Genesis 43:1ff “Now the famine was still severe in the land. So when they had eaten all the grain they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, ‘Go back and buy us a little more food’ . . .” [and on to the end of the chapter, v.34]
The life of Joseph explains to us a number of curious facts; how the children of Israel ended up for four hundred years living in Egypt, and also how it mushroomed from one man, Jacob, to over a million people. Joseph is now the chancellor and prime minister of Egypt. He has given to Pharaoh the divine plan for the survival of the entire Middle East during seven long years of famine. That famine has affected Canaan also, and the ten sons of Jacob have come down to Egypt and there they have been recognized by their brother Joseph, though they did not know him. He accused them of being spies and he kept Simeon one of the brothers in an Egyptian jail until the brothers returned with their youngest brother Benjamin. So they go home from their visit to Egypt with a supply of food but without Simeon. They give to their father Jacob the message from ‘the man’ in Egypt that they must to return there with the youngest son Benjamin before Joseph will allow Simeon to go free. Jacob fiercely opposes this action. “My son will not go down there with you,” and so we have reached an impasse. There is deadlock and tension in the home; nothing happens until the severe famine calls for some action. All the grain they brought back from Egypt has gone. What are they to do? Within weeks there will be no food there at all. In the first fifteen verses of this chapter there is a dialogue between father and sons, especially the exchange between Jacob and his son Judah.
- JACOB’S LEADERSHIP IS WEAK AND INDECISIVE, BUT HIS FAITH TRIUMPHS.
The months go by and Jacob does nothing but see the stores of food going down, and then finally he says to the brothers, “Go back and buy us a little more food” (v.2). He has procrastinated for months and now it is desperate because all the food they’d brought from Egypt had been used. Judah becomes the spokesman of the brothers and he tells his father, “If we had not delayed we could have gone and returned twice” (v.10). Not only does the old man procrastinate but he thinks that some little ploy can avoid the terrible decision. “Go back . . . and buy us a little more food” he says (v.2). Why a little? There is no sign that the famine is going to end. There are stories from Egypt that predict that it is going to last another five years. Why not buy all the grain they can carry? Jacob will not handle this life and death problem head on. If he ignored it did he think it might go away? Maybe he thought that if they bought only a small amount from Joseph that he would forget his demand that Benjamin must come with them.
Judah is here as a son who is under obligation to honour his father, and he is like you facing stubborn irrational parents, or the officers of the church who have to disagree with me if they think that my angle on something is unhelpful. You can disagree graciously and biblically with your parents, and your pastor, and people in authority, and increasingly we find ourselves doing this as there seems to be a growing anti-Christian sentiment in government.
So Judah explains to his father again the realities of the situation: “The man warned us solemnly, ‘You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother along with us, we will go down and buy food for you. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, because the man said to us, ‘You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you’” (vv.3-5). I am sure that he spoke kindly and respectfully as well as very firmly; his father was so frustrated and desperately worried at the thought of losing Benjamin as he’d lost his dear son Joseph. “Why did you tell him about Benjamin? You have brought this trouble on us,” he says (v.6). Jacob is wrapped up in his own misery. Now all the brothers speak up and show their solidarity with Judah. “‘The man’ questioned us closely about our family. We simply answered his questions. How were we to know that he would demand that we bring Benjamin with us next time?”
Then in the silence as the father ponders everything Judah speaks up and it is a very moving plea. Judah says, “Send the boy along with me and we will go at once, so that we and you and our children may live and not die. I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life” (vv. 8&9). Judah is stepping forward as the surety for Benjamin, assuming all responsibility for him, taking the penalty if necessary. In the original the Hebrew doesn’t say, “I will bear the blame” but “I will have sinned.” The surety bears the punishment. One day there would be another of the line of this man Judah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would choose to become surety for God’s elect as he assumed total, absolute responsibility for the deliverance of his people.
A person who stands surety for another is someone who commits himself to making good for another. He approaches one person on behalf of another person, and he acts as a representative who places himself under obligation to the person he approaches in the place of the one he represents. In this sense great Judah’s greater Son, Jesus, is our surety. He drew near to God the Father on our behalf and he laid himself under obligation to God for us. To stand surety for someone is to strike hands with another in solemn agreement. When Christ became our surety he voluntarily placed himself in bondage to his Father until the work he set out to do was a finished work. The Father said to the Son what Jacob was finally to say to Judah, “Take them and go! Bring them again to me perfect and complete.” And that is what great Judah’s greater Son did when he came and suffered, bled and died and rose again and us in him seating us in the heavenlies with the Father.
