The story of Joseph has been one of my favorites for a long time, but especially lately. If you are lacking faith or need encouragement about having to wait on God, dealing with the unfairness of life sometimes, trusting even when it seems God has left, even reconciling family relationships, you should read his story (Genesis 37-50).
I read his story again this morning and was moved several times to tears. As I read, I tried to imagine his emotions, the surroundings, the events and life that happened in between the lines of Genesis. Having heard the story so many times as I grew up, I read it in The Message version today. I really took my time to think as I followed him from being born to a joyful and relieved mother and father who had waited a long time for his arrival, to growing strong and handsome as the favored son, to being betrayed and disposed of by jealous brothers, to success then unjust imprisonment, to being forgotten and waiting years for change, to success again and eventually restoration of his relationship with his family.
Can you hear his voice yelling up to his brothers, who sat calmly by eating their dinner, as he yelled for them to pull him up out of the cistern? “Come on, guys! No more joking around – get me out of here!” then maybe “I beg of you, please. Pull me out so I can return home to our father. Show mercy! Please!! … Brothers!” “Let me out! You must!” It’s hard to imagine hating someone so much that you would be able to sit by enjoying a meal while a member of your own family is screaming for help. Their hearts must have hardened with bitterness and envy from years of seeing Joseph lifted up as the prize son, even fitted with custom-made clothes that no one else received. How they hated him especially when he foolishly declared his dreams of others bowing before him to the whole family – fuel on the fire already smoldering inside of them.
I imagine Joseph’s relief when his brothers finally threw him a rope to come out the cistern only to see a caravan of strangers nearby waiting to take him away. Fear, disbelief and panic must have swept over him as the foreigners tied ropes on his wrists and led him away from his brothers who stood back counting the silver coins from the sale. He was only 17.
I noticed today while reading his amazingly tough and long journey that the Bible says God was with him. It is said numerous times. When you get to the end of the story and look back you can see that it was no accident for him to spend time in each destination that was ahead of him. I imagine that God was beginning quite a work on Joseph’s heart already, humbling him from his charmed upbringing. Initially sold to Potiphar in Egypt, he soon became the supervisor of just about everything in that household and all that because God was with Him and blessed everything Joseph did. Joseph must have sensed God’s presence with Him and didn’t waver from integrity, even when offered a tryst with Potiphar’s sneaky wife. His reward for standing firm in his principles? Years in jail.
Even in jail, the Bible says God was with Him and once again gave him favor in the eyes of those over him. Soon he was, once again, in charge of things and well thought of by everyone there. He must have had some incredible leadership/organizational skills. One day he met two new prisoners from Pharoah’s court and had the opportunity to help them understand dreams they had. In a few days they were reinstated to their posts, with Joseph telling the cup-bearer as he left, “Please remember me when you’re free from this place and tell Pharoah about me!” I wonder if Joseph thought to himself, “Yes! That’s the way God is going to get me out of here. Finally!” only to be forgotten by the cupbearer for several more years. The days in that dismal, dingy prison must have dragged on in repetitive tasks and more waiting. Surely some discouragement weighed heavy on his heart, so much so that at times he wished he could just die. What was the point?
Talk about disappointments – first he was let down by his own flesh and blood (let down is a huge understatement), then he was ripped from a successful job by a deceitful, conniving woman, then completely forgotten by someone he had helped. “God, are you really with me here? How long must I be punished? What did I do to deserve all of this?” I wonder how much he missed his father and being home. I wonder how he kept anger, sadness, hurt, frustration and bewilderment from consuming him.
When he was finally remembered, brought before Pharoah, given the chance to prove God was with him by interpreting dreams for the mighty king of Egypt, then given the 2nd highest in command post in all the land, God’s dream for His life was finally beginning to show itself to Joseph. By this time he was 30 years old. 30 years old! That’s 13+ years of waiting!
Seven more years pass by but this time full of good things. He married and, as it says in Genesis, “Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, ‘It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.’ The second son he named Ephraim and said, ‘It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.’ “ (Gen. 50:41-42) A key part of the puzzle was yet to be placed by God, however.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people traveled to Egypt for food when the famine began and appealed to Joseph, who was in charge of the grain supply. One day he recognized the men kneeling before him as his own brothers! What emotions must have erupted when he first realized it was them? Surprise? Longing for his family? Rage? He decided to conceal his identity for a while to test their character. He imprisoned them, charging one of them to bring their youngest brother back, then set Benjamin up to appear a thief, and because of that declared Benjamin will stay forever in Egypt and be his slave. The tables had sure turned for these men, his brothers. At one point, when they didn’t know he understood their language, Joseph heard his brothers talking sorrowfully, admitting that what they did to him years ago was wrong, they were paying for that hurtful act, seeing that they themselves certainly needed mercy now.
When Judah offered to stay as a slave in Benjamin’s place because he knew losing this youngest brother would kill his father, Joseph saw that their hearts really had changed and decided to reveal his identity to them. While they stood in shock, he wept with joy. All those years of pain, endless waiting and wondering, enduring harsh treatment, being judged unfairly, being separated from his father whom he loved – all of that was falling away in this amazing turn of events. His brothers feared revenge but instead heard him say these remarkable words, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years—neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here but God. He set me in place as a father to Pharaoh, put me in charge of his personal affairs, and made me ruler of all Egypt.” (Gen. 45:4-8)
Wow, what a perspective and attitude! Maybe it was all clicking in Joseph’s mind as he said those words and realized anew that God really had been with Him through all of it, that nothing in his life had been a result of God abandoning or neglecting Him. It must have brought him incredible peace and joy. I’m sure relief flooded his heart. To not only be restored as a person, given a position of influence, a family, and more than he needed, but to be restored to his betrayers, to experience healing of his wounded heart must have been worth it all (at least almost).
My biggest encouragement from Joseph’s story this time around is this: that although none of what happened to Joseph was what he expected, he remained true to God, kept faith in the face of relentless disappointments, and was blessed.
What do I expect from God? Is it on track with what He’s promised me? Is it influenced by the culture in which I live? Please, God, give me the strength and perseverance of Joseph. Help me to know you’re with me and help me remain true. Fulfill your plans for my life and that will be enough…more than enough! Fit all the puzzle pieces together in your time and help me to be able to wait while you work.