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The Lord Meant It for Good

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 12, 2000

Genesis 37:18-36

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Genesis 37:18-36
The Lord Meant It for Good

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me again to Genesis 37. Tonight we continue our study in this final section of the book of Genesis, Genesis 37 through 50 and the story of the life of Joseph. We said last time it was important to understand at least two things about this section of the book of Genesis. First the story of Joseph tells us how Israel wound up in Egypt, in order that Genesis 15, verses 13 and 14 could be fulfilled. When the land of Canaan would be given over to the children of Abraham after coming out of oppression in Egypt for 400 some odd years.

And then secondly, this section of Genesis explains how the promise of God in Genesis 12, verses 1 and 2 would be fulfilled. Remember God said there to Abram go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father's house to the land which I will show you, and I will make you a great nation. And so one of the themes of the story of Joseph is how God makes this great family into a great nation.

Now we already said that Egypt during this time was in the period of its middle kingdom. It was a very powerful country. There was peace in general in the land and prosperity. There was effective government and the historical descriptions of Egypt during these days according to Genesis 37 through 50 have been very largely corroborated by historians and Egyptologists and archeologists. Now there's a sense in which as we've have said this story of Joseph is the story of how God made a family into the nation. But the way in which He does this highlights His providence. Even in this section of the book where Joseph is clearly the main human character, the focus will always be on what God Himself is doing providentially in and through and around and above the life of Joseph. This human pattern which we have already seen running through the Old Testament where God sends a Deliverer or a Savior or a Leader to His people and the people reject that Deliverer or Leader or Savior, it begins right here with Joseph and it continues running through the Old Testament and even into the time of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so God providentially orders all things to fulfill His purposes and His promises to His people. And in this passage we see God give descendants and land and nationhood and blessing and spiritual stewardship eventually to Israel. But the way that He determines to do this involves the family of Jacob being subjected to the severest of trials.

So let's turn to Genesis 37 and the second half of that chapter to read this disheartening account of family strife and of Joseph's consequent slavery. This is God's word.

Genesis 37:18-36

Our Father, as we consider Your mysterious ways, Your overruling providence, Your inexplicable plan, we pray that our hearts would bow in submission, a willing submission to Your wisdom, to Your goodness and to Your love. Teach us how we ourselves must react in the uncertain circumstances of our times, in the bitter trials that we might sing with the hymnist whatever my God ordains is right. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.

Now because God's providence is so emphasized throughout this great story, we must remember that much more than simply the life and stake and future of Joseph, there is a greater theme, a greater story going on behind the figure of Joseph. Yes, he is central to the history that follows. But this is, at one level, the story, the book of Jacob. And so it is a book about the church as a whole, not just about Joseph. And much more it is the story of God's secret providence. Last week, as we began to look at the passage, we saw a number of things. God shows his electing choice in choosing Joseph to be the successor to his father as the patriarch in Genesis 37, verses 1 and 2. We also saw that Joseph was a favorite to his father, and that that very reality caused tremendous tension in the family; and actually set the stage for some of the things that will come to fruition tonight. We also saw in the dreams which Joseph was given. God clearly revealing what His plan was for Joseph so that we couldn't think that the things that are going to happen are coincidences. God is revealing these things by the oracle of dreams ahead of time in order to show us what His plan is for Joseph. Lest, we simply see this as a great adventure about an epic hero. I mean, really, take away the doctrine of providence and you still have a great story about an epic hero which would be right up there with any of the north sagas that you could read. But this isn't just a great story about an epic hero. This is a story about God's providence in the life of Joseph. And at the same time in verses 12 through 17 last week, we saw that Joseph was revealed as a diligent, hard-working, obedient son. Even ready to do things that were unpleasant. And into that context comes this great plot revealed in this passage.

Now, let me just pause before we look at the passage itself and say one thing. The word providence never occurs in Genesis 37. And so you may think, ah, you see you Presbyterians are reading the idea of providence back into Genesis 37. May I just ask you to turn to Genesis 50, verse 20 right now. Remember we are not reading the theme of providence back into the story of Genesis 37, verses 18 through 36. Joseph himself explicitly attributes these circumstances and the plot of his brothers against him to God's providence when he says you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. Now we're not reading anything into Genesis 37. In fact, we're just doing the bare minimum that Moses requires us to do in Genesis 50, verse 20 in order to understand what is actually happening in Genesis 37. Now there are three parts to the passage I'd like to look with you tonight.

I. The plot.
First, in verses 18 through 22 we see the plot hatched. And then in verses 23 through 28 we see Joseph actually sold into slavery and then in verses 29 through 36 we see the cover-up. Let's look at this pattern in the passage before us. First of all, in verses 18-22, as Joseph approaches, even while he is at a distance, the brothers begin to plot what they are going to do to dispose of him, and in this section of the passage, we see God's hand of providence restraining them initially from doing what they first wanted to do. And yet, in a dark and mysterious way, still allowing Joseph to undergo a tremendous trial. Dothan, as we now know form archaeological studies, had a sparse countryside in the time when Joseph and his brothers would have been grazing the sheep. And so it provided the ideal place for nomadic shepherds to take their sheep out and graze their flocks in the hills. That's where Joseph's brothers had come. And they saw him coming at a distance, and they immediately begin to hatch a plot to kill him; and the key instigators are not named, although, we kind of get a hint that Judah must have been involved, given his leadership later in the passage. But, whatever the case was, the brothers generally mock him and they refer to him as the dreamer.

Now let me say that at this point in his commentary, Calvin begins to go ballistic, because when they are mocking him as the dreamer, and as they will later mock the dream, Calvin points out that these brothers are, in fact, mocking the revelation of God. They are saying that God's word is not true and will not come true, and they are making light of it. Now remember that this is not a mere brotherly mocking that is going on, this is the rejection of the divine revelation which had been given. However unpleasant it may have been for them to listen to, it was a divine revelation. Now first, their plan was to murder him and then to throw him into one of the pits and then blame it as an encounter with a wild animal. But then, I want you to note that the brothers, in their plan, specifically mock the non-fulfillment of Joseph's dreams. Look at the second half of verse 20. Then, after they do this, after they throw him in the pit, after they kill him and throw him in the pit, then, let us see what will become of his dreams. You see why Calvin is so upset about this. They are saying that by their plan they are going to thwart the revelation of God. By their designs they are going to frustrate the designs of the Almighty. They believe that their course of action can derail Joseph's future as revealed in those dreams. Don't forget that. Don't forget that, it will come up again, and it is a point that Moses specifically wants to make.

Now immediately in this context, as the murder plot is hatching, Reuben, the oldest son, intervenes, and this is a sign of God's providential intervention on behalf of Joseph. Reuben suggests that rather than killing him that they ought merely throw Joseph in a pit. Now perhaps he is suggesting to them verbally that he be thrown into a pit and simply allowed to starve. Moses tells us that Reuben's design in doing that was to delay them killing him so that he could come back later on and rescue him. This is Reuben's was his way of forestalling the immediate death of Joseph and giving himself time to come up with some sort of plan about how to rescue him. Now Reuben had every reason to want to forestall what the brothers were plotting against Joseph. Not only do we know from his natural temperament that he would have been hesitant to participate in this kind of a plot; but, a brother's blood was sacrosanct, even as Judah, himself, will admit later on in this passage. It was an odious thing to spill the blood of a brother. He was the eldest brother and therefore directly answerable to the father. And remember, he was already on the outs with his father. This could be the straw that broke the camel's back. This could end up in Reuben being cast out from the home, and so he is very anxious to keep the brothers from carrying out their design.

You see, this passage reminds us of how second causes function in God's providence. In this passage you see two specific second causes. That is, two instruments that God uses in order to accomplish His will. The first instrument of God's purpose is the strife which exists in the family. God's purpose is to bring Israel into Egypt in order to accomplish His design. The first way He does this is in the family strife of Israel. That's the very circumstance, the context in which all these events unfold. The second circumstance which God uses, the second instrument, the second, second cause that God uses is Reuben. He uses Reuben's designs to prevent the immediate death of Joseph.

Now our confession talks about these second causes. In fact we had a question in the Inquirer's Class this morning about what is all this stuff about God's providence and second causes. Let me ask you to take your hymnals and turn back to pages 850 and 851. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 3, section 1, we read this very comprehensive statement about God's providence. "God, from all (this is page 850) eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. Yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but, rather established." The brothers did not have to be forced, like puppets, to hate Joseph. They did it because they wanted to. Reuben did not have to be forced, like a puppet, to attempt to rescue Joseph. He did it because he wanted to. But, this was God's plan to accomplish His will. That is what the Confession is talking about there. Now look across the page to 851 and look at what it says about God's providence because it again addresses this issue of second causes. Look at sections 1 and 2. "God the Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things from the greatest even to the least by His most wise and holy providence according to His infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of His own will to the praise or the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, "All things come to pass immutably and infallibly." Yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out according to nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely or contingently.

