Saturday, February 29, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 152, Joseph Placed In Charge In Egypt

In yesterday's passage Joseph interpreted two prophetic dreams for Pharaoh. These dreams warned the king of a coming famine, but before seven years of famine arrive there will be seven years of plenty. Joseph made some suggestions regarding how Pharaoh can start putting aside food now so his people won't perish during the difficult years. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that (upon inspiration from God, even though Pharaoh doesn't serve Joseph's God) he makes him his right hand man. Now the only person in Egypt more powerful than Joseph is the king himself. Joseph's character is vindicated. He will never again be known as a Hebrew slave who sexually assaulted his master's wife. Pharaoh wouldn't make a convicted sex offender his second-in-command. Joseph is exonerated and his record is wiped clean. From now on he will be known as the second most powerful man in one of the mightiest nations that ever existed in the ancient world. When we think of Joseph, do we think of his years spent working as a slave? Do we think about the years he spent in a prison dungeon? No, we think of him as the man who sat at Pharaoh's right hand, who through the wisdom given him by God saved the lives of the Egyptian people and the lives of his own family.

A small ceremony takes place in Pharaoh's palace in front of all his officials to legally establish Joseph's promotion. "So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.' Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph's finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, 'Make way!' Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt." (Genesis 41:41-43) What a miraculous turnaround in Joseph's circumstances! He must almost feel like he's dreaming. He had hoped to gain his freedom after an audience with Pharaoh but he certainly could not have expected anything more than that, so I picture him in a daze of happy shock when he's escorted to a fine chariot and driven through the city with officials announcing, "This is Pharaoh's top man in Egypt now! Every time you see him, you must bow to him. If you are in the roadway, and you see his chariot coming, you better pull over to the side. You are to treat this man with all the respect and honor of Pharaoh himself!"

I like to think about that lying, immoral wife of Potiphar being on her way to the market and having to bow in subservience anytime Joseph rides by. It serves her right, doesn't it? The Lord probably disciplined her in more ways than just this for sending an innocent man to prison for so many years, but I enjoy the idea of her having to bow in reverent fear whenever she sees the man she wronged. Joseph would be within his rights to have her brought up on charges. He has the authority to order his guards to seize her and throw her in a prison dungeon. Pharaoh trusts Joseph so much that I doubt he'd even bother questioning why he had someone thrown into prison. But as far as we know, Joseph doesn't do a thing to her. I believe he's the kind of man who is content to leave her discipline up to God.

I'll tell you something I've observed in my fifty years of living: there almost always comes an opportunity to get revenge on someone who has wronged us. It may not happen til many years later, but time and time again I've noticed that it does happen. Joseph is in a position now that would allow him to take revenge if he wants to. I've been in that position too, when circumstances have worked out in such a way that later on I had the upper hand over someone who had treated me horrifically in the past. I'll be honest with you, when I was younger and more impulsive (and especially before I came to know the Lord Jesus as my Savior) I usually didn't hesitate to take the opportunity to "get back" at people who had deceived or abused me. But the satisfaction I gleaned from getting revenge was temporary at best. The gloating was pretty short-lived and nothing changed in my heart toward the person. That's not the case when when we hand the situation over to God and are content to let Him deal with our enemies. When we do that, we can go on with our lives while hardly thinking about them at all. I've learned as I've gotten older that it's far more satisfactory to wait and let God repay them. He has a tendency to do it with what can only properly be termed "poetic justice". He knows exactly how to make the sentence fit the crime and He knows how to discipline wicked persons in such a way that they may end up having a change of heart and turning to Him as Lord.

Does our own revenge ever produce such an outcome? I highly doubt it. We call ourselves by the name of Christ and identify ourselves as children of the living God, so when we take matters into our own hands and lower ourselves to the level of our enemies, they may feel more turned off than ever by Christianity. God's motive in administering discipline is of course to avenge His children but I think it's primarily to bring people to repentance who have so far refused to repent under any other circumstances. I could stop here to tell you how God has already repaid some wrongs that have been perpetrated against me in my lifetime, but it wouldn't bless you any to hear details about the things I've experienced. I could also tell you about someone whose heart the Lord has changed so drastically that I hope He never disciplines this person. This person has repented and humbled themselves and has turned to the Lord for salvation and I'm willing to let the past stay in the past. This person's conversion is absolutely genuine. So all I'll say is that it's far better to leave these things up to God. He'll handle them in the right time and in the right way. We don't have to dirty our hands and our hearts by sinking to the level of our enemies. The satisfaction of that won't last anyway, and we'll end up having to repent of harboring anger and bitterness in our hearts and of taking justice out of the hands of the Judge and Lawgiver. When we hang onto what we feel is our "right" to take revenge, we can't develop the love that's necessary for us to pray for that person to repent and come to know the Lord as we ourselves know Him. But when we are willing to leave matters of revenge up to our God, we can go on with our lives without being weighed down with hatred and bitterness. At the very least, we'll spare hardly a thought for our enemies and they won't be taking up space in our heads. At best, we'll find ourselves able to pray for their salvation.

Joseph doesn't lift a finger against Potiphar's wife, as far as we know, and when she bows to him on the street he's able to accept the justice the Lord has carried out on his behalf and he feels no need to do anything on his own behalf. I think it's possible that Joseph feels sorry for her and prays for the condition of her soul when he sees her. Maybe he even nods his head politely back to her with forgiveness in his eyes. What he does not do is call out to her from his fine chariot, "Who's laughing now? I could have you thrown in prison or beheaded for what you did to me. You better bow when I pass by. You better bow so low that your face is in the dust." No, Joseph sets an example for us to follow, and I really didn't expect our study today to take the turn it has taken, but maybe somebody needed to be reminded that it's God's place to avenge His children and that He will do it just as He promised us in His holy word. Maybe I'm the one who needed the reminded. But rest assured that God will handle these things and that He'll handle them in a way that's fits His holy character. He'll do it in a way that not only changes our hearts and gives us peace, but He'll do it in a way that may change the hearts of our enemies. We don't know whether Potiphar's wife ever repented and forsook the false gods of Egypt in favor of worshiping the one true God, but if she didn't it wasn't because Joseph hindered her faith by taking revenge or by gloating over his position over her now. Joseph lived centuries before the Lord Jesus Christ, but in a manner of speaking he asked himself, "What would Jesus do?" Well, what did Jesus do? Jesus prayed for His enemies. Jesus left vengeance up to the Father. Can we who are called by His name refuse to do the same?

Friday, February 28, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 151, Joseph Released From Prison And Promoted

It took Pharaoh's chief cupbearer two years to remember his promise to bring Joseph to the attention of the king. He never would have remembered his promise if the Lord hadn't given Pharaoh two dreams that no one in the kingdom could interpret. On an ordinary day, while he's going about his duties in the prison, when he least expects it, Joseph is going to be called out of the dungeon to the palace.

"So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he appeared before Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have said it heard of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.'" (Genesis 41:14-15) This is Joseph's big chance---perhaps his only chance---at freedom. We might expect him to make much of himself, saying, "That's right, if you need a dream interpreted, I'm your guy!" But no, Joseph gives all the credit to the One who gifted him with this unusual talent. He gives the praise to the One who has been with him day and night through all his troubles. "'I cannot do it,' Joseph replied to Pharaoh, 'but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.'" (Genesis 41:16)

"Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, fat and sleek, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows came up---scrawny and very ugly and lean. I had never seen such ugly cows in all the land of Egypt. The lean, ugly cows ate up the seven fat cows that came up first. But even after they ate them, no one could tell that they had done so; they looked just as ugly as before. Then I woke up.'" (Genesis 41:17-21) We can see why this dream was odd and disturbing to the king. To emphasize that this dream actually means something, the Lord sends him a second dream in the same night so Pharaoh will understand this is an urgent matter.

Pharaoh tells Joseph about the second dream. "'In my dream I saw seven heads of grain, full and good, growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads sprouted---withered and thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven good heads. I told this to the magicians, but none of them could explain it to me.'" (Genesis 41:22-24)

The Lord supplies Joseph with the answer. "Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, 'The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream. The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine. It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.'" (Genesis 41:25-32)

Joseph is saying, "The years of famine will be so bad that no one will be able to recall that there were ever good times in Egypt. The Lord has graciously revealed this coming disaster to you so you can prepare for it and save your people." Joseph can not only interpret dreams, but he also has the managerial skills to provide good advice for handling the coming crisis. He tells Pharaoh what needs to be done to keep the citizens of Egypt alive. "'And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.'" (Genesis 41:33-36)

Joseph is not suggesting that Pharaoh put him in charge. He's not trying to promote himself here, for no Hebrew slave-turned-prisoner would expect the king of Egypt to put him in charge of any project, much less a project as important as this. But God intends to put Joseph in charge. And Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he doesn't even want to post an advertisement for the job or take any applications. Pharaoh knows the right man for the job is standing in front of him. "The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, 'Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?'" (Genesis 41:37-38)

A literal translation of Pharaoh's words, as presented in Hebrew, would be something like, "Can we find anyone else like this man, in whom is the spirit of the gods?" Pharaoh doesn't know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He doesn't know the God whom Joseph credits with his gift of interpretation. Egypt has more gods than you can shake a stick at, so to speak, and Pharaoh likely considers Joseph's God one of many. Still, he knows this God (or gods) is with Joseph and has given him insight and wisdom. In just a few minutes, Joseph solved Pharaoh's problem with the dreams and has told him how to prevent the fall of the nation and the death of thousands of its citizens. Pharaoh probably feels like the promotion of Joseph is ordained by "the gods" and that he is the man who has been chosen to steer the country through the dark stormy waters ahead. He and his officials agree that they need look no further for the "discerning and wise man" to put in charge of the situation.

"Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.'" (Genesis 41:39-40) The most Joseph expected from this meeting was to leave it with a pardon from prison in exchange for helping the king. Now he's second-in-command to the man who is possibly the most powerful ruler in the world at that time. Who but God could turn Joseph's circumstances around so dramatically in one day?

There have been times when God has turned circumstances around for me or my loved ones quite dramatically and in a very short period of time. The circumstances already looked impossible to fix (and they were, by man's standards), but even had they seemed possible, we would have expected it to take months or years for things to smooth out into any real sense of normalcy. But the God who created everything that exists in only six days is more than able to turn around your circumstances or mine in only one day---or even in a matter of minutes. This is why we have to keep holding on. This is why we have to do what Joseph did: keep on serving the Lord day after day, keep on fulfilling our responsibilities honorably, and keep on letting God develop our character so that when our breakthrough comes we will be ready for it.

Long before Joseph was ever born, God knew what He intended to do with his life. He sent Joseph prophetic dreams of his own so that he knew he was destined for greatness, but many years and many hardships had to occur first to humble his pride and to cause him to rely on the Lord in everything. He had to build strength of faith and strength of character before he was ready to become Pharaoh's right hand man. If his brothers had never been jealous of him and sold him into slavery, he wouldn't be standing where he is right now. If he hadn't ended up in Potiphar's house where he was falsely accused of sexual assault, he wouldn't have been thrown in prison where he interpreted dreams for two of Pharaoh's officials. He wouldn't have encountered these officials anywhere else, most likely, for he was never going to receive an invitation to the king's house under ordinary circumstances, so his meeting with these men was a divine appointment arranged by God so that at the right time the cupbearer would recommend his services to Pharaoh. He is now in a position to save the lives of the people of Egypt and to save the lives of his own family, though he doesn't know it yet. His family will bow to him just as they did in his prophetic dreams. They will come to Egypt for help during the very widespread famine that's coming, and who will be the man in charge of that help? Joseph.

Every circumstance of Joseph's life has been leading up to this one moment, but it had to occur in God's timing and in God's way. A moment sooner would have been far too soon. Oh, but it's so hard for us to wait, isn't it? There's something I've been waiting almost twenty-three years to see happen and it hasn't happened yet. I don't know if it will happen or if God has a different plan, but I feel like the Lord is telling me to wait it out a while longer. Things may turn out to my advantage or things may turn out in such a way that they send me in a different direction, but I'm waiting and the waiting is hard. Joseph is an inspiration to me while I wait. His long wait has been harder than mine; it involved false accusations and the loss of his freedom. His long wait involved having his hopes dashed when the cupbearer whom he helped forgot about him for two years. I wonder how many times Joseph felt despair in the night and thought about giving up on his hopes of regaining his freedom someday. But it one day, everything changed. What if he'd given up before that day arrived? What if he'd allowed his emotional and mental state to reach a low point where he'd have been no help to Pharaoh? What if he'd become so depressed he'd taken his life? I think during his long wait he learned to live one day at a time. I think he learned to focus on the moment instead of entertaining dark thoughts about the future.

After all, we only have to get through this day, don't we? We don't need to torture ourselves with thoughts like, "What if my situation goes on for years and years? What if things never get better?" All we really need is to make it through this day, because there's no use tormenting ourselves with fear that things will always be exactly like they are right now. Our circumstances could turn around suddenly, in only one day, like Joseph's did. That's why the Lord Jesus Christ tells us not to worry about tomorrow. He knows what a toll our fears and wild imaginations will take on us. So He wisely and lovingly says to us, "Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?...Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." (Matthew 6:27, 34a)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

in The Beginning. Day 150, Pharaoh Has Two Dreams/The Cupbearer Remembers Joseph

On the day the cupbearer was released from prison and restored to his job, he promised to mention Joseph to the king. But he forgot. Two more years go by before he remembers him.

"When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up." (Genesis 41:1-4) The Bible doesn't tell us how Joseph passed the two years between Chapter 40 and Chapter 41. I believe he was going about his duties in the prison, day after day, faithfully. Every day was probably pretty much the same. The last exciting thing to have happened in the prison, as far as Joseph was concerned, was when he interpreted dreams for Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker. Since then I think he's been fulfilling his responsibilities and relying on the Lord for strength. I wonder if he ever despaired of being a free man again or whether he believed the Lord would rescue him. It may be he believed both these things at the same time, for don't we all occasionally have confidence and doubt at the same time? On the one hand, we know the Lord loves us and has promised to provide for us; on the other hand, our circumstances make us fearful and we toss and turn at night with worry. I wouldn't be surprised if that's how Joseph spent the two years between Chapter 40 and Chapter 41. I think he had days when he firmly believed the Lord would bring him out of the dungeon. I think he had other days when he thought he'd grow old and die there.

I picture Pharaoh awakening and sitting up in a panic in his gold-plated bed during the night, heart pounding, blood racing. He knows this was no ordinary dream. Something about it was very ominous. It fills him with a feeling of dread. After a time he's able to calm down and go back to sleep, but he has another disturbing dream. "He fell asleep again and had a second dream: Seven heads of grain, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprouted---thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream." (Genesis 41:5-7) This dream was so vivid it felt like it was really happening. Pharaoh didn't even know it was a dream until he awoke.

If the Lord had only sent him one strange dream, Pharaoh might have shrugged it off and gone about the next day as usual. But the Lord sent him two dreams in which the number seven figures prominently. This number has to mean something. In both dreams there are seven good things followed by seven bad things. Pharaoh can't shake off his feelings of apprehension. He knows the dreams mean something---something vitally important. He needs an interpreter. Of all the nations in the world at that time, Egypt had more practitioners of the magic arts than anyplace else. Pharaoh calls for all of them at once. He fully expects to have an answer to his questions within a matter of hours. "In the morning his mind was troubled, so he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt." (Genesis 41:8a)

We don't want to be dismissive about the very real occult powers of some of these men. Granted, no doubt many of these co-called magicians were no more than entertainers who performed impressive tricks by sleight of hand. Others were probably just frauds who gave such vague predictions or who wrote such generalized horoscopes that the person seeking their services could read anything into their prophecies that they wanted. But some of these men, due to their affiliation with the powers of darkness, can actually perform supernatural feats. We will see these supernatural feats displayed when we get to the book of Exodus. Because Pharaoh has discerned that his dreams were sent to him by supernatural forces, he expects someone familiar with supernatural forces to interpret the dreams. No doubt some of these men have performed impressive services for him in the past while under demonic influence. But these dreams of Pharaoh's are from the Lord, and the interpretation of these dreams must come from the Lord, and the Lord has given only one man in Egypt the power to understand and provide the interpretation. When Pharaoh tells his magicians and wise men his dreams, none of them has a clue what they mean. They don't even attempt to make up an interpretation, and I don't know whether that's out of fear of Pharaoh (because he will put them to death if they are wrong) or out of a sense of dread the Lord lays upon them. Whatever the reason, they dare not open their mouths to utter falsehoods or even to make suggestions. "Pharaoh told them his dreams, but no one could interpret them for him." (Genesis 41:8b)

The chief cupbearer is standing nearby while all this takes place. He is a person who would have been in Pharaoh's presence many times a day. He would have served him his drinks at every meal and at every snack and during every official meeting. If Pharaoh wanted a glass of wine at bedtime or a cup of warm milk during the night, this is the man who would bring it to him. The cupbearer is in a position to witness a great deal of the happenings of Pharaoh's daily life, both public and private. He probably knows more about the goings on in the palace than anyone else. When he sees that the magicians and wise men can't interpret Pharaoh's dreams, he suddenly remembers a man who can interpret dreams. "Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, 'Today I am reminded of my shortcomings. Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us; I was restored to my position, and the other man was impaled.'" (Genesis 41:9-13)

When none of Pharaoh's go-to guys in matters of spiritual divination have the answer, the cupbearer smacks himself in his forehead and says, "Oh, my goodness! What have I been thinking? I know just the guy who can help you and I'm surprised I didn't remember him before now. He did me a big favor while we were serving time in the pen together. I promised to bring his case to your attention but I totally forgot all about him in my joy of being so graciously acquitted of all charges by you, Your Majesty. My gratefulness at being restored to this honorable position by your side wiped all thoughts of my prison days from my mind until just this moment. If you send someone to Potiphar's prison, my lord, for a Hebrew man named Joseph, I am confident he will be able to interpret your dreams."

