The story of Simeon and his brothers is a familiar one. But what a beautiful story it is. Poor Simeon! What did he do to deserve being stuck in a stinking prison for weeks on end? He was no spy. He had just come to Egypt to buy food for his family. He was the second oldest in the family of Jacob, with 11 other brothers, except one of them was considered dead. And even now, the youngest was back at home.
With the famine going strong in Palestine, the ten brothers had come to the governor’s headquarters in Egypt in order to survive. Beyond the palace they could see what looked like miles and miles of beaches or sand dunes. But it was the many heaps of grain, corn, wheat, and barley. When they got there, there was a multitude of people waiting in line to buy food. And everyone, in turn, was bowing down to the governor of Egypt. When Simeon and his brothers became first in line, they approached and bowed. And the governor looked each one of them over. His eyes became stern, and suspicious.
Speaking through a translator, the Governor said, “What is it that you want?”
“We’re from Canaan and have come to buy food,” they said. They were probably thinking that at last they would get food for their family. They certainly couldn’t be prepared for what they next heard.
“You men are spies and have come here to find out the weak spots in our defenses!” They looked at each other. Spies?
“No, sir!” they said. “We’re humble people and are here to buy food for our families. We are all brothers, Your Excellency. We’re honest men, not spies!”
“No! You have come here to find the weak spots in our defenses!”
And about that time a feeling of trouble crept into their bones. This was exactly the kind of trouble that they didn’t want. “Sir, we are twelve brothers, the sons of the same father who lives in Canaan. One of our brothers is dead and the youngest is at home.”
“How do I know you’re telling the truth and that you’re not just making this up? I still think you are spies. But I’ll find out. This is how I will test your honesty. As surely as the king Pharaoh lives, you had better pass the test. You bring me your youngest brother here so I can know that you’re telling me the truth. One of you can go home and fetch him, and the rest of you will stay here and be kept under guard until he brings your younger brother back with him. If he doesn’t, it proves to me that you’ve lied to me and that you’re spies. I’ll give you till tomorrow to think about it.” And then he locked them all up.
The next day, he came into the prison and released all but one of them to go home to get the youngest brother. Perhaps Simeon was left in that stinking prison for a month left alone to his thoughts. Would he be executed as a spy? Every day, he looked outside the window for signs of their return, anxious to be released from the dirty, stinky, filthy, rat-infested surroundings.
Who knows? Perhaps he might never see his brothers again. It would certainly serve him right to be executed after what he did to his younger brother. But to Simeon’s surprise one day, someone opened the door, and took him up out of the prison pit to a nice house and a room with bathing water and clean clothes to change into.
He could hear his brothers’ voices. Did they bring Benjamin? Yes, he could hear his voice. He was ushered to the banquet table at lunch. Now, all 11 brothers were together. The seating was assigned. Strangely enough, all of them were seated by age. Was this a dream? Was this really happening?
When the Governor of Egypt came in, this time, much friendlier, he began asking them, how is your father, the old man you told me about? Is he still alive and well?”
“Yes, our father is still alive and well, and he asked us to tell you that he is your servant to do your bidding.”
After the meal was over, they were all fitted up with more grain to take home to their families. They were on their way home, when the governor’s steward and several soldiers stopped them and told them that they had stolen their master’s silver drinking cup. The soldiers searched and found it in Benjamin’s things.
Later Judah pled and argued with the Governor. “How can we go back home to our father without our youngest brother? We’ve already lost one. Our father will be devastated.” And he told the story how one of his brothers was killed by a wild animal and that their father Jacob couldn’t bear to think about losing the last son of his favorite wife. Of course, all this time the governor had been speaking to them through an interpreter. But then he started talking to them in Hebrew.
Speechless and stunned, they heard the Governor speak in their own language, “I am Joseph. Praise God my father is still alive! Come closer! Come!” he motioned.
They looked at each other. Could this be true? The governor of Egypt, their brother? Now they were really scared. Would it be payback time? “I am really Joseph, your own brother, the one you sold as a slave into Egypt! Stop condemning yourselves over what you did in a fit of anger when you sold me to the Ishmaelites. God has turned what you did into a blessing to preserve our lives.”
They looked at each other again. Perhaps they were afraid to believe the gracious words that he didn’t harbor thoughts of revenge against them.
Joseph explained, “This is only the second year of famine and there are still five more years to go during which there will be no plowing, sowing or reaping. God took advantage of your anger and sent me here to preserve your lives and our families, so we would not be without descendants. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. It was He who arranged for the Ishmaelite caravan to come by just when you were deciding what to do with me. And He has made me the highest official in the land, next to Pharaoh, who has put me in charge of all the business affairs of the palace and made me governor of all Egypt.”
Perhaps those words only dimly sank in, “It was not you, but God that sent me here.” Joseph’s brothers knew that they were guilty culprits. They did the evil, but now, how could they deny that God somehow overruled what they did for good?
Later on, after their father died, they were still afraid that Joseph would get revenge for what they did to him, so they asked him to forgive them again and this is what he said. “Do not be afraid….You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” What a magnificent story. It’s fun to imagine it.
But how can we even begin to understand how Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah and the other brothers felt when they realized that the governor of Egypt was their brother Joseph, the one that they sold into slavery? How must they have felt when they heard those words to them, “you meant evil against me, BUT GOD meant it for good”? I believe those words sum up the entire story of Joseph and his brothers.
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Lea and Rachel; they were no different from us. They had the same struggles. They were no better than we are. They had evil in their lives; we have evil and sin that Jesus is helping us to overcome. They became angry and envious just like we do. The words “you meant evil, but God meant it for good” are the climax, really of all of Genesis.
