This selection of text is a lesson in Providence. Providence is God’s ongoing activity to direct all things to their appointed end. This last section of Genesis begins in 37:2 under the heading of, “These are the generations of Jacob.” The two texts that wave as a banner over the final 14 chapters of Genesis are the texts detailing what Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed his true identity to them and when their father, Jacob, died. When Joseph revealed his identity to them, he said, God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God (Genesis 45:7-8). When Jacob died, Joseph said to his brothers, Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (50:19-20).
Occasionally, certain things may happen or come together in a way that you become aware of the hand of God working in the details of life. For example, you may be a member of a church praying for God show you the next steps in pursuit of His mission. When you have a mission and you pursue it, you are always brought up against obstacles that seem insurmountable. Then you get a phone call from another local church offering to give you their property. This is a detail you could not have imagined in all of your praying. Yet, the timing, the turn of events, and your present circumstances make clear that this is God’s answer to prayer. And we are all shocked. I recall a pastor’s wife telling how when they were in Bible college, they had a pressing financial need. She went to the mailbox and there was an envelope in the box with a check in it for the exact amount they needed less 1 nickel. She looked down and there was a nickel lying on the ground. Well, you know she was excited that God had so obviously provided for them.
The providence of God is not limited, however, to those obvious markers that make us conscious of His activity. Most often we are oblivious to God’s unseen hand directing the minute details of life. But He is personally involved in all events directing all things to their appointed end. “God is completely in charge of His world. His hand may be hidden, but His rule is absolute” (Packer, Concise Theology, p54).
If you are pursuing Christian growth and growing in sanctification, this truth should be a comfort to you. If you are struggling with reconciling God’s love for you and hardship that has come your way, this text should encourage you. But if you are in rebellion against God and pursuing sin, this truth should make you as uncomfortable as a “cat on a hot tin roof.”
Some people create in their minds a template where God is only involved in happy things—safe travel, safe arrival of babies, a happy marriage, and going off into the sunset and living happily ever after. In their minds, God is not found near tragic accidents, death, illness, and all things that impede personal happiness. Somehow the “bad” things don’t fit in their template of God’s involvement.
I can understand and accept that evil exists in the world. It’s the only kind of world I’ve ever lived in. What is amazing to me is that there is any good in the world at all. How is it that after every storm, the sun comes out and the air is clean? How is it that in the middle of a desolate, dry desert a flower blooms? How is it that one person will give his life to save another whose life is in danger? How is it that people who come from the most dysfunctional backgrounds produce families who are faithful and love and serve one another to the end? You see, the presence of good in the world is the finger print of the unseen hand of God at work in all the details of life and history, both good and bad, to accomplish his purpose. Good overcomes evil (Rom. 12:21).
How does God do this? We will never fully exhaust the mystery of Providence. We simply trust it. Mercifully, we have texts such as this in the Bible to give us a category for God working in and through evil events to accomplish all of His good purpose. When you think about it, you realize that in a fallen world of fallen people, God must have purposed to thwart the evil intentions of human action to bless the world. God’s sovereignty is demonstrated by the fact that there is no choice we can make, however sinful or fallen, that can interfere with his plan. God did not approve of the treachery of Joseph’s brothers. He did not make them do evil. He did not need their treachery to accomplish his plan. But some way or other, Joseph was going to Egypt and come to the place of blessing the world. Judah may be determined to do the opposite, but somehow he is going to produce progeny to bless the world. I have to believe that God in involved in all the details of our lives as His people to expand the church to save the world.
In Genesis, God has a purpose of blessing for all people. He intends to bless the nations. This covenant promise of God is always in jeopardy. In the earlier episodes of Genesis, covenant obstacles were barrenness, foreign kings, and offspring. The question seemed always to be, “Can God deliver on His promises?” The text clearly shows that the God who created all things, can surely keep His promises.
Subsequently, after we ran into Jacob, the question shifted to, “Can God use this family to bring blessing to the world?” “Can all the nations of the earth be blessed through a family who is constantly on the brink of self-destruction?” In this text, the covenant family not only is at the brink of self-destruction, they actively work to overthrow God’s good purpose. Yet, God’s purpose stands. The irony is that at every point where they most directly opposed God’s purpose, God worked in their actions to further His purpose.
