In Fulfillment of a Promise.

So Joshua and all the fighting men arose to go up to Ai. And Joshua chose 30,000 mighty men of valor and sent them out by night. And he commanded them, “Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind it. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you remain ready. And I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. And when they come out against us just as before, we shall flee before them. And they will come out after us, until we have drawn them away from the city. For they will say, ‘They are fleeing from us, just as before.’ So we will flee before them. Then you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city, for the Lord your God will give it into your hand. And as soon as you have taken the city, you shall set the city on fire. You shall do according to the word of the Lord. See, I have commanded you.” So Joshua sent them out. And they went to the place of ambush and lay between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai, but Joshua spent that night among the people.

10 Joshua arose early in the morning and mustered the people and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. 11 And all the fighting men who were with him went up and drew near before the city and encamped on the north side of Ai, with a ravine between them and Ai. 12 He took about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. 13 So they stationed the forces, the main encampment that was north of the city and its rear guard west of the city. But Joshua spent that night in the valley. 14 And as soon as the king of Ai saw this, he and all his people, the men of the city, hurried and went out early to the appointed place toward the Arabah to meet Israel in battle. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. 15 And Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten before them and fled in the direction of the wilderness. 16 So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. 17 Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. They left the city open and pursued Israel.

18 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. 19 And the men in the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and as soon as he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and captured it. And they hurried to set the city on fire. 20 So when the men of Ai looked back, behold, the smoke of the city went up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. 21 And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. 22 And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. 23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua.

24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. 29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. Joshua 8:3-29 ESV

Bethel and AiBefore we take a look at the second battle for the capture of Ai, it is important that we recognize the importance of this particular region of the land. We know that Ai is the city Joshua intends to attack, but the text also mentions Bethel (vs 17). Bethel was a nearby city that had evidently formed some kind of alliance with Ai, agreeing to come to their aid in the event of an attack by enemy forces. Soldiers from Bethel were part of the army that attacked the Israelites in an attempt to route them a second time. But why is this important? These two cities play an important role in the history of Israel. They provide direct ties all the way back to the days of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Abraham, then known as Abram, had been called by God out of his hometown of Ur, and sent to the land of Canaan, which God had promised as his inheritance. And when Abraham had arrived in the land, he came to the very location where Joshua and his troops were about to do battle.

From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. – Genesis 12:8 ESV

Abraham had built an altar to God in this very spot. But due to a famine in the land, Abraham was force to flee to Egypt. In time, he returned, a very rich and prosperous man, and he came back to this same spot.

And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord. – Genesis 13:3-4 ESV

Many years later, Jacob, one of the grandsons of Abraham, would find himself in this very same place. He was on his way to a place called Paddan-aram, sent by his father Isaac, in order to escape the wrath of his brother, Esau. Jacob, with help from his mother, had tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, rightfully belonging to Esau. Having robbed Esau of his birthright, Jacob was forced to live with his uncle. And yet, in spite of his use of deceit to get what was not rightfully his, God appeared to Jacob in a dream and spoke to him.

13 “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 ESV

God had reaffirmed the promise made to Abraham many years earlier. And Jacob memorialized the spot on which he had the vision.

18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel… – Genesis 28:18-19 ESV

So, this location held significant meaning for the people of Israel. After 400 years in captivity and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, they were standing at the very spot where their forefathers had built an altar and a memorial to God. This land was theirs by right, according to the promise of God. Ai and Bethel were not just two arbitrary cities that happened to stand in the way of Israel’s conquest of the land. They were important landmarks that provided a link to Israel’s past and a reminder of God’s covenant promise to make of them a great nation and to provide for them a land.

Back to the battle. This time, Joshua was careful to do things God’s way. They had removed the sin from their midst, having stoned Achan and his family for his crime of disobeying God’s ban on taking plunder from Jericho. Now, they could move ahead with God’s battle plan for taking Ai. It involved a bit of subterfuge, taking advantage of the over-confidence of the people of Ai, since they had easily routed the Israelites in their first confrontation. But this time, Joshua divided his army up, sending a portion of his troops to wait in ambush on the other side of the city while he and the rest of his force marched toward the city as if to attack it a second time. The plan was simple. They would draw out the forces from Ai and then feign a retreat as soon as the enemy exited the walls of the city. This allowed the troops in hiding to enter its open gates and capture the city. They set fires that acted as a signal to Joshua and his troops, who then turned on the men of Ai and Bethel. Surprised by the sudden display of aggression on the part of the Israelites and seeing the smoke rising out of their city, the men of Ai and their allies from Bethel lost heart and were completely annihilated. Not a man was left alive. And the city fell that day, with every single citizen put to the sword.

As grim and gruesome as this scene appears to our modern sensibilities, we must not overlook that this entire affair was according to the will of God. He had clearly told Joshua, “Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand” (Joshua 8:18 ESV). God had promised to give the land on which Ai sat as an inheritance to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And now, God had promised to give the city of Ai to Joshua.

“Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.” – Joshua 8:1 ESV

But God knew that the removal of the inhabitants of the land was critical if the people of Israel were going to remain pure and totally dedicated to God. God had warned Moses not to make alliances with the people of the land, because He knew what would happen if they did.

