Joseph in Egypt – resonances of redemption

Text of a sermon preached at St John the Baptist, Adel, Leeds.

Text: Genesis chapter 42

The book of Genesis offers us many well known stories that have passed into Christian and even secular consciousness. The longest sequence of these concerns Jacob and his twelve sons, a dynastic saga that sets the scene for the later Exodus.  The passage that we heard read tonight is only a part of that sequence, towards the end of it in fact. You may well know the whole story, but in case it’s unfamiliar I will summarise it as follows:

Jacob, grandson of Abraham, had twelve sons, by his two wives and two servant girls.  Joseph was the second-youngest, and Benjamin, born several years later, the youngest.  These two were the only sons of Rachel, the other ten were their half-brothers, and that explains a lot that happens later in the story.  As young men, the older brothers hated them because they were Jacob’s favourites, and even more so when Joseph told them of dreams that they would one day bow down to him.  So they sold him to slave traders, who in turn sold him to an Egyptian official.  Thrown into prison in Egypt, he escaped only when a former fellow inmate told the Pharaoh that Joseph had the gift of interpreting dreams.  As a result of which, Joseph became finance and logistics minister, storing up surplus grain for the seven-year famine he had predicted. A famine that afflicted neighbouring countries including Canaan where his family lived.  That’s the story so far.

So, in this episode, by which time Joseph was very well off, the older brothers come to see him to buy corn from the Egyptian stores. The whole story is rich in resonances, not only for our own time, but also for the wider message of the Gospel.  Let’s look at a couple of them.

The first image that came to my mind when I pondered it is the many movements of people around the world today displaced by war, disease, famine or flood, such as the so-called caravan of migrants into the USA, or the asylum seekers crossing the North Sea in small boats.  I don’t imagine for a moment that Jacob’s was the only family that went down to Egypt to seek food or work in the drought, there must have been thousands.  Joseph presumably had to receive all of them to assess their needs.  Far from being hostile to these refugees from natural disaster, he – and his Egyptian masters – were willing to help them.  At the end of the story, Jacob’s extended family is invited to settle permanently in Egypt.

What a contrast that is to the attitudes of suspicion we so often see around us.  There is good work being done in Leeds by a network of churches and voluntary organisations to support homeless people, asylum seekers and refugees.  Jesus would approve – he proclaimed his mission as being to seek and save the lost, he spoke to despised groups of people, he told the story of the good Samaritan (as unlikely an idea in some people’s eyes as the good asylum seeker).

Back to the story – It’s quite understandable that Joseph, however generous to other visitors, would not want to greet his brothers joyfully as soon as he recognised them.  The anger and hatred he may have felt at the time of his enslavement may have been long gone, but the wrong they had done would not have been forgotten, and how was he to know whether he could trust them now?  Reuben, the eldest, reveals that he had opposed any harm to Joseph, so in sending the rest of them back with the grain they had paid for he retains the second eldest, Simeon, as a hostage.

That is the other image I want to bring out – the hostage.  We know about hostages of course – it’s a practice found in probably all societies.  The reason for keeping a hostage is to barter them for something – ransom money, another prisoner in exchange, or a favour from the other side.  The news this week has been of a British registered tanker and its crew held hostage by the Iranians as a revenge for us detaining one of theirs.  God willing, they will eventually both be released.

Joseph knew all too well what it was to be a hostage – thrown into a pit by his brothers until he was ransomed by slave traders – out of the frying pan and into the fire we might say.  His second spell in imprisonment was for refusing to sleep with his master’s wife. We might call him a prisoner of conscience.  We know all about them too – how about Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, who is according to Amnesty International a prisoner of conscience in Iran, although she could also be described as a hostage in the international tensions between Iran and the west.

Joseph’s motive in keeping Simeon hostage, though, is different – it’s to ensure he doesn’t lose connection with his family again, and also so that he can get to see Benjamin, his youngest and closest brother.

One of the explanations sometimes given of Jesus’ death is that he was offered by God as a ransom for the evil in the world that keeps us hostages apart from God.  The good news is that we don’t have to offer anything in return – the ransom is paid, we are free to go, we only need to accept that he has reconciled is back into God’s family.   Much of the New Testament explores this theme of reconciliation, of drawing people back into God’s family where they belong.

So we have in the story of Joseph at least three universal themes that find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ – welcoming refugees, ransoming hostages, and restoring broken relationships.  Joseph overcame the setbacks of his early life through faithful service, and persevered until they had been put right – not by vengeance, but by patience, generosity and love.  May he be a model for our own discipleship.

