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Suffering and the Purposes of God

In the last post, Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, had been sold by his brothers to Midianite traders. The jealous siblings dipped his many-colored robe in blood and presented it to their father, who concluded that Joseph was dead, torn to pieces by some wild animal. Jacob went into such deep mourning that the whole scheming family was loaded with guilt and shame that they couldn’t get rid of.

Meanwhile, Joseph ended up as a slave to Pharaoh’s captain of the guard in Egypt. He served faithfully, and was soon put in charge over all the household affairs. But his master’s wife tried to seduce him. After he refused her advances, she wrongfully accused Joseph of trying to rape her, and Joseph was thrown in Pharaoh’s prison. Even there, Joseph served faithfully, and was soon given responsibility for everything in the prison.

But Joseph had this thing with dreams. He had stirred up his brothers’ jealousies when he had dreamed a couple of dreams about his brothers and family bowing down to him. I imagine that was long forgotten at this point. Enslaved, imprisoned – everything seemed to be going from bad to worse. When Joseph did right, he was backhanded by injustice over and over again.

A couple of the prisoners had troubling dreams on the same night. They were the cupbearer and chief baker for Pharaoh. They shared their dreams with Joseph and he interpreted them. He asked the men to remember him to Pharaoh when their dreams came to fulfillment. Of course, they forgot, and Joseph spent two more years in the clink.

Finally, Pharaoh himself had some troubling dreams, and Joseph was remembered and summoned to appear before the king of Egypt. Joseph interpreted the dreams and explained to Pharaoh that God was revealing what would soon come to pass – seven years of great and plentiful harvests, followed by seven years of the worst drought and famine that would swallow up the memory of the good years. Pharaoh’s response was to recognize God’s wisdom in Joseph and to put him in charge of the country. Only Pharaoh had more power and authority than Joseph. All the rest of the nation – and soon the hungering world – would bow to this son of Jacob.

When the famine hit, who should appear before Joseph wanting to buy grain, bowing down before him? His brothers. And his emotions about got the better of him. Joseph recognized his family, but they didn’t recognize him as he was dressed as an Egyptian. Joseph spoke harshly with them and pretended to take them as spies. He asked where they were from, what they wanted, and if they had any other family members.

Joseph orchestrates a shakeup of his brothers that appears to be aimed at getting his younger brother Benjamin away from them. Perhaps he feels their jealousies will eventually destroy Benjamin too, and Joseph wants to protect him. Perhaps he is wanting to test his brothers to see if they have changed. Whatever his designs, Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers and they are terrified. They realize that Joseph can have them all put to death with just a word. They remember all that they did to him and are convinced that justice has caught up to them at last. So, we see that they are processing their circumstances through their fears and their guilt.

But Joseph is apparently processing the same circumstances through faith, through a growing realization that God has been at work all along, through all the mess, to bring about the current reality where Joseph is in a position to be a blessing to all the families of the earth around him – including his own family. Joseph would speak some of the most profound words of insight into the mysteries of God’s providence when he declared to his brothers, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God….” And then later, “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.”

There you have it. Joseph acknowledges the evil intentions of his brothers. He does not dismiss their wickedness. He calls it evil. And Joseph had suffered. Betrayal, false accusation, injustice, imprisonment, being overlooked and forgotten. But Joseph acknowledges that there is a far greater Will and Purpose that is at work than just the corrupt schemes of the human heart. Though God allows us to act according to our wills and thus to inflict great injustices and suffering on ourselves and others, yet God Himself acts with a superintending will to bring forth blessing and good and life. Out of darkness He brings light, beauty from the ashes, purpose from the pain, and even new Life from the grave.


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