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Lesson 62: Getting Out of a Spiritual Slump (Genesis 35:1-29)

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Anyone who follows baseball knows that occasional slumps are part of the game. If you’re the Cubs, they’re a major part of the game! The New York Mets began their history as notoriously inept. During one especially bad time, Mets manager, Casey Stengel, got a cake for his birthday. Someone asked why Marv Thornberry, their first baseman, hadn’t received a cake for his birthday. Stengel quipped, “We were afraid he might drop it.”

If you’ve walked with the Lord for any time at all, you’ve gone through spiritual slumps, when the Lord seems distant. You hit a plateau where you seem to get stuck. Usually you’re not aware of it right away. But at some point, you realize that you aren’t as excited about the Lord as you used to be. You’re still going to church, reading your Bible, and praying, but you’ve lost your first love. It’s easy for that to happen after you’ve been a Christian for many years. Maybe you’re burned out from serving in the church, so you kick back. Slowly the air leaks out of your spiritual tires and you realize that you’re in a spiritual slump.

Jacob was there. Thirty years before, the Lord had met Jacob in a special way at Bethel, as he fled from his angry brother, Esau. Jacob made a vow that if God brought him back safely to the land of Canaan, then He would be his God. God kept His part of the deal: Jacob had prospered financially under Laban, in spite of Laban’s greed and deception. Jacob had been blessed with eleven sons and a daughter. After wrestling him into submission at Peniel, the Lord had protected him in his dreaded meeting with Esau and brought him safely back to Canaan.

But Jacob stopped short of returning to Bethel, the place of his vow to God. Whether it was continuing fear of Esau, attraction to the good life in Shechem, or other factors, we can’t be sure. But Jacob settled short of the place God wanted him to be. It wasn’t that he abandoned God during those ten or so years. He erected an altar there (Gen. 33:20). But even though he went through the outward motions, the reality of Bethel and of Peniel had faded. Jacob went through a decade of spiritual slump which climaxed in the rape of Dinah and the terrible slaughter of the Shechemites by his sons.

The trick isn’t getting into a spiritual slump‑‑most of us have done that without much trouble! The trick is getting out. How do you start growing again? Genesis 35 shows us how Jacob began to grow after his slump. In a nutshell,

We get out of a spiritual slump by responding obediently to God’s Word.

God spoke and Jacob responded obediently. There are four facets to Jacob’s obedience which we can apply personally:

1. Obey God’s present commands.

Genesis 35:1 ought to encourage anyone in a spiritual slump. After the events of chapter 34, you would have expected the Lord to say, “Jacob, that’s it! You and your family have messed up once too often! I chose you to be a blessing to all nations, but instead you deceived and slaughtered them! I’m going to find someone else to be My covenant people!” But instead the Lord graciously says to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”

That’s encouraging! God wants us to come back to Him and grow, even after a decade of spiritual slump, even after a disaster like Genesis 34! Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, the Lord is looking for His straying children to return to Him, and He always welcomes them back with open arms. His grace should motivate us to respond obediently to Him.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s great that God spoke to Jacob. But God hasn’t spoken to me.” Ah, but He has! First bow your heart before Him and confess your spiritual apathy. Then, open your Bible and ask Him to speak to you from His Word and show you what to do. And then do as Jacob did‑‑obey.

One way you’ll know that the Lord has spoken to you is that you’ll have an immediate sense of the need for personal and family cleansing. You’ll be aware that there are things you have allowed into your life that have to go, because they are not pleasing to God. As soon as God told Jacob to go back to Bethel, he had to do some spiritual house cleaning (35:2). God didn’t have to tell him to get rid of the idols. Jacob knew that if he was going to meet with God, there had to be cleansing. He couldn’t let his family haul their idols to Bethel.

Here is the number one family on the face of the earth, as far as God’s dealings go. The Lord has been working with Jacob for over 30 years, and with his father and grandfather before him. And yet here we discover that his family is loaded with idols and earrings which had some sort of idolatrous significance (35:4). Rachel had stolen her father’s household gods (31:19); the rest of the family apparently had more of their own. Probably they had added a few more when they looted Shechem. Jacob had known about it, but just let it ride until now. But when God told him to return to Bethel, he confronted his family’s sin. For the first time we see Jacob taking the proper leadership of his family!

It’s easy to sit here and think, “This doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have any idols--I’m a Christian, not a pagan!” But idols aren’t just little statues you bow down to. An idol is anything that takes the place of God in your life and blocks you from growing in the Lord and doing His will. For some, the idol is career success. Everything else, even the family, is subordinated to that goal. For others, it’s affluence, collecting all the junk Madison Avenue tells us we need to be happy. Some worship personal fulfillment, even if it means divorcing their mate. For some, it’s the pursuit of leisure. They don’t have time for personal or family devotions. No time for getting to know their lost neighbors or for calling on church visitors. They’re too busy to work with the young people in the church or to be involved in a Bible study. But they’ve got time for TV, sports, or whatever.

It’s also easy to sit here and think, “I hope so-and-so is listening to this! He’s such a materialistic guy.” But each of us needs to take the log out of our own eye. The most stubborn idol we have to get rid of is self in all its manifestations. There are three things in the process of rooting out our idols (see vs. 2). First, we must identify and put away anything that hinders our drawing near to God (“Put away your foreign gods”). Second, we must cleanse ourselves, by confessing our sins and appropriating God’s forgiveness (“purify yourselves”). Third, we must change our outward behavior, which usually involves changing our schedules (“change your garments”). The way to get out of a spiritual slump is, in response to His grace, obey what God is telling you to do right now.

2. Fulfill your past commitments.

God had begun with Jacob 30 years before at Bethel, where he had made some commitments to the Lord. They were immature commitments in many ways, because Jacob was bargaining with God, and no sinner should do that. Jacob had promised God that if He would provide for him and bring him back safely, he would let God be his God, he would set up Bethel as God’s house and give a tenth to God. Although immature, God took Jacob’s commitments and began to work with him. He wanted Jacob’s obedience and worship. So here, the Lord doesn’t mention the house or the ten percent. He commands Jacob to return to Bethel and fulfill his commitment to worship. Jacob had to return to his original commitment to the Lord.

God has a way of bringing us back to commitments we made to Him years before. That’s why it’s good to encourage your children to commit themselves to the Lord, even if they don’t understand much. I “invited Jesus to come into my heart” when I was three. I didn’t understand total depravity or substitutionary atonement. But the Lord was at work in my heart. When I was in grade school, I remember responding when an evangelist at church asked those who wanted to be sure about going to heaven to raise their hand. In fourth and fifth grades, I went to a church camp in Crestline, California. I don’t remember anything any speaker said. All I remember is getting into nettle playing by the creek, having a crush on a couple of girls and on one of the girl counselors, choosing Philippians 4:13 as my life verse, and throwing a stick on the fire signifying dedicating my life to the Lord. Little did I know that God would bring me back to that same community to pastor a church for 15 years!

Most of us make commitments to the Lord early in our relationship with Him. Maybe it was at camp or at a church service. Maybe it was during a crisis, when you promised the Lord that if He would get you out of that jam, you would follow Him. It’s good to dust off those commitments once in a while and go back spiritually to the place where God met you then.

You have to do that in marriage once in a while, don’t you? It’s wonderful when you first fall in love! Remember how you felt toward each other? Remember that romantic moment when she told you she’d marry you? That was wonderful, but there isn’t anybody who maintains those intense feelings through the years of marriage. Sometimes, when marriage has grown a bit stale, it’s good to go back, either in your mind, or perhaps, even as a couple to the very spot, and renew those early commitments.

It’s the same spiritually. You’ve got to rekindle the romance you used to have with God. Get alone with Him and tell Him that you love Him. Clean out the junk in your life that has gotten you off track. Think about the things you’ve promised to do for Him. And recommit yourself to do them now, by His grace. That leads to the third factor in shaking off a spiritual slump:

3. Remember God’s past and continuing compassion.

Much of this chapter focuses on God’s past and continuing mercies to Jacob. God’s past mercy in protecting him from Esau is mentioned three times (35:1, 3, 7). The Lord mercifully protected Jacob’s family from vengeance for slaughtering the Shechemites by sending “a terror” on the Canaanites (35:5). When the Lord appears to Jacob again at Bethel, He doesn’t say much new, except that kings shall come forth from him (35:11). Everything else has been revealed before. The Lord reconfirms Jacob’s new name (35:10). He reveals to Jacob His name “El Shaddai;” but that wasn’t new; Abraham and Isaac knew God by that name (17:1; 28:3). It means, “God Almighty,” and pointed Jacob toward the fact that God was sufficient for all his needs.

The Lord goes on to remind Jacob that He will keep the promises He gave years before: To multiply Jacob’s descendants and give them the land. After God leaves, Jacob does the same thing he did 30 years before: He sets up a pillar and pours out an offering on it. Even the list of Jacob’s twelve sons (35:23‑26) fits the context here as a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness. As the heads of the future twelve tribes of the nation, they are like the down payment of God’s promises. As Jacob knelt before God at Bethel, this time not alone, but with a great company, how could he help but thank God for His abundant compassion?

Sometimes we think that to get out of a spiritual slump we’ve got to discover some new spiritual truths. That’s seldom the case. Usually all we need is to be reminded of the old truths we already know. We need to remember God’s past and continuing mercies toward us in Christ. We need to recall that in spite of our sin and spiritual dullness, the Lord is faithful, that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6).

That’s one reason frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper is so important. I hear Christians say, “It becomes too commonplace and loses its meaning to do so often.” I’ll grant that any spiritual discipline can become commonplace and lose its significance if we let it. Daily prayer and Bible reading aren’t always exciting. A person could even get bored coming to church every week, in spite of my interesting sermons! But we need frequent reminders of the simple truth of God’s mercy toward us in Christ. The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

So to get out of a spiritual slump, we need to obey God’s present commands, fulfill our past commitments, and remember God’s continuing compassion. There’s a fourth element:

4. Trust God with your present concerns.

God had spoken to Jacob ten years before at Peniel, but not since, as far as the text reveals. During that time, Jacob had become comfortable in his partial obedience in Shechem. Then the tragedies of Dinah’s rape and his sons’ bloody revenge shook Jacob out of his complacency. Suddenly, he was ready to listen and God spoke again. In verse 1, the Lord brings to Jacob’s mind how He had appeared to him when he fled from Esau. In verse 3, Jacob refers to that time as the day of his distress. It often takes a day of distress to get our attention so that we’ll snap out of our spiritual slump.

But then we mistakenly think that since we’ve turned the corner and now we’re obeying God that He will give us (or even owes us) a trouble‑free life. But obedience to God doesn’t mean that He will reward us with a life free from trials. It’s often the trials that keep us clinging to Him so that we don’t fall back into another slump. It’s significant that in this chapter which records Jacob’s spiritual recovery, there are no less than four tragedies which bring sorrow into Jacob’s life.

The first is the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (35:8). She was only mentioned before (not by name) when she left Haran with Rebekah, who was going to marry Isaac (24:59). If she had cared for Rebekah as an infant, she would be very old by now, probably about 170. It is not revealed when she joined Jacob’s company, but her presence probably indicates that Rebekah had died sometime during Jacob’s years in Haran. As close as he was to his mother, the death of her beloved nurse would have been tough for Jacob. The name given to Deborah’s burial place, “The Oak of Weeping,” shows his grief.

The second sorrow to hit Jacob was the greatest of his life: his beloved Rachel died in childbirth (35:16‑20). (Jacob’s journey from Bethel toward Hebron was probably not a violation of God’s command in 35:1, which meant, “Stay at Bethel long enough to fulfill your vows.” See also the command in 31:3.) Jacob had loved Rachel at first sight. He had worked seven years for her and then, when he got cheated with Leah, he worked seven more for Rachel. Although his grief is passed over in Genesis 35, it is revealed about 40 years later, when Jacob on his deathbed poignantly recalls, “... when I came from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the journey, ... and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath” (Gen. 48:7).

Jacob’s third sorrow is mentioned on the heels of Rachel’s death: Reuben, his firstborn son, committed incest with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine. This was probably Reuben’s attempt to grab the family inheritance for himself, much as Absalom in his rebellion publicly went in to David’s concubines, and Adonijah later attempted to usurp power from his brother, Solomon, with the same scheme. Reuben’s crass sin must have stung Jacob deeply (Gen. 49:4).

Jacob’s final sorrow in this chapter is the death of his aged father, Isaac. The text might make us think that Jacob arrived just before Isaac’s death. But from other chronological notices in Genesis, we learn that Jacob lived in Hebron with Isaac about twelve years before Isaac died. But Isaac’s death is presented here to wrap up this part of Jacob’s history. It was another sorrow for Jacob, as another link with the past was removed.

While the text doesn’t develop it in each situation, there are hints that Jacob bore these trials with renewed trust in God. His renaming Benjamin in spite of Rachel’s death seems to have been an act of faith. She had named him Benoni, “son of my sorrow,” but through his tears Jacob named him “son of my right hand.” There are two pillars in this chapter, the first at Bethel where he poured out his offering (35:14), the second at Rachel’s grave (35:20). They seem to be linked as monuments of growth, the first signifying Jacob’s thankfulness for God’s faithfulness, the second his faith in God’s promise in spite of his loss. Jacob’s faith may be hinted at when the text says, “Then Israel journeyed on” (35:21), using his new name of strength. At first glance I would have labeled Jacob’s silence in response to Reuben’s sin as another example of his passivity. But again the text states, “and Israel heard” (35:22). This seems to hint that he handled this shocking news in his new strength with God. He waited until the final blessings on his sons to deal with it (49:3‑4); but then he did deal with it by depriving Reuben of his birthright.

The point is that coming out of a spiritual slump doesn’t guarantee that life ahead will be rosy. Obedience doesn’t mean a trouble‑free life. But in the inevitable trials God uses to shake us out of spiritual indifference and to keep us trusting Him, we have the God of Jacob as “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1, 7, 11). It is significant that in chapter 34, with all its sin, God is not mentioned at all. But in chapter 35, God’s name appears 11 times, plus 12 more times in the names Israel, Bethel, El-Bethel, and El-Shaddai (James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:348, points this out). Trials can either make us self-focused or God-focused. If we allow the trials to help us put God back in the rightful center of our lives, we will recover from a spiritual slump, as Jacob did.


There is an old rabbinical legend about a man named Simon who lived in Krakow, Poland. Simon repeatedly had a vivid dream in which there was a great treasure buried under a bridge in Prague, many miles away. Being a poor man, he finally decided to make the long trip to Prague to search for this treasure. When he arrived and went to the bridge, a sentry saw him probing around and demanded to know what he was doing. Simon told the sentry about his dreams and his long journey from Krakow.

“You foolish man,” the sentry replied. “Don’t you know that you can’t believe your dreams? Why I’ve dreamed many times about a man in Krakow named Simon who has a treasure buried under his kitchen stove, but I’ve never been so dumb as to go to Krakow in search of it. Now get along!”

So Simon returned to Krakow, looked under his kitchen stove, and discovered a treasure which enabled him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. The rabbis always ended the story by saying: The treasure was always in Krakow, but the knowledge of it was in Prague.

Sometimes the very thing we’re looking for is right under our noses, but we’ve got to go the long, hard way around to discover it. God’s place of blessing for Jacob was in Bethel, but he had to go to Haran for twenty hard years and spend another ten in Shechem before he came back to Bethel. Some would say that those were all wasted years. Were they? In one sense, yes, in that if Jacob had learned to trust and obey the Lord sooner, those years could have been avoided or shortened. But in another sense, they were necessary in the process of shaping Jacob.

We have all of God’s treasures in Jesus Christ and in the written Word which reveals Him. He is El Shaddai, the All‑Sufficient One. Sometimes God uses a spiritual slump to make us wake up to the riches that have been right under our noses all the time. If you’ve been in a slump, shake it off by responding obediently to God’s Word.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can spiritual slumps be avoided? How?
  2. What are some American Christian “idols”? How can we “guard ourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)?
  3. How can we keep fresh at regular spiritual disciplines?
  4. How would you respond to someone who asked, “If obedience to God doesn’t result in a life with less trials, why obey?”

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 63: A Successful Man Who Failed With God (Genesis 36:1-43)

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Near my boyhood home there was a small cemetery that had been there since before the turn of the century. Sometimes I would go there and walk along the rows, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones. The most fascinating one was an old, weathered, wooden tombstone which read, “Injun Joe,” and listed his death in the 1850’s.

Most of the tombstones had a brief description of the person, such as “Beloved Mother” or “Dear Father,” plus the dates they lived. I used to try to imagine what those people had been like. I wondered what they had done with their lives. The people buried there had meant much to their families and friends in their day, but now they were gone and unknown, except for this gravestone and the memories they left behind in the minds of their loved ones.

While I haven’t spent much time walking through cemeteries and reading tombstones, it isn’t a bad idea, now and then, to do that. It makes me stop and think about the fact that, unless the Lord returns, someday soon there will be a grave with my name on it, the years I lived, and a brief inscription. How do I want to be remembered? What do I want to accomplish in my brief years on earth? Am I living for the things that really count? The clock in the game of life is always running‑‑there are no time outs!

Even if you read your Bible, I’ll bet that Genesis 36 is a chapter you don’t spend much time thinking about. It’s one of those chapters that makes you wonder, if you’re honest, why it’s in the Bible. There are a bunch of names which mean nothing to us and about whom we can learn almost nothing. They lived and died almost 4,000 years ago, linked together with the common thread of being Esau’s descendants. But pondering this chapter can be like a walk through a cemetery: It can make us stop and think about the meaning of life and success.

Esau, the man whose generations are listed here, was a most successful man by worldly standards. He was the founder of a dynasty and a nation, the father of rulers and kings. He enjoyed financial prosperity. He had good-looking women in his harem. He had political power. He was a famous man in his time and for hundreds of years after. And he was a nice guy, the kind who would make a great neighbor or friend. But Esau lived for this world, and in so doing, he failed miserably where it matters most--with God. He was a successful man who went to hell.

This chapter is in the Bible for at least two reasons. First, Moses was writing to people who were about to conquer the land of Canaan. The Edomites, Esau’s descendants, lived on the borders of that land. When Israel had sought to pass over their land en route to Canaan, the Edomite king refused, even though Moses promised to pay for any food or water they consumed (Num. 20:14‑21). Perhaps once Israel was established in the land, someone would say, “Let’s teach those Edomites a lesson!” But God commanded Israel not to provoke Edom and said that He would not give Israel any of their land (Deut. 2:2‑5). So Israel needed to know who these people were so that they would treat them as the Lord had commanded.

