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Grown-Up Bible Stories

The Outcast

It’s one of the ironies of history. When God planned a Messiah to bring healing to a hurting world, he chose to start the action with a very dysfunctional family. But then again, redemption in a dysfunctional world would have to start with dysfunctional people. We remember Abraham and Isaac, the first patriarchs of this family, as good men—and they were. They also were products of the world and society they lived in. As a result, even these great men faced difficulties in their home lives.

Then, Isaac’s son Jacob came along. Poor Jacob! He was born the spiritual successor of Abraham, but he wasn’t the man Abraham was. A mixture of his own poor choices, a dishonest father-in-law, and a sin-warped culture left him leading a family with a large level of unhappiness.

In exile, Jacob bargained with his uncle to buy his cousin Rachel as a wife. The agreed upon price was seven years’ worth of labor. The uncle-turned-father-in-law tricked him, and Jacob wound up married to her older sister, Leah, instead. The culture encouraged polygamy, so Jacob bartered another seven year’s of work for his lover. One thing led to another. Jacob soon had four wives. Two of those wives were sisters and jealous of each other. The other two were the slaves of the sisters. The sisters rightfully resented the fact that their father had sold them like mere property to the husband they quarreled over. To make matters worse still, Jacob played favorites among his wives and let that favoritism carry over to his treatment of their children. Under the circumstances, there was no way that Jacob could possibly have had a happy family. He didn’t.

It was into this mess that Joseph was born. As one of the youngest of thirteen children and the firstborn of the favorite wife, Joseph became his father’s pet. His half brothers didn’t share the paternal enthusiasm. They saw Joseph as a tattletale. Their jealousy wasn’t helped by the multicolored coat their father provided him. Joseph’s life was further saddened when his mother died at the birth of her second child. Then there were the dreams Joseph had at night. To the brothers, his dreams suggested he secretly hoped to rule the family someday. He wasn’t popular, and his brothers weren’t the kind of guys who kept their feelings to themselves.

Besides, those brothers hardly qualified as nice guys. Two of them became guilty of gross immorality. Another two of them attacked and wiped out a whole city because one of its citizens had an affair with their sister. Nor did those two act alone. The others came onto the scene of the carnage and looted the place. It wasn’t a happy family, and Joseph wasn’t in good with it.

Jacob and his family were nomads. They lived in tents and shifted locations when their many animals required new pasture. Jacob sometimes sent his sons afar with the sheep while he stayed behind. During one of these excursions, Jacob sent Joseph, who’d been kept at home, to check on his brothers' welfare. So it was, that Joseph found himself alone with his brothers, alone with a group of rough men who hated him. His oldest brother Reuben intervened and prevented them from killing him outright. Unfortunately, Reuben’s influence had its limits.

A passing commercial caravan caught the brothers’ attention. The slave trade promised more profit than murder. Joseph’s half brothers sold him to the caravan traders and figured they’d seen the last of him.

Joseph was gone, but they still needed to cover their tracks. Rather than go home and tell their dad they’d just sold his favorite son into slavery, they took the hated colorful coat and dipped it in goat’s blood. They showed their "find" to Jacob, who naturally assumed that Joseph had fallen prey to one of the lions or bears of the wilderness. Like good sons who’d lost a brother, they tried to comfort their father in his extreme grief. Jacob wasn’t easily comforted. The family continued its unhappy, turbulent existence.

Away from it all, Joseph grew. He was taken to Egypt and resold to a high-ranking military officer. Joseph began to show real ability. He became his master’s household manager, controlling all of his private business. He was still a slave, but he was about as far up the ladder as a slave could go. Under the circumstances, Joseph had turned into a smashing success.

Through it all, he kept his faith in God. He also practiced that faith in a way that the rest of the family didn’t seem able to. He acted with honor and integrity when his master’s wife made romantic advances. Angered by his refusal, she chose to slander him. She accused him of what we’d call harassment today. Only, for a slave in old Egypt, those charges carried more devastating consequences than they do in our corporate world. Joseph went to prison. He was probably relieved that it was prison instead of the gallows.

This rejected son of Israel found God’s help in prison. The prison sentence included labor. Joseph’s rare executive ability came to the surface even among the prisoners of a "chain gang." Soon, he found himself in charge of the work detail. The prison became productive under his leadership.

Two fairly important people joined those under the supervision of the young lead prisoner. One was the king’s butler, the other the royal baker. They’d managed to cross their boss, and in a world where the king was the law, such offenses led to imprisonment. Both men had dreams one night that left them feeling they’d heard from the spirit world. They’d heard, but didn’t understand. They were, to say the least, bothered.

