Having been introduced to the difficult relationships in Jacob’s family in the previous passage, things now take a much darker turn. Jacob (aka Israel) sends his favourite son Joseph to go check on his brothers who have been out in Shechem pasturing the flocks. This is a journey of about 50 miles and puts Joseph outside of his father’s protection. On seeing him the brothers want to get revenge on him for his arrogance and this plays out initially in a desire to kill him, though a couple of the brothers have slightly different ideas.
Though the challenges we face may not take the exact same form as what happened to Joseph, difficult circumstances are something that we all have to face, and they can sometimes make us question what God is doing.
In this sermon we look at what is going in the hearts of the brothers and then how we can use this story to learn about how God works through our most difficult moments.
The Brothers: Callous Hatred
As Joseph approached the brothers, their first thought in verse 18 was to kill him and hide the body in a pit. The motive for this was clearly Joseph’s dreams as these were mentioned twice in the brief conversation about what they wanted to do (v.19-20). Because Joseph had spoken with arrogance and saw himself as superior to his brothers they were filled with resentment and hatred. It is possible that they also recognised that the dreams may be from God and hated the implication that there was something prophetic about them.
Often when others are recognised as having something that we want it can be easy to resent them. This is particularly true when they act in ways that are boastful, immature or dismissive. We must be careful not to allow bitter hatred to fill our hearts that makes us more concerned with tearing down someone else than following what God is calling us to.
Reuben: Half-Hearted Mercy
Reuben was the eldest brother and he did not fully go along with the plan to have Joseph killed. He agreed to part of the plan but suggested that rather than killing him outright, they throw him into the pit alive instead so that the blood would not be on their hands (although leaving him for dead in a pit would not be much of a distinction). Reuben had a secret intention to go back and rescue Joseph. Though he didn’t want his brother to die, he lacked the courage to speak up and oppose the plan outright. He went along with the crowd and operated through duplicity. He comes out of this story better than the other brothers do and yet still seems weak and half-hearted in his attempts to do the right thing. His cowardice ended up creating the opportunity for Joseph to be sold into slavery rather than rescued as Reuben had intended.
For many of us, the temptation that befell Reuben here is a real one that we struggle with often. Knowing the right thing to do is one thing, but when surrounded by a crowd of people with a different desire it can be hard to speak up. Trying to work around the situation and do the right thing in a secret way is better than nothing but can often lack the impact that being willing to boldly express our convictions can have.
Judah: Self-Interested Greed
Judah is the fourth-eldest son but is in pole position to inherit from his father because his three elder brothers have all disqualified themselves in some way (Reuben through sexual immorality and Simeon and Levi through extreme violence). His story is a fascinating one and interweaves with the Joseph narrative. Our first real introduction to Judah is here and we see a man who is out for personal gain with no interest in doing good for others. Whilst Reuben had a secret desire to see Joseph rescued, Judah was just out to turn a profit for himself and so when he saw some Ishmaelite traders passing by, he suggested that they sell Joseph to them and they received the slave price of twenty pieces of silver for him. The brothers then faked his death to their father and Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt.
At this point Judah is a classic example of a person just out for what he can get, no matter what this means for others. The desire for money and personal gain can be one of the biggest snares for our hearts and can derail our faith, steal our joy and prevent us from treating those around us with the love that God would call us to.
God – Sovereign Over All
It is no accident that God is not mentioned at all in this chapter. As the different characters are acting out their roles in the story, they are doing so with no thought for God. Nevertheless, God’s fingerprints are all over the story. As we zoom out and look at the Joseph story as a whole we see the God was manoeuvring Joseph into position as prime minister of Egypt to bring salvation to his brothers and many others through a time of famine. God worked it for good. Yet at the time, this was impossible to see and it looked like everything was falling apart. Joseph’s experience was that of being horribly mistreated, and we must be clear that God is not the author of this evil, nor is he the author of the evils that come our way, but God can and does turn that evil for good.
God is in control of our circumstances, and even when we go through difficult and painful times or are sinned against, we should hold on to the truth that God is at work, though it may not be until a lot further on in the story that we see what good he has brought about through our difficult times. In the mean time, the painful and confusing situations are real and we should not minimise the brokenness we see and experience. An appropriate response to the hardships of this world is both to cry in the present and to have hope for the future.
How Does It Point to Jesus?
Just like Joseph, Jesus is one who was sent by his Father to his brothers and was rejected. He too was sold for the price of a slave. He too had people plotting against him to put him to death because of their hatred and jealousy, but in the case of Jesus this plot was followed through and he was put to death. Through his rejection and suffering God was at work and brought salvation to many.