12 Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. – Exodus 34:12-16 ESV

And we will see that, in time, the people of Israel will fail to consistently keep this command of God. As the book of Joshua unfolds, we will witness the Israelites disobeying the will of God and choosing to spare the inhabitants of the land. They will make compromises and concessions, even intermarrying with the Canaanites, Amorites and other people groups. And as a result, they will find themselves worshiping their false gods.

But the battle of Ai was a rousing success. God gave them the victory, just as He had at Jericho. They had been obedient and God had blessed. And God had been faithful to the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The question is, will the people of Israel be faithful to God?

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



Entering His Rest.

10 And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.’”

12 And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, 13 “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, 15 until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”

16 And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! 18 Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.” – Joshua 1:10-18 ESV

The conquest of the land of Canaan is about to begin. This day has been long in coming. It goes all the way back to the promise that God had made to Abram, when He called him out of the land of Ur.

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

Abram did as God had commanded him and was led by God to the land of Canaan.

5 When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” – Genesis 12:5-7 ESV

The book of Hebrews tells us that Abram, who later had his name changed to Abraham by God, lived in the land, but never possessed a single acre of it, except the plot where his wife was eventually buried.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. – Hebrews 11:8-9 ESV

Abraham remained a nomad, living in tents within the land of promise, but never actually possessing any of it as his own, and the author of Hebrews says he eventually “died in faith, not having received the things promised” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). Eventually, Abraham’s son, Isaac, had a son named Jacob, who had a son named Joseph. Joseph would be sold into slavery by his own brothers, out of jealousy over their father’s treatment of him as his favorite son, Joseph would end up in Egypt where, through a series of God-ordained events, he became the second-highest official in the Egyptian government. In time, a famine came to the land of Canaan, forcing Jacob, his sons, and their families to search for aid in the land of Egypt. There they were surprisingly reunited with the brother they had left for dead. But rather than seek revenge on his brothers for what they had done, Joseph assured them that it had all been part of God’s sovereign plan.

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. – Genesis 45:5-8 ESV

Jacob was reluctant to move his family to Egypt, but he received a word from God, assuring him that this was all part of His plan.

3 “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…” – Genesis 46:3-4 ESV

Jacob and his family did relocate to Egypt and, not long after his death, Joseph reassured his brothers of God’s involvement in all that had happened, and of his own intentions to care for them as long as they lived in the land of Egypt.

19 “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” – Genesis 50:19-20 ESV

And he kept that commitment. But the presence of the people of Israel in the land of Egypt would extend far beyond the life of Joseph. They would remain in the land of Egypt for 400 years. Eventually, a new Pharaoh came to power who found the explosive growth of the descendants of Abraham to be a potential threat to national security so, he began a program of enslavement and persecution of them that would last . And even this had been a part of God’s plan. Centuries earlier, God had told Abraham that all of this would happen.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. – Genesis 15:13 ESV

But God also had a plan for their deliverance. He used Moses to free His people from their captivity and to lead them to the land He had promised to Abraham. And Moses had been successful in his emancipation of the descendants of Abraham and his 40-year-long effort to get them to the land of promise. Which brings us to this moment in time, where Joshua stands poised to take a new generation of Israelites into the long-awaited promised land. You can almost sense the fear and anticipation among the people as Joshua commands his officers to inform them of what is about to happen.

“Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” – Joshua 1:11 ESV

They had been here before. This was not the first time they had planned on entering the land of promise. More than 40 years earlier, Moses had them poised to take possession of the land, but the people had balked. When spies reported that the land was fruitful, but also occupied by apparently insurmountable armed forces, the people had refused to enter the land, even threatening to stone Moses and Aaron, and choose new leaders to guide them back to Egypt. So God, in His anger, cursed that generation, telling them that they would never enter the land.

22 …none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 ESV

And now, 40 years later, that next generation was being called to do what their predecessors had refused to do. Nothing had changed. The same formidable foes were still living in the land. There were going to be days filled with battles and the threat of death for everyone who obeyed God’s command to enter the land. But they also had the assurance that God was going to be with them. He was going to go before them. His promise of the land, given hundreds of years earlier to Moses, was going to be fulfilled.

And as they prepared to cross the Jordan River, Moses called upon the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, to assist them in their conquest of the land. At their own requests, they had all been given land on the opposite side of the Jordan, but they had agreed to fight alongside their brothers and sisters in order to ensure that all the land of Canaan was eventually possessed by the descendants of Abraham, just as God had said. And they assured Joshua of their commitment to keep their word.

16 “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!” – Joshua 1:16 ESV

What is interesting to note is that this event signals the day on which the people of Israel were to enter their rest. As they stood on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the land, they were doing so as an army. And yet, the minute they crossed over that river they would be entering not only the land of Canaan, but the rest that God had promised them. The very rest their ancestors had rejected.

