Monday, February 03, 2014

Joseph (part 8) - When Your Faith Is Tested

What do we do when our faith is tested today?  As we continue to look at the story of Joseph, we are going to see what happens to Jacob, his father, when his faith is tested.  First, let me very quickly catch you up to speed with where we are in this story.  Joseph's brothers travelled down to Egypt to get food because of the famine.  When they got there, they were brought before the prime minister, who was Joseph, but they have no idea that this was their younger brother who 20 years earlier they had thrown in a pit and sold into Egyptian slavery. 

Joseph put his brothers through a series of tests.  Why does he test them?  He does so because you can forgive somebody without their changing but you can't reconcile with somebody who hasn't changed.  You can't enter back into a relationship with them unless they've changed.  He needs to discern, “Have my brothers changed?”  So he accuses them all of being spies and throws them in prison for three days. 

They had told him that they were men from the land of Canaan and that they had a younger brother who was at home with his father.  Joseph ultimately says, “Here's what I'll do.  I'll give you a chance to prove your story.  I'll just keep one of you here as a prisoner.  I'll send the rest of you back.  Bring me back your younger brother to prove to me your story is true and I'll let you all go home.” 

So his brothers, minus Simeon who's thrown in jail, go back to their father in the land of Canaan.  They tell him what happened and Jacob responds in two ways.  Number one, he responds with fear – a fear that he might lose his precious youngest son, Benjamin.  He responds, number two, with continued favoritism - showing that he still loves the two sons of Rachel more than his other sons. 

Jacob has the opportunity at this point to be the spiritual leader of his home and say, “Listen, guys, it's a tough situation we're in and it's a dangerous situation, but we have a powerful God.  We can trust this God.  Let's go ahead back to Egypt.  Let's prove our innocence.  Let's get back Simeon.”  But that's not how Jacob responds. 

“Now the famine was severe in the land so it came about when they had finished eating the grain which they had brought from Egypt that their father said, go back, buy us a little food.” (Genesis 43:2)

Notice the time that has elapsed since the brothers got back to the land of Canaan to this moment.  It has been enough time that all of the grain that they brought back with them has been eaten so we can conclude that several months have passed.  How does Jacob respond to his testing of faith?  The first thing he does is to delay.  He doesn't immediately send Benjamin to Egypt.  Even though Simeon's life hangs in the balance, Jacob refuses at first to send Benjamin. 

The famine continues and the family eats all of the food they had originally brought back from Egypt and now they're in the same predicament they were in months earlier.  They are dangerously low on food and the only place they can get food is back in Egypt.  So not only do we see that Jacob delays, you could also add to this the fact that he was in denial because he simply tells his sons to go back to Egypt and get more food. 

Judah says, “Dad, we can't do that.  We told you that the prime minister said to us that if we return we have to bring Benjamin with us.  If we don't bring Benjamin with us, he will say we are all spies.  He will throw all of us in jail.  The only way we can go back is if Benjamin goes with us.”  Then Judah adds this, “I will take the responsibility for Benjamin.  Let me take him back.”  Notice what Jacob does in verse 6. 

“Then Israel said to his sons, ‘Why did you treat me so badly?’”

Jacob is now saying, “Why have you put me in this situation?”  I look at this and I want to say, “Jacob, what do you mean treat you badly?  How about Simeon?  He's back in an Egyptian prison.”  But Jacob is consumed with himself.  He's consumed with his trial.  He's consumed with his feelings.  You see, one of the worst ways that you can respond when your faith is tested is to make it all about you.  When you make it all about you and get that “woe is me” syndrome.

Jacob says, “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man that you still had another brother?”  He's saying, “Guys, why didn't you lie?  If you would have lied, we wouldn't be in this mess!”  What a great dad he is.  We saw this earlier.  Jacob's name literally meant “deceiver.”  Lying was second nature to him.  So not only does Jacob respond to his testing of faith with delay, he also responds with blame.  He blames his sons for the situation he's in.  He shifts the blame for his problem on to his sons. 

Often, that's what we do when our faith is tested.  We run into a time in our life when it's uncomfortable, when it's dangerous, when it's disappointing, when it hurts, when we have been treated unfairly, and what we tend to do in that situation is just blame our misfortune on everybody else around us.  That's what Jacob does. 

