Intended For Evil – Joseph Sold Into Slavery

Genesis 37:12-36 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.

INTRODUCTION

After four weeks away from Genesis, I’m eager to dive back in. Before I do, though, I’ve got three quick notes for you all.

First, on behalf of my family, I’d like to thank you all for freeing us up for our vacation. It was a good time of slowing down, road tripping, and staycationing. It was good to go and it is good to be back.

Second, I want to publically and enthusiastically thank Kyle, John, and Grant for doing such an excellent job in preaching. I listened to each of their sermons and it’s a serious and unusual joy to have such capable laymen to preach when I am gone. Please don’t take that lightly, Grace. It is a true gift from God to us. Thanks as well to Pastor Mike for tending to dozens of extra things in my absence. He too is a gift.

And third, I want to give you a fifteenth biblical principle on joy. On Father’s Day, June 20th, I preached on joy in the Bible. Specifically, I shared fourteen joy-principles taught in the Bible. I left one out that is absolutely critical: joy in God is meant to be shared. The primary commission on our lives as Christians is share our unshakable joy in Christ with the whole world. Joy in Christ that is not shared is not truly joy in Christ. One of the most tell-tale signs of genuine Christian joy is the inability to keep it to yourself. So there you have it, the fifteenth joy principle. Share your joy in Christ, Grace Church.

With all of that, welcome back to Genesis. If you’re just joining us, we’ve made our way to the second half of Genesis 37. Genesis is a book written/compiled by Moses, under the inspiration of God. It was most likely given to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land. It was meant to answer a handful of questions for them. Who are we? How did we get here? Who is our God? What does He want from us? In short, it’s meant to answer the question, “What is our place in God’s plan?”.

The first 11 chapters describe God’s creation and ordering of the world. That is, chapters 1-11 zoom way out to tell the story of the beginning of the whole of creation. Then, chapters 12-the end (50) tell the story of one man, Abram/Abraham, his offspring, and God’s special covenant promises with them.

The last time I preached in Genesis (37:1-11) we began considering the story of Joseph. He is one of Abraham’s 12 great grandsons, and the favorite of his father, Jacob/Israel. In addition to being set apart by his father (with particular kindness and affection, as well as a special coat), God set him apart by giving him two dreams concerning his place among his family. Specifically, the dreams indicated that Joseph would rule over all of them. Although we’re told that his father wondered at what it might mean, no one in his family—especially his brothers—liked what Joseph told them. In fact, the text tells us that his brothers hated him even more than they already did and his father rebuked him.

All of that is the backdrop for our passage this morning. Let’s pray and then dive in.

JOSEPH SENT TO CHECK ON HIS BROTHERS (12-17)

I imagine this is a fairly familiar OT story for most of you. It unfolds in two main scenes. In the first, Joseph is sent by his father to check in on his brothers as they pastured the family flock. In the second, Joseph’s brothers plot and execute a plan to get rid of Joseph and his dreams. Joseph is portrayed as quietly faithful in the opening scene and as a silent victim in the second. His brothers, on the other hand, are portrayed as entirely selfish and malicious. And in the larger story God is portrayed as quietly working in all of it.

With both Joseph and God mostly in the background, the two main points of the passage are these: 1) God is always at work, even when His work is undetectable, and 2) (Through the actions of Joseph’s brothers) heart-sin unchecked will eventually lead to body-sin. It is my hope and prayer that through this text and sermon all of us would grow in our appreciation for the glorious, unstoppable plan of God to bring grace to His people.

Let’s turn our attention to the text now to see these things and their implications for us.

In the opening scene we’re left wondering why Joseph wasn’t out with his brothers tending the flocks. Was it because their father was favoring or protecting him? Was he needed for other things? Something else? We don’t know for sure. All we know is that his brothers were in the field and Joseph was not among them.

Presumably, the brothers had been gone for some time since their father began to worry about them. To assuage his concerns, Jacob/Israel sent Joseph to check on them. As shepherds they moved where the flocks and food took them. This always meant some measure of unpredictability and sometimes meant moving over a good deal of land. For these reasons, it took Joseph some time and help to find them. Eventually, acting on the advice of a stranger, “Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.”

