Lessons from the Life of Joseph (7)
“Character & Conscience”
The Pharaoh and all his officials were deeply impressed with Joseph’s wisdom & his personality. The power of his godly character shone through everything Joseph said & did but the source of that power, the foundation of his godly character, was the Spirit of God. Pharaoh asked the revealing question: “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the Spirit of God?” (v 38) If indeed Egypt was going to experience 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine, as Joseph had predicted, then Joseph was the ideal person to take on the job of managing the economy.
So Pharaoh put Joseph in charge. He gave Joseph his signet ring, a sign of his authority. He dressed him in a new suit (actually linen robes), gave him a golden chain and provided him with a government limousine – not a luxury German or Japanese car but an Egyptian-made chariot. Wherever Joseph went in Egypt runners cleared the way for him. His words carried authority. People had to obey his orders. On top of all this, Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name – a sign he was now a naturalized citizen of his new country. He was fully accepted, no longer regarded as a second-class foreigner. By the way, Joseph’s Egyptian name “Zaphenath-Paneah” meant: “the one to whom God reveals secrets” – surely showing how Joseph’s faith had impacted the Pharaoh who gave him the name.
The Pharaoh also gave Joseph a wife called Asenath. She was the daughter of a leading Egyptian called Potiphera (not Potiphar). How sad if three years earlier Joseph had given in to the seductions of the wife of his former master Potiphar! It is always worth waiting for God’s time & not compromising what we know to be right or rushing into relationships like marriage. Joseph must have known Asenath was the woman he could love & respect as his wife. This was a multi-cultural marriage between a Hebrew & an Egyptian and God blessed them. Joseph & Asenath had at least two sons.
Joseph was thirty when he began his service for Pharaoh. We read in Genesis 41:48 & 49, “Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt & stored it in the cities. In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it. Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea.” Joseph stored the grain in each region where it was produced. This was a wise policy for no doubt those living in each region made sure their grain was looked after properly. Joseph was not like some leaders in history who have taken the food produced in one part of their country to feed those in the capital city only, or who have siphoned off the wealth of their nation to make themselves and their officials rich.
Of course the seven years of famine also came. We read in v 53, “The seven years of abundance in Egypt came to an end, & the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had said.” Now notice a most interesting comment in v 55. “When all Egypt began to feel the famine, the people cried to Pharaoh for food. Then Pharaoh told all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph & do what he tells you.’” The Pharaoh told everyone to go to Joseph. He was the one who would meet their needs in the time of crisis.
We have mentioned before that in many ways Joseph is a foreshadowing of Jesus. In many ways he reminds us of Jesus. As we go to Jesus He quenches our spiritual thirst & meets our spiritual hunger – just as going to Joseph was the answer to the needs of the Egyptians when the years of famine started. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry.” (John 6:35) and He said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me & drink.” (John 7:37) Just as Joseph “opened the storehouses” and met the physical needs of the Egyptians when they went to him for help, so too Jesus meets our needs when we come to Him.
Joseph was someone who reflected in his life and in his work the God he loved & served. When he suffered unjustly in prison he trusted God and waited for God’s time. In the same way, when all seemed to be going well, when he was successful & famous, he trusted in God and drew strength & wisdom from God. Joseph’s heart was not crushed when he was humiliated nor did his head swell up with pride when he was promoted. Joseph’s personality, his character, was moulded & shaped by God. His character was not determined by his circumstances but by his faith. May this be true for you and me too! Whether we are going through dark days or days filled with sunshine, let us live for Jesus. Let us draw strength, wisdom & help from Him. Whether the road we are travelling is rough or easy, may we know His wonderful presence & guidance along the way! May we allow Him to shape us and mould us just as Joseph allowed the Lord to shape & mould him!
The story of Joseph now takes a very significant turn. For a long, long time we haven’t heard anything about his old father Jacob or his cruel brothers – nor had Joseph. About 20 years had passed but all this time God was at work. The time had now come for His sovereign plan to begin to unfold. At the end of chapter 41 in v 57 we read, “And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.” The famine was also affecting the land of Canaan where Joseph’s family lived. The focus switches back to Canaan. We read, “When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you just keep looking at each other? …I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there & buy some for us, so that we may live & not die.’”
Jacob had a very large family with many dependants. The famine was seriously affecting them. They were fast running out of food & running out of options. Their very lives were at risk. When Jacob heard about the abundance of grain in Egypt he could not understand why his sons just sat there doing nothing. Why, when he suggested they go to Egypt to buy food, did they just look at each other – & say nothing? I wonder if in fact their consciences were beginning to bother them. All those years since they sold their younger brother into slavery they had lived a lie at home. Maybe the mention of Egypt stirred a sense of guilt in their hearts. For all they knew, Joseph their brother who they sold as a slave to Egypt was already dead, for the life of a slave was cheap. Their consciences troubled them. No wonder they looked at one another and said nothing.
