Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. Take also your brother, and arise, go again to the man. May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”
So the men took this present, and they took double the money with them, and Benjamin. They arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph. – Genesis 43:11-15 ESV
There is something eerily familiar about this passage. It is strikingly similar to an event that occurred years earlier in Jacob’s life and reveals that, in many way, his trust in God had not grown. As Jacob prepares to send his sons back to Egypt as commanded by the Pharaoh’s governor, he comes up with the plan to soften the governor’s heart with gifts. He instructs his sons: “Pack your bags with the best products of this land. Take them down to the man as gifts—balm, honey, gum, aromatic resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Also take double the money that was put back in your sacks” (Genesis 43:11-12 NLT). Essentially, Jacob is trying to influence the outcome of his circumstances through the use of whatever means necessary. Is this necessarily wrong? Only when we look at his possible motivation. You see, Jacob was doubtful that God was going to come through. He told his sons, “May God Almighty give you mercy as you go before the man, so that he will release Simeon and let Benjamin return. But if I must lose my children, so be it” (Genesis 43:14 NLT). Those are not the words of a man who has complete confidence in God. He seems resigned to the fact that he will never seen his sons again. So he determines to do what he can to stack the odds in his favor. He determines to help God out.
This is extremely similar to the approach Jacob took when he was returning to the land of Canaan after his forced exile in the land of Paddan-aram.He had originally fled there to escape the anger of his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance. Then years later, he ended up running away from Paddan-aram and the anger of his uncle because Jacob had become wealthy at his expense. God told Jacob, “Return to the land of your father and grandfather and to your relatives there, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3 NLT). On his way home with all his wives, children and livestock, he received the news that his brother was coming to meet him. “We met your brother, Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!” (Genesis 32:6 NLT). Jacob assumed the worst. This did not sound like a housewarming party. So he did two things. First he prayed:
“O God of my grandfather Abraham, and God of my father, Isaac—O Lord, you told me, ‘Return to your own land and to your relatives.’ And you promised me, ‘I will treat you kindly.’ I am not worthy of all the unfailing love and faithfulness you have shown to me, your servant. When I left home and crossed the Jordan River, I owned nothing except a walking stick. Now my household fills two large camps! O Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children. But you promised me, ‘I will surely treat you kindly, and I will multiply your descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore—too many to count.’” – Genesis 32:9-12 NLT
Jacob reminded God of all His promises and begged Him for rescue. Then he hedged his bets. He came up with his own plan. Doubting that God could come through for him, he came up with a strategy to buy his brother’s favor with gifts.
Jacob stayed where he was for the night. Then he selected these gifts from his possessions to present to his brother, Esau: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys. He divided these animals into herds and assigned each to different servants. Then he told his servants, “Go ahead of me with the animals, but keep some distance between the herds.”
He gave these instructions to the men leading the first group: “When my brother, Esau, meets you, he will ask, ‘Whose servants are you? Where are you going? Who owns these animals?’ You must reply, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob, but they are a gift for his master Esau. Look, he is coming right behind us.’” – Genesis 32:13-18 NLT
Now, years later, here was Jacob doing the very same thing. He was hoping on the mercy of God, but was really depending upon his own ability to buy the Egyptian governor’s favor with gifts. He did not really believe that God could go before his sons and show them favor with this foreign dignitary. So he prayed, but he seems to have had more faith in his own plans than he did in the providence and provision of God. Jacob’s final statement to his sons before they departed was one of resignation, not confident reliance upon God. He was preparing himself for the worst possible outcome – “as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:15 ESV).
Jacob was in a difficult place. He had lost his son, Joseph. His son, Simeon, was imprisoned in Egypt. His family and flocks were suffering through a famine that had devastated the land of Canaan. His only hope lie in sending all of his sons, along with his youngest, back to Egypt. His options were limited. The odds seemed stacked against him. But Jacob had his God. He had seen Him work miracles before. His God had blessed him time and time again, making him wealthy even while living in exile in Paddan-arram. His God had softened the heart of his brother, Esau, and caused him to greet with tears of joy, not anger. His God had given him 12 healthy sons. And now his God was going to rescue his family from the famine and take them to a land where they would grow into a mighty nation just as He had promised. But Jacob was having a hard time seeing God’s blessings and resting on God’s promises. He was too busy looking at his problems.
And the journey back to Egypt must have been a somber one. The brothers returned, gifts in hand, Benjamin in tow, with doubts and fears running through their minds. And Jacob sat at home, praying for God’s mercy, but preparing himself for disappointment. How easy it is to doubt our God and deny His goodness just because things do not seem to be turning out the way we expected. How quick we can be to pray for God’s mercy, but then plan for it not to come. Jacob had not yet learned to trust his God. Have you?