At times, it can feel like our circumstances, our pasts, and our messy relationships keep us from living lives that honor God. In this message, however, Alistair Begg directs our attention to the tumultuous life of Jacob, who faced his own share of discouraging difficulties. As his story reminds us, God works all things—even the most trying and tragic of situations—toward our good and for His glory.
Let’s take our Bibles and turn to the first book of the Bible, to the book of Genesis.
Now, before we look together at what is to be a whole new series on the life of Joseph, then let us pause for a moment in prayer:
Our gracious God and our Father, we sense that Joseph would have been very happy with the words of the song that has just been sung; that somehow in the midst of his days he had come to you in this very pressing and personal way to say, “Father, I offer my life to you, my days to you, all that I am to you.” And we pray that as we begin to study his life today, that you will use, as Paul says, what was written of old for our encouragement and for our endurance, and that the lessons of the patriarchs may fuel our praise and channel our direction, quicken our zeal, correct our wanderings, and set us in the very center of your choicest blessing. Free us, then, from every unhelpful distraction. Help us to hear not the voice of a man, but your voice through your Word to the lives of those whom you have made, for we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
It’ll be particularly helpful for you if you do take a Bible this morning—there are some in the pews around you if you didn’t come carrying one—because we will be moving through a fairly large chunk of this Old Testament narrative. And the other alternative, of course, is that you can simply sit and listen and not distract yourself by trying to follow along; the choice is yours. But I would want to encourage you to make use of the “homework time” by going and reading and rereading the narrative which is before us this morning.
For those of you who enjoy storiesand I love storieswe are at the threshold of a classic,indeed, an epic, a saga. This story is as good a story as any that unfolds for us in the whole of the Old Testament record. The biography of Joseph covers more space than any space that is given to any of the other heroes in the book of Genesis—more than to Adam, or to Noah, or even to Abraham, and actually more than is given to his father, Jacob. Even those of us who have only a scanty knowledge of the Old Testament will probably know of Joseph. And the reason we will know of Joseph is the same way that we know of Jonah, because of the whale; or of Noah, because of the ark; and this fellow Joseph, because of his multicolored coat. And if we didn’t know of him before, then we found out about him courtesy of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber when they wrote the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and suddenly we discovered that this was the Joseph of the book of Genesis.
We are introduced to him in verse 2 of chapter 37 when he is 17 years old—the age of some of the folks who are here this morning—a young man of 17 tending the flocks with his brothers. And between that point and the record of his death ninety-three years later at the age of 110, which is recorded for us in Genesis 50:26, we have all the biographical details of a life which, frankly, was amazing for many reasons, as we will see.
He provides for us probably the classic Old Testament illustration of the New Testament truth summarized in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to [those who] love God, … who are the called according to his purpose.” There is perhaps no other character to whom we may go in the whole of the Old Testament than this character Joseph who quite amazingly provides this awesome summary of this very, very important verse.
The story of Joseph, as we will see, is a tale of bitter jealousy, of deceit, of slavery, misrepresentation, injustice, lust, rivalry, forgiveness, brothers fighting brothers, resenting parental influence. It’s the story of imprisonment. It’s the story of deep trials that do not produce self-pity. It is the account of prosperity that comes to one without the accompanying pride. And in it all the overarching theme is that of the sovereignty of God, bringing about that which he has purposed in the affairs of time, and the wonderful truth of his providential care over those who are his dearly loved children. In short, it ought to be for us a story of great encouragement, of great reassurance, as we come as scattered individuals in various families, from different backgrounds and places, at different points along the continuum of faith, carrying with us the baggage of our past, the fears of our present, and the prospects of our future, and wondering somehow, in the midst of all these individual pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of life, Does God care? Is God in control? and What might we expect?
But before we address the matters that go from age 17 to age 110, what I want to consider with you this morning are the incidents in and the influences on the life of Joseph prior to the age of 17. My sermon this morning is like the sermon announced by a pastor many years ago who told his congregation, “Since my sermon last Sunday had twelve points, my sermon this morning will be pointless,” and I have no outline and coat hangers on which I am hanging this material today. And that’s why I say it is important for you to stay alert and to follow along, and if you’re aided by the looking up of the verses, then I think it will be a help to you and probably an encouragement to me.
