Further In and Deeper Down: Even In All My Dysfunction (Gen. 37:1-36)
Today we are starting a new series called Further in, Deeper Down. It will be based on the story of Joseph and to be more exact, the Gospel that Joseph’s story points to so, the subtitle is the Gospel According to Joseph. It should take us, Lord willing, into the rest of the year. I picked the title because my prayer for this study is that God will take us further in and deeper down in the Gospel, into the heart of God and the providence of God, especially when we feel sometimes we are trapped further in and deeper down in our sins and problems and circumstances.
Joseph’s story is a living illustration of Romans 8:28. God works all things together for the good of those who love Him. All things are not good, as we will see in Joseph’s story, but we have a God who works all things for the good of His people and the glory of His name. Look at Joseph even declaring this in Gen. 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” We will see how the God of grace will take a dysfunctional family complete with a spoiled brat, a father who plays favorites, malicious, deceiving and murderous brothers, prostitution of a daughter-in-law with her father-in-law, and transform them, reconcile them and take tangled threads of hate and jealousy and weave it into a great story of God’s big story; a family from whom the Messiah will come and save the world.
Pastor Kent Hughes notes, “Ultimately, and above all, the story of Joseph is about God working his will through the everyday events of life. There are no miracles here. God does not suspend his natural laws to make things happen. The story is about the hidden but sure way of God. God’s hidden hand arranges everything without show or explanation or violating the nature of things. God is involved in all events and directs all things to their appointed end.”
But sometimes we feel like life is in the pits. Nothing is working as it should. It is dark. We don’t know why we are there and what is going on. Things are not turning out as they planned. People in our lives are disappointing us and hurting us. Our sin patterns still have a hold on us. We know God is Sovereign, but then we wonder where He is and what He is doing, especially when our life is in the pits. Some of our families put the “fun” in the dysfunction. We may have given up on them. But hopefully we will see in this series that God can do miracles with messed up people. Can we trust God even when life is in the pits and we feel like the pit is taking us further in and deeper down? The Gospel tells us the answer with a resounding “yes!” Let’s start with this:
I. God’s purposes will prevail even with dysfunctional families (vv.1-11)
Gen. 37:1 sets the stage up for the remainder of the book. Jacob has probably been back in the Promised Land for a decade or so. It is a miracle he’s there. We see that with each patriarch. They are good at messing up what God wanted. Abraham going to Egypt a couple of times, having a kid with the servant when he couldn’t wait anymore, only to find God answer their prayers better than they could have ever asked. And then Jacob with all of his issues himself (from birth!) wandering all over the place, deceiving everyone, only to be gripped by grace. I hope you see that our lives are never about our grip on God, but God’s stronger grip of us. Left to us, we are good at one thing: messing it all up! So to see Jacob in the Promised Land, right where God wanted him to be, is the hand of God accomplishing His plans despite man’s foolishness and faithlessness.
But now we have a new problem. A bigger problem. On the surface, this family is large, it is prosperous and it is established. However, on the inside, it is a family that is about to erupt into chaos. Here comes the most messed up family on the face of the earth. And it happens to be God’s own people. Let’s look at some of the dysfunction here.
Let’s talk about Jacob first. Notice Moses calls him Israel, which is God’s other name for Jacob. Interestingly, Jacob is used more frequently (31x) than Israel (20x). Why does the author say Jacob sometimes and Israel other times? It could be that Israel is used when it seems to allude to his position as clan head (43:6, 8, 11; 46:1; 48:2), whereas Jacob seems to be used where his human weakness is most obvious (e.g., 37:34; 42:4, 36; 47:9: cf. Longacre, Joseph, 149–51).
Nevertheless, the leader of the clan, who should know better, Israel, loved Joseph more, the text says in Gen. 37:3. Favoritism has a long pedigree in Jacob’s family. Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, Rebekah loved Jacob more than Esau, and most pertinently Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (25:28; 29:30). Joseph is the firstborn of his first love Rachel and so Joseph is the now the emotional center of his dad’s life. You would think he would learn after all these years, but before we judge him, how quickly have we changed sin patterns in our own lives?
Jacob gives Joseph this fancy coat. Some translations call it “a coat of many colors.” Another translation says, “richly ornamented.” Andrew Lloyd Webber had a musical once called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. However, to call it a fancy “multicolor coat” is probably not a good translation. Most scholars favor something more along the line of a full-length coat or a long-sleeved coat. More on this in a second. It was an expensive coat. It was fancy. It was nice and only Joseph got it. Jacob lavished money on Joseph in a way he didn’t give any of the other children. And where your treasure is there is your heart right? So Joseph is the source, the central source of joy and love in Jacob’s life. These two are always together, always laughing and Joseph is probably always getting a new present from his father. And the result of that is: this favoritism poisoned his entire family system.