Pharaoh has nothing to lose by sending for Joseph. His own men have let him down. There's not a magician or a wise man in Egypt he hasn't already consulted and yet he's no closer to an answer. In tomorrow's chapter we find Joseph being brought out of the dungeon into the light. Because of Pharaoh's dreams, Joseph's dream of once again being a free man comes true. The timing is now exactly right for God to bring his plans for Joseph to fruition. Joseph has not traveled an easy road on his way to his destiny, but the difficulties of the road were necessary to make him into the man he needs to be in order to assume the great mantle of responsibility the Lord is about to lay upon his shoulders. Because of his hardships, his shoulders are strong and able to carry the load. Because of his faithfulness and his reliance upon the Lord during the dark days he's endured, he will be a godly influence upon a heathen nation and its pagan king. He will save not only the citizens of Egypt from death, but he will save the lives of his own family whom he has not set eyes on in many years. In doing so, he preserves that which will be known in the future as the mighty nation of Israel.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 149, Joseph Interprets Dreams For Pharoah's Cupbearer And Baker, Part Two

Joseph is talking with two fellow prisoners who each had a prophetic dream. They are going to tell him about the dreams and the Lord is going to give him the interpretations.

"So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, 'In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup and put the cup in his hand.'" (Genesis 40:9-11) A king had to protect himself against murderous plots, including plots to poison him. Part of the job of a cupbearer was to taste the wine before serving it to the king. That way, if the wine was poisoned, the cupbearer would drop dead instead of the king. This man is the "chief" cupbearer which likely means there were several safety checks in place so that more than one person tasted the wine on its way to the king. The chief cupbearer would be the man who made the final safety check and who actually handed the cup to his master. It's logical that this man would dream about going into Pharaoh's throne room and handing him his drink, but he doesn't know the meaning of the grapevine and its three branches.

"'This is what it means,' Joseph said to him. 'The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh's cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.'" (Genesis 40:12-15) It won't take long for the cupbearer to find out whether or not Joseph is correct. If he isn't restored to his position within three days, then Joseph is a fraud. But if he is given his old job back within three days, then Joseph's God is real and has blessed him with the gift of dream interpretation. When the cupbearer sees this, he is to put in a good word for Joseph with Pharaoh so that Joseph's case can be reviewed and he can possibly be set free.

A great deal of emphasis was placed on dreams in the ancient pagan world. People thought every little thing they dreamed about had significance, even though I bet their dreams at night were as jumbled and as meaningless as my own. Occasionally, though, the Lord would send a person a dream that actually was prophetic. In those cases the dreamer appears to know that something is very different about this dream. The prophetic dream stands out. In the Bible we find the Lord giving prophetic dream to several people, some of whom are believers and some who aren't, but in each case in their spirit they know that this dream is something different and important. Pharaoh himself will be given a prophetic dream by the Lord and it will be Joseph's ticket out of prison, for the cupbearer will forget all about him until his master has a disturbing dream.

"When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, 'I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.'" (Genesis 40:16-17) When birds are used symbolically in the Bible they are usually a bad omen. That's true in the baker's case. The interpretation of his dream is bad news.

"'This is what it means,' Joseph said. 'The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale your body on a pole. And the birds will eat away your flesh.'" (Genesis 40:18-19) Wowza! That's a terrible answer! But it's going to come true and the opinion of a lot of scholars is that the cupbearer and baker were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to kill the king. We don't know how long they've been in jail but in verse 4 we were told they had been there "for some time". In three days Pharaoh will celebrate his birthday and I think maybe he had a custom of pardoning a prisoner on his birthday. And maybe he enjoyed holding a nice public execution on his birthday too? The Bible doesn't say why the fate of these men will be decided in three days, but this event seems to coincide with a festive party and I believe the events are related somehow. On Pharaoh's birthday he will set the cupbearer free, either as a gracious pardon or because evidence suddenly comes to light that exonerates the cupbearer. The baker, however, will be sentenced to death. Perhaps Pharaoh reviews the evidence against him and finds him guilty. Or perhaps it's his custom to carry out sentences on his birthday. We don't know, but on that day the baker will be executed publicly with his body left on the pole until it falls apart. This was considered the ultimate shame in ancient times. Only those who had committed the most heinous of crimes were refused burial, so we can only assume that the baker was found guilty of a crime worthy of such a disgrace.

Two dreams were provided by the Lord and the Lord provided Joseph with the interpretation of both of them. If only one of his interpretations had come true, then the cupbearer could have dismissed it as a lucky guess. But Joseph has predicted vastly different outcomes for these two men and both outcomes will take place just as he predicted. Later on, when the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, he will feel confident in recommending his services to the king.

"Now the third day was Pharaoh's birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials." (Genesis 40:20) What does the Bible mean when it says Pharoah lifted up their heads? I believe it refers to the position a supplicant would assume in the presence of a great king. He would enter the presence of the king and immediately drop to his knees and bow with his forehead to the floor. He could not raise his head, rise to his feet, or look the king in the eye until the king granted permission. If a king was especially displeased with the person, he could force the person to kneel in this position for quite some time before allowing him to lift his head. The cupbearer and the baker are ushered into the presence of the king where they assumed the proper respectful pose before his throne. The king is about to hand down verdicts so he gives them permission to lift their heads, stand up, and look him in the eye. He then acquits the cupbearer of all charges but finds the baker guilty and passes the death penalty on him.

The cupbearer is so overjoyed to have kept his life and his job that he goes back to work without giving Joseph a second thought. He had his moment before the king---a moment in which he had the king's favor and attention---and he could have asked Pharaoh to hear Joseph's case. But he doesn't. Joseph is waiting in the dungeon hoping to be called into the presence of the king, but the day passes and the night falls and he knows the cupbearer has gone on with his life without giving him a thought. "The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him." (Genesis 40:23)

Imagine how low Joseph's spirits must be as he crawls into his cot at bedtime knowing his chance at freedom has been thwarted by the cupbearer's ungratefulness. Two whole years are going to pass before another opportunity arises. I think Joseph feels about as low as he can go on Pharoah's birthday. I picture him lying sleepless in bed while the sounds of music and merriment outside continue into the hours of the early morning. Joseph must have felt hopeless and forgotten. The cupbearer may have forgotten him, but God hasn't. Today looked to Joseph like the perfect timing to be set free, but it's not God's timing. By our own human ways of thinking, many times and many opportunities look perfect. But God knows the best timing. He knows when we are ready for a great blessing He has in store for us. Like any good father, God doesn't give us more responsibility than we can handle. An enormous blessing given to us at the wrong time is not a blessing; it's a curse. Joseph needs two more years before he will be ready to assume the power God is going to place into his hands. He isn't yet strong enough to wear the mantle of greatness, but by the time God brings him out of the dungeon, he will be.

Your circumstances may have been going on for a long time. You may feel like you can't take them one more day. You may feel like there's never going to be any freedom from them. I get that. I've been there too. But God has not forgotten you! God has a plan for you, and in the right time and in the right way He's going to put all the puzzle pieces together. If He's leaving you in your current circumstances for a while longer, it's for a very important and necessary reason. I know it's hard to take. I know it's hard to keep waiting. Joseph knew it too. He's been in prison for many years already and will be in prison two more years for a crime he didn't even commit. But when God moves in Joseph's situation, He's going to move in a big way. It may not be much longer before He moves in a big way in your situation too.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 148, Joseph Interprets Dreams For Pharoah's Cupbearer And Baker, Part One

This chapter always makes me think of a little childhood rhyme about "the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker". In Chapter 40 Joseph is going to help two former employees of Pharaoh, who are in prison with him, with prophetic dreams each of them will have. Joseph is in prison because Potiphar's wife falsely accused him of sexually assaulting her. But while he's in prison the Lord gives him a spiritual gift that will someday elevate Joseph from the prison dungeon to a position of power in Egypt.

I want to stop here to make sure we don't miss something. Joseph's circumstances are bad, but his circumstances do not mean that the Lord is not with him. Sometimes when our lives take a downturn we make the mistake of assuming the Lord is angry with us and that He has allowed bad things to happen because we've done something wrong. But quite often a downturn in our circumstances has nothing to do with anything we've brought on ourselves. We can be living smack dab within God's will for our lives and still experience tough times. Joseph ended up in prison through no fault of his own. He was going about his daily work in an honest, godly manner. He ended up in prison not because he did something wrong but because he did something right. If he'd given in to Potiphar's wife and slept with her, he'd still be living a cushy life as the manager of Potiphar's estate. But because he refused to sin against the Lord, Potiphar's wife tried to soothe her wounded pride by having him punished for something he didn't do. Whenever we find ourselves in difficult circumstances through no fault of our own, it's because the Lord intends to use those circumstances to accomplish something in our lives. That's what He's doing in Joseph's life right now.

"Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them." (Genesis 40:1-4a) In Joseph's day the government didn't build huge facilities for housing prisoners. He wasn't placed into a modern three-story brick prison surrounded by tall walls and barbed wire. Prisoners were housed in basements (dungeons, if you will) that were dug out underneath the homes of government officials. Joseph is being housed in a dungeon underneath the home of the captain of the guard. Since we were told earlier in Genesis that Potiphar's job was as a captain of the guard, I believe Joseph is living under Potiphar's house in the dungeon. This is going to become even more clear to us when we get to verse 7.

