The God who is with us
(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg
|Scripture: Genesis 37
1 Jacob lived in the land where his
father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the account of Jacob.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his
brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his
|Commentd on passage
Jacobs Family, his wives and sons:
Leah - Reuben, Simeon, Levi,
Judah, Issachar and Zebulun
Rachel - Joseph and Benjamin
Bilhah (Rachel’s servant) - Dan
Zilpah (Leah’s servant) - Gad
Lead and Rachel were Jacob's real wives, Bilhah and Zilpah were
concubines (Gen 35:20) - thus there was a definite hierarchy in this
family. And of course, because Rachel was Jacob’s real love,
everyone played second fiddle to Rachel and her children, especially
the children of the concubines.
| and he brought their father a
bad report about them.
|(Read all you want into how
bad these family dynamics were - they were all there.)
The family dynamics were actually very
complicated. Reuben, being the first born had the birthright of the
first born, but then according to Genesis 35:20, Reuben slept with his
fathers concubine Bilhah, he defiled his father’s marriage
bed. According to 1 Chronicles 5, it was because of this that Reuben
lost the birthright of the first born, and since Jacobs next true
firstborn was Joseph (from Rachel), he inherited the firstborn right
which meant that he would be the leader of the family.
|3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any
of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and
he made a richly ornamented robe for him.
coloured coat was not just a symbol of his father’s
favouritism, it was a symbol of Reuben’s failure, it was a
symbol that out of all these sons, this puny 17 year old was Jacob's
choice to be the family leader, the family ruler.
|4 When his brothers saw that their
father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not
speak a kind word to him.
5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his
brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them,
“Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of
grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright,
while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
|This birthright business
seemed to be going to Joseph’s head.
|8 His brothers said to him,
“Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule
us?” And they hated him all the more because of his
dream and what he had said.
||(You’re taking this
birthright business too far!)
|9 Then he had another dream, and he told
it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I
had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were
bowing down to me.”
|10 When he told his father as well as
his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this
dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come
and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His
brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
||(Now his father is saying -
Joseph, you are carrying this too far.)
|12 Now his brothers had gone to graze
their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to
Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks
near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
|(This was no safe venture.
Joseph going near Shechem by himself was dangerous for the very simple
reason that not long before, his brothers Levi and Simeon had killed
all the men of that town, and revenge for blood spilled has a long
memory. Retaliation was a real possibility. That Jacob would send
Joseph there demonstrated his trust in Joseph’s abilities to
take care of himself.)
|“Very well,” he
14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your
brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.”
Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
|("all is well = Hebrew
"Shalom" In this context, the word has connotations of them
living at peace with each other. Jacob knows his family has
problems. It also expresses Jacob's concern for their welfare
in the potentially dangerous area of Shechem.)
|When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15
a man found him wandering around in the
fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can
you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”
17 “They have moved on from here,” the man
answered. “I heard them say,
‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”
|(Most commentators find the
presence of this unknown stranger and the fact that the stranger
overheard a conversation in a middle of a field among bleating sheep at
|So Joseph went after his brothers and
found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before
he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
||(Guaranteed, the motive for
this plot has been on their minds for a long time. The plan
|19 “Here comes that
dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now,
let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and
say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what
comes of his dreams.”
|21 When Reuben heard this, he
tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not
take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed
any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but
don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to
rescue him from them and take him back to his father.
||(Reuben was the oldest son of
Leah, but he lost his birthright status to Joseph when he
defiled his father’s marriage bed (1 Chronicles 5), Joseph in
Reuben’s place has become the leader, yet Reuben is the
|23 So when Joseph came to his brothers,
they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he
was wearing— 24 and they took him and threw him into the
cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.
25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan
of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead.
|(Notice what the brothers do -
their anger is aimed not only at the brother, it is also aimed at their
father's decision to make him the leader as represented in Joseph's
many coloured coat.)
