The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the greatest stories in the Bible. It is the kind of story which would intrigue modern audiences even if it was written in 2012, with no connection to the Bible. Many atheists believe that all of the stories in Genesis are complete works of fiction. Well, if that is true, then the person who wrote the story of Joseph was probably the greatest fictional writer of his era! I am going to break this story down into five different lessons, all of which connect us with problems and issues that we still face today as we try to follow God’s will. This is the first lesson over this amazing story that provides the climax of the book of Genesis.
Lesson one has to do with the suffering of Joseph and how it relates to the suffering we experience in today’s world, but before we get started please read Genesis chapter 37 to get the story fresh in your minds. Next, before we look at how Joseph’s suffering applies to us, let’s look at what caused Joseph’s brothers to hate him enough to want to kill him. First, although Scripture never formally announces it, it appears that Joseph passes his brothers to be next in line in the patriarchal succession. In the patriarchal society in which they lived it was a big deal to be the next in line to take over after the leader of the clan died. These patriarchal family units were huge, with many servants, and plenty of livestock to take care of. They were like portable villages. The heir, usually the first son, had a huge honor that was also a huge responsibility. Well, it appears that Jacob took this responsibility and passed it all the way down to Joseph, therefore skipping ten other brothers. It appears that the main reason for this were the events of chapter 34, but also because Jacob loved the mother of Joseph and Benjamin more than his other wives. Because of this he put her sons above the others. Joseph, being the oldest from this particular wife, became the next in line.
However, It took more than being passed over to bring the brothers to the point of wanting Joseph killed. To add insult to injury, Jacob gave Joseph a very expensive coat. It has been widely thought of as a brilliant coat of many colors, but we cannot be sure what it was. The Hebrew word used here is only found in one other place in the Hebrew Bible, so scholars are unsure of what exactly it meant. The other place that the word is used is to describe a garment that was worn by the daughter of King David. This makes it seem like it was to be worn by leadership, or royalty. It is easy to imagine why this coat might have brought out the anger in Joseph’s brothers. Still, this was not enough of a reason to want to kill Joseph.
Another reason was the supervision of Joseph. Verse two implies that Joseph is supervising the brothers and reporting back to his father. He is not just being a “tattle-tale.” Old Testament scholar, George Bush, makes this case very convincingly. He says that Joseph was literally, tending, or acting the shepherd over, his brethren in the flock. He was charged with superintendence. Therefore when Joseph “tattled” on them he was doing his job as a responsible manager, who was reporting to his higher-up, Jacob. Imagine how you would feel if you were an older man, and a seventeen year old sibling was managing you, reporting to your father on you, and telling you what to do! Add that to the coat and being passed in the line of succession and you can see why the hatred was growing.
Finally, there is one last reason which might have been the last straw for the brothers. Joseph describes a dream to them where their sheaves bow down to his. And if that was not bad enough he informs them of another dream where eleven stars, along with the sun and the moon paid tribute to him. Keep in mind that at this time people took dreams very seriously. Today, if someone reported a dream like that to you it would just provide a good laugh, but not at this time. These dreams appeared to be predicting that not only would the brothers serve Joseph, but they would be bowing down to Joseph. It is easy to see why this might have disturbed them and been the last straw.
The Brothers finally get away from the camp and go to pasture their flock many miles away. They are probably very happy to be away from the supervision of Joseph. As they begin to enjoy their freedom who do they see approaching in the distance, but Joseph. What a horrible site this must have been in their state of mind. To make matters worse, he is wearing the coat that told everyone who passed by that the youngest of them was in charge. They could see it shining in the distance as he approached. Here was their seventeen year old brother, who dreamed of them bowing down to him, on his way to give them more orders, and probably report back on what they were doing to their father. In the heat of that moment, knowing that they were a long way from home, with no other witnesses around, the brothers made a horrible decision. They let their emotions and their hatred get the best of them and they threw Joseph into a pit. They probably spent the night listening to his screams as they rose out of the pit. They listened as he cried for help, begged for mercy, and became more and more terrified. Imagine spending the night in a small hole in the ground! It could be terrifying! The brothers disagreed on what his fate should be, so they came up with the perfect compromise: selling him as a slave. At least that way they could profit from the situation.
