God tests His people to remind them of their sin and bring them to repentance.
Genesis(93) (Part of the Origins(91) series)
by Stuart Johns(204) on May 7, 2023 (Sunday Morning(291))
Praise(3), Repentance(12), Salvation(68), Trust(12)
Steve Farrar, a Men’s discipleship teacher, tells this story on his podcast: One night a cab driver picked up a nun as one of his fares. After a few minutes the cab driver started to make conversation with her. He told the nun they have a lot in common, as they are both catholic and single. The nun replied that’s nice. After a few more minutes the cab driver says this may seem forward but I have always wanted to kiss a nun. The nun doesn’t seem taken aback by this, stating that maybe it had something to do with an emotional event in his childhood. She tells him that it would be okay if he wanted to kiss her. So, the cab driver pulls over, gets in the back seat and they share a kiss. The cab driver gets back in the front seat and continues to drive. After a few minutes the cab driver tells the nun that he needs to make a confession. He says that he’s not really catholic, in fact, he’s not religious at all, and he’s not single but happily married. The nun says that’s ok. I also need to make a confession. I am also not a catholic and am not a nun, my name is Bruce and I am on the way to a Halloween party.
That would be a rude awakening, wouldn’t it? These men were not men of principle. They weren’t living by any fundamental truths that served as a foundation for their behavior. Whenever behavior is based on an absence of principles you will have major problems. They were also men without scruples. They had no trouble with lying and deceiving. It didn’t bother them in the least. So why do I tell this story? When I heard this story last week, I was reminded of Joseph’s brothers. They were also men without principles or scruples. They were jealous, envious, hateful, rageful, murdering, scheming liars. Joseph’s brothers seemingly had no consciences. This morning we are in Genesis chapter 42 and we are going to see God and Joseph testing the brothers as part of God’s plan. They needed to be tested as they were going to become the leaders of the tribes of Israel. They needed to be tested to see if they’ve changed or if they are the same jealous, envious, murdering, scheming liars they were when they sold Joseph into slavery. They needed to be tested to see if they have consciences and can their consciences be awakened. And if their consciences can be awakened, will they remember their guilt and sin against Joseph and be led to repentance? These tests are going to be rude awakenings for the brothers but that is what they will need to be transformed. For us, as Christians, God will also test us and when the Holy Spirit speaks, convicting us, it is imperative that we listen, be reminded of our sin and be led to repentance. Which brings us to our big idea this morning: God tests his people to remind them of their sin and bring them to repentance.
As we think about our big idea, let’s ask God to open our hearts and minds to his scripture and to make us more like his son Jesus. Heavenly Father, we ask you to open our hearts and minds to your scripture this morning. Let us be attentive to your Holy Spirit and what he wants to say to us. Let us remember that your testing in our lives is good and is always for our benefit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Our first point this morning is Commission and is found in Genesis 42:1-6. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, “When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.” Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also. Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.”
We need to go back to Genesis 41:57 to find out what was happening in the beginning of chapter 42. A severe famine is everywhere and all the world is going to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph. First thing we can notice is this is a worldwide famine. This would have been most unusual and uncommon. For famine to come to Egypt it meant that there had been no rain to the south so the Nile River was not able to overflow her banks. And for famine to come to Canaan it meant that no rain had fallen on the land itself. There has been a famine in Canaan a number of times so far in our study of Genesis but up an until this point we have not seen a famine in Egypt. In fact according to Wikipedia, in the last 2500 years there have only been eleven recorded famines in Egypt. For famine to be in both Egypt and Canaan at the same time was a supernatural event sent by God to fulfill his plans and purposes.