A second reason for this chapter is to make Israel and us consider the outcome of Esau’s profane life, especially as contrasted with Jacob’s life. There is an obvious contrast between chapter 36, which outlines the wealth, success and power of Esau and his descendants and 37:1, which says with understatement, “Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.” While Esau was out conquering the land of Edom, founding a nation, fathering kings, and making a great worldly success of himself, Jacob was quietly living in a land he didn’t even own, the land where his fathers had sojourned. While Esau’s descendants were mighty chieftains, famous in their day, Jacob’s descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh.

So the chapter in its context portrays two roads set before us all: The road to earthly success, fame, and power, which can bring quick, visible results; and, the road of obedience to the will of God, which is much slower and less visible in terms of the payoff. The worldly road focuses on the things which are seen, which, from God’s perspective, are destined to perish; God’s road focuses on the things which are not seen, but which are eternal and cannot be taken from us (see 2 Cor. 4:18). So the chapter teaches:

If we succeed by worldly standards, but fail with God, we fail where it really matters.

The text reveals four areas where Esau and his descendants succeeded in this world, but failed terribly in light of eternity:

1. A beautiful family by the world’s standards does not equal a family blessed by God.

Esau’s turn away from God is seen in that he took his wives from the daughters of Canaan (36:2). Esau’s grandfather, Abraham, had made his servant swear by the Lord that he would not take a wife for Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites (24:3). But Esau shrugged off the strong warning of his godly grandfather and chose his wives from the Canaanites (26:34). Later, still lacking spiritual discernment, he took a wife from the descendants of Ishmael (28:9).

It’s significant that there is no mention of barren wives when it comes to Esau’s line. Abraham had God’s promise of many descendants, but his wife Sarah was barren. Isaac had the same promises, but Rebekah could not conceive for the first twenty years of their marriage. Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel, was barren for a long time. But Esau’s wives bore him five sons and a number of daughters with no trouble (36:4‑6).

Esau represents the natural man‑‑strong, capable, independent, able to cope with life’s problems with his own resources. Who needs to depend on God for things when you can take care of it yourself? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their barren wives, represent God’s way of working. He humbles our pride by shutting us up with problems we are incapable of solving‑‑ problems like barren wives in the face of promises to make us into a great nation. Then, when we call on Him, He proves Himself mighty to save.

Esau had a beautiful family by the world’s standards. He was the founder of a dynasty. To be one of Esau’s descendants in that culture was like being a Ford, Rockefeller, or Kennedy in our day. Esau’s sons and grandsons became chiefs and kings. Esau’s wives were no doubt beautiful women, as their names indicate. Their names present a problem, in that the names given in earlier chapters do not correspond with the names listed here. In 26:34, it is said that Esau married Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite. In 28:9 it reports that he added Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael, sister of Nabaioth. But in 36:2‑3, different daughters’ names are connected with each father.

The best solution to this problem is that the wives probably took different names, either when they moved from Canaan to Edom, or with changes in them over time (a common practice; Esau became known as “Red” [“Edom”] over the incident with the red stew which he traded for his birthright.) Names weren’t given just because they sounded nice‑‑they had meaning. So, perhaps, Basemath (“the perfumed one”) later took on the name Adah (“ornament,” “the adorned one”), as her focus shifted from perfume to jewelry and clothes. Mahalath (“the musical one”) took over as the perfume queen and changed her name to Basemath when she developed a formula for homemade Chanel No. 5. Judith (“the praised one”), a young teenager when Esau married her, grew tall and became known as Oholibamah (“tent height,” i.e., “tall, stately”). Note that each of their names focuses on some outward feature of beauty or sensuality.

There is another problem: In 26:34, Judith’s father is called Beeri the Hittite. Beeri means “well‑man.” In 36:2 he is called Anah. But it is mentioned that he is the Anah who found the hot springs (hence, he could easily be nicknamed Beeri, “well‑man”). Also, Anah (Beeri) is called a Hittite (26:34); a Hivite (36:2); and a Horite (36:20). Hittite is a broad term, roughly equivalent to Canaanite. Hivite is a branch of the Hittites, and Horite means “cave‑dweller.” So the terms are not contradictory, but explanatory in a more particular sense, much as we might refer to the same man as an American, an Arizonan, and a Phoenician (resident of Phoenix).

While the precise meaning of many of these names is uncertain, it’s interesting that most of the names are not spiritual, but rather reflect the natural surroundings (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 2:932-933; James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:356). I’ve already mentioned this in reference to Esau’s wives. Eliphaz (36:4) means “pure gold.” Zerah (36:13) means “rising” or “east.” Dishon (36:21) means “gazelle.” Only two names out of 81 may hint at a belief in the true God: Reuel (36:10), Esau’s son by Basemath, means “friend of God”; Jeush (36:14), Oholibamah’s son, means “The Lord helps.” But even these may have been connected with idolatry. One later king has a name of a false god, Baal‑hanan (36:38).

The point is, Esau’s family was outwardly attractive. His wives were beautiful women who bore him children. His kids were born leaders, talented and strong. Esau was a likable, popular man. He was a skilled outdoorsman, a man who loved the taste of game, a man caught up with the enjoyment of the good life. But there was one big problem: God was not a part of this family. Esau, the grandson of the godly Abraham, the favorite son of peaceful Isaac, was a thoroughly secular man who lived for the pleasure of the here and now. He was a successful man whose sons and grandsons after him were successful men, by worldly standards. But they all failed at what matters most because they left God out of their lives.

The most important thing you can impart to your kids is not how to be a worldly success. It’s easy to encourage our kids to succeed in the wrong ways. They may make the football team or be the homecoming queen. They may score well on the SAT and go to the best colleges and get the best paying jobs. But if they fail with God, all that stuff doesn’t matter at all. We need to instill in our kids what it means to succeed with God.

There’s a second lesson we can learn by strolling through Esau’s family cemetery:

2. Material prosperity does not equal spiritual prosperity.

Esau moved east because he was too prosperous to stay near Jacob (36:6‑8). This took place before Jacob returned. Esau realized that the inheritance was going to Jacob, so he looked for a new place to live. It was nice of Esau to be so agreeable. But, sadly, he had no vision for God’s promises to Abraham concerning Canaan. Ever since God called Abraham, He repeatedly emphasized Canaan as the land He would give to Abraham’s descendants. But for Esau, any nice land would do. He had no spiritual vision. He was living for himself, not for God’s purpose. He was materially rich, but spiritually poor.

To his credit, Esau was not greedy. When he saw Jacob after their twenty years apart, he declined Jacob’s gift by saying, “I have plenty, my brother. Keep your things.” But it’s possible to be generous, contented people, but still to be living for material things, not for God. The danger is that our material prosperity dulls our senses with regard to our desperate need for God. The Lord warned the church in Laodicea, “... you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). We American Christians, who have been so blessed materially, need to be careful to become rich toward God by laying up treasures in heaven (Luke 12:13‑34).

These tombstones reveal a third lesson about God’s perspective on success and failure:

3. Political power does not equal power with God.

Esau and his descendants were men of great political power. They are called chiefs (36:15 ff.; 40 ff.) and kings (36:31 ff.). It is pointedly stated that these men reigned as kings in Edom before any king reigned in Israel (36:31). Critics leap upon this verse as proof that Genesis must have been written after the beginning of the monarchy, some 300 years after Moses. But in the previous chapter God had prophesied to Jacob that kings would come forth from him (35:11), a promise which had also been made to Abraham (17:6, 16).

Clearly, the point of 36:31 is to show that Esau’s sons, who walked away from God, had the distinction of being kings long before Jacob’s sons to whom it was promised. Jacob’s sons were a nation of slaves at the same time that Esau’s sons were kings. Esau’s sons could have looked at Jacob’s sons and scoffed, “Where is your God and His promises?”

Isn’t that how it often seems‑‑that the world is winning, while God’s people are losing? We’ll reign with Christ someday, but meanwhile the church is often persecuted and disregarded by powerful political leaders who laugh at God. But we need to remember that political power and power with God are two different things. The world may boast now in its political power, but He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord scoffs at them (Ps. 2:4). It is the Lord who “removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21). While it is fine for Christian people to be involved in politics, we need to keep things in perspective. Political power is always subject to Him who is “ruler over the realm of mankind,” who “bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:17). True power is having power with God.

Esau’s kingdom, Edom, later caused great trouble to Israel. There were frequent wars between the two nations. Edom cheered those who attacked God’s people (Ps. 137:7; Obadiah). Amalek, Esau’s grandson (36:12), became the founder of a people who were a perennial enemy of Israel (Exod. 17:8‑16). There is a repeated emphasis in Genesis 36, that Esau is Edom (36:1, 8, 9, 19, and 43; also, the name Edom and its synonym, Seir, are used frequently). The significance of this otherwise unnecessary repetition seems to be that God wanted His people to see what results when a man lives apart from Him. From this one man, Esau, an outwardly good man, a likable man, a successful man from the world’s perspective, came the godless nation Edom, which often plagued the people of God. So God says, “Remember: Esau is Edom!”

There’s a final lesson we can learn about success and failure from our stroll through Esau’s cemetery:

4. Temporal fame does not equal eternal recognition by God.

In their day, Esau was more famous than Jacob. At the end of their lives, Jacob had about 70 descendants living under Pharaoh’s umbrella. Esau had conquered Edom and established a dynasty there. By Moses’s day (over 400 years later), Israel was a fledgling nation of slaves, recently escaped from Egypt, owning no land of their own. Edom was an established kingdom which had the power to refuse Israel passage over their land.

But this tour through the graveyard of Genesis 36 shows us that God, not man, writes the final chapter of history. These once‑ famous names don’t mean a thing to our world today, but Israel’s name is in the news almost daily. These men, successful by the world’s measure, passed off the scene and were soon forgotten as others clamored to take their place. Today we don’t know anything more about them than is written here. Fame is a fleeting thing.

The Edomite race endured until the time of Christ, when they were known as Idumeans. They disappeared from history in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed. But before that, some famous Idumeans, descendants of Esau, ruled over Israel: Herod the Great and his successor, Herod Antipas. They were wealthy, power‑hungry, cruel despots. Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the newborn King of the Jews. Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded and mocked Jesus just prior to the crucifixion.

In a way it was a replay of history, when Esau’s descendant, Herod, who at that time had far more worldly prosperity, power, and fame, and Jacob’s descendant, Jesus, faced each other. God’s side didn’t seem to be winning. Jacob’s descendant went to the cross, while Esau’s descendant relaxed in his luxurious palace. But God would write the final chapter on that part of history as well. The great Herod, like his ancestor Esau, was a successful man who went to hell. Jesus Christ, the descendant of Jacob, was raised from the dead and is coming again to reign in power and glory.

What really matters is recognition by God, not by this world. We live in a culture that worships fame. If a famous person becomes a Christian, we rush his life story into print and hustle him onto the TV talk shows. The guy may be a babe in Christ, who doesn’t know anything about the Bible, but we listen to his every word as if he’s a spiritual authority.

But the recognition that counts will come soon, when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” The most awful thing would be to be famous on this earth‑‑even famous as a Christian‑‑and to stand before the Lord and say, “Lord, Lord, I’ve done all these things in Your name,” but to hear Him say, “Depart from Me; I never knew you.”


On the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, a man spent five years and a lifetime of savings building a 62‑foot steel yacht that weighed 126 tons. On the day of its launching, he invited a local band to play and the whole town turned out to help him celebrate. He planned a voyage around the world as soon as the boat was launched. The band played, the bottle of champagne was smashed across the bow, and the ship was lowered into the water. But it sank to the bottom of the harbor! What good is a beautiful boat that doesn’t float? That man wasted five years and a lot of money building a useless thing‑‑a boat that didn’t float. What good is a successful life that ends, whether in 25 or 85 years, if the person is not ready for eternity? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Our tour through Esau’s cemetery is over. I hope it’s made you think about the question, “What am I living for?” While we still live, we all have a choice: To join Jacob and his descendants in waiting patiently for God to fulfill His covenant promises to us, as we labor for His coming kingdom. Or, to look over at Esau, prospering in the world, and join him in the pursuit of secular success. If we succeed by worldly standards, but fail with God, we have failed where it really matters. Whether we fail or succeed by worldly standards, if we succeed with God, we will have true and lasting success.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we train our kids to aim for spiritual, not worldly, success? Should we encourage them toward worldly success?
  2. Is financial success an unmitigated blessing, a mixed blessing, or a curse? Give biblical support.
  3. Are Christians wasting their time to run for political office or to work for political causes? Why/why not?
  4. Why does the Christian world give such high esteem to famous people who profess faith in Christ? What is the root of such adulation? What are some of its results?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Failure, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 64: If God is Sovereign, Why Am I in the Pits? (Genesis 37:1-36)

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It is impossible to live in this world and not be hurt by someone else’s sin. You may have been verbally, physically, or sexually abused as a child. Many have been damaged by someone’s drinking or drug abuse. If you’re married, you’ve been hurt by your spouse. Your children may have rebelled and caused you deep pain. Most of us have been the victims of crime.

When you have been wounded by someone else’s sin, you’ve probably wondered, “Where is God in all this? If God is all-powerful and loving, why is He allowing this terrible sin against me? If He is in control, why do wicked men literally get away with murder? If God is sovereign, why am I in the pits?”

Joseph could have asked that question. Due to his brothers’ sin, he was literally in a pit. From there things didn’t get better. His brothers didn’t kill him, as they originally planned, but they did sell their 17-year-old brother into slavery in a foreign land. As that caravan made its way south toward Egypt, perhaps passing within a few miles of Joseph’s home in Hebron, he must have been overwhelmed with grief and loneliness as he wondered if he would ever see his father again. He must have wrestled with fear, anger, and feelings of rejection as he thought about his brothers’ cruelty toward him. He must have wondered, “If God is sovereign, why am I in the pits?”

It’s interesting that God is not mentioned in Genesis 37. A skeptic might say, “See, God isn’t there when you need Him. If He cared about you, He would stop sinful men from carrying out their terrible plans.” But even though God is not mentioned by name, His sovereign providence runs like a strong river through this chapter, carrying even the sinful plans of man downstream in His overall purpose.

The basis for seeing God’s sovereign hand behind the events of Genesis 37 is found in His earlier word to Abraham (Gen. 15:13‑14, 16):

And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions.... Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

God had this whole thing planned years before! Our next study in Genesis 38 will reveal why God wanted to get His people into Egypt: They were becoming thoroughly corrupt in Canaan. To preserve the nation from assimilation with the Canaanites, He put them into Egypt, where they became slaves for 400 years. This solidified them as a people under God and prepared them for conquering Canaan when the time for God’s judgment was ripe. But the point is clear: God was sovereignly orchestrating all these events according to His eternal plan.

“But,” you ask, “doesn’t that make God responsible for man’s sin?” The biblical answer is clearly, “No!” Men are responsible for their sin and yet God uses men and their sin to accomplish His sovereign purpose. George Bush (a 19th century commentator, not the former President) describes God’s providence as “that overruling Power which is ‘wonderful in counsel and mighty in operation’‑‑which controls the free and voluntary action of intelligent creatures, even when prompted by a spirit of malevolence and rebellion, so as to render them subservient to the accomplishment of those very plans which they are intent upon defeating, while the guilt of the agents remains resting upon them in all its unabated aggravations” (Notes on Genesis [Klock & Klock reprint], 2:219).

There are many verses in the Bible that show that God is sovereign even over men’s sin, yet they are responsible for it (Jer. 8:10; 13:13; 19:3, 9, 15; 25:9; Acts 2:23; 4:27‑28, plus many others). If it boggles your mind as to how God can grant man freedom of choice and yet turn man’s sin so that it accomplishes the very thing they were trying to thwart, then join Paul in exclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). The bottom line of this marvelous story in Genesis 37 is,

Since God is sovereign over all, we can trust Him even when things seem to go against us.

There are three main characters in this drama, each of whom demonstrate the sovereignty of God in spite of their sin or imperfection: Jacob, who is insensitive and foolish; Joseph, who is naive; and, Joseph’s brothers, hardened in their sin. But the real central character is God, who is providentially at work behind the scenes.

1. God is sovereign even when parents are insensitive and foolish.

As we’ve already seen, Jacob wasn’t the world’s greatest father. He made many mistakes with his family. He allowed his wives to engage in a war over who could have the most children, thus creating a climate of rivalry in the family. He seemingly would have let Dinah marry the pagan who raped her. He didn’t deal with the treachery and brutality of his sons after Dinah’s rape. And here he is blind to his other sons’ hatred toward Joseph, whom he openly favors. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have sent Joseph into this dangerous situation. Jacob was an insensitive and foolish father.

Before we point our finger at Jacob, we need to realize how easily this sort of situation develops. Put it into modern terms: A couple has several children early in their marriage. Not having any experience at being parents, they’re overly strict and make a lot of mistakes. At that point in life they didn’t have much money, so they couldn’t do much for them financially. As teenagers, the kids begin to hang around with the wrong crowd. They do some things to get in trouble with the law. They balk at going to church with their parents. They gradually reject their parents’ values and adopt the values of their friends.

Then, later in life, along comes the youngest of the family. He’s a model child‑‑loving, sensitive, obedient. He loves the Lord and wants to please his parents. He makes good grades in school and never gets in trouble. By this time, they’ve got a bit more money than when the older kids were growing up. So, for his sixteenth birthday, they buy him a new car. How will the older children respond to their goody‑two‑shoes brother?

That’s what’s happening here. Joseph’s older brothers are a bunch of rowdy guys who slaughtered a whole village because one guy raped their sister. They don’t fear God. They’re just like the Canaanites around them. But Joseph was a good kid. Besides, he was the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, who had died in childbirth with Benjamin. Joseph was an obedient, responsible young man. You can’t prove it, but Jacob may have put him in charge of his older brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, in their duties over the flocks (implied in 37:2; see Bush, p. 220). His special coat (probably a long‑sleeved, full-length coat) set Joseph apart as “Dad’s favorite.” It may have indicated that Jacob had chosen him as the heir, since Reuben had forfeited that privilege by his flagrant sin (35:22). His brothers hated that coat! The first thing they did when Joseph later came to check up on them was to strip it off him.

In the line of his duties, Joseph brought back a bad report about his brothers to their father (37:3). The sum of all this was that the brothers couldn’t even speak peaceably to Joseph (37:4). And yet Jacob seems strangely blind to the depth of hatred which his favoritism toward Joseph stirred up in his other sons.

Before we condemn Jacob, let’s admit: It’s easy for fathers, especially, to get out of touch with their children. You leave the house early in the morning and don’t get home until dinner. After dinner, the kids are busy with homework and other things. You sit down with the paper or in front of the TV. And so it goes. Your kids are in their world, you’re in yours. You’ve lost touch with the things that are shaping their lives. It’s easy to be right where Jacob was, to be an insensitive parent!

But the point is, while Jacob was not right, and while we need to work at avoiding the same mistakes, God is still sovereign, even when parents are insensitive and foolish. Jacob should have been wise enough not to have shown favoritism to Joseph and to have protected him from this explosive situation. He wasn’t, and he was responsible. But God was still in control.

