Genesis 44:1&2 “Now Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: ‘Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack. Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.’ And he did as Joseph said . . .” [and on to verse 34].
The story of ‘the man’ (whom the eleven brothers know as Zaphenath Paneah but whom we know to be Joseph) and his relationship with these sons of Jacob, his own brothers, is coming to its climax. They have just received their brother Simeon out of prison, but they still have not acknowledged their terrible sin when twenty years ago they sold their own brother into slavery and told their father that an animal had torn him to pieces – his dearest son. Now they have just obtained much food for their home in Canaan enough for the foreseeable future and it is all a gift from ‘the man.’ Once again he has returned their money, but still they have not repented of their sin. They have been shown extraordinary kindness from this prime minister of Egypt, but they have not confessed their sin. They are full of the memories of the feast that they’d enjoyed the previous night, but they are still unrepentant. They are on their way home to their father and their wives and children with young Benjamin, but still their guilt has not been resolved by repentance.
Yet beyond ensuring their survival and well being Joseph their brother is insisting that they deal with their guilt. They must face up to it so that the burden of their shame can be be lifted from them, and that they acknowledge that they had done wrong to him and their father. He wants them to humbly confess their sin, to ask him and father Jacob for forgiveness – which will readily be granted. There can be no reconciliation and no peace without such repentance. Joseph wants it for their sake. He himself has come to terms with their despicable conduct. In other words, he is not seething with resentment and revenge. He will soon acknowledge to them that though they intended all they did for evil, God had meant it for good, and he believes that. He’d got the power to execute every one of them with no questions asked, but he has come to terms with his duty under God of offering pardon to them. However, for that offer to be received they have to acknowledge that they need pardon, and that is not yet evident.
So Joseph devises one final test which centres on his brother Benjamin. Should young Ben become an embarrassment to them and a target of their scorn by the favouritism he receives from the prime minister of Egypt? That did not occur; they did not mind the special favours he’d got at the feast. So let’s move on; what if they should discover that he has stolen a most expensive piece of jewellery from Joseph’s house, and so has jeopardized their whole mission to Egypt? That would then prevent them from returning home to their father safe and sound. How would they respond to that, facing the punishment of a life of slavery? Would they abandon Benjamin to his fate in Egypt, just as they’d abandoned Joseph to his fate in Egypt all those years ago? What do they think of their aged father now? They didn’t care two hoots about breaking his heart when they lied to him about Joseph being killed. How will they treat him now? Are they the same men as they were then? Have the graces of repentance and spiritual maturity grown in them? The test devised by Joseph will give answers to these questions.
God will not fail to test us, throughout our lives, whether we are dealing with our sins properly and honestly. We don’t wait for others in the church to confess their sins to God first (“Well, she’s not doing it so why should I do it?”). I can’t wait for you to get right with God and do right to your neighbour. I have my own obligations. It is up to me to get right and do right. God brings us each Lord’s Day to this place where the word of God reigns; it tells us how we should live, and we are summoned to be willing to change regardless of personal cost. Do you go to church with that intention? Are you serious about walking in the Spirit? Is your attention seized by the word of God so that you are being brought back once again into a right relationship with God? We are to keep short accounts with God; our sin is to be confessed immediately and humbly. On Sundays God tests us. He never tempts us to sin, though the same word is used in the original for ‘testing’ and for ‘tempting.’ The difference between the two is great. Temptation is designed to destroy you; testing is designed to make you!
- JOSEPH’S SCHEMING PLOT TO ACCOMPLISH RECONCILIATION.
This is the scheme that Joseph concocts; he says to his steward, “Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack. Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain” (vv.1&2). The money is again returned as an act of kindness. It was not designed to incriminate them, but incidentally it had this purpose of heaping coals of fire on their heads, of touching their consciences, overcoming their past evil actions with Joseph’s good actions. So Joseph proceeds to set out this test.
