Joseph: Trusting in God's Providence

Genesis 37-50

We’ve come to the last in our series of lessons on our spiritual roots in Genesis.  The last fourteen chapters are devoted to the story of Joseph.  More ink is given to the story of Joseph than anyone else but Jesus, David and Paul.  And I think that is because, not only is it a compelling and fascinating story, but it is one of the most powerful examples of what happens when you trust in God to provide.  It was a lesson they needed desperately to learn – and we need it as much as they.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts…”   Long ago, I quit trying to figure God out and second guess what he was going to do next, because every time I have, he didn’t.  When I thought I knew what would make sense, apparently it didn’t.  That plan that I had, that opportunity I thought was perfect – well, God thought differently.  So these days, I just say, “God, show me your footsteps so I can walk in them – you lead, I’ll follow.”

Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons – the favorite son of the favorite wife of Jacob.  And when a parent plays favorites, it always leads to trouble.  One day, Jacob gives Joseph a special robe – finer material and more beautifully ornamented than any of his brothers had.  They were jealous.  Joseph didn’t help matters when he started having dreams in which he was the star of the show and all of his brothers were bowing down to him.  They were furious.  On top of all that, Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale, spying  on his brothers while they were out tending the flocks and bringing bad reports back to dad.  This was too much.

You know the story.  One day Jacob sends Joseph out to check on his brothers and when they see him they hatch a plan to get even.  They tie him up , throw him in a pit and debate how they’re going to kill him.  As luck would have it, a caravan of Midianite merchants happens upon their camp and they offer to sell them their brother as a slave.  Money is exchanged, and Joseph is on his way to Egypt.  Did I say, as luck would have it?  Don’t believe it.  Nothing about this story has anything to do with luck.

God is in control of Joseph’s destiny from beginning to end and has a special role for Joseph to play in preserving the lineage of the Savior.  Let’s use the word “providence.”  God will provide.  And Joseph was especially good at trusting that God would provide.

The brothers take Joseph’s fancy-shmancy coat, dip it in goat’s blood and take it back to dad and tell him, “it’s a shame, he had such a bright future.”  Jacob is devastated and goes into mourning for the next twenty years.

Meanwhile, God is at work.  Joseph is sold by the Midianite traders to an Egyptian court official named Potiphar.  Joseph is a hard worker and became a trusted servant and soon Potiphar has entrusted everything to him – in fact, the scripture says, “the LORD was with him and the LORD gave him success in everything he did.”  Potiphar has a beautiful wife with a wandering eye, and she spots Joseph and says, “Oolala, you look so fine.”  And from the moment Joseph starts working for Potiphar, Mrs. Potiphar tries to seduce him.  But Joseph is a better man than that.  He tells Mrs. Potiphar that he couldn’t do that to his master.  Listen to the conversation:  “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?” (Gen. 39:8-9)  Joseph is a man of integrity.

All the more challenge for Mrs. Potiphar, who catches Joseph alone one day and says, “Come to bed with me!”  Guys, I want you to underline and highlight this next verse, because someday you might need it:  “But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.”  He didn’t stop and think, he didn’t try to reason with her – he ran in the opposite direction.  Let me be blunt and indelicate - guys only have enough blood for one organ to function at a time.  Once you’ve started down that path, your brain quits functioning. 

Several years ago I had a friend of mine from church come rushing into my office.  He was as white as a sheet.  He was a band teacher at the high school.  He said that the police would be coming for him shortly because he had had an affair with one of his band students, and the secret he thought was safe had found its way back to her parents.  I asked him what he thought was going to happen when he was found out, and he said, “I didn’t think.”

 More marriages could be saved from the devastation of an affair if only we would follow Joseph’s example.  Paul gives that same advice to the Christians in Corinth: “Flee from sexual immorality.” 

The time to think about what you will do whenever you are presented with the opportunity to have an affair isn’t when the opportunity presents itself, but right now, in the calm of the moment, in the light of God’s will.  If you wait until that moment, you will fall, just as surely as David did.  Decide right now, that when the opportunity for sexual immorality presents itself (and it will), you will flee.

Joseph made the right choice, but because of the scorned wife’s accusations, he was sent to prison.  Now you or I would think, “How unfair, God should have rewarded him for his integrity.”  But God has a bigger picture in mind.   

The scripture says, that while Joseph was in prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.  So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. (Gen. 39:20-23)

God needs Joseph in prison, because in prison he’s going to meet a couple of servants from Pharaoh’s household who had offended their king, and had also ended up in prison.  While he is there, they have dreams, and God gives Joseph the ability to interpret those dreams.  One of those servants ends up being restored to his former position and the time comes when Pharaoh also begins having perplexing dreams that nobody can interpret.  Suddenly, the servant remembers Joseph and tells Pharaoh of this amazing young man. 

Pharaoh calls Joseph before him and relates his dreams:  “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, fat and sleek, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows came up—scrawny and very ugly and lean. I had never seen such ugly cows in all the land of Egypt. The lean, ugly cows ate up the seven fat cows that came up first. But even after they ate them, no one could tell that they had done so; they looked just as ugly as before. Then I woke up.  In my dreams I also saw seven heads of grain, full and good, growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads sprouted—withered and thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven good heads. I told this to the magicians, but none could explain it to me.” (Gen. 41:17-24)

Once again, Joseph isn’t here by luck or coincidence or accident, this is the hand of God. 

Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream. The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine.  “It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.” (Gen. 41:25-32)

Not only does Joseph interpret the dreams, but he then lays out a plan for preparing for and surviving this great famine.  And once again we hear this familiar refrain:  The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:37-38)

God is with Joseph, but not just for Joseph’s sake – he has the bigger picture in mind.  The famine will come, just as Joseph interpreted, and in time, not only Egypt but all of the middle east will be engulfed in drought and famine.  And the time will come when Jacob’s family back home will be affected also and will be forced to seek food from Egypt.  And who will they need to deal with?  Joseph.  God has placed Joseph in a position of power and authority for this very moment.   Joseph  will be God’s “savior” of his people in their moment of desperate need.

All of those things that you or I would have looked at and labeled them bad – Joseph being sold into slavery, Joseph being put into prison – God is weaving a beautiful tapestry in which his perfect will is accomplished. When we’re in the middle of the storm all we can see is the backside of the tapestry – loose ends and frayed threads. But when God is finished, what he has created is a masterpiece.   Four times within these 14 chapters, the writer reminds us, “the Lord was with Joseph,” or “God’s spirit was with Joseph.”  It may look like Joseph has been abandoned and forgotten, but God is still at work – we just haven’t seen the front side of the finished product.

One of the highlights of Joseph’s story for me is when his brothers come to buy grain.  He recognizes them immediately, but they don’t recognize Joseph because his appearance is so dramatically different.  The last time he saw their faces he was looking up at them from the bottom of a pit.  His last memory was watching them jeer at him and shout “good riddance” as the travelling merchants led him off in chains into the desert.  Now is his opportunity for revenge – he has the power, the authority, the means.  He has had years to plan this moment.  I’m sure the thought crossed his mind.  But instead, he follows God’s lead.

Joseph sells them the grain, but connives a plan to reunite his family and protect them.  He begins by accusing the brothers of being spies and keeps one brother, Simeon, in Egypt until they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s blood brother, back with them to Egypt. 

Now back in Canaan, their father Jacob refuses to allow Benjamin to go.  Believing that Joseph is dead, Benjamin is his only remaining son of his favorite wife, Rachel, and he could not bear to lose him also.

But finally, the famine presses their backs to the wall and they must have more grain and Jacob allows the brothers to return to Egypt, taking Benjamin with them.  And then Joseph implements stage 2 of the plan:  He sells them the grain but stashes the money and a silver goblet in the sack of grain with Benjamin.  When the Egyptians check their bags, they find the money and accuse them of thievery and Joseph threatens to make Benjamin his slave. 

Now the brothers are beside themselves with panic and fear.  As Judah explains, their father is aged and would surely die, if they do not bring Benjamin back to him.  Judah even offers to take Benjamin’s place as Joseph’s slave to spare their father grief that will surely kill him. 

They are all weeping and begging him for mercy, and at this point, Joseph can stand it no longer. He sends out all of his Egyptian servants and is left alone with his brothers. He tells them to come closer to him and then he reveals his identity:  “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.”  (Gen. 45:4-5)

We can only imagine the distress and confusion those brothers must have experienced at this moment.  Rather than feeling relieved, their fear heightens.  They are not just facing a foreign ruler scorned, but their own brother whom they had betrayed and sold into slavery. 

Again and again, Joseph reassures them that they are safe – that what they intended for harm, God intended for good.  It is a reminder of Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 - And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

In the deepest dungeon, in the darkest night, in the most desperate circumstances, we need to hold on and trust God.  We may not be able to understand why, there may be no obvious answers, but God assures us that whatever we are going through, he is at work to bring about good from it.  I’m sure there were moments when Joseph cried out, “Why me, God?”  But through it all, he trusted that God had a bigger plan in mind, and when the moment came, he saw God’s plan – not to get revenge, but to save his family, and honor God with his trust and obedience.

Joseph brings his father, Jacob and all his family to Egypt, and for seventeen years they not only survive, but prosper.  Joseph is good to his family – to his brothers that had betrayed him.  But eventually, Jacob their father dies, and suddenly reality hits the brothers – “He’s just been doing this for dad – now he’s going to get even.”  And again they come weeping and begging and offering to be Joseph’s slaves.  But Joseph’s for real.  He again assures them:  “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.  (Gen. 50:19-21)

It’s easy to trust God when everything in your life is going smoothly, but to trust him with all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only faithful people when we truly trust him with everything. As long as we keep dividing our lives between those times when we can see God at work and those times when we can’t we aren’t really trusting him.  Trust is a full time job.  Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

We could all learn something from Joseph.  Not just about family relationships and forgiveness and reconciliation – although that would be a wonderful place to start.  But what we really need to learn from Joseph is trust.  Trust through the good times and the bad times and all those times when we don’t have a clue about what’s happening and why.  He put it all in God’s hand and trusted God to take care of him and provide just what he needed next.  And that was enough.