The comfort to us is that God will accomplish his purpose in our lives and no event, no person, not even ourselves, can hinder His good purpose.
How? Let’s look at some ways God providentially upholds His purpose.
God is able to accomplish all of His will in spite of the efforts of humans to resist His will.
This was Stephen’s point in his sermon in Acts 7. He recounted the history of Israel to show that their history pointed to two undeniable facts. First, they always resist the Holy Spirit. Second, God brought the promise to fulfillment in the incarnation of the Son of God in spite of their opposition. They so opposed the fulfillment of promise that they murdered the Righteous One, but God overturned their opposition by raising Him from the dead.
We can resist God’s will intentionally or unintentionally, but we may not overthrow it. We can see both kinds of resistance in this text.
Jacob’s favoritism (2-4)
You have to fight the temptation to see Joseph as a tattletale, annoying little brother who aggravated his brothers with his tales of grandeur. I think that is traditionally the way this story get played, so that, we are almost sympathetic with the brothers. Who wouldn’t sell a tattletale sibling to Ishmaelites if you had half a chance? No. Joseph is presented throughout this narrative as the obedient son. In this aspect of his life, he is analogous to Christ. That Joseph has the crazy family he has is no fault of his own.
We well remember the favoritism of Isaac and Rebekah toward Esau and Jacob respectively (25:28) and the problems it caused in the family. We would have thought that Jacob would have had a different vision for his family. The writer emphasizes Jacob’s favoritism not because it was a normal part of ancient family life, but to get us to take notice of it and the problems that ensued because of it.
Jacob not only favored Joseph but he intended to give him the birthright, symbolized in the royal robe he made for Joseph. The result was Joseph’s brothers hated him.
Perhaps Jacob did try to do differently in his family but failed. Regardless, we often become the thing we hate. It could be it’s simply the hate that leads us toward the same fate. Perhaps, it is being consumed with what we hate that pushes us that way. I really don’t think Jacob wanted to create hatred among his sons, but he did. Resisting sin alone is not how we prevail. We must have a positive vision that is so enchanting it changes our focus and behavior. In relationships, we pursue love and trust, not distrust.
At any rate, his favoritism was an inadvertent resisting of God’s purpose.
Brothers hatred and jealousy (4,5,8,11)
If Jacob’s exalting of Joseph was not enough, God gave him two dreams that obviously put his family in subservience to him (5-8; 9-11). We will learn later from Joseph that the “doubling of dreams meant that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (41:32). Joseph’s brothers knew the dreams were divine communications, and instead of bowing to God’s will they made every effort to destroy God’s purpose and failed. Ironically, every detail of their activity to make an end of Joseph’s dreams only worked to the sure establishment of His dreams. They planned to kill him. Ruben intervened. Then, a caravan of traders came along, and Judah came up with the idea to sell him into slavery.
God had revealed to Abraham in 15:13 that his offspring would go to “a land not their own” for 400 years. How would he get them there, and why would He take them there? We see the how here. Behind the scenes of Jacob’s sinful favoritism, the brother’s hatred, Joseph’s position as the family liaison to Jacob (12-14), a random man in a field at Shechem who happened to overhear a conversation between Joseph’s brothers (15-17), Ruben’s failed plan to rescue Joseph (22), a pit without water (24), a caravan of Ishmaelites that happened to be headed to Egypt (25), and Judah’s bright idea that making money is better than murder, God is at work! The brothers didn’t know it. Joseph didn’t know it. Nobody knew it but everyone ought to have assumed it! That’s the how of it.
The why of it comes in the third way we see humans resist God’s will only to further his purpose.
But first we have to bring this home to us. It just may be that God is doing something in our church. It may be that he has a plan for us that we cannot imagine at the moment. It may be that you are resisting him. Joseph’s brothers remind me of the story of John Wesley and his mother Suzanna. Suzanna was a godly woman and the mother of 19 kids. John Wesley was determined to put an end to this new phenomenon called, “preaching out-of-doors.” Revival was breaking out as men were riding horseback from place to place to preach the gospel. Wesley’s mother said to John as he was about to leave, “John, you may be fighting against God.” You know the rest of the story.
