However many times I read Genesis, Joseph's story (chapters 37 and 39-50) never ceases to astonish me. It truly is one of those tales that causes the shaking of heads because truth is stranger than fiction.
Joseph, the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob, who was himself the son of Isaac, son of Abraham, to whom God promised a specific region of land, innumerable offspring, and incontrovertible blessing. Because of Jacob's favoritism, ten of Joseph's 11 brothers sell him to traders (human traffickers, really), who sell him to a military leader in Egypt. Joseph prospers through the Lord's presence, until a Rube-Goldberg contraption of improbable plot twists takes Joseph from the prison to the palace.
He becomes, essentially, prime minister of Egypt just as the land is entering 7 years of abundance. Pharaoh has tasked him with managing resources so that the people will be able to survive the ensuing 7 years of famine, which God revealed to Pharaoh in a dream, one which Joseph interpreted.
This famine extends so far that Joseph's family back home in Canaan is threatened. They hear rumors of grain in Egypt, so the same 10 brothers who sold Joseph travel south to try and purchase food.
By this time, Joseph has lived longer in Egypt than he had in Canaan. He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. He supplies their needs but manipulates circumstances to ensure they return with his younger brother. When the famine forces their return, Joseph reveals himself and makes arrangements for them to bring their whole families and their father to take up residence in Egypt, since Joseph knows the famine is not nearing its end.
He calms his brothers' fears of retribution with these astonishing words:
"And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5).
Joseph's tale is filled with undeserved suffering, but it also overflows with undeserved blessing. We see this in the repeated phrase, "The Lord was with him," offered as an explanation for his prosperity in captivity. But we also see it here, as the 10 brothers discover that their lives and their families have been saved and are being saved through the very outcome of their betrayal of their brother.
Joseph's blessing beyond his wildest imaginations comes by means of his sufferings and was inseparable from them. And it wasn't blessing for Joseph's sake only but for his most beloved father and baby brother, AND for his 10 other brothers who had behaved as his enemies. And for us who find salvation in Jesus the Christ, descended from one of those same brothers.
Undeserved suffering. Undeserved blessing. The mystery of providence inextricably intertwines them. Though now we see the loose ends, snarls, and variegated tangles of the underside of the embroidery, we will someday see what a beautiful picture the Lord is stitching through our lives. Joseph got his happy ending in this life. Some, perhaps many, of us will have to wait until we see the Lord. In either case, God's promises anchor our hope securely while we wait out the storms. God, who cannot lie, has promised to cause all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
In the meantime, encouragement from the great cloud of witnesses, whose lives proclaim His worth and faithfulness, helps me through my own plot twists. These words from the Prince of Preachers, for example, turned up in my inbox today. I suspect Joseph knew well the truths Spurgeon describes here:
"When the dark clouds gather, the light is more brightly revealed to us. When night falls and the storm is brewing, the Heavenly Captain is always closest to His crew.
"It is a blessed thing that when we are most downcast, then we are most lifted up by the consolations of the Spirit. One reason is, trials make more room for consolation. Great hearts can only be made by great troubles. The spade of trouble digs the reservoir of comfort deeper and makes more room for consolation. God comes into our heart—He finds it full—He begins to break our comforts and to make it empty; then there is more room for grace. The humbler a man is, the more comfort he will always have, because he will be more fitted to receive it.
"Another reason why we are often happiest in our troubles is this—then we have the closest dealings with God. When the barn is full, man can live without God: When the purse is bursting with gold, we try to do without so much prayer. But when our shelter is removed, then we want our God; when the house is purged of idols, then we are compelled to honor the Lord. "Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!"
"There is no cry so good as that which comes from the bottom of the mountains, no prayer half so hearty as that which comes up from the depths of the soul, through deep trials and afflictions. They bring us to God, and we are happier; for nearness to God is happiness. Come, troubled believer, do not fret over your heavy troubles, for they are the heralds of weighty mercies" (Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Morning, February 12).
Courage, dear hearts! We are closer to dawn and the end of the storm than we were yesterday.