Jacob learns that there was grain in Egypt to be bought so he commissions his sons to go down and buy grain for the family. He questions his sons about why they are “looking at each other” and not doing something about their “lack” and “need” of food. The same root word for “learned” and “looking” in verse 1 means “to see” and in the Greek means “idle” as in being indecisive. His sons do not notice what is obvious and is contrasted with Joseph’s insight in chapter 41 whose plan would save Egypt and the world from famine. For some reason Jacob’s sons have not come up with the same brilliant idea that Jacob had to go to Egypt and buy food so they can “live and not die.” It may have been because the trip to Egypt was 250-300 miles long and the round-trip would take six-weeks. It would have also been a dangerous journey with bandits prowling and lurking about. But I believe that God was bringing back memories of their sin against Joseph. Just the mention of “Egypt” probably brought up memories of what they did to their brother. These were memories that they didn’t want dredged up, but their lives were at stake. They needed food and if they didn’t get it, they and their families could die. God needed to see if their consciences could be awakened and if so, could they be moved to repentance. If their consciences couldn’t be awakened, repentance could never happen. BIG IDEA
God was using the famine to test the brothers. He was testing them with the “lack” or “need” of food. The brothers needed to obey their father and trust in God to provide. They also needed to trust God as he brought memories to light. Of course, the famine was the impetus to drive the brothers to Egypt in order to meet Joseph so they could be tested further. Sometimes God will test us with the “lack of or the need of something” so we will trust and rely on Him to provide our needs. Maybe it’s a financial need. I have a friend who is getting married soon and needs to find a full-time job and a place to live. A full-time job is seemingly opening up but it hasn’t happened yet. Time is short in their mind but God wants them to trust him for his timing and provision. Maybe it’s a relationship need. Maybe you are looking for that perfect someone that God has for you to spend your life with as a married couple. Sometimes God wants us to wait on him and his timing for that perfect someone. Maybe it’s a need for guidance or direction. Maybe you feel that God is calling you to something different, but the doors are not opening for you as you think they should. Again, God wants you to wait on his perfect timing. That brings us to the first NEXT STEP on the back of your communication card which is to Trust in the Lord to provide for me in the times of “lack” or “need.”
The brothers obey their father as the patriarch of their family and go down to Egypt to buy grain. We notice that Jacob doesn’t send Benjamin with them. Benjamin is identified as Joseph’s brother, not theirs continuing the favored status of Rachel’s sons in Jacob’s life. He didn’t send Benjamin because he was afraid that harm might come to him. This is the first inkling we have that Jacob was suspicious of his sons about what happened to Joseph and he is not about to let that happen to Benjamin. Jacob may not know what actually happened, but he knows his sons’ character and will keep Benjamin close. The mention of possible harm to Benjamin would have also reminded the brothers of their sin against Joseph. Another subtle reminder used by God to awaken their consciences, remind them of past sins in order to bring them to repentance. We also notice that Jacob’s sons are referred to as “Israel’s sons” informing the first hearers and readers about how the nation of Israel came to be in Egypt in the first place.
Stating that Joseph is the “governor of the land” and is in charge of selling grain to all the people sets up the meeting between him and his brothers. When they arrive in Egypt they bow down to him, fulfilling his first dream in chapter 37. Seeing his first dream fulfilled would have given him confidence that God was in control of all that had happened and would happen in his life. You may ask how it is possible that Joseph would just happen to be in the right place and the right time to meet his brothers. It is not impossible to believe that Joseph would have been notified when foreigners came to buy grain. He would have been tasked with making sure Egypt wasn’t overrun with spies. Of course, the main reason Joseph was there was because of the sovereignty of God. It was God’s plan to draw the brothers to Egypt in order to come face to face with Joseph.
That brings us to our second point this morning, Confrontation, found in Genesis 42:7-26. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, “As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked. “From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.” 8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. 9 Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” 10 “No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.” 12 “No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” 13 But they replied, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.” 14 Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! 15 And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” 17 And he put them all in custody for three days. 18 On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. 20 But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do. 21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” 22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. 24 He turned away from them and began to weep, but then came back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes. 25 Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, 26 they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left.
Joseph recognizes his brothers immediately but pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. He also questioned them about where they were from. They said they were from Canaan and had come to Egypt to buy food. We are told that the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph even though he recognized them. We may ask how it was possible that they didn’t recognize Joseph. We need to remember they haven’t seen him in twenty years, and they think he is dead. He would also have been clean shaven, wearing Egyptian garments and the royal dress of being second in command. Mathews says, “The author is portraying the brothers as spiritually blind.” Why didn’t he tell them who he was right then and there? Because they needed to be tested. It was God’s plan for Joseph to test his brothers to see if their consciences could be awakened, reminding them of their sin and readying them to repent for what they had done. BIG IDEA These were to be the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Were they changed men having Godly principles and scruples? Were they going to do what was righteous and teach their families to do the same? God’s testing would eventually answer these questions.
After this initial questioning, Joseph remembered the dreams he had about them. When his first son was born he named him, Manasseh, which means “forgotten.” Does this mean he had forgotten his dreams what his brothers had done to him? To “forget” meant that he wasn’t holding what they had done to him against them. God had brought Joseph to a place of forgiveness so that his dreams and what had happened to him did not consume him and make him bitter. Joseph, through God’s help, was able to accomplish this. Joseph accuses his brothers of spying in order to find where Egypt’s borders were vulnerable. The brothers deny Joseph’s accusations and reiterate that they are there to buy food. They also volunteer personal information about themselves and their family. The brothers probably said this thinking that a family of brothers dressed like foreigners would be the worst spies ever. And Joseph probably scoffed because what he knew about his brothers was anything but honest. Then we see the cleverness of Joseph as he accuses them of being spies a second time. This causes the brothers to divulge more personal information about themselves and their family. They admit that they were once a family of twelve brothers all sons of one man who lives in Canaan. They added that their youngest brother is back at home with their father and one brother is no more, meaning they thought he was dead. Again, this would have reminded them of Joseph and what they had done, awakening their consciences even more.
This was an honest account to a point but left out that the one brother was dead because of their actions. Joseph took notice of the information, and it gave him hope, cause for concern and an idea. Joseph had hope because his father and his full brother were still alive. Until now, he had no idea whether this was true or not. It also gave him cause for concern because he didn’t know if they had treated Benjamin as badly as they treated him. It also gave Joseph the idea of how they could prove their honesty. For a third time he accuses them of being spies and tells them how they will be tested on this. He begins by making an oath on the life of Pharaoh. They would not be able to leave Egypt until their youngest brother is brought there. One of them must go home and bring that brother back while the rest will stay in prison. He was going to see if they were as honest as they claimed to be. Had they changed or not? If they are not telling the truth then on the life of Pharaoh they would be considered spies, and punished as such.
Joseph then put them all in prison for three days. God was testing the brothers by having them “reap what they had sown.” Remember back in chapter 37 when Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers, they accused him of being a spy. Now he is accusing them of being spies. Joseph was put in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and now they are also put in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They are being treated the same way they treated Joseph in order to connect their circumstances with God’s judgment of them. God was testing them to see if they were changed men. He wanted to know if they would be willing to turn away from their sin and do good. He wanted to know if they could be trusted with being leaders of the tribes of Israel and leading his chosen people.
Next we notice that God tests them with “kindness” shown to them by Joseph. After three days in prison, Joseph seemingly changes his mind and is willing to let nine of the brothers go back to Canaan and require only one to remain in custody. He shows this kindness because he fears God, meaning he was “honest”, and they could trust him to keep his word. This statement of honesty by Joseph would remind them that they weren't always honest men even though they were portraying themselves as such. Again, awakening their consciences to what they had done. This kindness would allow them to take the ten sacks of grain back to their starving family in Canaan. It would also be safer as they traveled the three-week journey home. If they brought their youngest brother back to Egypt they would pass the test and prove that they were honest men like they said. There was still a sentence of death hanging over their heads but if they proved to be honest men they would not die but live. They proceeded to carry out Joseph’s orders.
The results of “reaping what they had sown” and Joseph’s “kindness” to them was that their consciences were awakened. They felt guilt for what they had done and realized they were being punished for it now. We also learn a few things we weren’t told back in chapter 37. Joseph was in distress when they threw him in the pit and pleaded for his life, but the brothers would not listen. They feel that is why they are now in distress. We are also reminded that Reuben was against killing Joseph. He convinced his brothers to throw him in a pit and he planned to come back and rescue him. But before he could the others sold him to the caravan going to Egypt. He accuses his brothers of not listening to him and now they would have to give an accounting for his blood meaning that more judgment was to come.
We notice that this conversation amongst the brothers was overheard by Joseph. He had been using an interpreter to talk with his brothers but of course he didn’t need one but his brothers didn’t know that. After they had admitted their sin against him and seeing their remorse, Joseph was moved to tears. We may think that Joseph was doing all this out of spite or for revenge. But the proof that he was following God’s will and plan is shown by his “kindness” to them and his display of weeping. He cared deeply for his family and did not want them to starve to death. He wanted them to live, not die. God is leading Joseph in testing his brothers to see if they have a conscience and can their consciences be awakened in order to bring them to repentance. BIG IDEA
Joseph gathers himself and has Simeon taken away and bound before their eyes. This would have made Joseph’s threat seem real for them. Why did Joseph choose Simeon? We aren’t told for sure, but he may have chosen Simeon, the second born, after learning of Reuben’s role in trying to save him from the rest of the brothers. Again, we see “kindness” shown by Joseph to his brothers. He gave orders for their sacks to be filled with grain and that the silver they brought to pay for the grain be returned to their sacks as well. He also made sure they had provisions for their journey back to Canaan. He realizes that the famine is not going to be over soon and they will need money for the next time they need grain. They loaded their donkeys and started home.
That brings us to our third point this morning, Consternation, found in Genesis 42:29-38. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, 27 At the place where they stopped for the night one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. 28 “My silver has been returned,” he said to his brothers. “Here it is in my sack.” Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, “What is this that God has done to us?”29 When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them. They said, 30 “The man who is lord over the land spoke harshly to us and treated us as though we were spying on the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies. 32 We were twelve brothers, sons of one father. One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan.’ 33 “Then the man who is lord over the land said to us, ‘This is how I will know whether you are honest men: Leave one of your brothers here with me and take food for your starving households and go. 34 But bring your youngest brother to me so I will know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I will give your brother back to you, and you can trade[a] in the land.’” 35 As they were emptying their sacks, there in each man’s sack was his pouch of silver! When they and their father saw the money pouches, they were frightened. 36 Their father Jacob said to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back.” 38 But Jacob said, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.”
When they stopped for the night one of the brothers opened his sack to feed his donkey and found the silver that had been given back. Consternation, the feeling of anxiety, dread and distress, filled their hearts. They were “distraught”, and they were all trembling, meaning they were “paralyzed with fear.” This appearance of silver would have reminded them of the payment received from selling Joseph into slavery. Notice they don’t accuse the brother who found the silver but realize that God’s hand is in what is happening. They knew they were guilty and that God was punishing them. Realizing that God’s hand was in this was another step towards repentance. But living with unconfessed sin and guilt caused them to react negatively to the kindnesses shown to them. Maybe you have seen this in your life? Something good happens but you don’t think you deserve it and you react negatively to it. Or you don’t attribute it to God believing it was just by chance. Maybe you have even used the word “karma” to explain it. Or something good happens but you don’t give God the praise and glory for it. We forget about God’s role in it and take him for granted. We need to repent of these attitudes and realize the working of God in our lives. That brings us to the second NEXT STEP which is to realize the hand of God in my life and to give him the praise and glory for it.
The greatest act of kindness, of grace and mercy shown, was when Jesus willingly went to the cross for everyone of us. If you are still rejecting that kindness today, focusing on the judgment and not his love, grace and mercy this third NEXT STEP is for you: Accept Jesus’ act of grace and mercy for me: Admit that I am a sinner, believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and confess that he is Lord.
The brothers arrive back in Canaan and report to their father all that has happened to them in Egypt. This was another test for the brothers. God was testing them to see if they would give an honest report to their father. In their report they don’t lie to their father but exaggerate the positives and leave out the negatives. They leave out that they were thrown in jail for three days. They mention the “lord over the land” twice to convince Jacob to let Benjamin return with them. This was how they could prove that they were not spies but honest men and be able to get their brother, Simeon, back. They also added that they would be allowed to trade in the land. The brothers realize that asking their father to allow Benjamin to go Egypt was going to be a hard sell so they embellish a little bit. They were hoping that by invoking “the lord of the land” twice and the promise of trade with Egypt would loosen Jacob’s grip on Benjamin.
We will never know if Jacob was thinking of allowing Benjamin to go to Egypt because as the brothers were emptying their sacks, each one found that his pouch of silver had been returned. Again this “kindness” shown to them by Joseph did not produce gratefulness but fright. This kindness brought great consternation. The brothers’ sense of guilt and divine judgment was heightened. Jacob was also frightened and fell deeper into the depths of despair. He accuses them of depriving him of his children. Joseph was dead and now Simeon was dead and they wanted to take Benjamin away from him. They have now returned home twice without a brother but with extra silver in their pockets. For Jacob this was not a coincidence. As their father he knew what kind of men they were and had his suspicions about what happened to Joseph and now Simeon. Jacob dramatically states that “everything is against him.” Jacob can’t see beyond his trouble and is only focused on himself and his losses in life, not God.
Next we see the guilt that Reuben must have been feeling. He tells his father that he may put his two sons to death if he doesn’t bring Benjamin back from Egypt. He asks Jacob to entrust him to his care and he will not let his father down. Notice, that Reuben doesn’t offer one of his sons’ life for the life of Benjamin. He offers two of his sons’ lives; one for Benjamin and one for Joseph. This was a telling sign in all that had happened since chapter 37. Wenham says, “The brothers are trapped by their past lies and aroused consciences. How could Reuben say that yes we lied and did away with Joseph but no we have had nothing to do with Simeon, our hands are clean and our hearts are pure. So to demonstrate his sincerity he offers to put to death two of his sons if Benjamin does not return.” Jacob is still distraught stating that under no circumstances will Benjamin go to Egypt. Joseph, his brother, is dead and Benjamin is the only son left. Again, we see the favoritism that Jacob had for the children of Rachel, his preferred wife. Jacob finishes in dramatic fashion in that if any harm comes to Benjamin “you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.” There is foreboding in his words: he will die dejected and not be able to find rest in death. Wiersbe in his commentary says, “Benjamin must be protected even if the family starves and Simeon rots in jail in Egypt.”
Today’s conclusion is from Preaching Today called “Guilt Is a Warning.” In the May 15, 1995 edition of The New Yorker, Sara Mosle recounts that on March 18, 1937, a spark ignited a cloud of natural gas that had accumulated in the basement of the London, Texas, school. The blast killed 293 people, most of them children. The explosion happened because the local school board wanted to cut heating costs. Natural gas, the by-product of petroleum extraction, was siphoned from a neighboring oil company's pipeline to fuel the building's furnace free of charge. London never recovered from the blast that turned the phrase "boom town" into a bitter joke. The one positive effect of this disastrous event was government regulation requiring companies to add an odorant to natural gas. The distinctive aroma is now so familiar that we often forget natural gas is naturally odorless. There is a tendency these days to classify all feelings of guilt as hazardous to our self-esteem. In reality, guilt can be valuable, an "odorant" that warns us of danger.
Joseph’s brothers have been tested by God in order to awaken their consciences, remind them of their sin in order to bring them to repentance. BIG IDEA They felt guilty for what they had done and realized that God was working in their hearts and minds. The same goes for us. The Holy Spirit within us will convict us of sin and awaken our consciences to our guilt, shame and sin. Sometimes his tests will be rude awakenings but it is then up to us to confess that sin to the Lord so he can cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That brings us to the fourth NEXT STEP on the back of your communication card: to allow God’s testing to awaken my conscience, remind me of my sin and bring me to repentance.
As the praise team comes to lead us in a final song and the ushers prepare to pick up the communication cards, let’s close out our time in prayer. Heavenly Father, help us to trust in you to provide for me in the times of “lack” or “need.” Help us to realize your hand working in our lives and give you praise and glory for it. Open our hearts to your Holy Spirit as he awakens our consciences, reminds us of our guilt and sin and leads us to repentance. In Jesus’ name. Amen