But look at more dysfunction. The brothers are seething with hatred while this favoritism is going on. Notice in Gen. 37:4,5 and 8, the words “hatred” is used. It is a growing, building hatred, born out of jealousy of their little brother. When Joseph is two years old, no one is going say anything. Maybe not even when he is 5 or even 10. But now it has been 17 years of favoritism. Bitterness starts to brew like a volcano ready to erupt. Notice in Gen. 37:4: “..could not speak peacefully to him.” If you did not greet a person in that culture, it was a way to say, “We don’t want you in this group.” So Joseph never got any “hellos” or “goodbyes” or “Good mornings.” Even if Joseph tried to talk nicely to them, they ignored him. And hate is growing among the brothers.
This, my friends, is the covenant family. These are supposed to be God’s people. This is the family through whom God will bless the nations. This seems like a hopeless triangle: favorite boy—foolish father—furious brothers. By the way, God is not mentioned at all in this chapter, but He is everywhere! He is in the midst of all of the dysfunction.
Loved ones, a couple of thoughts here. First of all, we are the sum of our relationships. As much as we think we are who we are because of our choices, a lot of who we are have actually come from our relationships, namely our families. You know that some of your family’s sins, and character flaws that bothered you? You didn’t like them growing up right? Guess where they are now? They are in you. Not all the bad things, but also the grace-filled things. And God will redeem and restore you in the same way those things have made you: through relationships in the family of God.
Secondly, don’t ever think your family is only messed up family and that your family is too screwed up for God to work. Your family may be in the pits, but there is no pit where the love of God is not deeper still! Listen to Eugene Peterson:
A search of Scripture turns up one rather surprising truth: there are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable reference to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy.
Adam and Eve are no sooner out of the garden than their children get in a fight. Shem, Ham, and Japheth are forced to devise a strategy to hide their father’s drunken shame. Jacob and Esau are bitter rivals and sow seeds of discord that bear centuries of bitter harvest. Joseph and his brothers bring changes on the themes of sibling rivalry and parental bungling. Jesse’s sons, brave and loyal in service of their country, are capricious and cruel to their youngest brother. David is unfortunate in both wives and children—he is a man after God’s own heart and Israel’s greatest king, but he cannot manage his own household.
Even in the family of Jesus, where we might expect something different, there is exposition of the same theme. The picture in Mark, chapter three, strikes us as typical rather than exceptional: Jesus is active, healing the sick, comforting the distressed, and fulfilling his calling as Messiah, while his mother and brothers are outside trying to get him to come home, quite sure that he is crazy. Jesus’ family criticizes and does not appreciate. It misunderstands and does not comprehend. The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption….”
We serve a God who takes messes and turns them into miracles. These stories are not to show you examples to be or not be like, but remind you that we all need redemption desperately. We all need God to intervene. God is doing a million things we cannot see in every situation. And as you are looking hopelessly at your family situation, remember this dysfunctional family in Gen. 37. God can answer prayers better than we can even ask. God’s purposes prevail even with the worst of family dysfunction. Secondly,
II. God’s purposes will prevail even with our dysfunctional hearts (vv.1-11)
It is one thing when we see how hopelessly dysfunctional our families are, but sometimes life is in the pits because we are overwhelmed at how hopelessly dysfunctional our own hearts are. Let’s look a little closer at Joseph. He is Rachel’s firstborn. He has a full brother in Benjamin, who was born as his mother died in childbirth. Rachel, his mother was his father’s favorite wife. When Rachel died, Jacob passed on the favoritism of his wife to her son, Joseph.
Moses never really overtly says anything bad about him, but we can see he has issues here. He is 17 years old. He is technically an assistant to his brothers Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. These are the boys of his maid-servants turned into wives. What is the first thing we hear of Joseph? He is a tattletale.
The word “report” by itself denotes “news slanted to damage the victim.” He would not just tell on them, but exaggerate what they did. It is like if Annabelle drew a line the wall and Abbie comes to us and says, “She drew all over the house!” Except Joseph here wants to harm and destroy any good that his father might show to his brothers, lest he lose that favored status.
Now to make matters worse, the guy has this fancy coat. Most cloaks were sleeveless, because the sleeves would get in the way of work. This is why we say, “Roll up your sleeves,” when we mean, “Get to work!” Imagine if a factory worker walked into work wearing a long mink coat. What is he doing? Well, it’s weird, but he is making a statement: I am superior (or at least thinks he is). I am management, not labor. So if he is wearing this long-sleeve coat around, smiling at everyone who is working hard as he walks by, you can imagine how the brothers must have felt. Moreover, in other contexts, a robe like this meant he was royalty. It was the rich garment of a ruler and not what the well-dressed shepherd needed out in the fields. He is crowned here and then acts like it.
