Genesis 37 ~ 20080504 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
5/4 Genesis 37 Senseless Suffering or Pain with a Purpose?
Today we begin a new section in the book of Genesis. We have seen God choose Abraham and develop him into a man of faith in God as he struggled to believe God's unbelievable promises; then we picked up the story with his son Isaac, who was the obedient son, but who became enslaved to his own appetites and tried to thwart God's plans by plotting to bless his unbelieving son Esau instead of the chosen son Jacob. Then we followed the story of Jacob as God took him from a self-sufficient man who could get his way by manipulation and deceit and broke him and shaped him for over 20 years into a man who became dependent on a faithful promise-keeping God. Now we see the focus shifting to the next generation; Jacob's twelve sons, as God begins to shape them and mold them into the nation of Israel.
God has already given away part of the plot in his prophecy to Abraham back in Genesis 15:
Now we see God providentially moving in history to bring about what he had purposed and planned. Jacob is finally back in the land, and now the process begins to prepare the way for them to leave the land. Let's watch how it unfolds:
We are introduced to Joseph, the seventeen year old tattle tale spoiled favorite son from the favorite wife who died in childbirth with his younger brother. We would think Jacob of all people would understand the danger of playing favorites with your children. Jacob, remember, was the victim of favoritism that had divided his parents against one another and devastated his family. He had just recently reconciled with his twin brother Esau. Jacob now chooses a favorite son to the detriment of his own family. Jacob unwisely demonstrates his favoritism in a public display of affection. He gives his son a special wardrobe that sets him apart from the other sons. We don't know exactly what this garment was – it has been translated as a multi-colored robe, an embroidered robe, a long sleeved robe. Whatever it was, it served as a sandwich board declaring 'dad loves me more than he loves you'. Apparently Joseph flaunted his preferred status. This, along with his evil reports to his dad about his brothers certainly didn't win their affection. Things escalated to the point where they couldn't say a kind word to Joseph. Anyone have this relationship with their sibling?
So Joseph has a dream that he just can't keep to himself. As if things weren't bad enough between him and his brothers, he shares his dream with the brothers that already hate him. The brothers don't have any problem seeing the significance of the dream – he thinks he's going to rule and reign over us. He's the younger brother, and he's dad's favorite, now he thinks he's going to get the birthright that belongs to the firstborn. And it seems the circle of people that he offended seems to be widening. First he brought an evil report about Gad, Asher, Dan and Napthali. Now it seems he shares his dream with all his brothers.
Jacob doesn't seem to be a quick learner. He's just digging himself deeper and doesn't know when to quit. His brothers hated him before he told them about his first dream. He told them and they hated him more. Now he has another dream and is compelled to share this one not only with his brothers, but also with his father. Again the interpretation is clear to all – he is going to be superior not only to all his older brothers, but even to his parents. This gets him a stern rebuke from his father and the jealousy of his brothers. But his father did tuck this information away in the back of his mind. This sounds similar to Mary's response to the shepherds who came to see baby Jesus:
Remember Shechem? That's the city Jacob pitched his tent near, and his daughter was raped. Then Simeon and Levi slaughtered the whole town and Jacob feared retaliation from the surrounding people so he moved his family away. Now the sons are headed back to this place of danger and moral failure.
So Joseph obediently follows his father's instructions. Is his intent to bring back another evil report about his brothers? Apparently neither one of them felt the danger of the brothers' hostility. Remember, these are the brothers who slaughtered a whole town in retaliation for their sister's rape. Joseph makes it to Shechem, but his brothers had moved on. So he's wandering the countryside looking for his brothers, and he runs into a stranger that points him to Dothan.
Joseph's brothers have allowed their hatred to fester into murderous thoughts. Now they are far away from home and seize the opportunity to act out their aggression toward their arrogant brother. The plan is to kill him and throw him into a pit. Reuben, the firstborn, who had recently offended his father by sleeping with Rachel's servant Bilhah, his step-mother, sees also an opportunity to regain favor with his father. He plans to rescue Joseph and be the hero and win back his father's affections. Of course, Joseph is wearing his billboard – 'dad loves me more than he loves you' when he finds his brothers. The brothers are heartless. They strip off his special robe and throw him into a pit and sit down to eat a meal while he's pleading for his life from the bottom of the pit. Their hatred has calloused them from feeling any pity.
