Day 47: “He remained there in prison”

Read Genesis 39:1-20

It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine what it would have been like, would have felt like, to be Joseph. Not many of us have been sold as slaves.

But try anyway. Imagine being forced to leave everything you know and love, and brought to a place you would never have chosen. Imagine being made to do what you don’t want to do, for people you don’t know or care about. You’re alone, completely cut off from loved ones and anything familiar; without rights, freedom, or choices – and nobody cares.

That was Joseph when he arrived in Egypt. The Ishmaelites rode in and sold some merchandise: maybe some pots, knives, a few camels, and Joseph.

Would you be motivated to work hard and be loyal to your ‘owner’? Why? Isn’t it more likely you’d be bitter and resentful, working only as hard as you absolutely had to? I think I’d be consumed with thoughts of getting away, or yearning for my lost freedom.

At any rate, I’d resist. Even if outwardly I did what I was told, inwardly I’d be always fighting the whole situation, railing against my fate.

But not Joseph.

Somehow, he found a way to move past all that. He “found favor” in his master’s sight, and was promoted to the highest position a slave could have, which wouldn’t have happened if he’d been angry and resistant.

How did he do it?

“The Lord was with [him]”, and that was enough.

Knowing God’s presence with him, he became able to accept what happened to him and work with it instead of against it.

The strange thing about Joseph’s story is how the blessings of God keep bringing him trouble. First, his father’s love and God’s dreams brought him to slavery. Now, his master’s approval and God’s physical gifts land him in jail.

He does everything right but gets punished anyway. Is this how God works?

Sometimes.

“The Lord was with Joseph”, and Joseph was in jail. These two things are not contradictory. The challenge for Joseph – again – is to cling to God’s presence, while learning to accept the fact of his rotten circumstances.

At times, it’s our challenge too.

Day 46: “He was named Perez”

Before you read: Judah (another of the 12 sons of Jacob) had three sons. The oldest married a woman named Tamar but died before having children. According to the law, the man’s brother needed to marry the widow and give her children “for” the dead brother – to carry his name. So Judah’s second son married Tamar but – amazingly – he also died before giving her children. Now Judah needs to give Tamar his third and final son but he’s scared to, and doesn’t.

Read Genesis 38:12-30

This is a bizarre story, and feels very random. We’ve just started reading about Joseph (there’s lots more about him), and suddenly the story cuts away to this nasty bit about Joseph’s older brother Judah and his underhanded dealing with Tamar.

It’s distasteful.

Nobody looks good in this story.

It’s confusing.

The customs of the time mystify us. Why should a widow have to marry her dead husband’s brother? Why would a woman get burned for prostitution but not a man? What was so very wrong about Judah not giving Shelah to Tamar to marry?

And why is this story here at all?  It will never be mentioned again. We will never learn what happens to Judah, Tamar, and the twins.

But their names will come up. We won’t know anything about their story except this one episode, but we will see their names in unexpected places, because God is doing something here that is going to have profound implications for you and me.

Believe it.

He does stuff like that.

Just for a second, he takes the spotlight off Joseph and shines it into this dark corner where Judah and Tamar are sneaking around because he knows that later, much, much, later – their story will matter.

We don’t need to know why yet.

He can introduce something to the story, like a new colored thread into a tapestry, and then seem to take it away completely, only to have it show up later in a glorious explosion of color. He can work in this moment now, and at the same time be getting things ready for moments so far ahead we might not see them in our lifetime.

Judah and Tamar can’t see all this. Caught up in their own sorrow, conflicts, and fear, their lives seem to them to be only trouble. How can they know that God has set them apart for a special blessing?

They don’t yet.

But God’s not done with them.

He’s still writing their story.

Day 45: “We’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Read Genesis 37:18-36

 

What a messed up family!

You would think that Jacob would know better than to show such extreme favoritism for one child, since he was less loved himself, but no. He blatantly favors Joseph – Rachel’s firstborn – over all his other children.

So the brothers hate Joseph.

You can hardly blame them.

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, God gives Joseph dreams where he is so great that his parents and all his brothers bow down to him.

And Joseph tells everyone.

Not smart.

By the time he comes to the brothers at Dothan, their jealousy is burning high. They want to kill him but Reuben, the oldest, says no. He persuades them to toss Joseph into a pit, planning to come back secretly and rescue him.

I wonder if he really loves Joseph, or is he trying to get back his father’s favor after sleeping with his concubine?

At any rate, Joseph is in the pit when the Ishmaelite traders roll by, giving the brothers a whole new idea. In the end, Joseph is sold as a slave. Can’t you just hear the brothers cackling among themselves as they divide the silver? What a great plan! They got rid of Joseph, made some money, and didn’t even have to dirty their own hands.

Now the dreams surely won’t come true.

Off they go and trick their dad into thinking Joseph is dead. Poor Jacob, tricked again – this time by his own sons. And so the wheel turns.

Again, I wish God had put more detail into the story. I want to know what’s going on with Joseph as he is carted off to slavery. Is he full of hatred? Is he terrified? Is he surprised by his brothers’ betrayal? Is he worried about his dad? But most of all I wonder if he is thinking at all about those dreams.

Those dreams that, really, brought this all about.

Those dreams that now seem to mock him.

Those dreams that came from God.

Day 44: “Joseph had a dream”

Read Genesis 37:1-17

Poor, hapless, Joseph.

He doesn’t realize how much his brothers hate him, and so he walks like a simpleton into their camp… but that’s actually tomorrow’s story.

Today, I want to think about trouble, about problems. Everyone we’ve read about has them, from Adam to Jacob. And looking around we see that everyone still does. Life is hard.

We wonder why. Why is there so much trouble in life?

I’ve been saying that life is a story, being written by God, and the bible is the master story. It’s how we understand all the other stories, including our own.

Most stories have an ‘inciting incident’ – an event that kicks everything off.  It explains the problem, or conflict, or trouble, in the story.

Same here: God created everything and it was beautiful, a dance of love between God and humans. Then the Dragon came whispering, “You can be like God,” and urging them to eat what God had forbidden. They ate it, and the dance ended. Eating the fruit changed the humans, it made them hungry for more and more.

When Cain came along we could see the damage clearly. God called it a battle against sin, and urged Cain to win, but Cain didn’t.

No one did.

But later, God declared Abraham “righteous” – which is the opposite of sinful – only because Abraham believed God’s promises.

You may or may not believe that this story-about-everything is the true story about life, but if it is then you need to know what it says about the source of all the trouble: There is a battle and we are in it. Fighting against us are Satan and our own cravings. The prize, the thing we are fighting for, is our faith – believing God and his word despite everything.

Joseph is going to have tons of trouble and it will be easy to see the sin behind it all but let’s watch God, because remember, He plans to bless the whole world through these people.

Keep asking as you read, do I believe it? Do I believe God is still working his good plan and fulfilling his promises, even when all looks lost?

Like I’ve said, it’s your story too.

Day 43: “God appeared to [Jacob] again”

Before you read: Esau was over it! The big reunion wasn’t scary at all. They hugged. Esau welcomed Jacob back. Jacob didn’t quite go back – not to where Esau lived. He tried to settle in Shechem, but his sons caused trouble and God told him to head back to Bethel, the place where he first heard God speak.

Read Genesis 35:9-29

A bunch of little things are happening here that will turn out to be big things: Jacob has twelve sons – these twelve sons are going to become the twelve tribes of Israel and most of the rest of the Old Testament will be about them.

Also, Rachel dies. Remember how much Jacob loved her? Her death will leave a big hole in his life.

“God appeared to Jacob again.”  This of course is the main thing. Whenever an author speaks directly into the story we need to pay close attention. He’s giving clues about what He’s doing and where the story will go.

So what does He say?

Everything He’s said before: I’ve changed your name; I’m making a nation from your kids; and I’m going to give you the land I promised.

He adds more this time – you will father kings and nations – but mostly He’s repeating himself.

As if it matters.

As if He wants Jacob (and us) to remember that He is doing this thing.

As if it’s because of these promises that everything happens the way it does; everything that’s already happened and everything that’s going to happen.

As if through loss and struggle and confusion and homelessness God is writing a story.

And the story is good.

And He wants us to know it.

He certainly wants Jacob to know it. So He repeats himself, because He’s like that. He’s patient and kind and understands us. He knows it’s hard for us to see His plot when we hurt, or are tired, or disappointed, or lost. He knows how messy and confusing things can be for us.

He also knows what’s coming: He visits Jacob just before Rachel dies.