In yesterday's passage the Bible told us that the Lord gave Joseph favor in the eyes of those who were in charge of him, so much so that he has been made into what we would call a "trustee" in modern times. He is allowed to oversee the care of other prisoners. When Pharaoh becomes angry with two of his employees, he has them thrown into the same dungeon where Joseph is housed, and the guards in charged of this dungeon place the two men under Joseph's care. All of this has been carefully set up by the Lord. Although Potiphar's wife sinned grievously against Joseph, the Lord is using Joseph's circumstances as part of His plan for Joseph's life. I believe Potiphar's wife had to answer to the Lord for her sins. She isn't given a free pass simply because the Lord used her wrongdoing as a part of his plan for Joseph. But the Lord used that woman's wickedness to put Joseph exactly where he needs to be so that later on he comes to the attention of Pharoah himself. The Lord knew that Pharoah would become angry with his servants and have them put in prison. The Lord made certain they ended up in the same prison with Joseph.

"After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men---the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison---had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh's officials who were in custody with him in his master's house, 'Why do you look so sad today?'" (Genesis 40:4b-7) We see here that Joseph is in custody under "his master's house", which means he has been moved from his white-collar job upstairs to watching over fellow prisoners in the dungeon underneath Potiphar's house. Many prison trustees wouldn't notice or care if some of their charges were feeling down in the dumps, but Joseph is a compassionate man. He notices that these guys look sad. Perhaps they don't feel like eating when he brings their breakfast trays to them. He's concerned about what's wrong with them and takes the time to find out.

"'We both had dreams,' they answered, 'but there is no one to interpret them.' Then Joseph said to them, 'Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.'" (Genesis 40:8) Joseph has an intense interest in dreams and their meaning. His brothers formerly gave him the scornful nickname of "the dreamer" because he told them of two dreams he had which he felt were prophetic. In both those dreams he was in a position of power and his family was bowing down before him in an attitude of supplication. Joseph wasn't certain what to make of his dreams or what circumstances could possibly bring about such an event, but he believed his dreams were sent to him by God. Now these former officials of Pharaoh have had dreams which they feel are prophetic. They are very downcast because they can't interpret the dreams and they don't know anyone who can. When Joseph is told the reason for their sadness, he says, "It's no surprise that you can't interpret the meaning of these dreams. No one can interpret dreams but God. But since I serve the God who sends dreams and who knows their meaning, if you tell me your dreams I can pray to God on your behalf, and perhaps He will provide me with the interpretation."

Both these men will tell him their dreams and the Lord will grant Joseph the ability to interpret them. The interpretation will be good news for one of the men and bad news for the other. One of these men---the one who receives good news---will promise to put in a good word for Joseph with Pharaoh but will completely forget about him until the time is right for God to make Joseph's own prophetic dreams come true.

Monday, February 24, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 147, Joseph Falsely Accused

Joseph fled from the advances of Potiphar's wife, but because she was grasping his cloak at the time, she still has it in her possession. She's going to use this item of clothing to back up her story that Joseph tried to sexually assault her. She can't deal with his rejection, but instead of realizing she was in the wrong for her harassment of him, she wants something bad to happen to him to salve her wounded pride.

"When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants, 'Look,' she said to them, 'this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran from the house.'" (Genesis 39:13-15) These are the servants who were missing when Joseph showed up for work. These are the servants she had sent on errands so she could have complete privacy in which to entice Joseph to bed. I think up until now she believed the only thing holding him back was the fear of discovery and that if no one was around he would give in. But Joseph wasn't saying no to her out of fear of being caught. He was saying no because it was the right thing to say.

We are never told the name of Potiphar's wife and I'm glad. She doesn't deserve her name being written in the pages of the holy Scriptures. She's about to do a terrible thing to an innocent man. "She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: 'That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.'" (Genesis 39:16-18) She never seemed racist before. She wasn't, not while she lusted for the young handsome Joseph as he went about his work. But now she keeps referring to him as "that Hebrew" in a derogatory way as if her husband should have known better than to bring a "Hebrew" into the house. She's saying something like, "Well, you've gone and done it now! You brought a foreigner in among us---into our very home---where my virtue was placed in jeopardy. He sure had you fooled, enough that you trusted him to be in the house with me every day. But all that time he was having lustful thoughts about me. At last he has acted upon them! He tried to rape me! He would have been successful if I hadn't screamed as loudly as I could. That scared him enough to fear someone would come running to my aid, so he fled the house."

If this woman did any screaming at all, it was probably to call after Joseph to come back. But her husband can do nothing but take her story at face value since she's holding Joseph's cloak and Joseph has indeed fled and is not at his post. I think Potiphar feels a lot of guilt. He really believes he has been duped by Joseph. All this time Potiphar was going about his daily business without a care in the world because he trusted Joseph to look after his estate just as he himself would look after it. But Potiphar's wife's words remind him of something: Joseph is a slave. He's been treated like an estate manager and he's been given status and authority, but when you come right down to it he's the legal property of Potiphar. Potiphar can handle the matter however he wants. "When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, 'This is how your slave treated me,' he burned with anger. Joseph's master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined." (Genesis 39:19-20a)

A man in those times in Egypt had the right to have a slave put to death for doing what Joseph is accused of doing, but I don't think Potiphar can bring himself to do such a thing. His relationship with Joseph has been more like that of a manager and employee rather than master and slave. I think he considered Joseph a friend, in a way. He doesn't have Joseph executed but instead he consigns Joseph to what must have been life in prison, for we will see that Joseph languishes in prison for quite a long time. That's because he's not incarcerated while awaiting a trial; he immediately begins serving a life sentence. There were no trials held for slaves accused of wrongdoing. Slaves were sentenced on the word of their masters and at the discretion of their masters.

Joseph is having a very rough life through no fault of his own. First he was sold into slavery by his brothers because of their jealousy that he was their father's favorite son. Since becoming a slave he's performed his work honestly and honorably, but still he's ended up in prison for a crime he didn't commit. If we go through life believing we are going to be patted on the back for doing the right thing, we are going to be disappointed. We're living in a fallen world filled with sin. Bad things are going to happen here to the godly and to the ungodly both. There will be people who don't like us simply because we stand up for what's right, and that's why Joseph finds himself in prison. He stood up for what was right and Potiphar's wife hated him for it.

This world may not be fair to us, and unbelievers may behave toward us in ungodly ways. Believers will let us down too, from time to time, whether they mean to or not. But God's eyes don't miss a thing and He knows when we've been treated unfairly. He knows when we're persecuted for standing firm on godly principles. Somehow, someway, whether it's in this life or in the judgment afterwards, God is going to make all things right and fair. So far Joseph has been betrayed and abandoned by almost everyone he's ever trusted in his life, but God is still with him. "But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; He showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did." (Genesis 39:20b-23)

God is going to do something far beyond Joseph's wildest dreams, but a period of time must pass while God prepares him for a great destiny no one could ever have predicted. Who would believe an imprisoned foreign slave would rise to become second-in-command to Pharaoh himself? No one. No one but God. It's for this very purpose that God allowed Joseph's brothers to sell him as a slave. It's for this very purpose that God allowed Potiphar's wife to bring false charges against him. Joseph is in a prison dungeon, but it's exactly where he needs to be, for he will perform a service in the prison that later allows him to gain an audience with the king. The king, unknowingly fulfilling the will of God, will place Joseph where God always intended he should be.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 146, Joseph And Potiphar's Wife

A long time passed while we studied many of the adult years of Judah's life. We don't know how many years went by in Chapter 38 but it was long enough for Judah to move away from home, marry and raise three sons, become widowed, and father a set of twins by Tamar. During all those years his brother Joseph has been a slave in Egypt. Today the author lets us in on what has been happening in Joseph's life. We are going back in time to find out what occurred during the first decade or so of Joseph's life as a slave.

"Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites and had taken him there. The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant." (Genesis 39:1-4a) It looks like Joseph has landed a pretty cushy job even though he's not a free man. Potiphar sees that there's something special about Joseph. He can tell that Joseph has the blessing of the Lord upon his life. We are reminded of how the Lord caused Jacob to profit while he was living in Harran managing his father-in-law's estate. His father-in-law realized it was an advantage to him to have Jacob around. In Jacob's case, the Lord's blessing had more to do with the covenant He made with Abraham than with Jacob's personal godliness at the time. But in Joseph's case I think the Lord's blessing is due to Joseph's faithfulness to Him. After all, Joseph is not the son of Jacob who will inherit the covenant God made with Abraham, but the Lord is looking after him and sustaining him and causing everything he does to be successful.

Potiphar most likely worships the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Still, I think he believes in the existence of the God whom Joseph worships. Potiphar has sen that when Joseph prays to the Lord for help and guidance, the Lord directs his life. Potiphar has had time to observe the way the Lord attends to Joseph's prayers and he has had time to observe the godly living of Joseph. He knows he can safely leave the management of his estate in Joseph's hands without fear of theft or laziness or wastefulness. Joseph will follow his conscience in everything he does. "Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was upon everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph's care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate." (Genesis 39:4b-6a)

Joseph is not a free man but he's "blooming where he's planted", as the saying goes. He's living out his faith every day in the household of this Egyptian official. He's setting an example of godly living for Potiphar and for everyone employed (or owned) by Potiphar. There's nothing Joseph can do about the loss of his freedom but he has accepted that at the current time it's the will of the Lord for him to be in these circumstances. Instead of throwing himself a pity party he's actively living for the Lord. He's shining like a light in a dark land, for in Egypt knees are bowed to every god but the Lord.