Maybe your parents did (or now are doing) some dumb things toward you. You can get mad and bitter at them (or even at God) for all the wrong things they’ve done. You can blame them for not protecting you from things that damaged your life or for showing favoritism to your brothers and sisters or for being passive parents. Or you can trust that God has sovereignly put you in your family. Even though you don’t understand everything, you can thank Him because you know that He will work all these bad things out for ultimate good. You can ask Him to take away your bitterness and make you the channel of His love.

But, no matter what our family background or circumstances, we’re responsible to obey the Lord. Joseph’s life shows that it is possible to obey the Lord, even when we’re mistreated and others around us are disobedient. Even if you come from a rotten background, God expects you to deal with your sin by confessing and forsaking it as you obey Him in response to His grace and love as shown to you in Christ. In this drama, God’s sovereignty operates in a second area:

2. God is sovereign even when teenagers are naive.

Joseph had two dreams in which the obvious point was that he would be elevated above his brothers. He told his family about those dreams. Some think he was wrong to do this. I would say that he was naive. He was a 17‑year‑old who lacked the wisdom and maturity that come with a few more years of life. To have shared these dreams in confidence with his father or with a trusted older friend may have been wise. To share them with his brothers, who were already threatened by his favored position in the family, was naive and unwise.

Many times a person like Joseph, who is very competent (as his later history shows), threatens others without even knowing it. It doesn’t seem that Joseph shared these dreams to get a reaction out of his brothers. He seems innocent of any wrong motives. Even as he goes to check on them out in the fields, you get the feeling that he didn’t expect any trouble. He thought they would be glad to see him. He even wore that hated coat. If he’d had any sense at all he would have left the coat at home.

But I don’t know any adult who can look back on his teenage years and say, “I didn’t do anything dumb.” We’ve all done stupid, immature, naive things in our younger days. It’s part of growing up. Hopefully, if we have wise parents and listen to the counsel of older Christians, we’ll minimize those youthful mistakes. But we all do a certain amount of stupid, naive things in our youth, in spite of wise counsel.

But God is sovereign even when teenagers are naive. I assume that God gave Joseph these dreams, since they were prophetically true. Why didn’t God wait until later, when Joseph would have had the wisdom to keep his mouth shut? I don’t know. But I do know that Joseph’s naivete didn’t thwart God’s sovereign plan. While we should seek to live wisely, when we don’t, we can trust that God will overrule and use even the dumb things we did in our earlier years, if we will submit to Him.

There is a third group of characters who show that:

3. God is sovereign even when people are hardened in sin.

Here I’m focusing on Joseph’s brothers. When Jacob foolishly sends Joseph to check up on them, he’s tossing a match on an explosive situation. First you’ve got the darling of his father, a kid who shows up these worldly brothers with his sterling behavior. Then dad unwisely puts junior over his older brothers and gives him a coat to make it obvious. Then kid brother has the gall of reporting two dreams where his brothers bow down to him. You can see how the least little spark will set off the explosion that has been building in these brothers, whose tempers we already have seen after Dinah’s rape.

So when they see Joseph coming at a distance (they could see that cursed coat!), they plot together to kill him and throw him into a pit and say that a wild beast must have devoured him. At this point Reuben, the oldest, intervenes and persuades his brothers not to shed blood, but just to throw Joseph into the pit. He planned to free him later and restore him to his father (37:22), perhaps as a way to get back on his dad’s good side (after sleeping with his concubine). Once Joseph was in the pit, Reuben went off, perhaps to check on the flocks, while the rest of the brothers callously sat down to eat their lunch.

As they were munching their sandwiches and discussing whether to leave him to die in the pit or to finish him off themselves, a caravan of traders came along. (The terms Ishmaelite and Midianite seem to be overlapping or it was a mixed group. In Judges 8:24, Midianites are called Ishmaelites.) Judah gets a brainstorm: “There’s no profit for us if we let Joseph die in this pit. Let’s sell him to these traders. That way we won’t have the guilt of killing our own brother and we’ll make a couple of shekels each besides.” It strikes everyone as a great idea.

Isn’t it amazing how we can salve our consciences against some terrible sin by rationalizing that at least it isn’t as bad as it could have been? Compared to murdering your brother, selling him into slavery doesn’t sound too bad. You can hear them saying, “It will be better for Joseph and better for us this way.” Twenty years later, the brothers still vividly remember poor Joseph’s pleading with them not to do this terrible thing (Gen. 42:21), but here they’re rationalizing their sin by saying, “After all, he is our brother.” Comparative morality is no morality at all!

Meanwhile, Reuben comes back to the pit, finds it empty, and panics. At this point we can discern his true motive in wanting to protect Joseph: He really was more concerned about protecting himself. As the oldest, he would have to answer to his father for whatever happened to his little brother. He was already in hot water with Jacob over the matter of sleeping with his concubine. He would have assumed that Joseph had escaped from the pit and fled for home, where he would tell Dad what happened. Joseph hadn’t known that Reuben was planning to rescue him. Now Reuben would be in even more trouble! That’s why, when he hears what his brothers did, Reuben is quick to agree to their scheme. If he really was concerned about his brother, he could have gone after the caravan and redeemed him.

These brothers were hardened not only toward Joseph, but also toward their father. The old man was devastated when he saw Joseph’s bloodstained coat and assumed that he had been killed by a wild beast. Can’t you picture them all gathered around the weeping man, patting him on the back, saying, “There, there! It’s going to be all right. Remember Romans 8:28, Dad!” How calloused can you get!

But still God was sovereign. You can see it in several points. First, Joseph did not find his brothers where they were supposed to be. As he wandered around in a field, a man “happened” to come along who knew where the brothers went, so Joseph was able to find them (37:15‑17). Then, Joseph arrived just as this caravan came along, sparking Judah’s idea, which got Joseph into Egypt. You can also see a hint of God’s providence in the ironic boast of the brothers, “Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (37:20). What became of his dreams is that they were precisely fulfilled! God had His hand on this whole process, in spite of the brothers’ calloused sin, for which they were responsible. God sovereignly put Joseph into Potiphar’s house and orchestrated the events that followed there, in spite of Potiphar’s wife’s sin against Joseph. God was sovereign in the timing of the cupbearer’s remembering Joseph before Pharaoh.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of God’s sovereign hand in these events is the remarkable parallel between Joseph’s history and that of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Joseph was loved by his father and sent to seek the welfare of his brethren, so Jesus was loved and sent by the Father. Just as Joseph’s brothers hated him because he spoke the truth about their sin and he convicted them of sin by his righteous life, so with Jesus. Just as Joseph’s brothers sold him for a few pieces of silver, so Jesus was betrayed for the same. Joseph’s brothers sought to get rid of him so that he would not reign over them, but their action resulted in that becoming true. Their rejection of him resulted in his later becoming their savior from the famine. Even so, the Jewish leaders did not want Jesus to reign over them. But their killing Him resulted in His becoming the Savior of all men, exalted in His resurrection as Lord of all at the right hand of the Father, just as Joseph was second under Pharaoh.

Joseph easily could have thought, “If only I hadn’t met that guy in the field, I wouldn’t have found my brothers and all this wouldn’t have happened!” But his wandering in the field and meeting that man weren’t bad luck. Even though God is not mentioned in this chapter, He is obviously at work. Often when God is most silent, He is most present. Years later, Joseph could say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result” (Gen. 50:20). We may see the reason for God’s dealings after a few years, or maybe not until eternity. But, like Joseph, we need to trust God, even when we don’t understand. The bottom line is, We can trust God no matter what happens to us because His sovereign, loving hand is on us even in the little “happenstances” of life.


A dad was holding his three-year-old securely in his arms as he stood in the shallow end of the pool. As the dad walked slowly toward the deep end, he gently chanted, “Deeper and deeper and deeper.” As the water rose higher on the child, his face reflected more and more panic, and he clung all the more tightly to his father, whose feet easily touched the bottom. If the little boy had been able to analyze his situation, he would have realized that there was no reason to panic. The water’s depth in any part of the pool was over his head. Even in the shallowest part, if his dad had not held him up, he would have drowned. His safety anywhere in that pool depended on his dad. So he should have been able to trust him in the deeper water just as easily as in the shallow. (LEADERSHIP, Winter, 1988.)

In various situations, we may feel that we’re in over our head. A terrible tragedy hits us out of no where. We lose our job, someone dies, someone wrongs us, and we feel as if we’re going to be swamped. But, the truth is, we’ve always been held up by the grace and love of our Heavenly Father. If He let us go, we’d drown even in the shallow end. If we’re in deeper waters, we’re still in His strong arms. God is never out of His depth, and so we can trust Him even when the waters seem deeper than we’ve ever been before. If you’re in the pits, remember, God is sovereign over all the details of your life. You can trust Him to work it all together for good! If you’ve never trusted Him before, why not begin now?

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person from a terrible background overcome bitterness toward God, knowing that He allowed it to happen?
  2. If even our sin can’t thwart God’s plan, then what’s to keep a person from a careless attitude toward sin?
  3. A father tells you that his child was molested and murdered and asks, “How can you expect me to believe in a good, all‑powerful God?” What would you say?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1997, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 65: Conformity With Corruption (Genesis 38:1-30)

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If the Bible were not inspired of God, Genesis 38 would not be there. It does not make God’s people, the sons of Jacob, look good. If this episode had happened to one of your family members, you’d want to keep it quiet (unless, of course, you were offered a lot of money to go on Oprah to tell about it!). Why hang your dirty laundry out for everyone to see? But God has a way of hanging in full public view things that we would cover up. Aren’t you glad that you didn’t live in Bible times, to have your embarrassing family secrets put in the Bible?

Hanging dirty laundry in public view is embarrassing not only for those whose laundry it is, but also for those who have to view it. When you’re around someone who shares intimate problems too freely, you feel awkward. You don’t know what to say, so you mumble something and try to change the subject. That’s the way many preachers and commentators approach Genesis 38. They skim it or skip it and move on to the life of Joseph, which is a bit more comfortable. But God saw fit to hang this dirty laundry in full public view. He put it here for our instruction.

Critics allege that some editor mistakenly put the chapter here, out of context. But that view is both arrogant and unnecessary. What at first glance looks like an interruption to the story of Joseph is actually crucial for a proper understanding of the “generations of Jacob” (37:2). This chapter shows us why Joseph, in God’s providence, had to be removed to Egypt: God’s covenant people were becoming conformed to the corruption in Canaan. It’s a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” glimpse of what was happening in Canaan during the 22 years from Joseph’s sale into slavery to Jacob’s family’s move to Egypt. To preserve His people from becoming absorbed into the Canaanite culture, God moved them into Egypt, where they became slaves. This forged Israel into a distinct people and prepared them for the later conquest of Canaan, when God’s time for judgment on that corrupt culture was ripe.

Two themes run through this chapter: The first is how quickly God’s people can become morally corrupt. Judah, marries a Canaanite woman and blends in completely with that corrupt culture. His corruption is contrasted with chapter 39, where Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife. The second theme is the holiness and grace of God. Those two qualities are always in perfect tension: God’s grace never negates His holiness, nor does His holiness nullify His grace. God’s holiness is seen when He strikes dead two of Judah’s sons for their sin. But God’s grace overcomes the gross sin of Judah and Tamar, so that their son, Perez, becomes a part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:3‑16). Thus we learn that ...

While God’s people are prone to corruption, God is marked by holiness and grace.

Since the major part of the chapter deals with the corruption of Judah, I believe that God wants us to take a sober look at how prone we all are to moral corruption.

1. God’s people are prone to corruption.

It would be great if being born into a godly family would somehow protect us from picking up the world’s moral corruption. But it doesn’t work that way. We’re like Pigpen in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip, who is clean after his bath, but who steps outside and‑‑Poof! He’s instantly covered with dirt. Judah, the son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac (who was still living during part of this time), great grandson of Abraham, a member of the chief family God was dealing with on the earth, lived just as the Canaanites lived. You may have been born into a godly family, as I was. Perhaps your grandparents were godly people. But Judah’s life shows that it is very easy for you to become as corrupt as our morally putrid culture. Judah’s corruption follows a progression:

A. Corruption begins when you distance yourself from God’s people.

We read (38:1) that “Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.” That didn’t happen accidentally. It involved a choice on Judah’s part. We don’t know the reason for his choice. Perhaps he saw the way Hirah and the people of Adullam lived and thought, “I don’t want to live a boring life like my grandfather Isaac or my father Jacob. I want some adventure, some excitement, some enjoyment out of life. I’m going to move near Hirah.” Even though his brothers at this point were not a godly bunch, Judah’s move signified a move away from the covenant people of God.

That’s where corruption often begins. Many times it happens in the teen years. A young person is attracted to the lifestyle of the popular kids at school. Perhaps he made a profession of faith as a child, but he’s not interested in the things of God. He thinks his parents must have migrated here from another planet. So at some point the teenager says to himself, “I’m going to hang around with that group at school and distance myself from the church crowd.” It won’t be long until he is just like them in his thought life, his language, and his morals.

But it’s not only true of teenagers. The Bible says to us all: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’“ (1 Cor. 15:33). We may think that we’ll stand our ground, but we’ll drift without knowing it. While we need to build relationships with pagan people for the purpose of leading them to Jesus Christ, to do so for the purpose of camaraderie will corrupt us, not convert them. At Dallas Seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks told us that the two factors which would distinguish us from our classmates ten years out of seminary would be the books we read and the friends we made. Corruption often begins when a person makes the choice to distance himself from God’s people and to build friendships with worldly people.

B. Corruption takes root when you marry outside of God’s people.

Judah saw a Canaanite woman, the daughter of a man named Shua (whose name probably means “riches”‑‑her name is not given), and “he took her [in marriage] and went in to her” (38:2). The emphasis is clearly on the physical, not the spiritual. Judah saw her, he liked what he saw, her daddy was rich, so he took her and had sex with her. That sounds like the basis for a lot of marriages in our day!

Judah and his wife had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. They grew up (marriage at 15 was not uncommon in that culture) and Judah took a wife for his oldest son, Er, named Tamar. So Judah, contrary to his great-grandfather Abraham’s strong warning, has picked a Canaanite wife for himself, and now for his son. Thus, it’s not surprising to read that Er was so evil that the Lord took his life. His sin is not mentioned, but he must have been a wicked man.

Then Judah told his second son to go in to Tamar and perform his duty as a brother‑in‑law to her. This is called levirate marriage (from the Latin, “levir,” meaning “husband’s brother”), a common custom in the ancient Near East which was later codified in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 25:5‑10). If a man died childless, his brother was to marry the widow and the first son was regarded as the heir of the deceased man. Onan apparently married Tamar, but he did not want to give his brother an heir, so he would interrupt the act of intercourse (which, by the way, is not a safe method of contraception). For his refusal to raise up an heir for his brother, God stuck Onan dead. He was not struck dead for practicing birth control, but for his selfishness in wanting his brother’s inheritance for himself.

Judah didn’t know why his sons were dropping dead. All he knew is, they married Tamar and died. So he wasn’t about to have his third son marry her. He told her to go back to her father’s house and wait until Shelah was old enough to marry, but he didn’t intend to go through with it (38:11). In Judah’s mind, Tamar was jinxed.

For centuries Satan has used intermarriage with ungodly people to corrupt those from godly homes, and it still works like a charm. Judah was a nominal believer at best, but when he married this Canaanite woman, it was insured that their children would be thoroughly pagan. She didn’t train them to fear the Lord. If God hadn’t struck them dead for their sin, these sons of Judah would have turned his descendants toward paganism. So if you’re single, it’s crucial that you wait on the Lord for a godly mate. Corruption begins when you distance yourself from God’s people. It takes root when you marry outside God’s people.

C. Corruption comes to fruition when you live in conformity to a corrupt culture.

Several years go by (38:12). Shelah is old enough to marry, but it’s becoming obvious to Tamar that Judah isn’t going to keep his word on the matter. Since she’s been twice widowed, her chances of finding a husband and having children are slim. Not having children was a disgrace, and as a childless widow, Tamar wouldn’t have been provided for when her parents died. So she concocts a plan to trick Judah into getting her pregnant so that she will be the mother of his heir.

Judah’s wife had died, he had mourned for her, and now it was time for shearing his sheep. This was a festive time, “when sexual temptation would be sharpened by the Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornication as fertility magic” (Derek Kidner, Genesis [IVP], p. 188). So Tamar took off her widow’s garments, dressed up as a cult prostitute, with a veil, and sat in a conspicuous place where she knew Judah would pass by.

Sure enough, Judah saw her, assumed she was a prostitute, and solicited her services. (She probably disguised her voice. Not expecting it to be Tamar, Judah didn’t detect that it was her.) They negotiated the price (one kid goat) and she took some collateral so that he would pay later. But it was the collateral, not the pay, she was after. She took his seal and cord‑‑kind of like their Visa card. A man wore his special cylindrical seal on a cord around his neck, and when a business deal was transacted, he would roll it in hot wax to sign the deal. She also took Judah’s specially carved staff.

They had sex, Tamar conceived, went home and put on her widow’s garments again. When Judah sent his payment by the hand of his friend, Hirah, he couldn’t find this prostitute. This put Judah and Hirah in an embarrassing situation. If Judah reported the theft of his seal and staff by a prostitute, or pressed looking for her, it would become public knowledge that a prostitute had gotten the best of him. These kind of stories were swapped in jest all over town. So Judah decided to absorb his losses and move on.

Three months later, word comes that Tamar is pregnant because of harlotry. She is officially engaged to Shelah, Judah’s son. Even though Judah never intended to go through with the marriage (he thought Tamar was jinxed), he acts highly offended and calls for the death penalty. Tamar would be out of the picture and Shelah could take another woman as his wife.

Or, it could be that Judah’s harsh reaction reflected the common double standard. Men could go to prostitutes all they wanted, but women had to remain faithful to their husbands. So he hypocritically condemned Tamar for the same sin of which he was guilty. Of course, in condemning her, he was really condemning himself.

But Tamar had her bases covered. As they were taking her out to execute her, she calmly sent Judah’s seal and staff to him with the message, “I’m pregnant by the man to whom these things belong. Do you recognize them?” Judah was had. He admitted that he had been wrong in not giving Tamar to Shelah as he had promised.

The striking thing about this story is the way Judah was thoroughly conformed to the corruption of the Canaanite culture. He’s on his way to party with his pagan friend, Hirah, when he sees a prostitute. Without a thought of God, he turns aside to her. His readiness to do this and the calm way he handles the negotiations show that this wasn’t the first time he had done this. Tamar knew this also, or she wouldn’t have dreamed of trying it. When Judah finally gets caught, he doesn’t say anything about his sexual sin. He just admits that he had done wrong in not keeping his promise to give Tamar to his son in marriage. The final sentence of verse 26 may indicate a degree of repentance or it may simply be reporting that Judah didn’t marry Tamar.

