Wednesday, April 11, 2012

With Jacob Buried, Fear Sets In for the Brothers - Genesis 50:15-17

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph should bear a grudge against us and pay us back in full for all the wrong which we did to him!”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father charged before he died, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph, “Please forgive, I beg you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they did you wrong.” And now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’”  And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

I love the English used here at the beginning of this passage – “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead. . . .”  Clearly, they had ‘seen’ he was dead prior to that for they had mourned for him for seventy days, then travelled three hundred miles with his body, then mourned again for another seven days.  Here then is an example of language usage in the Bible that is a little unlike ours today.  In this case, the verb ‘to see’ is being used in its ‘to come to understand or realize’ aspect.  When the brothers realized that their father Jacob, who may well have protected them from the possible wrath of Joseph for what they had done to him, was dead, fear set in.  Perhaps they thought Joseph was only biding his time until Jacob had died before he turned on them for their past sins against him.

There is a parallel here between the fear Jacob’s sons are exhibiting here, a fear similar to what many of us feel or may have felt towards our natural fathers, and the fear that we as Christians sometimes have with respect to our Heavenly Father.  I remember well the time or two that my father protected me from school or neighborhood bullies.  Once he stepped into the picture, they all of a sudden wanted to be my friends.  Maybe you have had similar experiences.  When one or more of our young grandchildren were having difficult times at school, sometimes even with a teacher, just knowing that their mom and/or dad, let alone their fiery grandfather, were there to take up their cause rightfully, was a big encouragement to them.

Because of the fact that at some point we lost the protection of our earthly fathers, we often have the same feeling when it comes to the relationship between God, our Heavenly Father, and ourselves.  Usually, but not always, the cause of such a feeling by us is based on the fact that we have done something, sinned in a way, that we believe places us beyond help or beyond being worthy of help and our God has abandoned us.  That is one of the biggest lies that Satan can ever lay on us.  It is not true.  Scripture, experience, and our faith tell us that it is not the case.  Our Heavenly Father’s protection is always with us.  We can’t leave home without it, even if we wanted to.

Here also we have the human “what if” scenario at play.  As humans we tend to start thinking about things that “might” be.  What if one of my family members had cancer?  What if my child didn’t pass?  What if my spouse left me?  What if I lost my job? There’s a time for all that kind of “what if” scenario planning, but when God has shown His faithfulness to us in so much over the course of our lives, that time is not now, especially if He is blessing us in so many ways right now.  In business we do that kind of planning in the process of our “risk management” exercises that we are obligated to conduct on behalf of our clients, the government, our staff, and our stakeholders.  In our lives, our “risk management” process is to practice and celebrate the fact that God is for us and with us, then obeying His instructions to us, and constantly growing in our relationship with him.  No other negative “what if’s” are required.  We need to have a second or third alternative in our minds, of course, on some of these issues.  That’s just using the mental ability and skills that God has given us to take care of our needs and those of our family.   No one is recommending we have our heart set on a single outcome and then be hit by utter destruction and not be able to survive the calamity.  But when it comes to borrowing tomorrow’s woes, the Bible instructs us not to bother.

In the case of the brothers, their fear was over justice.  They did not want to be justly treated for what they had done.  And surely to goodness, if anyone now had the power to treat them justly, it was their “nice up-to-this-point, but with no-future-guarantee” brother Joseph who was the second ruler of all Egypt.  I’d be afraid too, because true justice had never been achieved; no real consequence had ever been suffered for the wrong that had been done.

We must notice that this exchange between Joseph and his brothers was not necessarily made directly by all of them.  First we don’t know how much time had elapsed between the burial in verse 14 and this realization of the brothers in verse 15.  We do know that they had all returned to Egypt.  But Matthew Henry points out that Joseph had returned to the royal court in a major Egyptian city while the brothers returned to their land in Goshen, in the remote parts of the country.  In verse 16 we read that they “sent a message” to Joseph on this matter.  Was it via a servant or was it delivered by one or more of them?  We do not know.  At the end of verse 18, we read that Joseph wept (on which we comment below) but what is interesting is that the text says he “wept when they spoke to him.  Again, was that a form of English that included that he wept when they “spoke to him through the messenger”?  Or, did this conversation include a stage whereby he called them to come in and see him in person in order to finish it off?  (You’ll remember Joseph was very good at arranging these ‘second meetings’ if you think back to how he treated the brothers when they first came to Egypt for grain.) Again, we do not know.  But, let us go back to the planning of the brothers for a moment.

The next thing we notice is that in all likelihood, fear begets lying.  There is no record in Scripture that Jacob charged his sons any such thing as what they related to Joseph.  I would be the first to say, “Yes, it is possible he did”.  But once again, we have to look at the whole evidence to land on a particular position.  Does what we do know of Jacob suggest that he might have done so?  I don’t think so.   But does the timing of this idea from the brothers, with respect to the onset of their fear and so long after their father’s death, suggest that it may have been a made-up charge?  I think so.   I’m prepared to go with that, always remaining open to the possibility that I, and anyone joining me, could be wrong.  These guys had lied to Jacob about Joseph.  It was not a big hurdle for them to lie to Joseph about Jacob, especially now that he was gone.  Nevertheless, when our fear starts requiring us to tell lies, it is time to come clean, with God, and others.

Isn’t it interesting that our messages often conceived primarily as a lie, often carry with them one or more elements of truth.  In this case, they put some of these words in the mouth of their deceased father, Jacob, namely admitting through him that they basically had a fear and implying that they were wrong.

But then you will notice in the text that the part attributed to Jacob ends – the quotation is closed and the brothers now make their own direct plea, when they say “And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”  The end result is a personal admission to being wrong, seeking forgiveness, and explaining that they have found their way back to God and are now serving Him.  I believe there was sincerity there.

As I comment on this portion today, I am reminded of the National Hockey League general manager yesterday, who echoed management apologies to fans for a lousy season when he said, “I want to say on behalf of management, the coaching staff and players, I want to echo Mr. (chairman of the franchise owners)’s apology for our failure to deliver this year. We didn’t deliver at the end.”  He was asked at various points in the news conference if he was personally apologizing and his response was “I said what I said,” and walked out.  Well, that just won’t cut it with some fans and they’re seeking his firing.  Humans are like that – some fail to take any personal responsibility for what went wrong and some want them shot for not doing so.  In the case of Joseph’s brothers, I believe they were truly sorry for what they had done and sincerely sought his forgiveness.

But somehow the person of God reacts differently as Joseph shows us in his response to the brothers sharing with him the ‘supposed’ charge of his recently deceased father, Jacob.  Joseph wept.  We could well ask why?  Was it because he was reminded again of his beloved father, or because he now had to deal with another wish or request of his father’s?  Was it because he was reminded of what the brothers had indeed done to him?  Was it because it disappointed them greatly that they thought so little of him and his love for them when he felt he had shown it so lavishly as they settled in Egypt?  Or was it because he felt so sorry for his brothers that carried this great fear of him with them all this time?  We don’t know, but we do know he wept and was sensitive to the need for full reconciliation.

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