Joseph’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather were the men to whom God had spoken the early truths of the Jewish and Christian religions. By and large, that communication had come in the form of dreams or visions. Religiously significant dreams were part of Joseph’s heritage, and he mentioned that his God could handle the dream thing.

The royal servants told him what they’d dreamed. The butler had dreamed that he was back at his job, making wine for the king and serving it to him. The baker had three baskets on his head, full of baked goods, but the birds came and ate his handiwork.

Joseph, his link to Heaven strong, believed he knew the significance of the dreams. The king was going to release the butler and give him his job back. It would happen in three days. The baker’s news wasn’t so good. He too faced three days until a decision would be made in his case. He wasn’t going anywhere, except the hangman’s noose. Joseph added a plea to the butler. Essentially, "Please, when you get back to the royal court, tell the king about me. I was kidnapped from my homeland and have done nothing wrong here." [Quotations are not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a reference.]

Three days later, Joseph’s reading of dreams proved accurate. The baker died. The butler went back to the king. He didn’t bother to put in a word for Joseph.

Joseph might have died in prison, except for another pair of dreams. These dreams weren’t his, but the king’s. The Egyptian Pharaoh had two nightmares in a row. In the first, seven cows came out of the Nile River. They were healthy, good-looking animals. Then, his sleeping eyes seemed to see another set of seven cows. Ugly and skinny, they’d likely have been enough to get the royal herdsmen into trouble. These sickly cattle turned cannibal and ate the first seven. It wasn’t the prettiest dream, and Pharaoh awoke.

The next dream wasn’t bloody, primarily because it didn’t involve animals. What Pharaoh saw this time were seven heads of grain growing on one stem. Then, seven skinny, wind-blasted heads of grain popped up and devoured the first seven. Pharaoh woke up again. (Note, your Bible may refer to seven ears of corn, but in the English of our oldest translations, an ear of corn was what today we’d call a head of grain.)

Pharaoh also had an uneasy feeling that he’d heard from the spirit world. He’d heard. He didn’t understand. The nature of the dreams worried him. He turned to his spiritual advisers for an explanation. They had none to give.

Among those who heard him tell the dream was his butler. The butler remembered a time in his past that he’d probably tried to forget. He remembered a time that he most certainly would want Pharaoh to forget. Maybe he even remembered his promise to the young foreign prison supervisor. In any event, he spoke up. He told Pharaoh that when he’d been in prison for his faults, he’d known this Hebrew man who had accurately interpreted both his dream and that of the deceased baker. Pharaoh took the story seriously.

Joseph’s day had started like any other day in prison. There wasn’t a lot to look forward to other than challenges, hard work, and discouragement. Then, all at once, he was summonsed. He was going to see Pharaoh. Joseph did what he could for his appearance and then went to see the king.

Joseph faced the puzzle calmly. He gave no credit to the weird assortment of gods that Pharaoh worshiped. He took no credit for himself. He said, "God is showing Pharaoh what He is about to do." Joseph explained that both dreams carried the same meaning. There would be seven years in which Egyptian agriculture prospered. There would be plenty of food. It would be a great time for the national health and economy. But following this prosperity would come seven years of famine.

Famine is a word we don’t use much in today’s industrialized societies. But when famine does happen, it is nasty. Typically, famine starts with crop failure, which usually is the result of drought, insects, plant disease, or war. Crop failure leads to a failure of the food supply. Hunger follows. Most of us have seen news photos of children with the skinny limbs and swollen abdomens of malnutrition. Those are the pictures of famine. So are emaciated bodies lying near death in emergency hospitals.

Pharaoh, of course didn’t have TV or photojournalism, but his mind would have created similar pictures when he heard the word "famine." They weren’t pretty pictures. To a ruler responsible for his people’s health, the interpretation was worse than the dream itself.

But Joseph wasn’t through. He suggested a solution. If Pharaoh were to take advantage of the good years, he could build up a national food reserve. By building and filling government storehouses, there was real potential for saving the day.

Pharaoh was impressed. The idea impressed him. The man who suggested it impressed him. History doesn’t indicate whether the king knew of Joseph’s managerial record or not. What the record does tell us is that Joseph impressed the king as a man of God. Pharaoh recognized the presence of God in Joseph. Perhaps it was this recognition that led him to trust a stranger’s interpretation of mere dreams. It definitely was this recognition that led Pharaoh to give Joseph the job of putting his own advice to work.

Pharaoh did things in a big way. The man who had just changed out of prison clothes, now found himself in fine clothing with a gold chain around his neck and Pharaoh’s signet ring on his finger. Joseph the prisoner was now number two man in the kingdom. Only Pharaoh stood above him, and Pharaoh had promised noninterference. Of course, he did have a fairly big mandate to go with all the new power: save this country.

