Life can have many “turning points”. We expect and anticipate some of these: graduation, marriage, parenthood, for instance, and the new periods they usher in. Other events, unexpected and seemingly insignificant at the time, initiate new directions in life. One day Jacob learned “…there was corn in Egypt” (Gen 42:1). This began a chain of events that took Jacob from Canaan to Egypt where he eventually died.
Jacob’s history is easily divided into three periods: youth, mature years and old age. This is also true for most individuals, though not all, for all do not reach old age. Jacob’s “youth” was longer than an average life span today, about seventy-five years. His active mature years, when he married and raised his family, spanned another thirty-four years. These ended when Jacob was 109 years old. Then his favorite son, Joseph, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, who also deceived Jacob into believing Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Jacob’s old age covered 38 more years, until his death at age 147.
The Bible is largely silent about Jacob’s youth. The only recorded event of this youth is of the bargain he made with his twin brother, Esau. Esau relinquished his birthright to Jacob for one meal of red pottage. Other events in the lives of his father and grandfather also shaped his development in those unrecorded years. The period with the greatest detail for the life of Jacob covers his thirty-four mature years.
The Bible gives few details regarding Jacob’s old age. From Genesis 37:34, when his sons brought the tidings of Joseph that led Jacob to believe he was dead, until Genesis 42:1, Jacob is not mentioned. Chapter 38 relates Judah’s shameful adultery with Tamar, his daughter in law. Chapters 39 through 41 cover events in Joseph’s life in Egypt. These chapters span twenty silent years in Jacob’s life. Though he is unmentioned in that period of his life, there is an event involving his sons that looms large in his life and marks a major turning point.
The Lord was with Joseph
These striking words from Genesis 39 reveal a remarkable feature of the life of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph. In our previous article, we considered the hatred of his brothers toward Joseph. Twelve years passed after they sold him into slavery in Egypt. His brothers forgot him and their sin against him, but God had not forgotten Joseph nor their sin. The Midianites who bought him, sold Joseph to Potiphar, “an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard” (Gen 39:1). Potiphar found Joseph a faithful servant and appointed him overseer of his household. Potiphar’s wife tried to entice Joseph into sin with her, but he refused saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (v 9). She became enraged and raised a false charge against Joseph. This caused Potiphar to put Joseph in prison.
Who could have blamed Joseph if he became depressed? First his brothers sold him into slavery. Then, even after doing his work well, he found himself in prison because of a false accusation. In spite of his circumstances, Joseph maintained a cheerful and faithful spirit because he had confidence that God’s promises to him would happen in God’s own time and way God had revealed in a dream that his brothers would one day bow before him. That could not happen in prison. Joseph was content to wait for God’s day to deliver him out of prison. Meanwhile, he diligently and cheerfully did those tasks assigned him without complaint.
God had not forgotten Joseph. Four times in Genesis 39, we read, “The LORD was with Joseph” (vs 2,3, 21 and 23). His masters recognized this, “and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand” (v 3). They saw him not only as a faithful steward who did his work well, but they understood that the secret of his excellent work was that he had God with him. Potiphar entrusted him with everything in his household. The keeper of the prison gave him total responsibility for everything done there.
God’s time for delivering Joseph came when he was thirty. He had been in Egypt twelve years. In one of the most striking examples of divine providence in the bible, Joseph went directly from prison to become second ruler in Egypt. First he interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams to him. God revealed that there would be seven bountiful harvests in the land of Egypt followed by seven years of famine. Then Joseph was given full responsibility for storage of the crops gathered in the seven good years. Eight more years would pass before Joseph’s brothers bowed before him but Joseph had now advanced to the place that God ordained he should have.
“Be Sure Your Sin will Find You Out.” These words from Numbers 32:23 reveal a divine principle that never fails. His brothers might forget their sin against Joseph, but God would not. Twenty years after their deed, God worked behind the scenes to demonstrate this principle to them. The famine in Egypt was also in Canaan where Jacob and his sons lived. God used the famine to bring Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to bow in supplication before him.
In the Bible, famine usually comes as divine judgment, but that was not the primary reason for this one. As it worsened, Jacob and his sons heard of provisions in Egypt. Jacob sent them there to buy food for their families. Their journey to Egypt followed the same route that Joseph had traveled twenty years earlier. Did they mention him to one another? Did they remember his dream of their sheaves in the field bowing to his sheaf? (Gen 37:4)? Did they wonder where he might now be in Egypt? In their wildest imagination they would never anticipate that his dream would soon be fulfilled.
At their journey’s end they came into Joseph’s presence. Joseph knew them, but they did not recognize him. Twenty years make a significant difference in a man , s appearance, and he spoke to them through an interpreter. He “remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them” (Gen 42:9). He questioned them about Jacob and his brother, Benjamin. He learned from them that both were still alive.
Joseph did not make himself known to them immediately because he would first bring their guilt to remembrance. He accused them of being spies (Gen 42:9). He demanded that one of them return to Canaan to bring Benjamin to prove their truthfulness. He put them into prison for three days. Then he released all but Simeon who remained in prison. He gave strict instructions to the other nine that they were not to return without bringing Benjamin with them. Their consciences began to work as they stood before Joseph. They acknowledged to one another that this great difficulty in which they found themselves was because of their sin against Joseph. We shall leave further consideration of how their sin was exposed to the next article.
Points to Ponder
We have noted, “The LORD was with Joseph. ” We too have the Lord’s promise of His presence with us, which was such a striking a feature of the life of Joseph. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 28:20, “…lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (or “age”).” No matter how unpleasant the sneer or opposition of others, we are never alone in racing them. In adverse circumstances, His presence with us greatly lightens burdens, when we claim this precious promise.
Joseph’s testimony shone brightly when others observed that the Lord was with him. They recognized as he did his work well that the source of his ability was from the Lord. He must have spoken with them about the God he knew and His greatness, or they could never have understood that the Lord was the secret to his strength of character. We ought to honor the Lord in the same way by speaking often of Him to those we know.
Joseph’s elevation from prison to power in one step illustrates God’s ability to do what we would never think of. He “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). We may trust God for our needs. We can also anticipate He will do more if it is in His purposes for us. God’s ability to satisfy our needs and control events is not less today than in Joseph’s day.
Joseph was diligent in the work he did while in bondage. This certainly prepared him for the greater responsibilities in the kingdom. Shirking undesirable tasks is never the way to develop the capacity to serve in a place of greater opportunity and responsibility.
The sin of Joseph’s brothers was exposed though they covered it for many years. We must remember the impossibility of covering sin. Even if we attempt this, and appear to succeed, the devastating effect of guilt on the conscience makes spiritual development impossible. A sinner cannot be saved without facing the reality of guilt. A Christian cannot maintain communion with God with unjudged sin on the conscience.
It is not surprising to mark God’s hand behind events as He fulfilled His promises to Joseph. Balaam said, “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: Hath He said and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” (Num 23:19). God’s promises to us are equally certain of fulfillment.