Famine and Family
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 42, as we continue to work our way through Moses' first of the five books of the Old Testament, the book of Genesis. The last time we were together we were in the final section of Genesis 41, and we observed there that in the famine that God ordained for Egypt, He had a plan for the family of Jacob and for Joseph which he was willing to visit famine not only in Egypt, but in Canaan in order to enforce and bring about. God was ready to ordain a providence which would impact much of the Mediterranean world for at least the purpose of bringing out His purposes in the family of Jacob. And it shows again how God rules the world in His providence for His people. We called that God's gospel providence, or His evangelical providence.
We also noticed as we looked at the story of Joseph in the final sections of Genesis 41, that Joseph, though he was a man who had been exalted to great power and influence, yet was a man who was visited by many, many private pains. This was a man who carried heavy personal burdens, not the least of which was the burden of his separation from his homeland and the division that occurred in his family.
And finally, we said as we looked at those final verses of Genesis 41 from 50 on down that God was beginning to show to us as we read through Moses’ historical narrative, God was beginning to show to us what He was going to do in the life of Joseph; but he had not yet shown it to Joseph.
Tonight, God begins to cause His providence to dawn on the mind of Joseph. But not yet on that of his brothers. So let's hear God's holy word here in Genesis 42:
Our Lord and our God, we bow before You, and as we contemplate Your providence we pray that You would speak to us of our own circumstances. Who knows what burdens, what dark providences haunt the minds of your people even gathered in this room tonight. Help us to trust, help us to expect, oh God, for you to reveal the goodness and the kindness of Your plan to us. Help us, O Lord, as we face the refining of your own crucible to see the importance of the crafting, the divine crafting, the spiritual crafting of our character. And even as we review the story, a very old story; a story about Your people of old, our ancestors in the faith, we pray that You would bring to light the light of our hearts and minds, truth for life. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.
In this passage tonight, God shows us again how His providence works out even in perplexing ways. I want to focus especially on the middle section of this passage tonight which you find in verses 6 through 28 where God reveals His providence and clearly has a purpose of discipline. But I'd like you see the three parts of the passage before us.
I. God shows us what He's willing to do to advance the good of His people.
If you look at verses 1 through 5 those verses serve as an introduction to the passage. In them God's providential plan unfolds. The sons of Jacob are going to make their journey into Egypt for grain at the direction of their father, Jacob. And God shows us what He's willing to do here to advance the good of His people, though He isn't showing them yet. As far as they know, they’re simply facing a famine; and they are despairing. They are sitting around looking at one another, and their father has to say why are you sitting around looking at one another. Go down to Egypt and buy grain. They are despondent, they see no silver lining on this dark cloud. As far as they know they are simply facing a tremendously severe famine, which is costing them livestock, which is costing them income, which is perhaps leading some of the people of their land to starvation and death. And these people in that circumstance are pressed by the providence of God down into Egypt.
And we see here that God has purposes for Jacob's family, and he's willing to use dark providences to bring that purpose about. Jacob even at the end of this passage can see no silver lining on what's going on. As far as he can see it looks like everything that God is doing is against him, and that's certainly how he feels at the beginning of this passage. But we know because of what we know from Genesis 41 exactly what God is beginning to unfold now. He is now bringing the brothers of Joseph back into contact with him, and an enormous process of reconciliation is about to begin. It's a process of personal reconciliation, but it's also a plan for the redemption of the whole people of God. God is doing both at the same time. It's amazing. We see over and over how God manages to do many things with one action at the same time. It's a testimony to the wisdom and mastery of His sovereign providence.
II. God's wrath is revealed in His providence, in this case with a view to repentance.
Now focus with me on verses 6 through 28. I'd like you to see several things there. Here the sons of Jacob unknowingly encounter their long lost brother, Joseph; and the dreams which he had had years before begin to be fulfilled. And God's wrath against his brothers begins to be revealed to them in His providence, and it has the blessed result of pressing them towards repentance. God's wrath is revealed in His providence, but in this case it is in view of his repentance. Look at several things in verses 6 through 28.
First of all, look at verse 6. At the end of that verse we read Joseph's brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. Here we see the faithfulness of God's purpose. You know after we saw Joseph sold into slavery, barely spared from death in the pit, if we didn't know how this story ends, we would have wondered how in the world that dream was ever going to come true. And now we begin to see God's providence, unlikely as it is, coming to fruition as ten of his brothers bow their face to the ground. Notice also that one of those two dreams had grain bowing to Joseph. And so we see now a connection which Joseph himself had no idea about. He knew that he was going to be given some measure of sovereignty over his family. He had no clue that he would be used to spare them from starvation in the midst of a famine when there was no famine in their land. And so the significance of the grain begins to come to mind as we see this passage.
