Transformation along the way - Genesis 43
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~~Transformation along the Way
A circular was once issued by the Police Department in Houston, Texas headed: ‘How to make your Child a Delinquent’. It set out 12 easy rules. Here are some of them:
1. Begin at infancy to give the child everything
he wants. In this way, he will grow up to believe the world owes him a living.
2. Avoid using the word ‘wrong’. It may develop a guilt complex. This will condition him to believe later, when he is arrested for stealing a car, that society is against him and he is being persecuted.
3. Pick up everything he leaves lying around: books, shoes and clothes. Do everything for him so he will be experienced in throwing all responsibility on others.
4. Give a child all the spending money he wants. Never let him earn his own. Why should he have things tough as you had them?
5. Satisfy his craving for food, drink and comfort. See that every sensual desire is gratified. Denial may lead to harmful frustration.
6. When he gets into real trouble, apologise for yourself by saying, ‘I never could do anything with him.’
7. Prepare for a life of grief. You will be likely to have it.
Whether Jacob more or less followed these rules with his own sons we don’t know, but one look at what a dysfunctional lot they turned out to be might cause you to wonder. During the course of the story we have seen one maladjusted individual after another- and furthermore the father himself leaves much to be desired. But as is often the case with God, he takes the most unpromising material in order to make good on his promises showing that from beginning to end he is a God who exercises transforming grace. If ever there was an episode in the Bible which is meant to encourage us not to write off anyone as beyond all hope- it is the one we are looking at this morning. Maybe you are a parent and your children have gone off the rails and are far from the Lord. Perhaps you are someone who, reflecting on some of the things you’ve done, are wondering whether God would be able to do anything with someone like you. If so then take this story to heart and be encouraged.
First, we have a deliberation 43:1-14.
The story picks up where it left off at the end of the previous chapter with the brothers having returned from Egypt minus one son, Simeon, who had been held back by Joseph as collateral. And as you can imagine, having already had one son die (at least in his own mind with Joseph), and another cut off from the family, Jacob is going to be more than a little reluctant to send his sons back again for fear of losing any more. But circumstances dictated otherwise- the famine continued, food began to run out and they really had no choice but to go back to Egypt with cap in hand to get some more grain and Jacob is realistic enough to admit this in v2.
But things were not that simple and Judah spells this out for his father in stark, uncompromising terms, v3, ‘The man warned us solemnly, ‘You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother along with us, we will go down and buy food for you. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, because the man said to us, ‘You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.’” And just in case Jacob thinks Judah is laying it on a bit thick and exaggerating, all the other brothers back up his story- there is no way they can go back to Egypt without also taking Benjamin, who is now Jacob’s favourite son having replaced Joseph in his affections.
Now there are two things in particular we are to note about this extended discussion which is going on and which, because of its length, has started to slow down the story in order to increase the dramatic effect- keeping the reader on tenterhooks wondering will Simeon ever get back and will the family get their food.
The first is the way Judah has risen to the top of the pile in taking the lead. In theory he shouldn’t because he is not the eldest son which was Reuben, whom Jacob has put in his place at the end of the last chapter. Remember, this is Judah, who came up with the plan of selling Joseph into slavery for money; Judah who had schemed to get his sons out of their responsibilities to keep the family line going; Judah who had engaged in an incestuous relationship with his son’s wife siring two sons in the bargain. We are talking about Judah the sleezball. But now a different Judah seems to be emerging. This is a Judah who cares about the rest of the family-v8; a Judah who is willing to confront his father tenderly but firmly, v10; a Judah who is willing to take on a costly responsibility for the safety of Jacob’s favourite son, v9. Looking back on chapter 42 there seems to be a growing realisation of how dreadful they had behaved towards Joseph and the effect it had on their father- feeling guilt and shame, expressing a deep, distressing- ‘if only’. Years as a slave in Egypt had been used by God to make Joseph into the man God intended him to be and those same intervening years appear to have been used by God on the conscience and heart of Judah to humble him and ween him away from the bitter, self-centred person he once was. But just how great the transformation was we shall see in a moment.
