The Big Picture


The Point:  God is at work even in the midst of conflict.

Joseph and His Brothers:  Genesis 37:5-8.

[5]  Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. [6]  He said to them, "Hear this dream that I have dreamed: [7]  Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf." [8]  His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?" So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.  [ESV]

Joseph’s first dream was about grain. He dreamed that he and his brothers had been working in the fields binding sheaves of grain when suddenly his sheaf rose and theirs gathered around his and bowed down. It did not take a seer to interpret this. This dream meant that at some future time the brothers, all but one of whom were older than Joseph, would bow down to Joseph. Naturally they resented it. The second dream was like the first. Joseph saw the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. Obviously this involved his parents as well as his brothers, which his father recognized [9-10]. We may argue here that Joseph was not very wise to tell such dreams. He may have been naïve. But whether he was unwise and naïve or whether – which is quite likely – he sensed a God-given responsibility to make a divine revelation such as this known, the point is that the brothers hated the dreams as much as they hated Joseph for relating them. This suggests that what they really hated were God’s decrees regarding Joseph’s and their lives and therefore that they hated God for them. Otherwise why get upset about a dream? One does not hate a child for dreams, however self-centered or bizarre. Since the brothers did hate Joseph, the implication is that they were actually taking the dreams seriously, as perhaps actually revealing what God might do, and they were hating God for it. This put them against God and thus revealed their folly as well as their malice toward their younger brother. Beware of envy. When a person is covetous and envious, they are saying, “God, I am not satisfied; you did not give me what I want!” Such a person would dethrone God, and re-deal the events and possessions of life so that they would be exalted. Another step in the brothers’ unjustified antagonism to Joseph is hatred, which we have already mentioned, since it grows out of envy. Yet we must mention it separately, because it is envy’s bitter shoot. Indeed, it is so closely connected with envy that we should probably say that envy is itself a form of hatred and that hatred in the fullest sense is inevitable once jealousy has taken root in the heart. The narrative tells us three times that Joseph’s brothers hated him [4,5 and 8]. If the dreams were from God, as the brothers may have suspected and perhaps feared, they indicated that God had elected Joseph to certain earthly favors. Joseph was not like them. He was godly while they were godless; they hated him for that. But here, in addition, we find them hating him because God had chosen him for a position of special future prominence.

Joseph Sold into Slavery:  Genesis 37:26-28.

[26]  Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? [27]  Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers listened to him. [28]  Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.  [ESV]

As the story shows a root of bitterness leading to a shoot of bitterness, so also does it show the fruit of bitterness, which in this case is the tangible act of reaching out to kill a brother. Attempted murder was the fruit of bitterness in the lives of these brothers. Jacob had sent Joseph to find his other sons and bring him word of them, and Joseph had searched for them. It was a journey of four or five days. So Joseph clearly cared for his brothers, just as his father did. When the brothers saw him coming, they said, Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. The we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams [19-20]. Then Reuben intervened, suggesting that they could avoid the shedding of blood by merely throwing him into a cistern. Reuben hoped to be able to come back and rescue Joseph and restore him to his father, perhaps seeking to make up for the dishonor he had caused his father by sleeping with the concubine Bilhah [35:22]. Reuben’s plan misfired. Joseph was sold to Midianite traders as a slave [28]. We live in a sinful world. Envy is all too real. Envy leads to hatred and hatred to overt evil acts, even against our brothers and sisters in the faith. It is a root of bitterness, which, when it has flowered, defiles many. Christ is the cure for envy. His mind is in His people, and it will produce the Spirit’s fruit rather than the acts of sinful natures.

God’s Good Purposes:  Genesis 50:15-21.

[15]  When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him." [16]  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this command before he died, [17]  ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. [18]  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, "Behold, we are your servants." [19]  But Joseph said to them, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? [20]  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. [21]  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.  [ESV]

We live through events in life that seem tangled and meaningless, but they appear that way only because we cannot see the pattern. When we see life from God’s side, His message of love and providence shines through. It was thus with Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food and Joseph had at last revealed himself to them, all had been filled with fear. Suddenly they were in the power of this Egyptian prime minister, and their hearts rightly accused them of the wrong they had done to him so many years before. They thought he would kill them. Instead, they found Joseph to be moved by great love. They came to Egypt with their father, Jacob, and then lived there under Joseph’s protection for nearly twenty years. Jacob died. At first, their fears were probably dulled by mourning, maybe even shunted aside by the elaborate funeral arrangements. Still the fear was there, and eventually it began to feed upon them. The brothers had reason to fear, for theirs had been a great crime. They had sold an innocent young man, their own brother, into slavery. But Joseph had forgiven them long before, though they distrusted him. Joseph reassured them in what is surely one of the great statements of Scripture. Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones [19-21]. Here in verse 20 is an instance of two of the most comforting words found in all of Scripture: but God. A worthwhile study would be to examine all the verses in Scripture where these two words occur. You will find that each of these texts depends for its effect on what goes before. This is the case with Genesis 50:20: but God meant it for good. This is a great saying, a forceful testimony. But its strength comes from contrast with what precedes it, namely, the hurt intended by those who scorned or hated Joseph. It is only against the background of the reality of this evil that the good providence of God has real meaning.