Judah marrying a Canaanite and refusing to give Tamar her right to produce a progeny for Judah (ch 38).
Judah intentionally resisted the purpose of God by walking out on his family and marrying a Canaanite simply to satisfy his carnality (38:1-5). As Joseph was being “taken down” to Egypt, Judah “went down” from his brothers to hang with Hirah the Adullamite (cf. 38:1 and 39:1). You can’t sell your brother and walk with God, remain the same, be unscathed. Sin shrinks your soul. While there he “saw” an unnamed Canaanite and “took” her to be his wife (38:1-2). “Took” by itself is honorable. “Saw” and “took” together is Genesis 3 and 6 all over again. They quickly had three sons. Judah “took” a wife for is oldest son, Er, who was so wicked God killed him (38:7). According to customary law, Judah gave her to his second son to raise up heirs for his brother. Onan figured that would mean less of an inheritance for him (38:9), so he simply used Tamar. God killed him too (38:10). Then Judah demanded Tamar remain a widow until his youngest son grew up, but he had no intention of giving her to Shelah because he blamed her for the deaths of his other two sons and feared for Shelah’s life as well (38:11b).
Why would God take his people to Egypt for 400 years? Because they were in danger of being absorbed by the Canaanites. This is the broader meaning of Joseph saying to his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth” (45:7 c.f. 50:20). Ultimately, God will send a famine to push covenant family out of Canaan, but make no mistake God is providentially preserving His people. He will not let them return to Canaan until they are a nation strong enough to drive out the Canaanites. Judah’s, who is in the line of Christ, is indicative of the reality that the covenant family was being “Canaanized.” In spite of Judah walking out on the promise, marrying an unbeliever, and raising wicked kids, God gave him a Canaanite daughter-in-law that valued the promise and risked everything to see it fulfilled. Judah in denying Tamar her right was actively seeking to destroy the promise of God!
Jacob’s foolishness failed to destroy God’s purpose. The brothers’ efforts to destroy God’s purpose failed. Why would they want to frustrate the purpose of God? The same reason we do. They felt that God was holding out on them, that He didn’t have their best interest at heart. He was somehow withholding good from them by exalting Joseph.
If the devil can’t destroy us with our sin, he will be happy for us to live life in regret of sins that are past. I recall how often as a kid growing up in a revivalistic church I would hear people who were converted say, “The only thing I regret is the years I’ve wasted when I could have been serving the Lord.” Regret was exalted to a spiritual discipline, so we all regretted. That’s like Barabbas being set free, and Jesus being crucified, and Barabbas saying, “The only thing I regret is I didn’t get out of jail sooner.”
Do you somehow think that your sinful life has now hampered your usefulness in the Kingdom? Do you think that if you had lived differently the Kingdom would be farther along now? Do you think God’s purpose has been thwarted? Do you see yourself as tainted goods unusable in God’s economy? If that is the case, you have bought into Satan’s lie. On the other hand, if you hear me say sin all you want and God’s purpose will stand, you need to meditate on the fate of Judah’s sons, Er and Onan.
How does God overrule the consequences of our sin to accomplish all of his purpose? You can control your actions, but you cannot control the consequences. Your regret killing hope is that God overrules the consequences of our sin to accomplish his will.
By not allowing us to do all the sin we would otherwise do.
I opened my food drawer in my desk to find a note. It was a Spurgeon quote. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The note read, If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him, for you are worse than he thinks you to be.
That is so true! It is also true that I am not as bad as I could be. You can see this in Joseph’s brothers. They “conspired to kill him” (37:18). You can hear their calloused, hatred of their brother as they plan his demise. “Here come the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him…we will see what will become of his deams” (37:19b. 20a,c).
God intervened in Reuben stepping up to prevent the murder (37:21a,22b). Yet, God frustrated the plan of Reuben, using Judah to lead in selling Joseph to Ishmaelites because God wanted to take Joseph to Egypt.