This, of course, is how my mind works. I look at the verse that says, “And he was seventeen years old and he was looking after sheep.” “Yes,” I say, “but where did he come from? What kind of family did he have? What kind of role model did his dad provide? Did Joseph come from the kind of family background we might expect to produce a character such as he? What are his family ties?” And indeed, if you would like a title for this morning’s study, you could simply call it “Family Ties.” All of us have them, they all mean something, and they are fraught and full, they are blessed and they are benighted. All of us know the experience of life unfolding.
Now, there’s no question that he came from quite a background. Not every 17-year-old could boast that his great-grandfather was Abraham, or that his grandpa was Isaac, or that his dad was Jacob and his mother was Rachel. He had come from quite a context. But what I want to do is to consider it from the point of his dad, the man Jacob. Jacob, as you may recall, had as his name that which was figuratively meaning “the deceiver” or “the chiseler.” He had been aptly named, because almost from his birth he had been very skillful and very manipulative at getting things that he wanted in the way that he wanted. And when you read the story of Jacob, which I commend to you, you will discover that he chiseled his brother out of his birthright—that’s in Genesis 25. He further deceived his father into conferring upon him the blessing which ought to have landed, again, upon his brother.
He was at the same time a very focused individual: when he set his mind to something, he was ready to give it all that he had. And nowhere was this more obvious than in the realm of his love life, because we’re told in Genesis 29 that when his eyes fastened—having gone to live in the country of Laban—when his eyes fastened upon this girl Rachel, it really rang his bell. Genesis 29:15: “Laban said to him, ‘Just because you are a relative of mine’”—you know that [Jacob] was Laban’s nephew—“‘should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.’” Well, whether Jacob had already thought of this before or whether he thought of it on the fly, he was quick with his answer. He had noticed the fact that his uncle Laban had two girls. The older girl was Leah, the younger one was Rachel. We’re told that “Leah had weak eyes,” or she was delicate, or she was kinda frail, or she was just not what Rachel was, whereas Rachel, we’re told, was “lovely in form, and beautiful.” And Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel. And so when his uncle asked him, “What would you like for your wages?” he said, “How does Rachel sound? And by the way,” he said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel.” Now, that’s quite a deal! I mean, you may have asked your father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but I don’t know how many who are here this morning went to their prospective father-in-law and said, “I will work for you for nothing for the next seven years if I can marry your daughter.” And that is exactly what he did.
Now, ironically, his uncle Laban was a bit of a schemer himself, and he deceives his nephew Jacob by slipping his older daughter to him on the night of their marriage experience. And you can read all of this in the record. I see some of your eyes widening: “Really?” you say, “It sounds like a soap opera to me.” Yes, it does. It absolutely does. It’s better than any that I’ve ever read of in a magazine. Genesis 29:: “Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her.’” There’s nothing like getting right at it, you know? “So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. [And] when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant.”
Now, there’s a ton of stuff contained in that verse there. You’ve gotta understand Eastern custom. You’ve gotta understand the bridal veils. You’ve gotta understand the purity and sanctity of the event. And you’ve gotta understand that when Laban went to his bed at night, he must have said to his wife, y’know, “You wait till tomorrow morning, it’s gonna be unbelievable.” And unbelievable it was. Verse 25: “When morning came, there was Leah!” “There was Leah!”—you’re right! “So Jacob said to Laban, ‘What[’s] this you[’ve] done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?’” Then Laban, trying to legitimize the whole affair, says, “Listen, the custom is that you can’t give away your younger daughter till you’ve given away your older daughter, so I determined I must first give you my older daughter. Now I’ve done that. But here’s the deal: if you will fulfill the responsibilities of the bridal week, I’ll give you Rachel—provided you work for me for another seven years.” And such was Jacob’s passionate longing for and commitment to this girl of his dreams that he said, “Fine, it’s a deal.” Seven years he worked for her, only to get her older sister; now he gets her and another seven years of hard labor. And the relationship between uncle and nephew, as you read it in the record here, is just a chronicle of one schemer trying to outdo another schemer in various business deals and family affiliations all the way through.
