An impossible situation

Genesis 37:3-4 states that Jacob “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.” Joseph’s brothers conspired against him to kill him and when he came looking for them in Dothan, they stripped him of his robe, and threw him into a pit (Genesis 37:18-24). “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 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 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” (Genesis 37:26-28). Joseph’s brothers took his “robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 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.’ And he identified it and said, ‘It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without a doubt torn to pieces'” (Genesis 37:31-33).

Joseph’s brothers seemed to have committed the perfect crime until a famine spread over all the land and they were forced to go to Egypt to get food so that their families wouldn’t starve to death. “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” (Genesis 42:6-7). The Hebrew word that is translated strangers, nakar (naw-kar’) means to scrutinize with suspicion as if disowning (H5234). Joseph was pretending as if he had no connection with his brothers (H5234) and seemed to be intent on punishing his brothers for the harm they had done to him (Genesis 42:15-17), but the problem was that he felt compassion for his brothers and when they admitted their guilt, Joseph “turned away from them and wept” (Genesis 42:24).

Jesus used the example of divorce to address the hard heartedness of his people. It was common in the first century to “divorce for reasons other than unfaithfulness, such as incompatibility or unhappiness. The person who was put away was innocent but often acquired the false stigma of being guilty of moral misconduct” (note on Matthew 19:3-9). When he was asked if it was lawful to divorce one’s wife for any reason, Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-5). The Greek word that is translated joined together, suzeugnumi (sood-zyoog’-noo-mee) is derived from the Greek words sun (soon) and zeugos (dzyoo’-gos) which means “a couple, i.e. a team (of oxen yoked together)” (G2201). Zeugos can refer to a pair of anything and suggests that Jesus was talking about a man and woman being joined together in the context of spiritual unity.

The Apostle Paul identified spiritual unity as a key aspect of the body of Christ and said we are all to “come into the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13, KJV). The phrase “unity of the faith” refers to the fact that there is only one way for a person to be saved, by believing in Jesus Christ. Paul went on to say, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). Paul indicated that the body of Christ builds itself up or strengthens itself through love. The Greek word that is translated builds itself up, oikodome (oy-kod-om-ay’) is derived from the words oikos (oy’-kos) which means a family (G3624) and doma (do’-mah) which denotes a housetop or the roof of a building. One way of thinking of oikodome is a group of people that are related to each other who are all living under the same roof.

The Greek word sun (soon) describes a central characteristic of the kingdom of heaven. Sun denotes union “by association, companionship, process, resemblance, possession, instrumentality, addition, etc.” (G4862). Sun is most often translated as “with” indicating that joining together is primarily about spending time with someone. Judah’s argument for not killing Joseph was “he is our brother, our own flesh” (Genesis 37:27). What he likely meant by that was that Joseph had grown up in the same household with them and was a member of their family. Judah probably thought that should entitle Joseph to special consideration. And yet, when his ten brothers arrived in Egypt hoping to obtain some food to sustain their families, Joseph treated them like they were strangers (Genesis 42:7).

Joseph’s primary objective in treating his brothers roughly seemed to be to get them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt, but his father Jacob refused to be separated from his beloved son. Genesis 43:1-9 states:

Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.

Judah’s pledge to keep Benjamin safe placed him in an impossible situation because Joseph was determined to not only be reunited with his younger brother, but to keep Benjamin in Egypt so that they would no longer have to be separated from each other (Genesis 44:2-5).

Jesus warned the Jewish leaders, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6) and told them, “Because of the hardness of your heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8-9). The phrase hardness of heart refers to a condition of being destitute or lacking spiritual perception (G4641). When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they didn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of their action and couldn’t see how it was going to affect everyone in Jacob’s family throughout the course of their lives. The only thing they were probably thinking about when the sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites was getting rid of the person that was stealing their father’s affection from them.

Jesus made it clear that divorce doesn’t break the spiritual connection between a husband and wife. He said, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). The point that Jesus was making was that adultery didn’t have anything to do with being legally married to someone, but about two people that were joined together by association, process or resemblance being separated from each other. Jesus explained that divorce for any reason other than sexual immorality caused the divorced person to be deprived of his spiritual integrity. Jesus likened it to being castrated and said, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11-12).

