God Meant it for Good
This sermon on Genesis 50:20 shows God’s good intentions even when others intend to harm us. In our sermon series, we are examining the essential Bible stories people of faith should know. Today we dive into the story of a man named Joseph and his brothers. This is not the Joseph of Joseph and Mary, but a different Joseph in the Old Testament. This is a story we should know because in our time of polarization and cycles of retaliation the Joseph story lays out a way to re-establish a deeper sense of brotherhood on an individual level and as a society. Furthermore, it gives us reassurance that even when bad things are happening God is still working behind the scenes for good.
Genesis Brother Stories
The story of Joseph and his brothers takes up about the last third of Genesis. The concept of brotherhood is a major theme of Genesis. You will remember that the story of the first brothers, Cain and Abel ended in tragedy. A central question lies at the heart of that story, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You might say the rest of Genesis is a working out of that question. That is, what is one’s responsibility toward our brothers. Of course, it isn’t just about literal brothers, but about how we care for all of our brothers and sisters, God’s children.
Cain and Abel introduce this theme. Are we destined for nothing but rivalries as humans? Is the human story one of inevitable tragedies, suspicions, jealousy, and violence? Human history suggests that this is a reasonable conclusion. But the Bible offers a better vision, a way out of the tangled web.
Genesis answers the question by telling stories of several sets of brothers. Noah had three sons and two of the brothers exiled their sibling. Last week we talked about Abraham’s sons who were bitter rivals, estranged from each other, but they came together and stood side by side to bury their father.
The story continues with Abraham’s grandchildren, two brothers—Jacob and Esau. Again, there is treachery, betrayal, and estrangement before a reconciliation a live and let live attitude.
Joseph the Daddy’s Boy Twerp
Joseph and his brothers are Abraham’s great-grandchildren, the sons of Jacob. Jacob had 11 sons, ten from one wife the homely one that Jacob had been tricked into marrying. To the wife he really loved, the pretty one was born Joseph, who was the youngest and daddy’s favorite. This was before anyone believed it was a bad idea to favor one child above the others. His father, Jacob, fashioned a vibrant cloak of many colors and bestowed it on Joseph. Maybe you’ve heard of or seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That’s the cloak. Colored fabric was expensive and hard to come by. It would be like a dad giving one kid a Lambo and the others diddly squat.
To make matters worse, Joseph was a little twerp. He’d prance around with his coat and rub daddy’s favoritism in his brother’s faces. He loved to tell them about the dream he had where one day all eleven brothers would bow down before him. In every respect, he was obnoxious. He was so obnoxious that his brothers sought to get rid of him. They took him to the wilderness, dug a pit, and threw him in it, intending to let him rot and die in it. But just then they saw a slave trader’s caravan and one of the brothers said, “Let’s sell him as a slave. We won’t have to commit murder, and we can turn a profit on this situation.” Nice guys.
The brothers return home with the cloak they had smeared with goat’s blood. They whip up some tears and tell their father that an animal killed his beloved Joseph.
How Joseph Rises from Slave to Prime Minister
So, Joseph winds up as a slave in Egypt working in the house of the king’s chief guard. Things start out well for him and his administrative skills earn high appreciation from his master. He gets put in charge of the household.
One verse describes him as both good-looking and handsome. That’s why they cast people like Donny Osmond in the play. He’s so attractive that his boss’s wife takes a shine to him. But when he spurns her advances, she makes up a story and accuses him of assault. Infuriated, the boss throws him into the king’s dungeon.
While in the dungeon, he meets a couple of other guys in there, too. They are disturbed by dreams but Joseph comforts them with his interpretation of the dreams. Soon, what he predicts about the dreams comes true. Meanwhile, Joseph languishes and is humbled for a couple more years in prison, although he is an adept administrator there and gets put in charge of other prisoners.
One day, Pharoah, had a perplexing dream about seven fat cows and seven emaciated cows. The emaciated cows eat the fat cows. The king wants to know what this means so they get Joseph—who had built a reputation as a dream interpreter. Joseph says the dream means that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought and famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with this that he puts Joseph in charge of storing up grain in the good years so there will be enough to get them through the lean years. Joseph is an adept administrator and soon he becomes like the prime minister, the administrator of the entire Egyptian government. The second most powerful man on the planet.
The drought and famine hit with a vengeance. But it extends way beyond Egypt. Jacob and his sons are in dire straits, so he sends the ten to Egypt to see if they can’t get some grain to ward off starvation. The brothers come to Egypt and seek audience with the guy in charge, but they don’t know that the guy in charge is Joseph, the guy they sold into slavery.
When Joseph’s Brothers Come Begging for Help
They are brought to the guy in charge of food distribution to make their plea. As they enter his presence, they bow low, fulfilling Joseph’s dream. It’s been 20 years and the man on the throne is bedazzled with his Egyptian garb. They don’t recognize their brother that they sold into slavery, but you had better believe that he recognizes them.
The tension is tremendous. You might think you know the outcome—Joseph weeps and forgives. But that is skipping far ahead in the story. No, his first impulse and actions are designed to make their lives as miserable as possible. You did it unto me, now I am going to do it to you. He counter-punches by accusing them of being spies infiltrating Egypt, worthy of death.