There had been that awful time over twenty years earlier when they had conspired together against him. Now the tables are turned; Joseph is planning a conspiracy too, but he does so for their good. I am not keen on one suspicious spouse who sets some secret tests for the other spouse. The best of men can fail designated tests, and there is bitterness and incredulity afterwards. Don’t copy Joseph by tricking your brother or sister. Joseph, you will remember, is working directly under the immediate guidance of God to redeem his brothers, and prepare the seed of Israel for the coming of the Messiah, the son of Jacob and Judah. This is a conspiracy, but, unlike the brothers’ action towards him, Joseph is not conspiring to harm them but to do them lasting eternal good. Aren’t you mighty glad that you have a loving heavenly Father who seeks and saves his lost sheep? You may have wandered off into those wildernesses where God is ignored. There you may have forgotten God, but God has not forgotten you, and even after twenty years in that unhappy place he can still come and find you (he knows where to look) and deal with you, and restore you, bringing you to yourself, and bringing you to repentance. In what strange places he can find his lost sheep, in a tax office, mending fishing nets, under a juniper tree, up a sycamore tree, among the tombs, and on the road to Damascus. Here God finds these brothers on the road home, thinking and talking about of the happy time they’ve just had at the feast the previous night, when everything seemed to be working for their happiness, when their mission had seemed a total success – then the G
ood Shepherd perforates their lives and their joy turns to overwhelming grief, to wailing and tearing their clothes in horror. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
We dream that if we forget about our sins then we can get away with them. Like Adam and Eve we think we can cover our guilt with the flimsy fig leaves of our own making. But God will settle with nothing less than real confession and repentance. Like Achan we might think we’ve found a safe place to hide our sins but God knows where they’re buried and he’ll uncover them in time. Only he can bury our sins in an inaccessible place. Get your sins into the open. He who covers his sins cannot prosper. Take them to God; confess them to him. Deal with their consequences in your life. That is what the brothers are refusing to do. They took their guilt all the way to Egypt and now they are taking it all home again. Both their going down and their going up is sinful. So God comes and he’s starting to burn the barley fields of these brothers of Joseph. God is taking their attention away from last night’s feast and next week’s homecoming to today’s estrangement from God and man.
So Joseph sent his steward an hour or so after his brothers had set out, and off the man went galloping after them on his horse soon catching them up on their donkeys. They looked at him rather perplexed, and they were even more puzzled when he said to them, “Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done” (vv.4&5). They all protested their innocence vehemently; “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servants to do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves” (vv.7-9). They were utterly confident of their innocence.
Of all the objects to steal from Joseph’s house the cup would the one whose absence would be instantly noticed. The theft of a silver spoon from the table would escape attention, but this vessel was unique, Joseph’s own cup that he drank from each day and could use for divination. It was made of solid silver. It could be used for libations, that is, Egyptians claimed that they could tell the future by looking into a bowl. It probably still happens in the Kardomah café where a group of laughing women have had a happy hour together. One of those bright sparks will pick up a neighbour’s tea cup and tell the person who had drunk from it what her future is going to be, what a tall, dark, handsome stranger is going to come into her life – reading the pictures and patterns of the tea-leaves at the bottom of her cup. In Egypt they would mix olive oil and water in a divining bowl and the various reactions and patterns of the two liquids would tell whether a certain course of action was advisable or not. We are not told whether Joseph ever actually read omens with his silver bowl or even pretended that he was doing so. There is always a great deal of hit or miss fantasy and mockery about such devices, but with an underlying longing in every unregenerate heart to have some preternatural help and guidance and knowledge to face the future. Every notable figure in the land of Egypt would have possessed and used his own personal silver cup. Of all the objects to steal from Joseph’s house this was the one most obviously noticed as missing.
The steward responded to their protestations, “‘Very well, then,’ he said, ‘let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have it will become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.’ Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city” (vv.10-13). “Very well, then,” said the steward. He concurred with the judgment they had called down on themselves, but he does not accept that the culprit is worthy of capital punishment but rather of slavery, and the thief alone is to be arrested and not them all. The rest of them would be free from guilt. You see how eager the brothers were to comply, showing their total innocence, quickly taking the sacks off their donkeys and lowering them to the ground, and one by one the steward went from brother to brother, from the oldest to the youngest (knowing their order of age as he had seen them sitting the previous night along their table). Of course he is theatrically increasing the suspense though he knew all along where the cup was. He had put it in Benjamin’s sack. So in the final sack the silver cup of Joseph’s was revealed! The brothers tore their garments at the discovery, even as they’d made their father Jacob tear his garments when they had lied to him, telling him that his dearest Joseph had been torn to pieces by a lion or a bear. The brothers could say nothing, stunned at this evidence of theft, but they did not abandon Benjamin and wave goodbye to him as he was carried off to Egypt, as they once saw the slave traders carrying off Joseph. They all turned around and went back with him to face the music. Joseph’s test was brilliantly successful; it was his master stroke. It was a thrust into the heart of all the brothers.
