The Kindness and Severity of God
Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 42:1–38
“THE KINDNESS AND SEVERITY OF GOD”
1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. 5 Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7 Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan to buy food.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”
12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days.
18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. This is why distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.
26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”
29 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33 Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34 Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.’”
35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
Most books that become “instant best sellers” are like shooting stars that blaze across the sky for a few seconds and then to disappear into the darkness of the universe. We read them once and then place them on the shelf to collect dust, pass them along to a friend, or in time donate them to the latest “book drive” at the public library.
But some books deserve to be read again and again because we never stop learning from them and being inspired by their message. I have found one such book to be the autobiographical story of Sheldon Vanauken which bears the title, A Severe Mercy. It is a book about the collision of suffering and faith, which is another way of saying that it’s a book about the difference between how we imagine a thing might happen, how it actually goes, and the role that God plays in determining the outcome.
The book’s title grew out of the correspondence that took place between the author and C.S. Lewis. Both men’s faith had been greatly challenged as a result of the illnesses and subsequent deaths of their beloved wives. Reflecting on his own intense struggle a few years earlier—which he relates in his book, A Grief Observed—Lewis told Vanauken, “You have been treated with a severe mercy.” Over time, Vanauken came to realize that God’s relationship not only with him but with all of His people might best be described as “a mercy as severe as death, (and) a severity as merciful as love.”
Nearing the conclusion of his lengthy discussion concerning the elective purposes of God, Paul exhorts his readers in Romans 11:22 to consider “the kindness and the severity of God.” Neither life nor death has any real meaning to the human experience apart from recognizing that God is sovereign in dispensing both affliction and affection at His discretion.
The Lord will go to great lengths in bringing about the fulfillment of His eternal plan. That can be a very hard lesson to learn, and most live their entire lives without learning it well. It is, however, what it means for God to be sovereign. Such lengths of sovereign control included allowing His Son, Jesus Christ, to die a brutal death in order to save and sanctify sinners like us. Conquering death by rising from the grave, Jesus has forever more been declared “Lord” and has given eternal salvation to those who call upon His name (cf. Romans 10:13). You will never be able to understand the sovereignty of God until you recognize that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) and bow before Him as the sovereign One.
Twenty years had passed since Joseph’s older brothers sought to permanently rid themselves of him in any way they could. Sold as a slave into Egypt, it was through an unlikely and providential set of circumstances that the young man had risen to the position of “prime minister”...second-in-command only to Pharaoh.
You will recall that Joseph assumed that role as a result of being enabled by God to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams regarding the near future. Seven years of bountiful harvest were about to occur, which would be followed by another seven period in which a severe famine would devastate the land. Not only did Joseph’s interpretation prove to be correct, but he proposed an agreed-upon plan that would see the nation through the impending crisis. Pharaoh believed the plan to be ingenious, and immediately promoted him.
The experience most of us have with famine is from what we see on television. Famine strikes quickly and unexpectedly, and frequently there is little-to-no hope for those who suffer. On this occasion, God had been working “behind the scenes” for the past twenty years setting the stage for the next chapter of His plan for His chosen people.
As we have noted earlier, the family in which Joseph had been raised was far from “ideal.” In many ways, it was dysfunctional and filled with deception and distrust. Two decades after Joseph had “gone missing” little seems to have changed, except for the increasing weight of guilt that lay buried within the consciences of Joseph’s brothers. Slowly, but surely, things were about to change.
As we get into Genesis 42, we learn that the famine had spread northward from Egypt into Canaan, affecting the inhabitants of that land...most notably Joseph’s family. If they were to eat, then they must go where food was to be found. And that was Egypt. Beginning with verse 1, we read about...
The brothers’ departure for Egypt (Genesis 42:1-5).
This opening section is summarized well by Stephen when he gave his defense of the Gospel in Acts 7(:11-12). There we read: “Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit.”
Yes, there would be more than one journey from Canaan into Egypt. In fact, as we shall learn in the chapters to follow, God’s purpose for the famine was to get this one family into Egypt (cf. Genesis 45:7). His sovereign plan, not only for them but for “all the families of the earth” (cf. Genesis 12:3) was dependent upon it.
We last we saw Jacob at the end of chapter 37(:33-35) when he was in great mourning over the apparent death of Joseph, and there we were told that he “refused to be comforted.” As we look at the text before us this morning, there is clearly hesitation on the part of the brothers in making the lengthy trek southward. Upon learning that “there was grain for sale in Egypt, (Jacob) said to his sons, ‘Why do you look at one another?...Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” The family faced the threat of starvation...something had to be done, and done rather quickly, if the family was to be spared.