So this combination of arguments, the absolute necessity of having food, the united arguments of his sons, the promise of Judah to be the surety for the safe return of Benjamin all came irresistibly to Jacob and the old man relented and ended his opposition to Benjamin going to Egypt with them. Again he speaks so movingly; “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift – a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds. Take double the amount of silver with you, for you must return the silver that was put back into the mouths of your sacks. Perhaps it was a mistake. Take your brother also and go back to the man at once
. And may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you. As for me, if I am bereaved, I am bereaved” (vv.11-14).
This is one of the greatest moments in the life of Jacob. He yields himself to the grace and power of God. He had once wrestled with the angel of the Lord at the ford of the Jabbok. He had begun to learn there about striving with God and prevailing. In the past months he had had to face the agonizing question that the God who once had taken Joseph might also want Benjamin. Here was Jacob’s new trust in the Lord. He placed the whole of his hope, the whole of his future, in the hands of the Almighty God. You see that he gives three instructions.
i] Take a present, men, to ‘the man’ (v.11). That would have been absolute protocol in those days. If you had approached a high official, you would have been expected to take some sort of a present (just like in India or Nigeria today!) but especially at this time to this mysterious all powerful man in Egypt. It was respect, and it was a sweetener. These presents might not seem to us to be extravagant gifts, but remember that they were in the middle of a famine in the land of Canaan, and all the more precious because basics were in short supply. Strangely enough they are the very goods that the Midianite slave traders were taking down to Egypt twenty years earlier. These words ‘spice’ and ‘myrrh’ are only mentioned in two places in the Old Testament.
ii] Take double the money (v.12) Take twice the money they had taken last time. Take the money back that had been put in their sacks. Jacob shows that he has every intention of them going, presenting themselves, and returning that money. Is Jacob a little suspicious that they had themselves cheated the Egyptians out of the money? I don’t know, but he wants that money way down in Egypt’s land, the debt cleared for the purchased grain. He gives them double the money in case they need extra. Perhaps having not been paid the first time, the Egyptians will jack up the price, or perhaps because, as the famine has gone on and the supply had dwindled and the demand has risen, now the Egyptians are charging more for their grain. Take no risks; whatever the case, he gives them the money that mysteriously came back with them the first time, plus double what they’d taken before. Finally he says . . .
iii] Take Benjamin (v.13). These are his steps of human wisdom, steps of a loving father. He will break the apron strings that tie him to his dearest son. There is nothing wrong with what Israel is doing here. Far from it. It is absolutely right for him to act prudently. This is consecrated strategy. But I want you to notice that he doesn’t stop here. He acts wisely. He does what he can do, but he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t rest in those particular steps, the strategy of the gifts, the strategy of the returned money, the strategy of meeting the demands of the Egyptian officials and sending his son . . .
iv] Put your trust in God (v.14). He says this “May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you. And as for me, if I am to be bereaved, I am bereaved.” I would like you to see a number of features in this prayer that he lifts up.
A) First of all, notice that he uses the word, ‘God Almighty,’ for God. That is the name in which God had come to his grandfather, Abram in Genesis 17:1 when God had made the promise to give him a seed. Now, men and women, that is so significant because you see what Jacob is about to do. He is about to send all of his seed to Egypt – every single son – with the possibility that that seed will never return again, and that the line of the covenant will be extinct. He is now too old to have children. All of his eggs are in one basket, but it is God’s basket. So he calls on the name of God Almighty, El Shaddai, may he be gracious.
B) Secondly, notice what he asks for. He asks that God Almighty would grant them mercy in the sight of men. You realize that this a testimony to his biblical theology of the divine providence. Jacob knows, he is confident, that the heart even of the Egyptians is held in the hand of Jehovah, God Almighty, and his God can make those Egyptians be favourable to his sons. So he prays that God would cause them to favour the gifts given, and to favour their overtures, and to bless them.