2. JUDAH SHOWS THAT TRUE RECONCILIATION HAS BEEN EFFECTED
The brothers stood before ‘the man.’ Their clothes were newly torn to shreds. One could wish that Joseph had seen them tearing them. That would have been a massive sign that they were not the heartless men they used to be. Surely that would have been a confirmation to Joseph that a growing spiritual change had taken place, but ‘the man’ had not seen it, and now Joseph is relentless. Again these brothers threw themselves to the ground before him – how many times had this happened and the dreams he’d told them that he’d received twenty years earlier were confirmed again and again?
Joseph began, “What is this you have done? Don’t you know that a man like me can find things out by divination?” (v.15). This is not a claim for a Christian reading it to come to terms with easily. Joseph is saying that he has the gift of divination. What gift is this? A gift of God, or a more sinister ‘gift’? The claim clashes with his earlier words to Pharaoh when the king says that he has heard that Joseph can interpret dreams; “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer . . .” (Gen. 41:16). Before his prostrated brothers Joseph is exaggerating or even boasting about these powers of divination. We all know that Joseph was the one who’d told the steward to put his cup in Benjamin’s sack. There was no divination on Joseph’s part whatsoever. Calvin is critical of Joseph at this juncture. Here he believes that Joseph is actually sinning, setting out this pretence that he is also a magician. But it is only a momentary lapse in this lengthy hiding of his true identity from his brothers in order that he might bring them to repentance and that they al
l come to a real reconciliation.
Behold how good a thing it is and how becoming well
When those who brethren are agree in unity to dwell.
Immediately Judah speaks. He saves us from getting distracted and entering a Bypath Meadow where we learnedly discuss what exactly was Joseph claiming for himself and this cup. We are immediately delivered from that by many great words and actions of this wonderful saved man – which Judah has finally become, a true ministering angel to Joseph as much as to Benjamin.
God can send men to church meetings who can say those words that bring peace and that calm tensions. God sent one such messenger to comfort Elijah under the juniper tree. Judah speaks here just as Titus spoke when he once visited Paul and comforted him. The leadership of Judah is increasingly evident; the other brothers would have listened with admiration and thanksgiving. God has evidently been working as powerfully in Judah’s heart and mind as he’d been working in Joseph. Judah, can now serve his older brother with these words, and in serving him he can serve all the brotherhood. Brother is speaking to brother – though only one of them knows it. The remainder of this chapter, except for one brief interjection of Joseph’s is this long moving speech of Judah’s, speaking on behalf of all his brothers. These words confirm to Joseph that true repentance and godly sorrow have come to his brothers, and by the time he had finished he could no longer control his feelings and he cried out. He had all the servants ejected, and standing there before his brethren acknowledged, “I am Joseph.” It is fitting that Jesus our Saviour came of the line of Judah. Let’s look at this speech . . .
“‘What can we say to my lord?’ Judah replied. ‘What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves – we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup” (v.16). Judah knows that they do not deserve mercy for such a theft after such kindness. It is only by a divine gift that a sinner realises that mercy is never deserved, and that the gift of mercy is optional. Only wicked people think they deserve mercy and that it is somehow God’s ‘job’ to forgive sinners. Here Judah makes it clear that he isn’t going to ask for mercy from Joseph because he and his brothers don’t deserve it. He speaks respectfully to Joseph and acknowledges that for the rest of their lives they are prepared to serve as slaves in Egypt. That would be the only righteous sentence that ‘the man’ can pass on them. Judah asks for the privilege of suffering in the place of his brother. He asks for the privilege of serving as a slave vicariously in Benjamin’s room and stead. The guilty brother (the one who sold Joseph) is offering himself as a substitute for the innocent brother (Benjamin not being there that terrible day 20 years earlier), but there would be another Lion of the tribe of Judah who would be innocent, “holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners,” but he would offer himself as a substitute for his guilty brothers, standing in their place and taking their punishment. That great Substitute was accepted and Jesus would live and die in their place that they might go at last to heaven saved by his precious blood. Judah is the first person in the Bible who willingly offers his own life for another. His self-sacrificing love for his brother for the sake of his father points forward to his greater Son and his royal atonement. In the kingdom of the Son of Judah the King sacrifices himself for the lowest and meanest subjects in his realm. “I’ll become the slave in Benjamin’s place,” volunteers Judah
Joseph will have none of this. “What! Judah becoming his slave?” “Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you, go back to your father in peace” (v.17). Then Judah stands and he walks up to ‘the man’ and this is what he says, “Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself . . .” (v.18) and Judah demolishes this posture of Joseph’s righteous aloofness in one of the most moving and eloquent speeches in the whole Bible. The bustling noisy man Joseph is reduced to weeping when Judah finishes.
