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

Christian persecution today – lessons from the Bible

This is a talk I gave to my local church today. We lit a candle which burned throughout the service as a reminder both of the light of Christ, and in solidarity with prisoners of conscience (Amnesty’s logo being a candle surrounded with barbed wire).

Readings: Genesis 41:1-37 (Pharaoh’s dreams). 1 Corinthians 4:8-13


As I mentioned at the start of the service, our focus today is on the persecuted church. Throughout the world, discrimination against people of faith generally, but Christians in particular, is probably at the highest level it has been for centuries. The mainstream media, of course, focussed on national politics and sport, makes little mention of this. But look online, and you find that across the world, our brothers and sisters are suffering. In fact, according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group, “80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.”
This discrimination occurs in more than half the countries of the world (link). Another organisation, Release International, names among the countries of particular concern at present Nigeria, China, and perhaps surprisingly India. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and the DRC continue to be of great concern as well. Deprived of employment, denied the right of peaceful assembly to worship, forced from their homes, and in some places murdered in cold blood simply for having converted from Islam or refusing to deny their faith in Christ. An international study in 2014 estimated that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith – that’s another ten people in the time we meet for worship this evening, and the figure has almost certainly increased since then. This morning we remembered St Margaret who suffered from Roman persecution of the Church. Her experience would be familiar to many today.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, they were not suffering persecution, but he had. He briefly recounts his experience as an evangelist – hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten like a slave, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered. His call to the Corinthians was to set aside what they saw as a privilege, a freedom from the burdens of Jewish law that meant they could ‘live like kings’. Instead they were to be like Paul, “fools for Christ”. That doesn’t mean behaving in a clownish way. Quite the opposite. The foolishness Paul has in mind is the challenge of standing up for Christian values even when it hurts. Accepting discrimination instead of resisting it. Following Christ’s teaching to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Margaret, and many other martyrs before and since, have followed this teaching. That is one challenge to all of us.
In our first reading from Genesis we encounter Joseph called up from the depths of the Pharaoh’s dungeon to interpret his dreams. As you may recall, the reason he was in prison in the first place was because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and it appears he was there for quite some time. He, too, suffered for standing up for the principles of his faith.

While in prison, God had given him, not for the first time, the ability to interpret dreams, and the cup-bearer remembered this when the need for interpretation arose again. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The message was to prepare while times were easy, for the hard times that lay ahead. I venture to suggest that this dream has a timely warning for us today.
We may think that at least we are safe as Christians in this country. But for how long? A recent study showed that the percentage of British people calling themselves Christian – whether or not they belong to a local church – is now below 40% for the first time, while over 50% now identify as humanist or atheist. So we are definitely in a minority already. That, and the general tendency towards extremism of all kinds, suggest that living an openly Christian life will become harder, not easier, over the coming years. At the moment we don’t have to resist persecution, but we do have to resist secularism. At the moment our non-Christian neighbours may be tolerant of us, but it might not always be so.
Therefore, while we still have free speech, let us use it to stand up for our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. Organisations such as Release International, Amnesty, Open Doors and Christian Today run campaigns, so we don’t have to start from scratch. While we still have the right to evangelise, let us use it to reach out to our community with the good news of Jesus. While we still have freedom of worship, let us not give up meeting together, as Paul wrote. Let us continue to burn the candle for justice, for freedom, for faith, for the light of Christ. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.