I love what happens next because it is Judah that finally steps up.  Judah does what this family has needed for over 20 years.  He steps up and does what his dad won't do.  He takes responsibility.  He says, “Dad, listen, if you need to blame somebody, blame me.  I'll take the blame.  If that will make you feel better, blame me.  Put it on me.  But this doesn't change the facts.  Here are the facts.  Simeon's in prison.  The only way to get Simeon out is to take Benjamin to Egypt.  We're dying because we're starving.  We are about out of food.  The only place to get food is Egypt.  If we don't take Benjamin with us, we'll never get food.  He'll throw us all in jail.  So Dad, if you need to put the blame on someone, put the blame on me.  That's fine.  But we've got to take control of the situation.  We've got to do something so I'll tell you what.  You put Benjamin in my care and I'll be surety for Benjamin.  If anything happens to Benjamin, if I don't bring him back to you safe and unharmed, you can kill me.” 

That's what Judah does.  He steps up.  To put it in modern vernacular, he “man’s up.”  He finally says, “Somebody needs to take responsibility.  Somebody needs to take the helm.  Somebody needs to take the bull by the horns and since dad won't do it and none of my other brothers will do it, I'll do it.  I will take responsibility.” 

And this appears to be the turning point in Judah's life.  Up until this moment, Judah has been a spiritual and moral failure.  We haven't talked a lot about Judah in the story because our emphasis has been on Joseph but let me quickly tell you a little bit about Judah.  Judah was the one who instigated throwing Joseph into the pit and selling him into slavery into Egypt.  Judah was so wicked that his sons picked up on his wickedness to the point that God killed his sons.  He was such a moral failure that one day Judah went out to find a prostitute.  What he didn't realize is that she was disguised and it was really his daughter-in-law and he impregnated his daughter-in-law thinking she was a prostitute.  This guy did not win the Sunday school awards when he was a kid.  He was a moral failure. 

At this point, however, we see a turning.  This guy, who's been a spiritual wreck his whole life, now takes responsibility.  That's what men do.  Men take responsibility.  Men take the lead.  And that's what Judah finally does.  For all of his life he's been a little boy running around in a man's body.  But finally he changes.  Notice what happens as we continue in verses 11 to 14. 

“Then their father Israel said, ‘If this must be, then do it.’”

How's that for obedience?  How's that for courage?  How's that for leadership?  Jacob basically responds saying, “Well, if it must be, then do it.”  He responds with total reluctance.  He is not courageous at all.  He feels his back is against the wall.  Don't you love it, parents when your children obey you like that?  Don't you just love it when they finally do what you say but they do it reluctantly?  You can tell by the look on their face, by their body posture, by their groans and their grunts.  Don't you just love it? 

I remember when my daughter was younger.  She learned sign language and became pretty good at it which was really cool until the first time I scolded her and she looked at me and she just waved her hands and walked away in disgust.  I don’t know sign language so I had no idea what she said but I could tell it wasn’t positive.  That's what Jacob does.  Reluctantly, he says,

“Take your brother, arise, return to the man and may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man.”

In the next phrase we continue to see his ongoing favoritism.  He again shows his disregard for all of his sons except Benjamin.  He says that “He (that mighty man in Egypt – the prime minister) may release to you two people, your other brother and Benjamin.”  He doesn't even use Simeon's name.  And then look at the last line. 

“And as for me, well, if I'm bereaved of my children, I'm bereaved.”

He reluctantly agrees, not because he's a man of courage, not because it's the right thing to do, not because he cares about Simeon who's in prison, not because his family is starving.  He reluctantly agrees because his back is against the wall.  He has no other alternative.  And as a result, he wallows in the mire of self-pity.  “And if I'm bereaved of my children, I'm bereaved.”  Woe is me.  No one likes me.  Everyone hates me.  I think I'll go eat worms.  That's Jacob. 

To be honest, that's what an awful lot of us do when our faith is tested.  When we get in those situations in our life that hurt and that are difficult, all too often we respond the same way.  We delay in doing what we know we should do.  We blame others for the predicament that we are in.  And finally, we reluctantly obey, but as we do we wallow in our own self-pity.   

