their cruel crime would forever be on their consciences. Reuben must have been somewhere else when the sudden decision to sell Joseph was made and when he found out about it he was very upset – but in the end he went along with the others in deceiving their father. They took Joseph’s special coat, ripped it and dipped it in animal’s blood and showed it to their father. Notice what they said in v. 32: “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” They didn’t say “see whether it is our brother’s robe” but rather “your son’s robe”. They tried to distance themselves from Joseph. They tried to cover up the truth. They lied but would never be able to escape their guilty consciences. Their father was overwhelmed by grief and so was the rest of the family. That is what sin does.
Meanwhile young Joseph, just a teenager, found himself a prisoner, tied up or even chained on the long dusty journey down to Egypt. He would be treated like an animal and on arrival in Egypt was put up for auction in a slave market. Imagine how he felt. Life must have been scary and uncertain. He could not understand what people were saying or what was happening around him. He was no longer able to enjoy the safety and comfort of home nor could he get help or advice from his father. However God his Heavenly Father was with him. Maybe on the journey to Egypt Joseph thought of the stories about God that he had heard from his grandfather Isaac and his father Jacob. He thought about his dreams. Somehow despite his terrible situation Joseph was aware that the God of his ancestors was with him. God was still in control of his life, even though everything seemed to have gone horribly wrong.
This is a very important lesson to learn. For the child of God, even when everything seems to be out of control, even when God seems to have abandoned us, in fact He is still in control and is working powerfully behind the scenes. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Do not be afraid of the tough times, the hard times, the dark times. God is doing His work in your life. My good friend & former classmate, well-known radio pastor in America, Alistair Begg, wrote, “It takes the test of trials to make us useful to God. Some of us are not as useful as we might be, for in shunning the trials we have missed the blessings.” [i] Those who have experienced tears are more able themselves to comfort those who are crying. Of course no one asks for tears but the loving Heavenly Father sometimes allows them in order to make us more useful in His service.
Everything had changed for Joseph. From being the favourite son of his dotting father he found himself in a foreign country, not as a new immigrant, but being sold as a slave. It is hard to picture the humiliation of being treated like an animal in a slave market. It was totally degrading. We perhaps know a little about the horrors of slavery from reading about the African slave trade when millions of black Africans were captured by cruel slave traders and shipped off to America in the nineteenth century. Many slaves died on the way even before they got to America. Missionaries like David Livingstone fought against the slave trade as did parliamentarians like William Wilberforce. All through human history slavery has been all too common. Even today slavery exists in some places, especially in the Muslim world, and of course we know about the awful sex trade in countries like Thailand which is a form of slavery. Young girls from poor villages are sold by their parents to unscrupulous agents who promise them a good life in the city. Of course they end up as no more than sex slaves in the red light districts of cities like Bangkok. They live enslaved in a life of misery. They need the prayers & the help of Christians.
We read in Genesis 39:1, “Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.” Joseph, not even out of his teens, was bought by a guy called Potiphar. He had no idea who his new master was and could not understand the language being spoken around him. Pretty frightening! Soon enough he discovered that Potiphar was in fact a very high official. Pharaoh was the name given to the Egyptian emperor or king – a title like the Chinese “Huangdi” or the Japanese “ten noo”. Potiphar was probably head of the secret police. He was the top security official in the whole of Egypt – a very important position. No doubt he was also very wealthy – and powerful. He had a beautiful home and a large estate – where Joseph was put to work.
Joseph had to make a decision. Would he become bitter? Would he complain to God and give up his faith? Would he try to keep out of trouble by doing only what he had to do, and no more? Would he have a bad attitude to the locals around him and say, “I can’t speak Egyptian”? “I don’t understand what you are saying.” Would he try to escape – not much chance of that! Or would Joseph make the most of his new situation? Would he continue to trust God? Would he try to learn all he could about the language and culture of the Egyptians? Would he make friends? Would he work hard? Would he be honest and diligent? I think Joseph chose to embrace life. He chose to do his best – for the glory of God. I can imagine Joseph saying to himself: “Everyone thinks I am one of Potiphar’s slaves, but actually I am God’s slave. I am serving God while I work in Potiphar’s house.”
Clearly despite his new circumstances, Joseph made the decision to trust God. He did not allow things like bitterness, self-pity or fear destroy him - and these things can so easily destroy us! Joseph chose to believe that God still had a plan for his life. Notice the next phrase in verse 2: “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.” It was the presence of the Lord with Joseph that made all the difference. His circumstances had not changed. Life was still very tough. He was still a slave – but his heart was free. There were times when he was sad & lonely, when he was unfairly or cruelly treated, but even at such times He knew God was with him. And God blessed Joseph. Our Scripture says, “…he prospered”. Joseph’s attitude of trust lifted him above his circumstances – and God blessed everything he did.
He didn’t have to say anything. People just noticed. Even Potiphar noticed. Verses 3 & 4 say, “When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.” What a fantastic witness Joseph was! I can imagine Potiphar saying, “I have many slaves but never have I had one as smart, reliable, as impressive as the young Hebrew lad, Joseph. There is something very special about him!” By the power of the Holy Spirit you & I can be like this in the marketplaces of the world. People will notice a difference in the way we live and work.
I remember meeting an official in China at a recruitment conference run by the State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs. When he realised I was a Christian, he whispered to me, “I am also a Christian.” And he went on to tell me that he came to faith after watching the lives of Christian English teachers who were employed in his university. They were so different to others. He could not figure out why they were so helpful & cooperative, so diligent in their work. After several years he finally put two & two together. He realised it was their faith in Christ that made all the difference. By then he too was ready to believe.
So friends, make the most of the circumstances in which you find yourself. Don’t complain or wish you were somewhere else. God wants you to bear fruit for Him right where He has planted you. I heard about two grasshoppers that fell into a bucket of milk on a farm. The first grasshopper gave up all hope of getting out & drowned. The second grasshopper began to kick its legs & wings frantically trying to get out of the bucket. After some time of kicking & struggling the grasshopper churned the milk into butter & climbed out of the bucket.
How do we cope with unexpected trial or difficult circumstances? Do we complain? Do we feel that God has let us down or forgotten us? Do we stop believing or trusting in God? Do we stop going to church? Do we simply give up? I hope not! May God use the example of young Joseph to encourage us to rise above our circumstances, however hard or unfair they may seem, and trust God. May Joseph’s example be a reminder that even though we cannot always see it, God has a plan! He is not finished with us. He wants to bless us and use us but He is not in a hurry.
Joseph made such an impression, and God blessed him so much, that Potiphar put him to charge of his whole estate. Next time we will think about how Joseph coped with the success he began to enjoy. We will see too how he dealt with another new challenge that presented itself. It was a challenge that, sadly, many have failed.