We’re often shocked when we hear of Christians, especially Christian leaders, who fall into gross sin. But this story is here to warn us that we all are prone to moral corruption. If you think, “Why I could never fall into this kind of sin,” then you don’t know your own heart. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). It can happen to anyone who drifts away from the Lord and His people. We all must wage war daily against the lusts of the flesh. We live in a culture as corrupt as that of Canaan. And our enemy, the devil, is much more concerned to make Christians fall into sin than he is to bother with those who make no such claim.

But we don’t have to be conformed to the corruption around us. The story of Joseph in chapter 39 shows that moral purity is possible, even in the face of aggressive evil. The power for holiness comes from our God, who is both holy and gracious toward sinners. Our text shows not only how God’s people are prone to corruption, but also that ...

2. God is marked by holiness and grace.

A. God’s holiness means that He judges sinners and disciplines His people.

In our day, it is common to sacrifice God’s holiness on the altar of His grace. Christians excuse sin with the glib phrase, “We’re under grace.” But God’s grace does not exclude His judgment and discipline. Remember, it’s in the epistle which champions God’s grace that Paul writes, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7‑8).

You may wonder, “Why did God strike down Er and Onan for their sin, but not Judah and Tamar?” The answer lies hidden in the inscrutable sovereign purposes of God. For reasons known only to God, He chose to make Er and Onan examples of His judgment, but Judah and Tamar the objects of His sovereign grace. But both cases show that God, in His holiness, judges sinners and disciplines His people. Although Judah wasn’t struck dead, he was disciplined by the Lord. He lost two grown sons. He would later go through the famine in the land and have to bow before his brother, whom he had despised.

But the real toll of Judah’s sin wasn’t in his own lifetime. As I mentioned earlier, this chapter shows the reason for the 400 years of slavery the nation had to go through. Judah’s descendants went through 400 years of hardship, in part, because of his sin. We may think we get away with our sin and that it doesn’t hurt anybody. But sin always exacts a toll. We reap what we sow, and our sin is often visited on our children to the third and fourth generation. God is a holy God, and that means He must judge sin and discipline His people so that they will share His holiness. But just as God’s grace doesn’t eliminate His holiness, so His holiness doesn’t negate His grace.

B. God’s grace means that on account of Christ, He shows favor to those who deserve judgment.

We see God’s grace here in that this morally corrupt Canaanite culture was allowed to continue in its sinful course for another 400 years, until “the iniquity of the Amorite” was complete (Gen. 15:16). During those 400 years, any Canaanites who had heard of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants probably mocked. Abraham’s descendants were in slavery in Egypt. Canaan and its godless, pleasure‑seeking culture was thriving. That’s always the danger, that during a period of God’s grace, sinners will mistakenly think that things will go on that way forever. They won’t!

But the real beauty of grace in this chapter is revealed in Matthew 1:3, where we learn that Tamar and her son Perez, born through this sordid affair, are included in the genealogy of Jesus. Judah and Tamar were living for themselves and for pleasure. Yet God used them to produce the ancestor of the Messiah. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more!

Jesus Christ, the descendant of Judah through Tamar, was born without sin through the virgin birth, so that as the spotless Lamb of God, He could die as the substitute for sinners. Thus God is able to be both holy and gracious through Christ. He is holy in that all sin is punished. If a person rejects Christ, he bears the penalty for his own sin‑‑ eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. If a person trusts Christ, Christ’s death pays for that person’s sins. God is gracious in extending forgiveness apart from human merit to every sinner who will receive it. There is grace abounding for the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Jesus promised, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Every sinner will find mercy at the cross.


The well-known writer, Ernest Hemingway, was raised in a solidly evangelical home in Oak Park, Illinois. His godly grandparents had graduated from Wheaton College. His grandfather, Anson Hemingway, shared a close friendship with the evangelist, D. L. Moody. Ernest’s physician father had wanted to be a missionary doctor, but his mother was too much of a city girl, and refused to go. But Ernest was raised in the church where he tithed his allowance, sang in the choir, and read completely through his King James Bible and passed a comprehensive exam on it.

After high school, he moved to Kansas City to become a reporter. He stopped going to church and began drifting from his upbringing. He enlisted in World War I, was wounded, and took to drinking to ease the pain. He once offered his sister a drink. When she refused, “he told her not to be afraid to taste all of what the world has to offer just because Oak Park had labeled it sinful and off-limits.” He married a worldly woman and moved to Paris to further his writing career. Totally alienated from his parents, eventually he would go through four wives. He was notorious for his drunkenness. In his late years, “he grew distant from everyone. He would not stand up straight and, he stopped communicating verbally.” A friend said that his “every hour was filled with the pain of being truly lost and alone.” Hemingway’s own description was, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” Finally, on a sunny Sunday morning in Idaho, at age 61, Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. (Culled from, “Ernest Hemingway: Tragedy of an Evangelical Family,” by Daniel Pawley, Christianity Today [11/23/84], pp. 20-27.)

Hemingway’s tragic life did not have to go that direction. He made some bad choices: to distance himself from God’s people; to marry outside of the faith; to be conformed to this corrupt world. He could have availed himself of God’s grace and been conformed to Jesus Christ. His godly children and grandchildren could have followed in his steps. Instead, his beautiful, famous granddaughter took her life last year. His descendants are far from the Lord.

We all are prone to corruption. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on [Christ]” (Isa. 53:6). We don’t have to be conformed to corruption. If we avail ourselves of God’s grace through the descendant of Judah and Tamar, the Lord Jesus Christ, He will keep us from the corruption of this evil world.

Discussion Questions

  1. In light of 1 Cor. 15:33, when should we pursue a friendship with an ungodly person and when should we drop it?
  2. How can we live in this evil world and yet avoid being corrupted by it?
  3. If D. L. Moody were to step into our century, at which points would he say the American church has become corrupted?
  4. How can we maintain God’s grace without licentiousness and His holiness without legalism?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Failure, Fellowship, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Singleness

Lesson 66: Moral Purity in a Polluted World (Genesis 39:1-20)

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It’s not news that we live in a culture obsessed with sex. Of course, sexual immorality is nothing new. But it used to be hidden and generally viewed as wrong by our culture. Now it’s blatant and shrugged off as no big deal.

It would be wonderful if Christians had resisted this moral breakdown, but that’s not so. Many pastors (some famous, some not) have fallen into sexual sin. A Christianity Today ([10/2/87], pp. 25-45) survey reported that one out of eight pastors admit to committing adultery since being in the ministry! Among CT’s subscribers who were not pastors, it was one out of four! In answer to, “Since you’ve been over 21, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?” 45 percent of lay persons and 23 percent of pastors answered “yes”. Remember, this wasn’t with Christians in general, but with subscribers to Christianity Today, a magazine aimed at church leaders.

With statistics like that, you begin to wonder, Is it possible to be morally pure in our polluted world? The story of Joseph in Genesis 39 says, “Yes!” If Joseph, a young man reared in a society as morally corrupt as ours, who had no Bible, no church, and not much parental training, alone in a foreign culture, could resist the direct proposition of his master’s wife, then we can resist sexual temptation.

We CAN be morally pure in a polluted world.

But it’s not going to happen accidentally. You don’t win wars without knowing your weak areas, knowing the enemy’s tactics, having a strategy, and being willing to pay the price. I want to give you four principles from our test that will help you gain and maintain moral purity in this polluted world.

1. Be aware of situations where you’re vulnerable.

The stage is set in verses 1-6. Joseph had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. He was the security chief, also responsible for executing anyone Pharaoh didn’t want around. You wouldn’t want to get on Potiphar’s bad side!

Because the Lord was with Joseph, he did well under Potiphar. There is no mention of the struggles this 17-year-old boy must have gone through when he arrived. He was torn from his father, taken to a strange culture where he couldn’t understand the language, and sold as a piece of property to this powerful man. Yet with God’s strength, he adjusted to the situation. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Joseph had been put in charge of everything Potiphar owned. Potiphar trusted Joseph so much that he didn’t even check up on him. And, as the NIV translates, “Joseph was well-built and handsome”. That sets the stage for the temptation that follows. Satan hits you with temptation when you’re most vulnerable. Joseph’s situation reveals four situations where you’re vulnerable.

A. You’re vulnerable when you’re in different circumstances, where no one else will know.

Joseph was a single man in his twenties, with the normal sex drive of any young man. He was a country boy in a sophisticated foreign capital, working in a home frequented by the rich and famous. He had no friends who shared his belief in God. As far as he knew, this tempting situation was private and would never be known to anyone else. He didn’t know that his story would be recorded in the world’s most-read book. He was vulnerable!

If you travel in business or if you find yourself alone in a different city where nobody will know if you give in to sexual temptation, be on guard! Satan will hit you. You may think that no one will ever find out, but the Bible warns, “…be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). God knows everything. Sin is never private.

B. You’re vulnerable when you’re successful and attractive.

Success always opens up new temptations. We read, “after these events” (Joseph’s success) Potiphar’s wife looked with desire at Joseph (39:7). It wasn’t just his good looks, but also his success that attracted her.

If you’re good-looking, be on guard! Only three men in the Bible are called good-looking: Joseph, David, and Absalom. All three were hit with sexual temptation; two failed. If God has given you good looks, you need to be careful not to dress seductively (that applies to men as well as women) or to use your looks to manipulate people.

Studies have shown that besides good looks, women are attracted to men who are financially successful, confident, competent, who have power and influence, and public recognition. Also, women are drawn to men who are compassionate, gentle and attentive listeners. Except for financial success, most of those factors fit many pastors. Men in ministry need to be on guard! Joseph didn’t let his success or good looks bring him down.

C. You’re vulnerable when you’re alone with an emotionally needy woman.

Potiphar’s wife was needy. Her husband was busy with his important job. Every time Pharaoh traveled, he was gone, sometimes for weeks at a time. Being a “macho” man, Potiphar probably didn’t excel in sensitivity to his wife. Her bitterness bleeds through when she blames her husband for her problem with Joseph (39:14. 17). This neglected wife longed for attention and intimacy. She mistakenly thought she would get it through sex outside of marriage.

Any time someone of the opposite sex begins sharing his or her marriage frustrations with you and telling you how kind and sensitive you are, look out! If you’re not careful you’ll think, “Why that no good brute she’s married to! She deserves better than he is. She just needs someone to be kind to her.” You’re vulnerable to sexual temptation.

D. You’re vulnerable when you’re emotionally needy.

Joseph must have felt lonely. His mother had died. He was separated from his father. His brothers had rejected him. He was a slave without any friends who understood or shared his background. Any normal young man desires the companionship of a woman. He might never be able to marry and have sexual relations. Potiphar’s wife could have met many pressing needs. But Joseph didn’t yield!

Sexual temptation is never just physical. There’s always the good feeling that comes from being desired by someone else. God designed marriage and sex within marriage to meet our needs. If we try to meet our needs through sex outside of marriage, we’ll have immediate pleasure but long term pain. We end up enslaved to sin.

If you’re married, you need to cultivate companionship with you wife. Don’t let emotional drift set in. If you’re single, pray for a wife! And use lonely times to deepen your intimacy with the Lord, while maintaining your commitment to moral purity. The first step to moral purity is to be aware of situations where you’re vulnerable.

2. Be aware of how temptation works.

First, as we’ve seen, the stage is set: A needy woman and a vulnerable man who is also a servant of God. Satan won’t leave that situation alone. Next, there is flattery and surprise, the direct approach: “Lie with me”. Probably she had dropped hints before, but now it hit him head on. Joseph must have felt strangely good: “This important woman desires me?” But Joseph said no and the problem went away. Right? He said no, but the problem didn’t go away.

The next stage was her persistence: “…she spoke to Joseph day after day (39:10). She tried to get him to reconsider, to wear him down by sheer repetition of the idea, the way TV advertisers do. That’s how Delilah caused Samson’s downfall.

The last step was her sudden ambush, where Joseph had to give in or flee. She waited until he was alone in the house. Concentrating on his work, Joseph probably didn’t realize that the two of them were alone or he would have taken precautions. But she knew. She grabbed him by the coat and again said, “Lie with me!” Joseph left his coat in her hand and ran outside.

That’s how temptation often works: You’re vulnerable; there’s a surprise opportunity which flatters you; if you resist that, there will be other opportunities, pressure to get you to reconsider; then, there will be the sudden ambush, where you hardly have time to think. You must act immediately, and your decision in that instant determines everything. Because of that, the third step toward moral purity is the most important:

3. Make a commitment to purity and develop a strategy before the temptation hits.

Joseph’s resistance wasn’t accidental or natural. He had made a previous commitment to moral purity and he had a strategy for resistance already in place.

A. Make a commitment to integrity in all of life.

Joseph was a man of integrity in all areas of live. Verses 4-6 repeat four times that all Potiphar owned was in Joseph’s charge. He could be trusted with Potiphar’s money.

Integrity affects all of life. If Joseph had been cheating on business matters, it would have been easier to cheat with Potiphar’s wife. Any time there is adultery, there is deception. If you’ll make a commitment to integrity across the board, it will be easier to maintain that integrity when the opportunity to cheat sexually comes knocking.

B. Make an up-front commitment to inner purity.

When Potiphar’s wife surprised Joseph with her offer, he just said no. If he had been toying with it in his mind, he could have yielded. He had thought about it and the answer was no. A lot of folks want to be delivered from temptation, but they’d like to keep in touch. But you’ve got to decide up-front that you want to be morally pure. It begins by confronting lustful thoughts. No one ever committed adultery who didn’t first entertain it in his mind.

Derek Kidner points out that Joseph’s arguments for refusal (39:8-9) are the same that another man could have used for yielding. His master trusted him, so he was free from close supervision; he had control over all matters except this one—why not take it too? Many men would view sex with a prominent woman like this as the path to social and political opportunity. Besides, she was his master’s wife. Shouldn’t he submit to her?

It’s easy to rationalize sin. With the same circumstances, you can construct arguments either in favor of obedience to God or against it. It all depends on your focus, on what you’re aiming for. You’ve got to decide beforehand that you want to be a man or woman of God and that you will say no when temptations to sexual immorality come, as surely they will.

C. Focus on your responsibilities, not your needs.

When Potiphar’s wife propositioned him, Joseph didn’t think about his needs; he pointed out his responsibilities toward his master, toward her, and toward God (39:8-9). If he had focused on his needs, he could have built a case for yielding.

I’ve found this helpful in dealing with sexual sin on the thought level, where it always begins. I am responsible as a Christian witness, as a father, and as a pastor. Even if you’re single, you never sin alone; your sin tarnishes the name of Christ. If I confront lustful thoughts, it stops right there. If I entertain them, rationalizing. “I’ve got needs,” I expose many others to Satan’s attacks. If I fail morally, I’m failing my family, my church, the lost, and my God. So I’ve got to be responsible to judge my lustful thoughts.

D. Consciously live in the presence of God.

Joseph was alone with Potiphar’s wife in Egypt, far from is family. But he knew that he was not alone, that if he gave in to her desire, he would sin primarily against God. Four times in this chapter (39:2, 3, 21, 23) it says, “The Lord was with Joseph.” Of course, being omnipresent, the Lord is with everybody, but that’s not what this means. It means that God was with Joseph in a special way. Joseph lived with an awareness of God’s presence. He didn’t want to trade that blessing for the passing pleasure of sin.

Ask God to give you a constant sense of His holy presence. All sin is done in His sight and is primarily against Him. If we covet God’s blessing in our lives, we will fear Him and flee temptation.

E. Call sin sin.

Joseph calls this “a great evil”, a “sin against God”. One of the ways Satan gets us is by swapping the labels on sin, so that it doesn’t sound quite so bad. How often in the press do you read about someone doing a great evil? Usually it’s called an affair or a fling. It sounds fun!

When you’re tempted, focus on the evil of the sin, not on its pleasure. All sin has its attractive side, or we wouldn’t give it a second thought. Adultery has a certain thrill. But it also wreaks destruction and tears apart families, not to mention the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, which can be fatal. When Eve was tempted, she focused on the attractiveness of the fruit and she fell. Joseph focused on the evil of adultery and stood firm.

F. Avoid the opportunity to be tempted.

We read that Joseph “did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her” (39:10). This relates to the up-front commitment to be pure. If you want to be pure and you know that someone or someplace will tempt you, then avoid that person or place. If you’re tempted by pornography, don’t go into a store where it’s readily available. If a woman at work is flirtatious, avoid her as much as possible. Don’t lead her on by listening to her. Give strong signals that you’re not interested.

G. Flee when you need to.

When she finally went so far as to grab Joseph’s coat, he ran. The Bible never says that we should stand and pray and quote precious verses when sexual temptation hits. “Flee immorality!” (1 Cor. 6:18). Resist the devil (James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9), but flee youthful lusts (2 Tim. 2:22). As one of my older professors in seminary said, “Men, they aren’t just youthful”. You’ve got to flee them all your life. You won’t yield while you’re running the other way.

So, Joseph ran away and God rewarded him for his righteousness. Right? Not quite. That leads to the final step toward moral purity in a polluted world:

4. Be willing to pay the price for your convictions.

Potiphar’s wife was humiliated by Joseph’s refusal and her humiliation quickly turned to rage. As the poet wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”. So she framed Joseph and he spent the next few years in prison.

There is reason to think that Potiphar didn’t believe her story. If he did, he would have executed Joseph that day. The text says that his anger burned (39:19), but not that it burned against Joseph. He could see his wife’s flirtatious ways. He knew Joseph’s integrity. But he had to do something to get her off his back. He would lose a servant who had brought him great prosperity, but he couldn’t let it slide. If he believed Joseph over his wife she would have made life difficult for him. Potiphar couldn’t have missed the way she blamed him: “This Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me…” (39:17). She was blaming Joseph and her husband.

Because the world is so polluted, you can expect to pay a price when you take a stand for purity. People will slander you. They’ll blame you for their sin. You could even lose your job. Joseph had plenty of time sitting in prison to replay the scene and think about what he would do if he had the chance again. Satan always comes to you after you’ve done the right thing and gotten stung for it and whispers, “Next time just give in and all this won’t happen. See how your God takes care of you”.

But Joseph still had the presence and blessing of God, even in prison (39:21-23). It wasn’t worth trading that, even with prison, for the fleeing pleasure he would have enjoyed with Potiphar’s wife.


An old priest was asked by a young man, “Father, when will I cease to be bothered by sins of the flesh?” The priest replied, “I wouldn’t trust myself, my son, until I was dead three days”.

The battle for moral purity in a polluted world is a lifelong war. But it is winnable if you’ll be aware of situations where you are vulnerable and be on guard; be aware of how temptation works; make a commitment to purity and develop a strategy before temptation hits; and, be willing to pay the price that purity in a polluted world has cost every disciple of Jesus Christ.