Of all the rags-to-riches stories, Joseph’s is probably the classic. Yet, had you asked Joseph, he’d have told you that God was responsible for it all. Only God can make a slave in a foreign prison a major political figure by a handful of dreams and a piece of advice. Joseph would later testify that the whole rocky road he had travelled had been the plan of God. In light of the way things worked out, it’s hard to disagree.

Joseph’s administrative gifts served him well. He proceeded to build and fill his storehouses. For seven long years, he kept faith in the vision. If in the eighth year Egypt’s farmers produced a bumper crop, Joseph at best faced serious embarrassment. We can only speculate on what he’d get at worst. Still, the years were good years. He married. He had two sons. He was beginning to forget the agonies of his earlier life. For a man with confidence that he was on the divine track for saving the lives of thousands, those seven years were wonderful.

The seven years ended. Joseph’s predictions proved accurate. Egypt began a rapid descent into poverty. Food was gone. The nation stood posed on the brink of disaster except for the national food reserve. It was in this dismal situation, that Pharaoh got any proof he may have needed that he’d chosen his administrator well. Joseph didn’t just hand out food. He sold it. Pharaoh got rich. Soon he owned the money, the livestock, and the rights to twenty-percent of future crops. It sounds pricey, but the people were literally getting their lives in exchange. Joseph had proved both a boon to the king and a savior to the common man. He was a hero, but he clung to his faith and his godly character.

Famines are natural disasters. As such, they don’t stop at political boundaries. Part of the money flowing into the royal treasury came from outside of Egypt. The famine reached clear into Palestine. Even Jacob and his hurting family began to feel its effects. Jacob was wealthy, but wealth does no good if there’s no food. Besides, his was a wealth largely based on agriculture, and such wealth stands little chance in a drought.

But even in those days before mass communications, word got out. There was food for sale in Egypt. Jacob called in his surviving sons. Well, he called in ten of the eleven. Benjamin, Joseph’s younger full brother, didn’t get called. With Joseph "dead," Rachel’s other son was now the favorite. He wasn’t going on any long, dangerous trip. The others were sent with their donkeys to bring home food for the family.

Keep in mind that this was an extended family. Most of the boys had married. Their wives and children were part of the "family" ruled by Jacob. Allowing for slaves, there may have been several hundred people camping in tents while combing the dried-up wilderness for grass to feed Jacob’s flocks.

Please picture the next scene as it must have looked. Joseph was now known by his Egyptian name, Zaphnath-paaneah. As Pharaoh’s second in command, he got called upon to handle the sale of food to a foreign delegation. He would have been dressed in the lightweight white linen of an Egyptian VIP. Years of trouble and success would have matured the face of the youth the sons of Jacob had thrown into a pit and sold as a slave. The fear and pleading would have been long erased by the confidence of one of the most powerful men in the known world. High office only removed him the further from the young man whose blood-soaked coat had broken his father’s heart.

The foreigners begging to buy food had aged also. Some of them were already grandfathers. Yet, they still dressed as nomadic sheepherders. Besides, they were openly identified as "Hebrews," and there really weren’t that many Hebrews in the world. Joseph recognized his brothers at once.

But Zaphnath-paaneah didn’t let on. Still remembering the language of his childhood, he understood their every word, but he chose to use an interpreter. As they bowed low before him, Zaphnath-paaneah remembered some other dreams, dreams that had gotten a boy named Joseph in trouble with his family.

Maybe it was the need to hide his emotions. Maybe it was a desire to learn what he could of his family and their character before risking any form of vulnerability. Maybe it was shear stress at facing a family who had but barely chosen to sell him into slavery rather than murder him, but Joseph played games with his brothers that day. They were foreigners wanting in on the food that Zaphnath-paaneah had hoarded for his own countrymen. Maybe they were spies?

Of course, the brothers protested. They were all sons of the same father. They were honest family men from Palestine.

Joseph probed. Were they the only sons of their father? Was this father still alive? What about their other brothers?

Yes, their father was alive. One brother was at home with his father, and one brother was not. It’s probably just as well they didn’t use the word "dead" at this point. In any event, they weren’t spies.

Zaphnath-paaneah remained hard to convince. They’d have to prove they weren’t spies. He’d throw nine of them in jail. The other one could go home and bring the youngest brother as evidence that they were telling the truth. He showed them he meant business by locking them all up for three days.