“…don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
    when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
    even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
10 So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
    They refuse to do what I tell them.’
11 So in my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’” – Hebrews 3:8-11 ESV

Entering into God’s place of rest was not a guarantee of a trouble-free life. It was not to be a picture of ease and comfort. The land was not going to be taken without a fight. The days ahead would be filled with battles and loss of life. But they had ceased from wandering. They were no longer going to have to wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled. They would be in the land and resting in the presence and power of God Almighty. And the book of Joshua will close with a reminder that God would remain with them throughout the entirety of their conquest of the land, providing them with victory after victory and slowly solidifying their possession of the land.

43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. – Joshua 21:43-45 ESV

The author of Hebrews reminds us that the previous generation of Israel died in the wilderness, and it was “because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest” (Hebrews 3:19 NLT). And he warns us, as believers, to not repeat the mistakes of those stubborn Israelites who refused to place their faith and trust in God.

12 Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. 13 You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. 14 For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:12-14 NLT

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

The End of the Edomites.


Concerning Edom.

Thus says the Lord of hosts:

“Is wisdom no more in Teman?
    Has counsel perished from the prudent?
    Has their wisdom vanished?
Flee, turn back, dwell in the depths,
    O inhabitants of Dedan!
For I will bring the calamity of Esau upon him,
    the time when I punish him.
If grape gatherers came to you,
    would they not leave gleanings?
If thieves came by night,
    would they not destroy only enough for themselves?
But I have stripped Esau bare;
    I have uncovered his hiding places,
    and he is not able to conceal himself.
His children are destroyed, and his brothers,
    and his neighbors; and he is no more.
Leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive;
    and let your widows trust in me.”

For thus says the Lord: “If those who did not deserve to drink the cup must drink it, will you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, but you must drink. For I have sworn by myself, declares the Lord, that Bozrah shall become a horror, a taunt, a waste, and a curse, and all her cities shall be perpetual wastes.” Jeremiah 49:7-13 ESV

Now, God turns His attention to the Edomites, descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob, and the son of Isaac. Just before the boys were to be born, God spoke to Rebekah and told her:

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

The two babies, we are told in Genesis, “struggled together within her” and when they were born, Esau came out first, but Jacob was clutching his brother’s heal. This was a premonition of what the relationship between these two boys would be like. The story goes on to describe Jacob’s eventual deception of his brother, in order to get him to give up his birthright. Then Rebekah and Jacob concocted a plan to deceive Isaac into giving to Jacob the blessing reserved for the firstborn. While their plan worked, it resulted in Jacob having to go into exile to escape the wrath of Esau. While the brothers eventually mended their personal grudge, the descendants of Esau would prove to be a constant source of trouble for the people of Israel. In fact, when they eventually made it back to Canaan after their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, they were not given a warm welcome by the Edomites.

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him. – Numbers 20:14-21 ESV

In the prophesies of Obadiah, we are given further insights into the reasons for God’s coming judgment on the Edomites.

“You have been deceived by your own pride
    because you live in a rock fortress
    and make your home high in the mountains.
‘Who can ever reach us way up here?’
    you ask boastfully.” – Obadiah 1:3 NLT

“Because of the violence you did
    to your close relatives in Israel,
you will be filled with shame
    and destroyed forever.
When they were invaded,
    you stood aloof, refusing to help them.
Foreign invaders carried off their wealth
    and cast lots to divide up Jerusalem,
    but you acted like one of Israel’s enemies.” – Obadiah 1:10-11 NLT

The Edomites were prideful and arrogant, convinced that they were invincible in their mountain fortress. But there would be no place they could hide from the wrath of God. They had made the mistake of turning against the people of God, their very own relatives. When Israel had been attacked, they looked the other way, refusing to come to their aid. And God was going to repay them for their cold-hearted abandonment of Israel. His destruction would be complete. Nothing and no one would be spared. While grape gatherers might leave some gleanings in the field for the poor, God would leave nothing behind for the survivors in Edom. While a thief might be willing to leave a few things untouched, God was going to completely wipe Edom out. There would be nothing left when the judgment of God was complete.

“But I will strip bare the land of Edom,
    and there will be no place left to hide.
Its children, its brothers, and its neighbors
    will all be destroyed,
    and Edom itself will be no more.” – Jeremiah 49:10 NLT

But in the midst of all the devastation, notice the words of the Lord:

“But I will protect the orphans who remain among you.
    Your widows, too, can depend on me for help.” – Jeremiah 49:11 NLT

Even in His wrath, God will show mercy on the helpless, those who have no advocate and who are seen as outcasts within the community. God assures the widows and orphans that they will have Him as their protector and provider. Even in the midst of all the devastation, they will somehow be preserved by the merciful hand of God.

These pronouncements of doom are difficult for us to read and even harder for us to comprehend. They seem to paint God in a very negative light, portraying Him as a hateful, vengeful deity who uses His omnipotence to wreak havoc on mankind. We view His judgments from our limited human perspective and deem them as little more than the actions of some kind of divine playground bully. But there are things we cannot see. There are behind-the-scenes plots to which we are oblivious. And there is a plan that God has devised from before the foundation of the world that He is implementing and of which we are not privy. And while we might find it easy to question God’s motives or wonder about His methodologies, we must always remember that He is God and we are not. His ways are not our ways. His judgments are always right and good. His actions in regards to mankind are always righteous and beyond reproach. And as difficult as it may be for us to comprehend His ways, we have no right to question His integrity or doubt His goodness.