The brothers’ hesitancy centered on the place they were being sent: “Egypt.” The very name troubled their consciences with memories of their younger brother being taken there against his will. Perhaps they could still his fading voice calling out to them for mercy. I find it significant that “Egypt” is mentioned three times in this opening paragraph and never again in this chapter. “Egypt.” They were willing to go anywhere for food...anywhere but “Egypt”!
But desperate times call for desperate measures. So they reluctantly went...but not all of them. The text says that “ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to Egypt”...the same ten who had conspired against him twenty years earlier. As at that time, so now, Benjamin—Jacob’s youngest son—did not go with them, because Jacob feared that “harm might happen to him.”
Both Benjamin and Joseph, you see, were the sons of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, his favored wife, the one for whom he had labored fourteen years for the right to have (cf. Genesis 29:27-30). Rachel had died giving birth to Benjamin (cf. Genesis 35:16-19). So, with Joseph gone, Benjamin now remained Jacob’s lone and last link to her. He had already mourned the loss of one beloved son, and he was unwilling to sacrifice another.
It becomes clear as this story develops that Jacob does not trust his ten older sons. Never had they told him the true story of Joseph’s disappearance, but he obviously suspected their complicity in the deed.
Before we leave this paragraph, there are two observations we should make. One is the altering of Jacob’s name to “Israel” in verse 5. Perhaps you recall that after wrestling all night with God before his fearful reunion with the brother he had earlier deceived, Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel,” which means “one who strives with God” (cf. Genesis 32:28, also 35:10). Throughout his life, we often see Jacob at cross-purposes with God.
The journey to Egypt would have covered some two hundred and fifty miles and taken more than two weeks by donkey. At last they arrived, and as providence would have it and unbeknownst to them, they come face-to-face with their long lost brother, the one that had betrayed, and the one from whom they must now beg for food.
The scene in verses 6 through 17 is packed with drama. It describes...
The brother’s first interview with Joseph (Genesis 42:6-17).
Midway through verse 6 we read, “And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground.” Right away our minds flash back to the dream Joseph had and shared with his brothers twenty years earlier. In verses 5 through 8 of Genesis 37, we read:
“Now Joseph had a dream and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 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.’ 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.”
In the scene before us, we are told that “Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them,” but “they did not recognize him.” Twenty years can change one’s appearance. When the brothers had last seen Joseph he was but seventeen years of age (cf. Genesis 37:2) and was likely just beginning to grow the beard that was characteristic of Jewish men. Egyptians, however were clean-shaven. And rather than wearing shepherd’s clothing, he now sported a royal robe. Both his appearance and his speech had been altered by his present position.
Often throughout his story, Joseph becomes a type of Christ. I believe we see that again here. As Joseph’s identity was kept hidden from his brothers, even so our Lord Jesus veiled His Deity in becoming a man. Philippians 2(:7) tells us that He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Salvation and deliverance cannot come until we recognize the One before whom we stand. Jesus was none other than God dressed in human flesh. John 1(:11-12) tells us that Jesus’ own people neither recognized Him nor received Him when He came.
On this particular day, it is added that Joseph not only “recognized” his brothers, but “remembered the dreams he had dreamed of them.”
Concealing his identity from them, the text says that “Joseph treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them.” There was no revenge motive or malevolent intent in his response. Rather, the text tells us that it was for the purpose of “testing” them. Were these the same men who had sought his demise two decades earlier? Could they have possibly changed? Before he could entrust himself to them, he needed to find out.
Repeatedly in this paragraph Joseph charged them with being “spies” who had come into the land to assess its weakness and vulnerability. Each time the brothers denied it, insisting that their only motive was to purchase food to take back to Canaan so that their families might survive. For some reason they felt the need to add that their youngest brother had remained at home with their father...and—oh yeah—there was one other brother who was “no more.” How ironic that they would refer to themselves as “honest men.”
I have tried to imagine this scene in my mind. That brother who they said was “no more” was seated right in front of them and they didn’t know it...any more than they knew that, at that very moment, they were living out the fulfillment of the dream that he had shared with twenty years earlier...the dream for which “they hated him” (cf. Genesis 37:8).
Joseph then advanced the “testing” of his brothers to the next level. Look at verses 15 through 17:
“‘By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh (which was akin to taking an oath), you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while (the rest of) you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.’ And he put them all together in custody for three days.”
If you think Joseph’s treatment of his brothers was cruel, then perhaps you are missing the point. In fact, Joseph’s dealings with them can be compared with the manner in which God deals with sinners who are being led toward repentance. Turning from sin, receiving forgiveness, and embracing righteousness is God’s plan for every one of His children. He will not hesitate to bring harsh and hard times in order to drive us to our knees. Very often we find that the greater the blessing to come, the more painful the trial that must precede it.