But before all this, before the promises are repeated, right at the start of God’s visit to Jacob – the first thing He does is bless. Look at verse nine, “God appeared to him again and blessed him.”

It’s good to know, in the mess of my own life, that God is doing something here and it will end well. But it’s even better when He comes right up close and I can feel his blessing.

I’m not just a project to Him.

 

Day 42: “A man wrestled with him”

Read Genesis 32:22-32

How did Jacob know the man was God?

And why would God do such a weird thing?

We don’t know, we don’t know. There’s mystery here.

But the man was God. Jacob knew he was God. And they wrestled. So instead of asking how or why, let’s ask what. What does this show us about God, about Jacob, and about us?

It’s Jacob’s second night by the river. He prayed the first night, then spent the day gathering gifts of livestock for Esau who’s still out there with his 400 soldiers.

Now Jacob is alone, still scared, and wanting assurance from God that things will be alright.

Who wouldn’t?

So God – the author, the creator of the whole Story, the giver of life – this God comes to Jacob in skin and fights him. He makes himself small as a man because a man needs it.

God actually lets Jacob wrestle with him – and win.

I think of a father and his young son grappling in the living room, the dad holding back his strength, the son exulting in the win.

Then God blesses him and gives him a new name – Israel.

Have you ever wanted to fight God? Ever been mad at him because of something He is or isn’t doing? Have you wished you could just make Him do what you want but you’re afraid to really let it out because maybe you’re not allowed to? Maybe He’ll get mad at you?

Or maybe you feel just too small or too bad to ever get that real with God.

Jacob started out small. His brother was the great hunter and Jacob stayed home. Also, he was a sneaky, lying, little thief. But he learned that God could and would handle him, all of him, even at his worst.

So he fights God and comes out sweaty and limping, but blessed.

Changed.

As if God rewards the fight.

As if He thinks we’re worth fighting with.

And that He knows we need it sometimes.

Just like a Dad.

Day 41: “I am afraid”

Before you read: After 14 years of paying Laban for his two daughters, it took Jacob another six to outsmart his cheating uncle and accumulate enough wealth to break away and provide for his own family. Jacob is now travelling with wives, children, and masses of livestock back to his father’s home where, 20 years ago, his brother Esau had promised to kill him.

Read Genesis 32:1-21

Generous, generous, gifts, maybe they will appease Esau.

Jacob is rightly afraid when he hears that Esau is coming with 400 men. He knows that “men” means trained warriors so he does the only thing he can: try to buy forgiveness.

But first he prays.

I love this prayer because of how honest it is, “I am afraid [Esau] will come and attack me”. He doesn’t bluster or pretend. He is scared, so he comes like a child to the God who has comforted and helped him many times already.

He is scared, but he clings to the promise God gave him. Look at his boldness as he reminds God what he said. Isn’t he like a child with a parent, “You said…”? What confidence he has, both in the power of God to save, and in the heart of God to want to. And why wouldn’t he have such confidence? He has experienced the faithfulness of God firsthand, “I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps” (32:10).

He also has a new humility, “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant.” In this place of fear and neediness, Jacob fully understands his own weakness and inability to save himself or those he loves. Tricks won’t work here. All he can do is throw himself on the mercy of God.

I don’t know whether he’s thinking about his grandfather Abraham, but he’s being just like him, believing the promises of God against every contradicting circumstance.

After praying, he sleeps. The next day he does what he can to calm Esau. These three things together: praying, sleeping, and doing, are rooted in the certainty that God exists, and that he is willing and able to help. Jacob is probably still afraid, but he’s acting on what he knows is true about God.

He has become a man of faith.

Day 40: “Give me children, or I shall die!”

Read Genesis 29:31-30:24

This story is almost funny in a sad kind of way.

Jacob isn’t alone anymore. His wives fight like dogs over a bone and he’s the bone.

I don’t know if you kept count but the total number of babies here is 12: eleven sons and one daughter.

What is important to remember is that long ago, God made a promise to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. The promise was that Abraham would have many descendants, as many as there are stars in the sky. But then God eliminated Ishmael from that promise, and counted only Isaac. So, really, Abraham had one descendant. Isaac also had two sons, but only one – Jacob – was counted by God for the promise.

At this rate, the promise will be a long time coming.