He is the Rock; his deeds 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

The LORD is righteous in everything he does; he is filled with kindness. – Psalm 145:17 NLT

“Listen to me, you who have understanding. Everyone knows that God doesn’t sin! The Almighty can do no wrong.” – Job 34:10 NLT

One of the problems we face as human beings is our inability to see past the here-and-now. We are not omniscient. We lack the ability to see into the future and view how everything will turn out. So, we are left to deal with what we can see. But looks can always be deceiving. What may appear as unjust and unfair may actually be the righteous and fully just actions of God. We simply can’t see the ultimate outcome. But it always pays to give God the benefit of the doubt. It is wise to trust that He knows best and that His ways are perfect. In time, we will see the method behind His seeming madness. We will one day have the ability to look back and see how the gracious, merciful and loving hand of God was working all things together for our good and His glory.

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.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Meant It For Good.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21 ESV

Jacob dies and immediately his sons begin to worry. They fear that Joseph, who they sold into slavery and who now rules over them as the second-most powerful man in Egypt, will take revenge on them now that their father is gone. They assume he was only biding his time until Jacob was out of the picture. They wrongly believe that Joseph, out of love and respect for their father, had been unwilling to give his brothers what they deserved. But now that he was gone, all bets were off. Or so they thought. They even concoct a story saying that, on his deathbed, Jacob had given them a message to give to Joseph. It was Jacob’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers for their sin against them. Nowhere else in the text does Moses record that this conversation ever happened between Jacob and his sons, so we can assume that it was a fabrication, a lie concocted by Joseph’s brothers in an attempt to save their own necks from the hatred they believed Joseph still harbored for them. But they were in for a pleasant surprise.

Joseph, displaying a profound grasp on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, tells his brothers they have nothing to fear. First of all, Joseph assuages their concerns by letting them know that revenge is the prerogative and purview of God. Even if he was still angry with them, Joseph knew he had no right to enact judgment or to seek revenge on his brothers. In asking the rhetorical question, “am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19 ESV), Joseph reveals his understanding of and respect for God’s rule and reign over any and all. He portrays a humble and quiet confidence in God’s unwavering rule over the affairs of his life. During his forced exile from his family, Joseph had been able to see first-hand the remarkable proof of God’s providence in so many ways. Enough time had passed that any lingering anger against his bothers or desire to seek revenge had been replaced by a peace with his circumstances that came from a growing trust in God’s providence. God was in control. So much so that, in Joseph’s estimation, what his brothers had meant for evil, God had intended for good. This is one of the most powerful statements regarding God’s providence found anywhere in the Scriptures.

“Behind all the events and human plans recounted in the story of Joseph lies the unchanging plan of God. It is the same plan introduced from the very beginning of the book where God looks out at what he has just created for man and sees that ‘it is good’ (tob, 1:4-31). Through his dealings with the patriarchs and Joseph, God had continued to bring about his good plan. He had remained faithful to his purposes, and it is the point of this narrative to show that his people can continue to trust him and to believe that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).” – John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in Genesis-Numbers, vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

With the simple words, “God meant it for good,” Joseph spoke volumes concerning the rule and reign of God over the affairs of men. He does not excuse his brothers’ actions, but instead clearly states that what they had done to him was intended by them for his harm, not his good. Their intentions had been evil. But God, as part of His divine plan, had hijacked their intentions, redeeming their sinful actions to accomplish holy and righteous will. The Hebrew word Moses used is chashab and it carries the idea of a carefully calculated plan or intention. Sick and tired of their Joseph’s favored position with their father and his dreams and visions of superiority, the brothers had “devised” a plan to rid themselves of Joseph once and for all. But God had bigger and better plans. It had been His plan all along that the descendants of Abraham would end up in Egypt. Years earlier He had told Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13 ESV). God had intended it all for good. Every bit of it. From Joseph’s undeserved betrayal by his brothers to his false arrest and imprisonment. The events of Joseph’s life were not the result of fate or chance. He had not been the lucky winner of the lottery of life. He had been under the sovereign control of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who had a plan in place long before Joseph or his brothers had been born.

Joseph had developed an expanded vision of the affairs of life. He had learned to look beyond the immediate circumstances and view things from a divine perspective. Which is what led him to say that God had intended, planned, and orchestrated Joseph’s life,  “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20 ESV). Joseph knew it was about much more than him. His life had a God-ordained purpose that was far greater and bigger than his own success or failure. This wasn’t about his personal comfort or convenience. It had little to do with Joseph’s position or prominence, except for the fact that God was using Joseph’s rise to power to “preserve the lives of many people.”

As Christians, when we read Paul’s words in Romans, “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 ESV), we tend to have a bit of skepticism about them. We silently doubt whether they are really true. We wonder if ALL things really do work together for good. We question whether we have ever seen Paul’s words proven true in our own lives. But the problem seems to be that we want to define what “good” means. We want to dictate to God what it is we want Him to accomplish in and through our lives. And we demand that any good He brings about must be to our advantage and within our lifetime. It must be according to our terms. But Joseph knew better. He had learned that God’s will was far greater than his own. He had ascertained that the ways of God sometimes entailed difficulty, betrayal, disappointment, awkward moments of seeming abandonment by God and prolonged periods of waiting. But God was always at work. His divine plan was always active and moving towards its ultimate conclusion. All things really do work together for good. But sometimes that good is not what we might expect. It might not always come about when or how we want it to. God’s definition of good was about far more than good things happening in Joseph’s life. Joseph’s rise to power was not about his own comfort and convenience. It had a much more expansive and far-reaching purpose behind it. Joseph understood and accepted his role in God’s sovereign, providential plan. He was content to be used by God, leaving the definition of “good” up to God. He was fully confident that his life was in God’s hands and that anything and everything that had or would happen to him was within the will of God. God had a greater good in mind. He had a bigger plan in place. His will was not limited to the days of Joseph’s life or the land of Egypt. It went well beyond the sons of Jacob and the tribes of Israel. God had a plan to bless all the nations of the earth and to bring salvation from something far more devastating than a famine. God had in mind the sins of mankind and the salvation of the world in mind. And all that He has done or will do is intended for good.

An End and a Beginning.

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah—the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.” When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.

Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.

And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.” So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father. – Genesis 49:28-50:14 ESV

Even though Jacob and his family find themselves living in the land of Egypt and Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had been told by God that they would remain there for 400 years (Genesis 15:13-14), the land of Canaan looms large in this narrative. Canaan is the land that God had promised to give Abraham and his descendants. He had told Abraham, “After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction” (Genesis 15:16 NLT). Isaac, the son of Abraham, and Jacob, his grandson, had both received personal assurances from God that they would receive the land of Canaan as part of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. This inheritance from God, which had yet to be realized, had been passed down from generation to generation. The promise of the land was an ever-present reality in their lives. The promise made to Abraham was constantly on their minds.

“This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 NLT

So when it came time for Jacob to die, he made his sons promise to bury him in the land of Canaan, alongside the remains of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. In essence, this was the family burial plot. It had been purchased by Abraham from the Hittites many years earlier in order that he might bury Sarah, his wife. Moses records the transaction for us:

Then Abraham bowed low before the Hittites and said, “Since you are willing to help me in this way, be so kind as to ask Ephron son of Zohar to let me buy his cave at Machpelah, down at the end of his field. I will pay the full price in the presence of witnesses, so I will have a permanent burial place for my family.” – Genesis 23:7-9 NLT

Abraham would pay 400 pieces of silver for the cave and the surrounding land.

So Abraham bought the plot of land belonging to Ephron at Machpelah, near Mamre. This included the field itself, the cave that was in it, and all the surrounding trees.  It was transferred to Abraham as his permanent possession in the presence of the Hittite elders at the city gate. Then Abraham buried his wife, Sarah, there in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah, near Mamre (also called Hebron). So the field and the cave were transferred from the Hittites to Abraham for use as a permanent burial place. – Genesis 15:17-20 NLT

Notice the number of times that the reference is made to a permanent burial place. The land, while still occupied by the Hittites, was part of the territory God had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. While God had not yet fulfilled that part of His promise, Abraham went ahead and bought land because he believed that one day God’s promise would be fulfilled. He knew that it would be a long time before that happened, so in the meantime, he wanted a place where his family could bury their dead. And he wanted that place to be within the land of promise.

So upon Jacob’s request, Joseph and his brothers took the body of their father and headed to “the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 49:30 ESV). And they were accompanied by a large number of Egyptian dignitaries.

So Joseph went up to bury his father; all Pharaoh’s officials went with him—the senior courtiers of his household, all the senior officials of the land of Egypt, all Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household. – Genesis 50:7-8 NLT

There were even Egyptian chariots and horses. It was quite a funeral procession. And there were so many Egyptians in the caravan, that the Hittites just assumed that it was the funeral for an high-ranking Egyptian official.

So Jacob was buried, with much pomp and circumstance. He was placed in the cave, alongside his father and grandfather. But his sons returned to the land of Egypt where they were destined to remain for more than 400 years. And yet Jacob’s death and burial are meant to act as a hopeful reminder of what is to come. His demise was not the end of the story. That trip to Canaan to bury Jacob was a dress rehearsal for another journey that would be taken by his descendants, four generations later – a huge collection of individuals numbering in the millions. When that day finally arrived, Moses tells us:

God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” – Exodus 13:18-19 ESV

Even Joseph would demand that his remains be returned to the land of Canaan, and centuries after his death, that is exactly what would happen. The promise of God would be fulfilled and the people of Israel would be freed from captivity and led by God Himself to the land of Canaan. Abraham’s death had not been the end. Isaac’s death had not derailed God’s intentions. The deaths of Jacob and Joseph had not brought God’s plans to a screeching halt. They were just the beginning. God was far from done. His promises were bigger than one man or a single generation. His blessings were intended span the generations and to impact the nations. What appeared to be the end was simply the beginning of greater things to come. As God would tell the Israelites while they suffered in captivity in Babylon, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV). God has plans based on His promises and there is nothing that will stop His plans from taking place and His promises from being fulfilled. And Jesus Himself has promised us, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14 ESV).


Not This Way!

