The Secret of Being Abased and Abounding

The Secret of Being Abased and Abounding

Having persuaded their father to allow them to return to Egypt with Benjamin in order that they might purchase more food in the midst of the ongoing famine, Judah and his brothers found themselves riding an emotional roller coaster of events once they finally arrived.

Per their father’s suggestion,[1] verse 15, they “took the gifts and double the amount of silver, and Benjamin also. They hurried down to Egypt and presented themselves to Joseph.” Joseph, who no doubt had been keeping an eye out for them since they had left, saw that they had returned with Benjamin, just as he had requested. Therefore he told his steward, verse 16, “Take these men to my house, slaughter an animal and prepare a meal; they are to eat with me at noon.” The steward did as he was told. However, when he “took the men to Joseph’s house…,” verse 17, they “were frightened.” Given what had already transpired, this was a reasonable fear. As noted in verse 18, they thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to attack us and overpower us and seize us as slaves and take our donkeys.” Notwithstanding the whole matter of the silver being replaced, it’s not surprising that the brothers didn’t trust the governor of the land—that is, Joseph—whom they hadn’t recognized as being their younger brother. For earlier Joseph had spoken harshly with them, accusing them of being spies.[2] If, in their minds, this governor had been predisposed to think ill of them, surely he wouldn’t hesitate to punish them once he learned that they had never actually paid for the grain they thought they had purchased. Consequently, they surely assumed that they would soon be joining their brother, Simeon, and be imprisoned and forced to live as slaves alongside him.

In an attempt to explain what had occurred, “they went up to Joseph’s steward,” verse 20, “and spoke to him at the entrance to the house” and recounted to him what had taken place. They said to the steward, starting with verse 21, “20 We beg your pardon, our lord,… we came down here the first time to buy food. 21 But at the place where we stopped for the night we opened our sacks and each of us found his silver—the exact weight—in the mouth of his sack. So we have brought it back with us. 22 We have also brought additional silver with us to buy food. We don’t know who put our silver in our sacks.” No doubt much to their surprise, the steward waved them off. As recorded in verse 23, he replied to them, “It’s all right…. Don’t be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks; I received your silver.” We don’t know whether the steward actually believed that their God had returned the silver or if was simply answering in accordance with Joseph’s instructions. However, having reassured them, the steward then brought Simeon out of prison to join them and then, verse 24, he “24 took the men into Joseph’s house, gave them water to wash their feet and provided fodder for their donkeys.” Having been provided with such gracious hospitality, the brothers, verse 25, “prepared their gifts for Joseph’s arrival at noon, because they had heard that they were to eat there.”

Now having been separated from his home and family for over two decades, we can only imagine what seeing his brothers and receiving gifts from home from them must have meant to Joseph. But, as stated in verse 26, we see how the dreams he’d had when he was a boy of seventeen were yet again fulfilled as his brothers “bowed down before him to the ground.”[3] Quite naturally, as stated in verse 27, the first thing Joseph asked upon seeing them was to inquire about their—and his— father;[4] a father who was now elderly; a father from whom he had been separated for over twenty years; a father whom he had never been given the opportunity to say good-bye to when his brothers had wickedly and unexpectedly sold him into slavery. The brothers reassured Joseph that their father was “…still alive and well.” And then they bowed down to Joseph for a third time, “prostrating themselves before him,” verse 28.

Now though when he first saw his brothers return, Joseph had noted that Benjamin was with them, now that they were all before him in his house, he had the opportunity to see his youngest brother up close and personal. As had occurred with his father, over two decades earlier he had similarly been separated from him and denied the opportunity to say good-bye to him as well. Pretending not to know Benjamin, Joseph asked, verse 29, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” He then blessed Benjamin, saying, “God be gracious to you, my son.” However, apparently that was all he was able to get out before becoming overwhelmed at the sight of his no-longer-baby brother standing before him. As stated in verse 30, “Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.” As Joseph had earlier wept upon hearing his brothers recount the day that they had first sold him into slavery,[5] so now did he weep upon seeing his closest sibling standing before him—again, he and Benjamin were full brothers, favorite sons of their father Jacob[6] whom Rachel, his favorite wife,[7] had borne.

Once Joseph recovered himself, he returned to his brothers and ordered that the food be served, verse 31.[8] The chapter closes by describing the seating arrangements:

First, there were three groups seated apart from one another: Joseph, his brothers, and the Egyptians for whom it was “detestable” to “eat with Hebrews;”[9]

Second, as for the brothers, we’re told that they were seated “from the firstborn to the youngest.” Consequently, as stated in verse 33, “they looked at each other in astonishment” for how could the steward have known which brother was oldest and which was youngest? Though it may have been obvious that Benjamin was the youngest, how could he have known the birth order of the rest and seated them accordingly? No doubt what further added to their astonishment was that whereas they had been fearing that the governor of the land desired to attack, overpower, seize them as slaves, and take their donkeys (verse 18), instead they were literally being treated royally, having been brought into Joseph’s very house and fed the finest food. And though all were treated well, Benjamin received especial treatment. As stated in verse 34, “When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.”