Things appear to be going quite well for him for a number of years after he arrives in Egypt. He was only seventeen when he was sold into slavery, and the Bible doesn't tell us how long he's been there, but he's become grown up enough to catch the eye of Potiphar's wife. "Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master's wife took notice of Joseph and said, 'Come to bed with me!'" (Genesis 39:6b-7)

Scholars estimate he's likely been in the household for ten years or more to have risen to such a position of responsibility, and if so then he's at least twenty-seven years old here in Chapter 39. He's old enough to be a husband and father if he were free to make his own decisions about his life. He may be a slave, but he's second in power only to his master, and at his appearance everyone on the property stands at attention. Power can be very attractive. Godliness can also be very attractive. There is a certain type of person who finds it irresistible when someone stands firmly on their principles and loves the Lord and lives for Him. How many women have thrown themselves at church pastors? How many men have tried to seduce godly women? There is something even unbelievers find appealing about those who confidently know who they are in the Lord and who remain firmly committed to Him. Potiphar's wife finds Joseph's confidence and faith very attractive. She also finds him attractive in his personal appearance. He's a strong, tall, muscular, good-looking man in the prime of his life. He's in the house every day and Potiphar's wife is a wealthy woman who enjoys a life of leisure that allows her to stay home as much as she pleases. While she lounges idly about the house, she watches Joseph and has lustful thoughts about him. Eventually she makes him an offer she believes he will be happy to accept.

"But he refused. 'With me in charge,' he told her, 'my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?' And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her." (Genesis 39:8-10) Joseph could have committed adultery with this woman and gotten away with it. He's so powerful in the household that he could demand and enforce the silence of the other slaves. In fact, he could have conducted this affair without anyone suspecting anything at all. He could just order them to work in another part of the house or outside on the grounds while he has an afternoon interlude with the master's wife.

It's important for us to note that the Bible never tells us that he wasn't tempted by her. I believe he was tempted. I believe he felt the pull of this sin. In his reply to her, he doesn't refuse her advances because he's uninterested in them. He doesn't say, "Sorry, but you're not my type." Joseph is an unmarried young man with unmet physical desires. Potiphar's wife was probably young too. Women married quite young in those times and it was common then, as it is now, for wealthy men to marry young and beautiful trophy wives. Potiphar was wealthy and of high political and social standing. His wife very well may have looked like a supermodel. Joseph never says, "I don't think of you in that way, Mrs. Potiphar. You're a very plain looking lady and I don't find you attractive." No, what he says is, "I could never sin against my God by doing this thing and I would never break the trust of your husband." Day after day she makes her whispered advances to him or gives him those "come hither" eyes. The Bible tells us that he refused "to even be with her" so we know he's careful never to be in a room alone with her. If he does feel tempted, as I suspect, then he's setting an awesome example for anyone who feels attraction toward someone who does not belong to them. Being alone with a person like that is setting oneself up for failure.

I'll tell a brief story that illustrates how smart Joseph is to ensure he's never alone with Potiphar's wife. One of my co-workers had a friend who was conducting an affair with a married man. After their first encounter she vowed never to sleep with him again but she didn't keep her vow because she set herself up for failure. She set herself up for failure the next time she heard from him by agreeing to meet him in a hotel room, but she said she prayed all the way there, saying, "Lord, please help me not to have sex with this married man." The battle was already pretty much lost by the time she was on her way to meet him. It would be a lot easier to stay strong if she stayed away from him, but instead she was going to be all alone with him in a hotel room. When she told my co-worker this story, my co-worker told her that it was a little too late to be praying for strength not to continue the affair while on her way to continue the affair. Joseph is smart enough not to set himself up for failure like this. He makes sure someone else is always around when he's in the household of the woman who is trying to seduce him.

Potiphar's wife realizes he's making sure there's always at least one servant around him whenever he's in the house. Before he arrives for work one day, she orders all the servants to do some type of work away from the house. The Bible doesn't specifically say she did this, but I highly suspect it because of what happens next. "One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, 'Come to bed with me!' But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house." (Genesis 39:11-12)

I feel like giving Joseph a standing ovation when he flees her presence. Sometimes the only way to avoid sin is to run from it as fast as you can. There's no shame in running away if you have to. He does exactly the right thing. This woman has her hands on him. She's looking up at him with her beautifully made-up eyes and promising all sorts of illicit and mysterious pleasures. She's offering him something that he (a healthy man in the prime of his life) is lacking---a physical relationship with a woman. I think if he hadn't run he might have given in. And we shouldn't think any less of him if that's the case. Sometimes there's a tendency to want to think of Bible heroes as "less human" than the rest of us, but Joseph was an ordinary young man who had the same physical urges as any other ordinary young man. He could have done this thing and no one would have been the wiser. But he would have known. And God would have known. Not wanting to live with a guilty conscience and not wanting to sin against the God who loves him and has been good to him, he does the only thing he can do to remove this temptation. He runs from it.

Have you ever heard the saying, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned"? That saying could have been made up about Potiphar's wife. She's not going to take rejection very well at all. I'm willing to bet no man has ever rejected her in her life. She may have seduced other servants in the past and it never occurred to her that Joseph would say no. Her pride is so hurt and her fury is so great that in tomorrow's study that she makes false accusations against him.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 145, Judah And Tamar, Part Three

Judah finds out that his widowed daughter-in-law is pregnant and he wants the harshest penalty passed on her. Or at least that's how he feels until he finds out he's the daddy.

"About three months later Judah was told, 'Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.'" (Genesis 38:24a) The first three months of pregnancy is when miscarriage is most likely to occur, so I assume Tamar didn't announce her pregnancy until she was three months along and felt fairly sure the pregnancy would continue to term. Most women in our own times still don't publicly announce their pregnancies until after completing the third month. It's too heartbreaking to happily announce an early pregnancy and then have something go wrong and have to share the sad news with so many people.

Judah is enraged when he hears Tamar has been sexually immoral. "Judah said, 'Bring her out and have her burned to death!'" (Genesis 38:24b) If we looked up the word "hypocrite" in the dictionary right now we might find Judah's picture beside of it. He has no right to pass judgment on anyone's sexual immorality because he has been sexually immoral himself. He thought nothing of hiring a prostitute on his way up to the sheep shearing festival, yet he has the gall to want Tamar condemned to death for having sold sexual favors. At this time he doesn't yet know that Tamar and the veiled prostitute he hired are the same person.

Another way he's being a hypocrite is because he's incensed on behalf of his son, Shelah, whom he promised to Tamar in marriage. But Judah never had any intention of actually ever setting a wedding date for the two of them. He's behaving like Tamar has been unfaithful to his son because engagement in those days was almost as binding as marriage. Being unfaithful to one's betrothed was considered as serious as committing adultery. Judah only promised his son to Tamar to keep her from marrying again. If she marries again then the shares of his estate which had belonged to his dead sons Er and Onan (Tamar's previous husbands) will go to her new husband. But if she remains a widow I believe that upon her death these shares would revert to Judah's son Shelah if Tamar is engaged to Shelah when she dies. We can see why a genuine engagement and marriage would have been beneficial to everyone. An heir of Tamar and Shelah would inherit the entire estate as a whole someday. None of the property would pass outside the family if these two united in marriage and had a son together. But this arrangement is unfair to Tamar because Judah doesn't want the marriage to ever take place. She can't fall in love with and marry anyone else. She can't have any children. Her life is stuck in the same old rut day after day after day while she languishes in her father's household waiting to marry this younger man. The arrangement isn't fair to Shelah either. He can't marry or father any children, at least not while Tamar is alive.

A dramatic scene now ensues. Judah puts on all the airs of a father-in-law whose dignity has been wounded and rounds up officials and witnesses to march over to Tamar's house to have her burned at the stake. I picture men building a blazing bonfire in the front yard. I hear a judge reading the charges aloud at the top of his voice so everyone assembled in the yard and everyone huddled behind the locked door of the house can hear him. I see Tamar handing off some articles to a household servant and quickly telling him exactly what to say in a message to her father-in-law. Then the door is kicked in and men grab hold of Tamar and drag her out of the house.

This is the moment Tamar has been waiting for. For three long months she's held her peace, knowing this day would come, knowing that when it came she would not be the person who is actually on trial. Judah is the one on trial here. In front of all these witnesses, Judah's sins against this woman will be made plain for all to see. "As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. 'I am pregnant by the man who owns these,' she said. And she added, 'See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.'" (Genesis 38:25) Imagine his shock when he's given the message and handed the personal items he knows are his. These are the items he gave the "prostitute" to hold until he could send back the goat he promised her in payment for his services. This moment is just like those on some of the popular TV shows where an envelope containing DNA results is opened and an unhappy man is told, "You are the father!"

The whole scene comes to a screeching halt. I bet you could have heard a pin drop while everyone present stares at the shocked Judah who is standing there holding his own seal, cord, and staff. To his credit, he immediately accepts the blame for the current circumstances. Right here in front of all these witnesses, he openly admits his sin and repents of it. "Judah recognized them and said, 'She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah.'" (Genesis 38:26a) He's saying, "Let her go and lay all the blame for any sins she's committed at my feet. I'm the one who drove her to such desperate measures. I deprived her of the blessings of a husband and a son and a secure future by not keeping my promise to her. As far as I'm concerned, she is to be considered innocent and she must have her dignity restored to her in everyone's eyes. Everything that has happened is my fault. I have sinned against her and I was wrong and I'm sorry. She is to be considered my wife now and this child is to be considered my legitimate son."