Abraham knew the meaning of those words.In Genesis, when Abraham made a mess of things, God acted to straighten them up. In Genesis 20:2, you recall, Abraham lied about his wife, Sarah. Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night.
Jacob knew the meaning of those words, too. In Genesis 31, he was planning on leaving his selfish father-in-law, Laban. He told his wives, “Your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not allow him to hurt me.” Also in the story of Genesis 31 you find the story of Jacob’s father-in-law pursuing Jacob with the intent to do harm to him for taking off so secretly. In verse 23 and 24, it says that Laban pursued him for seven days’ journey, and he overtook him in the mountains of Gilead. But God had come to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said to him, “Be careful that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.”
And later on Joseph used those words when he was dying. In Genesis 50:24, Joseph said, I am dying; but God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land to the land of which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. This, I believe, is the point of Genesis, and it is a message for us today. It’s about a God who transforms our problems and meets our needs. He is the kind of God who can change our lives.
Did you notice how forgiveness for others is one byproduct of trusting God? “You did this, BUT God.” After all, what really is it that keeps us from forgiving others, but lack of faith that God will provide for our needs? A fear for ourselves, our safety, our rights being neglected.
Several years ago, I was at Cohutta Springs for a two-day meeting. While there, I woke up around 4:00 in the morning and couldn’t sleep any more. So I started reading in my Bible and praying. Then I tried to sleep some more, but couldn’t. So I decided to go for a walk but it was still dark; and it was very cold. I had been walking for almost a half hour when I heard the dogs barking. I just kept on going and they kept on barking, far behind me. Of course, when I turned around to go back, I knew that I would have to face these dogs. I’d had bad experiences with dogs before, so I’ve always disliked barking dogs. Yet I decided to keep on going. And the closer I got, the more the tingles went up and down my spine. Do you know what that feels like? But I had been spending time with the Lord and even though it was dark and I was walking alone, I was still talking to Him, and I’d asked him to watch over me as I walked in the dark.
The barking was getting closer and closer now. And then I started to act. “Ah, come on. I’m not going to hurt you.” One of the dogs seemed to be the leader, and as soon as I said that in that tone of voice, I could tell he sensed friendliness in my posture and tone. He rolled over and let me pet him! And then I moved on—no barking at all. I thought “Wow! This is cool!” I faced my fear. The barking seemed fearsome, but God helped me to know how to respond.
What about you? What’s the barking in your life that you have to face? How can the Lord help you to react differently? When we’re afraid for ourselves and our family, we fight back and we don’t want to forgive the wrongs that have been committed against us. When we forget that God is still alive and well and wants to help us, we get psyched out and scared at all the barking around us.
Genesis helps us to realize that the problems that others cause, their hatred, their lies, their prejudices are not too small for God to handle. The world around us may be barking and threatening, but God is there to help.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the story of the traveling carpenter who went to the door of a farmhouse to seek some temporary work. While they were visiting an idea came to the farmer. “Do you see that farmhouse over there?” he asked. “Well, Joe, who lives over there and I used to be the best of friends, but a few years ago a stray heifer came into my field and he said it was his. He took it, kept it and put his own brand on it. I was so angry and he got so angry, he quit talking to me. And then a few months ago he took his plow and you see that pond up above his house? Well, he dug a trench right between us and changed the course of the creek that used to flow over there and now the creek separates us. But you know, I have this great idea. I’m going on a trip and I want you to use that pile of wood behind the house to build a good high fence between our houses. That way, I won’t have to see him or his creek.”
“I reckon I can do that,” said the carpenter and with that the old farmer went off on his trip and the carpenter went to work. He was gone for a few days and on his way back was thinking about that fence and how he would show Old Joe by doing better than a creek - he would have a fence between them.
He drove up to his farm and was so surprised, his mouth dropped open. He couldn’t believe his eyes; he was so astonished he couldn’t speak as he gazed on the carpenter’s work—not the large fence that he ordered—but there was a beautiful bridge across the creek to Joe’s house.
Before he could speak, across the bridge came his neighbor, Old Joe, with his hand outstretched. “Neighbor you are so good, and I was so wrong to keep that heifer. You can have it. Our friendship is more important than a cow. You are something else building a bridge across my creek. Let’s be friends again.”
The farmer paused, looked at the carpenter and then back at Joe and smiled, “Yes, Joe, let’s be friends. You keep the old cow.” As the carpenter turned to pack his tools, Joe said, “Say, you must stay; I have some work for you to do.”
The carpenter said, “No, I must go. I have other bridges to build.” [Story and idea for this sermon heard in a message by Gordon Bietz at the 1995 General Conference in Utrecht].
God is so much like the carpenter in that story, in contrast to us.
This story is an invitation to see the bigger picture. This message of Genesis shows us a divine perspective for life—a close friendship with God like Joseph had; seeing God’s footprints.
Have we allowed hardship to bring us closer to the God who heals? Both of my parents died when I was very young, but God was there all along, helping my brothers and me. I believe He was anticipating the day when we would recognize Him and come to Him for healing. You see, God wants all of us, like Joseph, to take the hard times and give them to Him so he can turn them around.
How can knowing this God in Genesis encourage you today? Perhaps you might say: “I don’t have a job right now, but God can meet my needs. I feel hurt by someone’s actions, but God can help me to forgive them. I feel rejected, but God can help me to feel loved by Him.” Whatever it is, God can turn it around, in His time, in His way.
I invite you to try that little phrase in your own life.
Hymn of Praise: #559, Now Thank We All Our God Scripture: Genesis 50:17-20 Hymn of Response: #516, All the Way
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