While Joseph is crying in the pit, there just happens to be a caravan headed to Egypt. Judah takes leadership of the group with his own plan. Remember, Reuben, Simeon and Levi, the first three sons of Leah had disqualified themselves from leadership in the family, leaving Judah as next in line. Judah's leadership in the family is Godly and moral. He suggests that rather than killing their brother themselves, they make a profit on him and let him suffer and die at the hands of others. He appeals to the moral sensibilities of the violent band – after all he is our brother – we shouldn't kill our own brother. That wouldn't be nice. It would be much more morally acceptable to sell him into slavery and never have to see his face again. Then we can lie about it and cover it up and live with the question mark of what happened to him hanging over our heads the rest of our lives. So they don't hesitate to sell their brother for the price of a common slave and bid him good riddance.
Reuben apparently was not with the rest when the traders came through and the transaction had taken place. Maybe that was another selling point for Judah's plan – let's sell him quick while Reuben is out chasing sheep – that way we'll only have to split the money 9 ways instead of 10. Reuben realizes his plan to come out the hero has been frustrated. As the oldest brother, he would be held responsible for his brother. He acts helpless and doesn't know what to do. He should have confronted his brothers honestly about their evil plan, and he should have pursued the traders to get his brother back. But apparently he doesn't want to be the hero that bad.
This is profound irony. Jacob is deceived by his sons with the killing of a goat and his favorite son's clothes, just as he had deceived his father Isaac by killing a goat and wearing the favorite sons' clothes. The brothers are heartless and shrewd. They intentionally bring grief to their father, and yet they simply present him with the evidence that they have manipulated and allow him to draw his own conclusions. Jacob goes into deep grief and depression over the loss of his favorite son. He refuses to be comforted. Needless to say, no-one tries to comfort him by actually telling him the truth and confessing their sin. It's much easier to buy him flowers and send him a card than it is to actually tell the truth and confess the wrong done.
Jacob says he has nothing left worth living for. He says he will go to the grave mourning his son. Jacob has wrongly elevated his son into a place of favoritism in the family. Now he reveals that he has elevated Joseph to a place of worship in his life. His life is so centered around this boy that he has forgotten the promises of God to him. I don't in any way want to minimize the devastating grief over the loss of a child, but I think we can distinguish between a healthy way to grieve and a destructive way to grieve. Jacob appears to have lost his faith in God. A tragedy has taken place and there is no comfort to be found. God is left completely out of the picture. It was simply a random chance senseless occurrence. The only consolation Jacob can find is the thought of joining his son in the grave. Contrast his reaction to the reaction of Job when he was told that all of his sons and daughters had been killed when the house they were in was hit with a violent wind and collapsed.
Job grieved. Job experienced the numbing pain. Job was devastated. Job contemplated his own death. But Job worshiped. Job acknowledged that God is in control of every accident that happens and that he sovereignly allows it for a good purpose. Job didn't understand why, but Job acknowledged his own total dependence on God who gives life whose right it is to take life away. Job found his comfort in a sovereign good God who was worthy of his worship in the midst of his greatest pain as much as when things were going well. The contrast is even more amazing when we look at the next verse:
While Jacob is defeated and giving up hope, his son Joseph is still alive and is exactly where God intended him to be. Job's sons and daughters were indeed dead in what seemed to be a senseless tragedy. Yet he trusted God and worshiped God. Jacob lived in defeat and hopelessness, all the while his son was in the hand of God, and he would live to speak these words:
As Christians we do not believe in random chance; we believe in the providence of God over all things; nor do we believe in fatalism or determinism. Joseph's brothers made evil choices – they were real choices and they were responsible for those choices.
All Jacob could see was hopelessness and death, but God was at work preserving life and fulfilling his promises. God would use this in the lives of his other sons to shape their character and refine them, as we will see as the story unfolds.
O may we have the faith to trust in God in the hard times! Place yourself in the good hands of our sovereign God. Let the pain of life drive us to worship a God that is too big for us to figure out.