Now, the family picture album at this point begins to fill in. If it was in contemporary terms, the babies would be getting born, and the pictures would be going on the piano, or wherever it is you put them. And they were getting put up there at a rate of knots. Leah produces four children in a row because God favors her; we’re told that in the record. Leah was not immediately favored by her husband, and yet God favored her. Rachel was supremely favored by her husband, and God closed her womb. God is sovereign, even in the details of these things. We don’t think in these terms today, but we should because it is right to do so.
And so you read, for example, in verse 32 and following of chapter 29, the way in which Leah was giving birth to all these children. And she’s giving birth to them one verse at a time, as it were. You’ll notice in verse 32 that she became pregnant and gave birth to a son—she called him Reuben; verse 33, she conceived again and gave birth to a son, called him Simeon; verse 34, she conceived and gave birth to a son and called him Levi; and verse 35, she conceived again and gave birth to a son and she called him Judah. And then notice the cryptic statement that ends chapter 29: “Then she stopped having children.” Okay, so far, so good.
But Rachel, when she saw she was not bearing Jacob any children, became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die.” Jacob says, “Hey, get serious. I’m not God, you know, I’m just Jacob. I’m not in charge of who has children.” And so she did what was customary at the time: she took the servant maid Bilhah that she had been given and she gave her to Jacob as a wife: “Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family.” Any children born through the servant maid would be credited as children of Rachel. And so matters take their course, and Bilhah gives birth to Dan in verse 6 and to Naphtali in verse 7.
Now Leah, whose productivity had dwindled, decides on the same strategy with her maidservant, Zilpah. And Zilpah and Jacob get together, and Zilpah in turn gives birth to Gad in verse 10 and then to Asher in verse 13. And then you have this unbelievable thing here where they’re trading favors on the strength of mandrakes—I don’t even know what mandrakes are; I meant to look it up, and I won’t embarrass myself further except by acknowledging that I never had one, I don’t think—but in verse 16 of Genesis 30, we got this whole mandrake mystery going on during the wheat harvest, and Rachel and Leah are talking to one another, and Rachel says to Leah, “Give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” And she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you [also] take my son’s mandrakes too?” That’s a little bit over the top, isn’t it? You know, “Could I have few mandrakes?” “Hey, you took my husband; now you want my grapes?” You know, what’s the deal? Now, look at this reaction: “‘Very well,’ Rachel said, ‘he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.’ So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. ‘You must sleep with me,’ she said. ‘I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’” A little touch of feminism in there, wouldn’t you say? I don’t know what it is.
And so, that was that: God listened to Leah, she became pregnant, she bore Jacob a fifth son. And Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband.” So she named him Issachar. And then she conceived again, and she bore him a sixth son. And she said, “God has presented me with a precious gift. And this time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named Zebulun. And then she pops out a daughter named Dinah. I mean, this thing is going hog wild. We got kids all over the place. We got six boys and a daughter straight up by Leah; two by her servant maid, so that’s nine; two by the other servant maid—that’s eleven. So we got ten boys, one girl, one dad, four mothers, two concubines. You think you’ve got a complicated family? I don’t want to hear your stuff, frankly.
And then comes Joseph—in the midst of all of this! Hey, this is the Bible! This is history. This is not mythology. Do you realize that out of this came Jesus, the Messiah? That out of this line …? Genesis 30:22: “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb. [And] she became pregnant and gave birth to a son and [she] said, ‘God has taken away my disgrace.’ [And] she named him Joseph, and she said, ‘May the Lord add to me another son.’” And so into all of that background comes this little bundle, and they call him Joseph, and they love him.
