How Do I React In Difficult Times
May 31, 2015
Genesis 45:1-8; 50:15-21
HOW DO I REACT IN DIFFICULT TIMES?
Genesis 45:1-8; 50:15-21
June 21, 2015
Two weeks ago I spoke on the awful situation between Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, and Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar - and how one of their twin sons, Perez, was the ancestor of the kings of Israel and Jesus. Good came from the evil actions of both Judah and Tamar in the birth of the boys.
Today, I wanted to backtrack to before this event to the time when the 10 oldest sons of Jacob had sold their father’s favourite son to some traders who were on their way to Egypt, in essence making him a slave.
When the Midianite (Ishmaelite) traders reached Egypt, they sold Joseph as a slave to an officer and official in Pharaoh’s court, the captain of the guard, named Potiphar.
We are told that YHWH was with Joseph even though he was a slave (39:3), and Joseph applied himself to his duties to such a degree, that he ended up being the manager of the whole household – the one slave who was in charge of the other slaves, of purchasing goods, of making sure the family had everything they needed. We are told that Potiphar even entrusted his business dealings to Joseph.
However, Potiphar had a wife that continually tried to seduce him. But he rebuffed all her advances.
One time, when he ran from the house and left behind his outer garment in her hands, she accused him of making advances toward her and Potiphar had Joseph thrown into that part of the dungeon reserved for Pharaoh’s prisoners.
The fact that Joseph wasn’t executed immediately, the usual punishment for adultery, may indicate that Potiphar, while incensed, may not have believed his wife completely.
We are told that YWHW was with Joseph in prison (39:21), and again, Joseph applied himself to such a degree in the prison, that eventually the warden, much like Potiphar, entrusted the other prisoners and their care into Joseph’s hands.
Time passed, possible years (40:1 – some time later). While Joseph was in prison, the chief cup-bearer and chief baker of Pharaoh, displeased their ruler in some way … possibly the wine was not very good or maybe a dish didn’t taste well. It didn’t have to be much to send them to the dungeons – or to the gallows.
Again we are told that a long time passed (40:4b), possibly years, and then, in the same night both of these former officials had a dream which they couldn’t interpret.
However, Joseph was in fact able to tell them the meaning of their dreams: the cupbearer would be restored to his former position, while the chief baker would be hanged. And so it happened.
Joseph made the cupbearer promise that when he was back in Pharaoh’s court, to put in a good word for Joseph, but once released, that promise went out the window and the cupbearer put his former prison-mate out of his mind and never said anything. Joseph continued to languish in prison. For another two years, we are told.
13 years had passed since Joseph was sold by his brothers (37:2; 41:46). On his 30th b.day he was still in prison.
A number of things struck me about Joseph during all of this. First of all, he never seemed to complain about the difficulties and injustices he had to endure. He had become a slave against his will, a person without personal standing and rights, a piece of property in essence. Then he was falsely accused and ended up in the dungeon reserved for Pharaoh’s own prisoners … for years. Then the person who promised to put in a good word for him didn’t. No complaints recorded.
Second, Joseph was always able to make the best out of a very bad situation. An imprisoned slave without a future. Such a horrible situation, it would have paralyzed many men into inaction or despair. Not so Joseph. He saw even the worst events as opportunities and worked hard to improve his lot.
I don’t know about you, but I would have a very hard time not getting upset and whining and yammering about what was happening to me and how unfair it all was and complaining to God that he didn’t care for me.
If I had to experience what Joseph did, I likely would likely have ended up in despair and inaction. If my life is going in the toilet, why even try to improve the situation? – it’s all so futile in any case.
Then one night, Pharaoh had a number of very vivid dreams – 7 skinny cows eating 7 fat cows, and 7 poor heads of grain consuming 7 healthy heads of grain.
(The great pyramids and the great sphinx at Giza have already been in existence for about 700 years at the time of Joseph).
He wanted these dreams interpreted, but none of the wise men in Pharaoh’s court could tell him what they meant.
Then the chief cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about this young man in prison who had interpreted his own dream correctly.
Joseph had to wash, shave and put on new clothes before he was ushered in Pharaoh’s presence where he told Pharaoh that 7 years of good harvest would be followed by 7 years of severe famine because there wouldn’t be a harvest. He advised Pharaoh to set aside 1/5th of the harvest during the good years, and set it aside so that there would be food during the bad years.
By the way, this was all about wise financial stewardship. Save when things are going well so that you can survive should things not go so well. I think that many younger couples think that they cannot save. The reality is that just about everyone can save if they are frugal when it comes to spending. The problem is that we are not used to being frugal.
Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph and his advice that he put him in charge and gave Joseph his signet ring so he had the authority to bring about any decisions that he might make.
Joseph travelled throughout Egypt and made sure each city stored up huge amounts of grain over the first seven years of plenty. When the drought came and there was no food, every country in that region suffered starvation, except the people living in Egypt. The Egyptians could buy the grain in the storehouses. But others from foreign countries also came to buy grain, including Joseph’s 10 older brothers.