(The Hebrew of this passage has word plays which
picture the brothers as ravenous animals about to eat their prey.)
|Their camels were loaded with spices,
balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt
||(Balm and myrrh were used for
burial and embalming in Egypt. The passage at least mentions
this because their actions secure Joseph’s death to them).
|26 Judah said to his brothers,
“What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his
blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay
our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and
blood.” His brothers agreed.
||(Judah, fourth son of Leah)
|28 So when the Midianite merchants came
by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for
twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to
||(twenty shekels of silver -
the price of a common slave)
|29 When Reuben returned to the cistern
and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back
to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there!
Where can I turn now?”
||(Reuben, who is the eldest and
firstborn seems to take some responsibility for his brothers welfare,
possibly because he knows that he himself is the one responsible for
losing his own birthright.)
| 31 Then they got
Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the
blood. 32 They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said,
“We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your
33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe!
Some ferocious animal has devoured him . Joseph has surely been torn to
|(Based on Hebrew word plays,
the text invites us to picture the brothers as ferocious animals who
have eaten their brother)
|34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on
sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and
daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be
comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning
will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept
||(Here the dysfunction of
Jacob's family is clearly portrayed. It seems that the
brothers who have effectively murdered Joseph, now with their families
come to comfort Jacob. This is hypocrisy to the nth degree.)
|36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph
in Egypt t o Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the
captain of the guard.
This past year has been a year with
some very significant challenges. As reported in our year summary - yes
there have been many blessings, but their have been the challenges of
world events, discovering how disastrous tsunamis can be, earthquakes
that kill 80,000 people in one night, hurricanes that just keep on
coming, wars that have not gone well. We have all wondered where God is
in the mess.
There have been personal tragedies
with the passing away of loved ones and continuing grief. Sickness has
reminded some of us of our mortality. Challenges in Mexico have taken
sacrifice to resolve. Personal family dynamics have strained some of us
to our limit, and we wonder where God is. Somehow, we have thought that
in the blessing of God, things just should go better. And when they
aren’t better we wonder where God is in the mess.
This was especially true for Jacob
and Joseph. If you are somewhat familiar with their story, you know
that Jacob’s concern that things would go well with his sons
was a well founded concern, after all, his entire family was fraught
with difficulty, conflict and dysfunction. Jacob’s
analysis of his own life was that it was filled with grief and
difficulty. If there is anything this chapter cries out in the mess of
Jacob’s family, I don’t know if you noticed, but it
appears that God is not in the picture. These are family dynamics
filled with evil. This is life filled with problems. These were
relationships filled with conflict. This was grief empty of resolve
because there was no hope and no God in the picture.
Maybe you have come out of one of
the more difficult years of your life and you feel the same and you
wonder what happened to God in your picture, in your life.
In this context, I want to turn
your eyes upon a stranger. Take notice of the stranger in this passage.
Joseph, trusted by his father, is sent to Shechem (90 kms
from Hebron - or about two days travel) to see how his
brothers are doing. Are they safe? Are they getting
along? Are they doing well? He travels the distance to Shechem only to
find the fields empty and the brothers gone. Now the next logical
sequence of this story is that 17 year old Joseph would go back to his
father and tell him another bad report: They
weren’t were they said they would be!" They would just have
to wait until they returned. But we run into a surprise in the story. I
encourage you to listen very carefully to the surprise.
A stranger finds Joseph.
This is not Joseph finding someone of the area. Remember, this was a
dangerous area. This was an area where Levi and Simeon had killed all
the men of the town. To go find a male stranger in this area would be
dangerous because certainly the city of Shechem had every interest in
The stranger finds Joseph, the
picture of this passage is as if this stranger is out there, looking
for Joseph, watching out for him. The story does not tell us who this
stranger is. It does not tell us why he was there in the fields where
Joseph was wandering. It simply tells us that the stranger found Joseph
lost and meandering not knowing where to go in the fields near Shechem.