Now, what you need to understand in this narrative progression here is that while it is not chronicled for us with step-by-step and pinpoint accuracy, it is clear that at points where there is silence, there is a fair progression of time—at points where it says they stopped, they obviously stopped for a fair length of time—because you will see that you go between verse 24 in chapter 30 and the verses later on, and in that you’ve got the space of seventeen years that is all wrapped up in the formative stages of the life of Joseph. And sometime after he was born, however short or long—maybe months, maybe years—his father determines that they’re going to move—the kind of occurrence that has happened in many people’s lives before then and since then: discussion around the table, mum and dad have a talk, finally they conclude, “We’re moving. We’re going back to where we came from. We’re leaving the land of Laban, and we’re going to relocate; we’re going to Canaan.” To the kids who are old enough to understand, you’d share it at the table, maybe in the evening meal: “We’ve got some family news this evening.” “What’s that?” “We’re going to Canaan.” How old was Joseph by this time? I don’t know, maybe four, maybe five, six, or seven. He was the wee-est one. He’s sitting around the table, and if he was by this time this age, he was able to take it in. He wouldn’t understand all that it meant, but he would know that a big change was underway. And in that tiny lad’s life, God was already forming his character for an exceptional purpose which Joseph nor any of the others understood. Through it all, God was working and planning and putting into the mechanism of this young boy’s experience the essential factors and feelings that would be necessary for him to be his man in his place at his time. God is sovereign in all these things.
I reckon it’s a safe estimate to say that by the time they were ready to make the move, Joseph was probably six or seven years old, and therefore he would have been aware of the fact that they were on the move. They would have looked forward to it, they would have prepared the children for it, and he probably had as one of his earliest recollections the moonlight flit which is recorded for us in Genesis 31:17.
I can remember, when we moved here, all the questions from my children: “When are we going to go? How are we going to go? Will we drive there?” “No, we can’t drive there. There’s an ocean.” “Well, what will we do, go on a boat?” “No, we’ll go on a plane,” and all the normal questions. When they got here, they didn’t know where they were. When we went on vacation, they thought they were going home. They couldn’t process the information. Their tiny lives were just in an amazing whirl. And there was only one constant in it, and that was that their father said, “This is it, this is what we’re doing, stick with me, you’ll be okay.” And for Joseph the experience would have been exactly the same: “Mum, when we go on the camels, will I have my own camel? My brother’s getting a camel. Do I have to ride on your camel? Can I ride in the front? Can I ride shotgun?” All the kind of questions. I don’t say these things for effect; I say these things in order to bring home the reality of this. This is a real family, a real mum and dad, a real group of people making a real journey. And in it all, God is fashioning and forming this young character for a future as yet unknown, in the same way that he has done in every generation, to one degree or another. He fashioned the life of Dwight L. Moody in total obscurity so that one day in a shoe shop in Boston he may lay his hand upon him and bring him forth. He fashions the life of individuals and is doing so, God willing, in our congregation even in these days, for lives as yet unaware of that which God is purposing for them, because he is sovereign, he is providential, and he is gracious, and he is kind, and he is wise.
And onto the camels they go, with all the livestock—verse 18—being driven ahead, and all the goods accumulated in Paddan Aram, some of them legitimately and some of them a little illegitimately, “to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.” Jacob hadn’t got where he was by that point by putting all his stuff behind him. You’re not gonna ride up front with all your stuff behind, because the people who come behind will get your stuff before they get you, and if they’re more interested in your stuff than they are in you, it’d be a silly idea to trail it behind you. So what do you do? You put it in front of you. Smart he was, too—because three days later his uncle found out that he’d done a bunk, and it took him seven days after that to catch up with him, which he did, we’re told, in the hill country of Gilead—verse : and “Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too.”
You can imagine little Joseph saying to his mum, “Hey Mum, why did you take that stuff from Grandpa’s house before we left?”
“What stuff, Joseph?”
“Well, those things he had in that corner cupboard. Y’know, when I would go over to his house, when I would sleep over, I always would see those things. He called them his ‘gods.’ Why did you take Grandpa’s stuff?”
“Oh, be quiet, Joseph. Don’t worry about it. You know, your grandpa knows me, and I know your grandpa, and just you … you just run along, and you just go and play with the sheep.”
“Hey Dad, why are we running away? Don’t you like Grandpa? Doesn’t Grandpa love us? I mean, why have we got the camels all revved up? Why do we have to go away under cover of darkness like this?”
“Hey Mum, how come Grandpa showed up? How come Grandpa and all the gang are camping over here beside us?”