If you’ve already defiled yourself with sexual sin or you’re presently ensnared by it, Christ will deliver you and give you victory if you turn to Him. No sin is beyond His Grace. To every sinner who comes to Him, He says, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more: (John 8:11). Let’s commit ourselves to be men and women who are pure in thought and deed!

Discussion Questions

  1. To what degree should we try to shelter ourselves and our kids from sexually explicit movies, TV, books, magazines, etc.?
  2. Discuss this statement: No one ever falls into sexual sin without first entertaining it in his or her mind.
  3. Where do we cross the line between temptation and sin?
  4. Is “sexual addiction” a disease? Is it proper to refer to it by that term? Why/why not?

Copyright, 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Marriage, Sexual Purity, Sexuality, Singleness, Spiritual Life

Lesson 67: True Success (Genesis 39:1-23)

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Each of us wants to succeed in life. But if we want true success, it’s crucial to work out a biblical definition of the term. Otherwise, you’ll be like the guy who climbed the ladder of success only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. You’ll waste your life pursuing the wrong goals and making wrong decisions. If our target is wrong, we will fail even if we hit it.

Our American culture defines success primarily in financial terms, throwing in, perhaps, the ideas of power, fame, and the elusive quality, “happiness.” As Christians, we can easily see the fallacy in defining success in those terms, and yet often we are influenced by our culture more than we care to admit. Many pastors succumb to the prevailing definition, thinking that if you pastor a large church, or gain national recognition through writing a book or speaking at important gatherings, you are successful. Christians reveal their skewed definition of success when they rush out to buy the latest story of some celebrity who has made a profession of faith, or when they parade famous athletes before the church as if they were spiritual authorities. So we need to bring into sharp focus the biblical answer to the question, What is true success?

Genesis 39 is a rags to riches to rags story. At the beginning of the chapter, Joseph is at the bottom, a slave sold into a foreign culture. But God prospers him and he rises to the top in the house of Potiphar, security chief to Pharaoh. Life was about as good as a slave could expect at that point. But then Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. When he refused her demands, she falsely accused him. He ended up in the dungeon, seemingly worse off than when the chapter started.

There are some parallels between Joseph’s rise to the top spot in Potiphar’s house (39:1‑6) and his experience in the prison (39:21‑23):

*Verse 2: “the Lord was with Joseph”

*Verse 21: “the Lord was with Joseph”

*Verse 4: “So Joseph found favor in [Potiphar’s] sight”

*Verse 21: “the Lord ... gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer”

*Verse 4: “[Potiphar] made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge”

*Verse 22: “And the chief jailer committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it”

*Verse 6: “with [Joseph] there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate”

*Verse 23: “The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph’s charge”

*Verse 3: “[Potiphar] saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper”

*Verse 23: The chief jailer also put Joseph in charge because he saw that “the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made to prosper.”

Clearly, Joseph was truly successful, whether he was in Potiphar’s house or in the prison, because God’s hand was on him. I believe that is the biblical definition of true success:

True success is to have God’s blessing on your life.

If you have God’s blessing, you have everything, even if you’re poor and unknown; if you lack God’s blessing, you ultimately will have nothing, even if you’re rich and famous now. But, we need to be careful to think biblically about what God’s blessing means.

1. God’s blessing is not necessarily related to favorable circumstances.

Was Joseph more blessed by God or more successful when he was at the top of Potiphar’s household than when he was in the dungeon? Clearly not! They were just different phases of God’s training program in which He was preparing Joseph for the job He had for him under Pharaoh. We are mistaken when we think that if everything is going well, God is blessing us, but that when trials or problems hit, He has withdrawn His blessing. His blessing isn’t necessarily related to favorable circumstances.

Joseph’s circumstances in the prison were anything but favorable, at least at first. Psalm 105:18 gives us a glimpse of reality when it states, “They afflicted his feet with fetters, he himself was laid in irons.” The NIV translates, “They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons.” The dungeon was most likely beneath Potiphar’s house (Gen. 40:3), probably with no windows, a dark and unpleasant place, especially if you had irons on your feet and neck!

For a while, Joseph must have wondered what was going on. He had been obedient to the Lord in resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He knew that God had spoken to him in his dreams years ago, about how the sun, moon, and stars would bow down to him. But where was God now? Why was this happening? He must have felt like Tavye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who says, “Lord, I know that we are the chosen people.” But as he considers the trials the Jews have gone through, he looks up toward heaven and pleads, “Couldn’t You choose someone else for a change?” Most of us have felt like that: “If this is God’s blessing, what must His curse be like?”

But God’s blessing often comes through trials. Every person God uses must go through times of training and testing, where character is refined. You see it in Moses, who was the most competent, gifted man you could have chosen to lead Israel, a man trained in all the knowledge of the Egyptians. But he had to spend 40 years in the wilderness in order to be trained in the ways of the Lord before he could lead God’s people to Canaan.

You see the same thing in David, the man after God’s heart. He was a teenager when the prophet Samuel anointed him as the future king. He was still in his teens when he slew Goliath. Yet he had to spend his twenties running as a fugitive from the mad king Saul before he was ready at 30 to lead the nation.

You see the same thing in the apostle Paul. When he was converted, he was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. In our day, we probably would have him teaching in a seminary within a few years. But God sent him into Arabia for two or three years and then into obscurity in Tarsus. It was about ten years after his conversion that he finally began to minister with Barnabas in Antioch, where the Lord began to use his mighty gifts. If you’ve read his epistles and the book of Acts, you know that the training didn’t end there. Throughout his ministry, Paul was continually trained in the school of Christ through many trials.

You can even see the same thing in the life of the Lord Jesus, who, though he was the perfect Son of God, learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). I marvel when I think of the fact that Jesus was 30 before He began His public ministry. If there ever was a competent, godly young man, ready to minister at 20, Jesus must have been the one. In terms of modern standards of success, we would have to admit that Jesus didn’t make it. He alienated the religious leaders. He only ministered for three years and left behind a ragtag band of confused followers. If God’s blessing means favorable circumstances, large numbers, and everything going your way, Jesus wasn’t blessed.

We each need to recognize that God is using our circumstances to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. We don’t know what He has ahead for us. He may elevate us to a position of prominence, as He did with Joseph. He may use us in a quiet, behind-the-scenes ministry which never gains attention. But in Joseph’s story, it’s obvious (to us, not to Joseph) how God was using these trials to shape Joseph into a mature man of God who could handle the success which later would be thrust upon him.

But what if Joseph hadn’t submitted to God’s hand in these trials? What if he had sat in jail, complaining, “It’s just not fair! If that’s how God is going to treat me when I obey Him, then I’m not going to obey Him!” If Joseph had responded like that, he wouldn’t have been ready for the job God had for him a few years down the road. I think that Joseph must have clung to God in faith while he was in that dungeon, praying, “God, You promised me through my dreams a position of importance. I don’t understand how this dungeon fits in with that, but I trust that You know what You’re doing.”

That’s how we need to trust God when we’re in the dungeons of life. Someone has said, “Interpret your circumstances by God’s love, not God’s love by your circumstances.” It’s crucial that each of us learns to turn to God, not away from Him, in a time of suffering. Just because you’re going through trials doesn’t mean that God has withdrawn His blessing. It means that He is training you to become like His Son.

You may be thinking, “Well, if God’s blessing isn’t necessarily related to favorable circumstances, how can I know for sure when I’m experiencing it?”

2. God’s blessing is related to personal integrity in every area of life.

If you have come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and thus know that your sins are forgiven through His blood, and you’re living with a clear conscience before God and man, then you can know that His hand is on your life. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more that you could be experiencing from the Lord. Nor does it mean that if you maintain your integrity, you can demand God’s blessing as your due. Even when we’ve done what we ought, we can only say, “We’re unworthy slaves” (Luke 17:10).

We see this in Genesis 39:21, where it states that the Lord ... “extended kindness to [Joseph], and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” “Kindness” and “favor” both point to God’s unmerited favor, or grace. Even though Joseph walked uprightly before God, he could not demand God’s kindness and favor as his right, but only accept it as undeserved grace.

It’s important that you catch this distinction, because it has everything to do with your attitude when you’re treated unfairly. And the right attitude is central to integrity. If you think, “I’ve been good, therefore, God must bless me by sparing me from harsh circumstances,” you’ll develop a bitter attitude when that doesn’t happen. But if you think, “As far as I know, I have confessed all my sin and there is nothing between me and God or between me and any other person. But even so, I’m still an unworthy sinner, and I can’t demand anything from God. Any goodness He bestows upon me is due to His mercy and love.” Then, you’ll maintain your integrity before God and experience His blessing, even in the midst of trials.

Let’s face it, Joseph could have developed a rotten attitude. He had been terribly mistreated by his brothers. After a few years, he had finally overcome that by rising to the top in Potiphar’s house. He obeyed the Lord by resisting Potiphar’s wife, only to be thrown in this dungeon. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him being a difficult, disagreeable prisoner. Yet I believe that Joseph was an agreeable, cheerful prisoner who did his duties with a positive attitude. If he had been disagreeable, the jailer wouldn’t have promoted him as he did.

Let me ask, “How is your attitude when you’re treated unfairly at work, at home, or at school?” You have a choice: You can either become sullen and disagreeable, angry at God and at the world. Or, you can think, “God doesn’t owe me anything but judgment, yet He’s shown me so much mercy.” And you can be cheerful and agreeable, doing your work with gladness in your heart as unto the Lord. As Paul instructed slaves, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col. 3:23).

Note, too, that Joseph didn’t seek his own advancement, but rather sought to prosper his master, whether Potiphar or the jailer. These men noted that and advanced Joseph. That’s a key principle in any situation, whether at work or at home: If you seek to make the one over you prosper, God will see to it that you’re advanced in due time. That is directly opposite to the ways of the world, where you sabotage the guy over you so that you can grab his spot.

So live with integrity, which includes having the right attitude and maintaining your purity, as Joseph did, and you’ll experience God’s blessing, even in the dungeon times of life. There’s a third principle here related to success and God’s blessing:

3. God’s blessing should be used as a witness to others.

God never gives His blessing to be bottled up or squandered on ourselves, but only to be channeled through us to others. And the greatest blessing He gives is not material wealth, but the contentment that accompanies godliness. Joseph had something which both Potiphar and the chief jailer lacked. Both men were fairly successful in worldly terms, which Joseph was not at this point. But Joseph, like Paul, had learned the secret of being content whether he was living in splendor or in squalor. That is far better than worldly success! I’ve heard that John Muir, the famous naturalist, was a Christian. On one occasion he claimed that he was richer than a wealthy business tycoon because, as Muir explained, “I have all the money I want and he hasn’t.”

It’s obvious that Joseph didn’t hide the source of his attitude, his competence, or his purity. Verse 3 states, “Now his master saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand.” He didn’t just see that Joseph prospered, but that it was the Lord who prospered him. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he didn’t just give her the impression that he was a moral guy. He said, “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (39:9). The implication of verse 23 is also that the jailer recognized the Lord’s hand on Joseph. He didn’t hide the source of his moral purity, cheerful attitude and competent work.

Both Potiphar and the jailer recognized God’s hand on Joseph because they saw it in his work habits. I doubt if he announced his prayer and quiet time in front of them. They were impressed by the results in the workplace. When they commented on that, then Joseph was careful to give the glory to God, not to himself. All too often, we’re quick to tell people that we’re Christians, but the results on the job are a bit shabby. So the employer thinks, “If this guy is a Christian, give me a pagan anytime!” But Joseph’s life teaches us that we need to be cheerful, diligent and faithful in our work, even when we’ve been mistreated, so that others will ask, “How can you be so happy and hard‑working when you’ve been treated as you have?” Then we have a platform to tell them about our Savior.

We ought to view any promotion or job success as a platform for greater witness, not as a means to gratify ourselves or promote our personal welfare. William Carey, the great missionary to India, became deeply concerned by the attitude of his son, Felix. He had professed to be a believer and had promised to become a missionary, but he reneged on his vows when he was appointed ambassador to Burma. Carey requested prayer for him in these words: “Pray for Felix. He has degenerated into an ambassador of the British government when he should be serving the King of kings” (in “Our Daily Bread,” Spring, 1979). God blesses us so that we can be a channel for witness, to bring His true blessing of salvation to others, not just to make us happy or give us a better lifestyle. If God gives you a promotion or a position of influence, ask Him to show you how to use your position to bear witness for Jesus Christ, both by your character and your words.

Thus true success is to have God’s blessing on your life. His blessing is not necessarily related to favorable circumstances. It is related to personal integrity in every area of life. And God’s blessing should be used as a witness to others of His grace. So the bottom line is,

4. God’s blessing should be sought above all else.

Whether we succeed in business or not, whether we have material prosperity or not, whether we become well‑known or powerful or not, what counts when all is said and done is that the Lord is with us. Four times this chapter repeats, “The Lord was with Joseph” (39:2, 3, 21, 23). True success is not where you are, but whether God is with you where you are. Worldly success is fickle. Potiphar and the chief jailer were riding high, but one little change of circumstance could have plunged them into the dungeon, as the cupbearer and baker could testify (chapter 40). But success with God goes with you from Potiphar’s house to the prison. Success with God is the only success worth striving for.


Watchman Nee has a sermon which I’ve come back to repeatedly in my life and ministry. It undergirds my prayer life and is a driving principle in all I do. It’s called, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (in Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], vol. 2, pp. 48-64). The sermon is based on the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000. Nee makes the point that everything in our life and service for the Lord depends on His blessing. With reference to the needs of that hungry multitude, he states, “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.... It is of fundamental importance that we realize this. Whether our loaves be few or many is of little consequence. If man’s hunger is to be satisfied one thing is needful. That one thing is the blessing of the Lord” (pp. 48‑49).

Nee later defines God’s blessing as a working of God not based on and all out of proportion to our working (p. 58). If we calculate that a certain amount of effort and activity should bring in a certain amount of results, and it happens, that’s not God’s blessing. But when the results are far beyond what we might reasonably expect, that is God’s blessing!

I covet that for myself. I’m not satisfied that I have it yet, so I continually ask God to reveal any wrong attitudes or actions in my life which would hinder it. I ask Him to give me His blessing. I want each of you to covet God’s blessing for yourself. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we all should say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). You can live a comfortable Christian life, serve in the church and succeed in worldly terms. But if you lack God’s blessing on your life, you’ve missed true success. True success is when it can be said of us, whether we are in Potiphar’s house or in prison, “The Lord is with that man or woman.” Being blessed by God, we then will be used as His channels of blessing the nations through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways the American view of success has filtered into the church? How can we fight this?
  2. Is it wrong to seek to be successful in our jobs? How do motives fit in? How can we sort out whether our motives to succeed are selfish or for God’s glory?
  3. Is there a proper place to “fight for your rights” when you’re mistreated on the job? Should Christians be in labor unions?
  4. How can a Christian know how aggressive to be in verbal witness on the job?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Evangelism, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 68: High Hopes, No Hope- But God (Genesis 40:1-23)

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We all struggle with disappointments in life. The most difficult disappointments to deal with are when you have prayed about something for a long time and it looks like finally God is going to answer. But then it doesn’t happen and your hopes are dashed. At times like that, it’s hard not to be disappointed with God. It’s easy to feel like God is playing a cruel game with you. Why did He make it look like He was going to answer, only to dash your hopes? If it happens more than once, to protect yourself from further hurt you may stop praying and hoping at all.

Joseph could have been there in Genesis 40. When his brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt, there was no hope on the horizon for Joseph. But, through his hard work and integrity, with God’s hand on him, Joseph had risen to the top spot in Potiphar’s house. Things were looking up. Then, for refusing to yield to Potiphar’s wife’s advances, Joseph was unfairly thrown into prison. His hopes were dashed. There, as God’s hand on his life became evident, the jailer put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. His hopes rose again and Joseph prayed that God would get him out of there.

We don’t know how much time passed, but after a while, two new prisoners joined Joseph: Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker. These were important men in Pharaoh’s court. The cupbearer was more than the man who tasted the wine before Pharaoh drank it, to make sure he didn’t get poisoned. He was always with the king and was one of his advisors and confidants. The baker insured the quality of all food served at Pharaoh’s table. These men had offended Pharaoh and ended up with Joseph in the dungeon.

Then one night, both men had a dream. By God’s help Joseph interpreted their dreams. The cupbearer’s dream meant that in three days he would be restored to his position. The baker’s dream meant that in three days he would be executed. Joseph appealed to the cupbearer, “When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison” (40:14, NIV). Three days later as Joseph’s predictions came true, you can picture the cupbearer giving Joseph thumbs up as he headed out the prison door, saying, “Don’t worry, friend! You’ll be out in no time!” Joseph’s hopes were the highest since he had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Finally, it looked like God was going to answer his prayers.

Maybe he folded up his bedroll and collected his few things as he thought about how great it would be to see the sunshine and feel its warmth on his back. He imagined running to his father’s tent and feeling his embrace as they would weep in each other’s arms, his ordeal over at last. But night came and there was no word from the jailer about his release. He unfolded his bedroll, thinking, “Maybe today was too busy. Tomorrow the cupbearer will mention my situation to Pharaoh.” But the next day came and went with no word about Joseph’s release. Perhaps Joseph asked the jailer, “Haven’t you heard anything about my situation yet?” “No, nothing yet. Not a word.” A week went by, then a month. Joseph’s high hopes were dimmed and finally extinguished as he realized, “The cupbearer forgot me.” Joseph went from high hopes to no hope‑‑but God alone. This story teaches us how ...

God uses disappointments to bring His servants to the place where their only hope is in Him.

It’s a painful process, but God must strip us of every human hope, even of the people whom God can use, until our hope is centered on Him alone. We’ve got to come to the place where we know experientially that God alone is to be trusted, that He alone is our hope of salvation. To do that, He uses disappointments, where we go from high hopes to no hope‑‑but God Himself.

1. Disappointments begin when high hopes for answers to our problems are not met as we expect.

Most of us come to Christ with high hopes for answers to life’s problems. The gospel promises a lot: Peace, joy, restored relationships, forgiveness for all our sins, emotional healing, meaning and purpose in life, and much more. We hear stories about other Christians and how God miraculously answers prayer. So we begin to pray that God would deal with the major problems in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. It’s not that God doesn’t deliver, but rather that we assume (or are led by other Christians to think) that these things come quickly, miraculously, and painlessly.

No doubt Joseph prayed daily that God would get him out of prison. He had high hopes that God would answer that prayer. After all, it was based on the dreams he had when he was a teenager, which he knew were from God. So when these two men were put in the prison and had these dreams and Joseph interpreted them, his hopes soared. This was the way God would get him out of prison! Finally, an answer to his prayers! So he touchingly appeals to the cupbearer, saying, “Remember me ...” when you get out (40:14). Some think that Joseph was wrong to appeal to him in this way. But I see no reason to think that. Joseph probably saw this as the means of God’s provision to his prayers. He had high hopes. That’s not wrong, since we serve a God who does mighty things on our behalf. We should be people of hope. But, disappointments begin when our high hopes are not met in the way we expect.