We're going to move now from the response of Jacob to the repentance of his brothers and the story really gets good.  Here's what happens.  They're now going to go back to Egypt.  What I want to do is to give you a synopsis of the story that we find in chapters 43 and 44 of Genesis.   

First, we see the aim of the brothers.  All 11 of them now will go back to Egypt.  As they do, they have four purposes.  Number one, they want to return the money they found in their sacks when they left Egypt on the previous trip. Remember, on their last trip they bought food in Egypt but when they get home they discovered that the money they used to buy the food was back in their sacks.  They freaked out at this because they believed they were going to get accused of stealing the money.  So one of the reasons they're going back is to return the money.  In fact, if you read verse 15, you will discover they're not just going to return the money, they're going to double it.  They're going to return the money times two to show they're men of integrity. 

Their second purpose is that they want to prove they're not spies.  That's what the prime minister accused them of four times on their earlier trip.  The only way to prove different was to bring Benjamin back with them. 

Number three, they want to attain the release of Simeon.  Simeon has been in jail for months.  He was put in jail while they were all still in Egypt.  Then the brothers had to travel from Egypt back to the land of Canaan on foot which was 300 miles and would have taken several weeks, maybe even a couple months.  When they got back to the land of Canaan, their dad didn’t act right away.  He delayed for several months until the food they had brought back was down to just about nothing.  He then sent them back on the 300-mile trip to Egypt, another couple of months.  So Simeon has been in the prison for quite some time and they want to secure his release.

And then, number four, they need to buy more grain because if they don't bring back more food, the whole family dies.  Do you see the importance of this trip?  There's a lot riding in the balance and they need to accomplish these four very big things. 

Upon their arrival, Joseph sees from a distance that they brought Benjamin.  He orders that a feast be prepared and that they be summoned to come before him.  So he sends his steward to go to them and say, “The prime minister would like you to appear before him.”  The brothers are very scared because they think the reason the prime minister wants them to come before him is because he thinks they stole the money on their last trip.  They think he's going to bring them in, accuse them all of stealing the money and throw them all in prison, or worse, kill them all.  So they are very, very, very scared. 

They say to Joseph's steward, “We need to tell you something.  When we were going back to Israel last time, we found the money in our sacks that we had used to buy the food.  We have no idea how it got there.  You've got to believe us.  We need you to go back and tell the prime minister we're innocent.  We're even prepared to pay it back times two.  We're ready to make amends.”  I love what the steward does in verse 23.  He says, “Be at ease.”  The modern vernacular would be, “Chill out.”  Actually, in the Hebrew text, it's the word “shalom.”  It's the Jewish greeting even to this day.  It means “be at peace.”  It's a wish and a greeting – “God's peace be on your life.”  Then the steward says,

“Your God and the God of your father has given you treasures in your sack.”

The steward is saying, “Chill out.  Be at peace.  You're not in trouble.  Why are you reading so much into this?  Don't you know what happened?  Your God, the God of your great grandpa Abraham, the God of your grandpa Isaac, the God of your father Jacob has blessed you.  That's why the money was in your sacks.”  When your life is consumed with guilt because you haven't dealt with your past, it changes your perspective on everything - even the blessings of God. 

As I read this I can’t help but to ask myself this question, “Where do you think this Egyptian steward learned so much about the God of Israel?  Where do you think he learned about ‘shalom’?  Where do you think he learned about the patriarchs, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?  Where do you think this Egyptian steward learned all that?”  Well, it's pretty obvious, isn't it?  He learned it from Joseph. 

Joseph didn't just have an impact in saving multiple thousands of people from physical starvation.  Joseph had an impact in individual lives spiritually.  Contrast him with his father.  Jacob couldn't even have a spiritual impact in his own sons' lives in the way he responded to his test of faith.  But here's Joseph, and the way he responds doesn’t just result in him saving thousands from physical starvation, he is bringing the truth of the one true God to the land of Egypt one person at a time. 

When you go through the testing of your faith, when you go through those times of trials and disappointments, and you put the focus back on yourself, like Jacob did, and wallow in your own self-pity, you will miss some of the best opportunities God will ever set up for you to spiritually impact the lives of others.  You will impact people more during times of your affliction than you will ever be able to impact them during the times of your blessings. 

