Joseph: How Faith and Character are formed - Week 6 - The Test
Reading: Genesis 42
Sermon date: 8 July
A NOTE FOR LEADERS: there are probably more questions than can be discussed in one session so choose the questions you want to use and discard the rest (make up your own if you want to). I’ve given suggested answers in italics after the questions
These notes are written to lead you to read the text carefully and in detail. One purpose in taking this approach is to force you to enter into the actual human experiences of the protagonists. The other emphasis in the story, the privileged view that we as readers are given because we keep being told that all that happens is God’s plan, can lead us to a false view of history, that it goes smoothly because God is in control. We can easily, under the influence of our readerly privilege, neglect the confusion and pain of actual human experience captured through events in this story.
We have seen three major threads in the story so far:
1. Changes in Joseph’s fortunes: from much-loved son to cast-off slave, to captain of the guard in Potiphar’s household, to imprisonment unjustly, to ruler of Egypt at the side of the Pharoah
2. All this, it has been emphasized frequently, has happened under God’s controlling hand
3. There has been much deception involved: Joseph’s brothers have deceived their father, Jacob (as he had deceived his brother Esau); Joseph has been the victim of the deceit of Potiphar’s wife and then also the victim of the cup-bearer’s failure to honour his promise to speak about Joseph’s unjust imprisonment to the Pharaoh. This theme will continue and be of critical importance later in the story in the way Joseph deals with his brothers
A Question for Discussion
We have been told frequently in this story that God is in control of events, and we speak often of God’s providential ordering of the world. We believe this, yet there is a difficult question we should wrestle with if we are to believe in God’s providence in a credible way:
Q1 - Why does God seem so often to create suffering in his management of the world?
Q2 - Why did Joseph have to suffer by being thrown into an empty pit in the desert without water? Why did God’s plan for him require that he be the victim of Potiphar’s wife’s deceit? Why did he have to be thrown into prison? In short, why all this suffering for Joseph, as well as for Jacob and for all the people of Egypt and those in Canaan where Jacob and his sons were, as the famine took hold?
Q3 - Why can’t God work without causing suffering?
HINT: There are no neat answers to this question. Theologians have argued that suffering is redemptive, which is certainly shown in this story as a whole: what they suffer contributes directly to the character-growth we see in all the major players. However, we need to be very careful not to be flippant about this idea: people often suffer when they are innocent. Another teaching is that suffering is caused by our sin (but that can’t be true always as we often suffer because of others, as I’ve already said or because we’re caught in larger social systems that cause suffering). Because of its problems many contemporary theologians are searching for a different way of understanding God than the traditional way that God is an all-controlling puppet-master pulling the strings of the world at every turn. There is no final or easy answer to this conundrum but share your thoughts.
Note that suffering is simply accepted in the Bible as part of life, and a part that we can handle best by taking it to God. This is why we have half the Psalms devoted to suffering people lamenting their suffering and we have two entire books devoted to the question of suffering (Job and Lamentations). These biblical cries for help, notice, are not polite but often angry and even despairing. In the Bible, especially in the texts I have mentioned, which were written before the devil came to be understood in the way we now understand him, God was believed to be accountable for what was wrong as well as praised for what was good and right. Mostly, the Bible doesn’t attempt any kind of answer to this question (Job is the exception, possibly), but simply shows suffering people in prayer and discussion with God directly.
Questions for Discussion
Please read Genesis 42:1-38
Q4 - Why do Joseph’s brothers appear reluctant to face looming disaster, as suggested by Jacob’s question at 42.1?
HINT: Because they are haunted by what they did 20 years previously in selling their brother into slavery in Egypt. Therefore, they pretend to be uninterested in the obvious fact that the solution to the disaster looming ahead lies in the place into which they had sent their brother as a slave
Q5 - Why does Jacob keep Benjamin from going with his brothers? What does this suggest about his attitude to his other sons (see also v.38)?
HINT: Because Benjamin has replaced Joseph as his father’s favourite son and Jacob is afraid of losing another (favourite) son. He seems unworried about any dangers that would confront the sons he is happy to send on this dangerous mission (though see v.36)
Q6 - When the brother arrive in Egypt “they bowed down to him (ie., Joseph) with their faces to the ground” [42.6b). Why is this significant? (see ch 37.1-9)
HINT: It fulfils, to the letter, Joseph’s initial dream which he told his brothers when he was a young boy and which made them so angry and resentful. This fulfilment suggests that God’s plan is in place, and so reinforces our sense that because God is present we always have a future, even when, as must have appeared to Joseph in the bad times of his life, there doesn’t seem to be a future at all
Q7 - Repeated motifs in the story are often significant. What role does the “recognition” theme play in the lives of the people in the story? (Note that the writer emphasizes the connections among the events listed below by using a single Hebrew word, “nakar”, repeatedly (I point to the way the NIV translates this word):
a. At 42.7 & 8: “As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger (or, to make it clearer: he pretended not to recognize him…” “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.”
b. At 37.32: “Examine it to see (that is, “recognize”) whether it is your son’s robe”
c. At 37.33: “He recognized it”
d. At 38.25 & 26: (Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, forsaken by Judah, had tricked him, her father-in-law to have sexual intercourse with her and had become pregnant): “I am pregnant….see if you recognize whose seal and cord and stafff these are. Judah recognized them.”