The second person we are to ponder is, of course, Jacob, who is referred to by his special God-given covenant name Israel throughout this deliberation underscoring his significance in being the head of the great nation from which will eventually come the Saviour of the world. He is still the patriarchal head who takes initiative- he suggests going again to Egypt and he makes the ultimate decision to send Benjamin, v11. But in other ways he cuts a sad and pathetic figure. There is winsome nostalgia as he appears to be living in the past, pouring out his love on Benjamin as he once did on his elder brother Joseph, still acting as if their mother, Rachel, had been his only wife. He is still mourning over the death of Joseph as we see in chapter 44:27, and possibly here in v 14, as well as being mistrustful of his other sons. There is self-pity, v14, ‘As for me I am bereaved, I am bereaved’, and almost a resigned fatalism, v11 ‘If it must be, it must be’. And there seems to be a resurfacing of his old cunning ways as he suggests sending tribute to ‘the man’ in Egypt in the hope of smoothing the way just as he did with his own estranged brother Esau.
Jacob shows all the signs of the pitfalls of old age unless it is guarded against by pursuing God. In his excellent book, ‘A Good Old Age’ (which I am reading very carefully!), Derek Prime, draws attention to a number of dangers to avoid. First, comparing the present with the past, whereas the Bible advises, ‘Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these? For it is not wise to ask such questions.’(Ecc. 7:10). Secondly, mistrust whereby we become suspicious of the motives of those who care for us and sadly distrust our children and relatives. Thirdly, pessimism. Prime writes, ‘the subjects of pessimism are countless: our government, the state of the Church- and perhaps sometimes our local church fellowship- and the world in general.’ I think it would be fair to say that Jacob exhibits all of these traits and in this regard stands as an example to avoid.
But will you notice that his faith is not totally extinguished even though he has endured so much heartache for he still trusts in the God of promises, just look at v14, ‘May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you.’ This is very interesting. He asks for the blessing of God Almighty. This was the name- El Shaddai- given to Abraham in Gn. 17- the all-powerful God who is able to fulfil his plans and promises. But notice that Jacob doesn’t lose sight that he is a gracious God, ‘may God Almighty grant you mercy.’ In what way? By ‘the man letting your other brother and Benjamin come back with you’. It might be significant that while Jacob mentions Benjamin by name he simply refers to ‘your other brother’. Of course at the literal level this is Simeon held hostage, but at a deeper level, unbeknown at this stage to Jacob, God is going to show his mercy in a way that would be beyond anything that Jacob could have hoped for in his wildest dreams - the ‘other brother’ is Joseph. And God is going to show mercy to Jacob and, indeed the brothers, in restoring them all together. The question is: how?
Well, this brings us to the next phase- preparation 43:15-44:17.
When you read through this rather detailed account you are forced to wonder what Joseph is playing at.
First of all you have the brothers being taken to Joseph’s personal residence in v17, which did not bode well. Just look at how panic stricken they are, in their minds eye they can see the manacles being placed around their legs, v18, ‘They thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to attack us and overpower us and seize us as slaves and take our donkeys.”’ And you can hear the desperation in their voices as they offer their defence for their imagined future incarceration, “We beg your pardon, our lord, we came down here the first time to buy food. But at the place where we stopped for the night we opened our sacks and each of us found his silver—the exact weight—in the mouth of his sack. So we have brought it back with us. We have also brought additional silver with us to buy food. We don’t know who put our silver in our sacks.”
Then there is the over the top hospitality as they have their fears calmed by the servant even speaking of God blessing them as an act of Providence, and then he brings Simeon to them, followed by them being washed and refreshed and seated for a banquet. How do you explain that given the Egyptians low opinion of the Hebrews as we see in v 32? What are they up to? Furthermore, they simply can’t get their heads around how Joseph knows the order of their ages and so arranges the seating arrangements accordingly- v33. Who is this man? What is going on- is it a set up?
Well, eventually they begin to relax as no doubt the food and drink begin to take effect, 34. And whatever suspicions they may have had are proven to be at least half right because Joseph finds a pretext for keeping Benjamin back and so has a silver cup planted in Benjamin’s sack and completely devastated they return back to Egypt-v 13. That is when their worst nightmare started to unfold before their very eyes.
But we also need to ask: why is Joseph doing this? Well, it isn’t because he has become vindictive, wanting some ‘pay back’ for what his brothers had done to him years before because look at how he acts when he sees Benjamin, and don’t forget he hasn’t seen him for 22 years, v 30 ‘Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep.’ That is not the reaction of a man storing up hatred in his heart.
There are two reasons I think which lie behind Joseph’s actions.
