The story of Joseph is one of my favorites, and I’m clearly not the only one who things so. It’s a tale that’s been told and retold, including in the popular musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” What interests me is how the entire story hinges on one seemingly insignificant event.
The story begins in Genesis 37, with Joseph having dreams that are pretty simple to interpret. They indicate that someday he will receive honor and respect from his entire family. This provokes his brothers to hate him more than they already do for the favoritism their father bestows on him (including that famous coat). Planning first to murder him, they then opt instead to sell him into slavery.
He’s taken by traders to Egypt, where he rises to be head of the household staff for a rich man. When he refuses the amorous advances of his master’s wife, she accuses him of rape and he’s thrown in jail.
In jail he eventually becomes second to the jailer. When he successfully interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates, the one who promised to help him out subsequently forgets. Later that man, cupbearer to Pharaoh, remembers when the king needs a couple of dreams interpreted. Joseph is brought out, interprets the dreams and then becomes a sort of prime minister for all of Egypt.
It’s tale with a happy ending…sort of. Because Joseph comes out on top in Egypt, he’s able to save his entire family and the nation of Egypt from famine. At the same time, we know this sets the scene for the enslavement of the nation. In any case, in the long run this was all part of God’s plan. Joseph had come to understand this truth and it was for this reason that he was not angry with his brothers when finally he had them where vengeance was possible.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.’” (Genesis 45:4-8 NIV)
From thinking he would die, to being sold into slavery and later falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown in jail to rot, it had been a hard road. Certainly in none of those terrible lows did he understand what God was doing, or what the visions of his youth had been about. His faith must have taken a beating, but despite his circumstances he remained faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In the slave caravan heading towards Egypt and as he fell asleep at night in prison, he must have thought back to one insignificant moment when everything could have been different. I know that’s what I’ve done in some of my hardest times, and even at some of my greatest peaks in life. How could so much suffering or success have such meaningless origins?
What am I talking about?
“When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He replied, ‘I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?’ ‘They have moved on from here,’ the man answered. ‘I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’’So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” (Genesis 37:14b-18 NIV)
What an insignificant event! Yet, if Joseph hadn’t been seen by that man and pointed in the right direction, the entire chain of events leading to Egypt and the ultimate salvation of his family would never have taken place. Or else, it would have had to take a different route. This has led some commentators to suggest that this man was an angel, but I see no need. God is at work even in the insignificant events.
Two stories and I’ll wrap this up.
First, when I was in my second year of college, the ministry couple from my church went to a convention where they heard from a few missionaries. What they heard got them fired up, but they said that due to severe allergies in their family it was out of the question for them to go to the overseas mission field. Their words stuck with me, and a few days later I called them and asked if they had the name of any mission agency represented at the gathering. They gave me the number for Christian Missionary Fellowship (now CMF International). The rest of the story you can read by clicking here, but suffice it to say that this was a massive turning point in my life, one that lead to Brazil.
Second, when I was about to graduate from college, someone I’d met in Brazil on one of my trips suggested I check out the city he and his family had just moved to with two other couples. They were sent there to help a small, new congregation. The city was Uberlândia. What’s strange about this is that that man turned out to be one of my worst adversaries ever, but because of him I met and married the wonderful woman who is now my wife. Without our “chance” encounter and his invitation, I’d never have even considered Uberlândia.
When I say that old cliché about God working in mysterious ways, I know what I’m talking about.
I’m going on 9 years outside of Brazil. I haven’t been back in all this time, and it’s been hard. We’re planning a family trip down this summer, and I’ll admit it has me a little nervous. You see, I like my current job and working in New York, but I don’t like it in the United States. We needed to be here for a time, so the wife and kids could learn about my home culture and so that we could mature a bit. In truth, though, this isn’t our place. That makes me anxious to get back, but fearful that it won’t happen.
Like Joseph, if I dare make the comparison, I hope to get to the other side of this time and have sufficient perspective to see what God was doing all along.
Really, I don’t need a burning bush or a light from heaven to guide me, as welcome as those would be. All I need is an insignificant event to get (or keep) this narrative heading in the right direction.