We can learn a lot about how God uses suffering in this story. God does not cause any of the suffering and it is very important to note that. When we discuss the problem of evil and suffering in the world, we should always keep in mind that the issue is not God causing suffering, but the fact that God does not prevent it. God could have prevented the suffering that Joseph endured. He could have kept the brothers from throwing him into the pit. He could have kept the horrible lie that Joseph was dead from reaching the ears of Jacob and causing the old man pain. He could have stopped Joseph from being sold into slavery in Egypt. Yes, God could have prevented it all. Even though Joseph, as far as we know, was without sin, had done nothing to deserve his fate, and was even part of the family tree started by Abraham that would produce generations, God STILL doesn’t take away his sufferings. Joseph is no different than the rest of us. God doesn’t keep the storms of life from coming, but instead, he protects Joseph through the storm. God does little things like making sure that there was no water in the well when he was thrown in. Obviously, if there was he probably would have drowned. Also, God sends the caravan of slave owners by at just the right time to save him from murder. Even though Joseph is suffering, God never abandons him, and it is the same way with us today. God will allow us to bend, but if we keep our faith he will not let us break.
Joseph suffered in the well, he suffered as a slave, and later on in the story, when he finally starts to see some success again, he suffers by being falsely accused, and gets thrown into jail. So what is the end result of his suffering that we find later? The end result of his suffering is faith, maturity and joy. That’s the way the story will end for Jacob, for Joseph, and even for Joseph’s brothers. Can you see yourself in this story? Can you see yourself as one of the characters? We often have a hard time seeing the processes that God incorporates during our suffering. Sometimes it is hard to see him there with us. That is because our pain is still too strong to see Him, and that’s ok. But it was suffering which brought all of these Biblical characters to maturity in their faith, and only with the suffering were they able to be reunited as a happy family.
There is no doubt that this story has a happy ending that we will cover soon, but many skeptics will say that God did not have to let Joseph suffer. They would say that an all-loving God would have found another way. That is a legitimate and important question. Did all of the suffering in this story have to happen? Could God have just told the family to migrate to Egypt because there was a famine coming? Could God have just prevented the famine? Could God have arranged this story to where there would be no suffering? I believe the answers to these questions depend on how you judge the results. Yes, God could have prevented these things, but if he had, the hearts of the characters would not have been changed. Instead of preventing the suffering, God used the suffering, to change his people. Only because of the suffering do Joseph’s brothers come to true repentance and have their souls changed. Only because of the suffering is Joseph put into a position to govern Egypt through the future crisis. And only through the suffering does God create an Israelite nation, in Egypt, that grows up, and multiplies, as humble slaves, giving them a humble identity, which would make them the perfect vehicle to continue God’s plan of redemption for humanity in general.
Is this the kind of thing that happens to us when we suffer? Could our suffering lead us to a greater joy? Could our suffering change our hearts or the hearts of those around us? Can you imagine a world with no suffering along with no compassion since there has to be suffering for there to be compassion? Was the joy of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in the lessons coming later worth the suffering that he went through? Or would he have been better served giving up the suffering, but because of this, giving up the joy as well? What about us today? What if we couldn’t experience the joy of heaven without first suffering? Could the joy of our reunions with our loved ones be worth the suffering of this life? I don’t believe it is possible for us to imagine the joy that will occur when we are reunited with our loved ones in heaven. Is it possible, that this joy that we will feel when this happens is so great, that it will make the suffering that we endured when we lost them seem really small? What if this joy that we experience during these reunions lasts for eternity? Would the suffering that produces that eternal joy have been worth it? Would God then be more loving if he allowed the suffering or if he stopped it?
I can imagine Joseph in the pit, wondering where God was. I can imagine Joseph in jail, wondering where God was. I can imagine Joseph working the fields as a slave, wondering where God was. Later, Joseph will figure out that God was there through every step of the suffering. God was there with him. He was just hard to see at the time. But we will see in the next lesson, that Joseph didn’t forget God. Joseph never lost his faith. This is what we have to remember, when we have bad things happen to us in our lives, and we wonder where God is, we need to remember the story of Joseph, and realize, that there are things happening that are too big for us to understand, and maybe, just maybe, years later, the joy that we feel when it is over, will be well worth the storms that we had to go through to get there.
God, thank you for this beautiful, ancient story, that still teaches us so much, thousands of years later.