You can imagine his tiny mind trying to process all this information. Do you think he was in the circle in verse 26 of chapter 31? Do you think he was on the fringe listening when his grandpa looked at his dad and said, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war.” Joseph would have been saying to himself, “That’s right. That’s what I said. I said, ‘Why are we running away?’ And now Grandpa came and said that’s exactly what we’re doing.” “Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so [that] I could send you away with [a party]?” (That’s the significance of “with joy and singing to the music of tambourines and harps.”) And Joseph, if he had anything about it of himself, would have been saying, “That’s exactly what I was thinking! Why did we go off like that? Why didn’t we have a nice big sendoff? Why didn’t we have a nice meal and a party and ‘off!’?”
And so he would have been listening. And do you think that that wee boy did not process the question in verse 28, “You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters good-by. You’ve done a foolish thing”? Now, I don’t know about your relationship with your grandpa, but mine was as close as it ever could be. He never drove a car as a result of wounds to his body in the First World War, and so we became experts on public transport in Glasgow. I’ve been on just about every bus to every terminus. I don’t know who lives there or what goes on, but I rode the buses with my grandpa just to go places with him. I crossed the Clyde on the big ferry and back on the small ferry. I went sometimes three times ’round the whole subway with my grandfather, to go nowhere except ’round and ’round on the subway and sit next to him. So, I don’t want anybody tearing me away from my grandpa without the chance to kiss him goodbye.
And that’s what happened to Joseph. He was going to have a lot of tearing in his life. He was going to have a lot of times when he didn’t get to say goodbye. He was going to have to learn how to weep, learn how to deal with the pain, learn how to deal with having his insides ripped out of him, and even in these early circumstances God was forming and framing his tiny life in preparation for what would be. Oh, this is a wonderful, wonderful story!
Do you think his eyes narrowed when he heard the question in verse 30, “Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s house. But why did you steal my gods?” Oh, now, if he had any inkling of it at all, if he’d been hanging around at his mum’s skirts, and if he had been aware of this, goodness gracious, do you think he’s not waiting to hear the answer to this? And “Jacob answered Laban, ‘I was afraid, … I thought you would take your daughters away … by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.’ Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.”
You see, when you’re a deceiver, you’ll make the people around you deceitful. As a husband becomes like his wife, so a wife becomes like her husband, and that’s why our character in going into marriage is so very important. I tell girls, “You just don’t need to marry a ‘Christian’—somebody who says all the right things, dots all the right i’s, crosses all the t’s, meets the requirements, as it were, of the form; you need to marry a man of character. You need to marry a man of maturity. You need to marry somebody who by his influence and impact upon you will yield benefit in your life.” And the same is true in reverse, don’t misunderstand me—equally so in relationship to the choice of a man for a girl. But here, as Rachel had spent this time living in the company of Jacob, it is clear that a wee bit of Jacob had rubbed off on her.
And you can only but imagine, as Joseph heard his mother from the top of her camel, as she sat on the saddlebags that held the gods for which her dad was looking, and she sinned her soul not only by stealing them, not only by being deceitful enough to sit on them, but she went the extra mile and opened her mouth and lied through her teeth even when she probably didn’t have to. Deceit will always do that. One deceitful action sends into process a cycle that is almost unstoppable. Listen to her, from on top of the camel—verse 35: “[She] said to her father, ‘Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.’ So he searched but could not find the household gods.”
And then, if you’ll turn to the end of the chapter, what a wealth of material is tied up in the concluding verse of chapter 31. They make a covenant with one another, they establish the lines of demarcation, they offer sacrifices together, they sit down, and they have a meal. At the end of verse 54: “[and] after they had eaten, they spent the night there.” Those of you who have moved any vast distance know this experience well. It’s etched indelibly in your memory forever. You’ll never quite shake what it was like: all the anticipation of the evening, all the gathering of the family, all the union and the reunion and all the joy that was there—except for the fact that there was a cloud which descended over the event. And the cloud was the prospect of the morning. Because when the morning dawned, the party was over, and the separation was inevitable. So you couldn’t have all the joy of the evening union without the prospect of the morning parting.
And there in verse 55 is a painting: “Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and [he] blessed them. [And] then he left and [went] home.” Only the hardest of hearts can read that verse and walk away. Do you think he squeezed those tiny boys? Do you think he grabbed the teenage kids and the ones that were by now in their early twenties? Don’t you think he grabbed them tight and held ’em close? And don’t you think that he was magnetized to Rachel and Leah, and had to turn his back on them and walk away—probably choosing not to look back, allowing simply the rise and the fall of his shoulders to display the emotion of his deep-seated longing for that family unit? And what does a small boy make of all that? And in that, all things were working together for good for this young lad who was called of God according to his purpose.