HINT: Notice that each time the occasion is a significant moment for the people involved. Each occasion marks a moment that changes the course of someone’s life; and this is emphasized by the use of the single Hebrew word, “nakar”. Each character in the story is either the victom of a deception or practising a deception. In this way the role of deception in human affairs is presented to us. It can affect your life in terrible ways or it can be used, as Joseph uses it at 42.7 to control the people you want to control – and as his brothers and Potiphar’s wife had used it.
Q8 - You may like to consider ways you have experienced deception in your own lives. You may widen the discussion beyond yourselves to consider the role deception plays in political life – are we habitually deceived by our leaders, in whatever sphere? Give examples. You might also consider, from this story, whether deception is ever justified?
Q9 - Joseph accuses his brothers of being “spies” at vv.9, 12, 14, 16, 19. Why does he make this accusation, which he knows to be false?
HINT: Perhaps to unnerve his brothers and to underline their helplessness. Also this accusation gives him an excuse to force them (and Jacob back home in Canaan) to bring Benjamin to Egypt by imprisoning them. Perhaps Joseph understands how much pressure he will have to exert on his father before Jacob would consider letting his last and most-loved son go away from him? Further, Joseph wants to test his brothers, to see whether they are as heartless as they once were. He also perhaps uses this encounter to discover what is happening to his family, and especially to Benjamin, the youngest and therefore least powerful brother
Q10 - Explain why the writer inserts the sentence, “Then he remembered his dreams about them” at v.9 (Note that at 41.51 he had said, “God made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” – how do you account for what appears to be a contradiction)?
HINT: Obviously this sentence makes it clear that what has happened is motivating Joseph’s actions at this point. Is it revenge he wants? Is he rubbing his hands with glee that his dreams in ch 37 have come true – is this suggested by “he spoke harshly to them”? Is the fact that his memory is expressed in terms of his dreams rather than of his harsh treatment at their hands to suggest to us that Joseph is not going to seek revenge? The fact that he is obviously testing his brothers to see whether they have learnt from the past suggests that his motive is redemption rather than revenge. How do you evaluate Joseph’s thinking at this point, in short?
Q11 - How does Joseph wield his power? Is he an example of someone who uses power well or not? Give reasons for you opinions
HINT: Joseph uses his power for redemptive purposes and thus is exemplary.
Q12 - The brothers defend themselves against Joseph’s accusations by saying, “Your servants are honest men” [vv.11, 31], a claim which Joseph then tests [vv.14-20, 33-34]. Are the brothers entitled to claim to be “honest men”?
HINT: They weren’t in the past, of course, but at this point they are. Their development as human beings is one of the main themes of Gen 37-50, so keep your eyes on these brothers and on how Joseph deals with them.
Q13 - In sending his brothers back home Joseph puts their money back into their sacks [v.27], which alarms them greatly [vv.28, 35]. Why does Joseph do this and why are they so frightened?
HINT: Was it from brotherly kindness to show that he regarded them as his guests, or was it to make them appear to be thieves (see 44.1-13), that is to be able to prove that they are dishonest men, in fact, or is it to remind them of when they had sold their brother for money (the Hebrew word “keseph” recalls the twenty shekels of “keseph” that the brothers received when they sold Joseph (see 37.28), and perhaps to test whether they would simply take the money and run, without attempting to bring Benjamin to Joseph? In other words, perhaps Joseph is testing whether they still place greater value on money than on the life of a brother?
Q14 - What do you make of their interpretation of how this money had got back into their sacks at v.28: What is this that God had done to us?
HINT: Of course we know that Joseph, not God, has returned their money, but their interpretation underlines the link between Joseph and God which develops ever more clearly as the story progresses, in two senses:  that Joseph is God’s chosen instrument; and  that he functions as such to redeem both his family and his people (who are not yet the nation, Israel). Perhaps they attribute the return of their money to God because their consciences have been aroused.
Q15 - Does their father, Jacob, believe them to be “honest men” – how do you evaluate his reaction and words at vv.35-36?
HINT: It is possible that the discovery of their money in their sacks suggests to Jacob that the brothers have stolen from “the man” in Egypt, which is why he has imprisoned Simeon and demanded Benjamin. Perhaps this is why jacob accuses his remaining sons at v.36?
Action - Drawing conclusions from your reading of the text
Q16 - What do you learn about how God works in the lives of human beings from this passage?
HINT: Perhaps most of all that God is working in our lives as we go about our ordinary daily business. However, the tests Joseph sets place a heavy emphasis on learning from your mistakes/sins. The brothers are being challenged, though they may be unaware of this, about the kind of people they are and especially whether they have developed as moral human beings from what they once were. Building on this, that life always offers opportunities for us to change and grow. Perhaps you can reflect (maybe silently if you prefer) on what tests you have been aware of in your own lives, through which you have developed. Note that these men, including Joseph, are not especially pious, yet God is working in and through them.
Q17 - What other conclusions/lessons have you drawn from this portion of the story?