2. Disappointments can move us either to despair or hope.

Our text does not indicate what happened in Joseph’s heart as he waited in vain day after day. It just ends with the bleak words, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:23). Then notice the place in your Bible between that verse and the next. It’s a white space, a chapter break. But that little break represents two years in Joseph’s life, two years in a dungeon, two years out of his twenties, the prime of his life. That white space in your Bible represents the maturing of Joseph, when he dealt with his disappointments and moved, not into despair, but into hope in God alone.

I say that because of the product we see coming out at the other end. We don’t see a cynical, angry man, but rather a godly, mature man who is able to handle the heavy responsibilities thrust upon him. Psalm 105:19 says of this time that “the word of the Lord tested him.” Those two silent years in the dungeon after his disappointment with the cupbearer were a time of learning to hope in God.

But probably there was a transition between Joseph’s high hopes for release and his readjusted hope in God, a time when he had no hope. There almost always is that time of despair, however brief, during a trial. David felt it when he was running from King Saul. Even though God had promised him the throne, at a low point he said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul” (1 Sam. 27:1). The apostle Paul, though a great man of faith, said of the trials he went through in Asia, that he was burdened excessively, beyond his strength, so that he “despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8).

Even though Joseph, I think, was trusting in God, not in the cupbearer, he probably had to fight off feelings of despair. The man had let him down. Whenever you’re disappointed by people, it’s a short step to grow disappointed with God: “Lord, You could make him remember me! Please bring my situation to his attention so that I can get out of this prison.” But two long, difficult years dragged by with no answer from God.

Disappointments like this almost always involve flaky people. This incident shows how vain it is to put your trust in people. The only consistent thing about people is that they will let you down. You can be sure that the cupbearer didn’t forget in the sense of not thinking of Joseph. He forgot in the sense of not wanting to risk bringing up his past by mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh. Joseph easily could have moved from disappointment with this flaky man into disappointment with God. But Joseph processed his disappointment so that it didn’t lead to crippling despair, but rather to hope in God alone.

3. Hoping in God alone is the key to overcoming disappointment and despair.

The disappointments strip us of hope in ourselves and in others. The only thing left is to hope in God. Joseph, by faith, clung to God, who did prove Himself faithful in His time. You ask, “How do you know Joseph hoped in God? How can you tell when your hope is in God?” My experience has been that sometimes, even when to the best of your knowledge your hope is in God, He will test you to prove it. But there are three signs in Joseph’s life that he was hoping in God, signs which can help us check ourselves.

A. If your hope is in God, you will not be focused on self‑pity, but on serving Him by serving others.

If we were in Joseph’s situation, most of us would be so consumed with self‑pity that we wouldn’t give any thought to the needs of others. But Joseph was sensitive to the needs of these two prisoners. He observed the dejection on their faces the morning after they had their dreams and he was concerned enough to ask them about it (40:6, 7). If he had been self-absorbed, he would not have noticed.

You can also see Joseph’s consideration for others in his plea to the cupbearer (40:14, 15). In defending his innocence, Joseph could have run down his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and Potiphar for the way they had mistreated him. But Joseph tactfully says that he was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews and that he had done nothing to deserve being thrown into prison. He wasn’t having a pity party, blaming everybody else for his trials, even though in this case everybody else really was to blame.

B. If your hope is in God, you will have a positive, not a cynical, attitude.

I’m not talking about Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking,” which is not biblical; but rather, about the joyful hope that comes from trusting in God and His promises. Joseph could have become a total cynic by this point in life. When these men mentioned their dreams, he could have sneered, “Yeah, I used to believe in dreams. Look where it got me!” But instead he had a positive, cheerful attitude, saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please” (40:9).

Having a positive attitude means that you focus on the things you can do in a situation, not on the things you cannot do. Joseph could have thought, “What’s the use of telling these two characters the meaning of their dreams? That won’t get me anyplace.” But instead, he focused on what he could do for them, and did it cheerfully.

During this time in prison, as he did in Potiphar’s house, Joseph was building a reputation through the little things he did. It wasn’t a pleasant task to tell the baker that he would be executed in three days, but Joseph spoke the truth. It was no big thing, but it fit the overall pattern of integrity which marked his life. The cupbearer finally did tell Pharaoh Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and his integrity in telling it like it was, not only to him, but to the baker as well. The jailer also would have vouched for Joseph’s personal character and cheerful spirit.

You can’t control many of the things that happen to you, but you can control your attitude in response to the things which happen to you. If your hope is in God, you will have a positive, cheerful attitude. That doesn’t mean denying reality or overlooking problems. The Bible never does that. But we will have the kind of hopeful joy that the apostle Paul exudes in Philippians, in spite of his circumstances.

Adoniram Judson, the great pioneer missionary to Burma, had been thrown into a horrible prison run by the toughest Burmese prisoners. The torture was awful. He had almost no fruit to show for his years of hardship in Burma. He wasn’t sure whether or not his years of translation work would be destroyed. In those conditions, suffering from fever and weakness, he received a letter from a friend who asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” He replied, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God.” It always is. There’s a third test to measure your hope by:

C. If your hope is in God, you will be quick to include Him in dealing with problems.

As soon as these men mention their dreams, Joseph responds, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” He wasn’t being arrogant, but as Donald Grey Barnhouse puts it, his reply was rather “the simplicity of a child who knows just where his father is and how to reach him” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:175). Joseph walked so closely with God that he automatically mentioned His name when these men told him their problem. And he had such trust in God that his answer assumed that God would reveal to him the meaning of the dreams.

If your hope is in God, He will be the first thing you think of in a crisis, not the last. So often, we try everything else and then finally say, “Well, we’ve tried everything else. Now all we can do is pray.” Often you can do more after you pray, but you should never do more until you pray. Calling on the Lord ought to be the first thing that comes to mind when a problem comes up. What a great way to witness to lost people, to tell them, “ I know God and He has an answer to your problem. I’ll pray for you.”


There are five practical lessons here to remember:

(1) God is always sovereign, even when it seems He has forgotten you. It’s obvious that God was sovereign in all these events, even down to the petty quarrels of a pagan king. He put these two men in the same prison as Joseph. He gave them their dreams. And even though it seemed like the timing was wrong, in that He “wasted” two years of Joseph’s life, God gave Pharaoh his dream at precisely the right moment. As the master weaver, God was bringing all these strands together so that all was working according to His schedule. Nothing is outside of His sovereignty, even though it seems like it to us as we sit in a dungeon for two more years. Never doubt God’s sovereignty. But, coupled with God’s sovereignty, we also must remember:

(2) God is never unfaithful or cruel, even when circumstances seem otherwise. God’s people down through history have gone through terrible trials. A skeptic might say that God is cruel to allow such things. But a skeptic doesn’t have God’s eternal plan in view. A skeptic doesn’t understand how God lovingly disciplines His people to share His holiness. As the psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67‑68).

In Psalms 42 & 43, the psalmist is taunted by his critics, “Where is your God?” He answers with that great refrain, “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance, and my God.” When the enemy taunts us by saying, “Look at your circumstances and you will see that your God is unfaithful or cruel,” we need to say to our soul, “Hope in God.” None who have hoped in Him have ever been disappointed. Don’t doubt His goodness when He is lovingly purifying your faith through trials.

(3) God’s promises are true in His timing, not ours. If Joseph had been released at this time, he never would have been appointed as second in the land to Pharaoh. God’s way and timing were clearly best, although Joseph had to take that by faith until years later when he could look back on how God worked it all together for good. Like it or not, there are certain lessons, such as patience and endurance, which we cannot learn except through waiting on God.

I read of a young woman who dedicated herself to serving Christ in India. Through repeated tragedies, she was forced to remain in the United States to care for her disabled mother and then for her dying sister. After this she had to care for her sister’s five children when their father suddenly died. Regretfully she set aside her plans, and for 15 years she devoted herself to meeting their needs. Three of those five children headed for service in India where 20 years before she had longed to serve. In God’s time, His better plan made sense.

But we need to remember that sometimes we won’t be able to discern God’s timing until eternity. We’re so quick to judge things by our temporal perspective rather than by His eternal perspective. As someone has said, “God judges things at the end of the age, not at the end of the meeting.”

(4) We are not responsible for others’ behavior, but we are responsible for our own behavior and attitudes. Joseph could have become very angry toward the cupbearer, and let his resentment burn into bitterness and revenge. Let’s face it, he had good cause to be angry. The cupbearer wasn’t willing to risk his neck enough to talk to Pharaoh about Joseph until it looked like it might gain him some advantage. But in spite of the flakiness of the cupbearer, Joseph had to deal with his own attitude. Later, when he was number two under Pharaoh, he never sought revenge against the man, nor against his brothers.

People may have mistreated you and disappointed you because they were being selfish, uncaring jerks. You have a choice: You can grow bitter and angry, blaming them for your troubles. Or, you can trust in the sovereign God and rejoice in His grace toward you. They will give an account to God for how they sinned against you. But you will give an account for your attitude and behavior in response to their sin against you. When you walk in the Spirit, you will be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and kind (Gal. 5:22).

(5) God’s grace is always sufficient if we will receive it. Joseph came through these trials stronger, not weaker, gentle, not bitter, because he hoped in God. Even though he was in prison, the Lord was with him. Even though the cupbearer forgot him, God never did. Joseph experienced what Paul and every other believer undergoing trials has experienced, that God’s grace is sufficient for our need, if we will just receive it.

The 19th century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was riding home after a heavy day’s work, feeling weary and depressed, when suddenly the verse flashed into his mind, “My grace is sufficient for you.” He said, “I should think it is, Lord,” and he burst out laughing. It seemed to make unbelief so absurd.

He said, “It was as if some little fish, being very thirsty, was troubled about drinking the river dry, and the river said, ‘Drink away, little fish, my stream is sufficient for you.’ Or, it seemed like a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt after seven years of plenty fearing it might die of famine, and Joseph might say, ‘Cheer up, little mouse, my granaries are sufficient for you.’ Or it was like a man up on a mountain saying to himself, ‘I fear I shall exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere.’ But the earth might say, ‘Breathe away, O man, and fill your lungs; my atmosphere is sufficient for you.’” You can’t exhaust the grace of God to meet your need in every trial.

Some of you are in the middle of some difficult disappointments. Maybe it’s a marriage that’s gone sour. It could be a child who has rebelled and turned against you. It may be the loss of a job, a serious health problem, a friend who has maligned you, or some other serious situation that hasn’t turned out as you wanted it to. You had high hopes, but now you have no hope. Ah, but you do have hope! There is God! Hope in God, and you shall again praise Him, the help of your countenance, and your God.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a Christian who was disappointed with God? What steps should he take?
  2. How would you answer a skeptic who said that hoping in God is just “pie in the sky when you die” wish fulfillment?
  3. How can a believer who has a consistently negative, cynical attitude develop a proper joyful attitude?
  4. How can a believer who has been through a terrible tragedy, such as the loss of his family, keep from doubting the sovereign goodness of God?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 69: Coping With Success (Genesis 41:1-57)

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Today I’m going to talk about something purely theoretical: How to handle success. Often before I preach on a subject, the Lord will take me through an experience similar to what I’m going to preach about, but I’m sorry to report that He didn’t do that with this topic! I have never experienced anything like Joseph’s meteoric rise from the prison to the palace.

I titled my message, “Coping With Success.” Usually “coping” goes with “failure,” but it should be coupled with the word “success.” It is often more difficult to handle success properly than it is to deal with failure. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist, said, “Affliction is bad; but for every person that can handle prosperity, there are a hundred that can handle adversity.” We need to learn to cope with success.

Maybe you’re thinking, “This message is purely theoretical for me, too. I’ll never be successful like Joseph was.” But even though not many of us will experience the dramatic success that God granted to Joseph, we all can learn much from his story. He didn’t know exactly what God had for him until the day it happened. That day in the dungeon began the same as every day had for the past two or three years for Joseph. And yet by day’s end, he was second in the land to Pharaoh. But that couldn’t have happened if Joseph had not been prepared for it. He had walked with God and had developed godly character which shone through in his work. That made him ready for the success God eventually granted him. Because Joseph honored God and was diligent in his work, he was able to cope successfully with success. His life teaches that

To cope with success, honor God and be diligent in your work.

In New Testament terms, make God look good by your life (glorify Him) and do your work heartily, as unto the Lord.

1. To cope with success, honor God.

The Lord says, “Those who honor Me I will honor” (1 Sam. 2:30). Joseph had honored the Lord, whether in Potiphar’s house or in prison. Now the Lord greatly honored Joseph. And Joseph, for his part, continued to be careful to honor the Lord in four ways which we should imitate:

A. Honor God by remembering that He is the source of all success.

Pharaoh had these dreams about the fat and lean cows and the plump and lean ears of corn. When his magicians could not interpret them, the cupbearer, whose dream Joseph had interpreted in prison two years before, ventured to mention to Pharaoh Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams. So Pharaoh called for Joseph. After getting himself presentable, Joseph was ushered into Pharaoh’s presence.

Imagine how Joseph must have felt on this occasion! From a dreary existence in the dungeon, a few minutes later he is standing before the most powerful monarch in the world. I would think it could be a bit threatening! If it were me, I’d probably want to be very polite, not make any waves, and hope like crazy that somehow I could use the opportunity to get out of prison.

These human factors make Joseph’s first recorded words to Pharaoh all the more impressive. When Pharaoh says, “I hear you can interpret dreams,” it would have been easy for Joseph to say, “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing really. Just a little hobby I’ve developed over the years.” But instead Joseph boldly says to this pagan king, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (41:16). Joseph was clear on the source of his success. He didn’t let the splendor of Pharaoh and his palace make him forget, “Without God, I’m nothing. He is the source of any ability I have to interpret dreams.”

When someone compliments you on your ability or on something you have done, it’s fine to accept it simply by saying, “Thank you.” The person is trying to encourage you, and it can come across as false humility if you always respond with, “It wasn’t I; it was the Lord.” But, even when you say “thank you,” you had better be thinking to yourself, “Thank You, Lord, for Your grace in enabling me to do that.” If you sense that the other person is attributing something to you where God alone deserves the credit, then you need to be bold to honor God as Joseph does. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Remembering that God is the source of our success will keep us from pride.

B. Honor God by bearing witness of His enabling in all you do.

Joseph didn’t just think to himself that God was the source of his ability to interpret dreams; he told Pharaoh about it. That wasn’t easy, because Pharaoh worded his sentence about Joseph’s ability (41:15) so that the easiest thing would have been for Joseph to keep silent and let it pass. Joseph could have thought, “For the time being, keep quiet. Later I’ll tell him about God.” But instead he boldly let it be known up front that God was behind his ability.

Pharaoh’s magicians were probably astrologers, trained in incantations and magic formulas to discern the future. I believe the only reason that they couldn’t come up with some explanation of Pharaoh’s dreams was that God darkened their minds on this occasion. But probably they had come in before Pharaoh and chanted their magic words and performed all their impressive rituals, but nothing worked.

But Joseph was different: No hocus-pocus, no razzmatazz! He just says, “God will reveal the meaning of your dream.” He listens to it, and then gives Pharaoh the straight stuff. In the process, he mentions God four more times (41:25, 28, 32). And Pharaoh got the point! Even though he was probably filtering things through his polytheistic grid, he acknowledges that there is a divine spirit in Joseph and that God has informed him of all these things (41:38‑39).

There is a danger that as a Christian in a pagan culture, people will think of you as a good person and attribute your goodness to you, not to God. I first learned this in a message Dr. Haddon Robinson preached in chapel at Dallas Seminary years ago. He and Dr. Bruce Waltke had been in a bank together and the teller gave Dr. Waltke too much change. Dr. Waltke pointed this out to the girl, but was quick to explain to her that he didn’t do it because he was an honest man, but rather, because Jesus Christ was his Lord. He didn’t want the woman to think that his honesty stemmed from his own good nature (which it didn’t).

Since that time, I’ve had numerous situations like that when my Christian character opened the door for witness. Usually it’s when someone undercharges me and I go back to pay the difference. I confess, the more they undercharge me, the greater the temptation to let it slide. But the truth is, the more they undercharge me, the greater the potential witness when I go back to make it right. I try to make it clear that if it was up to me, I would have ripped them off. But Jesus Christ is my Lord, and because of Him, I want to pay what I owe. If I can, I give them a gospel tract.

If you live as a Christian on the job, you’ll have opportunities to bear witness to the Lord as the explanation for your behavior or job performance. But honoring God must be uppermost in your mind, or you’ll miss the chance. H. C. Leupold observes, “After twelve years and more of injustice Joseph’s first consideration is not deliverance but to take care that his relation to his God be entirely upright” (Exposition of Genesis [Baker], p. 1026). If glorifying God through your life is your daily aim, then you’ll be quick to speak for His honor when opportunities arise.

C. Honor God by bearing witness of His sovereignty over all.

Three times (41:25, 28, 32) Joseph tells Pharaoh that God has determined what is going to happen and that it will happen because God has decreed it. Even though Pharaoh was the most powerful man on the face of the earth, he was nothing in comparison to the sovereign God. So in a subtle, yet unmistakable way, Joseph is letting this mighty king know that he is nothing in the sight of the God who is able to send prosperity and famine.

The sovereignty of God is a major theme that runs through the whole story of Joseph. It’s obvious that God had His hand on all the events of Joseph’s life: his dreams as a boy, his brother’s selling him into slavery, his being sold to Potiphar, his imprisonment and eventual release. The characters were only bringing about the will of God for His chosen people, even though those who sinned were totally responsible for their sin. Joseph, for his part, had a big view of God as the sovereign God who not only could send prosperity, but also famine. And he wasn’t afraid to let Pharaoh know about it.

Don’t be afraid to tell lost people that the God of the universe is sovereign. I sometimes hear Christians apologize for God’s sovereignty by explaining away a tragedy: “God didn’t cause it, He just allowed it”--as if that gets God off the hook somehow. You don’t have to get God off the hook. The Bible plainly teaches that God is in sovereign control of all things, but at the same time, sinful men are responsible for their evil deeds.

I don’t have any problem saying that God not only allows tragedies, He sends them (Isa. 45:7). Does that mean that we sit back passively and don’t do anything to alleviate human suffering? No. Joseph’s knowledge that this famine was coming led him to make preparations to alleviate its effects. But in the process, he bore witness to a sovereign God who is in control of the universe.

D. Honor God in your family life.

Pharaoh elevated Joseph to the number two spot in the land so that he could oversee the preparations for this famine and he gave him an Egyptian name (the meaning of which is uncertain) and an Egyptian wife. It would have been easy, in the process, for Joseph to have forgotten about God’s promises to his forefathers, and to have blended in completely with the comfortable Egyptian lifestyle he was now enjoying.