What this means for every child of God is that beneath the afflicting hand of God there is His affection. Behold, “the kindness and the severity of God” (cf. Romans 11:22). As Paul writes in Romans 2:4,“God’s kindness is meant to lead...to repentance.” But that does not mean that grace always comes with a smiling face! Whatever form it takes, however, it is for our ultimate good as well as for His eternal glory.
With the three days of confinement having come and gone, Joseph alters his earlier stipulation to the brothers. In verses 18 through 28 we read of...
The brothers’ second interview with Joseph (Genesis 42:18-28).
“On the third day Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me.’”
Initially, Joseph had required that only one brother return to Canaan and that the other nine stay behind and in detainment. Now, he reverses that proposal: only one brother is to be detained in Egypt, and the other nine are to return to Canaan. Several things may have prompted this change. In the first place,, nine voices might have a better chance of persuading Jacob to permit Benjamin to make the return trip to Egypt. Second, it would have been nearly impossible for one son to have carried all the grain needed to feed all of Jacob’s family. And third—and most significantly—Joseph wanted to test his brothers further...to see if the nine would abandon the brother they were leaving behind.
The immediate reaction of the brothers was one of anguish. In verse 21, reflecting back to their earlier betrayal of Joseph, “Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged and we did not listen. This is why distress has come upon us.’” Reuben, the oldest of the brothers and the one who had prevented Joseph from being slain “on the spot” way back them (cf. Genesis 37:21-22), vehemently spoke up, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”
Perhaps for the first time—although guilt had no doubt plagued their consciences for years—they confessed their sin, an act that is rarely seen by any of the characters in the Book of Genesis. Perhaps they thought they had gotten away with “the perfect crime,” but as Numbers 32:23 reminds us with great conviction, “Be sure your sin will find you out.”
Let’s be clear about something: confession of sin is but the opening of the door to repentance. It is only the first step. Recognition and admission of sin are insufficient in obtaining God’s forgiveness. For that to happen, sin must be turned from and forsaken.
Unbeknownst to the brothers, Joseph overheard and was able to understand their every word. It moved him deeply to hear these expressions of contrition and regret falling from their lips. So much so that “he turned away from them and wept.” But was theirs a genuine repentance? Was it genuine? Was it real? He wasn’t finished “testing” them.
When Joseph returned, we read that “he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.” We are not certain why Simeon was chosen to remain behind, but the enactment of the scene before their eyes would have conjured up memories of how the brothers had treated Joseph so many years earlier.
Before sending the remaining nine brothers on their way, Joseph ordered his subordinates to do three things: 1) to fill the brothers’ containers with grain in order to meet their future needs, 2) to give them provisions for their journey in order to meet their present needs, and 3) most surprisingly, to return the money they brought to purchase the grain into each man’s sack.
This final order was carried out in a clandestine manner. It has been suggested by some that Joseph was laying a perfect trap for his brothers, by which he could prove their dishonesty. From his own experience, he was well aware that they would betray a brother for money. They had had no qualms about being enriched at his expense. Perhaps Joseph was creating a parallel circumstance. It was Simeon’s life that was now on the line. Would they gladly now accept their sudden good fortune and leave their brother to rot in an Egyptian jail, or would their concern for Simeon be uppermost in their minds and control their choices and behavior?
Others who are less critical believe that Joseph was acting benevolently toward his brothers, naively unaware that the discovery of the money would create emotional turmoil for them when it was discovered. But that is exactly what happened. When one of the brothers opened his sack along the way and found the money, he quickly informed the others, which sent them all into “panic mode.” The text says, “Their hearts failed them, and they turned to one another saying, ‘What is this that God has done to us.’”
It’s not always a bad thing to lay the cause at God’s feet when things look bad. It may, in fact be the first step toward recognizing His “severe mercy” toward those He is calling to Himself. There could not yet see that clearly. There was more for them yet to endure.
The brothers at last make it home, where they gave an abbreviated report of their recent experience in Egypt. Verses 29 through 38 relate...
The brothers’ return to Canaan (Genesis 42:29-38).
Even though the passage says that “they told (their father) all that had happened to them,” there were some obvious omissions. Most notably, they do not tell Jacob about having confessed to one another their conspiracy against his favored son two decades earlier. Joseph’s actual fate continues to be kept secret from Jacob.
Because only nine of his sons had returned, they were forced to explain why Simeon had been left behind. That was the hardest part of their no-doubt rehearsed speech: “The man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.”
As Jacob agonizingly processed the information he was hearing, each of the brothers began unpacking their sacks. Remember only one of them had opened his bag along the journey and discovered that his money had been returned. But now to their shocking surprise, each man found his money to have been returned had as well. However successful the brothers may have been in persuading their father that they were innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control, the discovery of money in their sacks drastically undercut credibility of their story. In Jacob’s mind, each time their sons had left home, they returned a brother short but a bit richer. That could hardly be a coincidence!