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

The Bible in a Year – 17 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

17 January. Genesis chapters 48-50

One of the last episodes in Jacob’s life is the blessing of two of his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. This seems to be a recognised ritual, Joseph leading the elder son to be blessed with Jacob’s right hand and the younger with his left. Many cultures still honour the eldest son of a family as the most important among his siblings in some way, and we still speak of a “right hand man” as being the closest aide or most important officer to someone in power.


But Jacob will have none of it.  Sometimes grandparents can see the character of their grandchildren better than the parents themselves.  He knows – by observation or divine revelation or a combination of both – that the descendants of the younger son, Ephraim, will be the more important in the future to God’s purposes.  And so he crosses his hands over so that Ephraim gets the “right hand” blessing.


The very last episode in the account of the Patriarchs is Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers after their father’s death.  Sometimes the death of a parent can split a family, but it can also be an occasion for healing of old wounds.

The Bible in a Year – 16 January

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16 January. Genesis chapters 46-47

These chapters complete the story of Jacob/Israel as Joseph is permitted by Pharaoh to bring his tribe – all 70 of them! – to Egypt where they can survive the long drought that God had revealed in an earlier dream.  These families, given land for grazing, will form the nucleus of the “people of Israel” in Egypt, in the saga of the Exodus.


Meanwhile, Joseph is acting on behalf of Pharaoh to distribute the stockpiled grain to the people of the land. But this is no foodbank or humanitarian aid as we think of it nowadays (even as I write, nearby Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought for 50 years, and charities are appealing for money to provide its people with food). This calculating ruler thinks only of his own wealth, not his people’s well-being, and demands not only all their money, but their animals, land and even their own bodies as slaves in return for food.  The Egyptians may have had one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world in some respects, but if the Biblical account is accurate, some at least of their rulers must have been tyrants as bad as any in history.



The Bible in a Year – 15 January

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15 January. Genesis chapters 43-45

All three chapters of today’s reading are about the dealings of Joseph with his brothers.  The obvious question to ask is why he did not reveal himself to them at once? Instead he plays cat-and-mouse with them, alternating kindliness and generosity with threats and even imprisonment, before eventually revealing all in a very emotional scene of reconciliation.  It’s the sort of psychological behaviour used to break the wills of prisoners of war (though at least he stops short of using physical torture).  Is it because they did the same to him so many years before, threatening to kill him, then leaving him for dead, then pulling him out of the pit only to sell him into slavery?


Before the second journey of the brothers to Egypt, in which they have been instructed by Joseph to bring his only full brother Benjamin (the others being half-brothers), Judah offers himself as a substitute – a ransom – if anything should happen to Benjamin.  It is of course through Judah, rather than Joseph (whose only children were by an Egyptian wife) that the history of salvation works itself out, so once again (just as with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac) God’s plans are hanging by a thread in human terms.  To serve God is to put oneself at his disposal, even when that is very risky.

The Bible in a Year – 14 January

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14 January. Genesis chapters 41 to 42

Joseph’s God-given interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and grain was another turning point in a very varied, but often difficult life.  Over the years he had experienced being a father’s favourite son, then sold into slavery, later becoming a king’s closest aide before being disgraced on the basis of a false accusation of assault. Now he is restored to favour and made ‘minister for food’ for the whole country.  And all before the age of 30!  At this time of year the Methodist church, and increasingly others following their example, hold a ‘covenant service’ in which we commit ourselves anew to following the God who is faithful, and whose guidance and purpose is seen as much in the difficult times as the good ones. “Put me to all things, put me to nothing; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you”. A difficult promise to make, and to keep, but one to be held on to, knowing that God’s promises of redemption and eternal life are sure, and that his wider purposes can be achieved through our own setbacks. As Joseph explained to Pharaoh when giving his interpretation, “it is not I, but God who will give you a favourable answer”.





The Bible in a Year – 13 January

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13 January. Genesis chapters 37 to 40

Joseph is remembered for being a ‘dreamer’.  Often that is used as a derogatory term, as it was by his brothers when they decided to kill him, a sentence that was commuted to being sold into slavery. When I was at school teachers often criticised me for looking out of the window, ‘daydreaming’, rather than concentrating on what they were saying. But it didn’t mean I wasn’t listening. Just that sometimes we have to let someone else’s words take flight in our own minds in order to apply them to ourselves.


I also tend to have quite vivid dreams at night, some of which can be understood in the morning as relating to my current situation, and others prompt me to pray for the people who have appeared in them.  I don’t think of these as revelations from God as certain of Joseph’s dreams were, but perhaps he had a similarly ‘overactive imagination’, as my wife says, as a precondition for being open to God speaking to him in this way.