The steward reassures them.  He brings them water to wash their feet.  He brings them food for their donkeys and then he brings them all before Joseph and they lay out their gifts before the prime minister.  At that moment Joseph sees Benjamin up close.  Before he talks about Benjamin, he asks about his father.  He says, “How is your father doing, the aged father you told me about, is he still alive?”  Joseph is showing his heart.  For over 20 years he's been separated from his father whom he loved.  I imagine that for the better part of those 20 years he thought he would never see his father again but his heart is still connected to Dad.   

In verse 29, as he lifted his eyes he saw his brother Benjamin who he hadn’t seen in over 20 years.  The text says that he saw his brother Benjamin, “his mother’s son.”  Don't miss that phrase.  Keep in mind that the other ten brothers were only half-brothers of Joseph.  They shared the same father but Joseph has a different mother than the other ten brothers.  Benjamin is the only one that's different.  Joseph and Benjamin are full brothers.  Not only does the blood and DNA of their father flow through their veins but the blood and DNA of Rachel, their mother flow through their veins as well. 

I really do believe that Joseph is caught up, not in just seeing his little brother again, but when he looks in his little brother's face, he sees his mom.  Benjamin didn't know his mom.  She died giving birth to Benjamin but Joseph would have had much recollection of Rachel.  When he looks in Benjamin's eyes, he sees the eyes of his mother and his heart begins to break.  He says, “May God be gracious to you.”  Then notice what he does next. 

“And Joseph hurried out for he was deeply stirred over his brother.  And he sought a place to weep and he entered his chamber where he could be all by himself.  And he wept there.  Then he washed his face and came out.  He controlled himself and said, let's eat.”

Make no mistake about it.  Joseph's a real man and real men cry.  But notice, he does it where no one can see him.  Now that's a real man.  He goes where no one can see him and he bawls his eyes out.  Then he says, “Let's eat.”  That's a man's answer to every problem, right?  I just cried.  I just wept.  Now let's eat.  So he says, “Serve the meal.  It is time to eat.”

At this feast there would have been three different seating areas.  Joseph eats at one table by himself because he's the prime minister.  His Egyptian staff eat at another table.  And the 11 Hebrew men are at a third table.  Now, isn't that kind of strange?  Can you imagine being invited to someone's home for dinner and having them welcome you into their home and say, “It's time to eat.  Now, my husband and I are eating here at the dining room table but we set up a place for you two at the kitchen counter.  If you want to go in there and eat, please do.”  That would be strange today but not in that culture.  In that culture, Egyptians would never eat at the same table with Jews.  Their eating habits were different.  What they ate was different.  They just wouldn't do it.  It's kind of a weird scenario but it gets weirder. 

The brothers have assigned seats.  They're seated the firstborn according to his birthright all the way down to the youngest according to his youth.  In other words, Joseph seats them in chronological birth order from the oldest to the youngest.  They notice this.  It can’t be a coincidence.   They are now realizing that this prime minister knows more about them than they thought he did.  And the Bible says, “They were astonished.”  I think Joseph's dropping the big hint here.  He’s saying, “I know more about you than you think.  You just can't figure out why I do.” 

Joseph has the food served to them but Benjamin's portion was five times as much as the other brothers.  That's called “over the top.”  I don't know what they would have eaten in that Egyptian dinner but let's just say that this is the menu.  They start with salad.  So they bring out a nice, fresh, crisp salad and every brother gets a salad. But Benjamin gets five salads.  Now, that probably didn't excite Benjamin.  This kid brother's probably going, “You’ve got to be kidding me, five salads?”

Next, they bring out corn on the cob, dripping with butter and salt.  Every brother gets an ear of corn but Benjamin gets five ears of corn.  And he's thinking, “Things are looking up.”  Then they bring out baked potatoes, smothered with butter, sour cream and bacon bits, which those guys would have had to pick off because they're Jewish, but nonetheless, they’re smothered with all that good stuff.  And each of the brothers get a baked potato but Benjamin gets five baked potatoes. 

Then they bring out the main course - T-bone steaks.  Nice, thick, juicy T-bone steaks cooked medium, still pink, the way God intended it, and they bring every single man a steak but Benjamin, who must be on the Atkins diet, because he gets five steaks.  Can you imagine what the other brothers are doing? 