For that reason, it is especially significant that when his two sons were born, Joseph gave them names which testified of God’s faithfulness. Manasseh means “forgetting,” signifying that God made him forget the pain of his youth. Ephraim means “doubly fruitful,” testifying that God had made Joseph fruitful in the land of his affliction. No doubt these Hebrew names would have raised some eyebrows in Egypt. People would have asked, “Why did you name your kids that?” No doubt, Joseph told them. He honored God with his family life, even in this foreign, pagan culture.

Some are bothered by the fact that Joseph took an Egyptian wife. Perhaps he was wrong, although under the circumstances, he didn’t have much choice. Pharaoh was honoring him by giving him a bride from a highly regarded family in Egypt. Also, it’s clear from the names given to their two sons that Joseph didn’t allow his wife’s pagan background to influence him but, rather, he influenced her toward the true God. Furthermore, throughout this story Joseph is a type of Christ. There are many striking parallels: Christ was rejected by His own, suffered and died, and was then exalted as the Savior of the world, at which time He received the name above all names and a Gentile bride (the church). Even so, Joseph, rejected by his brothers and given up as dead, was later exalted as the savior of the world from famine (41:55, 57). So his receiving a new name and a Gentile bride fits the type.

Another factor is that God’s heart was always broader than just Israel. His covenant with Abraham was that through his seed, all the nations would be blessed. But Israel often forgot its missionary purpose and hoarded its covenant blessings. Through the fact that two of their tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half Egyptian, God was saying to His people, “Don’t get proud about being Hebrews. I chose you to be the channel of blessing to all nations.” Joseph’s Egyptian wife should have kept Israel humble about their race and reminded them of their missionary calling. In any case, Joseph’s taking an Egyptian wife in this situation does not provide an excuse for a Christian entering into marriage with an unbeliever, which is clearly forbidden in Scripture.

To come back to my point, remember to honor God by your family life, especially if He prospers you. All too often in our culture, career success means sacrificing your family. I admire men like a friend of ours in Dallas, who said no to a promotion because it would have meant too much time away from his family. In a culture like ours, where families are falling apart at the seams, a successful man who honors God with a godly family life will be greatly used to bear witness to His name.

So when God gives you any measure of success, be careful to honor Him by remembering that He is the source of all success, by bearing witness of His enabling and His sovereignty, and by your family life. But Joseph’s story includes a second important ingredient:

2. To cope with success, be diligent in your work.

Both Joseph and Daniel stand out in the Bible as men who served God in important government jobs in foreign lands. To do that well, without compromising your faith and integrity, is a tough assignment. But both men were faithful and God used both of them greatly.

Note also that Joseph wasn’t afraid to help a pagan king and a pagan nation to prosper. His plan saved Pharaoh’s reign from failure and saved many people from starvation. Some Christians are so otherworldly that they withdraw from involvement in solving the problems of this world. I have some relatives who belong to a Christian group whose members don’t vote or get involved in any constructive way with this world, because they’re “citizens of heaven.” But for the time being, we’re also citizens of earth. The most effective place for Christian witness is when believers get involved in solving some of the problems confronting our world, and yet maintain their purity and integrity.

There are two ways in which you need to be diligent in your work when God opens the door of success:

A. Be diligent to keep character above career.

Joseph was diligent to develop and maintain godly character and to let God take care of promoting him. It’s amazing that when he finally gets his chance before Pharaoh, after years in the dungeon, he doesn’t even mention his desperate need for freedom, but instead he honors God and then interprets Pharaoh’s dream. I can’t help but think that if this had been Jacob, the schemer, standing before Pharaoh, he might have said, “I’ll interpret your dream if you promise that I’ll get out of prison.” But Joseph did the right thing and trusted God to take care of his promotion.

Even when he proposed that Pharaoh find a discerning and wise man to oversee the storage and distribution of grain, Joseph never dreamed that he would be picked for the spot. He was a foreigner, a slave, and a prisoner at that. He probably hoped he would be set free, but the thought of being promoted to second in Egypt was far from him.

There are people who go through life hoping for a lucky break, where suddenly their fortunes will be reversed. But Joseph’s promotion was no lucky break. His godly character, forged through his consistent walk with God and his submitting to God in difficult trials, where it would have been easy to have grown bitter, was at the core of why he was promoted in Potiphar’s house, why he was able to resist Potiphar’s wife’s advances, why he was promoted in the prison, and why he was able to interpret the cupbearer’s, the baker’s and, later, Pharaoh’s dreams. All these things were built on years of diligence in walking with God and developing godly character qualities.

Are you doing that right now where you’re at? Maybe you are a teenager. That’s when Joseph started. You may be in a dungeon of circumstances. That’s where Joseph kept at it. If he had grown bitter, complaining about how unfair life had been, he wouldn’t have been ready for the promotion when the time came. You don’t move overnight from being a self‑centered, negative, grumbling person to being a joyful, competent, successful one. Joseph’s overnight change of position didn’t involve any change of character. Rather, it was built on years of godly character development. Be diligent to work on godly character. Let God take care of the career promotions.

B. Be diligent to keep competence alongside character.

Joseph was not only godly, he was good at what he did. He proposed a wise plan of action and he had the skill to carry it out. His plan involved collecting a fifth of the harvest each year for seven years, so that they had enough surplus not only for Egypt, but also for surrounding countries hit by this famine. It would have taken skillful administration and a lot of discipline to make this happen on a national scale. No doubt Joseph caught a lot of flak from people who wanted to use all the harvest and not save it for the future. But he was good enough as a leader to pull it off.

A lot of Christians think that character is enough on the job. They expect that God will get them the promotion because they’ve been faithful to have morning devotions. They sit around praying for the promotion instead of developing competence on the job to go with their Christian character. You need both. As a Christian, you need to be godly, but you also need to be good in doing what you do.


No doubt God will have different ways that each of us needs to apply this portion of His Word. Some of you have not been honoring God on the job or in your home life. You need to confess that to Him and begin to live consistently as a Christian. You may need to confess that you have chafed under His sovereign dealings with you, rather than submit to Him, as Joseph did in the dungeon. You need to let go of your rebellious spirit. God may have put His finger on the fact that you have put your career above your character. You need to make the commitment to walk with God first in your life.

Perhaps you have never personally put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior from the penalty of your sin. Just as the whole world had to come to Joseph during the famine for bread, so now every person must come to Christ, the Bread of Life. Without Him, you will perish. You must come to Him and receive the gift of life He offers. Just as God delivered Joseph in one instant from the prison to the palace, so He will deliver you from the dungeon of your sin and give you eternal life the instant you call out to Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. When (if ever) is it proper for a Christian to accept honor, and when must we defer all the honor to God?
  2. How can a Christian harmonize career success with biblical values? Is it wrong to seek career success?
  3. How can a man putting in the hours necessary to succeed in his career honor God in his family life?
  4. Is it wrong for a Christian business owner or employee to pursue the company’s “bottom line”? Is this serving mammon?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship

Lesson 70: When Your Conscience Says “Ow!” (Genesis 42:1-28)

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Armando Valladares spent two years being tortured in Cuban prisons as a political prisoner. Yet he maintained his faith in God and refused to grow bitter toward his persecutors. In his book, Against All Hope (cited in Reader’s Digest [7/87, p. 213]) he writes,

Gen. Enyo Leyva, First Vice Minister of the Interior, came to see me in the hospital one day. He greeted me with a smile and said, “I think that book of yours exaggerates some things, Valladares.”

I smiled right back. “It’s not my book, General. It’s our book. After all, your side furnished the plot.”

He laughed. “That’s good ... Well, now we’re going to take you to a real hospital for treatment. You can’t say we beat you or torture you now. Why don’t your write a book about that?”

“I will, General, just as soon as the Revolution writes one of its own, telling how we were beaten, tortured and murdered ....”

The General didn’t bat an eyelash. “Look,” he said, “I’m two years younger than you are, but you look much younger. We couldn’t have treated you so badly.”

“The way I am inside has a lot to do with the way I look, General. It comes from having a clean conscience. You probably don’t sleep as well as I do.”

The General stopped smiling.

At that point, the General’s conscience said, “Ow!” Everybody has a conscience, that still, small voice inside us that is sometimes too loud for comfort. We can suppress it and try to ignore it. For a while it may seem to be dead and gone. But then something happens to reawaken it. The “faults alarm” goes off and it says, “Ow!”

The old advice, “Let your conscience be your guide” is only partly right. Certainly no one should violate his conscience, although we all have done so. But living by your conscience is not enough. The conscience must be shaped and nurtured by the Word of God, which reveals His holy standards of right and wrong. If we disregard the conscience long enough, or if we don’t train it properly, it can be seared to the point that we can commit atrocious crimes without a twinge. When we suppress our guilty conscience, God has to awaken it to bring us to repentance so that we can share His holiness.

In Genesis 42, God is awakening the sleeping consciences of Joseph’s brothers. They were a hard bunch. Years before, under the leadership of Simeon and Levi, they had deceived a village, slaughtered all the men and taken the women and children captive in retaliation for one man’s violating their sister. Reuben, the oldest, had slept with his father’s concubine. Judah had two sons so wicked that the Lord took their lives. He himself had gone in to his daughter‑in‑law, Tamar, thinking her to be a prostitute. All of the brothers, except Benjamin, had sold Joseph into slavery and then crushed their father’s heart by deceiving him into thinking that his son was dead.

Now it’s 22 years later. They’ve papered over their guilty consciences. Joseph was out of sight, out of mind. Life in Canaan was comfortable, although they were blending in with the paganism around them. To awaken the consciences of a tough bunch like this, God has to use some rather severe measures. The famine in Egypt extends into Canaan. Slowly their supply of grain dwindles to nothing. They’re facing starvation. Jacob hears that there is grain in Egypt, so he sends his ten sons (minus Benjamin) down there to buy grain. In the process, their sleeping conscience awakes. Their story shows us how

God uses severity and grace to awaken our consciences and bring us to repentance.

God gets pretty tough, and yet the whole process is shot through with His grace. We see, first, how ...

1. God uses pressure to awaken our consciences.

Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, so he started talking it up with his sons. But every time he brought up the subject, none of his sons would look him in the eye. They just stared at one another. Reuben looked at Simeon, Simeon glanced at Judah, Judah’s eyes darted over to Levi. Jacob said, “Why are you staring at one another. Get down to Egypt and buy us some grain.” For Jacob, Egypt was a neutral word. But for his sons, the word Egypt went off like a bomb in their guilty consciences. They could hear again the clink of the silver coins they received from the traders as they sold their brother into slavery. They could see him begging for his life as he was being dragged off. They remembered the terrible expression of horror on his face. Egypt! Donald Barnhouse says, “The word Egypt in their ears must have sounded like the word rope in the house of a man who has hanged himself” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:187).

All this time they had promoted the lie that Joseph was dead. They had said it so many times that it just rolled off their lips. When they unknowingly talk to Joseph they say, “... we are honest men, ... twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (42:11, 13). They almost believed their own lie‑‑but not quite. When a trip to Egypt was mentioned, they dreaded the possibility of passing by a gang of slaves and perhaps seeing the hollow eyes of their brother.

For 22 years these brothers had tried to silence their nagging consciences. But when God applied the pressure of famine, coupled with the word “Egypt,” the sleeping giants stirred. Time doesn’t erase a guilty conscience. You can brush your sin under the rug and hope that enough years will take care of it. But one day, perhaps years later, God will apply some sort of pressure in your life and your conscience will stir. Maybe it will be a single word, spoken inadvertently by someone. “Egypt!” Your sin flashes as vividly in your mind as if it was yesterday.

But God has more tools to stir our sleeping consciences:

2. God uses reciprocal treatment to awaken our consciences.

F. B. Meyer (Joseph [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 72) proposes that Joseph repeated with his brothers the exact scene that had happened to him at the mouth of the pit 22 years earlier. We can’t be certain, but it is plausible that when he went to his brothers to check on their welfare, they may have accused him of coming to spy on their corrupt behavior. Now he accuses them of being spies. No doubt he had protested that he wasn’t spying, just as they now protest. They would have answered him roughly and without any basis for their accusation, just as Joseph now answers them. They threw him in a pit, just as Joseph now throws them in the dungeon.

The parallel between their treatment of Joseph and the treatment they were now receiving was a powerful stimulant to their sleeping consciences. Shortly after they are released from the prison, with no mention of their past behavior, with 22 years of silence and cover up of their sin, they say to one another, “Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us” (42:21). Being on the receiving end caused this Rip Van Winkle to wake up screaming.

We treat someone wrongly and over the years we manage to put it out of our conscious thoughts. Then someone else treats us just as we wrongly treated that person years ago, and our guilty conscience is aroused. It’s the old law of sowing and reaping, with the added factor that when we reap, it causes us to recall those seeds that we forgot we had sown.

3. God uses time for thinking about our pasts to awaken our consciences.

Joseph’s brothers probably hadn’t given much thought to what it felt like to be a captive in a pit until Joseph put them in the dungeon. He may have put them there both to give them time to think as well as to buy some thinking time for himself. As Joseph thought through his original plan, of keeping all but one in confinement, he realized that it might be more than his aged father could bear. So he changed his plan and decided to keep only one in confinement.

But the effect of three days in the dungeon got his brothers’ attention. They began to think about their lives from a spiritual perspective. They thought about their own sin and the fact that sin has consequences. Before this they had shrugged off their sin as if there were no future reckoning with God. But now, sitting in prison for three days, they made the connection.

Thorough repentance often takes time. It’s not always quick, easy, and over with. A popular Bible teacher when I was in college used to teach that confession of sin doesn’t require any feelings of remorse. In fact, he discouraged any feelings. Rather, he said that we simply had to name our sins, claiming 1 John 1:9. I always felt that he was too flippant toward sin. If sin grieves the Holy Spirit, it ought to grieve me. While God’s forgiveness is always based on His grace, not on my working up feelings of remorse, thorough repentance often takes enough time for me to think about what I did to the point that I grieve over my sin.

At this point, Joseph’s brothers’ consciences were just stirring from a long sleep. They were still a bit groggy, as I am early in the morning. They had a gnawing sense of guilt, but it hadn’t yet focused on God. In fact, Joseph is the first to mention God when he brings them out of the prison and gives them a glimmer of hope by saying, “Do this and live, for I fear God” (42:18). The brothers don’t mention God until verse 28, when they discover that one man’s money has been put back in his sack. It’s a significant reference, because in all the previous chapters dealing with the history of Jacob and his sons, these men have never mentioned God until now. It was Joseph’s kindness in returning the money which caused them to be afraid and to exclaim, “What is this that God has done to us?” It shows us that ...

4. God uses grace to temper the whole process and bring us to repentance.

Romans 2:4 says that the kindness of God leads us to repentance. Through Joseph’s kindness, for the first time in their lives these crusty, worldly brothers saw the hand of God. But note that their first response to this act of grace was not joy, but fear. Verse 28 says that “their hearts sank” and they trembled. This same word is used of Isaac’s trembling when he discovered that he had been deceived in the matter of Esau’s birthright (27:33). It means to tremble with terror. When the men discover that each one has had his money returned (42:35), they were frightened (NASB = “dismayed”). In John Newton’s words, “‘Twas grace that caused my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

Some think that Joseph was being vindictive in his harsh treatment of his brothers. I don’t agree. He knew that they were hard men, and he had to find out where they were at with God and what their attitude was toward their father and Benjamin. Robert Candlish (Commentary on Genesis [Zondervan reprint], 2:182) argues that if Joseph had been left to himself, he would have revealed himself to his brothers immediately. But when they did not recognize him and he remembered his dreams from years before (42:9), he perceived that this was no coincidence. God was in this and God restrained him so that He could use Joseph to bring these men to repentance. We see Joseph’s heart when he has to turn away from his brothers and weep (42:24).

Joseph’s actions toward his brothers parallel how God brings us to repentance. Notice four ways in which grace shines through:

A. God’s grace shines through when we are not treated as harshly as we deserve.

While Joseph’s treatment of his brothers paralleled their earlier treatment of him, it was not nearly as harsh. They intended to kill him and did sell him into slavery, resulting in years of hardship. Joseph only put them in prison for three days. While at first he threatened to keep nine of them in jail and send one back, he softened that to keeping one in jail and sending the nine home, so that they could carry enough food for their households (42:19). While the brothers had been ruthless in ignoring Joseph’s cries for help (42:21), Joseph was kind to help them as he did. I think his motive was to see them broken before God, which he knew from experience to be the only place of blessing.

If you know the extent of your sin and have any inkling of the holiness of God, you’ll exclaim with David, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! ... He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:1, 10). Even when God’s discipline seems harsh, it is never anywhere close to what we deserve.

B. God’s grace shines through when He makes us become what we profess to be.

The brothers tell Joseph that they are honest men (42:11). That’s a bit ironic, because honesty hasn’t been one of their noticeable virtues to this point. They deceived the Shechemites. They deceived their father with Joseph’s bloodstained coat. Judah led Tamar to believe that she would get his third son in marriage when he had no such intention. And even here, in their next breath they tell Joseph that their one brother “is no more,” when they don’t know that for sure. They do know that they last saw him heading for Egypt very much alive. Yet they claim to be honest men! So Joseph puts them to the test, to see whether they are indeed honest men (42:16, 19). If they’re honest, they can return with the other brother they have talked about.

Sometimes we claim to be Christians when we know well and good that our lives are anything but Christian. But do you know what? Though God could justly abandon us, He graciously holds us to our words. He says, “You say that you’re a Christian, do you? Well, let’s put that claim to the test. Let’s make you into what you claim to be.”

C. God’s grace shines through in His compassion which underlies His discipline.

Joseph gives his brothers a glimmer of hope when he tells them, “I fear God.” They would not have expected this from this seemingly harsh Egyptian prime minister. But there was enough hope of fair treatment in those words to keep them from despairing and to reveal some tenderness underneath the harsh exterior of this man. If he hadn’t been harsh, he wouldn’t have gotten their attention. If he hadn’t shown them a glimmer of grace, he would have crushed their spirits.

Note the contrast in verse 24. Joseph’s compassion is seen in that when he overhears his brothers’ conversation about their past sin, he is so overcome with emotion that he leaves the room to weep. But when he returns, he binds Simeon in front of them. They saw the binding, but not the tears. They must have thought this man to be very harsh, when in fact he was acting out of the deepest feelings of love.

There’s a good chance that it was Simeon who had been the ringleader in throwing Joseph into the pit where his intention was to kill him. He had been the leader in the slaughter of the Shechemites. In Jacob’s final words to his sons, he refers only to Simeon’s violence and anger (49:5-7). By putting Simeon in prison, Joseph would prevent his wrongly influencing the others on the return journey and would also hope that the time in prison would break his hardened heart. George Bush observes that Joseph “bound [Simeon] in prison, but he did it to set him free from the far worse chains of his own fierce passions” (Notes on Genesis [Klock & Klock], 2:305).