Now though this may appear to have been a wondrous and happy ending for the brothers, what was about to happen next would lead them to despair yet again. For, as stated in the opening verses of Genesis 44, “1 Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: ‘Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack. Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.’ And he did as Joseph said.” Yet again Joseph had ordered that the brothers’ silver be restored to each man’s sack; yet again they were loaded up with “as much food” as they could carry. But this time, Joseph additionally instructed his steward to put his very own silver cup into Benjamin’s sack.

Then, as stated in verses 3–5, having sent his brothers “on their way with their donkeys,” when “[t]hey had not gone far from the city” Joseph told his steward, “Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’” As Joseph had earlier knowingly and falsely accused his brothers of being spies,[10] so now he would falsely accuse them of stealing his silver cup—a silver cup that he had had planted in Benjamin’s sack. The entire episode would be a pure fabrication of his own making:

there was no repayment of good with evil on his brothers’ part;

nor had Joseph learned about their having taken the silver cup—they hadn’t;

nor had Joseph made this discovery by way of divination—a practice that was later strongly condemned by the LORD.[11] No divination by Joseph or anyone else had been utilized here.

No, Joseph was the one responsible for arranging everything that transpired. And though it might appear that he was once again repaying the evil his brothers had done him with this evil of entrapment, it’s likely that the reason he had planted the cup in Benjamin’s sack this time was for the sake of finding a way to keep him, his full brother by blood, with him. At least that’s how I understand what was taking place. In fairness, one interpretation that is 180 degrees from my own suggests instead that Joseph was putting his brothers to the test, noting that “The original crime pertained to Joseph, Rachel’s son and Jacob’s favorite, and the brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt. [Therefore to] test the brothers, Joseph brilliantly created a situation where Rachel’s other son (and Jacob’s favorite), Benjamin, was also threatened with slavery in Egypt.”[12] Well, maybe. But I’m not convinced that Joseph was putting his brothers to the test. It makes more sense to me that he didn’t want to again be separated from his baby brother.

Whatever Joseph’s reasons may have been, the steward dutifully followed his instructions.[13] His brothers, not realizing that they had been set up, quite rightly protested when confronted by the steward and affirmed their innocence. As stated in verses 7–9, they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servants to do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.” Everything the brothers stated was true for they had, indeed, returned with twice the amount of silver to purchase grain as they sought to return the silver they had found in their sacks. As to their offer—that if any one of them was found to have the silver cup, he should die and the rest of them would become slaves—although the steward stated, verse 10, “Very well, then…let it be as you say,” notice how in fact he changed their recommended punishments, suggesting instead, “Whoever is found to have [the silver cup] will become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.” So once the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, rather than having him put to death as the brothers suggested, his punishment would be to become a slave; and rather than the remaining brothers becoming slaves as they had offered, they would be free to go. Again, this eventuality is what makes me suspect that keeping Benjamin with him had, all along, been Joseph’s intended purpose in this plan.

Well, once Joseph’s silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack,[14] there was a uniform response on the part of the brothers. As stated in verse13, “At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city.” As their father, Jacob, had previously torn his clothes upon learning of Joseph’s alleged death,[15] so now did the brothers tear theirs. Then, when “Judah and his brothers” entered Joseph’s house, we see that for the fourth time, verse 14, “they threw themselves to the ground before him”[16] in fulfillment of Joseph’s earlier dreams. But rather than admit that he had set them up, Joseph said to them, verse 15, “What is this you have done? Don’t you know that a man like me can find things out by divination?” Again, there was no divination involved. Joseph had been responsible for bringing about everything that had transpired.

For their part, the brothers continued to view their lives from the providential perspective we spoke about last week, considering themselves guilty before God not for having stolen the silver cup—they hadn’t—but for having so heartlessly sold their brother into slavery so many years before. Judah spoke on behalf of them all, replying to Joseph, verse 16, “What can we say to my lord?… What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.”—and notice that Judah, who had promised his father he would personally bring Benjamin back alive,[17] accepted the steward’s modification on Benjamin’s punishment as slavery rather than death. Joseph then replied in the same manner as he had doubtlessly instructed his steward saying, verse 17, “Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you, go back to your father in peace.” Again, this unexpected suggestion on Joseph’s part is what makes me think it likely that from the beginning his plan had been to find a way to keep Benjamin, his youngest brother, from once more being separated from him by planting his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack while permitting the rest of his brothers to return back home to their father.

Next week we’ll see how all of these events ended up unfolding but what continues to strike me in considering this historical account of Joseph and his brothers is the mystery that exists between God’s will and our own. As we’ve noted over the past weeks, Jacob and Joseph and the rest of Jacob’s sons were all deeply rooted in a providential outlook on life. To some degree they all understood that God is near; he is at hand; he is able and willing to work in and through his fallen image-bearers’ good and bad decisions.