Then to make matters even worse, Joseph, has these dreams, but he foolishly uses it to exaggerate and give himself a sense of his own superiority. God was working, as we know these dreams would come true, but the problem was that instead of being humble and reflective about it (like Mary in the NT), he kept talking about it. Notice they hated them more, “for his dreams and for his words” in Gen. 37:8. This means Joseph is talking about it all the time. He is bragging about it. There is not a conversation where he didn’t mention it.
Why Joseph? Why are you doing this Joseph? He is a tattletale and on top of it he is an arrogant, self-focused, self-exaggerating spoiled brat. Even his father was getting kind of surprised and trying to encourage his son to calm down about this. Jacob had dreams too before that came true, but he kept them in his mind, which Joseph should have done. But instead, look at Gen. 37:11. Notice the word jealous. This idea here is the idea that they were filled with a violent jealousy. There was a rage of envy that was going to spill out in destructive action.
Now you have another obstacle in the plan of God: yourself. God is going use Joseph to save his family from famine, but also dysfunction. However, what we see by the end is that God will use all of this to save Joseph…from Joseph. Joseph will be a loving, compassionate, humble and wise ruler by the end of Genesis. As he’s bragging he has no idea how God will bring these dreams to pass. He is blind to his own heart. There is no exaltation without humility, Joseph, and he will learn it the hard way.
Now you look at Joseph here and you wonder, how in the world is God ever going to grow this guy? His head is so big he can float like a hot-air balloon. Sometimes we look at our own heart like that. My heart is so dysfunctional. The same sin patterns get a hold of me. The same relationships in my life keep wearing me out. The sad part is that we probably only see 4% of our sin, if that much. Yet Jesus died not just for the 4%, but for all of it. That tells you that He is far more committed to us than we are to Him. And God knows exactly what each of us need to grow.
John Ortberg says, “God always knows just what each person needs. He had Abraham take a walk, Elijah take a nap, Joshua take a lap, and Adam take the rap. He gave Moses a forty -year time out, he gave David a harp and a dance, and he gave Paul a pen and a scroll. He wrestled with Jacob, argued with Job, whispered to Elijah, warned Cain, and comforted Hagar. He gave Aaron an altar, Miriam a song, Gideon a fleece, Peter a name, and Elisha a mantle. Jesus was stern with the rich young ruler, tender with the woman caught in adultery, patient with the disciples, blistering with the scribes, gentle with the children, and gracious with the thief on the cross. God never grows two people the same way. God is a hand-crafter, not a mass-producer.” I like that. God is a hand-crafter. He doesn’t work off a template. With His own hand, He will lead you. He knows what you need and what conditions are necessary for you to grow. God is committed to our sanctification. His purposes will prevail. Lastly:
III. God’s purposes will prevail even with a dysfunctional life (vv.12-36)
We have seen God’s purposes prevail in the midst of dysfunctional families and even the dysfunctional heart of Joseph. But what happens when your life becomes dysfunctional? Where is God in all of that? As we shall see, God is right in the middle.
As we pick up the story in Gen. 37:12, we find that the brothers are all working away from home. Notice Joseph is not with them. He is at home. Why? Because where else would he be? He can’t get his coat dirty right? He’s with daddy. So the brothers are at Shechem, fifty miles north. Remember what happened at Shechem? That is where the brothers avenged the rape of their sister Dinah by killing all the males and plundering the city (Gen. 34). So Jacob was worried about them. It is dangerous to be back there again. So he sends Joseph to go check on them.
But in taking the long journey (probably four-five days) Joseph does not find his brothers. And it “so happened” that a man was wandering around (Gen. 37:15). Providentially, the man had overheard the brothers’ plans that they were going to actually a place called Dothan, which was another fourteen miles north.
Off Joseph goes to find them and in Gen. 37:18, the text says, “they saw from afar.” How do they know from a distance that it is Joseph? The long robe, of course, with the long sleeves. This is where you are wondering, “Why wear this Joseph in the wilderness?” It’s like wearing a tuxedo to a Bears game. The only intention to do something like this is to bring attention to himself. He’s advertising his superiority. But to the brothers, it’s like waving a red cape in front of a raging bull. Seeing that hated robe is enough to make their blood boil. And they suddenly realize that they are in the middle of nowhere and this would be a perfect place to get rid of their arrogant brother and his big dreams.