We’re left wondering what condition he’d find his brothers in and how he would be received. That leads to the second and final scene.

JOSEPH’S BROTHERS CONSPIRE AGAINST HIM (18-36)

It is made up of six quick snapshots. The first of which starts when Joseph’s brothers see him from a distance and begin concocting a plan to do him harm.

The Plan (18-20)

18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.”

Far away from home and the watchful eye of their father, the brothers believed themselves to be free to act on their jealousy and hatred. Given the amount of disdain the text says Joseph’s brothers had for him, it was only a matter of opportunity before they acted sinfully on their sinful hearts’ desires. The only questions seemed to be when and how. Given the opportunity, then, it’s anything but a surprise that the brothers acted as they did.

On a practical level, Grace, isn’t that how sin usually works. It lays crouching when normal protections are in place, only to pounce at the time of least resistance. It’s when we’re most alone or tired or discouraged or sure of ourselves that we’re most vulnerable. Of this, from Joseph’s brothers who give such a clear visible picture, we’d do well to learn two lessons.

First, to take seriously the battle against sin is to know your weaknesses and seek to mitigate them. If you tend to fall into the same sins in the same ways, do your best to avoid those ways. That’s what it means to “make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14). Have an accountability partner. Avoid being alone or alone with someone you shouldn’t be. Get an internet filter. God to bed earlier. Post promises of God around your house and car. Do what you need to do to keep yourself from acting on your sinful desires.

The second thing to learn is that the sinful desires of our hearts are the biggest issue. It is good to cut off the means of sin as much as possible, but far more significantly for Christians is cutting off the appetite for sin. This is what the Bible calls “mortifying or killing” sin (Romans 8:13). Holding sin at bay (which, again, is good) is not the ultimate goal of the Christian or the cross of Christ. To be like Jesus is to have no appetite for sin. By God’s grace, that’s what heaven will be like. Almost all of the same things that you and I turned to in sin will be present in heaven. What will be missing is our sinful desires for those things.

Joesph’s brothers sinned by allowing jealousy into their hearts. They sinned even more by allowing it to remain and fester over time. Worst yet, as we begin to see here, they sinned further by allowing their heart-sin to turn to body-sin. And worse still, they sinned by beginning to plot their cover-up even before acting on it. And therein is one of the two main points of this sermon: unchecked heart-sin will eventually lead to body-sin. If we allow sinful thoughts to linger in our minds, they will certainly, eventually make their way out of us.

The Resistance (21-24)

Well, there had to be at least one brother who was uncomfortable with this, right? Indeed there was. Whether for his own sake (since the oldest brother would have born particular responsibility for the rest) or for Joseph’s, we don’t know. What we do know, though, is that…

21 … when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father.

For the ___th time, we need to be careful not to moralize narrative. This passage tells us what was, not necessarily what ought to have been. It was not written as a three-step recipe for Christian resistance. And yet, there are things we can learn from this passage in light of the whole of what the Bible says about handling the sins of others.

Again, there are two biblical principles on display here. First, we must not go along with sin or sinners.

2 Timothy 3:1-5 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 … Avoid such people.

Christians cannot be indifferent to or associate with acts of injustice and evil in others.

Second, we need to be both innocent and wise in our handling of the injustice and evil we encounter.

“Behold [Jesus told His followers], I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

This does not mean that every Christian is responsible for every sin of everyone else. But it does mean that we need to do what we can to battle whatever evils and injustices come to us in our own hearts and through those who cross our paths.

Sometimes wisdom calls for a frontal assault on the sins of others. Other times, as was the case here, it might mean taking a more strategic approach. Ruben seems to thread this needle well in his unwillingness to see his brother killed and in his clever rescue-plan. And at first it seemed to work.

23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

The Reassessment (25-28)

The third snapshot of the final scene involved a sinful reassessment of the plan.

25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites …on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 …and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver…

Consider the callousness of the brothers sitting down to eat while their brother was next to them in a pit. We learn from 42:21 that Joseph plead with them to release them. At first, they imagined a wild animal devouring their brother in the pit. Here they were the devourers—literally and figuratively.