We know she is legally considered his wife now because this next verse indicates she and Judah had the right to an ongoing physical relationship with each other and that such a relationship would not have been considered sinful. "And he did not sleep with her again." (Genesis 38:26b) He could have lived with her as husband and wife, sexually speaking, but he didn't. This is a marriage but in name only. It's not a love match. Judah doesn't expect her to perform the physical duties of a wife and it's likely she prefers not to. Their one sexual union was a combination of loneliness and sexual frustration on Judah's part after the death of his wife and revenge on Tamar's part. Judah has given her his name and the protected status of a legally married woman. He has given legitimacy to the child they conceived together. He is going to provide for them as a husband and father should. He and Tamar don't end up falling in love and making a real home together, but I think he treated her courteously and respectfully from then on.

One more surprise is revealed when Tamar gives birth. She's having twins. "When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, 'This one came out first.' But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, 'So this is how you have broken out!' And he was named Perez. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his hand, came out. And he was named Zerah." (Genesis 38:27-30) The name "Perez" means "breaking out" and the name "Zerah" means "scarlet".

We can't help but be reminded of the birth of the twins Jacob and Esau. The two of them struggled together in the womb and Jacob came out behind Esau grasping Esau's heel. This was symbolic that Jacob would be the one to inherit the birthright, the blessings of the firstborn, and the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. Tamar's sons also struggle in the womb for preeminence. It appears at first that Zerah will be the firstborn, but Perez is stronger and he arrives ahead of his brother. This is because Perez is going to be the twin who is the ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the genealogies given in Matthew's gospel account and in Luke's gospel account. Perez is the inheritor of the covenant promises God made to Abraham. It is his line that will lead to the birth of the promised Messiah.

Neither Judah nor Tamar has behaved very righteously at all in Chapter 38. Judah, because of his lack of spiritual insight, felt superstitious toward Tamar as if she somehow caused the death of his two eldest sons. He failed to understand that their deaths were a result of their own sinful ways of living. In his fear of Tamar he made a promise to her he didn't intend to keep. Judah has been a liar, a promise-breaker, a hypocrite, a person lacking in compassion, and a sexually immoral individual. Tamar was wronged, to be sure, and we don't want to overlook that. But she allowed her anger and bitterness to fester and took charge of the situation in a sinful manner. I think it's quite possible she could have brought a legal case against Judah for his failure to allow the marriage between her and his son Shelah to take place. She might have won in court and Judah would have had to follow through. But instead she put on a deception and was sexually immoral in order to get what she was owed.

This story illustrates the depths to which a person can sink in sin, but it also illustrates the lengths to which the Lord will go to redeem persons from sin. Out of this scandalous and sinful situation comes an ancestor of the Redeemer. This story shines a spotlight on God's awesome grace and His ability to bring triumph out of tragedy and to turn ugliness into beauty. The Bible is filled with people who made mistakes. The family tree of the Messiah has a lot of bad apples hanging on it. And this ought to make us shout for joy because we've been some bad apples ourselves, haven't we? We've made mistakes. We've wasted opportunities. We've chosen wrong paths. There have been times when, to anyone on the outside looking in, we appeared unredeemable. We looked like a lost cause. Right now the family line from Abraham down to Perez looks like a lost cause, doesn't it? Everyone in this family has made terrible choices and appears unredeemable and unusable by God. And maybe that would have been true if God had washed His hands of them. But God is a promise keeper. God is merciful. He doesn't look at us and see who we are now or who we used to be. He sees what we can be if we allow Him to be Lord of our lives. He sees our potential. Right now it doesn't look like the family of Jacob has any potential. Maybe they don't, on their own. But with God all things are possible.

Friday, February 21, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 144, Judah And Tamar, Part Two

In yesterday's study we learned that Judah had three sons. Er, his firstborn, married a woman named Tamar but died not long after, leaving no children. Judah instructed his second born son, Onan, to marry the widow in the custom known as "levirate marriage". This would keep the property (Er's share in the family estate) that Tamar inherited from Er in the family because it would pass down to any son she had with Onan. Onan married her but refused to have a child with her. He too died soon after the marriage.

Judah has one son left, Shelah, who is not yet a legal adult. Judah would like to keep the shares of the property of his sons Er and Onan in the family, but at the same time he's afraid to give another son to Tamar in marriage. The Bible specifically told us that Er and Onan died young because they were so wicked, and I think Judah probably knows they weren't fine upstanding men, but at the same time he's superstitious about Tamar as if she caused the deaths of his two sons. In his heart he can't make a firm decision about what he should do, so he instructs Tamar to return to her parents' house and remain single until Shelah is of age. This puts Tamar in an awkward position. She ends up sitting around for years waiting for Judah to fulfill his promise. Meanwhile she's growing older and is missing opportunities for marriage and childbearing. If she's still unmarried when her fertile years run out, as she grows older she'll have no sons to take care of her. As the years pass she realizes Judah has no intention of keeping his promise. Her bitterness toward him grows. In our passage today she decides to take action.

We know years have passed while Tamar waits for Judah to keep his promise because the Bible says, "After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died." (Genesis 38:12a) A long time goes by. Judah's household has no woman to run it now that his wife has passed but still he doesn't send for Tamar to marry his son after the days of mourning are completed. Instead he decides to get out of the house for a while by attending a sheep shearing, which was a festive event. "When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him." (Genesis 38:12b)

Sheep shearing took place in the spring when the earth was blossoming and when the long dark days of winter were over. It was treated as a celebration. As soon as all the work was done (which could take a number of days depending on the size of the flocks) a feast would be held for several days and it was like an all-you-can-eat buffet with an open bar. There would be lots of eating, drinking, singing, and playing of instruments. The Bible tells us that Judah grieved for his wife. He loved her and he's been very sad. The sheep shearing festival sounds like something that will cheer him up and take his mind off his sorrow. He asks his best friend to go along with him and the two of them head off for several days of carefree fun. But when Judah goes to the festival instead of sending for Tamar, she realizes he never intends to. Now that the days of mourning for his wife are completed, and now that spring is bursting forth in all its beauty, it seems like the perfect time for Judah to arrange a wedding between Tamar and Shelah. Then Tamar could have taken over the running of the household and the supervision of the household servants. She could have provided a woman's touch in a house that now contains only two lonely single men, but Judah runs off to the festival instead and seems content to leave things as they are.

"When Tamar was told, 'Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,' she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as a wife." (Genesis 38:13-14) Sheep shearing was considered not only a time to party but a time to settle scores. Tamar is going to settle a score.

"When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, 'Come now, let me sleep with you.'" (Genesis 38:15-16a) Women who were known as "shrine prostitutes" in the land of Canaan put veils over their faces when they were, shall we say, open for business. These women served fertility goddesses in that pagan culture and part of their service included having sexual relations with men in exchange for money. When a man saw a woman with a veiled face sitting by the roadside, he naturally assumed she was one of these ladies of the evening. In our day a prostitute might stand on a street corner dressed in skimpy clothes while calling out to men driving by, but in Judah's day all a prostitute had to do was veil her face and place herself by a roadside or city gate and men would automatically know she was available. When Judah sees a woman sitting by the roadside wearing a veil over her face, of course he assumes she's a prostitute. Judah is a man out on the town looking for a good time. He's recently widowed and he misses the physical companionship of a woman. When he sees the veiled lady he propositions her. What he's doing is sinful and immoral, of course, but I don't think he's bothered by that.

Tamar intended him to believe she's a prostitute. "'And what will you give me if I sleep with you?' she asked. 'I'll send a young goat from my flock,' he said. 'Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?' she asked. He asked, 'What pledge shall I give you?' 'Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,' she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow's clothes again." (Genesis 38:16b) Judah doesn't have the goat with him and any woman in the business of prostitution would want to ensure that he keeps his end of the bargain. There's nothing odd about Tamar asking for personal items of Judah's to hold as a guarantee that he will send the goat as payment for their sexual transaction. Tamar wants to become pregnant by him and she knows the only way she can prove the child is his is if she has these personal items which he temporarily gave a supposed prostitute to hold until he sent the goat back. There weren't any paternity tests in those days and having his seal and its cord along with his staff will be the positive paternity test Tamar needs. A wealthy man didn't travel anywhere without the seal he used to sign official documents. Possessing his seal would be like possessing his legal form of ID. When Tamar makes the announcement that Judah is the baby daddy, having his seal in her hand is the same as producing a printout of paternity test results with his name on them.

Judah keeps his word about the goat. He has to if he wants his items back, but he doesn't go in person. As far as he's concerned, his personal dealings with the prostitute are over. He sends his buddy Hirah to conclude the matter for him. "Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. He asked the men who lived there, 'Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?' 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here,' they said." (Genesis 38:20-21) This scene amuses me. Hiram looks pretty foolish wandering up and down the roadway and around the city square leading a goat on a rope while searching for a veiled woman. Eventually he asks some men hanging around where the prostitute is. I can't help picturing those guys having a good laugh at his expense. No doubt they believe Hirah is the person who slept with the prostitute. They probably think he was too intoxicated at the time of the festival to recall where his transaction with the woman took place. They believe he's in the wrong location and say, "Man, are you crazy? How drunk were you? We haven't had any hookers here! Are you sure this thing even happened? Maybe you passed out and dreamed it." A lot of snickering and knee slapping probably ensued, to Hirah's embarrassment.