Notice once again, they are scheming. It’s in their blood. They are going to kill him and throw him into a pit and tell their father that an animal did it. The reality is that these brothers are worse than animals. This is Cain and Abel all over again. But then Reuben intervenes. He is the oldest, and as the oldest, he is responsible for what happens to Joseph. He doesn’t want bloodguilt on his hands, so he proposes that they throw him in the pit and leave him there to die. And while he’s saying this, Reuben is scheming himself. He was going to rescue Joseph and bring him back to his father safely. Why?
We are not exactly sure, but could it be that because Reuben has been out of favor with his father ever since the scandalous affair with Bilhah (35:22) that this was an attempt to rebuild some broken communication with his father? That he is Joseph’s savior should pave the way for reconciliation with Jacob.
So Reuben says, “Let’s throw him into this pit.” Another word for pit is “cistern,” which were shaped like a bottle, with a small opening in the top, and often covered with a stone. They range from 6 to 20 feet in depth. Providentially, it had no water, so Joseph will not drown in it, but without water, it made a nice grave. Notice when Joseph arrives, it does not take much time for these brothers to act. Wenham says, “The succession of verbs, ‘stripped, took, dumped, sat down,’ conveys the speed and roughness of the brothers’ assault on Joseph. ‘They stripped off [a term also used for skinning animals, Lev 1:6] his tunic, the special tunic he was wearing.’ This unexpected expansiveness slows down the narrative for a moment and focuses on the piece of clothing that was the mark of his father’s affection and the occasion of his brothers’ hatred.” They dethroned the royal son (see 37:3) and exposed him to the chilly cistern. This is awful. Joseph must have been fighting, swinging his arms trying to run away. How dysfunctional must a family get that with unity they can plot to kill their own flesh and blood?
“You can have this robe! I will tell dad to love you more! No more dreams I promise. I’m sorry! Don’t keep me in here! Help me! Get me out of here!” But the brothers are set in their ways. And without a conscience. Notice “then they sat down to eat” in Gen. 37:25. When the brothers retell the story in Gen. 42:21, we find out Joseph was screaming to them in distress. What callous indifference they show here. While their brother is in a pit, left to die, abandoned to death, all you can say is, “Can you pass the ketchup?” Providentially, just as they were eating, here comes some merchants heading to Egypt. Life is horrible right now for Joseph, but every single thing here was all part of God’s greater plan.
Judah gets this bright idea to sell Joseph instead of killing him. All of these brothers are horrible. Judah, whose name means “praise,” does not want any blood on his hands. They know how God confronted Cain because Abel’s blood cried out (Gen. 4:10-11). So, let’s sell him! They don’t realize that in doing all of this, they are actually not stopping God’s plans for Joseph, but helping it come to pass. So they sell Joseph for 20 shekels of silver.
Apparently Reuben was out somewhere, probably going to check on the sheep, when all of this was happening, so when he comes back and sees Joseph gone, he realizes his scheme is also ruined. He chance at reconciliation is gone. And actually his father will hate him more since he was responsible for Joseph. Then the brothers go back to plan A to conceal the deal. They kill an animal and dip the robe in its blood ready to deceive their father. Ironically, Jacob’s sons seek to deceive their old father with their brother’s robe and goat’s blood, just as Jacob had earlier used his brother’s garments and two little goats to deceive his blind father Isaac (Gen. 27:9-27).
Jacob is deceived by his own children. Notice they say, “your son’s robe” and not “our brother’s robe” (Gen. 37:32). He is heartbroken, experiencing grief like he has never known before.
How is Joseph feeling now? I am sure he is full of fear. What were you worried about when you were 17? Getting your driver’s license? Getting into the right school? Joseph, stripped of his clothing, thrown into a cistern, pulled out of a hole, strapped to the back of a camel and now wondering, “Will his dad ever come for him?” Life is not working like he thought it was going to.
Joseph in his wildest dreams (and he had some wild dreams) never could have thought life would turn like this. Where is God in all of this? Tim Keller says, “God never speaks. God doesn’t do any thing. God’s never even referred to. God seems to be utterly, absolutely, completely absent. You’re going to have trouble finding in these chapters of the book of Genesis in which God seems to be completely absent. But that’s the artistry of the author. Because though God seems to be completely absent on the surface, He must’ve been managing down to the minutest details every little thing that happened: all the chaotic things, all the awful things, all the terrible things, all the things that seems to make no sense. But every single one of them had to happen. He was arranging things for the salvation of His family.”