Now what the Confession is saying there, and by the way this is beautifully summarized, in the Shorter Catechism, question 11, which so many of us love to quote about God's providence. But this is simply stressing that God is the originator, He is the decreer, He is the first cause; but, He accomplishes His will through using the free actions of second causes so often. You know sometimes God works without second causes. He intervenes directly. But most often the Confession reminds us that he works through second causes and Derek Kidner does a wonderful summary of the second causes of this passage: "The scene of the conspiracy, a day's journey on from Shechem, was suitably remote from Hebron. Everything, from the ill-conceived errand to the chance meeting with the stranger combined to deliver Joseph into his brother's hands. Yet, it would turn out that God had been as watchful here as in any miracle." You see what Kidner is saying. God's hand is in this just as if He had worked a miracle to save Joseph. His providential hand is carrying out, restraining the brothers, but still delivering Joseph into Egypt.

II. Joseph sold.
Then if you’ll look with me at verses 23 through 28. Here Joseph is sold into slavery, and we see the cruelty of Joseph's brothers and another intervention of God's providence. As soon as Joseph arrives, he is stripped of his infamous tunic, and he is summarily thrown into a dry cistern. In this area of the world, cisterns would either be cut out of the limestone bedrock or they would be dug and then lined with plaster. Then they would be allowed to collect rain water to quench the thirst of both humans and animals. But during certain seasons of the year those cisterns were dry. That is the pit that Joseph was thrown into. In fact, the prophet, Jeremiah found himself in Jeremiah 38 thrown into such a pit.

The hard-heartedness of the brothers is seen in the fact that after throwing their brother into this pit, they sit down and they have a meal. Now the brothers themselves in Genesis 42, verse 21 tell us that while they were sitting down for that meal, Joseph was pleading with them. He was crying out to them. And Amos, the prophet, never forgets this. In Amos, chapter 6, verse 6. When Amos is pronouncing his woe, he says, "Woe to you who drink wine and eat bread when the travail of Joseph is still upon him." Now this is a horrible wickedness, and it shows you how intense is the hatred of Joseph's brothers for Joseph. In fact, Calvin at this point says, "You know, seeing this family, one knows why God graciously is sending Joseph into Egypt." He needs to be away from these brothers. It's a good thing to be away from these brothers. At any rate the hardheartedness of the brothers is clearly demonstrated in this action.

Meanwhile, in God's providence, a band of Ishmaelite traders from Gilead appear in the distance on their way to Egypt and the brothers see them and then Judah immediately suggests that they sell Joseph rather than kill him. Slave trade had been going on in the Near East from the earliest days. Slaves were usually captives of war or had been taken in raids, and this was a main travel route on the way down from Damascus into Egypt, and these traders were simply going along the normal coast road to the south. Their spices were a staple part of the trade with Egypt. And so Judah suggests that they sell Joseph rather than shedding his blood themselves and the other brothers agree with him in verses 26 and 27. And so when the Ishmaelite or Midianite and by the way, you’ll note that twice Ishmaelite is used, twice Midianite is used and you’re wondering what is going on here. Well, it seems that in the day that Moses was writing that Ishmaelite was used somewhat like we use the term Arab rather loosely. And that somehow the Ishmaelites and the Midianites were conceived to be either interchangeable or the Ishmaelites were seen to be related to or a subtribe of the Midianites. And therefore Moses feels happy to interchange those two terms. There are solutions that are offered, but this is the most plausible. At any rate as these traders come by, the brothers pull Joseph up out of the pit and they sell him for twenty shekels, about two years wages.

And so Joseph winds up in Egypt. And once again, God's providence forestalls Joseph's death by the use of unexpected means. This time by the use of these traders. Now that's very interesting because God's providence is working for Joseph here, but I wonder if Joseph sensed that God's providence was working for him. Joseph doesn't have the end of the story yet. Joseph doesn't have the benefit of being able to skip ahead thirteen chapters or twenty-three chapters or so and see the end of the story. And yet God's providence is at work. In fact, let me remind you of two different ways God's providence worked at Dothan. Dothan is the place where Joseph is taken into captivity. There is a time in Scripture when God's providence worked to rescue at Dothan. If you have your Bible handy you might want to turn to II Kings, chapter 6, verses 13 through 17. It was at Dothan that Elisha was surrounded by his enemies. It was at Dothan that Elisha prayed for deliverance. It was at Dothan that Elisha saw the hosts of the Lord surround him. It was at Dothan that Elisha prayed that the Lord would open his servant's eyes so that he could see that those who are with us are more than those who are against us. So at Dothan God did a mighty, a mighty rescue in answer to prayer. But at that same Dothan, God, though he restrains the vengeful, murderous plot of Joseph's brothers, seemingly doesn't answer Joseph's cries from the pit. Joseph surely would have been baffled by this. Joseph surely was wondering what in the world is going on. You see God's providence is a strange thing. And when we're in the midst of it we very rarely understand it.