First, we read that all the eleven brothers bowed down to him in v 26. This was only the fulfilment of the first dream Joseph had all those years ago. The second dream which involved the father bowing down had yet to be fulfilled, and so somehow Joseph had to devise a way to ensure he would come to Egypt for this to happen. Unbeknown to Joseph this would be to fulfil God’s plan to ensure that all the family would be saved and kept for four hundred years in Egypt until the Exodus. Hence the device of planting Joseph’s own cup in Benjamin’s sack because he knew his father would come back for him, whereas he wouldn’t for any of the others.
The second reason is a little more subtle.
Here’s the thing: how is Joseph going to really know that his brothers have really changed or whether they are still as cold and conniving as ever? A straightforward confrontation wouldn’t have achieved much because looking at the way they ingratiate themselves with Joseph’s servant they might have said anything to save themselves! No, Joseph wisely knew that they needed to be put into a situation where their true intentions, true thoughts and true feelings would be exposed, when all their defences would have been lowered. That is exactly what we see Joseph doing. It is a classic ‘psycops’ operation, first by initially making the brothers feel on edge and uncertain, but then going on to make them feel relaxed and trusting until finally when they are confronted with the accusation of theft, they simply fall apart, and throw themselves upon Joseph’s mercy- v44:16, ‘What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.”’ And so any masks they may have been wearing to hide their true selves would have been stripped away. Step, by step, you see, Joseph prepares the way for the moment of truth which comes in two stages. We shall look at stage 2 next week. But here we see stage 1- transformation
The final unveiling of the souls of the brothers, particularly Judah who has become the spokesman, takes place in v 17, ‘But Joseph said, “Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you, go back to your father in peace.” This, of course, was Benjamin, the one son Jacob could not bear losing. What were the brothers to do? I guess they could have thrown Benjamin to the wolves- left him there and caught the first camel out of town. They had displayed such callous behaviour before 20 odd years earlier with Joseph- perhaps it had become an established pattern- out for number one at whatever the cost. Perhaps that was what Joseph was half expecting.
What he wouldn’t have expected, although he may have hoped against hope that it would be so, is what happened next with Judah.
This is the longest speech in Genesis and one of the most moving. It is filled with a depth of feeling which is unrivalled and a level of persuasiveness which is unsurpassed and would move even the hardest of hearts. These are the words of a tormented soul, whose love for his father (mentioned 14 times) runs deep in that he is willing to sacrifice himself, if that is what it takes, to spare his father dying of a broken heart, because he is convinced that is what will happen as sure as night follows day. Just listen to this and feel the anguish of Judah: ‘Then Judah went up to him and said: “Pardon your servant, my lord, let me speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself. My lord asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ And we answered, ‘We have an aged father, and there is a young son born to him in his old age. His brother is dead, and he is the only one of his mother’s sons left, and his father loves him.’ “Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me so I can see him for myself.’ And we said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father; if he leaves him, his father will die.’ But you told your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you will not see my face again.’ When we went back to your servant my father, we told him what my lord had said. “Then our father said, ‘Go back and buy a little more food.’ But we said, ‘We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother is with us will we go. We cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ “Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One of them went away from me, and I said, “He has surely been torn to pieces.” And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my grey head down to the grave in misery.’ “So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father, and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. Your servants will bring the grey head of our father down to the grave in sorrow. Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’ “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.”
Can you believe it is the same person? Judah who was filled with murderous jealousy towards Joseph; Judah who plotted his death; Judah who had him sold into slavery; Judah who lied to his father and watched him writhe in agony at the thought of his dear son being dead; Judah who almost singlehandedly jeopardised having any offspring from which the Messiah was to come; Judah who slept with his daughter-in-law thinking she was prostitute- Judah the self-centred loser. But this is a different Judah now bowed low before Joseph. This is a humbled Judah, a caring Judah, a self-sacrificing Judah - in short- a transformed Judah. And no explanation is possible to account for such a transformation other than the work of God’s grace.
Not only is Joseph God’s man in the place God wants him to be, but so is Judah- lined up to eventually become the ancestor, humanly speaking, of the great transformer of grace in person- the Lord Jesus Christ-the Lion of Judah. Do you not think- that the One who could change a Judah could not change someone like you and me? No matter how we have messed up- and for some of us that would be for -big time- the God in Jesus can redeem that mess and all you have to do is look to the cross as proof of that. You see, what this story confirms is what the Lord’s Supper we are about to celebrate declares- transforming grace.
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