At this point, we wonder, But why? Why does it have to happen like this for Joseph? Why so brutal? I could think of a better way. For example, just as the brother’s throw Joseph into the pit, some giant angel could have suddenly appeared and he who could’ve looked at everyone, and everyone would have fall to the ground. He then says, ‘I come from the Lord. And you, (looking at Joseph), you are a spoiled brat! And you brothers, you’ve become bitter and resentful, and a murder is about to happen here. I’m here to stop it. And then he brings Jacob there and says you, you old man, you fool, didn’t you learn anything from showing favoritism? And now you’ve ruined everybody’s life, and don’t you see what are you doing?” And it would have been just like “Touch by An Angel,” because everybody at the end was saying, “I see”. And then they hug each other saying, “I’m so sorry.” Roll end credits.
But you know what? The fact of matter is, if an angel shows up and tells you about your faults, it won’t work. Nobody ever learned about their faults by being told, they have to be shown. Life has to show you. And I want you to know that nobody actually learns that “God loves you” by being told. They have to be shown.
God’s love is active in the hiddenness, absence and in His silence, just as much as it is in the dramatic and open ways He works. His silence does not mean His absence. Look what happens to Joseph in the last verse. Joseph is going to end up near an officer of Pharaoh. I’m sure while this is going on, Joseph is very confused, disillusioned, depressed and alone. But God was doing a million things he could not see.
Why doesn’t God just abandon Joseph to die? Joseph surely deserves it! But instead, God continues to use him for His purposes? And how do we know God will work all things together for the good in our lives? We have proof. Centuries later, another came to his brothers, “to his own and they received him not.” Another one was sold for silver, and betrayed by the people closest to him. It was another one who was stripped naked, and abandoned to die, and who cried out in the dark, “Why?” And nobody heard. Nobody came. That was Jesus. But when Jesus Christ came, and the pit he fell into was vastly deeper than Joseph’s. And the cry of his dereliction was vastly greater. And his nakedness and his sense of abandonment was infinitely beyond anything that Joseph went through.
Jesus was the apple of His Father’s eye. He was robed with all status, love and affection of His Father, but He did not come showing it off, no in fact, here is the One who lost the Father’s coat, so you can be assured that you have it. Here is the One who lost the Father’s love, paying our penalty so we could know – in spite of our imperfect life – God loves us. Here is the One who died naked and exposed of all our sin so we can robed in His righteousness and grace. Jesus came voluntarily to be the savior of us all. Because when Jesus on the cross, He wasn’t just physically naked. He was stripped of His Father’s love. Do you know why? He was being punished for our sin.
In Joseph’s story we see how God uses evil deeds of humans to accomplish salvation for a family, but through Jesus, God used the worst act of mankind in killing their Savior and turned it around as the greatest demonstration of grace and love this world has ever seen. Suffering all by itself can ruin you, but suffering plus an absolute assurance of love of God can turn you into something great, absolutely great. We don’t need answers beloved, we need assurance of God’s love. We need His presence. And the cross is our assurance of His love.
And when you truly see that He has loved us that much, we can embrace suffering. Keller says, “You can say, suffering, come on! There’re two things you can do to me: one is you just hurt me, and because I know what God is doing, because I am going to trust in Him, all you (suffering), all you going to do is to make me richer, deeper, better, wiser, ultimately happier person. Or the worst thing you can do is to kill me, take off my head, and you will make me happier than before. Because I have a God who turns all deaths into resurrections – literally as well as figuratively! I have a God, who doesn’t create the pride, and the evil, and the cruelty you see in here, but he arranges it, and he overwhelms it, and he overrules it, so that all the evil in this passage eventually destroys itself. I have a God, who doesn’t create evils, but He overrules it, so it destroys itself. I have a God, who turns all deaths in the resurrections!”
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (436). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Wenham, G. J. (1998). Vol. 2: Genesis 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary (351). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Wenham, G. J. (350).
Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary (662). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Keller, T. From the sermon “The Hiddenness of God,” transcribed https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1YsyTpQHH7V67tYaMZKtElg3n1E-AFHCByPVWARU1Gog accessed 21 September 2012.
Peterson, Eugene (1994). Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (110-11). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (499). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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Wenham, G. J. (352).
Ortberg, J. as quoted in http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan/2012/03/what-makes-you-grow-excerpt-john-ortberg.html accessed 21 September 2012.
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 1: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (122). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Greidanus, S (2007). Preaching Christ from Genesis (350-51). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Hamilton, V. P. (1995). The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (418). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Hamilton, V. P. (418).
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (502).
Wenham, G. J. (354).
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (503).
Greidanus, S. (354).
Keller, T. Ibid.
Keller, T. Ibid.