On the third day, Joseph saw them again. "I fear God," he told them. A God-fearing man was fair. He’d let them take food back to their families. Only one brother need stay in prison. They could buy food and go. But they’d better bring that younger brother next time they came.

In the midst of this trouble, the brothers began speaking among themselves. It seemed safe. They had no way of knowing that Zaphnath-paaneah’s interpreter was a ruse. He understood every word. He listened as they reminded each other of Joseph’s anguish and pleading when they’d sold him. The current trouble was no less than divine retribution. They deserved it, and they admitted it.

Joseph had had all he could take. He turned away, which in all probability means he hurried out of the room. What the guilt-ridden men from Palestine thought we aren’t told. They would have doubtlessly been amazed had they seen the great Zaphnath-paaneah weeping.

Joseph wasn’t going to let his family disappear back into Palestine easily. He made Simeon, one of the two who’d actually killed innocent people, a prisoner before their eyes. Then, he sent the rest on their way.

Joseph added one more twist to this suddenly resurrected relationship. When the brothers stopped for the night on the way home, they opened their bags of Egyptian grain. Inside, they found the money they had paid for that grain. Now, they stood to be accused not only of spying, but also of stealing. They were completely at the mercy of Zaphnath-paaneah. They couldn’t just go back to Palestine and try to manage without Egyptian grain because one of the family was still a prisoner. Zaphnath-paaneah had stated they had to bring their only other brother if they ever came again. Dad wasn’t going to like this. It was the kind of mess their family just couldn’t seem to escape.

Predictably, Jacob was distraught. He’d lost Joseph. Now Simeon was in jail and the boys wanted to take Benjamin.

Reuben offered to take responsibility for his younger brother. In keeping with the family’s violent history, he went so far as to say his father could kill Reuben’s two sons if he failed to return Benjamin safe and sound. Not even Reuben’s extremes proved adequate, however. Jacob still refused to let Benjamin go.

Eventually, the grain they’d brought from Egypt ran out. It was time to go back  for more, but Jacob caused trouble. The old man just couldn’t seem to get it through his head that his sons had to take Benjamin if they were to get grain. He pressured them to go back to Egypt, but refused to let them take him.

Finally, his son Judah, a man who’d lost two of his own sons to divine judgment, promised to be personally responsible for the boy. It wasn’t a question of sacrificing his kids. He put himself on the line.

At last Jacob relented. He advised taking some of the items still available in Palestine, things like spices, almonds, and honey to smooth the way with Zaphnath-paaneah. Of course, the money they’d found in their bags would have to be returned also.

Zaphnath-paaneah was again called upon to deal with the foreigners. Joseph asked about his father. Of course, he referred to him distantly as the old man of whom you spoke. When his attention rested on Benjamin, he lost control and had to hurry from the room to weep. Of all Joseph’s brothers, Benjamin was his only full brother. The rest were half brothers. Also, Benjamin was the only one of them who hadn’t been in on the plot that had made him a slave.

In what must have seemed a strange change of fortunes, Zaphnath-paaneah’s attitude improved. The whole family was invited to the ruler’s house for dinner. Simeon was released. They still feared some sort of trap, but what choice did they have? The brothers couldn’t help but notice that they were seated at the table in order of age. They couldn’t help seeing how Benjamin was given a greater helping of food than the rest. But then, they weren’t allowed to sit at the same table as Zaphnath-paaneah.

For all the triumphs of Joseph’s life, he still lived in a mixed up world. The Egyptians wouldn’t eat at the same table with him because of his race. It didn’t suit his purposes to sit at the table with his brothers. There were three tables set in Joseph’s house that day, one for Joseph, one for the Egyptian guests, and one for his brothers. We have to wonder at which table his wife and sons sat.

The grain was duly doled out, the money duly paid, and the brothers started home again.

Joseph had planned one more step in reestablishing contact with his family. Shortly after the eleven "living" sons of Jacob started out on their journey, Zaphnath-paaneah sent his steward chasing after them. Today, he’d have been in an SUV with flashing lights, but, he probably rode a horse or, at best, a chariot. Stopping the caravan, the Egyptian demanded to know why they’d stolen from his master. At issue was a special silver cup that Zaphnath-paaneah somehow used when communicating with God.

Of course, the Hebrews denied the charge. True to their family’s way of speech, they declared that if the steward found the cup, the man who had stolen it would be killed and they’d all be Zaphnath-paaneah’s slaves.

The servant knew how to play his master’s game well. He agreed, but modified the terms. The man who had the cup would be Zaphnath-paaneah’s slave. The rest would be held guiltless and could go free.

They all opened their grain bags. Right on top of the grain, they all found their money again. Of course, none of them had the silver cup. None of them that is, but Benjamin. Ripping their clothes in the traditional display of grief, they loaded up and turned back toward Zaphnath-paaneah’s house.