But he is concerned about his father and he learns that he has a full brother, Benjamin, who was born after he went to Egypt. He tells his brothers to deliver food to his father and he bring him Benjamin, back with them to Egypt.
For three full chapters the story unfolds without the brothers knowing that Joseph is the man in charge. Joseph torments them and envisions revenge strategies. It seems the answer of Cain and Abel is that yes, humans are locked in struggle. Brother against brother, cycles of revenge and self-centeredness. People will always lash out when they feel hurt. They will always demand an eye for an eye.
History Changes with a Selfless Act
When they return with Benjamin, Joseph set Benjamin up to make it look like he stole a cup. He intended to get Benjamin away from his brothers and keep him in Egypt with him. Then his most despicable brother, Judah, the one who set up Joseph’s sale into slavery, loses it. “No! Don’t do that. Take me instead.”
“What’s this?” Joseph must have thought. “You would give your life for a half-brother? What do you care? It sounds like your father gives him preferential treatment anyway. What would it matter if he wound up as a slave in Egypt? That is what you did to me!”
Judah begged, “Benjamin must return to his father.” His father already lost his favorite child and it would be unbearable for him to lose the other. At that point, the story turns. The history of the world is changed. Someone considers the pain of another and offers a sacrifice on his behalf. He looks beyond his own self-interest. And in doing so, reveals that he and Joseph have something in common, a concern for their father’s wellbeing.
Joseph is overcome. He weeps and finally reveals his identity. “I am Joseph, your brother.”
“Oh no, we’re doomed!” the brothers think. But Joseph embraces them, and forgives them, baptizing them with his tears.
Stepping out of Death Spirals
Here are the elements of stepping out of the death spirals of retaliation and hate. Discovering we are brothers and sisters after all. Thinking about someone outside of our own hurt. Willing to forego retaliation for reconciliation. Seeing God’s hand is for unity not division.
From individual families to societies to international relationships, we see the cycles of retaliation and revenge played out constantly—brother against brother, hatred, and violence. But this story reminds us that God is working for a better answer than the Cain and Abel tragedy, an answer of unity instead of division, where reconciliation is preferred. The way out of this happens when we create contexts of love where we teach that we are all children of the creator who calls us to forbearance, tolerance, respect and love, and justice.
That is why the church is so important our mission is to remind people of connection, to seek humane treatment, and justice. To remind us love is possible of our relatedness and the stories of how we can put our egos and hurts aside and move toward something better. Our story is that we don’t always have to counter-punch when attacked, we don’t have to lash out whenever our egos are damaged, and we shouldn’t use our power to put someone else down and humiliate them. We are meant for better than that.
God Meant it for Good
Joseph made a big claim about God. Even though God never spoke directly to Joseph, Joseph knew God’s heart. He tells his brothers, “Even though you sold me into slavery and intended to do great evil upon me, God brought great good out of it. Now I can save all of you, and bring you into Egypt and you will be saved from the famine, and we can live in peace as a restored family.”
I call it the 50:20 rule. It is Genesis 50:20. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” It is the belief that no matter what evil or terrible thing that happens, God can always make something good come out of it if we will let him work through us. It took a long time for it to happen in the Joseph story and sometimes we have to remember that but it gives us hope that if it happened for someone else, then maybe our waiting and praying and hoping is not in vain. God can redeem any situation and if you wait and pray you will find it.
However, what I am talking about is different from much of what I hear people saying about how life runs. They say everything happens for a reason and that God is always causing things to happen in our lives sometimes to punish us or to give us a lesson to get back on track. I don’t think the Bible says that. Often that kind of thinking makes people too passive and they wind up thinking terrible things about God. They think God caused their terrible situation when often they caused it themselves. They come up with stuff like this, “I lost my job, God must have wanted me to lose my job to teach me a lesson about trusting in him alone for my daily bread.” And I’m like, “Uh, no. Maybe you lost your job because you were goofing off and not working very hard and you got fired and you shouldn’t blame God. But God can help you redeem your messed-up situation if you are willing to work harder.
You can’t blame everything that happens in this world on God because there is some bad stuff out there that God doesn’t like any more than we do. God doesn’t want people to suffer, children to die, violence, and hunger to take hundreds of thousands of lives in his world every year. There is a big difference between saying God causes everything that happens to us to happen and saying that no matter how badly we mess things up, God can bring something good out of it.
In the face of evil, we are given a choice. We can choose our attitude. We can choose whether we feed the bitterness and anger. We can choose to look for God’s hand at work in a larger scheme. We can choose not to retaliate. We can choose even to see things as God sees them, to end the death spiral. We can even choose, over time, to forgive.
Our task it to turn evil around — to resist it, to redeem it, to bring healing to the victims. Never give in to the notion that evil has the last word and that it should not be opposed. Are you having a problem with evil? Is someone doing you dirt? Read the Joseph story. Look for the unseen hand of God.
May you find something good. May you be stronger for what has happened to you. May you be more of an ally for those who suffer evil, injustice, and oppression. May you learn to rely on God to bring something good out of evil. May you know the weight that drops off of your shoulders when you quit stewing in your bitterness. May you learn something of your own faults, and may you find forgiveness from God and even yourself. May we all be a little less despicable. Amen.