There's nothing Hirah can do but slink home and tell Judah he can't find the woman. "So he went back to Judah and said, 'I didn't find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here.' Then Judah said, 'Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her the young goat, but you didn't find her.'" (Genesis 38:22-23) It's in Judah's best interests to speak no more of the matter. He doesn't want word to get out that he slept with a prostitute and can't find her to pay her. That will make him look foolish and give his neighbors something to gossip about. He certainly doesn't want anyone to think he slept with a prostitute and refused to pay her. He says, "Let's let this thing go. She can sell my personal items for cash if she wants to. It's not like I didn't try to pay her with the goat. You know and I know I tried to pay her. The men you spoke to in town know I sent the goat as payment. It's not my fault she isn't there anymore."

Judah thinks this is the end of the thing. But it's only the beginning.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 143, Judah And Tamar, Part One

Jacob thinks Joseph is dead, but while he grieves deeply for his lost son, the Bible tells us, "Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard." (Genesis 37:36) We will join Joseph in Egypt soon, but in the meantime the Bible has things to tell us about Jacob's son Judah. Judah was perfectly fine with the idea of killing Joseph until he realized he and his brothers could profit by selling him into slavery instead. In today's passage Judah branches out on his own, away from the family, and may be using his share of the ill-gotten money to make his start.

While reading about the life and the mistakes of Judah, we must keep in mind that he is the son of Jacob through whose descendants the Messiah will come. I think Satan thought the ancestor of the Messiah would be Joseph. Joseph was Jacob's favorite son and almost certainly his intended heir. It would have made sense to the devil that the one who was the heir would also inherit the covenant promises that the Lord made to Abraham. Joseph, as we will soon see, was the most godly son of the bunch even though as a seventeen-year-old boy his faith was immature and his character was still impulsive and prideful. But because Joseph had a heart for the Lord, Satan believed he might cut off the line of the Messiah if he could get Joseph killed by his jealous brothers. When that failed, the devil probably thought sending him into lifelong slavery in Egypt would be enough to keep him from fulfilling his destiny as the forefather of the Redeemer. But the Lord intended that the ancestor of the Messiah and one who inherited the blessings of the covenant promised to Abraham would be a son of Jacob and his first wife Leah. That son is Judah. Right now Judah doesn't seem like a likely candidate to be found in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, but as we read about his sins and poor choices we should be grateful to a God who has the power to change and redeem any life. Judah hasn't been very admirable so far and we aren't going to feel very impressed by him in our current chapter either. But the Lord is still working on him.

"At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah." (Genesis 38:1) Why does Judah leave his father's household? Well, "at that time" Jacob is mourning for Joseph and refusing to be comforted. No one can do anything for him, although they try their best as we were told in yesterday's passage. I like to think Judah's conscience is bothering him. At the very least, I think his father's household has become a place where Judah can no longer relax and enjoy being at home. He decides it's time to head out and make his own way in the world.

In Adullam he falls in love with a pagan woman. "There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him." (Genesis 38:2-5)

Judah intermarries with the idolatrous Canaanites and lives and works among these heathens. Yet a son he has with a Canaanite woman will become an ancestor of God's own Son. The Lord Jesus made Himself like us in every way possible, including having some very rascally characters in His lineage. He didn't come to the earth as a power-wielding king, although He could have and had the right to do so. He came humbly as a child into a poor family from a backwoods hick town in Galilee, with a whole bunch of liars, thieves, murderers, and ne'er-do-wells in His family tree. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have to go very far back in my family tree to find some bad apples hanging on its branches, and neither did the Lord Jesus. It fills me with wonder that the holy and perfect Son of God didn't consider Himself too good to be born into a family full of sinners. On the contrary, His entire purpose in coming into this world was to "seek and to save the lost". (Luke 19:10) He came here specifically to interact with man just as he was and to make man into something better.

Judah will father a son who will be the ancestor of the Messiah, but not through his first wife the daughter of Shua. The Bible doesn't even tell us the name of the mother of Judah's first three sons, and that's a clue to us that she's not in the genealogy of Christ. Another woman will be, and Judah's union with her will result in a child conceived in deception and immorality, yet this child's name is on a leaf of the family tree of our Lord, which proves to us that He is able to redeem even our worst mistakes. The woman who appears in the family tree of the Lord is a woman who is first married to one of Judah's sons. "Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the Lord's sight; so the Lord put him to death." (Genesis 38:6-7) We don't know what Er's sins were, but they were so heinous that the Lord took him out of this life at a young age before he fathered any children with his new wife.

Now we see Judah advising his next eldest son to enter into what was called a "levirate marriage" with Tamar. It would not have been called this in Hebrew, for "levir" is a Latin word meaning "brother-in-law". We will find more references to this type of marriage in other places in the Old Testament, but its purpose was to keep the property and the wealth of the dead brother in the family. If his widow remarried outside of the family then everything she inherited from her dead husband would pass on to the new husband and then in time it would pass on down to children she had with the new husband. If a man died with a son and heir, there were no worries about anything passing out of the family. But if a man died without an heir, the custom was that one of his brothers would marry the widow. The property would then pass on down to the children he had with his brother's widow. If the man had other wives, the property could not be inherited by children he had with them. It could only go to the children he had with his brother's widow. Not only did this carry on his brother's name and his brother's estate, but it provided a living for the brother's widow. She would have sons who were property owners who could take care of her in her old age.

"Then Judah said to Onan, 'Sleep with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.'" (Genesis 38:8) I don't believe Judah is telling his son to have relations with Tamar outside of marriage. That's not how the process worked. She would have become a legal wife of Onan, though perhaps not his first or only wife.

Onan goes through the motions of being obedient to his father and respectful of his dead brother, but he ensures that no children will result from his union with Tamar. "But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord's sight; so the Lord put him to death also." (Genesis 38:9-10) Onan uses a form of birth control because he doesn't want to have a son with Tamar named after his brother and he doesn't want his brother's property to go to a son he fathers with this woman. I assume Onan either despised his older brother so much that he wants his name to die out or else he was too prideful to father a son who would appear in the genealogical records as the son of Er, not as the son of Onan. He would never be able to take the credit for being the child's father, for his name would be entirely left out of that particular branch of the family tree. Even though Er did not literally father the child, he would be listed as the father on the birth certificate, so to speak.

Some people have used what Onan does in Genesis 38 to condemn the use of birth control. His sin is not in using birth control. The Lord doesn't take him out of the world by death because Onan uses birth control. If he and Tamar agreed together that they would use birth control, that would be their own private business as a married couple. The Lord doesn't put people to death for deciding not to have children. Onan's sin is in not fulfilling his vows or his duty. Tamar is not in agreement about never having an heir to inherit her husband's property and to take care of her in her old age. I think what Onan does is a symptom of his heart being cold and hard toward everyone. He's rebellious toward his father even though outwardly he pretends to obey him. He's rebellious toward the customs of the day. He doesn't care anything about his dead brother or about what happens to anything that belonged to him. He doesn't care whether the name of his dead brother dies out. He doesn't care what happens to his brother's widow, who is the innocent party in this whole mess. Due to his complete lack of compassion for those around him, and due to his rebellious spirit which evidently would never have changed, the Lord takes him out of this life.

Judah has one more son but he's not old enough to marry yet. He promises his son to Tamar when he comes of age, but until that time he instructs Tamar to move back in with her parents. We must assume Tamar is still a very young woman, possibly much younger than her two previous husbands, and that there would not have been enough of an age difference between her and Shelah to matter. "Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, 'Live as a widow in your father's household until my son Shelah grows up.' For he thought, 'He may die too, just like his brothers.' So Tamar went to live in her father's household." (Genesis 38:11)

Judah knows something is wrong with his sons, I think, but he superstitiously blames their deaths on their marriage to Tamar. It's not her fault they were wicked men. It's Judah's fault for marrying into a pagan culture and for not raising his sons in the reverence of the Lord. But he's afraid to arrange a marriage between Shelah and Tamar, either because he feels any man married to Tamar is cursed or because he knows Shelah isn't going to turn out any better than his older brothers did. If Shelah marries Tamar and does the same thing Onan did, Judah fears the Lord will let Shelah die. Judah promises Shelah to Tamar but appears to have no intention of following through.

His deception puts Tamar in a difficult position and the Lord doesn't like it when widows are put into difficult positions. The Bible has a lot to say about how sinful it is not to care for widows and orphans. Judah doesn't care about the widow of his sons Er and Onan but has merely come up with a way to put her off and get her out of his household. In order to make her think he really intends to let Shelah be her husband, he instructs her to "live as a widow" and not marry again until Shelah is old enough to marry her. But without a husband, if her father dies she has no one to provide for her. Without a husband, she can have no sons to provide for her. She might end up a beggar on the street corner someday and Judah couldn't care less. She is being treated very poorly and will decide she isn't going to put up with it. She's going to take matters into her own hands and deceive a deceiver. She's going to get what is owed to her by this family and she's going to do it by using something that has brought down many a carnally-minded man: sex appeal.