They found the high Egyptian official still at home. Judah acted as spokesman, promising that the eleven of them would be Zaphnath-paaneah’s slaves.

But Zaphnath-paaneah wouldn’t hear of such injustice. He would only enslave the man who’d stolen the cup. The rest were to go back to their father.

At this point Judah came near to the foreign ruler and pleaded with him. He reminded him of the elderly father whose frail health probably wouldn’t handle losing his second favorite son. He, Judah, had taken responsibility for Benjamin. Could he please stay as a slave in his place? Otherwise, he couldn’t bear to go home and watch his father die of grief.

The mighty Zaphnath-paaneah lost his composure. He managed to order all his Egyptian underlings from the room before he burst into tears. Nor was his outburst one of quiet weeping. The Egyptians heard it through the walls of his house. Even the household of Pharaoh heard the second most powerful man in the land crying aloud.

Behind the great Egyptian’s tears were years of rejection and sorrow. The great man who wept in front of a group of frightened foreigners wasn’t a mighty Egyptian. He was a Jewish teenager whose family had rejected him. He was a young man who’d known slavery and imprisonment. He was a boy who’d lost his mother and who never expected to see his father again. He was a person who’d been faithful to God in dark days and in triumph. He’d been to the bottom and to the top, but he’d never found peace with the half-brothers who’d hated him. Now it was all coming to a close, and Zaphnath-paaneah was shedding the tears young Joseph had started many years before.

"I am Joseph; doth my father yet live?" (Genesis 45:3) were his words to his family.

His brothers didn’t answer. They couldn’t. Fear locked their voices. He was speaking their language. There was no interpreter now. Joseph now held life and death power. He held that power, and they deserved to die. They couldn’t answer.

Here’s how the Bible records Joseph’s next words. "And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him, Thus saith thy son Joseph, God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me, tarry not" (Genesis 45:4-9).

It is easy to wonder what Benjamin, the innocent member of the family, thought of it all. It is easy to speculate as to what explanations his brothers composed and discarded on the way back to Jacob. It is easy to enjoy their embarrassment, but maybe that is to miss the whole point. Joseph not only forgave, but he pleaded with them to forgive themselves. The outcast was the one who was to save their lives. He had paid dearly for the privilege, and now he considered it well worth the price.

In the end, Joseph sent them home with plenty of food and with wagons to bring the whole clan to Egypt. It was Joseph who made arrangements for them to keep their livestock in the most suitable part of Egypt. It was Joseph who eagerly waited his father’s arrival. It was Joseph who by his very existence made them welcome in this foreign land. It was Joseph who would pull the messed up family together and save their lives. Joseph the reject saved the whole future of God’s chosen people.

The brothers did make it back to Palestine. Jacob almost went into shock at the announcement: "Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt." (Genesis 45:26) The Biblical account of the reunion between father and son is touching. Joseph rode in his chariot to meet Jacob. Joseph wept on his father’s shoulder for a long time. Jacob felt his life so complete that he was willing to die. The family was at last reunited.

The ending of the story is happy. Yes, several years later, Jacob did die, but it was of old age. Joseph reminded his brothers that he had no intention of punishing them for their past deeds. The mess in Jacob’s family came to closure there on the road where Joseph met his father. The son who had been rejected and written off as dead reappeared to the healing of the troubled family.

Joseph himself lived to be an old man of one hundred ten. He saw his great grandchildren and we are told that his grandchildren were brought up on his knees. The man ruined by a dysfunctional family found love and happiness from the hand of God.

* * *

The reader of this story needs to consider one other thought. The significance of the family of Jacob isn’t simply that they’re in the Bible. This was the beginning of the nation that God chose to bring salvation to the entire sin-cursed, dysfunctional world. The Jewish people have gone through their share—and then some—of anguish and agony over the years since. In fact, of all the ethnic groups in the world today, it would be hard to find one that has suffered more terribly or for as long. And yet, God has preserved them. We see an early example of that preservation in the story of Joseph, but it has gone on and on through history.

We can be extremely thankful that He has preserved them, for it was through them that Jesus Christ came into the world. He also was rejected by those who should have loved him. He went beyond mere slavery to death itself and rose again so that the guilty masses that include us all could be preserved, transformed spiritually, and given life. We can have peace with God and eternal life because Jesus was willing to suffer for our sins, and then call us to Himself, not in anger but in love. He, too, paid God’s price for the salvation of others. And He, too, considers it to have been well worth the price.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (Of Jesus Christ in John 1:10-13)

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