Joseph suffered three forms of abuse from those who should have loved, honored, or remembered him. (1) The hatred of his brothers. What caused the brothers’ hatred was the fact that Joseph was not like them and was favored by their father because of the difference. They were cruel; he was gentile. They were faithless; he was faithful. They were worldly; he was spiritual. Joseph was a true man of God. So they hated him, as the world always hates those who exhibit God’s character. They decided to kill him. As it turned out, they spared his life for sordid personal gain and sold him into slavery instead. It is one of the most inhumane acts in Scripture. No wonder the brothers were fearful now, at the end. (2) The cruelty of a prominent and influential woman. Joseph arrived in Egypt as the lowest of slaves. He rose upward in the slave ranks through his own integrity, faithfulness, and hard work. His master recognized these qualities and placed him in charge of his estate. But even this was a snare. When Joseph was a lowly slave, his presence went largely unnoticed, except to his master Potiphar. But when he became prominent he attracted the amorous attentions of Potiphar’s philandering wife. The woman was sensuous, direct, and persistent. She solicited Joseph. At last he fled from her, leaving his garment in her hands. The fury of Potiphar’s wife pursued Joseph with the result that he was thrown into prison. So it was not only his own brothers who caused harm. This woman harmed him greatly. She would have killed him if she could. (3) The forgetfulness of a friend. Sometimes harm is inflicted by neglect, and this was the case in the third incident of Joseph’s most unfortunate years. In prison he made the friendship of the chief baker and chief cupbearer of Pharaoh. These were important positions, but these men had fallen into disfavor with Pharaoh and so were confined in the same prison as Joseph to face an unknown end. While there they had dreams. Joseph interpreted the dreams, showing that after three days the cupbearer would be taken from the prison and restored to his office and that the baker would be taken from the prison and hanged. Joseph appealed to his friend the cupbearer to remember him to Pharaoh when he was restored. No doubt the cupbearer promised to work for Joseph’s release but he forgot about Joseph when he was restored as Pharaoh’s cupbearer. So Joseph lay forgotten in prison for two more years. Few persons in history have suffered as intensely and as unjustly as Joseph. But it is precisely against this dark storm of evil that our text containing Joseph’s testimony to God’s providence shines most brightly: but God meant it for good. What gave Joseph the grace to make this remarkable reply? There is only one answer. Joseph knew God. In particular, he knew two things about God. He knew that God is sovereign – that nothing ever comes into the life of any one of His children that He has not approved first; there are no accidents. And he knew that God is good – therefore, the things that come into our lives by God’s sovereignty are for our benefit and not for our harm. What Joseph saw and spoke of in this next-to-last scene of his earthly life is what the apostle Paul wrote about eloquently hundreds of years later. It is a text often memorized by Christian people. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose [Rom. 8:28]. It is impossible to overestimate the wonder of this verse. It teaches three things, all of which are illustrated in the life of Joseph. First, God is working for the good of those who love Him. This is what Joseph saw. On the surface he saw much that looked bad. But this is not how a Christian judges things – by sight. Rather, a Christian judges things by faith in who God is. To apprehend God’s sovereignty working in His love is the last and highest victory of the faith that overcomes the world. Second, the text teaches that all things are controlled by God and therefore work to our good. In Joseph’s case it would have been easy for him to say that the dream of Pharaoh, which he was enabled to interpret and which led to his being elevated from the prison to the throne, was of God. It was clear how that was used for good. But while that was obviously of God and was good, Joseph did not allow his testimony to stop there; he extended it to include even the hostile and damaging acts of his brothers. We can see that even sin works for good for those who belong to God. Can you say that? Can you say with confidence that all things are working together for good in your life, whoever you are and whatever the circumstances of your life may be? If all things really means “all things” and God is not a liar, then there is truly nothing in your life that can possibly be excluded. “All” includes the experiences of your childhood and whether they were affirming or destructive. It includes who your parents were and where you were born. It includes your education, your present employment, the house in which you live, the furniture you have, the car you are driving, your friends, your church, even your appearance. Whether you can see it or not – and often we cannot – everything is being used of God for your good as well as the good of others. Third, we can know this and live by it, as Joseph did. If all things worked together for our good without our knowing it, it would be a wonderful fact even though we might not find out about it until much later. But we do not have to wait until later. We can know it now. We can know that all that enters our lives is actually working for good now. This knowledge is by faith. It is not always by sight. But it is nevertheless certain, because it is based on the character of God, who reveals Himself to us as both sovereign and benevolent.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         The cure for envy or jealously is a whole-hearted commitment to the sovereignty of God. What do you think about this statement? Have you found it true in your own life? Whenever you are tempted to be jealous of someone else’s gifts, possessions, status, etc. do you find it helpful to meditate on God’s sovereign work in both your life and the other person’s life? Can you then praise Him for His work in both the other person’s life and in your own life?

2.         Every believer has those but God moments in our lives. Think about your own life, especially your salvation. As you look back upon your own salvation experience, do you see how it was only because God stepped into your life that you believed in Him and chose to follow Him? Think about your Christian walk with God and how God has once again worked in your own particular life situations to overcome evil and redirect your path. As you reflect upon these times in your life, take the time to once again praise and thank Him for His sovereign working in your life. And pray that as you face difficult situations in the future that God will enable you to turn quickly from fear to trust in His sovereign work in your life.

3.         What three important truths can we learn from Romans 8:28? Ask God to enable you to apply these truths daily to your Christian walk.


Genesis, volume 3, James Boice, Baker.

Strangers & Pilgrims, V. Paul Flint, Loizeaux Brothers.

Genesis, volume 2, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.

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