When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). And he blessed Joseph and said,

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
    the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
    and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
    and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying,

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” – Genesis 48:8-22 ESV

God’s ways are not our ways. He does not operate according to and is not restricted by our human notions of fair play, social etiquette, customs or traditions. God does not have to do things the way we think they should be done. He is not afraid to offend our sense of decorum or proper procedures. His will is greater than our wishes. His divine plan is far more important than our need for maintaining the status quo.

Jacob had just told Joseph that he was going to adopt his two sons and make them his heirs. “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are” (Genesis 48:5 ESV). So when Joseph brought his two sons to their grandfather to receive their official adoption and blessing, he had certain expectations about how things were going to go down. The placement of the two boys on the knees of Jacob was part of the Ancient Near Eastern adoption ceremony. Joseph was transferring his two sons to the care of Jacob and officially making them his father’s heirs. Then things got interesting and a bit off-script for Joseph. When he brought his two sons to stand before Jacob to receive their blessings, he had them positioned so that Jacob’s right hand would be on Manasseh, the first-born, and his left hand on Ephraim, the second-born. But when Jacob reached out his hands, he crossed his arms and placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on the head of Manasseh. Joseph was appalled. This was not according to protocol. It was not how things were supposed to happen. Jacob had screwed up. And Joseph was not happy.

When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him. So he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” – Genesis 48:17-18 NLT

Joseph most likely blamed his father’s gaff on old age and diminished eyesight. Verse ten tells us that Jacob’s eyes were “dim with age.” So Joseph attempted to switch his father’s hand and correct what was an obvious oversight. But Jacob refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he too will become great. In spite of this, his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT). Jacob’s crossed hands had not been the result of poor eyesight or age-induced dementia. It had been the will of God. This was yet another example of God choosing the younger over the elder.

Abraham had two sons. His firstborn was Ishmael, born to him by his wife’s handmaiden. But when Abraham asked God to fulfill His promise through Ishmael, God said:

“No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year.” – Genesis 17:19-21 NLT

When Isaac’s wife, Rachel, was pregnant with twin sons, God told her:

“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT

Esau, the eldest of the two, would serve Jacob, the younger.Even in Jacob’s own family, he had elevated Joseph ahead of all his brothers, showing him special favor. It was this favoritism that ended up causing Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. Then Jacob simply replaced Joseph with Benjamin, the son born to him in his old age.

God doesn’t explain Himself. He doesn’t provide us with an explanation of His actions. While cultural protocol called for the blessing to fall on the firstborn, God was choosing to do things differently. He had a different agenda and was using out-of-the-ordinary means to accomplish His divine will. God would have us remember: “

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Look, God is greater than we can understand. – Job 36:26 NLT

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 NLT

The ways of God may be incomprehensible at times, but they are always reliable. His methodology may leave us perplexed, but never disappointed. He may appear to be suffering from poor eyesight or early onset dementia, but in time, we will discover that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. His hands were crossed for a reason. His blessing only appeared to be off target. God knows what He is doing – all the time and in every circumstance.

We may not understand God’s ways right now, but we will in time. We may not appreciate His methods for the moment, but He will be proven right and righteous. Our sense of fair play may get offended, but He will be proven just and good. Saying, “Not this way!” to God is not only presumptuous, it’s dangerous.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

May we learn to say as Jesus did, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV).

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).


An Awkward Reunion.

Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”

He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” And he put them all together in custody for three days. – Genesis 42:6-17 ESV

And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. That line should ring a loud bell in your mind. It acts as a link to the events that took place years earlier when Joseph was still his father’s favorite son, wearing his multicolored tunic and living in the land of Canaan along with his brothers. Those words are a not-so-subtle reminder of the two dreams Joseph had regarding his family.

One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. “Listen to this dream,” he said. “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!” – Genesis 37:5-7 NLT

Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT

It was these two dreams, at least in part, that had led to Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. The dreams had been the last straw, the final point of irritation that had caused their jealousy and hatred of Joseph to reach the point of no return. And yet, 21 years later, here they were bowing down before their brother. Granted, they had no idea it was their long-lost brother. While Joseph recognized them, they were unaware that the man before whom they knelt was the same individual they had sold into slavery years earlier. It would have been the last thing they expected.

But Joseph recognized his brothers and remembered his dreams. There must have been a host of emotions that welled up in Joseph as he looked at his brothers for the first time in years, recalling what they had done to him. All the memories of his childhood and the special relationship he shared with Jacob, his father, would have come to mind. Joseph was human, and like any human being, he would have felt pangs of anger and resentment, the desire for revenge, the temptation to gloat, and the longing for restoration. For the time being, Joseph decided to keep his identity hidden from his brothers and “he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them” (Genesis 37:7 ESV).

What happened next was a series of tests administered by Joseph in order to determine the hearts and attitudes of his brothers. It had been two decades since he had seen them and he needed to know if they were the same men who had sold him into slavery. Had their hearts changed? Were they the least bit remorseful over their actions? Could they be trusted? His last memory of his brothers was that of a scheming, disloyal band of individuals who let petty jealousy and envy so cloud their minds that they sold their own flesh and blood for 20 shekels of silver. And we must always remember that their original idea had been to kill Joseph. They had been willing to take his life, but had settled for selling him to the slave traders when cooler heads prevailed.