You see, when we sing Newton’s great hymn, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come,” that means something in all of our lives. And it isn’t important that we can be in each other’s experience—it’s not important even that we understand each other’s—but it is important that we recognize that through the pain and through the sorrow and through the suffering and through the heartache and through the confusion and “through it all,” as Andraé Crouch said, “I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust his Word. And if I never had a problem, I wouldn’t know how to solve them. I’d never know what faith in God could do.” “Through It All”—I think Joseph would have played that on his stereo, if he’d had one.
Are you still with me? When Herod trembled, Jerusalem trembled—that’s what the record tells us. The arrival of the wise men brought this question reverberating to the core of Herod’s being: “‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and [we’ve] come to worship him.’ [And] Herod … was troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him.” In other words, when he started to freak out, the whole place freaked out. And so I am absolutely without question that the fear and distress which gripped the life of Jacob in the prospect of facing his brother in chapter 32 reverberated through the whole family. Verse 7 of 32: “In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups.” And again, Joseph would have been in on this; he would have heard some of this stuff. He maybe never got the whole picture, but he heard his mum and dad talking when they were washing the dishes—you know, the way they do, at least in the old days before dishwashers.
I used to listen on Sundays at the door. I wasn’t keen enough to go in and actually help, but I was interested enough to stand close to the door, because there on a Sunday you got quite a bit of information, and on the evenings you got a fair amount of information, because my mother and father used the washing of the dishes as an opportunity on a daily basis to debrief one another on the experiences of their lives. And so I would listen, and I would pick up from there the rumblings, and I would pick up from there the prospects, and I would pick up from there little anxieties. And I knew when my dad was troubled. And I wager that Joseph knew that there was something up with his dad as the news of the “four hundred men”—“four hundred men”—he just kept a little bit of it in his mind: “There’s four hundred men coming with my Uncle Esau. Why is he sending four hundred men? Why is my dad so upset?” And the reverberations of fear and distrust, you see, would work their way down through the family. And the hushed conversations would fuel the young man’s expectations.
What do you think that he made of the night when his dad left them alone—Genesis 32:22—when Jacob gets up and takes his wives in the night and his two maidservants and his eleven sons and he crosses the ford of the Jabbok in the night? They have torches—very few, because they want to do it circumspectly. And they’re waking the children from their beds, and they’re saying, “Come on, now. We’re going across the river.” And the kids are saying, “Why do we have to go in the middle of the night, for goodness’ sake?” And the smaller ones are saying, “I don’t understand what’s going …” And the fathers say, “Look, just be quiet! Just do what your mother tells you. We’re out of here!” And so he ushers them all across the ford of the Jabbok. And verse 23: “And after he had sent them across the stream, he sen[ds] over all his possessions. [And] Jacob was left alone.”
Now, I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I know for sure that if I were to go through this, there would only be one question in my mind: “Why is Dad not with us? Why did we go through all of this, get us over here? What’s he doing? What’s Dad doing?” And the fact of the matter was that Dad was meeting with God. Dad didn’t even know that he was about to meet with God. God was going to come, as it were, and wrestle him to the ground and say, “Hey, ‘chiseler,’ I want to give you a new name. Hey, ‘deceitful,’ I want to turn your life around. Hey, I want to make you a brand-new dad. I want to make you a whole new husband.” And in the morning when he returned with his staff, which had become a characteristic of his life, now he leans upon his staff and he limps as he comes back into the family.
I confided in you last week that my kids are always telling me, you know, “Well, stand up straight,” or “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t smile like that,” or “Wear your clothes correctly,” or “Don’t lean on this,” and so on; it’s very hard just existing. So you don’t think that you can come back in like this, and your kids are going, “What the world’s going on with you? Where do we get the limp all of a sudden?” Do you think Jacob told him? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. ’Cause Jacob is circuitous all the time. He confronts very little. He says very little, as we’ll see. Did he use it as an opportunity to stamp in Joseph’s tiny life and into his young memory the sinews of faith? It certainly impelled him in some way, because in chapter 33 when they get to Shechem he sets up an altar. And as he sets up an altar, he sets his family apart from the surrounding culture; he distinguishes them. It’s almost as though the experience of 32 starts to move him on.