They travelled from Canaan by donkey, likely along the coast line, and they found out that the official in charge of the grain needed to be approached. This, of course, was Joseph, so they travelled to the capital, which at the time was Al Lisht.
They sought an audience and when they were ushered into Joseph’s presence. They bowed down all the way to the ground before this high-ranking Egyptian official. I don’t know if you remember his dreams as a 17 year old in which his brothers bowed down to him.
Now keep in mind, it's been over 22 years (45:6; 30 + 7 + 2 – 17), since they’ve seen their brother and they did not recognize him. But he recognized them – the very ones who had sold him to those travelling merchants.
Even though Joseph could still speak and understand Hebrew, he pretended he couldn’t and, through an interpreter, accused them of being spies. Despite their protests to the contrary he had them thrown in prison for 3 days.
After the 3 days, he released 9 of them, keeping Simeon detained. He let the 9 have the grain they wanted to purchase, but told them if they didn’t bring Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, to Egypt he would have Simeon executed. If they did bring him back, then they would prove to him that they aren’t liars, ergo, no spies, and Simeon would be released. However, they are told not even to attempt to come back without their youngest brother.
The 9 left, not knowing that Joseph had the silver coins they had used to purchase the grain, placed into the sacks of grain. They only found the money when they emptied the sacks. When they got back to their father Jacob, they told him what had happened.
Jacob refused to send them back to Egypt with Benjamin. Months passed. Finally, all of the purchased grain was used up. In desperation Jacob agrees to let Benjamin go back to Egypt with his brothers, but he told them to take twice the amount of silver with them – to pay for the first time that they had received grain, as well as for this second time. Judah vouched for Benjamin’s safety.
So the 9 and their youngest brother hurried back to Egypt. When Joseph heard that his brothers had arrived with Benjamin, he had a feast prepared for lunch at his own house. But when the brothers were taken to Joseph’s private residence they were petrified because they thought they would be executed for the money they had found in their sacks.
Instead, Simeon was released and joined them before Joseph arrived at noon. The brothers again bowed down to the ground before him.
When Joseph met Benjamin, his only full brother, he had to rush out of the room to cry. At lunch time, Joseph ate by himself, his Egyptian attendance ate at another table, and the brothers ate at yet another, because Egyptians refused to eat with Jews – anti-Semitism was rife even back then.
The steward was told to fill the sacks with grain during the night, and add the silver used to purchase the grain back into them (as he had done previously). But this time, the steward was also to place Joseph’s personal drinking cup of silver in Benjamin’s sack. After the brothers left early the next morning to travel back to Canaan, the steward was told to rush after the brothers and accuse them of stealing.
This he did. When confronted, the brothers, assured of their innocence, told the steward that if anyone had a stolen item in their possession he can be executed and the rest would become Joseph’s slaves.
The steward agreed, but reduced the punishment to enslavement of the guilty party while the rest were free to go home.
Of course the unwitting culprit was Benjamin. But instead of abandoning Benjamin and traveling home, they all went back to see Joseph. None of them were willing to travel back to their father Jacob without Benjamin, his favourite son. And again they threw themselves to the ground before Joseph to plead for mercy.
Judah ends up making this lengthy speech about the fact that Jacob would die heartbroken if Benjamin had to remain in Egypt, and pleaded that he would be allowed to take Benjamin’s place as a slave.
The behaviour of his older brothers had convinced Joseph that they had fundamentally changed. They were now sincerely concerned for their father’s well-being, whereas before they didn’t care that they had broken his heart by telling him that Joseph had been killed. They were also willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the youngest, demonstrating the solidarity and love that had been absent those many years ago.
This is where our passage starts:
45:1 Then Joseph could no longer contain himself in the presence of all his attendants, so he called out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one attending Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him so that Pharaoh’s household heard about it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers [in Hebrew now without an interpreter], “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified by him.
Joseph wept so loudly that his sobs could be heard by his Egyptian officials and attendants, even though he had them leave the room. And, as it happens, news travelled fast to Pharaoh’s household, that Joseph had been so emotional because of the Jews that had come to see him.
But the brothers were even more terrified at this revelation that he is not only a high ranking Egyptian official who had their lives in his hand, but that he was their brother, the one who they can expect to carry a huge grudge against them because of what they had done to him.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.”
When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 But don’t be distressed nor angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
6 So far there have been two years of famine in the land, and there are still five years to go when there will be no plowing or harvesting. 7 Therefore God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, a great number of survivors. 8 So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
He continues on, convincing them to come and join him in Egypt with their families and their father so that he could look after them.
He then embraces his brother Benjamin and weeps a third time.
In Joseph’s words to his brothers, we discover the overarching point of the whole account of Joseph’s life. While God may not have orchestrated the negative events in his life directly, God was involved enough to make sure that Joseph would get into a position where he had the ability and power to save many from starvation and misery, including those of his own family, if he applied himself.