Now I mentioned to you last week that the early church fathers saw in the life of Joseph a direct parallel with the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. And I simply point out that as Joseph's brothers plot to hand him over to the Gentiles, so also the ethnic brothers and Jewish religious leaders plotted to hand Jesus over to the Gentiles as we saw in Matthew 26, verses 3 and 4.

III. The cover up.
Then let's look at the third section of this passage. Verses 29 through 36. Here we see the cover up. God's providence is seen here in the brother's cruel hoax and in Joseph's descent into Egypt. When Reuben returns, Joseph is gone. Reuben apparently had gone to do some other duty, perhaps with the herds, perhaps he had been slipping away from the other brothers so that he could find a way to surreptitiously get back to the pit and rescue Joseph. But he goes back to the pit, Joseph is gone. He immediately goes into mourning in verse 29, and he expresses his distress to his brothers. And we are not told that there was any response from his brothers. Here is Reuben going into official mourning, tearing his clothes, venting his distress and his brothers apparently don't answer him a word. They simply go about covering up their crime. And in verse 31 we're told that they slaughter a goat in order to deceive Jacob.

Now let me just pause there and say isn't it an irony that as Jacob deceived his father with the food and the skins of two kid goats, so Jacob will now be deceived by his son's through the blood of a goat. God's providence is wise and appropriate and even just. For Jacob himself has spiritual lessons to learn in this passage from his own past. At any rate, Jacob, and we utterly feel for him here when he finally hears of this word in verses 34 and 35, will not be comforted. And it's emphasized again here that Joseph winds up in Egypt, specifically in a high-ranking Egyptian officer's service we're told in verse 36. But we're told again surely in all this Joseph was baffled. The ways of God's providence are appropriate and just. We see this in God's dealing with Jacob. But the ways of God's providence are often inscrutable and we see this with Joseph. The bright side of the story, the silver lining in the dark cloud, the pot gold at the end of the rainbow is hardly apparent to Joseph at this point in time. Surely he is baffled.

Again, by the way, the early church fathers point out that just as the brethren plotted to cover up their plot, so also the Jews plotted to cover up their plot against the Lord Jesus in Matthew 27, verses 62 through 66 and 28, verses 11 through 15. God's providence is inscrutable. The way of God's providence is appropriate. But we don't always see what he's doing. And yet even in the midst of this dark providence, God gives Jacob an opportunity to give us a picture of God's own heart for the unity of the brethren. When Jacob is met with the news of his son's apparent death, he refuses to be comforted.

And does that not remind you of something that Jesus Himself taught us in Matthew, chapter 18. Turn forward with me there. Jesus is speaking about our relationship even to the least of the brethren in the kingdom. In Matthew, chapter 18, verse 6 He utters this very sharp warning. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck and that he be drowned in the depths of the sea." He's showing how intensely He cares for His little ones. But then look what He goes on to say about the love of His Heavenly Father in verse 10: "See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I say to you that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father, who is in heaven." The disconcerting refusal of the Father to be reconciled to his loss illustrates Jesus’ gospel saying about the attitude of His Father to brotherly devaluations. The Heavenly Father will not be comforted when there is hatred between the brethren. And He will not stand by without concern and that concern is expressed here in Matthew 18, verse 10 in the fact that the angels of His little ones are before Him in glory.

In this passage we see God's providence. We see the cruelty of the brothers. Isn't it horrific they can't even bring themselves to use the name Joseph. When they come to Jacob they say, "Is this your son's tunic?" And Moses wants us to see the intensity of this strife because in God's providence, God is not only going to make a great nation out of Israel, He is going to restore or perhaps grant for the first time love between this strife-ridden family. God's providence is wise and good and loving and just. And we need to learn in our own experience to bow the knee to it and say whatever my God ordains is right. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, it is an easy thing in happy times to embrace Your providence. But when we ourselves are surrounded by family division, by inscrutable discouragements, by seemingly meaningless afflictions and by hopelessness, it is the last thing in the world we want to do to embrace Your sovereign providence, and yet O God, the very secret of our faith is to trust You despite all the evidence to the contrary. Help us then for our sakes, for our good, and for Your own glory to trust in You and to remember that You move in a mysterious way, Your wonders to perform. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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