And the story even gets more
interesting. The man asks Joseph the confused 17 year old, what he is
looking for, and Joseph asks the stranger where his brothers might be
tending their flocks. And then this stranger answers that they went to
Dothan (another 30 km), and he knows this because
he heard them speaking to each other.
I don’t know about you,
but this passage pops all kinds of questions into my mind.
Out in an open field, near a city that would be decidedly dangerous,
how in the world would a man overhear a few shepherds talking to each
other about where to go next? This is the kind of conversation that is
not overheard, just like Joseph later on was not able to overhear their
plots to take his life by killing him. Yet this stranger overheard what
normally would never be overheard.
Who is this stranger that finds
Joseph, overheard his brothers and sends Joseph on to Dothan?
The passage itself does not answer
our question. But those who are well aware of God and his promises, the
God who comes to us as a stranger know well who the stranger was. And
even though God seems totally absent from the story, not mentioned once
- we discover God in the stranger. Besides the fact
that this stranger was looking out after Joseph, besides the fact that
this stranger overheard a conversation that would never otherwise be
overheard, let me give you the most basic reason why we are driven to
accept that this stranger is God.
First, this story, in its context is the fulfillment of promise - a
promise God made to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-14) where God said
certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their
own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14
But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they
will come out with great possessions.
God had made a promise and he was
making sure it would be kept. If this stranger had not appeared, what
would have happened? Joseph would have returned to his father, and
assuming a consistent flow of events, Israel and his family, and the
line of the Savior, would have never been rescued from famine by food
in Egypt and would never have been enslaved in Egypt only later to be
delivered by Moses. The heart of this story is God fulfilling what he
promised and even the most corrupt hearts of Joseph’ brothers
ended up serving God’s ends.
There is a very simple and profound
theme here. When God is hidden, he often meets us in the stranger and
we do not recognize him. Certain, it was only later that Joseph would
recognize this stranger as God at work, God meeting him in the middle
of a field to direct his path toward slavery. Joseph himself recognized
this when he said to his brothers - "You meant it for evil
but God meant it for good!"
There are times in our lives when
God is hidden from our view, often times when things are going, it
seems, in all the wrong directions, but just because he is hidden does
not mean he is not there, keeping his promises, determining outcomes,
making sure that his word comes to fulfillment. Walter Brueggeman, a
well known Old Testament scholar, says (paraphrased)
in regard to this theme, it is when God is hidden, working in hidden
ways, that he does far more for us that we could ever do for ourselves.
Our future is not a consequence of our good intentions, our future is a
consequence of a God working in hidden ways to secure the future he has
As we look back at this past year,
we need to hear this story afresh, this Word of the Lord, that even
when God is hidden, he is not absent, even when God is not seen, he is
with us, even when life goes all wrong, God is still in control. Some
of us in our struggles, in our grief have certainly wondered about the
presence of God, his blessing, his promises, but this passage reminds
us that God is with us even when he seems the most distant. When we
feel the most forsaken, God is often doing some of his greatest work.
When God was the most absent at the cross of Christ, God was the most
near to save us.
God is with us, calling us to
obedience, even if he seems the most unreal, God is with us and he will
never leave us or forsake us, always keeping his promises to us, simply
because that is who he is.
As we look back, I can offer you no
greater comfort and no stronger hope for the future - than the
character and the faithfulness of God. His words will not fail. We may.
We may fall, we may disobey, we may sin, like Joseph’s
brothers, we might even attempt murder. But God’s word is
even bigger than our unfaithfulness, our sin, our rebellion.
And so end this year. And if God
has been absent from it in your life, then remember the stranger that
was there guiding your steps even when you never anticipated it.
God’s faithful children pay attention to the stranger,
because the stranger is often God at work. So Joseph, looking for his
brothers at Shechem was found by a stranger, who sent him to Dothan,
and from Dothan, Joseph was delivered as a slave to Egypt, and from
Egypt, he was the instrument in the hands of God that not only saved
nations, it also saved his family, from which the Christ would be born.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY
BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984
International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible
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