Initially, the brothers’ hateful, jealous plan was to kill Joseph in order to gain by getting rid of the one who had their father’s blessing and who claimed that he would rule over them. But the kind of heart that allows these kinds of feelings to remain and grow, will never be content. Simply getting rid of Joseph certainly wasn’t enough when they had the chance to make some money off of him too.

Again, this just goes to show that unchecked sin of the heart always leads to greater and greater sin of the body. Grace, what sins are you allowing to take root in you? What heart-sins are you currently tolerating? Maybe they haven’t yet worked themselves out, but with an ever-increasing appetite, eventually they will.

The Cover-up (29-33)

The fourth snapshot. Somehow, it seems, Reuben missed the new plan and its execution. 29-30 says, “29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?”

From what we are told, Reuben remained largely innocent to this point. Nevertheless, the deed was done and, therefore, another set of plans needed to be made. Because they were far from home, getting rid of their brother was fairly easy. But now the attention needed to turn to the cover-up, which would be trickier. They’d already begun to plan this, but now they needed to get together in how they were going to explain things to their father.

31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”

We’re not told why Reuben remained silent, but evidently he did. Eventually, he too succumbed to the treachery of his brothers. He helped prevent Joseph’s murder and he was not a part of his being sold into slavery, but he was (passively at least) a part of the cover-up. In this we’re given another glimpse into the anatomy of sin—how it works to destroy. It’s hard to believe that in the very first Proverb, Solomon didn’t have this exact passage in mind when he wrote,

Proverbs 1:10-16 My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. 11 If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason; 12 like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; … 15 my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, 16 for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.

Grace, be killing sin, or it will be killing you. And notice as well, once again, that there is no evidence of Joseph antagonizing his brothers. Living as God calls us to does not mean that everything will go well for us. In fact, the Bible repeatedly promises the exact opposite. In a world that is inherently hostile to God, we should be surprised when following Jesus leads to favor, not to persecution.

The Lament (34-35)

In the fifth snapshot we see Jacob. As any good father would, he was filled with grief.

34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

While Jacob’s actions were understandable, the brothers’ were further detestable. That they “rose up to comfort him” is to take their sin to yet another level—the most diabolical of all—in making a mockery of their father. The irony here is that Jacob, the deceiver of his brother and father, is now being deceived himself. This is, unfortunately, how things often work—the sins of the parents are learned by their children.

The Glimmer (36)

This scene and chapter close with a final snapshot and a brief note, ” Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.”

In this simple, subtle line, we see the first point of the sermon: God is always at work, even when His work is undetectable. God is not mentioned once in this passage, and yet His steering and directing is unmistakable for anyone who knows how this story goes. God was not sitting up in heaven, passively hoping Joseph would make it, or scheming ways He could turn this unfortunate detour around, or crossing His fingers that somehow Joseph would end up in Egypt where God intended him to be in order to keep His covenant promises. No, the main point of Genesis is that God was continually and perfectly, even if undetectably at times, working out His perfect plan of redemption through the line of Abraham, all the way to Jesus.

We know all of this for certain because of how this story and this book ends. In the final chapter of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers will be reunited on the other side of all of this. To them Joseph declared,

Genesis 50:20 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.

Joseph’s brothers made real choices to do real evil, but God was actively working through these real choices to accomplish real and spectacular good. In ways that are mysterious to us, two wills were working at the same time—the brothers who intended evil, and God who intended good.

CONCLUSION

In describing the continuation of the story of the people of God through Joseph, the main points of this passage are that God is always at work, even when His work is undetectable, and unchecked sins of the heart will always, eventually lead to increasing sins of the body. We saw these things through the actions of Joseph’s brothers and the subtle commentary of the narrator who knew where this story would end up according to God’s providence.

Perhaps more importantly, however, we catch a glimpse of Jesus in this passage. He too was sold for a price of silver. He too was descended into a pit at the hands of others. And He too was brought up for the sake of others. Our hope, like Joseph’s, is not that we are able to do enough good, but that God mercifully and graciously provided for us what we could never have done for ourselves—the righteousness and sacrificial death of Jesus. Look to Him today that you too might be lifted from the pit of sin and death and brought into the promised land of reconciliation with God.