Then dessert - pineapple upside down cake - and every single man got one piece but Benjamin gets a piece five times the size of all the others.  Folks, that's called “over the top.”  But that's how it happened. 

So here's the question.  What in the world was Joseph doing?  Why would he do that?  Some commentators say he was communicating to his brothers, “I know who the only innocent one is.”  I don't think that's the case because throughout the whole story we don't see one iota of vengeance or bitterness in Joseph's life.  Some say this was Joseph's way of showing that he loved Benjamin more because he was his full brother.  I don't think that’s the case either because if there's anyone who understands the consequences that come with showing favoritism, it's Joseph. 

I believe that Joseph is setting up the final test to see if his brothers have really changed.  What he just did at dinner is going to set up the final test which will involve the prime minister's own silver cup.  Joseph is trying to discern if his brothers have changed.  Joseph knows that 20 years earlier, when his father Jacob went over the top in showing favoritism to Joseph by giving him that coat of many colors, that his brothers responded to that favoritism with hatred.  They hated Joseph and wanted to kill him.  Joseph needs to know if they have changed so he stirs the pot a little bit.  He's going to show over the top favoritism on Benjamin to see if his brothers still have the same animosity. 

Here's what he does to finish the test.  At the end of the dinner he says, “We're going to send you back to the land of Canaan.  I'll let you purchase more food.  We'll fill the sacks of your donkeys with food.”  He then privately says to his steward, “I want you to take my silver cup, the one I drink out of, and put it in the sack of the youngest brother.” 

The brothers have no idea this has happened.  They head back to Canaan, Simeon included, and just a couple hours after they leave, Joseph orders his men to go get them and search their stuff, find his golden cup, and bring them all back.  He's setting them up.  He wants to see how they'll respond when Benjamin, who just received “over the top” favoritism, looks guilty.  He wants to know if they hate Benjamin because of the favoritism and if they are willing “throw Benjamin under the bus” like they did him 20 years earlier. 

Joseph’s men catch up with them and say, “One of you stole the prime minister's cup.”  They deny it saying, “None of us stole the cup.  If you find that cup in any of our sacks, we will all become the prime minister's slaves.”  They searched the sacks and find the cup in Benjamin's.  They bring them back to the prime minister and Joseph says, “What in the world are you doing?  I was good to you.  I blessed you.  I gave you food.  And now you treat me like this?  You steal my cup?” 

In verses 18 through 34, Judah now gives a speech to the prime minister.  It’s the longest speech in the book of Genesis and it just might be the most passionate speech in the entire Bible.  He says, “Prime Minister, you need to know how much my youngest brother means to my dad.  If you take my youngest brother away from my dad, it will kill him and I can't bear to see that happen.”

Isn't that interesting?  A little over 20 years ago, Judah didn’t care about his dad's feelings at all.  Remember, they took Joseph's coat, made it look like he got killed by a wild animal, and for over 20 years Jacob has believed that lie and Judah has watched his dad suffer in agony because he thought Joseph was dead.  Judah now says, “I can't do it again.  I can't bear to see my dad hurt even more.”

He has the chance to throw Benjamin under the bus.  If he hasn’t changed he could say, “I can't believe Benjamin did that.  I guess he goes to jail.”  And they could have went back home and said, “Dad, it wasn't our fault.  Your favorite son made a big boo-boo.  He stole the prime minister's cup.  He was guilty.  They caught him red handed.  There was nothing we could do.  But instead here's what he says to the prime minister. 

“Therefore, please let me your servant remain instead of the lad.  Let me be a slave to my lord and let the lad go home with his brothers for how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my dad?”

Basically Judah is saying, “Sir, I know it looks like Benjamin's guilty.  But would you do me a big favor?  Would you let me take his place?  I'll be your slave for the rest of my life.  But please, please let Benjamin go home because if you don't it's going to kill my dad.  And I can't bear to see my dad hurting in the agony I've seen him hurting with for the last 20 years.”  And at this moment, Joseph realizes something.  He realizes that his brother has changed.  Judah's not the same scoundrel he used to be.  Judah's heart is now different.  And that sets up the most amazing part of the story as Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...the saga thickens..... : ) jackie