But now here’s Jacob with his competing wives.

What I wonder is, amid all the jealousy and fighting, does Jacob ever think about that promise? God had renewed it to him personally at Bethel, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth” (28:14). Could he possibly have imagined, when he heard it from God, that it would look like this? Was he able to recognize it when it came, given that it came with such turmoil and conflict?

In Jacob’s life we can see that God is still writing the story whether or not the people in it are able to understand, whether or not they can see Him doing it.

But He wants us to see.

He wants us to learn to see. Why else did he visit Jacob at Bethel and show him the reality of heaven and renew the promise to him? He wants Jacob to think about him, to think about his own life in a bigger context, the context of God doing a great thing: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (28:14).

Learning to see God’s story through the tangle of our lives – that’s faith.

Jacob’s life was difficult: he had Laban on his back, his wives in his face, and his own family hated him. What difference do you think it would make to him if he was able to see God in it all, and to believe that God was not finished with him, but was doing something great?

What difference would it make to you?

Day 39: “What is this you have done to me?”

Before you read: after he had the dream at Bethel, Jacob moved on until he arrived at the land of “the people of the east”. There, by a well, he met some shepherds from Haran who knew his uncle Laban. As he spoke with them, Rachel came to the well to water her father’s sheep.

Read Genesis 29:9-30

It seems that Jacob inherited his trickiness from this side of the family. No surprise there since his mother, Rebekah – who helped him with the goatskin – is Laban’s sister.

The tables have turned. Jacob, who tricked his brother out of his birthright and blessing, now gets tricked himself. He worked gladly for seven years to earn Rachel. Then, on the night of the marriage – amid confusion, drinking, and darkness – at the last moment Laban sneaks Leah to Jacob instead of Rachel. Jacob sleeps with her, ecstatic in thinking he finally has his beloved Rachel, and awakes to the shock of seeing Leah there beside him.

He’s outraged. “What is this you have done to me!?” He doesn’t want Leah, never has. He wants Rachel.

(Poor Leah! But you know what? God is writing her story, too. He hasn’t abandoned her.)

Laban, cool and unruffled, tells Jacob it’s not the custom to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. ‘We don’t do that.’

Oh.

‘But not to worry,’ he adds, ‘just spend a week with Leah, and I will give you Rachel as well – and of course you’ll have to serve me another seven years.’

Esau would love this.

I think God is dealing with Jacob’s sin, after all: instead of lectures, he’s giving object lessons.

God cares about Jacob. He has placed the promise of Abraham over him, given him a glimpse of Heaven, and now brings him to this place of difficulty and deceit. It’s a bit like what he did with Abraham: first gave him wonderful promises, then made him wait 20 years, bringing him through all kinds of difficulty.

It’s deliberate. God knows that time and trials do something to us, something important.

When we don’t get what we want the dragon comes, tempting us to doubt God and take matters into our own hands. It’s what he always does.

Abraham needed to learn to trust God, despite the dragon.

Now it’s Jacob’s turn.

We all get turns.

Day 38: “I was not aware of it.”

Read Genesis 28:10-21

He’s running away because he’s scared of his brother, because of how mad his brother is at what he has done.

He deserves his brother’s anger.

He’s outcast, unsafe in his own family, because of his own actions.

And yet God visits him.

Yet God makes these lavish promises.

Why? How does this work?

God made promises to Abraham to bless him and all his descendants. God chose Isaac as the channel the blessing would flow through, and then he chose Jacob.

God chose Jacob and that is how it works.

It’s not about Jacob.

God is writing a story.

The story is for everyone, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring”. But while it is for everyone, it is still also for Jacob, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

This should make trusting God a little easier. Unlike us, He can do many things at once, operating on many levels – healing the whole world and never losing sight of the individual.

But still, Jacob isn’t completely convinced. He’s amazed and impressed, but not totally won. See him still bartering with God: if you do this (this thing God just finished promising him), then (and only then) will you be my God.

He’s just seen Heaven, and it’s not enough.

God chose Jacob, but Jacob still needs to choose God. That’s the way it works.

Just because God chooses, doesn’t mean we have no choice. No-one who wants him will ever be un-chosen, and no-one who doesn’t want him will ever be forced.

But he might give us a glimpse of heaven.

He might show us that it’s is closer than we know.

Jacob gets it, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

He always is.