C) Thirdly, notice this, his words of resignation. “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved” (v.14). Ligon Duncan in his sermon these verses says, “You may read these words and they come across as fatalism, almost like whining, almost a contradiction of what he has just said. You have this burst of faith it seems, then you have this pessimistic sort of outlook – whatever will be will be – contradictory to what’s been previously expressed of trusting the Sovereign God. But remember again, men and women, remember what Jacob is risking here. He is risking everything. Once again yes, once again in the book of Genesis, we are seeing God requiring a patriarch to risk everything in order to gain the promise. The covenant promise of God is at stake. Was there doubt mixed with Israel’s faith? I am sure there was. Just like there is with ours. Was there an unbelieving fear mixed with Israel’s faith? I am sure there was, just like there is so often in ours. But ultimately this whole section declares his absolute trust in God. He is risking everything . . . everything, as he sends his sons to Egypt. We see here again the test of the faith of this man Israel, and we see a definition of faith even in his actions. He places his whole trust in God. Everything is in God’s hands now. He would have to wait for . . . how long? How many months would Israel have to wait before he would hear whether his hopes were dashed, or whether his fondest dreams had been fulfilled, and all of his sons be reunited with him, out of Egypt? So Israel has to place his whole trust in God. And so we see the trust of Israel here and faith defined.”
- JOSEPH’S LEADERSHIP IS CONFIDENT AND PURPOSIVE.
The long journey back to Egypt is described in two brief sentences (v.15) and once again the fascinating dynamics of the relationship between these brothers (Joseph and the other eleven) fill the remainder of this chapter. We have a number of windows opened onto the heart and behaviour of Joseph, his kindness, his bruised memory, his love for his family and his desire for true reconciliation based on repentance. Then Moses also opens up windows on the state of the eleven brothers, their fear, their guilty consciences, their suspicion at the kindness that ‘the man’ is showing them, but particularly we see their new integr
ity and their humbling themselves before God.
i] Joseph can only glance at his brother Benjamin. It is the start of the day; the brothers are early t the corn exchange when they meet again ‘the man.’ Joseph meets them and sees Benjamin. His beloved mother had died giving birth to this boy, his only full brother. One of the last things she did was to give him the name ‘son of my trouble’ but his father had changed that name to ‘son of my right hand’ Benjamin. How well Joseph knew the family story. Benjamin was a baby the last time he’d seen him. He’d held him in his arms and he’d wept over the death of their mother. Here is Benjamin again. God has preserved them both and brought them together. Think of all that had happened in the past twenty years. He cannot stay in the room a moment longer, and he slips out, but before that he quickly tells his steward what to do: “Take these men to my house, slaughter an animal and prepare dinner; they are to eat with me at noon” (v.16).
ii] All the brothers are fearful. They find out from the steward what orders Joseph has given him, and when he leads them to Joseph’s own magnificent home (remember they are still living in tents) they were frightened (v.18). They are out of their depth. They were thinking in a totally irrational way, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to attack us and overpower us and seize us as slaves and take our donkeys” (v.18). “He wants to steal our donkeys!” After Pharaoh Joseph is number two on Forbes’ list of the richest men in the world. They are country boys and where they come from the dowry price of a bride is two or three donkeys. They also think that they are going to be charged with the theft of the money that they had given him for their grain which was returned in their sacks. “He is going to use this as an excuse for taking us as slaves.” But what is the price of ten sacks of grain to Joseph? However, they go up to the steward at the entrance to Joseph’s house, when they still have a chance of escaping from armed men, and they explain in detail how they found the silver in their sacks, but they have returned with it, and also brought additional silver to purchase more grain. They insist that they don’t know how the silver got into their sacks (vv.19-22).
This is their guilty conscience. When they were put in prison they knew they were guilty of what they had done to Joseph; when he kept Simeon and sent them home for Benjamin they were convicted of that guilt, but now Joseph is so kind to them inviting them home to a feast in his own house and yet in his kindness they still find reasons for being guilty. Their sin is unconfessed sin and unresolved guilt, so that when either bad things or good things happen they can’t enjoy life. All of them (except Benjamin) have wounded consciences, and so they are sensitive and suspicious even in the face of generosity. You know how God will use everything to discipline his sinning children. He will discipline us with kindness. When their father has been speaking to them it has been in a constantly harsh tone of voice; his mind harbours suspicions that he’s not been told all the truth concerning the death of Joseph. But here Joseph is speaking to them with a different tone of voice, the one they sold into slavery is showing kindness to them. To their ears and their consciences there is little difference. The kindness is God’s rod. He is chastening them . . . killing them with kindness.