I have taken much help in this closing section from Ronald S. Wallace in one of the best parts of his little book on The Story of Joseph and the Family of Jacob (Eerdmans/ Rutherford House, 2001). He writes that we have to remember as we read this speech of Judah that it is uttered not simply as a plea from man to man. Judah, already a completely transformed man, is pouring out the prayers of his heart. Speaking to Joseph he’s also turning towards God in some clinging, desperate hope that he, his young brother Benjamin and his father too may be shown mercy by God, or they will all be ruined. At this moment Judah was more conscious of God than he’d ever been in his entire life. He was more conscious of God than of ‘the man’ standing loftily and accusingly before him. Judah is waging a battle for the heart of God and the mercy of God, while at the same time he tries to win the heart and mercy of this fearful ruler.
You must know that sin, by its very nature, is a very selfish thing. When sin entered the world it entered because Eve was selfish. She chose herself over God. Our sins are about us. When we sin we choose what we want, over God, over our families, over our church, over everything except our own wants, desires and wishes. Sin is rooted in selfishness and sin lords it over the unregenerate heart, but Judah is being delivered from this, and that was what Joseph desired for him and all his brothers.
So Judah beseeches Joseph to show mercy to Benjamin and let judgment for the theft rather fall on him. The urgency of his need makes him bold. He feels so helpless that he can’t afford to be cautious before this awesome and threatening man. He pleads with him face to face about these life-and-death issues. He dares to argue with this terrible, all-knowing man and to take much of the responsibility for what’s happened upon his own shoulders. If it hadn’t been for that question that ‘the man’ had asked them when they’d all first come down to Egypt, ‘Are there any more brothers?’ and the subsequent insistence of ‘the man’ that little brother Benjamin be brought to Egypt to prove they were not spies, the plight they were now in would never have occurred: Judah points this out, that the initiative had come from Joseph, saying, ‘My lord asked . . . Then you said . . . Then you said . . . (vv. 19-23). Judah, you can see, was speaking before God at the same time as he was speaking to Joseph. Judah was acutely conscious that God — who has continually controlled everything that has so broken him and changed him — is personally there listening to every word. Also Judah is speaking in complete solidarity with all his brothers, for he knows that they too have felt God dealing with them as a group. Hi
s mercy must be common to them all as they have a common guilt. They are all of them confused, faces to the ground before this majestic, frightening, and strange man who seems to stand in the place of God himself. God has reached down into their hearts through what Joseph has done to them.
The burden of everything Judah says is given in his confession, it is ‘God who has uncovered your servant’s guilt’ (v.16). Judah is compelled to trace everything that has happened back to God – the First Cause! All the brothers are sure that young Benjamin could never in a million years have stolen this cup! Neither can they begin to think in terms of some plot by their Egyptian host. That leaves the hand of God as the cause. This disaster of finding Joseph’s silver cup inside one of their sacks is to them inexplicable except that God did it! He must have put it there. He is the one who has been pursuing them and perforating their lives during these past months. Hadn’t they even been told by Joseph’s steward that it was God who had put their money back in their sacks? So it was God who’d also put the cup where it had been found; it was a sign of his judgment upon them for their criminal past. Their past sins have not gone away after twenty years; they have caught up with them; the pigeons have come home to roost. The brothers are being crushed by this accusation of stealing Joseph’s cup, and the evidence that was before them all. We know that it was a crime that they hadn’t committed, but they know of a far worst crime 20 years earlier that they had committed. Their sin has found them out through this non-sin. They are all too conscious of God knowing everything about them and so they can’t complain or rebel. This has all come to them from God, and they’ve finally surrendered. Their excuses are all over. They’ve had to lay down their weapons of rebellion. Their sins have found them out. They now know that their lives and destinies are in God’s hands. They are now prepared to take what God brings into their lives. They are willing to accept his sentence. No punishment can be unjust in the light of what they once did. If it is slavery for them all then God is just; they deserve it. They are grieved for their innocent brother Benjamin, but that means their burden is the greater because they are the ones who’ve drawn the innocent Benjamin right into their web of judgment and punishment. He’d been a mere baby when they’d sold Joseph and lied to their father. He was nowhere around.