Join us tomorrow as this story becomes even more sordid and complicated and when Judah fathers an ancestor of the Messiah by Tamar who passes herself off as a prostitute. It's stories like these that prove to us that our Redeemer is able to redeem anything from our past. Many of the characters in the Bible have shameful pasts, but when they finally allow the Lord into their hearts, He takes even their worst failures and turns them around.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 142, Joseph Sold Into Slavery

When we closed yesterday, the older brothers of Joseph saw him coming to check on them and they hatched a plot to kill him. Reuben is going to balk at using such extreme measures to rid themselves of their father's favorite son and intended heir. Judah is going to agree with him about not resorting to murder, but not because he feels compassion for his seventeen-year-old brother. Judah will come up with a plan that allows them to be rid of Joseph and that will provide them with monetary gain at the same time. Jacob will be deceived by these men who are going to convince him Joseph is dead.

Joseph is approaching the group as they talk among themselves. "'Here comes that dreamer!' they said to each other. '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.'" (Genesis 37:19-20) We don't know which brothers make this statement. It might have been all of them with the exception of Reuben and Judah, two of the sons of Leah. The other two sons of Leah, Simeon and Levi, have already murdered men before and may think little of doing it again. We were told earlier in our chapter that the sons of Jacob by the maids Bilhah and Zilpah hated Joseph, so I have little doubt these men are part of the conspiracy to murder. Benjamin, Joseph's younger full brother, I am certain is not with them but is at home. Joseph is the age where young men were tasked with management of flocks and herds, but Benjamin is several years younger and would only have been expected to perform simple chores at home. Some scholars estimate that Benjamin was probably no more than ten years old here in Chapter 37, but there's no way to know his age for certain.

Reuben is horrified at the idea of killing his half brother and he tries to talk the men down. "When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. 'Let's not take his life,' he said. 'Let's not shed any blood. Throw him into the cistern here in the wilderness, but don't lay a hand on him.' Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to their father." (Genesis 37:21-22) Reuben hasn't been a very upstanding man so far in the Bible. He's been rebellious and disrespectful. He's looted and pillaged. He's committed adultery. Based on his actions so far, we might have thought there's nothing he wouldn't do, but he won't kill Joseph and he won't allow anyone else to kill Joseph if he can help it. Why didn't he simply stand against these men and rescue Joseph from their hands right now? Some of the commentators whose works I consulted are very critical of Reuben for not doing this, but I tend to think his own life would have been in danger if he'd outright refused to go along with them and if he'd said, "I'm taking Joseph back to our father right now and I'm going to tell him what you almost did!" These guys are a violent bunch. If they're perfectly willing to kill one brother, no doubt they wouldn't mind killing a second brother at the same time. Reuben is outnumbered. He'd have to fight nine tough, physically fit men to rescue Joseph. Even if Joseph joined in the fight with him, it would still be two against nine and the two of them would easily be overpowered.

Reuben's brothers have no idea he intends to sneak back and pull Joseph out of the cistern. Throwing a man into a cistern and leaving him there was a death sentence, but less of a hands-on method of murder than if they beat or stoned him to death or stabbed him. They like Reuben's idea and decide to take him up on it. They will seem even more convincing when they protest their innocence about Joseph's disappearance if their father sees none of his blood on their garments. "So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe---the ornate robe he was wearing---and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it." (Genesis 37:23-24) The brothers take away the robe that symbolizes the disproportionate love their father feels for the eldest son of Rachel. They must have been so sick of seeing this seventeen-year-old boy strutting around in it as if he is their master. Every morning at the breakfast table they must have been sickened by the sight of the heir-apparent wearing his special robe while their father made a bigger deal of Joseph than of anyone else. They can't stand the thought that when he dies in the cistern and the cistern becomes his grave, he will forever be interred while adorned in this robe.

There's no water in the cistern, so he doesn't drown while his brothers sit down nearby and unpack their lunches. Imagine how hard-hearted they must have been to be able to enjoy a meal to the sound of his pitiful cries! I think the sound of his pleas for help must have been music to the ears of all of them but Reuben. I feel some sympathy for Reuben right now because even though he intends to come back later and pull Joseph out of the hole, there's nothing he can do at the moment to ease the boy's fear and torment. I don't believe he's able to bear the sound of his brother's cries and that he walks away from the rest of the group. I don't think he sits down and has a picnic lunch with them, and the reason I believe this is we will see that he's not present a few minutes later when the men come up with a different idea to rid themselves of Joseph. "As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt." (Genesis 37:25)

This is when a lightbulb comes on over Judah's head. I can't help picturing him pausing with his full mouth hanging open when it occurs to him that he and the others can not only rid themselves of Joseph forever today but that they can also make a handsome profit at the same time. "Judah said to his brothers, 'What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 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.'" (Genesis 37:26-27) He cloaks his greed with feigned compassion for the boy. He says, "If we let Joseph die here, we'll be rid of him but we really won't be better off financially. Not until our father's death anyway. But if we sell him to these traders we won't be guilty of his death. He'll be alive somewhere else, far away from us, and we'll have the price of a slave to divide among ourselves. Besides, he is our brother even though we despise him. Surely selling him is a better option than bearing the guilt of having killed a man who shares our blood."

"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 Egypt. When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, 'The boy isn't there! Where can I turn now?'" (Genesis 37:29-30) A period of time passes in which Reuben is not with the rest of the group. The men have gone back to tending the flocks and when they're far enough away he sneaks back to the cistern intending to pull Joseph out but finds him missing. He's so grief-stricken that he tears his robes in an age-old gesture of anguish. He rushes to find the others and in his distress his intention to save Joseph becomes clear to them, but the deed is already done and they don't lay a hand on him for being upset with them. Reuben, as the firstborn of Jacob, feels responsible for what's happened today. He feels guilty for being too afraid of his gang of unscrupulous brothers to try to fight them all to save Joseph. He wonders what more he could and should have done. He thinks he ought to have been able to maintain control over this whole mess but he didn't know how and now he's overwhelmed with the knowledge of what has happened to Joseph. How can he face his father? What will he say to him? What excuse can he give for the fate of Jacob's favorite son? Reuben has already disgraced himself by announcing his candidacy for head of the family by adulterously sleeping with one of his father's wives. Obviously,he was wrong about his abilities and he's not capable of leading the family, as the events of our chapter today prove. But his father has already dismissed him as the primary heir and if Jacob realizes Reuben failed to save Joseph then Reuben risks being disowned entirely and excommunicated from the family.

Knowing Reuben would prefer not to have to account to their father for what's happened today, the others draw him into the deception they plan to perpetrate upon Jacob. If Reuben will go along with this plan he will never have to admit any guilt to their father. If Jacob thinks Joseph was attacked and killed by a wild animal on his way to check on the brothers, it will never occur to him to cast a suspicious eye on any of them. "Then they got Joseph's robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, 'We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son's robe.'" (Genesis 37:31-32) I bet they're congratulating themselves on tearing the robe off Joseph in the first place. Having him in his plain tunic helped them pass him off as a slave to the Ishmaelites and now the robe dipped in blood helps them pass him off as dead. I have a feeling Reuben is completely silent during this sad gathering with their father. In my mind I picture him standing in the shadows in a corner, not willing to come close enough to look his father in his eyes. Although he knows Joseph is alive, depending on what type of work he was expected to do as a slave, it could mean a life of backbreaking hard labor and an early death. I think Reuben is struggling with this knowledge, with his inability to keep this from happening, and with having to watch his father cry tears of grief over a son he believes is dead.

"He recognized it and said, 'It is my son's robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.' Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. 'No,' he said, 'I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.' So his father wept for him." (Genesis 37:33-35) Jacob believes in the eternal life of the soul. He thinks Joseph is dead and that his remains are eaten and scattered. There's no gravesite beside his son in which he can be buried. When he says he's going to join Joseph some day, he's talking about being reunited with him after death. He says, "I will mourn my son until the day I see him again in heaven. I will never be happy again until then." King David said a similar thing about a son he lost. While his baby boy was sick, he fasted and prayed day and night for him to be healed, but the child passed on. David made this statement of faith about seeing his son again: "I will go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Samuel 12:23) David couldn't revive his son from the dead. His baby boy's soul had gone on to be with the Lord. But all was not lost because, although he would not see his son again in this life, he would be reunited with him again after death in the presence of the Lord.

The narrative of Genesis is going to move back and forth for a period of time to keep us updated on Joseph's life in Egypt and on his family's life in Canaan. Joseph's family believes they will never see him again. Jacob and his wives and his son Benjamin and his daughters think Joseph is dead. The other ten know he is alive but believe he will be a slave in Egypt for the remainder of his life and that they will never lay eyes on him again. But all of these events are part of God's plan. Sometimes the things that happen to us in this world aren't pleasant. Sometimes those unpleasant things are a result of our own errors but other times they are part of God's plan for us. Joseph's family will see him again, and when they do, the one they tried to kill will save their lives. The one they hated so much will have forgiven them, will have recognized that the Lord used his circumstances to accomplish something of enormous importance and eternal significance, and will say to them: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good." (Genesis 50:20)