Now we're told in verse 7 and then again in verse 8 that Joseph recognized his brothers, but they didn't recognize him. And that he deliberately disguised himself from them, and they did not recognize him. I don't know what Joseph's state of mind was when he first saw his brothers. All we know is that the last time Joseph spoke, he was thanking God. He was thanking God that he had forgotten his household. That's the last time we heard Joseph speaking about his family. He was thanking God that he had removed the memory of his own household, his brothers, his father's house. Now he's face to face with them, and I'm not even going to dare to speculate what he was thinking.
The commentators have a hard time grasping what exactly Joseph is doing here. But let me pull back and ask you to look at the big picture. No matter what you think Joseph is doing. No matter whether you think Joseph is being vindictive and petty and vengeful, and frankly, I think that's a little unfair, or whether you think that Joseph specifically in mind has in view administering a treatment to his brothers that will elicit repentance from them. Whether you take one of those two options, or you see some other option, it is clear that God has a purpose to bring these brothers to repentance in the exchange which is going to go on here in Genesis 42 and again in Genesis 43. And we will already see by the end of this chapter a change in these brothers. So bear that in mind.
Joseph, we are told in verse 9, remembers the dreams which he had had about them. So he is very conscious that it is God's providence that's being worked out here. And I suspect the fact that Joseph remembered that dream is one reason that he pursues the course that he does, because the dream has his whole family bowing down to him. And Joseph now sets to bring about a plan which will bring his whole family before him in Egypt. He's not satisfied with those ten brothers. Not because he wants to exult over them, but because he is expecting the fullness of God's dream, His revelation, His plan to come to fruition. And so Joseph begins this test. He accuses them of being spies. Now you may wonder what's the source of that accusation? Apparently it is this. Ten brothers, ten brothers leave another land, come to Egypt. A little suspicious, isn't it? Would a father send ten sons? That's almost his whole legacy. Would a father from another country send all ten of his sons or most of his sons into a land in a dangerous time to gain food. And so Joseph has a ground to be suspicious of them. And then he says why in the world would I believe that you are ten brothers? And so in order to defend themselves, they say well wait a second, actually we are twelve brothers. One of them is back with our dad, one of them is dead.
They begin to give him more information about their family background in order to establish the credibility of their story. And that gives Joseph his opportunity. Look at verse 15. “By this I will test you; you will not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you that he may get your brother while the rest of you remain confined that your words may be tested whether there is truth in you.” Over and over the test of the truthfulness of their words is pressed. And I don't think that is a mistake, because Moses is going to highlight it even in their report to Jacob. This test is connected to the process of repentance that God is getting at.
Then, if you look at verse 17, you see that Joseph actually had them put in prison for three days. If you think that Joseph is vindictive, then you only have partial evidence for that. Because actually there's a great deal of generosity on Joseph's part. They stay in prison for three days. He was there for three years. And if he's wanting to get even, this doesn't look like the way you would do it. At first he tells them that one of them can go back, while the rest of them remain in prison. But when he comes out with his plan, he lets all of them but one go back. He supplies them food for their journey; he gives them all their money back. This is not the way that a person who's trying to get even acts. So you can see in here Joseph's own desire to see if the hearts of his brothers have changed. Joseph has experienced life with these people. He's not really interested in re-engaging in this relationship if it's going to be the same. And that very desire is used in God's plan to bring to bear something upon their hearts to bring about repentance. You remember they had heard the cries of their brother, Joseph, in Genesis 37, and it did not touch their heart. They had seen their father convulsing in tears, and it did not change their heart.
Now, God in His wrath is finally going to bring a message that hits home, and you see that message hit home in verse 21. “They turn to one another, and they say, ‘Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw him in the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, and yet we would not listen. And, therefore, distress has come upon us.’ And Reuben said, ‘Did I not tell you do not sin against the boy, and you would not listen and now comes the reckoning for his blood.’” These men knew exactly what was going on. They saw in this providence God's wrath against their sin. And for the first time in their lives they reckoned with it. Do you see what these two men spoke of, or what these men spoke of in Genesis 42:21? The distress of his soul. You find them mention the distress of Joseph's soul in Genesis 37. For the first time, they acknowledge what they did to their brother. They caused distress to his soul, and now this distress is being visited upon him. They see the hand of God.