This providential outlook is so very important for our walk of faith and can be found throughout Scripture, including the life of the apostle Paul who, by the way, happened to be a descendant from Benjamin’s tribe.[18] Listen to Paul’s testimony beginning with the end of verse 11 in Philippians 4: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”[19] As Paul attests, he has learned “to be content” in “whatever” state he’s in. For him, the “the secret of being content in any and every situation”—whether “in need” or “plenty;” “whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want”—is found in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. Contentment arises not from having Jesus “and” something else—a house, a job, a spouse, children, money, power, influence. No, contentment arises from having Jesus. Period. For if we know Jesus, God’s Son who is God himself, we can rest assured that we will never be alone for he will never leave or forsake us.[20] He will be with us in good times and bad—in good decisions and bad. He will be with us now and for all eternity.[21] If we have Jesus, we can be content in knowing that he is ever with us. He is ever for us.[22]

This declaration by Paul is extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which is that Paul, who authored most of the New Testament letters, came to faith in Christ after Jesus had died on the cross and risen from death. What is more, prior to being confronted by the risen Lord Jesus, Paul had been persecuting Christians, putting them to death and throwing them in jail.[23] But after his Savior and Lord appeared to him, Paul was literally a changed man, viewing the entirety of his life through the lens of his love for and service to Jesus Christ. His entire life came to exemplify what contentment in God looks like in practice.

In fact this contentment in God is the secret of being abased in life—yet still abounding in God. As Paul similarly teaches elsewhere, “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”[24] Paul further understood that this contentment in God has its root not only in accepting whatever circumstances life may bring, but in seeing those circumstances as having come through his permissive hand and therefore turning to God—or today we might say by leaning into God—throughout those events. For as Paul goes on to attest in verse 13 of Philippians 4, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”[25]

Now though Joseph’s brothers had a less complete revelation of God, living as they did before Christ’s coming to earth and sending his Holy Spirit to seal and indwell all who believed in him,[26] they nonetheless sought to follow and submit to the God who appeared to them as Creator and Lord. Despite this less complete revelation, they nonetheless believed. Their faith in God is what enabled them to ride out the ups and downs of their lives—from wrongs they had done in selling their brother into slavery, to wanting to do better in returning silver that had been mysteriously replaced in their sacks, to accepting the fact that even when they were unjustly accused of doing wrong, they must accept the consequences. Given that these patriarchs lived near the inception of God’s plan of salvation, they did extraordinarily well in learning how to be abased and nonetheless abound by means of their faith in God.

Dear sisters and brothers, let us similarly seek the blessing of contentment in God in good times and in hard;

Let us who, like Paul, have been given the greater revelation of God appearing in Christ and by his Holy Spirit, seek to lean into God;

Let us seek to rely not on our own strength but on his strength;

For in turning to Christ, and Christ alone—and finding our contentment in him and him alone—we will find the secret of being abased and nonetheless abounding in life.

Let us pray.

In closing, I want to use Paul’s words from Ephesians 3, beginning with his prayer for these believers:  16 I pray that out of his glorious riches [our Father] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Let us receive now Paul’s closing benediction: 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

[1] Genesis 43:11-13: 11 Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds. 12 Take double the amount of silver with you, for you must return the silver that was put back into the mouths of your sacks. Perhaps it was a mistake. 13 Take your brother also and go back to the man at once.

[2] Genesis 42:8–9:Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

[3] See Genesis 37:5–9: 5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. 9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

[4] Genesis 43:27: He asked them how they were, and then he said, “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?”

[5] Genesis 42:21-24: 21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” 22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. 24 He turned away from them and began to weep,….

[6] Genesis 37:3: Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him.; Genesis 43:3–4:Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him.

[7] Genesis 29:30 tells how Jacob’s “love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah.”

[8] Genesis 43:31: After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”

[9] Genesis 43:32: They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians.

[10] Genesis 43:8–9:Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

[11] See Deuteronomy 18:9–13: When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.

[12] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 44:2.

[13] Genesis 44:6: When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them.

[14] Genesis 44:11–12: 11 Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. 12 Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.

[15] Reuben, too, tore his clothes (verse 29) when he didn’t find Joseph in the cistern where they had left him. Jacob’s tearing of his clothes is noted in verse 34. Genesis 37:29–35: 29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?” 31 Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” 33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him.

[16] As noted above, the first three times are recorded in Genesis 42:6: Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.; Genesis 43:26: When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground.; and Genesis 43:28: They replied, “Your servant our father is still alive and well.” And they bowed down, prostrating themselves before him.

[17] Genesis 43:9: I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life.

[18] As Paul attests in Romans 11:1: I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.; and Philippians 3:4b–9: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. 7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

[19] Though I typically use the NIV translation since that is the version found in the pew bibles at Linebrook Church, I have switched to the RSV translation here out of personal preference. The NIV translation of Philippians 4:11b–13 is: I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

[20] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you…. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

[21] Romans 8:38–39: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[22] Hebrews 13:5–6:Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”[Deuteronomy 31:6] 6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”[Psalm 118:6,7]

[23] Acts 8:1 notes that Saul approved of their killing Stephen. Acts 9:1–3: 1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.; Acts 22:4–5: I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.; 1 Corinthians 15:9: For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.; Galatians 1:13: For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.

[24] 1 Timothy 6:6–8.

[25] See Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:7b–10: Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

[26] 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.