They even receive exceptional generosity, but it makes no difference. Joseph’s chief steward hears their explanations about the silver in the sack, and he assures them that all is well: “‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks; I received your silver’” (v.23). It doesn’t seem to help their guilt. “What in the world is this, that ‘our God, Jehovah, put the money in our sacks’ . . . the Lord did that? The silver we gave him he actually received? What is going on? It doesn’t make sense what the steward says.” What the servant meant by his remarks we don’t know, but we do know that God had been in all their travels and the gifts and the food taken home. The kindnesses they had received had ultimately come to them from Jehovah the God of Israel, through ‘the man’ whom they still don’t know to be their own brother. Little wonder they were nervous. Then the servant went into the house and he came out of it bringing their long lost brother, a fit and healthy looking Simeon. What a welcome! All eleven brothers were together again. Into the house they went and they were given water to wash their feet and fodder for their famous donkeys! They took out of their bags the gifts their father Jacob had given them to give to ‘the man.’ They were the recipients of much kindness but none of that could silence their roaring consciences.
iii] Joseph’s arrival increases their perplexity. Joseph arrived with an entourage of his staff. We know that from verse 32 where we are told that the staff were seated at a side-table by themselves. They could not eat at the same table as non-Egyptians. Joseph came to the eleven brothers and they all bowed down before him, not just from the waist but their faces touched the ground. He greeted them kindly, “How are you?” he asked. Then after they’d told him about their father do you notice that again “they bowed low to pay him honour” (v.28). Twice in a minute or two they got down before him in deference to him. They were afraid. There are Christians who always get nervy when things go well. They’re afraid to talk about the life of the church in a positive way lest they seem to be boasting and that God will immediately send leanness. For them the glass God has filled has to be always half empty.
Then see how immediately Joseph asked about his father; “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?” (v.27). Here is the most powerful man in the world whose father is a farmer in Canaan, and yet Joseph is concerned about him. Honour your father and mother. That is one of the positive laws of the ten commandments. There are so many positive things we can do to our parents aren’t there? We can call them and visit them and share our lives with them and look after them in the frailty of old age. Here’s the emptiness of Joseph’s heart and we see how God is using this to cause Joseph to seek earnestly for reconciliation. Firstly, whether his father were still alive, and that would be the first question in the mind of every loving son. It is related that there was a Theban general Epaminondas who won a great battle in the Mediterranean world, the battle of Leuctra, and Epaminondas, after the battle was over, met with his other generals who gathered around to celebrate the victory over the Spartans. They began to talk about the battle and they asked him what was the greatest feature to him about this battle that they’d won. Epaminondas replied, “The greatest thing is that my mother and my father are still alive to know that I won it.” Joseph didn’t know if his father would ever see what God had done in his life; he was longing
to know whether his father were alive. To see his face again and talk with him, and perhaps for his father to be able to see what God had done through his providence in the life of Joseph. How delighted he was to hear them say that Jacob was alive and well.
The final inquiry of Joseph was concerning his brother Benjamin. You see how Moses adds “his own mother’s son” (v.29) as though we needed to be reminded of the closeness of the tie. Joseph asks them whether this was the brother they had told him about. Then he looks at him and his first words to his brother reflect the things that really mattered to Joseph; “God be gracious to you my son” (v.29) for that is all he desired for Benjamin. Then the Lord cut him down. A few deep breaths and out he had to go to hide his tears from them. We are told that he was “deeply moved” (v.30) and the phrase in the original is ‘his compassion boiled over.’ The phrase is found elsewhere in the Bible when two women come to King Solomon both claiming that a child is their child. You remember that Solomon had given the order that the child be cut in half and each could have a half. The true mother of the child shrieked her opposition to the idea; ‘her compassion boiled over.’ Let the other woman have her rather than the child be killed, and Solomon awarded the child to her. That compassion filled Joseph as he saw Benjamin. In his compassion we wee the answer to Jacob’s prayer in verse 14, “may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man” was clearly answered. Joseph was overflowing in compassion to his brothers. Joseph soon returned composed from his weeping. You would imagine that by now Joseph had played this role of mysterious ruler for long enough, and that he would make himself known to them, but he was a discerning man. He could see that there were still lessons that his brothers needed to learn; their repentance for their plans to kill him and their selling him into slavery and their lies to Jacob was still shallow and not commensurate with their sin.
What Joseph’s emotion shows us is that whatever trials he had brought into the lives of these brothers, and the great test which he has planned (which still lay before them), none of them was coming from hatred in his heart. This is not a cat and mouse game. Joseph is not harbouring lingering resentment that they had treated him so badly when he was a teenager. He was not out to punish them; this whole feast in his home shows his affection for them and desires to bring blessing upon them. But Joseph is insisting that they deal with their guilt by true repentance, because still that has not been manifest, and Joseph, for their eternal good, will under God work away until this is clearly displayed.