By this time, Joseph must have looked like an Egyptian. As the royal governor, he would have been wearing Egyptian garments and surrounded by the trappings of his office. All his brothers saw was a powerful Egyptian official to whom they must humbly bow if they hoped to walk away with any grain to take home to their father. So when this unknown official accused them of being spies, they were shocked and dismayed. Their pulse rates quickened and their eyes grew wide with fright. They were a long way from home and were in a hopeless position, falsely accused by one of the most powerful men in Egypt. So they denied the charges and told the governor their story. They let him know about their father and their younger brother, who both awaited their return. They even mentioned their brother who “is no longer with us” (Genesis 42:13 NLT).

But Joseph demands that they prove their story by sending one of their brothers back to Canaan to fetch their father and brother. In the meantime, the rest would remain under house arrest as spies. The Joseph had them put in custody for three days to give them time to think about what they would do. This allowed the brothers time to think about their precarious situation and to discuss their strategy. Would they be honest or would they concoct a lie in order to save their lives? They had no idea that this entire scenario was the sovereign plan of God and that the brother they had sold into slavery was the one before they bowed and to whom they owed their lives and those of their families back in Canaan. This tension-filled reunion was part of God’s plan to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their father. Even their immoral act of betraying their own brother would be redeemed by God in order to bring about His sovereign plan. The next weeks and months would prove uncomfortable and disconcerting for them. They would have to live with uncertainty and a growing sense of remorse and regret, wondering if their former actions were the reason for their current circumstances. Had their earlier sin finally caught up with them? Was this God’s payback for their mistreatment of Joseph? God was looking for a change of heart. He was desiring repentance in the lives of those whom He was about to fulfill His covenant promise.

How Long Must I Wait?

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh. – Genesis 41:1-8 ESV

Even for those of us who believe that God is in control and sovereign over all things, we sometimes lose patience when it comes to His sense of timing. We tell ourselves that He is at work behind the scenes and has a plan in place, but then we wonder what is taking Him so long to put that plan into place. The story of the life of Joseph should be a great reminder to us that God’s will for us may not always match our own, and the manner in which He intervenes in our trials may be anything but timely.

Chapter 40 ended with the words, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Genesis 40:23 ESV). Joseph had interpreted the cupbearer’s dream and all he asked in return was that the cupbearer remember him and share his plight with Pharaoh. But then, chapter 41 opens up with the words, “After two whole years…” (Genesis 41:1a ESV). The space between these two chapters represents two full years of Joseph’s life. We are given no details of what went on during that time. He more than likely remained in charge of the other prisoners because he had found favor in the eyes of the warden (Genesis 39:21-22). But we are given no glimpse into the state of Joseph’s emotional or spiritual health during this time. Was he depressed? Had he become defeated and disillusioned with God over his long incarceration. We would understand if he had, because he was innocent. He had done nothing wrong. Even as we read the opening words of chapter 41, we find ourselves asking the question, “Why two years?” Surely, God could have moved faster and done something sooner to change Joseph’s circumstances.

But the story of Joseph is really the story of God’s sovereignty and providence. It has less to do with the specifics going on in Joseph’s life than it does with what God is doing behind the scenes as He orchestrates His plan to fulfill the promise He had made to Abraham.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.– Genesis 12:2 NLT

It is the same promise He repeated to Isaac.

Do not go down to Egypt, but do as I tell you. Live here as a foreigner in this land, and I will be with you and bless you. I hereby confirm that I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, just as I solemnly promised Abraham, your father. I will cause your descendants to become as numerous as the stars of the sky, and I will give them all these lands. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed. – Genesis 26:2-4 NLT

Isaac would then pass on this promise in the form of a blessing to his son, Jacob.

May God Almighty bless you and give you many children. And may your descendants multiply and become many nations! May God pass on to you and your descendants the blessings he promised to Abraham. May you own this land where you are now living as a foreigner, for God gave this land to Abraham. – Genesis 28:3-4 NLT

And Jacob’s son, Joseph, was going to be instrumental in God fulfilling that promise. When Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers, his family had been living in the land of Canaan. But they did not yet possess the land. It belonged to the Canaanites and an assortment of other people groups. Like his grandfather and father before him, Jacob was more or less a nomad or wanderer in the land. The promise of God had yet to be fully realized. And one could ask the same question: “What is taking God so long?” The delay seems unnecessary. After all, He is God. He can do what He wants, whenever and however He wants. But who are we to question the wisdom of God? The prophet Isaiah gives us some much-needed advice:

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

And God provides us with His own thoughts regarding our audacity to question His wisdom, timing, or methods.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 56:8-9 NLT

Joseph had to remain in prison two full years. Why? God does not tell us. But His ways are beyond anything we could imagine. Even if He told us, we would not understand. What right do we have to question His motives or methodologies? How arrogant and prideful for us to suggest that God might somehow be doing things wrong.

Joseph was sold by his brothers. He was falsely accused and thrown in prison. He was all but forgotten for two years. Job suffered the loss of all of his children, his wealth and even his health. Stephen was stone to death for sharing the gospel. Paul spent the majority of his most productive ministry years in prison. Jesus was hung on a cross for a crime He didn’t commit. The Bible is full of injustices and what appear to be apparent lapses in God’s sovereignty and power. But the story of the Bible is one of God’s divine plan being played out over time in perfect detail and according to His infinite wisdom. We may not understand it or even like it, but we can trust that God knows what He is doing. Joseph’s two-year wait was purposeful, not regretable. God’s delay was intentional, not insensitive. There is always a reason behind God’s seeming madness. There is a purpose behind all that seems purposeless and meaningless.

“After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed…” The wait was over. The divine plan was being unveiled. At just the right time. No sooner. No later. This story is about far more than Joseph’s imprisonment. It is about the promises of God and His faithful, unwavering commitment to do what He says He will do.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
 – Numbers 23:19 ESV



God’s Promise and His Providence.

Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.

These are the generations of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. – Genesis 37:1-4 ESV

The story of Joseph is one that has intrigued people of faith for generations. It contains the recounting of the life of a man who experienced more ups and downs, peaks and valleys, in his life than any one individual should have to face. It is a story that deftly blends what appears to be fate with the invisible providence of the all-knowing, all-seeing God of Israel. The central figure in the story is Joseph, a son of Jacob, and a great-grandson to Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. Joseph’s life stands in stark contrast to that of his father, Jacob. The preceding chapters reveal the story of Jacob’s life. He and his twin brother, Esau, were born to Isaac. But as the meaning of his name “heel-grabber” reveals, Jacob was the second born, but he came out literally holding on to his brothers heel. And he would spend the early years of his life attempting to supplant his brother as the first-born. His was a life marked by deceit and artful scheming. He was a trickster, a conniving conman, who was always looking out for his own best interests. After having manipulated his brother into selling him his birthright, and then deceiving his father into  giving him the blessing intended for the firstborn, Jacob was forced to flee for his life. He ended up spending much of his young adult life in exile, only to return years later under the prompting of God Himself. Jacob was shown mercy by God and extended forgiveness by his brother, Esau. He was welcomed back into his family. And he given the privilege of having a number of sons to carry on his legacy and to care for him in old life. Joseph was one of those sons.

When the story of Joseph opens up, he and his family are living in the land of Canaan, just as Abraham had done. They are essentially nomads, not yet having experienced the comfort or convenience of living in their own city within the land promised to them by God. They are shepherds. Theirs is a simple life. And Jacob is enjoying his role as father over a growing family, living once again in the land of his fathers. But there is a problem brewing. All is not well in the house of Jacob. The text reveals to us that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3 ESV). He was playing favorites. He even had a beautiful robe made for Joseph. But his favoritism was going to result in sibling rivalry. It would also create in Joseph a certain sense of privilege and superiority. The text seems to paint Joseph as somewhat of a tattle tale, a snitch who enjoyed sharing less-than-flattering news about his brothers to their father. This, along with Jacob’s blatant acts of preferential treatment, would not endear Joseph to his brothers. In fact, it produced in them a hatred for their brother that would escalate over time.

But there is far more going on in this story than the blind nepotism of a father toward his son. This is the story of the people of Israel and God’s promises concerning them. It is part of the larger narrative about God’s sovereign selection of Abraham and His descendants to be the chosen recipients of His grace and mercy. The story of Joseph is a window into the providential work of God in the lives of men. From beginning to end, Joseph’s life will intertwine the seeming independent actions of men with the all-powerful intentions of God.

The theme of the Joseph narrative concerns God’s hidden and decisive power which works in and through but also against human forms of power. A “soft” word for that reality is providence. A harder word for the same reality is predestination. Either way God is working out his purpose through and in spite of Egypt, through and in spite of Joseph and his brothers. – Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 293. Richard D. Patterson, “Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007)

Undergirding and heavily influencing the narrative of this story are the promises of God made to Abraham.

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 12:2-3 NLT

This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them! – Genesis 17:4-6 NLT

God would reaffirm that same promise to Jacob.

I am El-Shaddai — “God Almighty.” Be fruitful and multiply. You will become a great nation, even many nations. Kings will be among your descendants! And I will give you the land I once gave to Abraham and Isaac. Yes, I will give it to you and your descendants after you. – Genesis 35:11-12 NLT

Up until this moment in time, the promise of God had remained just that – a promise. They were not yet a great nation. They did not possess the land of Canaan. They were a nomadic, insignificant tribe of shepherds living in a land occupied by much more numerous and powerful people groups. But God was not done. His promise was still unfolding. The story of Joseph is actually the story of God as He unveils His sovereign plan in time and space, through the seemingly autonomous lives of mortal men. There are few other places in Scripture where you see the free will of man and the providence God so intricately entwined. Decisions will be made. Human emotions will be displayed. Circumstances will be altered based on nothing more than the whims or wishes of men. But throughout the story, God will remain in control and His divine plan to fulfill His promise will remain unaltered.

To read the story of the life of Joseph is to reminded of the unwavering, unstoppable providence of God over the lives of men.

…for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” – Daniel 4:34-35 ESV