Jesus’ teaching about divorce showed that the spouse that had not been unfaithful, but was divorced because of incompatibility or unhappiness was being forced to abstain from sexual activity for the rest of his or her life. The reason why Jesus said, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:12) was because the idea of being celibate for the rest of one’s life was unthinkable; it was thought to be an impossible task. Jesus’ disciples responded, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). In other words, they would rather never get married than have to give up sex in order to remain faithful to one wife. Jesus confronted his disciples resistance to adapting to God’s standards by demonstrating to them that childlike faith was all that was necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). The Greek word that is translated belongs, esti (es-tee’) implies that the benefits of heaven can be obtained while we are living on earth.

Paul indicated that hard heartedness was a hindrance to unity and said that we must not act like unbelievers who “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:17-18). Joseph’s stalemate with his brothers centered around the fact that no one was willing, or perhaps able to admit that Joseph had not been torn to pieces by a wild animal like his father Jacob imagined, but had actually been sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. Joseph himself played along with his brothers’ charade by pretending to not know them and by keeping his feelings hidden from them.

Joseph may have hoped that his brothers would eventually catch on and figure out that he was the governor of Egypt, but there was no indication that anyone even had a clue when he seated his eleven brothers at his banquet table according to their birth order “and the men looked at one another in amazement” (Genesis 43:33). The final showdown came when Joseph planted his silver cup in his brother Benjamin’s sack and then, sent his steward to recover it (Genesis 44:4-5). When his brothers realized they were going to have to return home without Benjamin, “then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city” (Genesis 44:13). The interesting thing about Joseph’s final confrontation with his brothers was that they all became committed to sticking together. Speaking for the group, Judah said, “God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found” (Genesis 44:16).

Joseph didn’t want all of his brothers stay with him in Egypt. He told Judah, “Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father” (Genesis 44:17). Judah’s dilemma was that he couldn’t go home without Benjamin. He had told his father Jacob, “I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (Genesis 43:9). Essentially, what Judah did was to exchange his life for his brother’s and to a certain extent you might say that Judah became his brother’s savior. When he said, “let me bear the blame forever,” Judah was talking about a moral failure toward both God and man that would result in his eternal punishment in hell.

Jesus used the example of a rich young man that was unwilling to part with his possessions to illustrate his point that a person is incapable of saving himself, much less another person. The man asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life” (Matthew 19:16). When Jesus said, “keep the commandments,” the young man responded, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:17, 20). Jesus told the man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Afterward, Jesus told his disciples, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?'” (Matthew 19:23-25).

Jesus’ disciples made the mistake of thinking salvation was a human rather than a divine act. Jesus told them, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). The Greek word that is translated possible, dunatos (doo-nat-os’) refers to being powerful in the sense having the ability and resources to do something (G1415). Paul described salvation as a gift from God and said, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:4-9).

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep illustrated God’s determination to save people that have been overtaken by sin. He said, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of that one that went astray?” (Matthew 18:12). Rather than physically tracking down sinners, God’s method of recovering his lost sheep is to bring them to a place of repentance. That seemed to be the case with Joseph’s brothers when Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants” (Genesis 44:16). The Hebrew word Judah used that is translated guilt, ‘avown (aw-vone’) portrays sin as “a perversion of life (a twisting out of the right way), a perversion of truth (a twisting into error), or a perversion of intent (a bending of rectitude into willful disobedience)” (H5771).

Judah clearly understood that selling his brother Joseph into slavery was a sin and he deserved to be punished (Genesis 42:21), but instead of accepting the situation as impossible, Judah attempted to change the governor’s mind about making Benjamin his servant. Judah thought his plea for mercy was being made to a stranger, but because Joseph was the governor of Egypt, Judah’s future was dependent on his brother’s compassion. Paul instructed members of the body of Christ to, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Therefore, it was left up to Joseph to forgive his brothers and to let his inward affection for them make it possible for Jacob’s twelve sons to be reunited as a family.

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