And then we have this dreadful experience in 34—the violation of the one daughter’s purity. You think you could have eleven sons and one daughter, and the eleven sons wouldn’t look out for the girl? There’s not a chance. You don’t think those eleven boys watched out for Dinah all the time, everywhere? Sure they did. Even if nine of them took the day off, there were still two left to look after her. Do you think they noticed when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite saw her? Do you think that they cared when he saw him walk away with her? Do you think their hearts didn’t burn with the deepest of passion when he had his way with her?
And what of this boy? Ten or eleven years old, hardly cognizant of how the human reproductive system really works, and all of this hushed conversation and this mass aggravation on the part of his elder brothers—something to do with Dinah and what some fellow did to Dinah. And as he looks away to his father Jacob and hears Jacob saying, “Now, let’s be careful here; we don’t want to become a disgrace to the surrounding culture,” and the brothers looking at one another and say, “How can you be a father and think like this?” And so they take matters into their own hands. They set up this amazingly deceitful scheme. They get these guys in the most compromised of physical positions, and then they drive in under cover of darkness, and they butcher the whole place, and they bring in the outsiders, and they plunder the whole of Shechem. And in it all God is working to form the character of this lad called Joseph.
And so, to Bethel—chapter 35. Jacob had been there before. He had been there—remember the ladder in 28, when he was fleeing from Esau? He says to the people, “Purify yourselves.” He says, “Let’s make sure that we experience God’s presence before we go on from here.”
And then in the record we have the story of bereavement into the home of Jacob. I don’t have time to go through it all; do it as your homework. You’ll find the funeral of Deborah. Everybody must have loved Deborah; that’s why she’s in the biblical record. Just a verse: “Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died”—35:8—“and was buried under the oak below Bethel.” A solemn time in their lives.
And then the tragic loss of his wife Rachel, for whom he’d worked for fourteen years. All the expectation on Joseph’s part of having a wee brother. By this time, he’s twelve. He’s the closest of all the kids to what it will mean to have a little one. Those who are up in their late teens and early twenties, it’s really so far gone; they could be the father of the child. There’s really only one with the prospect of companionship, and that’s Joseph. “Mum, when you gonna have the baby? Mum, do you think he’ll be a brother? Will it be a sister? What’ll happen?” And then finally the day that mingles joy and sorrow, as the time of her delivery comes, and as she goes into the pangs and pains of childbirth, and as the contractions increase, and as the sense of terror grips her, and finally as in giving birth, her very life ebbs out from her. And again in the life of this boy, tragedy and the dark threads of pain and sorrow and bereavement come crashing into his life and into his experience. “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and [he] rides upon the storm.”
And then the record of the death of his grandfather, and another burial service, and the inevitable thoughts about the frailty of life and the reality of death and the necessity of faith. And in the midst of all of that, the unthinkable—verse 22: following the death of this most treasured of his earthly companions, Rachel, “while Israel” i.e., Jacob “was living in that region, [his oldest boy] went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah,” and all we’re told is he “heard of it.” No action. How callous can a person be? Your father has just lost the wife of his devotion. The lady with whom you now are amorously involved is, in all matters of technicality and emotional relationship, your father’s wife; and in the very breath of the death of Rachel, you’re involved in incestuous activity. When we get to chapter 49, we’ll realize that Jacob had not forgotten about it, but until then we have to leave it aside.
Chapter 36: the lineage of Esau. And chapter 37:2, we’re now back at the beginning of our sermon: face-to-face, looking into the eyes of a young boy, age seventeen, who has been through more than most in the course of his formative years.
Now, I have deliberately taken all of this time to give you a flavor of the background. And I commend you to further study. And I want you to notice that if you think you came from a dysfunctional background, you got a long way to go. And indeed, we all came from a dysfunctional background: sin makes an individual dysfunctional. I don’t even need anyone else in the room to be dysfunctional. But when you take my sin plus your sin and a few other people’s sins, then we will all reveal the implications of the fact that we are out of alignment, and therefore our wheels turn in different directions.