When we look at providence, we have to ask ourselves what is God teaching us? Now we often want to look at providence and ask what is God teaching him? But when we look at providence, and dark providence in particular, it is not inappropriate to ask what is God teaching us? Now I want to say that that can be tricky. You will see how tricky it is even in this passage. In one place it is very clear that Moses believes that the brothers of Joseph are right to think that God is visiting His punishment on them. In another place in this very passage, it seems that it's their paranoia acting up. You remember when they opened the bag, and they find all the money there? Joseph, in his kindness, had put the money that they had paid for — Joseph had no intention of receiving money from his own family to give them food to live on. You see the heart of this man? He absolutely had no intention of receiving anything from them to keep them alive and to bless and prosper them. And so he puts the money back in their bags. But apparently one of the servants made a mistake along the way. In one of their satchels, he actually put the money back in the food for the journey. So when one brother opened the grain in order to feed the animals on the way back, he found his money. When the rest of them got back to tell their father, Jacob, they all opened their sacks of the grain which was meant to used when they got back to the land of Canaan, and they found their money. And their immediate response is “Oh my, God is against us.” Now they misread providence there, because that wasn't God against them; that was their brother for them. So yes, providence can be a tricky thing to read, but they were right to see in God's dark providence his visitation of wrath against them.
You remember this morning, as we looked at Romans 1:18 we said that Paul said that the wrath of God is being revealed. And one of the ways that it's revealed is that's revealed in providence, and his wrath against their action is revealed now. And for the first time it hits home, and they realize what they've done, and they realize that what they are receiving now is their just desserts. Meanwhile, Joseph is weeping, because he has heard everything that they've said. See, they've been talking between an interpreter. As part of his disguise he has not spoken to them in their language. He's used an Egyptian bilingual interpreter. And as they speak amongst themselves, they don't think that he can understand what they are saying. But he hears every word that they say, and it shatters him; he has to depart from them. He has to turn away from them to regain his composure. God is beginning to do an extraordinary work, a work that Joseph couldn't have anticipated. A work that Jacob couldn't have anticipated. A work that his brothers could not have anticipated. God's wrath is revealed here in His providence. And in this case, it's with a view to the repentance of Joseph's brothers, so that God can bring about a wondrous reconciliation.
III. God's disciplining providence in the words of Jacob.
And then finally if you would look at verses 29 through 38, you see this discussion between Jacob and his sons upon their return without Simeon to Egypt. And immediately you begin to see the difference in these men, but you still see God's disciplining providence at work in the words of their father, Jacob. Moses displays to us in these verses the continuing deep divisions that exist in the family of Jacob.
When they get back, I want you to notice that they tell their father exactly what happened. Now the last time we see these ten brothers reporting to their father what happened in a far land, they reported a total lie. They told him that wild animals had killed his son. And they fabricated a whole story. Now, as painful as it was going to for them to tell the truth, they tell their father exactly what happened. And predictably, their father is not happy at all. In fact, their father uses harsh words to them. He says to them — look at verse 36: “You have bereaved me of my children. Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin. All these things are against me.” Jacob had no more facts about what happened to his son, Joseph. But we see now what over the years had become the formed opinion of his mind. He knew that his other sons had a role to play in the death of their brother. And they weren't leveling with him. And so he says harsh words to them. You've taken my son, Joseph, from me. You've now taken my son, Simeon, from me, and now you want me to give you Benjamin? You are out of your mind.
Clearly, Jacob's favoritism towards the sons of Rachel comes out again. I can't imagine how this would have felt to the hearts of his other sons. And yet Reuben steps forward, and he says father, you may put my own sons to death if you will but entrust Benjamin to me. If I don't bring him back, you put my sons to death. Because Reuben is so determined to honor his word to the lord of Egypt. What a change has occurred in those boys' hearts. In spite of harsh providence, harsh words from the lord of Egypt, harsh words from the father, they are acting like responsible, culpable men determined to fulfill their word. We’re already seeing God work a reconciling miracle and a repenting change in the hearts of the sons of Jacob. And that's the only way that they’re ever going to be able to dwell in happiness. I don't know what God is doing in the providence that you are experiencing in your family right now. But everyone of us must believe that His providence indeed rules and overrules and is ultimately is intended for our good. Our responsibility is to look at that providence, to trust in God, to ask Him what He's teaching us and to continue in faithfulness. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we await Your wondrous redemption. When you bring about the blessing of Your people, Israel, sons of Jacob, and You bring about restoration at the same time. Our Heavenly Father, we know that there are families even here who have not experienced that reconciliation and restoration. And surely it must be a difficult thing to watch this story unfold. But perhaps that is precisely Your word for them right now. Bless them and give them strength. As they look through their own eyes and tears at the pains of their experience, of their relationships with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. We ask, O God, that Your grace would extend to them. If not, to change their circumstance at least to bear them through it. All these things we ask in Jesus' name, Amen.