STUDY TWENTY- THREE: JOSEPH AND THE SOVEREIGN HAND OF GOD
© Rosemary Bardsley 2013
Through the story of Joseph we are taught, as we have been taught right through Genesis, that God is Sovereign: he is the Almighty God whose purposes come to pass. So great is his power and authority that even those things that are opposed to him, even those things that are the opposite of all that he is, he takes up and uses in the fulfilment of his eternal plan.
Since Genesis 3 we have seen bad things happen. We have seen the sad and sorry evidence of our human attempt to live severed from God. But over and above that we have seen God at work – not with perfect people, for there are none; not through men of pure, unsullied faith, for there are none; not in perfect circumstances, for there are none. Now here in the story of Joseph we will see it again, perhaps even more forcefully and more clearly than we have seen it before, because Joseph himself recognised it and affirmed it to his brothers, and to us.
A. BAD THINGS HAPPEN
For many years the life of Joseph is a patchwork of ‘bad things’ that occurred because of human sin.
Task #1: What human sins caused ‘bad things’ to happen to Joseph?
37:3 - His father …
37:4,7,8 - His brothers …
37:5-9 - Joseph …
37:11 - His brothers …
37:18-20 - His brothers …
37:25-28 - His brothers …
37:31-35 - His brothers …
37:36 - The Midianite traders …
39:7-18 - Potiphar’s wife …
39:19-20 - Potiphar …
40:14,15,23 - The cup-bearer …
B. BUT IT IS NOT ALL BAD
All of the above meant that Joseph’s life was a life of suffering … and all of that suffering was the result of human sin, including his own sin. But even in the midst of all of this, God was there, and his hand was upon Joseph for good, and not for evil, as God prepared Joseph for the mighty work he would accomplish through him, and as God remained true to his covenant promise and his eternal purpose.
When Joseph was a slave in the house of Potiphar [39:2-6] so remarkable was the Lord’s presence with and goodness towards Joseph that it was obvious to Potiphar, so he placed everything he possessed in Joseph’s care. Because of Joseph, God also blessed everything belonging to Potiphar.
A similar thing happened in the prison [39:20-23], where God made the prison warden favourable to Joseph, so that he put him in charge of everything.
In both of these situations we see the blessing of God upon Joseph. We also see that in both of these undesirable contexts Joseph is given a position of high authority and responsibility, with the care of many people, and the administration and stewardship of considerable business matters in his charge.
Task #2: List the phrases used to describe God’s good hand upon Joseph in 39:2-6, 21-23
Bad things happen. That is what human life is between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20. The story of Joseph, indeed the book of Genesis from Genesis 3 on, makes this very clear. But God did not abandon Joseph, and God does not abandon us. Here in the depths of human suffering and degradation … here in the context of slavery and wrongful imprisonment … here God is still God, and his blessing and his goodness towards man are evident. Here, even in slavery and imprisonment, Joseph knows the ‘rest’ of God, and in that rest, in that faith, lives his life with integrity before God and man [39:8-10] and with confidence in God [39:8].
Stephen summed it all up with a few words: ‘Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave to Egypt. But God was with him …’ [Acts 7:9]. Yes. Bad things happen, but God is still there, and God is sovereign.
C. THE SOVEREIGN HAND OF GOD
Because of all the human sins listed above Joseph is in Egypt, and is known to be an interpreter of dreams, when Pharaoh dreamed his dreams. Take away any one of those sins and Joseph would have been elsewhere; take away any one of those sins and Pharaoh would not have been told of Joseph’s ability; take away most of those sins and Joseph would have had no experience in administration.
Joseph’s life is shouting at us: don’t credit your sin with more power than God! Don’t credit the sin of others with more power than God! Don’t credit your undesirable circumstances with more power than God! God is bigger than our own sins. God is bigger than the sins of others against us. God is bigger than the undesirable circumstances in which we find ourselves. God can do whatever he pleases [Psalm 115:3] even when we sin, even when others sin, even when circumstances are totally undesirable to us.
These multiple human sins in the life and circumstances of Joseph did not for a moment interfere with the sovereign purpose of God; rather, God used them to bring his purpose to pass.
Listen to the words of Joseph when his brothers feared revenge and retribution at his hand because of what they had done to him:
‘And now do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you …But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.’ [45:5,7,8].
‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.’ [50:19-21]
But there is something deeper here, something far bigger here than even Joseph stated. God is not here merely saving the Egyptians and the family of Jacob from death by starvation. As attested by Psalm 105:8-22, God is here ensuring the survival of the descendants of Abraham to whom the covenant promises have been made. God is here ensuring the future birth of the ‘seed’ of Abraham through whom the nations of the world are to be blessed. God is here sustaining the line of Seth, the people who called by the name of God. God is here keeping his word regarding the ‘seed of the woman’ who will triumph over Satan. God is here providing for our salvation.
This story is not really about Joseph. This is the history of salvation. This is God working towards the incarnation of his Son.
D. JOSEPH’S FAITH
As we have just seen, Joseph acknowledged the sovereignty of God, and viewed his suffering and the sins of others in the perspective of that sovereignty. From these chapters about Joseph we can find a few other indications of the nature of his faith.
 His faith gave him the ability to discern what was right and what was wrong [39:8,9]. At this point there is no written word of God, yet Joseph recognized the wickedness of accepting Potiphar’s wife’s repeated invitation. It would have been a betrayal of his master’s trust, and that would have been, he said, a sin against God. God had blessed him; God’s blessing had made Potiphar trust him. To have so betrayed Potiphar would be to despise God and God’s blessing.
 His faith gave him confidence to assure Pharaoh’s two servants that ‘interpretations belong to God’, even though there is no prior report of Joseph interpreting dreams [40:8]. This confidence is expressed again to Pharaoh [41:15,16], where Joseph stated that he personally could not interpret dreams, but God could.
 His faith was public. In the presence of Pharaoh and his officials Joseph interpreted the dreams with a totally theological perspective. He didn’t avoid mention of God by saying simply ‘there is going to be a famine’; rather he said ‘God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do’ [41:25; see also verses 28,32]. Pharaoh was not at all offended by this boldly expressed faith; rather he recognized that the ‘spirit of God’ was in Joseph, and that God had made the meaning of the dreams known to Joseph [41:38,39], and on that basis Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of all Egypt, including his own palace, and excepting only the throne [41:40-44]. Here a pagan ruler deliberately placed a believer in power precisely because of his faith.
 His faith is expressed in the names he gave his sons: Manasseh was so named ‘because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household’, and Ephraim was so named ‘because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering’ [41:51,52]. He saw the faithfulness of God in the midst of his trouble and suffering.
 His faith [his ‘fear’ of God] made him modify the way he tested his brothers [42:14-20]. However, his faith does not make him an ‘easy touch’. Although he was overwhelmed at the sight of his brothers he did not assume that they were any different than they had been when they sold him into slavery, and set about testing their hearts with a process that takes several chapters to record.
 Although it was at Joseph’s instruction that the brothers’ silver was placed in their sacks, Joseph instructed his steward to tell his brothers ‘Don’t be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks’ [43:23]. From Joseph’s perspective it was God who had blessed him with prosperity, it was God who enabled him to act with forgiveness and compassion, therefore it was God, not he, who provided the gift.
 He prayed God’s blessing on Benjamin [43:29].
 Because of his faith he attributed his rise to power to God [45:5-9].
 He saw his two sons as the gift of God [48:9].
 His final words expressed faith in the covenant promises of God [50:24,25; Hebrews 11:22].