Zeb and Zeke had a plan. Now, Zeb and Zeke were not good guys. We don’t want to be like Zeb and Zeke.
You see, Zeb and Zeke hijacked an armored car filled with money. Now, an armored car isn’t the easiest thing for one to just hide so, Zeb and Zeke devised a plan. The sank the stolen armored car in a swamp. Then they waited—a few years—before they went back to it to tap into their ill-gotten treasure.
But there were two problems. First, they couldn’t find the exact spot where it sank. Second, in the intervening years the area had experienced significant growth among fishermen and outdoorsmen.
So Zeb and Zeke, resilient criminals that they were, hatched another plot. This one seems kind of out there, so you have to stay with me. They decided to dress in elaborate witch and zombie costumes to scare off local fishermen and tourists while they searched for the armored car in the dead of night.
It seems to have worked for a little while. They even fooled local law enforcement. Ultimately, it looks like they would have gotten away with it, too. Had it not been for a group of kids. Meddling kids, according to Zeb and Zeke. Meddling kids and their dog.
Ok, Zeb and Zeke aren’t real. They were the villains on an episode of Scooby Doo that first aired in December 1969. If you aren’t familiar with the show, the premise is four young adults drive around in a van with a dog solving crimes that are inevitably perpetrated by bad guys in costumes and masks. Typically, the show ends with a scene where they’ve caught the villain and proceed to unmask him or her and explain their plot to the bumbling sheriff who never would have been able to solve the case without them.
Often, after they’ve laid out the plot the bad guy will say “I would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for those meddling kids and that dog!” The line varied, but that’s the gist.
I loved that cartoon. And, as those of you who have young kids can attest, children’s cartoons are getting worse every second and so a few of years ago I thought it would be a good idea to let Sophie test out a couple of episodes of the old Scooby Doos. Even though they’re a little scary, she enjoyed them in the moment, but after she ended up terrified and sleeping in our bed a few nights in a row we decided to kick Scooby out of the house.
I loved the show, though, because you always knew the bad guy would never get away with it. The good guys always solved the crime and the bad guys ended up in handcuffs. Wouldn’t it be great if life worked that way?
We’ve been studying the last section of the book of Genesis from chapters 37-50 for almost two months now and it seems like the bad guys have gotten away with something doesn’t it?
If you remember back to Genesis 37, Joseph was beaten, stripped, and sold into slavery by his brothers. That’s pretty bad, but really he got off easy because in the beginning they wanted to kill him. Joseph’s brothers are bad guys. That was highlighted for us in Genesis 38 when we focused in on Judah and his illicit relationship with Tamar.
But we’ve spent the past few chapters focused in on Joseph and his brothers have been an afterthought. As we open chapter 42 today, though, we’re going to see a stark truth begin to take shape and it’s this: God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance.
That’s the overarching theme of Genesis 42. What is God’s providence? God’s actions in creation to advance His purpose. So God acts in creation to bring sinners to repentance. That’s what we’ll see in this chapter as we revisit the villains who kicked this story into motion with their abuse of Joseph. Let’s read Genesis 42 together:
God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance
This chapter opens in ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ fashion. The focus for several chapters has been on Joseph, but now it shifts back to Jacob and the remaining 11 sons. We need to remember that none of the human players in this drama are the main character. God is the main character and driving force of this entire story and his purpose here is bigger than any one person, family, or nation. He’s working out an eternal plan to restore sinful and broken humanity to himself.
In the beginning, creation was perfect and God was in a face-to-face relationship with mankind. Adam an Eve had a personal and unhindered relationship with God. But sin broke that relationship. They were cast out of the Garden of Eden and out of the presence of God because of their sin.
God offers a promise, though, in Genesis 3:15 that He will one day restore that relationship and He’s actually going to use Adam and Eve to do it. He says Eve’s offspring will one day crush the head of sin and death forever in that verse. He’ll make it so that sin and death is no more.
He further reveals to a descendent of Adam and Eve named Abraham in Genesis 12 that He’s going to use his family to make that promise come true. I think I have mentioned this connection to some degree every week in this series and I do that because it’s imperative for our understanding of Joseph’s story that we have it set in the context of the entire Bible.
One of the implications of setting this story within the big picture of Scripture is that we need to recognize that no one gets away with anything, ever. Just like every bad guy on Scooby Doo gets unmasked, so every sin that has ever been committed will be made right by our Holy God. And it happens in two ways: either on the cross or for eternity in a place called hell.
Sin earns the wrath of God. Romans 6:23 tells us the wage that sin earns for us is death, but one chapter earlier Paul teaches us something even more dreadful than that. Romans 5:10a For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son
Sin makes us enemies of God. Because He is holy and just, God must punish sin. Jonathan Edwards wrote:
"Any sin is more or less heinous depending upon the honor and majesty of the one whom we had offended. Since God is of infinite honor, infinite majesty, and infinite holiness, the slightest sin is of infinite consequence. The slightest sin is nothing less than cosmic treason when we realize against whom we have sinned.”
So if this Holy God against whom mankind has committed cosmic treason is the main character of Genesis 42, then how should we read it?
Thus far, these brothers—who are a part of the family God has chosen as His own—are wicked. And instead of pouring our the wrath they deserved, God acts to push them toward repentance.
God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance Through Hardship
We looked last week at how this monumental famine that had ravaged the entire Middle East was a tool God used to place Joseph in a position of power and authority in Egypt.
This week we see this same plague used as a tool to re-unite this broken family and to bring about repentance from Joseph’s brothers.
Jacob heard there was plenty of food in Egypt, but his sons didn’t seem to be showing much initiative even though things looked pretty dire. He said ‘Why are you just sitting here staring at one another? There’s grain in Egypt, go buy some so that we don’t starve to death.’ Moses is showing us here that this family hasn’t changed much since we last saw them. They’re still dysfunctional.
That is made more clear in verse four where Jacob keeps Benjamin at home instead of sending him with the other 10. Benjamin was the other son Jacob had with his favorite wife, Rachel. Joseph had been the favorite and now it’s clear that his brother Benjamin had taken his spot after the other 10 convinced Jacob that Joseph had been killed.
So in God’s providence, the brothers set off for Egypt. Nothing happens by accident in this story, nor by luck. In fact, neither of those things exist if we rightly understand God’s sovereignty. On this particular day by the grace of God, Joseph was in charge of the distribution in the city where the brothers came to buy grain. But they didn’t recognize him. After all, it had been at least 20 years and they’d written him off—perhaps as dead—long ago. They were foreigners who would have dressed different and spoken a different language than the Egyptians and he recognized them quickly but didn’t reveal himself.
Why didn’t he reveal himself to them immediately? I really don’t know and I don’t think the text ever gives us a specific answer. I don’t think, though, that this was done out of spite. If Joseph harbored hatred for his brothers, this would probably be a very short chapter. In fact, if I sat in Joseph’s chair this would be a very short chapter. Imagine the temptation here! He probably had the power to have these men executed on the spot. They wrote him off as dead, perhaps he could do the same to them. And if he wanted to harm them, I think he would have gone about it differently.
The best explanation here is that God was working through Joseph to bring about repentance in the brothers’ lives. There are just too many parallels here for the answer to be any different.
In Genesis 37, Jacob sent one son to the whole group. In Genesis 42, Jacob, though he doesn’t fully understand what he’s doing, sends the sons to go see Joseph. In 37, the confine Joseph but in 42 Joseph confines them. In both chapters, a severe punishment is spoken of, but a more less devastating punishment is inflicted. God’s fingerprints are all over this situation.
And it’s because of that that we need to notice that, even though Joseph causes considerable hardship for his brothers here this is actually an act of grace. What do you think the brothers deserved for what they’d done to Joseph? Whatever they deserve, he gives them grace. And that grace ultimately will bring about conviction and repentance.
Let’s look further into the text to see how that’s true. Joseph accuses them of being spies, they plead their innocence and Joseph throws them in jail. But after three days he changes his mind. Look at verse 18 again:
On the third day Joseph said to them, “I fear God—do this and you will live.
Had they been thinking clearly this would have been a huge giveaway for the 10 brothers. Here is an Egyptian official, a leader in a polytheistic land, saying he fears God. The real one. But, perhaps due to fear, they don’t catch the hint. Joseph tells them he’ll let nine of them go with enough food to keep their large family back home alive. But that he’ll keep one of them until they return with Benjamin so that he can know for sure they’re being truthful.
God has used all these difficult circumstances, the famine, the long journey to Egypt, the fear of imprisonment, and maybe even of death to bring them to the threshold of what we see in verse 21. Let’s look again:
Then they said to each other, “Obviously, we are being punished for what we did to our brother. We saw his deep distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this trouble has come to us.”
22 But Reuben replied: “Didn’t I tell you not to harm the boy? But you wouldn’t listen. Now we must account for his blood!”
Here we see the second way God’s providence calls sinners to repentance and that is through guilt.
God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance Through Guilt
They are speaking Hebrew among themselves here, not knowing Joseph understands every word and they confess—for the first time in the text and maybe the first time in their lives—their guilt concerning Joseph.
Hard circumstances do not always mean that God is convicting you of sin, but sometimes they do. How do we know the difference? Well, Scripture teaches that we actually need help to see our own sins because we can be spiritually blind to them.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the everlasting way.
When is the last time you’ve asked God to search your heart and convict you of your sin? (we want him to convict others) Because we have a sin nature still fighting for control of our lives, sometimes we will be blinded to our own sins. We need the Holy Spirit’s guidance to identify those sins and kill them.
Pastor and author Paul Tripp wrote the following:
Because I am a believer, and the heart of stone has been taken out of me and replaced with a heart of flesh, my conscience bothers me when I sin. This is the beautiful, convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. When my conscience is activated and bothered, I must make one of two choices. The first and best choice is to admit that what I have done is wrong and place myself once again under the justifying mercies of Christ, receiving his forgiveness. Or I can erect some system of self-atonement that essentially argues for the rightness of what I’ve done. I am making myself feel good about what God says is not good. I am participating in my own spiritual blindness. Everyone still living with sin is a skilled self-swindler.
Because we are so good at swindling ourselves, Scripture also teaches us that we need each other:
Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.
If you look at verse 22, it’s Reuben—the one who was against killing Joseph in chapter 37—who’s the voice of reason here. He’s the one who calls out the other brothers in the text. God used the circumstances of their life to bring about guilt for their sin.
The brothers are admitting their guilt right in front of the one whom they wronged, but they don’t know he understands them.
After hearing their admission, Joseph takes Simeon into custody but lets the rest return home. On their way home we see a third way God’s providence calls sinners to repentance and that is through fear.
God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance Through Fear
Look down at verse 27 again:
At the place where they lodged for the night, one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver there at the top of his bag. 28 He said to his brothers, “My silver has been returned! It’s here in my bag.” Their hearts sank. Trembling, they turned to one another and said, “What is this that God has done to us?”
When Joseph sent his brothers home, he instructed the servants to fill their sacks not just with grain but with the money they had intended to use to make the purchase. He was giving them a gift. But upon seeing it they feared. They thought they were being framed for stealing.
Sin can cause us to so misinterpret what is happening to us that we see a gift as a curse. I think that’s what John Newton meant when he wrote the now famous lyrics “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”
Why should we fear grace? Because it reveals our standing before a holy God. They saw this gift of grace and they trembled before it. And then finally, we’ll see the last way God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance and that is through sorrow.
God’s Providence Calls Sinners to Repentance Through Sorrow
The brothers return to their father and recount the story fairly accurately in verses 29-35. But they still leave out the truth about Joseph. They’re still hiding their sin and it causes such great sorrow for everyone involved.
Sorrow for the brothers because now they’re going to have to live separated from Simeon for a time, since Jacob will not allow them to take Benjamin to Egypt. More sorrow for the 9 remaining, knowing that Joseph and now Benjamin are the favorites.
Sorrow for Jacob in knowing that his family has been further separated. In fact, after 20 years we see the emotion he felt toward Joseph is still very raw in verse 38. Sin causes so much pain. And the whole family sees it. Reuben wants the pain of sorrow to go away so badly he offers up his two sons as collateral in the hope they can be reunited. Eventually, there is sorrow for the whole family because the food they were given will run out and the famine is still raging.
And yet, in the midst of all this brokenness God is still at work. As we finish, look back at verse 24 with me. It says Joseph turned away from his brothers and wept.
What Joseph was doing—forcing his brothers to come to terms with their sin—was hard. And it broke his heart. Joseph’s heart here reflects God’s heart for his children. He weeps as He is breaking us down so that repentance can come. F.B. Meyer captured this thought well:
We suffer, and suffer keenly. Imprisoned, bereaved, rebuked, we count God harsh and hard. We little realize how much pain He is suffering as He causes us pain. . .we should feel that we were as safe amid his rebukes as ever we were amid his tenderest caresses.
Joseph was rejected by his brothers, only to later save them from starvation. Later, another like Joseph would come. Rejected by the entire nation of Israel, though He did not wrong. In His providence, God allowed Him to be crushed for our iniquity. Jesus Christ became the sacrifice for our sins that we could never offer on our own. And He did it all so that we would be reconciled to God forever.
Because nobody gets away with anything, ever. What does that mean for us in this room today?
Well, either the punishment for your sin was paid for on the cross or you’re still under the wrath of an Almighty God.
For those of us who belong to God, what now? Well, we are still called by Scripture to confess our sins. Jesus commands confession in the model prayer in Luke 11. 1 John 1:8 tells us that if we say we have no sin the truth is not in us.
If Christ took our punishment, why do we need confession?
Because confession of sin is the application of the gospel to your life. When you confess and repent of sin as a Christian you are allowing God to apply His grace and reconciliation to your life and expressing true gratitude for what has been accomplished on your behalf on the cross of Christ.
Don’t try to hide your sin or sit on your sin. German pastor and WWII martyr Bonhoeffer wrote:
“he who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. . . . But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner you are, to the God who loves you.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Life Together)
Everyone in this room is in the same boat. Just like Zeb and Zeke. We’ve laid our plans—some outlandish and some benign. We’re all great and desperate sinners. And just by virtue of you being in this room today God’s providence is calling you to repentance.
We get the 10,000-foot view of the lives of these 10 brothers. We see how God worked in their circumstances, through their guilt, their fear, and their sorrow to bring about repentance. I hope that each of us sees anew this morning how God is at work in us to bring us to repentance.
God is the one who unmasks the sins of our heart. And we desperately need Him to do so. Let’s ask Him to do that for us today. In Genesis 42, Jacob’s 10 sons travel to Egypt in search of food to save the lives of their whole family. In traveling there they carry the hearts laden with the burden of sin. They needed something more than physical food, they needed the spiritual life that is found in repentance. That’s the same thing we need this morning. Let’s pray.