So Joseph provided his brothers with carts and provisions and money and gifts, and sent them back to Jacob his father in order to convince Jacob to move to Egypt, which they all did – 66 men and their wives – quite a group. And they settled in the Nile delta, in an area called Goshen.
Another 17 years passed and Jacob died, but not before having Joseph swear an oath that he would ensure that he would be buried in Canaan in a cave near Mamre, where his grandparents, Abraham & Sarah, his father and mother, Isaac & Rebekka, and his wife Leah were already interred. This promise Joseph fulfilled with huge pomp and circumstance.
This brings us back to our second passage in Gen 50.
50:15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, as follows: “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph, please, please forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed, for they have done evil to you.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of our father.”
As you can see, even after 17 years together in Egypt, Joseph’s older brothers thought that he might take the death of their father as an opportunity to avenge himself, since Jacob would not be there to witness it.
When their message came to him, Joseph wept [I think Joseph wasn’t just an emotional guy, he was truly saddened that his brothers still didn’t trust him]. 18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “Look, we are your slaves,” they said. 19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Again, this is really THE point of the story of Joseph. God was working behind the scenes all the time. He can take the confusion and mess of human sin and guilt and allow something good to come from it. God’s purpose was then and is now to preserve life.
God is sovereign and in control whether we are in the pit or on top of the world.
What do we do when it appears that there's nothing we can do? What do you do when we have a problem that seems to have no solution; questions that have no answers? What if our circumstances are so challenging there appears no way forward and no way out? Our job, our marriage, or our life is stuck. We're miles from where we want to be, apparently with no good options.
What do we do when there’s nothing we can do?
Relationally, financially, professionally, physically, or academically, it just is what it is. There’s nothing we can do to change our situation, and it appears that nothing good will ever come of this.
If that’s the case, we will be tempted to run or give up. We’ll be tempted to give in to anger and resentment, or anxiety and fear. We will be tempted to ask, “Where is God in all of this? Is he absent, apathetic, mean?”
But what if God actually does care? Is it possible to hang on to joy, hope, and patience in the meantime? Is it possible to take even our seemingly unalterable afflictions, illnesses, losses, pains, and disabilities as an avenue for God to work something good in our lives?
Maybe you know people who have extraordinary faith despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Maybe you know of those who are at peace within even though their lives are very challenging.
They aren’t resentful or angry with God. They actually believe that something good WILL come from the bad. They believe that God can redeem, use, or work through the undeserved, unavoidable, circumstantial trials in their lives. They actually seem content in a situation we may think of as unbearable.
I think of Nick Vujicic, for example.
Who would have thought that this little kid without arms and legs would be able to accomplish anything with his life? But he has. In fact, he’s accomplished so much more than most able-bodied people.
I’m not saying that it would have been easy for him growing up. But he was determined not to allow his disability to keep him from making a real difference for God.
That doesn’t mean that Nick could change his physical disability. But he had the power to shape what his life would become. He had the ability to make the best of his situation. This is what Joseph did. He took what seemed to be the horrible hand that was dealt to him and made the very best out of it.
Sometimes we may need to change our strategy, our approach to our problems or our lives in general, before we can deal positively with a situation we are facing, and even overcome it.
Can I, can you, still strive to improve a seemingly hopeless situation? Absolutely, we can.
Nick is able to inspire and encourage those who are facing the same unavoidable circumstances that he faces. With tenacity and perseverance.
Can we use our problems to inspire others, possibly those who are facing the same road that we had to walk in the past or even now? You see we always have the choice of either tearing someone down or lifting them up. May we all be those who lift up.
Nick used his mess to write an inspiring story with his life – to be an example of what it means to go on despite adversity and suffering.
Can I trust God that somehow, something good can and will come even from the worst of situations … the death of a child, the loss of a job, the dissolution of a marriage, chronic pain, permanent disability?
Joseph never lost sight of God … it kept his moral compass alive when it would have been so easy to compromise (39:9). It would have been easy to take personal credit for the interpretation of the dreams, instead of constantly pointing out that God is the one who gives the ability to do so (40:8; 41:16,25,28).
No matter what happened, Joseph never lost his devotion to God.
Nick also focuses on his blessings and abilities, rather than his difficulties and limitations. He is filled with gratitude at how God has dealt with him and allowed him to rise above all the limitations that others may have placed on him.
The story of Joseph is really about God using the worst of situations to bring something good from it. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8,
All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
This brings me to my final questioSn:
WILL I ALLOW THE SET BACKS AND DIFFICULTIES IN MY LIFE TO DETERMINE MY LIFE?
WHAT WILL I KEEP DOING DESPITE OF MY PROBLEMS? WILL I ALLOW THOSE HORRIFIC EVENTS TO STRENGTHEN MY FAITH AND TO BECOME THE SOURCE OF MY CARE AND HELP FOR OTHERS WHO ARE FACING THE SAME CHALLENGES?