Genesis chapters 37–41 only tell the low and high points of Joseph’s Egyptian slavery and imprisonment. But he spent at least 12 years there before he suddenly became the Egyptian Prime Minister. And during that terribly lonely, desolate time, things seemed to go from bad to worse. Imagine what Joseph might have experienced at about year nine into his sojourn.
Darkness had swallowed the light again. Joseph dreaded the night in this foul Egyptian hellhole. It was hard to fight off the relentless hopelessness as he waited the escape of sleep.
Day after monotonous day passed with no sign of change. The familiar desperation surged hot in his chest. His youth was seeping out the cracks of his cage. He was pacing in his soul. Joseph wanted to scream.
Fists to his forehead he pleaded again with God in the dark for deliverance.
And he remembered. It was the remembering that kept his hope alive and bitterness at bay.
He rehearsed the stories of God that had filled him with awe as a child. God had promised Great-grandfather Abraham, a child by his barren wife. But he made them wait an agonizing 25 years before giving them Grandfather Isaac. And God had promised Grandmother Rebekah that her older twin, Uncle Esau, would serve the younger twin, Father Jacob. But God had mysteriously woven human deception and immorality into his plan to make that happen.
Jacob’s smile filled Joseph’s mind. Oh Father! He covered his mouth to choke back his sobs. It had been nine years since he last saw that dear face. Would he ever see it again? Was Father still alive?
He felt something crawl across his leg. Leaping up, he brushed himself off. He shook out the mat. A shiver ran down his spine. Joseph hated spiders.
Lying back down, he remembered how Father Jacob had been caught in his Uncle Laban’s manipulative web for 20 long years. Yet God was faithful to his word and eventually delivered Jacob and brought him back to the Promised Land a wealthy man.
And then there were those strange dreams he had had. They had been unusually powerful, unlike any other dreams before or since. He felt ambivalent about them. They likely were the reason he was now in an Egyptian jail. His brothers’ envy of his father’s favor turned homicidal when he inferred that he had God’s favor as well.
Distant screams let Joseph know another fight had broken out in the barracks. It made him grateful for his private cell, the favor bestowed on the chief scribe to the warden.
He smiled at the irony of this “favor.” Favor in a prison. His brothers would love this if they only knew. He seemed about as far away from what those dreams foretold as he could be.
Yet, as foolish as it seemed right now, Joseph could not shake the deep conviction that God meant to bring those dreams to pass. And he could not deny the strange pattern he saw in God’s dealings with his forebears. God made stunning promises and then ordained time and circumstances to work in such ways as to make the promises seem impossible to fulfill. And then God moved.
The common thread Joseph traced through all the stories, the one thing God seemed to honor and bless more than anything else, was faith. Great-grandfather Abraham believed God’s word. Grandfather Isaac believed God’s word. Grandmother Rebekah believed God’s word. Father Jacob believed God’s word. They all believed even when it didn’t look like God’s word was going to come true. And all of them ultimately saw God’s faithfulness to his promises, despite circumstances and their own failings.
Faith-fueled peace doused the anxious fire in Joseph’s chest. “I believe you, my God,” he whispered. “Like my forefathers, I will wait for you. I have no idea what my being in an Egyptian prison has to do with your purposes. But I will keep honoring you here where you have placed me. Bring your word to pass as it seems best to you. I am yours. Use me!”
In the biblical account it’s tempting to only see Joseph’s heroic character and achievements. But God does not want us to miss the largely silent, desperate years Joseph endured.
Imagine the pain of his brothers’ betrayal, the separation from his father, the horror of slavery, the seduction and false accusation by Potiphar’s wife, and the desperation he felt as his youth passed away in prison.
Sometimes faithfulness to God and his word sets us on a course where circumstances get worse, not better. It is then that knowing God’s promises and his ways are crucial. Faith in God’s future grace for us is what sustains us in those desperate moments.
We all love the fairytale ending of Joseph’s story. And we should, because Joseph’s life is a foreshadowing of a heavenly reality. God sent his Son to die and be raised in order to set his children “free indeed” (John 8:36). There is coming a day when those who are faithful, even to death (Revelation 2:10) will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).
Our current circumstances, however dismal or successful, are not our story’s end. They are chapters in a much larger story that really does have a happily ever after.
This meditation is included in the forthcoming book Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith (Crossway, April 30, 2013).
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