In all this, Joseph reflects God’s tender but firm discipline toward us. Just as Joseph didn’t reveal himself to his brothers until he saw their repentance, so the Lord won’t reveal Himself to us in the trials resulting from our sins until we demonstrate a broken heart. Just as the brothers didn’t know that Joseph understood their discussion, since there was an interpreter between them, so many unrepentant sinners don’t understand that God knows the very thoughts and intentions of their hearts. Knowing this, His motive in discipline is never cruel. It is always designed for our good. F. B. Meyer writes,

It is thus continually in life’s discipline. We suffer, and suffer keenly. Imprisoned, bereaved, rebuked, we count God harsh and hard. We little realize how much pain He is suffering as He causes us pain; or how the tender heart of our Brother is filled with grief, welling up within Him as He makes Himself strange, and deals so roughly with us” (p. 76).

God knows just how much each of us needs to be broken before Him, and He lovingly takes whatever means are necessary to do it. Until we are broken, He seems very harsh. But if we only knew, like Joseph’s heart toward his brothers, God’s heart toward us is always filled with compassion. He disciplines us as a loving father disciplines his children, that we might share His holiness.

D. God’s grace shines through when He blesses us when we know we deserve punishment.

Joseph’s brothers didn’t deserve any kindness, but Joseph secretly put each man’s money back in his sack and gave them extra provisions for their return journey (42:25). I think his motive was simply love. I doubt that he knew that it would scare them as it did. They panicked because they figured that when they returned for more grain they would be accused of stealing this money on the first trip.

People who have not yet come to repentance before God don’t understand grace. They fear God’s judgment for the things they know they’ve done and not confessed. Knowing they deserve judgment, they have trouble accepting God’s undeserved favor.

And yet, as I’ve said, it was when they first experienced grace by discovering the returned money that they first recognized the hand of God in their lives. Grace had now taught them to fear; it later would relieve those fears and teach them the joy of knowing that their sins were forgiven.


If God’s hand seems harsh and heavy against you right now, you need to know that His purpose is to rescue you from sin and the character traits which ultimately would destroy you and damage many others. When you yield to Him and draw near in repentance, you will discover His great compassion and grace.

Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn observed, “A man’s conscience takes up more room than all the rest of his insides.” If your conscience feels like that--if it is saying, “Ow!”--don’t turn away from God in denial of your sin. Turn to Him in genuine repentance and you will experience the sweet taste of His abundant grace.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a Christian develop and maintain a good conscience? Can one’s conscience be too sensitive?
  2. If we have confessed our sin but still have a troubled conscience, does it mean that Satan is accusing us or could there be the need for deeper repentance?
  3. Discuss: Can repentance without any feeling of remorse be genuine?
  4. Is there a difference between God’s discipline and punishment? Does He punish Christians?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Confession, Discipleship, Grace, Spiritual Life

Lesson 71: When Everything Goes Against You (Genesis 42:29-43:14)

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One of the spoof advertisements Garrison Keillor used to do on his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show was, “Worst Case Scenario.” It’s a telephone service where you can call a pessimist named Ralph and he will tell you the worst that can happen to your proposed plans.

In one segment, a guy calls Ralph to ask what the worst case scenario will be if he takes his wife to the movies that night. Ralph replies, “You want the worst case scenario? Your wife will ask you to go out to the snack bar and get her something to drink. On the way back to your seat, you’ll trip over someone’s feet and spill your drinks on the people in the row in front of you. They’ll sue you for all you’re worth. You’ll lose your house and car and job. Your wife will divorce you and take the kids with her. You’ll start drinking and end up on skid row.” The caller says, “Hey, thanks! I’d never thought about it that way. I guess I’ll stay home tonight.”

“Worst Case Scenario” is a practical service designed to help you apply Murphy’s Law in specific situations. The general law is, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” We laugh at Murphy’s Law because we’ve all had times when it seems like everything is against us. Of course, it’s never very funny at the time it’s happen­ing, especially if the things against us are of a serious nature.

Instead of Murphy’s Law, it should have been called Jacob’s Law. Jacob lived before Murphy and he summed up the principle in Genesis 42:36, when he said to his sons: “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.” But before we scold Jacob, we need to admit that we’ve all been right where he was at.

1. There are times when things seem to be against you.

To review, Joseph, whom Jacob thinks is dead, has been promot­ed to the number two spot in Egypt after years in prison. He’s in charge of the plan to save up grain in the years of plenty and distribute it during the years of famine. The famine had spread into Canaan, so Jacob sent his ten other sons (minus Benja­min) to Egypt to buy grain. They stood before Joseph and didn’t recognize him in his Egyptian appearance after these 22 years, though he recognized them. He treated them harshly, accused them of being spies, and put Simeon in prison until the others could return with their younger brother, Benja­min, to prove their honesty. In all these things, Joseph was testing his brothers to see where their hearts were at, and to lead them to repentance.

On the way home, one of the brothers opened his sack to feed his donkey and discovered that the money he had used to pay for the grain had been returned. The brothers feared that they would be accused of stealing when they went back to get Simeon out of jail and to buy more grain. But, for the first time, they also recognized God’s hand in their lives and ex­claimed, “What is this that God has done to us?”

They returned home and reported everything to Jacob. As they finished their story and emptied their sacks, they discovered, to their horror, that not just one, but each man’s money, had been returned. It’s at this point that Jacob wailed his version of Murphy’s Law: “All these things are against me.” It’s as if he called “Worst Case Scenario” and Ralph said, “Yep, Joseph is dead, Simeon is dead, and Benjamin will die, too!”

Reuben steps in at this point and makes an extreme offer: He will be responsible for Benjamin; if he doesn’t bring him back, Jacob can kill two of Reuben’s sons. It’s an absurd offer, but Reuben has been on his dad’s bad side for a long time, and he’s trying to change that. He committed incest with his father’s concubine. Being the oldest, he had been responsible for Joseph’s safety. He had blown that one, and Jacob wasn’t about to give him a chance with his favorite Benjamin.

So Jacob digs in his heels and says, “No way! I’ll starve first.” Okay! The next verse (43:1) says, “Now the famine was severe in the land.” But Jacob holds out, thinking, “Maybe this stupid famine will let up.” But it doesn’t. It only gets worse, and his sons and their families are getting hungry. Finally, he sees that his back is to the wall so he says, “Go back, buy us a little food.” Did you catch how he phrased that? Why buy just a little food? Jacob’s hope was that if they just bought a little bit, the harsh governor in Egypt wouldn’t require Benjamin to go down with his brothers. But Judah confronts his father with reality: “The governor said that we would be wasting our time in coming if our younger brother is not with us.”

But Jacob still isn’t willing to make the hard decision to send Benjamin. So he starts blaming (43:6): “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man whether you still had another brother?” Isn’t that true to human nature? When we’re boxed in by circum­stances, we want to blame others. “I’m a victim! Why weren’t you omniscient? Then this wouldn’t be happening to me!” Can’t you feel his frustration?

But in spite of Jacob’s irrational blame, Judah stays calm and reasons with his father. The plural (43:7) indicates that the other brothers joined the discussion at this point. They said, “The man questioned particularly about us and our relatives, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ So we answered his questions. Could we possibly know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?”

Now Judah makes a more rational proposal than Reuben’s earlier extreme idea. First, he appeals to the severity of their situation: “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, we as well as you and our little ones” (43:8). Then he proposes to become surety for Benjamin, so that if anything happens to him, Judah will bear the blame before his father forever. This may have been a willingness to be cut out of his inheritance. He then points out the result of Jacob’s obstina­cy: “For if we had not delayed, surely by now we could have returned twice” (43:10). It’s a nice way of saying, “We wouldn’t be in this mess if you weren’t so stubborn.”

Jacob’s back is to the wall, so he reluctantly agrees to let Benjamin go. (By the way, Benjamin is not a toddler; he’s about 23 by now.) But Jacob’s still got one last scheme up his sleeve: Put together a gift for the man down in Egypt. It had worked with Esau (even though it was unnecessary); maybe it would work again. In the end, he sends Benjamin with the hope that God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) would grant him compassion and that Simeon would be released. But finally, he resigns himself to the ultimate worst case scenario: “If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” If the man kills them all, that’s the way it goes! Everything seemed to be against Jacob.

You’ve been there, haven’t you! Maybe, like this “harsh” man down in Egypt, some difficult person was against you--a difficult person at work or difficult family members who seemed to be against you--husband, wife, parents, children, or in-laws. Perhaps it’s your past which you think is against you. Jacob thought that his past was against him: Joseph was dead, Simeon too, he complained. He didn’t know that; in fact both state­ments were false. But it’s easy to read the trials in your past so that you think that circumstances always have been against you.

It’s also easy to think the worst about the future. Jacob is cer­tain that if Benjamin goes to Egypt, he will never see him again (42:38). All his sons might perish (43:14). I’m not being too hard on Jacob, because when he finally stands before Pharaoh, he sums up his life: “Few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained to the years that my fathers lived” (47:9). In other words, “My past has been against me and the future, too, because my fathers outlived me.” How does he know that? He doesn’t know how long he’s going to live! And why would he want to live longer than his fathers if life is that unpleasant? Poor Jacob saw himself as a victim of cruel fate.

You can even take good things that happen to you and run them through a negative grid and they come out against you. When his ten sons returned with plenty of grain and all their original money returned, you would think Jacob would have rejoiced. These were tough times. Look how God had provid­ed! But Jacob complained that it only meant that he’s going to lose Benjamin: “All these things are against me” (42:36).

What should you do when it seems that everything is against you? The answer is, you should do the opposite of what Jacob did. When things seem to be against you,

2. Trust in the God who is for you.

As we’ve seen all through this story, God’s hand was always behind the scenes. It was God who sent Joseph into Egypt. It was God who put him in Potiphar’s house, then into the prison. It was God who sent the baker and the cupbearer to prison with Joseph and gave them their dreams which he inter­preted. It was God who gave Pharaoh his dreams and who gave Joseph the interpretation so that he was raised to the second spot in Egypt. It was God who was behind all these things confront­ing Jacob. Even though he couldn’t understand why God was doing all these things, Jacob needed to trust in the sovereign, loving hand of the God who had promised to bless him.

But Jacob wasn’t trusting God. Here I differ with many com­men­ta­tors who admit that Jacob wavered momentarily, but paint him as a great man of faith. I’m not trying to pick on Jacob, in that we’re all much like him. But I argue that if you want to trust God, you should look at Jacob here as an example of how not to do it. Ten things in Jacob’s life here tell you when you’re not trusting in the Lord. Let’s take it as a quiz. I’ll tell you in advance that the correct answer each time should be “no.”

(1) Are you governed by irrational fears? Jacob was governed by the fear of losing Benjamin. So he was overprotective, even though Benjamin was 23 years old! He didn’t send him down to Egypt with his brothers the first time because he thought, “I am afraid that harm may befall him” (42:4).

Jacob’s fears weren’t irrational in the sense that they were far­fetched. Benjamin could have died on the trip. His fears were irrational because he was trying to protect his son from circum­stances which were beyond his control and his fears forced him into ridiculous behavior. Benjamin could have died of some disease or accident at home. Life is risky. But when it comes down to sending Benjamin or starving, he opts for starving the whole extended family. Even if Simeon rots in prison, Benjamin isn’t going to Egypt!

Taking needless risks just for the thrill of it is not good steward­ship of our lives. Christians should not be daredevils. But we’ve got to entrust our kids and loved ones to the Lord’s keeping. Irrational fears indicate that you’re not trusting in the Lord.

(2) Do you have a negative, pessimistic attitude? As we’ve seen, Jacob was pessimistic about his past (42:36) and about his future (42:38). He was convinced he would go to his grave in sorrow if Benjamin went to Egypt with his brothers, when in fact, letting him go was the way Jacob would experience the greatest joy of his life, his reunion with Joseph.

I’m not advocating Norman Vincent Peale’s “Positive Thinking,” which is man‑cen­tered and not biblical. But how can you focus on the Lord and the blessings He has promised to those in Christ and be negative and pessimistic about life? The Bible is realistic about our enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is realistic in showing the trials that God’s people often endure. A biblically positive attitude doesn’t deny or gloss over these problems. But it does affirm that God is good and that life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is full of great joy.

(3) Are you selfcentered? The Hebrew of 42:36 reveals Jacob’s self-focus: “Me you have bereaved; ... against me are all these things.” You see the same thing in 43:6, when he tips his hand that he’s more con­cerned for himself than even for Benjamin. Jacob sees the threat against Benjamin primarily in terms of how it will affect his own happi­ness.

A self‑centered parent plays favorites and uses his favorite child for the parent’s fulfillment. Jacob loses Joseph, so he picks Benjamin, his other son from his favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob cares more about his own happiness through Benjamin than he does about his son Simeon in prison in Egypt. He tells the other nine, “... his brother is dead, and he alone is left” (42:38). How would that make you feel? You’re not trusting God when you use your children to fulfill your own needs.

(4) Are you blaming others for your problems? Jacob blames his sons for depriving him of Joseph and Simeon and, next, Benjamin (42:36). He wasn’t sure what role the brothers had in Joseph’s disappearance, but he suspected, based on their track record, that they had done some­thing. But Simeon and Benja­min weren’t their fault. It wasn’t their fault that they answered the man’s direct questions about their family (43:6). Jacob was blaming his sons, but he was really blaming God, who was using all these events to deal with this family. If you’re blaming others, complain­ing about the unfair treatment every­one gives you, you are not trusting the sovereign hand of God.

(5) Are you stubbornly refusing to admit you were wrong? Here’s where pride gets in the way. Jacob makes a foolish, adamant decision: Benjamin isn’t going to Egypt! Perhaps he felt good about his strong leadership. But then the famine got worse and the grain ran out. Then what? “I gave you my answer, Benjamin isn’t going, even if we all starve!” Jacob was being foolish, not strong, in his leadership. He was really wrestling against God, stubbornly refusing to admit his error until the last moment.

If, when his sons had returned, he had said, “Men, we’ve got to seek the Lord for His wisdom about these things. Let’s commit Benjamin to His keeping and pray that Simeon will be freed,” he would have seen Joseph months sooner and he would have spared his family the crisis they now faced. Stubbornness isn’t strength in leadership, nor is it trust in the Lord.

(6) Are you reluctantly yielding because you have to? Jacob finally says, “If it must be so, then ...” (43:11). He’s grudgingly yielding to what has to be, but his heart’s not in it. He’s saying, “There’s a gun to my head; what else can I do?” That’s not faith. Faith should flow from a willing spirit of submission to our loving Heavenly Father.

(7) Are you excluding God from the events of your life? When Jacob sends off his sons, he instructs them to take back the money that had been returned, explaining, “perhaps it was a mistake” (43:12). Just one of those freak things that “happens”! Even Jacob’s worldly sons saw it as the hand of God when they exclaimed, “What is this that God has done to us?” (42:28). But to Jacob, it’s just a mistake. What does God have to do with it?

There are three different views of adversity in these chapters about Joseph. Joseph views adversity as coming from the loving hand of his sovereign God (45:5‑9). Joseph’s brothers view it as punishment from an angry God who is getting even with them for their sin (42:21‑22, 28). But Jacob views adversity as due to the fickle hand of fate, or to the stupidity of his sons (42:36‑38; 43:6, 14). Only Joseph’s view is correct. Jacob needed to see the hand of the loving, sovereign God in his adversi­ty. You’ll be able to submit in faith to God in your trials only when you see His loving hand in the common problems that happen each day.

(8) Do you rely on human schemes rather than the grace of God? Even though things are against him, Jacob rallies to try to manipulate things for his own advantage with a gift. He did it with Esau, who brushed it aside. He does it here and Joseph ignores it. G. Campbell Morgan observes, “He always seemed to think that the great end was to gain something, and evidently he believed that this was the motive of the Egyptian governor, and that, therefore, he might be bribed into complacency. How often we but reveal ourselves in our estimates of others!” (The Analyzed Bible, Genesis [Baker], 244.)

There is a deep‑seated human tendency to pay our own way. We have trouble accepting grace, undeserved favor. If somebody gives us something, we feel we need to give them something in return. And so we often try to add to God’s grace all sorts of human schemes to get what we want. But God only works through grace.

(9) Do you resort to God last, as a hope, but not in prayer? This is Jacob’s high point, but even here he falls short. After he’s done everything else, Jacob sends off his sons with the hope, “May God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man” (43:14). I say “hope” rather than “prayer” because in prayer you talk directly to God. In prayer you say, “O God, based on Your promises to me, do such and such.” And it shouldn’t the last thing you think of, but the first.

(10) Are you stoically resigning yourself to fate? Jacob finally sighs, “And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (43:14). Again, many commentators see this as a fine example of faith. But I see it more as a resignation to fate. Jacob is saying, “What will be will be. You can’t fight it, so you may as well give in to it.” But that kind of stoicism isn’t faith in the living God, who sovereignly orders the affairs of this world for His glory.

Paul expressed the kind of active faith in God we should have when he wrote, concern­ing trials, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.... If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:28, 31‑32).

How can everything be against us when God says that He is for us? The best Jacob could hope for in his troubles was that Simeon would be released and Benjamin spared. Little did he know that God would do far more than he could ask or even think (Eph. 3:20)! He’s promised to do that for us, as well! So the bottom line is,

When things seem to be against you trust in the God who is for you.


Three things have helped me do that:

(1) Put God into the equation. You have to stop and ask yourself, “Is God in this or not? He is! Then, “Is God for me or against me?” He’s for me! “Am I going to believe, then, that God is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him?” (Heb. 11:6) You have to make the deliberate choice to trust in the unseen God.

(2) Put your situation into historical perspective. View your situation in light of God’s dealings with His people in the Bible and in church history. That helps me to see that “I am not the last of God’s prophets left, and they’re seeking my life.” Others have suffered and endured in the cause of Christ before me. Reading biographies of Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and others who have over­come severe hardships helps me to trust God in my puny trials.

(3) Put down selfish, unbelieving thoughts. You can’t allow yourself the luxury of a pity party. You can’t surround yourself with reasons why everything is against you so that you have excuses for not believing God. You can trust God! You can take unbelieving thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ! When things seem to be against you, you can trust in the God who is for you!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know whether a trial is from the Lord or if the devil is against us?
  2. How can we realistically look at all the problems in the world and yet be genuinely positive?
  3. It would be fairly easy to trust God if you knew His specific will in advance. Since we don’t, how do we trust Him? Is, “If it be Your will,” a cop out?
  4. Some would say that Jacob’s gift was a prudent measure in line with prevailing customs. How can we know when prudent plans cross the line into wrongful scheming?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution