Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The suffering of Joseph

The story of Joseph is one of the most wonderful stories in the Bible. Broadway even made a musical based on this incredible account.

You can read about Joseph in Genesis, chapters 37-50. I'd recommend that you read it in a more modern translation to get the full effect of the drama. Try the NIV or the NLT.

Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham who was called by God to be the father of God's special chosen nation.

Joseph arrived in the middle of a rather sticky family situation. His father, Jacob, had married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob loved Rachel, but her father tricked him into marrying Leah first, because she was the older sister. Right off the bat we have an unloved wife and a favored wife.

Leah was fertile and produced sons, but Rachel was barren. This only added to the rivalry between the two of them. After Leah birthed four sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah), Rachel became so upset and jealous that she told Jacob to sleep with her handmaiden and thus produce some children for her. Two more sons (Dan and Naphtali) were born this way, to Rachel's servant, Bilhah.

Leah saw what was happening and offered her own handmaiden, Zilpah, to Jacob to surrogate for her. Zilpah produced two more sons, Gad and Asher.

Then Leah herself had two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun.

By then, Rachel was probably tearing her hair out, hovering on the verge of a nervous breakdown. God finally opened her womb and gave her a son, Joseph.

So you see, Joseph was not born into an ideal family situation. He was, at the time, the youngest of the sons from four different women who were all wives (of a sort) of his father. His mother was the favorite wife, so he was the favorite son. This may not sound like a suffering situation, but think about it... ten older brothers who all had reason to resent him and be jealous of him. Sounds pretty scary to me.

Then Rachel conceived again and bore a twelfth son for Jacob (Benjamin was his name). Unfortunately, this time Rachel died in childbirth. Now Joseph didn't even have a mother to stand up for him in the middle of the fray.

Jacob, because he loved Joseph best, gave him a fancy (many colored) coat and favored him over his brothers. Jacob put Joseph in a position of authority over his brothers. As family manager, Joseph brought his father some bad reports about how his brothers were conducting themselves.

Little brothers who get special gifts and privileges and who "tattle-tale" do not gain much popularity with their older siblings.

But things got even worse. Joseph had some dreams full of symbols that suggested that he would one day rule over his family. Being young and brash (perhaps even in reaction to hostilities that the brothers may have expressed against him), Joseph did not keep these dreams to himself; he told his family all about them. Maybe he shouldn't have done this, but it worked right into God's eternal plan. Joseph's brothers became so angry, they finally decided to kill him.

Joseph's brothers worked at pasturing flocks... they traveled with the family animals to find food and water. One day Jacob sent Joseph out again to check up on them (poor kid, he was only 17). On this particular day, when the brothers saw Joseph coming, they devised a plan to get rid of him. When he caught up with them, they grabbed him, stripped off his fancy robe, and threw him into a pit. The eldest, Reuben, had some second thoughts at this point and he encouraged the others to wait and not commit immediate murder. He was trying to figure out a way to sneak back and get Joseph out of the pit.

The plan was to tear up the robe, cover it with the blood of an animal, and take it back to Jacob with the story that a wild animal got Joseph while he was out and about. Reuben went off somewhere, and the rest of the brothers sat down to eat.

About this time, a caravan of merchants came by, and Judah (who, like Reuben, was hoping to avoid killing his brother) talked the group into selling Joseph as a slave. The merchants gave the brothers twenty shekels of silver and took Joseph down to Egypt.

Are you starting to see yet how Joseph suffered? Lost his mother, hated by his brothers, stripped of his clothes, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery. Do you think he was tempted to be depressed? Do you think he wondered, "Why me?"

He must have held together enough to appear to be a good buy. When Joseph hit the Egyptian market, Potiphar, the captain of the king's army, purchased him to be his slave. Joseph wound up in a rather influential, prosperous household. Moreover, Joseph worked diligently and capably, and Potiphar trusted him implicitly with all he had. The Bible says that Joseph managed everything for Potiphar; the only thing Potiphar did was pick out the menu for his chef to cook each day. Although it stinks to be a slave, Joseph was clearly making the best of it, working hard, trusting God, maintaining a positive attitude.

