And She Happened to Come…

1 Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. – Ruth 2:1-3 ESV

Chapter one ends with a seemingly irrelevant reference that describes Naomi and Ruth returning to Bethlehem at “the beginning of barley harvest.”

What at first appears to be little more than a throwaway line was actually intended to provide a welcome transition from the dark days that marked Naomi’s life in Moab to the more hopeful future that lay ahead as she returns to the land of promise.

This entire story began with a reference to the period of the judges and a description of a famine in the land of Judah. With these two details, the author provides an important preface for the remainder of his narrative by establishing that this story takes place during a time marked by Israel’s disobedience and God’s judgment. The nearly 300-year-long period of Israel’s history recorded in the book of  Judges was filled with repeated outbreaks of apostasy on the part of God’s people, followed by periods of suffering as a result of God’s divine judgment. The famine, while a natural disaster, had been God-ordained. Israel was suffering yet again the righteous wrath of God Almighty. But Naomi had received word that God had relented.

…the Lord had visited his people and given them food. – Ruth 1:6 ESV

It was this news that had prompted Naomi to return home. And the story reveals that she arrived in Bethlehem at just the time when the annual barley harvest was taking place. When she and her husband had left Judah, it had been a time of famine. Now she was returning at a time marked by fruitfulness and feasting. For Naomi, Moab had been a place of loss and sorrow. While there, she had experienced the deaths of her husband and two sons. But now, she was returning home to Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” and just in time for the first of the first fruits of the God-ordained harvest to be gathered.

Naomi had no way of knowing what the future held. She was still a widow and she was accompanied by her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law. She had no source of income, and there is no indication that she had a home in which to live upon her return. Her immediate prospects were bleak. But the author wants us to know that God was at work behind the scenes. His mention of the harvest is a subtle, yet powerful reminder that the lives of Naomi and Ruth were in the hands of God Almighty.

Despite her dire circumstances, Naomi would find herself far from alone. In fact, chapter two opens with a hope-infused reference to Naomi’s relative.

Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. – Ruth 2:1 ESV

The timing of her return to Judah was divinely ordained and sovereignly orchestrated. Even the decision by Ruth to leave abandon her own home and family to align herself with Naomi is going to be revealed as the will and the work of God. There is no luck, kismet, or cosmic karma going on here. This is not a case of fortunate timing or happenstance. Everything about this story is intended to point to God. He is at work behind the scenes, orchestrating every single aspect of the story, from the timing to the characters involved. And it is because He has a much larger and grander plan involved than Naomi and Ruth could have ever imagined.

With the author’s introductory details concerning Boaz, he telegraphs yet another seemingly serendipitous encounter. Naomi and Ruth are not aware of Boaz’s presence yet. He has been introduced but has not yet made his appearance in the story. But Ruth, desiring to provide some source of sustenance for she and Naomi, offers to go into the fields outside Bethlehem and “glean among the ears of grain” (Ruth 2:2 ESV). In order to do so, she will need to find a farmer willing to let her gather some of the grain that remained in the corners and edges of his field.

This was a common practice among the Israelites because God had ordained it as a means of caring for the poor and needy among them. It had part of God’s original law passed down to the people of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai in the wilderness.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 10:9-10 ESV

Now, decades later, here was Ruth preparing to take advantage of this divine decree in order to provide for her and her mother-in-law. But little did Ruth know that God had something far more significant in store for the two of them. She was a stranger to Bethlehem, a widowed Moabite woman wandering around the barley fields outside the city. And she just happens upon a field that belongs to the close relative of Naomi.

So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. – Ruth 2:3 ESV

The author wants us to know that this appears to be a case of blind luck. He purposefully uses the Hebrew word miqreh, which means “unforeseen meeting or event, accident, happening, chance, fortune.” But he knows this is nothing of the sort. It appears as if Naomi has inadvertently and unexpectedly stumbled into this situation. Unknowingly, she has chosen to glean barley grain in the field that belongs to a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. But while Naomi was operating blind, her every action took place under the divine gaze of God. He was watching but also directing each and every aspect of this story.

Think about the details of this story. Naomi moves to Moab with her husband Elimelech in order to escape a famine in the land of Judah. While there, her husband unexpectedly dies. Her two sons end up marrying women from Moab. Had the family not moved to this foreign country, this would never have happened. One of those women just happened to be Ruth. When the two sons of Elimelech died, Naomi was left with Moabite women as her only family. But when Naomi announced her plans to return to Judah, only one of the women made the fateful decision to accompany her. And that woman was Ruth.

Now, Ruth, who had promised to stay with and care for her mother-in-law, has taken upon herself the responsibility to seek some kind of food for the two of them. And she happens to end up gleaning barley grain in the field of Boaz, a close relative of her deceased father-in-law, Elimelech.

The scene is set and the next act in the divine drama of God’s redemptive plan is ready to be revealed.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Just As He Had Planned It.