You lament your sin, but realize God has kept you from all the sin you would do. How many times have we been ready to sin but lacked the opportunity? How many times have we been ready to sin but thought of the people in our lives that would be hurt by our sin and found strength to turn away from sin? How many times has knowing you have a church that would pursue you been a great aid to you in turning from temptation? God puts these graces in our lives to mitigate our sinfulness.
By using the consequences of our sin and those who sin against us to accomplish His will.
We not only have to deal with our own sin but also with the sin of others and those who sin against us. You can see in this text how God used both the consequences of sin and its effect in the lives of others to accomplish his will.
Let’s trace this in two characters, Joseph and Judah.
Joseph’s brothers sinned against him, not to mention their father, and sold him into slavery. Joseph did not have the option of saying to his captors, “Hey guys, take me to Egypt and sell me to the captain of the guard.” But, that is exactly what happened (37:36 “meanwhile”). Joseph’s brothers did not have the option of saying, “Don’t take him to Egypt and put him in a position where he can gain influence, so that we have to bow to him like he dreamed.
When you are sinned against, and you can be life changingly sinned against, it does not follow that God’s purpose in your life is hindered or thwarted, but rather it is unfolded. For 20 years Joseph had time to process all that had happened, and he came to the conclusion that God, not his brothers and not the Ishmaelites, sent him to Egypt to save the world. We hear it in the banner that flies over this final section of Genesis.
God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God (Genesis 45:7-8). Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (50:19-20).
Judah walked out on the promise to his fathers. If Joseph is the obedient son, Judah is the disobedient son. In the process, he sinned against his daughter-in-law by not giving her the rights that belonged to her to produce a progeny for Judah. He lied to her and deceived her and blamed her for his own sin. She realized that Judah had deceived her (38:14c). She knew his carnal character so well that she posed as a prostitute to entice Judah to give her her rights (38:14a,15). She also knew to get his credit card, so she could identify him as the father when he would seize the opportunity to kill her (38:16-18).
When Judah found out Tamar was pregnant, he had a Nathan/David moment in his life. As Tamar was being dragged out to be burned as an adulteress, she sent Judah’s credit card ahead of her (38:24-25). This was the turning point, the conversion point in the life of Judah. Finally, he admitted his lying deception and confessed his own sin (38:26).
Oddly enough, Tamar is not condemned for her behavior, nor is she justified. However, she gives birth to twins reminiscent of the birth of Jacob and Esau. The older would again serve the younger (38:27-30). In Perez the line of promise would continue, so that Tamar and Perez are in the line of Christ (Matt. 1:3). Tamar’s knowingly put her life on the line because she saw a treasure in the progeny of Judah that Judah himself had long since abandoned. God used her and overruled the consequences of the sin against her to not only preserve the line of promise but restore the son of promise and saved the world.
By mitigating the consequences of our sin to make us into the people He wants us to be, people who understand and pursue His mission.
Perhaps you have had unfavorable events in your life and the first thing you think is, “God is punishing me for my sin.” I want to change that thinking. Christ bore the consequences of our sin. Now even consequences have been redeemed. They are agents of mercy. God mercifully uses the consequences of our sin to develop us in our sanctification and participation in His mission.
You see this in this text at many levels, but I will point out two. Some mistakingly called it “talonic justice,” but it is “talionic mercy. We could say, “Jacob got what he deserved”—he deceived his father and defrauded his brother. We could say Judah deserved Tamar’s deception—he deceived his father. Or we could say, “God mercifully turned the consequences of their sin to save the world.
I want you to see a couple of things here. I want you to see what God has done to bring you into the hearing of the Word of God today. The gospel offer is not simply some activity you expect at Church, but it is the testimony to the personal activity of God overcoming every obstacle to bring the Savior into the world and overcoming every obstacle in your life to bring you into the hearing of the Word.
Next, perhaps you are struggling with God’s love and care of you because of events in your life and in your family. You have really been negatively impacted by it. All pain and suffering are ultimately resolved in the cross. If you have greatly sinned or been greatly sinned against, there is healing for your soul at the cross.