Unfortunately, Potiphar's wife noticed what a cracker-jack Joseph was and took a shine to him. Clearly he was gifted and intelligent; this suggests that he was also handsome and charming. Joseph did his best to elude her advances, explaining to her that he had no desire to do this wicked thing and thus sin against God. But one day, she caught him all alone and grabbed onto his clothes, demanding that he go to bed with her. Joseph, upstanding guy that he was, ran away as fast as he could. She, however, had held his garment so tightly, she ended up with it in her hands after he fled. She looked down and saw it, and then she began to scream.

When the other servants came to see what was the matter, she made up a lie. She told them that Joseph had tried to take advantage of her. This part of the story makes me so mad! There is nothing that frustrates me more than when somebody does the right thing and gets punished for it. I have to keep reminding myself, this is part of God's plan.

Poor Joseph was thrown into prison. I think we all need to take attitude lessons from Joseph, because even in prison he worked hard and stayed positive. The prison officials recognized what a great guy he was, and they put Joseph in charge of the prison, over all the prisoners.

God was clearly working in and around Joseph, lifting his heart, giving him favor with those above him. I don't think any of us could have gone through the things Joseph underwent and exhibited the grace and hope that Joseph exhibited without the power of God at work in us. They say it's lonely at the top, but that's what happened to Joseph time and time again: he became a manager; he was in charge; he was faithful; he was unpopular; he stayed positive. The grace God can pour on a life is just amazing to me.

In the prison, a couple of prisoners had dreams. They had been special servants of the king, and they were very curious about what their dreams meant. Joseph was gifted at interpreting dreams, so (with God's help) he interpreted theirs. According to these dreams, the king's former cupbearer would be restored to his old job within three days. The king's former baker would be executed by hanging. Joseph's interpretations came true, and Joseph asked the cupbearer to please speak to the king about getting him out of prison, too.

The cupbearer forgot about Joseph for two more years.

I'm not kidding. Joseph had a tough life. It seems like everything just went wrong for him, again and again.

But behind the scenes, in God's perfect plan, God's perfect timing, everything was happening right on schedule.

Two years later, the king had a dream one night and wanted to know what it meant. Finally the cupbearer remembered Joseph. They pulled Joseph out of prison and cleaned him up, shaved him, gave him some decent clothes. Joseph then interpreted the king's dream, which was a message of an impending famine in the land. This famine would come after seven years of bountiful harvests.

"Whatever shall I do?" asked the king.

"Choose a wise manager to store up grain during the plentiful years so there will be food to eat during the years of famine," said Joseph.

"Will you do it?" asked the king.

And of course, Joseph took it on. In so doing, Joseph was in position to offer food and sanctuary to all of his father's family, all the sons of Jacob... all the sons of Israel. When the famine hit, the children of Israel survived because of how God had worked in Joseph's life to bring him to a place where he could provide for his people.

Joseph suffered like crazy. His mom died, his bothers hated him, he was stripped and thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, unjustly imprisoned, and finally forgotten for an extra two years.

In the end, Joseph rose to a position of great power in Egypt and saved the lives of his entire family.

Was it worth it to him? It must have been. When he revealed himself to his brothers, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve your life." (Genesis 45:4-5, ESV) Later, he told them again, "As for me, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." (Genesis 50:20, ESV)

Whether or not it was worth it to Joseph, though, it was worth everything to us. God used Joseph as His special instrument to preserve the nation of Israel. Why? So that Jesus Christ would one day be born from these ancestors. From the line of Judah, brother of Joseph, at just the right time, Jesus, the Savior of the World was born.

Joseph suffered so that one day Jesus was born.

God uses suffering.

But wait, there's more...

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