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. Acts 11:19-30 ESV

In this section, Luke begins to introduce yet another phase of the church’s continuing spread and growth. Back in chapter eight, he had described one of the ramifications of Stephen’s martyrdom. It was the increased persecution of the church, in part, because of the efforts of Saul. Yet, in spite of the intensification of the persecution, he said, “the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4 NLT). Then, by way of example, he chronicled Philip’s trip to the region of Samaria and all that happened as a result. Here in chapter 11, Luke picks up where he left off, letting us know that the persecution of the church had resulted in a dispersion of the Christians well beyond Samaria. The believers who fled Jerusalem “traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch” (Acts 10:19 ESV). But then Luke adds a telling detail, revealing that these Jewish believers kept their efforts to share the gospel restricted to their own people: The Jews. He says that they spoke the word to no one but Jews. This is significant because he shares it immediately after detailing the dramatic outcome of Peter’s journey to Caesarea, where Gentiles came to faith and received the anointing of the Spirit of God just as the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. This provides us with an important insight into the early days of the church. As the church continued to grow and the gospel made its way outside the confines of Jerusalem and Judea, the effort developed multiple fronts, each seemingly with its own emphasis and distinct motivation. Those Jewish believers who escaped and made their way to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch in Syria, were still under the impression that this new religion was little more than a new branch of reformed Judaism. It was a religion of Jews and for Jews. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and had claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. So, it made sense that they would concentrate their efforts to share the gospel by focusing on fellow Jews. And, as Jews, the thought of sharing their new-found faith with a Gentile would never have crossed their minds. Remember, it had taken a vision and a word from God to get Peter to go to the home of Cornelius.

Cyprus, Phoenicia and Antioch were located hundreds of miles from Jerusalem and illustrate the ever-expanding reach of the gospel. Antioch, located in the region of Syria, was 300 miles from the city of Jerusalem and, at that time, would have been the third-largest city in the entire Roman empire. It was a bustling metropolis, made up of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. It is estimated that Antioch had a population of anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people, with a seventh of them being Jews. As a city, it had a reputation for decadence and its citizens’ love of pleasure. And yet, Antioch would become a major hub for Christianity in the coming years.

As the believing Jews made their ways to these various destinations, they faithfully shared the good news regarding Jesus Christ. Luke tells us that, in Antioch, they included Hellenistic Jews in their target audience. And he records that “a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21 ESV). Even though they were restricting their outreach to Jews, God was blessing their efforts. And when news of what was happening in Antioch got back to the leadership of the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to check it out. When he arrived, Barnabas was greatly encouraged by what he saw and spent time exhorting those in the church there “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23 ESV). He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. It was not going to be easy to live out their new faith in the midst of a culture like that in Antioch. These people, as Jews, were already in the minority. Now, as believers, they were going to face further rejection by their own people. So, Barnabas felt compelled to strengthen the fledgling church by remaining with them for a prolonged period of time.  And knowing he would need help, he traveled to Tarsus to enlist Saul in his efforts. This would begin an important new phase in the God-ordained ministry of Saul. And it is essential that we recognize God’s sovereign hand at work in all these details. Stephen’s martyrdom had resulted in persecution and the dispersion of the church. It had also resulted in Saul’s intensified efforts in that persecution, after he approvingly watched the stoning of Stephen. And yet, the resurrected Jesus had confronted Saul as he made his way to Damascus to arrest and round up Christians and, as a result, Saul had undergone a dramatic conversion. And some three years later, when Saul had traveled to Jerusalem, it had been Barnabas who acted as his host and sponsor, introducing him to the apostles and explaining the dramatic details behind Saul’s conversion. Now, when the leaders in Jerusalem felt compelled to send a representative to Antioch to investigate all that was going on, they just so happened to choose Barnabas. This was anything but a case of happenstance or blind fate. It was the hand of God. Barnabas was chosen because God had ordained it. And his arrival in one of the largest, predominantly Gentile cities in the Roman empire was something God orchestrated. Now, he would have Saul working by his side, a man whom Jesus had chosen to be His witness to the Gentiles. It’s important that we recall the words spoken by Jesus to Ananias, commanding him to go lay hands on Saul immediately after his Damascus road experience:

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. – Romans 9:15 ESV

Here in this chapter, we see God instigating what will be another new front in the war against sin and death. He is putting one of His primary weapons into the battle, sending Saul into an environment where his gifts and abilities would be used by the Spirit of God to accomplish great things for the Kingdom. It had probably been close to nine years since Saul’s conversion, and during that time, he would have been growing in his faith and honing his Spirit-given abilities as a messenger of the gospel. God had been preparing Saul for this very occasion.
Luke records that Saul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch; ministering, evangelizing, and growing the fledgling congregation there. Interestingly, Luke provides us with the insight that it was at this point in the timeline of the church that believers came to be known and referred to as Christians. This was most likely about ten years after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. A decade had passed and the church, formerly called “the way” was now known for the name of the One in whose name they believed and had placed their faith. This name is significant in that it contains three important characteristics. First of all, “Christ” is the Greek translation of Messiah. The Messiah was the Jewish Savior, promised by God in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, we have in the name “Christian”, an obvious link to the Jewish roots of Jesus. But Christ would become the primary name by which Gentiles would commonly refer to Jesus. It became like a second name for Him, much as we use it today. And the ending, “ians” is of a Latin derivation, the language of Rome and the predominate language of the empire. Luke’s inclusion of the seemingly insignificant fact that the name, “Christian” had become the primary means by which believers were described is more important than we might imagine. The faith was becoming universalized. It was making inroads into the various cultures of the day, and developing a reputation as a free-standing religion, separate and distinct from Judaism or any other pagan religion. It was slowly, but surely, becoming a fixture in the culture of the day.
Luke ends this chapter with what appears to be another interesting, and far from unimportant anecdote: A prophecy regarding an eminent worldwide famine. Once again, we have to look beyond the black and white nature of Luke’s reporting of Agabus’ prophecy. Why did Luke, under the inspiration of the Spirit, include this information at this point in his book? As we will see, this famine will play a significant part in the future of the church. And Luke provides some insight into how it will impact the ministry of Saul himself.
29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:29-30 ESV
The church in Jerusalem would suffer greatly because of this famine. The Jews there, already suffering from persecution because of their faith, would find themselves living in relative poverty and barely able to exist. While there had been a time, in the early days of the church in Jerusalem, when the rich believers had been able to provide for the less-fortunate in their midst, after the arrival of the famine, that would no longer be possible. Now, the global church would provide for the needs of those in Jerusalem. And Saul would make it part of his life’s mission to raise funds from among the predominantly Gentile congregations to which he ministered, and to see that those resources made their way back to the church in Jerusalem. God would even use a famine to accomplish His will regarding the spread of the gospel and the unity of the church around the world. As it spread, God would see to it that it remained unified in its love and mission.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

His Will Be Done.

The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought:

“Judah mourns,
    and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
    and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
    they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
    they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
    and cover their heads.
Because of the ground that is dismayed,
    since there is no rain on the land,
the farmers are ashamed;
    they cover their heads.
Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
    because there is no grass.
The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights;
    they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
    because there is no vegetation.

“Though our iniquities testify against us,
    act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
for our backslidings are many;
    we have sinned against you.
O you hope of Israel,
    its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
    like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?
Why should you be like a man confused,
    like a mighty warrior who cannot save?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
    and we are called by your name;
    do not leave us.”

Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
“They have loved to wander thus;
    they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them;
    now he will remember their iniquity
    and punish their sins.”

The Lord said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.” – Jeremiah 14:1-12 ESV

Jeremiah has just finished begging the people of Judah to give up their pride, glorify God, and listen to his words of warning. On top of this, the people knew exactly what God had said He would do if they refused to obey Him fully. He had made it perfectly clear when He made His covenant with them.

“And if, in spite of all this, you still disobey me, I will punish you seven times over for your sins. I will break your proud spirit by making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze. All your work will be for nothing, for your land will yield no crops, and your trees will bear no fruit. – Leviticus 26:18-20 NLT

And now, God’s promise of famine was getting ready to come true. Since they refused to listen to the words of Jeremiah and humble themselves in willful submission to God, He would humiliate them by “making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze”. Famine is a non-discriminatory natural disaster. Everyone suffers, from the noble living in his posh palace to the farmer in his fields. And the lack of rain, which the people of Judah will tie directly to the hand of God, will cause each of them to cover their heads, a sign of deep grief. Even the farmers will feel shame, covering their heads in sorrow, over their inability to produce crops. They will be powerless to do anything about the dry and unyielding land. As long as God withholds the rain, the people of Judah will find themselves helpless and hopeless.

Verses 7-9 are either a prayer of Jeremiah for the people of Judah or the reflect a prophesy regarding the reaction of the people once the famine begins. Either way, these verses contain an admission of guilt and a cry for rescue.

“Our wickedness has caught up with us, Lord,
    but help us for the sake of your own reputation.” – Jeremiah 14:7 NLT

The hopelessness of the situation creates a willingness to turn to God, something that had been missing up until this point. I tend to believe that this prayer is a reflection of the hearts of the people, once they find themselves suffering under the devastating effects of the famine. They become desperate, calling out to God in the midst of their suffering, hoping that He will relent and send much-needed rain.

“O Hope of Israel, our Savior in times of trouble,
    why are you like a stranger to us?
Why are you like a traveler passing through the land,
    stopping only for the night?
Are you also confused?
    Is our champion helpless to save us?
You are right here among us, Lord.
    We are known as your people.
    Please don’t abandon us now!” – Jeremiah 14:8-9 NLT

Notice how they attempt to flatter God. But they also tend to make Him the guilty party. Now that they have confessed their own wickedness, they can’t seem to understand why God hasn’t done anything to rescue them. His silence and lack of action don’t make any sense to them. They said they were sorry, so why hasn’t He removed the famine and returned the rain? They remind God that they are His people and seem to infer that He is somehow obligated to protect them. But God gives them sobering news.

“You love to wander far from me
    and do not restrain yourselves.
Therefore, I will no longer accept you as my people.
    Now I will remember all your wickedness
    and will punish you for your sins.” – Jeremiah 14:10 NLT

He knew their hearts. Their confession of guilt was nothing more than a ploy to escape further punishment. They had no intention of changing their ways, and God knew it. And so He dropped the bombshell on them that they would no longer be His people. This does not mean that God was going to abandon them. It simply meant that, from all outward indications, it would appear to all as if they had lost their privileged status as His chosen ones. Without the blessings of God, the people of God become indistinguishable from everyone else. It was His guiding and providing hand that had set them apart from all the other nations. It was His constant provision for their physical needs and His unceasing goodness as evidenced by His gracious supply of rain and crops that were to have helped distinguish them as His people. He had made this clear when He established His covenant with them, long before they arrived in the land of promise.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land.” – Leviticus 26:3-5 NLT

But they had failed to follow His decrees and to obey His commands. Now, the rain was ceasing and the crops were failing. Fruitfulness had given way to famine. Fullness and security were replaced with hunger and fear. And God commands Jeremiah to stop interceding on their behalf.

“Do not pray for these people anymore. When they fast, I will pay no attention. When they present their burnt offerings and grain offerings to me, I will not accept them. Instead, I will devour them with war, famine, and disease.” – Jeremiah 14:11-12 NLT

God was not going to relent, because He knew these people were not going to repent. Jeremiah could continue to beg God to show mercy, but God would refuse, because their fasts, mourning and tears were too little, too late. And their hearts were not in it. The prophet Isaiah records God’s stinging indictment against the people of Judah.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And God goes on to reveal what they really thought about Him:

“What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord,
    who do their evil deeds in the dark!
‘The Lord can’t see us,’ they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!”
How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    ‘He didn’t make me’?
Does a jar ever say,
    ‘The potter who made me is stupid’?” – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

They thought they could fool God. They treated Him like He was ignorant and easily deceived. They truly believed them could fake repentance, get Him to relent and then go on with their wicked ways. But God knew better. And He was going to bring more famine, increased suffering and, eventually, the armies of the Babylonians to destroy their land and take them captive. God will not be mocked.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. – Galatians 6:7 ESV

This was a truth the people of Judah were going to learn the hard way. They were going to reap the results of their centuries-worth of rebellion against God. He was the potter and they were the clay. He had every right to do with them He wished. God will confirm this very idea for Jeremiah a little bit later on, when He sends the prophet to the house of a potter for a real-life demonstration of His sovereign will over the people of Israel.

“Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.

Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” – Jeremiah 18:2-6 NLT

They were His people. He had chosen them and made them what they were. And He had every right to do with them as He saw fit. No, it would make no sense to them. It might not make sense to us. But He is God and we are not. He is sovereign and in complete control over His entire creation, including mankind. Just like a potter, God has a plan. He has something He is accomplishing in this world. And His will is going to be accomplished whether we like it or not, and whether we decide to go along with it or not. His will WILL be done.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Wonderful Ways of God.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. – Ruth 1:1-5 ESV

Like many of the Old Testament books, this one bears the name of one of the primary characters whose life makes up a great portion of the narrative. But while Ruth plays a significant role in the story, she was not intended to be the main focus of the story. The special honor goes to God. He is the silent, unseen protagonist of this book, moving behind the scenes and orchestrating events in such a way so that His divine will is accomplished and His plan for the redemption of mankind, developed in eternity past, would come to pass just as He preordained it. This story must be read with a searching eye, looking for the invisible hand of God. And it should be read with an understanding of the larger, overarching story contained in the Bible. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a story about a widowed Moabite girl and her somewhat serendipitous and fortuitous marriage to a well-to-do Hebrew man. But there is so much more going on here.

We are told that the story takes place, “In the days when the judges ruled…” This refers to the period of the judges before Israel had a king. In the Hebrew Bible the book of Judges and the book of Ruth were companion books. Many believe they were written by the same author: Samuel. But there is no solid evidence for the authorship of Ruth. All we know is that it chronicles a period of time when God was using judges to rule over His people. This was a period of extreme turmoil and instability. The book of Judges records the up-and-down nature of the Israelites and their relationship with God. Their faithfulness to Him ebbed and flowed. Their obedience was spotty at best and when they turned their back on Him, God would send judgment in the form of foreign nations. When the people cried out to Him in desperation, God would raise up a judge to lead and deliver them. This would result in a period of relative peace and spiritual solidarity. But in time, the people would rebel again and the cycle would repeat itself. It was during this rather unstable and spiritually volatile period that the story of Ruth took place.

The opening verses introduce us to Elimelech and provide us with an extremely important detail about his life that can be easily overlooked, but that would have been like a red flashing light to the books original Hebrew audience. We are told that Elimelech was “a man of Bethlehem in Judah” and he and his sons were “Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.” This is an extremely important point and is vital to understanding the true import of this story.

On his deathbed, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons, but gave the following blessing to his son, Judah:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
    and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. – Genesis 49:10 ESV

His words carried a prophetic pronouncement of a king who would come from the tribe of Judah. While this blessing would be realized in the life of David, a descendant of Jacob, the prophet Micah, long after David was dead and gone, provided details regarding another king who would be born in Bethlehem just as David was, and rule over the nation of Israel.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. – Micah 5:2-5 ESV

The prophet, Jeremiah, would give further details regarding this future king:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. – Jeremiah 23:5 ESV

So when we read that Elimelech was a member of the tribe of Judah and a native of the city of Bethlehem, it should gives us pause. It should act as a warning sign that there is something going on in this story that is far greater than might normally be expected. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are forced to leave their homeland because of a famine. The mention of this natural disaster should remind us of supernatural and sovereign oversight of God over His creation. This is not the only time in Scripture that a famine has played a significant role in God’s providential plan. A famine was the cause of Abraham’s flight into Egypt (Genesis 12:10). His son, Isaac, would also find himself facing a famine, but would be commanded by God not to go to Egypt (Genesis 26:1-5). Years later, Isaac’s son, Jacob, would be commanded by God to take his entire family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land (Genesis 46:3-4).

Now we find Elimelech and his family facing yet another famine and being forced to flee for their lives – this time to the land of Moab. The Moabites were close relatives of the Jews, since Moab was the son of Lot, the nephew of Abraham (Genesis 19:37). Moab was located to the east of Judah, on the other side of the Dead Sea. It was evidently a very fertile land. In fact, we read in the book of Genesis, that when Abraham gave his nephew, Lot, the father of the Moabites, the first choice of all the land, he chose well.

And Lot lifted up his ” eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. – Genesis 13:10-11 ESV

So Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave Judah for Moab and settle there, intending to wait out the famine in Judah. But Elimelech dies, leaving his wife a widow, living in a foreign land. In time, her two adult sons take wives from among the Moabites – “one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth” (Ruth 1:4 ESV). And then, ten years later, the two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughter-in-laws alone and without any source of provision of protection.

These opening lines are a divine setup for what is to come. This is not a case of fate or bad karma. This is not about three unlucky women and their series of unfortunate events. It is the story of God and His divine, supernatural, all-powerful and providential plan for the coming of the Messiah. In the middle of the genealogy of Jesus provided in the first chapter of the book of Matthew, we read, “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David” (Matthew 1:5-6 ESV). Then it concludes: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David, but He was also a descendant of Ruth, a widow from Moab. And the book of Ruth provides us with a glimpse into God’s orchestration of His sovereign will and unstoppable plan for the future redemption of a list and dying world.

Food For Thought.

Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”

So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land.

Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s. – Genesis 47:13-26 ESV

God had originally told Abraham, “through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 NLT). While that promise was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ through His message of salvation for all people, we see it partially fulfilled in the life of Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson. As the seven-year famine took its toll on the surrounding lands, the people found themselves forced to come to Egypt for grain. During the preceding seven years, when the land was still fruitful, Joseph had set in place a program to store up as much grain as possible, in preparation for the coming famine.

During the seven years of abundance the land produced large, bountiful harvests. Joseph collected all the excess food in the land of Egypt during the seven years and stored it in the cities. In every city he put the food gathered from the fields around it. Joseph stored up a vast amount of grain, like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it because it was impossible to measure. – Genesis 41:47-49 NLT

In time, the people found that they had exhausted all their money buying grain from Pharaoh’s storehouses, but the famine was far from over. So they resorted to exchanging their land and their freedom for food. Eventually, Joseph would provide seed to the people, but enforce a 20 percent tax on all food produced in the land. And when all was said and done, the people would actually thank Joseph for what he had done. “You have saved our lives! You are showing us favor, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves” (Genesis 47:25 NLT).

There is no mention of Jacob and his family in these verses. They were living in the land of Goshen – “the best of all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:20 ESV). And it is important to remember that, because they were shepherds, Pharaoh had put them in charge of his own flocks and herds. He had told Joseph, “Let them settle in the land of Goshen, and if you know any able men among them, put them in charge of my livestock” (Genesis 47:6 ESV). So as the famine increased, the people were forced to trade in their livestock in exchange for grain. “So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for their horses, the livestock of their flocks and herds, and their donkeys. He got them through that year by giving them food in exchange for livestock.” (Genesis 47:17 NLT). The sons of Jacob found themselves extremely busy. They were the official shepherds of Pharaoh and he would have been paying them well to care for his growing menagerie of animals. So while it seems that Pharaoh is the one receiving all the benefits of Joseph’s famine-relief plan, his own family was being sustained and blessed at the same time. The opening lines of the book of Exodus tells us, “In time, Joseph and all of his brothers died, ending that entire generation. But their descendants, the Israelites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land” (Exodus 1:6-7 NLT). The very famine that had forced them to flee from Canaan had resulted in the extraordinary expansion of their numbers. As the people of Egypt were exhausting all their money and possessions buying grain from Pharaoh, the Israelites “were fruitful and multiplied greatly” (Genesis 47:27 ESV). They were being blessed by God.

All of this should make us stop and consider the ways of God. If we would have been alive during that day and part of the family of Jacob, it is likely that we would have doubted God’s goodness by questioning His allowance of the famine. We might have complained about having to be upended and relocated to a foreign land. We most likely would have found reason to gripe about how much work we were having to do because of all the livestock being put under our care. And we might have even felt a tinge of jealousy as we watched Pharaoh AND Joseph get inordinately wealthy as the people of the land suffered. But in doing so, we would have have missed the point. We would have failed to see the mysterious ways of God in the seeming difficulties of life.

The family of Jacob was being blessed by God – in the midst of a famine. They were expanding in numbers as the Egyptians were selling off all they had and offering themselves as slaves to Pharaoh. This was the sovereign hand of God at work. It was the will of God being worked out in real life as He fulfilled His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And through all the difficulties surrounding the famine, God was setting up the perfect scenario to bring about His plan to make of Abraham a great nation and to give him the land of Canaan as his possession. God’s ways are not our ways and they never will be, and that should always be food for thought.

Pharaoh, Flocks and Famine.

He had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to show the way before him in Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen. Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh and will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. And the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of livestock, and they have brought their flocks and their herds and all that they have.’ When Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,’ in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”

So Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that they possess, have come from the land of Canaan. They are now in the land of Goshen.” And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were.” They said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen, and if you know any able men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” – Genesis 46:28-47:6 ESV

Sometimes the stories of the Bible become so familiar to us that they lose their significance and we lose our sense of awe at the display of God’s power found in them. The story of Joseph is a case in point. We have already seen so many examples of God’s sovereign, providential hand at work, predestining Joseph for his role as the savior of God’s people. Time and time again, God has displayed His power and undeniable control over the affairs of men and even the realm of nature. The seven year famine was part of God’s plan, just as much as Joseph’s rise to the second most-powerful position in the land of Egypt. Each and every event connected with this story reveals yet another example of God’s sovereign control over everything and everyone.

As Jacob, his sons and their families arrive in Egypt, and are reunited with Joseph, we are provided with yet another example of God’s providence. Jacob was a shepherd by trade. So were his sons. When Jacob had gone through his self-imposed exile in Paddam-aram, he had been a shepherd, tending the flocks of his uncle, Laban. And he had been good at his job, at one point telling his uncle, “You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done” (Genesis 30:29-30 NLT). Jacob eventually left Laban’s employment, but not before he had a few choice words for his uncle and former boss:

“For twenty years I have been with you, caring for your flocks. In all that time your sheep and goats never miscarried. In all those years I never used a single ram of yours for food. If any were attacked and killed by wild animals, I never showed you the carcass and asked you to reduce the count of your flock. No, I took the loss myself! You made me pay for every stolen animal, whether it was taken in broad daylight or in the dark of night.

“I worked for you through the scorching heat of the day and through cold and sleepless nights. Yes, for twenty years I slaved in your house! I worked for fourteen years earning your two daughters, and then six more years for your flock. And you changed my wages ten times! In fact, if the God of my father had not been on my side—the God of Abraham and the fearsome God of Isaac—you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen your abuse and my hard work. – Genesis 31:38-42 NLT

It had been God who protected Jacob and who increased his wealth – in spite of the efforts of Laban. And it was Jacob who passed on his knowledge of shepherding to his sons. And they too became the owners of great flocks and herds. But then the famine came. Famine and flocks do not go well together. So Jacob and his sons were forced to look for another source of food to provide for their flocks and families. That is what had led them to Egypt in the first place. And now they were returning to Egypt to live, bringing all their flocks and families with them, because there were five more years of famine yet to come. Once again, this had all been a part of God’s divine plan for His people. It had been God who had blessed Jacob with flocks. It had been God who had brought about the famine that had threatened the well-being of Jacob’s flocks. And it was God who had moved the heart of Pharaoh to willingly and graciously accept Jacob and his family and flocks into Egypt, providing for them the best of his land as their possession.

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, ‘Do this: Load your animals and go to the land of Canaan! Get your father and your households and come to me! Then I will give you the best land in Egypt and you will eat the best of the land.’ You are also commanded to say, ‘Do this: Take for yourselves wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and for your wives. Bring your father and come. Don’t worry about your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.’” – Genesis 45:17-20 NLT

And when they arrived, that is exactly what happened. They came before Pharaoh, explained their plight and pleaded for his help. Verse four of chapter 47 sums it all up.

Then they said to Pharaoh, “We have come to live as temporary residents in the land. There is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. So now, please let your servants live in the land of Goshen.” – Genesis 47:4 NLT

What is truly amazing about this is that Pharaoh, as an Egyptian, hated shepherds. Joseph had even told his brothers to say to Pharaoh, “Your servants have taken care of cattle from our youth until now, both we and our fathers,” and warned them that, “everyone who takes care of sheep is disgusting to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34 NLT). And yet here were Hebrew shepherds coming before one of the most powerful men in the world, asking him to provide them with land to care for their flocks. And what did Pharaoh do? He gave them the land of Goshen, the best land in Egypt. Not only that, he employed some of the brothers to care for his own flocks and herds. These events should create in us a sense of awe and wonder at the providential care of God. This had all been His doing. The book of Proverbs reminds us, “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:12 NLT). Pharaoh’s generous offer had been part of God’s plan, just as much as the famine had been. The unlikely and implausible blend of Pharaoh, flocks and famine was God’s doing. As William Cowper stated so well, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” An Egyptian Pharaoh, a seven-year famine, and the famished flocks of the people of Israel. What a strange combination. And what a wonderful example of God’s mysterious providence. Which is why Cowper goes on to remind us:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

The Strange Ways of God.

The sons of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey. To each and all of them he gave a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes. To his father he sent as follows: ten donkeys loaded with the good things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain, bread, and provision for his father on the journey. Then he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.”

So they went up out of Egypt and came to the land of Canaan to their father Jacob. And they told him, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.” And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. And Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 45:21-46:4 ESV

Upon their return to Canaan, the brothers found their father a bit hard to convince. He didn’t exactly find the news of Joseph being alive believable. After all the years that had passed, it was far from being too good to be true, it was impossible. But he finally came around when he heard the whole story and saw the wagons and goods that Joseph had sent. He became convinced that his son was alive and that he should go and see him while he still had time.

But as amazing as the news of Joseph’s “resurrection” was to Jacob, the most fascinating part of this story is the way in which God chose to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Decades earlier, God had called Abraham out of Ur and sent him to Canaan, promising to give him the land as his possession and to make of him a great nation.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

But Abraham never owned any land in Canaan, and he only had two sons when he died. Yet years later, God would reconfirm the promise to Isaac, Abraham’s son. This is where it gets interesting.

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” – Genesis 26:1-5 ESV

Two things jump out. The mention of a famine and the reference to the land of Egypt. On this occasion, God commands Isaac to NOT go down to Egypt to escape the famine. Instead, he was to remain in the land. What makes this so fascinating is that his father, Abraham, had faced a similar situation years earlier, not long after God he had arrived in the land of Canaan.

At that time a severe famine struck the land of Canaan, forcing Abram to go down to Egypt, where he lived as a foreigner. – Genesis 12:10 ESV

Abraham traveled to the land of Canaan, just as God had told him to do, and found it suffering from a severe famine. His decision was to go to Egypt. It was there that Abraham came up with the ridiculous idea for Sarah, his wife, to lie and say that she was his sister. This was because she was beautiful and Abraham feared that someone would have him murdered just to get their hands on her. Abraham’s worst fear came true when Pharaoh himself found Sarah attractive and took her into his harem. It took a divine intervention from God to save her and return her to Abraham. God even blessed Abraham, allowing him to walk out of Egypt with great wealth.

But in all three cases, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God chose to utilize a famine and a foreign country to accomplish His divine plan. Egypt looms large in each of the stories. For Abraham, it was a place of escape. He had been called to Canaan, but found it not as he had expected. The famine in the land caused him to run to the Nile valley where he knew he could find food for he and his wife. There is no indication that God sent him there. For Isaac, the presence of yet another famine had caused him to consider going to Egypt, just as his father had done. But God commanded him not to go. He was to stay in the land that God would show him. And yet, in the case of Jacob, God would visit him in a dream and tell him, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4 ESV).

This time, God was clearly sending His people to Egypt and confirming that, in Egypt, He would make them into a great nation. Three men, three famines and three occasions to turn to Egypt for help. But only in the last case did God command that Egypt was to be the place of refuge for His people and the means by which He would fulfill His promise. It is fascinating to consider why God chose to send Joseph to Egypt and then have Jacob and his entire family end up living there. Why did He not simply leave them in the land He had promised to them? What was His reasoning for sending them to Egypt where they would remain for 400 years, many of those years as slaves? God doesn’t give us answers. But we are simply asked to trust in His plan and the timing of that plan. God dealt differently with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His promise to them was the same, but the particular plan He had for each of them was distinctly different. Abraham went to Egypt but hadn’t been told to. Isaac considered going to Egypt, but was commanded not to. Jacob was reticent to go to Egypt, but God assured him to do so. The time was right. What had been wrong for Abraham and Isaac was now right for Jacob. God was going to make of Jacob a great nation, but He was going to do so while Jacob and his family lived in Egypt. The opening lines of the book of Exodus provide us with a snapshot of what God did to fulfill His promise to Jacob.

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:1-7 ESV

Why did God choose to do it this way? We don’t know. But we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was the way He chose and all His ways “are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is!” (Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT).

 

Genesis 41-42, Matthew 21

For Such A Time As This.

Genesis 41-42, Matthew 21

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. – Genesis 41:14 ESV

For anyone who was ever bullied or picked on as a child, this story holds a special place in their heart. It is the story of the underdog who makes good. It is the ultimate rags-to-riches story, where a down-and-out young man who has suffered more than his fair share of setbacks and put downs, finally gets a break. But as usual, because this story is included in the Scriptures, it is less about Joseph than it is about God. There is no doubt that Joseph plays a significant part, but it is clear that this entire scenario is the handiwork of God.

What does this passage reveal about God?