Then the mystery of ‘the man’ was intensified as they came to the table to eat. He ate at a separate table from the Egyptians and also from them as becoming his high office, but when they came to be seated, “The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s” (vv.33&34). Two things are here; ‘the man’ knew far more about them than they imagined. There are over 39 million combinations in which eleven men can be seated, but ‘the man’ has got it spot on, from the oldest to the youngest. Who are they dealing with? What supernatural powers does ‘the man’ have? Then there was the matter of the size of the plates of food taken to Benjamin by the servants. He was the youngest not only in terms of age but in terms of being honoured. He was seated furthest away from Joseph and yet he was singled out in this obvious way for all to see, with no subtlety at all. What is the purpose of this? The answer is clear. By his obvious favouring of Benjamin Joseph is again testing his brothers. Will they get annoyed again as they did twenty years ago, now that Benjamin is their father’s favourite son? Will they show the same kind of disgruntled envy and hostility towards him as they had towards Joseph? But at this time there is no such jealousy. They shrug. They accept the favoured position the ‘nipper’ has in the eyes of Joseph. No feathers are ruffled. They pass this first simple test.
- ALL TWELVE BROTHERS ENJOY A FEAST TOGETHER.
That is how the chapter ends; “so they feasted and drank freely with him” (v.34). I often tell you that there are two extremes that we have to avoid as Christians, the first is the epicurean extreme, “let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” As Paul described the Epicureans of his day, “Their God is their belly.” The other is the ascetic extreme, “Touch not! Taste not! Handle not!” The former is by far the most prevalent in our land today, and if you are trapped in that lifestyle then it must be a great barrier to your becoming a disciple of Christ. The latter ascetic extreme is a rejection of the fact that God has given us all things richly to enjoy.
Here is a picture in the final verse of the chapter, clearly commended by the Holy Spirit, of a feast with men enjoying the food and one another’s company. And from so much Old Testament teaching we’ve learned this, that God has given to his people the right – if I can say it carefully – the right to enjoy life; the right to express and to fulfil every part of our created humanness. So we have this great truth that God has given to us all things richly to enjoy (I Tim. 6:17). Not that God has given us all things richly to think about, or be aware of, or look at, but to enjoy. Let me put it as carefully as I can; every instinct and appetite which God has implanted within us, the instincts for food, thirst, friendship, other people’s presence, love, beauty, creativity – all such things may, simply because God has given them to us and given us the power to appreciate them, be engaged in and enjoyed. The beauty of our environment is to be taken in with delight; every creature that God has given us is to be engaged because God has given them to us for our enjoyment – without coming under the power of any of them, without transgressing the Bible’s prohibition of excess, and by doing exactly what the Bible says about the gift of sex, that it is to be delighted in and enjoyed within the divine ordinance of the marriage of a man and woman. Purity outside of marriage and faithfulness within it; these are the plain divine instructions of our Creator. Think what happiness there would be in our land today if those principles were obeyed. What pain would be avoided, what abortions would not take place, what sexually transmitted diseases would disappear, what delight husband and wife would have in one another if God’s provision of sex were enjoyed in the divinely authorized manner.
Now there is something I cannot do for each of you, and that is to bring to you a perfect balance, and answer your plea, “How do I draw a distinction in my life between the two excesses, the epicurean and the ascetic?” I cannot make that distinction in your life. I know that every Christian is riding on a pendulum and we are constantly going from
one side to another and being corrected by the word and the Spirit. It is part of every person’s freedom that he’s got to ask himself to what extent can he be merry? What can I eat? Do we serve chocolate biscuits with the after service cups of tea? What do I spend on food and feasts? Can I have a close friendship? Can I purchase a holiday home? Can I play rugby, or football, or tennis, or chess, or golf? What do I watch on TV? Should I send my children to ballet? Do I listen to good music? Can I read good books like works of historical fiction? Can I enjoy good conversation and cultured activities? I cannot today go round you one by one and tell you what each of you may or may not do. I know that one excess is the epicurean excess, and the other excess is the ascetic. I know that there was a time when our problem as evangelicals was the dominating ascetic emphasis objecting to Christians enjoying the whole beauty and glory of our own environment and the pleasure that comes from using the creatures that God has given to us, to enjoy the things that God has endowed us with. And it is on that note of freely enjoying food and drink that this fascinating chapter ends.