So Judah argues while he pleads, and while he argues boldly he is at the same time pleading for grace. He is a supplicant who punctuates the whole petition with the language of abasement, (“. . . let your servant speak . . . your servant. . . my lord asked his servants . . . your servant my father. . . ."). Judah is concerned only for others. If there is a trace of self-centeredness in what he is requesting it is only because, like his own father, his life is ‘closely bound up with the boy’s life’ (v. 30) and the lives of everyone else concerned.
If it is God’s will then Judah is prepared to accept the status and labours of a slave for the rest of his life in Egypt – the very state into which he had sold his brother all those years ago. Remember it was Judah who’d said to his brothers. “Let’s sell him.” Slavery this day would be better than seeing the worst happen to other men whom he loves so much, his father’s life destroyed so that death hastens him to the grave a broken man, and Benjamin never to see his father again. Does Joseph still have faint memories of what it was like looking at his loving father’s face? So he addresses Joseph and this was Spirit-inspired pleading; this is sublime eloquence. This is true preaching – “as though God did beseech Joseph by Judah . . .” no one could remain cold and unmoved at such words. Would that we could talk to God like this! Would that we could talk to men like this!
What an example Judah is to the evangelical church today and the challenges of its pastoral work. Joseph has been given great power by God and he uses it in a ministry of reconciliation. We are given the same ministry, and we also have the same authority to speak on God’s behalf, to represent him and to offer forgiveness to all, and to promise forgiveness to all who repent, to assure them with all the authority of God that when they come to the Lord he will in no way cast them out. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). You understand? I can tell you all that if you are joined by saving faith to Jesus Christ then there is no condemnation. You are justified. You are loosed from the judgment of God. Again Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). I assure you that if you confess your sins God is faithful and just to forgive you your sins. I say that with all the authority that God has given me. Paul speaks of himself as having received a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), and as having been given “the stewardship of God’s grace” (Eph. 3:2).
Such words, of course, apply directly and especially to those of us who are called to preach, but in ordinary situations we are all of us at times in Joseph’s position. We have to act as messengers of God towards others, to tell others of his mercy. This week my wife and I spent a time with a woman full of guilt for leaving her husband and marrying another man. We had to speak to her of the mercy of God, that she was not to despair. At times God places us within our own family life as peacemakers, to be as cunning as serpents and harmless as doves to bring forgiving love into a situation and replace prevailing bitterness and hatred. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1&2). Obviously Paul wrote those words to the ordinary members of the whole congregation, and he is reminding them that they all have the task of setting people right again.
John Knox in his ‘Scots Confession’ describes repentant sinners thus: ‘We begin to hate those things which we at first loved, and to love those things we formerly hated.’ This describes the inward change that Joseph longed for God to effect in the thoughts, attitudes, and wills of each of his brothers. If he could not see that, then he could never have promised them God’s forgiveness. He had to see the fruit of radical repentance. Here he finds it in Judah’s confession and intercession. How wonderfully he pleads for his brothers.
Don’t you wish you had someone who prayed powerfully for you? There are fears and concerns; is there someone you can turn to who is a person of intercession who will bring your needs to God and bring God to focus his powerful love upon you? This last week a person called me several times and pleaded with me to go to her house and pray with her. Wouldn&rs
quo;t you consider yourself a blessed person to have someone who regularly prayed for you? I want to tell you of such a person who knows all about you, who has seen you at your worst and yet he loves you. He loves you so much he sacrifices everything for you. What is more he knows what is best for you, and so he does not pray for the second best to happen but the very best. More than that he has the power to accomplish what he prays for. His prayers are effectual; they achieve what they pray for. What is more he is willing from this time on to constantly whisper your name in the ears of his Father and save you to the uttermost. He is offering himself to you now as your friend and intercessor. He will never stop loving you. Nothing will separate you from his love. Take him now, the Saviour Jesus Christ as he is freely offered to you in the gospel. Great Judah’s greater Son will be your great High Priest before God. Then you can sing from your heart these words, “Before the throne of God above I have a strong, a perfect plea, a great High Priest whose name is love who ever live and pleads for me.”
26th June 2011 GEOFF THOMAS