A Contrast in Growth
Everybody loves the Joseph story. Chapters thirty-seven through fifty with the minor exception of chapter thirty-eight seem to be all about Joseph. And that is exactly why we have to remind ourselves that the story is not Joseph’s but Jacob’s story. Genesis 37:2 reminds us that these are the records of the generations of Jacob. When we apply this understanding to the Joseph story we find some very interesting lessons.
Take chapter forty-two as an example. Most commentators tell us that although this text is an unrepeatable event in the history of redemption the take home value for us is the test devised by Joseph, which will eventually lead to reconciliation. Apparently, one can forgive but before reconciliation can take place the relational waters must first be tested or so we are often told.
However, let me suggest that since this is the book of the generations of Jacob we look at chapter forty-two from Jacob’s perspective. For instance, let’s ask a simple question. How does this chapter begin and end? Let's take a look. It opens and closes in exactly the same way – with Benjamin in Jacob’s death grip! Remember that the chapter opens with Jacob chastising his sons as to why they had not gone to Egypt in order to buy food. Why were they simply standing around looking at one another? But only ten sons set out for Egypt because Jacob would not send Benjamin for fear that harm would befall him (42:4). And when the brothers returned needing to take Benjamin down to Egypt in order to free Simeon and also to enjoy the liberty of trading in the land during the famine – Jacob said no, my son shall not go down with you.
Let me ask you a question. Do you see what Jacob has done? First, as a father he has failed. He seems to be willing to allow his family to die of starvation in order to preserve the life of Benjamin from some unforeseen accident while traveling to Egypt. But as bad as that is there is something far worse. Jacob is the patriarch of God’s people through whom the promise would come. But Jacob does not appear to care. His only thought is for Benjamin’s safety.
So, these two episodes set up the chapter but they do much more. Chapter forty-two functions as a spiritual growth chart wherein we are invited to contrast and compare the growth of Jacob with that of Joseph in several areas. First, think about their level of contentment. As we have already said, the chapter opens and closes with Jacob’s unwillingness to lose another son. However, compare Jacob’s response to God’s providence with that of Joseph’s response to his own situation. At the end of chapter forty-one Joseph is second in command and now has a family of his own. And we notice something interesting about his firstborn son. His name was Mannaseh for Joseph said that “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (41:51). This should not be read as if Joseph is merely writing off his father’s house. After all, he gave his two sons Hebrew names! No. Joseph is saying that he has learned to be content with the situation in which God had placed him. What a striking contrast to that of his Father.
The second point of contrast is the test to which Joseph submits his brothers. When the ten sons of Jacob come down to Egypt they fail to recognize Joseph though he does not fall short in recognizing them. He accused them of being spies but they claimed to be honest men. So, Joseph put them to a test. In effect, he says to them, you say that you are honest men, well and good, then go and bring this younger brother back to Egypt that I may see that you are telling me the truth. But to ensure your honesty I will retain one of your brothers. Interestingly, even Joseph seems to apply a certain level of fairness in determining which brother to retain or hold responsible. The oldest brother, Reuben, indicates his innocence (v. 22) and apparently Joseph believes him and so retains the next in line, Simeon. The point is Joseph is willing to test their sincerity. He is charitable. He is willing to see what God will do. He is willing to test their honesty. However, by contrast, Jacob is absolutely unwilling to trust his own sons with their little brother - Benjamin. Not even Reuben can persuade him otherwise.
The third point of contrast has to do with wisdom. As we read the Joseph story we find a young man who has grown and matured. In his younger days he might have revealed himself to his brothers without a thought but not now, not twenty years later. Joseph has matured. He is willing to see what God will do. He is operating according to wisdom. But again, this is not the case with Jacob. He cannot see past Benjamin. Jacob has remained in so many ways the same old man whose willingness to play favorites had ripped his family apart.
It is interesting that when we read the Joseph story we often look for ways in which Joseph casts a long shadow into the New Testament in order to help us in some way or another to see Jesus. But I wonder if that methodology is misplaced when looking at chapter forty-two. In fact, I wonder if the real comparison to be made is not necessarily between Jacob and Joseph so much as it is a comparison and contrast between Jacob and God the Father. Whereas Jacob was unwilling to release his son – God was not unwilling. In fact, we can’t help but think Jacob would not have released Joseph even if it meant the salvation of God’s people and that is why God removed him. And here he is still unwilling to release Benjamin. But again, not our God and Father! When we were yet sinners He sent Jesus, his only begotten Son, to die for His people that they might have life and have it abundantly. True Christian growth comes when we begin by remembering God’s sacrificial love toward us.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is Professor-elect of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
 Some of my insights are from or were prompted by Sinclair Ferguson’s wonderful sermon series on the life of Joseph still available on Sermon’s Audio.