Hence, Jacob’s response in verse 36: “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.”
We can identify with Jacob’s outcry, can’t we? “Why do things like this always seem to happen to me?” In time Jacob and his sons will discover the answer. And we can pray that we do as well. God’s “severe mercy” can at times be very painful as He carries out His sovereign plan for the good of His people and the glory of His great name.
Reuben, the oldest brother who always seemed to be eager to make matters “right,” offered to put up his own sons as collateral. His suggestion is hardly therapeutic, and it is a perfect example of failed human solutions to divinely orchestrated circumstances.
But none of the members of this family were yet able to see the circumstances as they actually existed. That would take additional time. As this chapter concludes, it does so on a very somber note. Jacob is adamant in his refusal to let Benjamin accompany his brothers on any subsequent journey to Egypt. In fact, he makes an alarming—and revealing—statement in verse 38, which reads, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
It strikes us as strange that Jacob would say that Benjamin “is the only one left” when nine others were standing before him...and a tenth was being detained in Egypt. His reference is to the obvious fact that Benjamin was the only surviving son of his beloved Rachel. The phrasing of his remarks appears deliberate...a backhanded slap at the sons of his other wives, if you will. He is clearly more agitated about the possible loss of Benjamin than he is excited about the potential restoration of Simeon.
At this period along the biblical timeline, the concept of life beyond the grave remained vague and uncertain. “Sheol” was the realm of the dead. To be brought down “with sorrow to Sheol” implied that, as one writer has stated, “entering the realm of the dead filled with grief meant for one to remain in the eternal shadows.” It was a dreadful prospect.
As it had been with the sudden taking of Joseph, Jacob imagines the possible loss of Benjamin to take from him a reason to live. We can empathize with the emotion of that moment, but we cannot justify it. Jacob is consumed with only self-interest as this chapter draws to a close. Although Reuben’s willingness to offer up his two sons was ill-conceived, Jacob’s refusal to surrender the one he calls his “only” son stands in stark contrast.
Fortunately for us, God was not hesitant in offering up His only beloved Son on behalf of sinners like us. Let us not be tempted to assume that being separated from His Son was any less severe for God than was the prospect of Jacob losing Benjamin. In reality it was exceedingly more so. Every loss of a precious loved one, regardless of the circumstances, permits us a glimpse into the heart of God and the pain He undertook for us. We will never fully comprehend that, but neither must we ignore it. The death of Jesus came at an infinitely high cost to God.
This chapter may have ended, but the saga of Joseph and his family has not. It has actually set the stage for a rift between father and sons and a return trip to Egypt by the brothers in order to purchase more food. Joseph’s identity will remain veiled a while longer before he makes himself known. From a human perspective, Joseph is clearly the one who is controlling the circumstances, but that doesn’t paint the entire picture of what has been and will be taking place.
There have been many “sightings of sovereignty” already seen in these six chapters of Joseph’s story. There are more to come. Joseph had a unique role to play in redemptive history, but God’s intricate involvement in the life of this one man is not all that unique from the way He works in yours and mine. I am persuaded that one of the reasons that God devotes more than a quarter of the Book of Genesis to this one man’s life is to demonstrate how active he is in ours.
Joseph seems to have identified the nearness of God when he woke from his prophetic dreams in chapter 37. But how near did God feel when later in that same chapter he found himself in the pit of his brothers’ betrayal or being hauled off to Egypt against his will? How near did God seem when Joseph was falsely accused of attempted rape and stuck in prison? And yet by now we see that God was there all the time working “all things...for good” (cf. Romans 8:28)...not only for Joseph but countless others.
Yes, God was even working the evil, heinous things people did to Joseph for good. By the time we get to the end of the story, Joseph himself will confess this to have been the case all along (cf. Genesis 50:20).
The same can be said for every child of God from that day to this. The detailed narrative of Joseph’s life, among other things, is the Lord’s message of encouragement to us. It reminds us that no matter what we are experiencing—whether sweet or bitter, good or evil, adversity or prosperity—and how long it may last, He has not left us alone. Through His kindness and severity, He is with His people (cf. Psalm 23:4), He is working all things for good (cf. Romans 8:28), and He will be with us to the end (cf. Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 13:5).
The Lord will go to great lengths in bringing about the fulfillment of His eternal plan. We may not be able to see it from day-to-day—or even over the long haul—but one day it will all be made clear. As you and I face the “famines” of our lives and bring us face-to-face with our self-deceptions and sinful deeds, may God’s grace lead us to find sustenance and satisfaction in the eternal Savior, Jesus Christ.