Let me summarize it with just a number of thoughts: In the rough and tumble of a less-than-perfect family life, God was preparing Joseph for the role he planned for him. If ever there was a young boy who by the age of seventeen had enough basis for blaming everything on his past, it was Joseph. But he didn’t do it. He somehow realized that more spiritual progress is made through failure and tears than through success and laughter. He realized that God’s grace was greater than all the daunting complexities of his early life. And the only explanation for the existence of Joseph and the role that he played is found in the electing grace of God. There is no human reason whatsoever as to why it should be that Joseph could ever emerge from this carnage, except that God purposed that it would be so.
So, loved ones, I want to say to you, don’t allow a bunch of books to try and explain your life for you in terms of the chiseling and channels and chains of your past, to excuse you from your own activities or to legitimize your own impoverishments of mind and spirit. Listen: God is greater than all of that. And he brings beauty out of ashes. He gives the oil of joy for mourning. He gives the garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness. And our trials, as Augustine said, “come to prove us and to improve us.”
One final thought: here in these formative seventeen years, there is a striking reminder of the impact that a father’s life will have upon a boy or a girl. Jacob was not a good illustration of integrity. He was poor when it came to decisiveness. He was slow when it came to action. He was the master of passivity. He sat when he should have stood, and he stood when he should have sat. He was not a perfect dad. But God chose to use that imperfect dad to be the dad to the boy that he had purposed to be his redeemer of his people in the experience of Egypt.
And indeed, one of the most moving scenes for which I can hardly wait is when Joseph gets to his dad in his old age, and he just absolutely smothers him—I mean, the scene is pregnant with emotion when they’re finally reunited. But there’s no recrimination on Joseph’s part; there’s no recrimination with his brothers. His brothers say, “You know, we’re sorry we put you in the pit. We’re sorry we …” He says, “Hey, listen: Shhhh! God sent me here.” “No, no, Joseph, you don’t understand, hang on, hang on. We put—.” “No, no, no, you don’t understand: God is sovereign in these things. And Dad, I know you’re not perfect—but Dad, you’re my dad, and I love you, man. I love you.”
Some of you kids, back off your old man. Some of you dads, quit putting your head in the noose that comes by the latest book that arrives on your shelf telling you that unless you got this right, that right, this right, and everything right, you will have nothing but garbage and carnage all your life. Don’t believe it! Go for the gold, do your best, trust God, and at the end of the day he will honor his name; he will vindicate your faithfulness. And although you haven’t been perfect, out of the chaos and rubble of the background he will raise that as a standard for his glory.
Now, I went on a little; I do apologize. I’ve been trying so hard to start this study on Joseph for weeks, and I couldn’t start it, because it was too big to get my hands around. I just couldn’t begin. It was like I had this forty-by-fifty-foot canvas in front of me, and every time I’d pick up my brush to try and start, I couldn’t start on the canvas. Well, at least now I started—not very well, but we started. I do want you to pray about this study. I want you to read this stuff; get yourself inside of these chapters in Genesis and get them inside of you. I do believe that God has brought us to this, at this time, for purposes beyond even what any of us may ever conceive.
Thank you. Let us pray together:
“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace. Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” God, grant to us the grace to trust you with the peculiar set of inconsistencies which are our lives. In the events that grieve us, the milestones that encourage us, the chapters that pain us, may we, as it were, slip our hands into the hand of Joseph here and learn again to take you at your word.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us today and forevermore. Amen.
 Don Moen and Claire Cloninger, “I Offer My Life to You” (1994) (paraphrased).
 Romans 15:4 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:28 (KJV).
 Genesis 29:17 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 30:3 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 30:17–21 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 31.
 Genesis 31:27 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 31:31–32 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 8:28 (paraphrased).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 Andraé Crouch, “Through It All” (1971) (paraphrased).
 Matthew 2:2–3 (KJV).
 Genesis 33:1 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 35:2 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 35:3 (paraphrased).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Genesis 35:22 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 61:3 (paraphrased).
 St. Augustine, The City of God, 1:29 (paraphrased).
 Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
 2 Corinthians 13:14 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.