All of this is part of God’s amazing plan for Joseph’s life. But even more important than that, it is part of God’s amazing plan for mankind. God was redeeming and rescuing Joseph so that he would be able to do what God had planned for him to do all time. In this story, God is not reactionary, responding to situations and circumstances as they happen. He is calculated and providential, having worked out the details of this moment far in advance. He had Joseph right where He wanted him. That included the two years of imprisonment that Joseph had to go through until God deemed the timing was right. Then suddenly, after two years of forgetfulness, the cupbearer remembers Joseph. He recalls Joseph’s interpretation of his dream and shares it with the Pharaoh. Everything in this story points to God. The timing of Pharaoh’s dream was sovereignly ordained. The inability of the Pharaoh’s magicians to come up with even a guess as to the dream’s meaning was a “God thing.” Even Joseph knew that his ability to supply the interpretation was up to God. “It’s is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16 ESV).

Joseph told Pharaoh two different times, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” (Genesis 41:25 ESV). And Pharaoh recognized the hand of God on Joseph’s life. “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:36 ESV). Finally, long after his rise from the pit to the palace, God blesses Joseph with two sons. The names Joseph chose for his two boys reveal much about how he viewed his God and the circumstances of his life. Manasseh meant roughly “forget” and Joseph said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51 ESV). Ephraim meant “twice fruitful” and Joseph said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52 ESV). He recognized the hand of God in his life and over his circumstances. This was all God’s doing. But there was more to God’s plan than simply the salvation of Joseph. God had greater ambitions and a more significant purpose behind Joseph’s new-found favor and fame.

What does this passage reveal about man?

Each of us has the responsibility to seek and to search for God in the everyday affairs of our lives. He is there, but we tend to overlook and underestimate His involvement. We write far too many things off to luck, coincidence, fate, or when things go particularly well, we simply take the credit. Joseph saw God’s hand in his life. Of course, it was probably a bit difficult for him to see God’s involvement quite so clearly when he was sitting in prison those two long years. But the inference in this story is that Joseph never stopped trusting God. He was willing to patiently wait, continuing to faithfully serve and do what was before him to do. No doubt he kept going back to those dream he had had when he was a boy. He must have known they had a greater meaning and that there was something yet to come in his life. So he waited on God.

Ever since they had sold Joseph into slavery and covered their sin by lying to their father, the brothers had simply gone on with their lives. They acted as if nothing had happened. Little did they know that their sin would eventually find them out. God would expose their deed. But in the meantime, they went on with their lives – doing business as usual. There is no indication that they sensed or recognized God’s activity in and around their lives. They were earthly focused rather than heavenly minded. When the famine hit their land, they didn’t have a clue as to what to do. Even their father sarcastically asked, “Why do you look at one another? Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die” (Genesis 42:1-2 ESV). God does not factor into Jacob’s decision. He is motivated by little more than common sense and his own human nature. And yet, God was at work behind the scenes. Even the famine was divinely timed and used by God to accomplish His plan for the descendants of Abraham. The fact that Jacob and his sons seemed to have no interest in or reliance upon God did not alter the fact that God was there and that He was in complete control of the situation.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

There are so many potential parallels between this portion of the story of Joseph and today’s reading in chapter 21 of Matthew. Joseph is a kind of savior, a redeemer of man, just as Jesus was the ultimate Savior of the world. Joseph was treated harshly and rejected by his brothers, just as Jesus was. Jesus and Joseph both suffered unjustly at the hands of men, having done nothing to deserve their fate. The brothers represent the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who out of jealousy and anger, come up with a plan to eliminate the competition, ultimately seeing to it that Jesus is put to death. It is interesting that in Matthew 21, the religious leaders confront Jesus about His authority. When Jacob’s sons come into the presence of Joseph, they are confronted by his authority. He had the right to punish them for their sins, but he would show them mercy and grace.

I am reminded that God had promised Abraham that He would bless all the nations through him. Not just the Jews, but all nations. That promised was ultimately tied to Jesus, a descendant of Abraham and the Son of God. He would provide help, hope and healing to all mankind. But for that to happen, God needed a Joseph. He needed one man who would be willing to suffer, serve, and faithfully wait for the will of God to be revealed in and through his life. I want to be that kind of man. I want to see God’s greater plan and recognize that He has every intention of using me in the accomplishment of that will. But I must be willing to faithfully serve and patiently wait, knowing that each and every moment of my life, whether good or bad, is part of His plan for my life. Paul reminds me, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV). Like Joseph, I have been saved for a reason. I have good works, profitable works, prepared by God for me to accomplish as part of His greater plan for mankind. God has brought me out of the pit and placed me in His palace, but not for me to sit and relax, but in order that I might use my new-found freedom and authority to serve God and my fellow man.

Father, I want to be like Joseph. In fact, I already am like Joseph. You have pulled me out of the pit of sin and shame and clothed me in the righteousness of Christ. You have given me power and authority. You have given me a commission to serve You by taking the Good News of salvation in Christ to those who are suffering from spiritual hunger and thirst. May I learn to be a faithful servant, just as Joseph was. May I seek Your will daily and live to please You rather than myself. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org