Many of Joseph’s divine dreams, or his interpretation of other people’s dreams (discernment, which is said in the New Testament to be one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit), took a long time to come to fruition.  Even when his interpretation of a fellow servant’s dream in prison foretold that man’s release, he himself did not benefit until his interpretation was remembered two years later. Gifts that God gives are usually for the benefit of other people, not ourselves, and prophetic dreams, like any other prophecy will be fulfilled at the ‘right’ time, which calls for patience. Thank God fo trhe gift of imagination, and dreaming.

The Bible in a Year – 12 January

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12 January. Genesis chapters 35 to 36

Do you have a special place when it comes to your journey of faith? For me it will always be Scargill House, where I spent three happy years living with other Christians and offering hospitality to our guests, and met my wife. The chapel there is a focus of prayer and worship, and God gave me a vision there which encouraged me greatly in living for him. Bethel (“house of God”) was a special place for Jacob. He had first encountered God there when he had the dream of angels on a ladder to heaven; now after being reconciled with his brother, they go their separate ways again (for the land was not large enough for two big nomadic tribes) and Jacob returns to Bethel where God appears again to confirm his promises.  After this, apart from the death of Jacob’s favourite wife and father, the saga will turn to the next generation and the story of Joseph.

The Bible in a Year – 11 January

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11 January. Genesis chapters 32 to 34

Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with a man who he believes to be an appearance of God is a curious story.  Although angels often appear in human form (yes, today as well as in Bible times), they normally have no physical contact with people, and are to be distinguished from an actual bodily incarnation of God himself. This is probably the closest we see to that in the whole of the Old Testament, as it was only with Jesus that anyone could “see God and live” – Jacob’s encounter took place in the utter darkness of a wilderness night when the Lord’s face could not be seen.


The incident is a turning point in his life, not only for the unique encounter with God, but for the limp with which it left him (my wife currently has a problem with her hip, so I can see how painful and limiting it would have been), God’s blessing with a new name (Israel, by which name God’s people would henceforth be known) and in the way that it preceded the reconciliation with his brother. There is a spiritual truth here that before we can fulfil God’s purposes for us, we have to recognise ways in which we have been struggling against God (“kicking against the goads” as St Paul puts it), and accept both his blessing and the limitations that living out our calling may have on our human freedom.

The Bible in a Year – 10 January

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10 January. Genesis chapters 30-31


These chapters, and the previous one, tell the story of Jacob and his two sibling wives.  Some of the themes we have seen earlier in the book are repeated here: having children by a servant (the ancient equivalent of surrogacy I suppose) when one’s wife cannot conceive; and deception, whether by Laban in giving Jacob the “wrong” bride or his daughter Rachel in stealing her father’s idols.  But I will pick up on two incidental details:


At the start of chapter 30, there is a scene worthy of a TV soap, as tensions caused by Rachel’s childlessness come to a head. “Give me children or I shall die!” she moans; “Am I in the place of God?” her frustrated husband replies.  The ‘solution’ of having sons by his other wife and both their maids could only lead to further relationship difficulties, and at the end of the story, Rachel does finally bear a son, Joseph, who goes on to become the greatest of the brothers. How often do we have to be reminded that seeing God’s intentions fulfilled usually involves a large degree of patience?


When Laban and Jacob agree to go their separate ways, they set up what they call the “heap of witness”.  But they give it different names, which the NRSV footnote helpfully explain is because Laban uses Aramaic, and Jacob Hebrew.  Although he has worked for Laban twenty years and taken his daughters as wives (and so has surely learnt the language) he reverts to his mother tongue when it comes to naming the place. Language has such strong resonances for us, and placenames are rich in meaning.


The Bible in a Year – 9 January

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9 January. Genesis chapters 28-29

Jacob’s Ladder is one of those well known Bible stories, perhaps because it is so easily illustrated.  Or perhaps (for Sunday school teachers) because unlike most of the rest of Genesis it does not involve sex or violence.  But note – Jacob is sleeping out in the open with a hard rock for a pillow.  I had always pictured this as in some remote desert.  But he is actually staying in the “city” of Luz (the word is perhaps used in a relative sense, but a town at least).  So he has chosen to spend the night outdoors, maybe because it was a hot summer night, or maybe because he knew that solitude and contemplation of the vastness of the night sky are helpful to prayer.  And God meets him in a special way.  It reminds me to look for more opportunities to be truly alone with God.


I will write more about Jacob and his wives as the story unfolds tomorrow.