What does “God with us” look like?
The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of those Bible stories many people know well—so well we might miss the audaciousness of what’s really being said about God’s relationship with us:
Genesis 39:1-4 “Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.”
This paragraph is the followup to events recorded in Genesis 37, in which we are told that the father of young, 17-year-old Joseph ostentatiously shows the whole world that he loves Joseph more than he loves his other, older children. We also hear that Joseph is oblivious enough to the family dynamics that he further insults his brothers by telling on them, and by relating dreams in which they bow down before him.
Then Joseph is sent to find his brothers and would have missed them except some unknown stranger just happens to come along “at the right moment” and tells him where they are. Joseph’s brothers decide to kill him, then change their mind and decide they can probably stand to have him alive as long as he is far, far away. They sell him to a tribal merchant band on their way to Egypt, where Joseph is sold into slavery in a foreign land.
When I read the writer’s next statement about Joseph, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or tremble: “The Lord was with Joseph.” With Joseph?!?!?!? How about saving him back when he needed help in the pit? Or helping brother Reuben devise a better plan to save the kid? Or, LORD, maybe you could start your blessings by being with him so that he doesn’t meet the stranger who directs him to his brothers? Or how about helping the hotshot kid show a little discretion in telling his dreams?
I have experienced God being with me by saving me from bad things—far more than I deserve. But I have also experienced God allowing me to go through bad things. I prefer the first, though perhaps I have grown more through the second—at least when I was willing to let God be there with me. But I don’t like going through bad things, and some things really are very bad. Don’t ask me to call them “good.”
The biblical accounts include quite a few of those God-with-us-through-the-fire events. Can I trust that even in these “not-good events” God is working to bring about good, nonetheless? Joseph did grow wiser and more godly as the years went by, and the LORD did find a way to use the bad times to have him in a place where he could be a blessing to the community God was determined to preserve.
Still, “The LORD was with Joseph” is a pretty audacious statement—both very comforting and not altogether comforting. We probably better get used to that dichotomy if we are going to “be with” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…and Jesus.
Pastor Ron Simkins