Well, facing starvation was a matter of life & death, so eventually “…ten of Joseph's brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt.” (v3) All of them went except the very youngest, Benjamin, Joseph’s brother. Jacob dare not send Benjamin “…because he was afraid that harm might come to him.” Benjamin was not only his youngest but was the only remaining child, so Jacob thought, of his beloved wife Rachel. Having lost Joseph, he could not face the thought of possibly losing Benjamin as well. Jacob’s ten older sons however took off on the journey to Egypt. They were among a crowd of people all travelling for the same reason - to try and buy grain.
Can you picture the dramatic scene? Here are Joseph’s brothers – part of a large crowd of desperate people arriving in Egypt, one of the great civilizations of the day, trying to communicate the fact they wanted to purchase grain for their starving families back in Canaan. And the well-dressed, powerful governor of the land is there. He is Joseph of course, in charge of the whole operation, of all the grain supplies. People are bowing low before him begging for his favour & help. To his shock & surprise, among those in the pressing crowd of foreigners bowing before him, Joseph recognizes his brothers! V 7 tells us, “As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger & spoke harshly to them. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked. ‘From the land of Canaan,’ they replied, ‘to buy food.’”
Of course his brothers didn’t recognize Joseph. He was no longer a 17 year old. He was closer to 40. Those of you who are around 40 years old compare your present looks with how you looked when you were 17. You might notice quite a difference! And Joseph was dressed very differently. He was dressed as an Egyptian official and was speaking through an interpreter. V 8 says: “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.” As Joseph saw his brothers bowing down before him the Bible says, “…he remembered his dreams about them.” (v 9) More than 20 years earlier as a young teenager Joseph had dreamed of his brothers bowing down before him. And naively, but probably innocently, he had told them about his dreams. Those dreams were one of the reasons his brothers had hated him so much. Memories must have come flooding back to Joseph. Although desperate to know news of the family, in a split second he must have made a decision to try to discover first if his brothers perhaps had changed. Did they feel any sorrow for their evil deeds? He decided to keep his identity a secret until he got some answers. A plan quickly formed in his mind, no doubt guided by God.
“You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” He accused them of a very serious crime. These normally rough & violent men were afraid. They were in a foreign land and the official before them was accusing them of a capital offense. Shaking with fear they protested their innocence. “‘No, my lord,’ they answered. ‘Your servants have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.’” (v 10 & 11) When Joseph repeated his accusation the brothers again denied they were spies, but their deep down sense of guilt seemed to come a little closer to the surface. They said, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.” (v 13) Of course, unknown to them, the one they referred to as being “no more” was standing right in front of them. Twenty years earlier they had accused Joseph of coming to spy on them – for his father. And they had thrown him in the dry cistern & sold him as a slave. Now they were to get some of their own medicine. They were accused of being spies and were thrown in prison for three days. Joseph was not being spiteful but by doing this he was giving his brothers the chance to recognize & admit their own sin. He was giving them time to think and no doubt he was planning his next move.
After three days Joseph had them brought from the prison. He actually told them that he feared God. I wonder what they thought about that? Did it remind them of the fact their father Jacob also feared God? Then too Joseph had softened his position. Instead of keeping all except one of them in prison, Joseph says in vrs 19 & 20, “If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go & take grain back for your starving households. But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified & that you may not die.” Having outlined his conditions Joseph let the brothers talk amongst themselves. As all along Joseph had used an interpreter they did not know that he understood every word. And what an incredibly revealing conversation they had!
“They said to one another, ‘Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us.’ Reuben replied, ‘Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.’” (vrs 21 & 22) How interesting that they connected their imprisonment with what they had done to Joseph. God sometimes allows us to get into situations that bring us face to face with our sin & disobedience.
I remember as a ten year-old going to a friend’s house to play. Sadly no one was home except their house helper, a kind black man. So I made myself at home, playing with my friend’s things, helping myself to some cake out of the fridge & using an old boxing glove I found to punch a spray of water shooting out from a hole in the garden hose. After an hour or more when my friend still had not come home I thought I was quite a good boy to pile all his toys in a muddy heap on the veranda together with the soaking boxing glove. And I went home. Half an hour later I saw the car of my friend’s parents come over the hill and, dear O dear, it turned into our driveway. As soon as I saw that car my guilty conscience hit me. I knew I was in big trouble. Sure enough I soon heard my friend’s mother at the front door speaking to my father. That old boxing glove was her husband’s treasured possession – from when he had won a boxing match. Now it was ruined. But even before I heard the lady speaking to my father, I knew I had done wrong and was in for a spanking.
God graciously helps us to see that we have done wrong. He brings conviction because He wants to bring healing & forgiveness. But before there can be healing & forgiveness there has to be a thorough admission of guilt and a willingness on our part to repent & turn from our sin. The Bible says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves & the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful & just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 4:8 & 9)