“Mind Games” – Genesis 42-44
Pentecost 14 – September 10, 2017
Introduction: Joseph… where we’ve been
In our exploration of the 50 essential stories from the Old Testament of the Bible, we have been dealing with Joseph for a couple of Sundays already. Let me remind you of where we’ve been: Joseph, was the favourite son of the beloved wife of father Jacob. He had a coat of many colours to prove it. He had ten older brothers, who, out of jealousy, sold Joseph to some merchants, and convinced dear old dad that he had been eaten up by a wild animal. Joseph became a servant of Potiphar, was unjustly imprisoned for untrue sexual allegations, and then interpreted a dream to get Pharaoh’s cupbearer out of the same prison. We left Joseph… in prison.
- The Joseph story resumes
a. From prison to politics
It didn’t take long, and Pharaoh, himself, was having dreams. He dreamt about seven gaunt cows eating up seven sleek, fat cows, and seven thin heads of grain eating up seven healthy, full heads. None of his magicians or wise men could interpret these dreams. Finally, the absent-minded cupbearer remembered his fellow prisoner, Joseph, and the dream that he had successfully interpreted in jail. He mentioned this young Hebrew to the Pharaoh who brought him from the dungeon to interpret the dreams. Pharaoh told the dreams to Joseph and, with the wisdom of God, he explained that the dreams were one and the same, and that God was revealing to Pharaoh what was going to happen. There would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.
Pharaoh recognized the Spirit of God and the wisdom of God within Joseph, and appointed the 30 year old as the administrator of the whole land, second only to the Pharaoh, himself. Joseph was charged with managing the seven years of plenty in such a way that the country could survive the seven years of famine that would follow.
Now, the story revolves back to Canaan, and Joseph’s brothers. When the years of severe famine struck, even Jacob’s extended family in Canaan was affected. Jacob heard about the abundant grain in Egypt and sent his sons to buy some. It wasn’t just coincidence that the brothers had to deal with Joseph with respect to the purchase. In fact, they had to bow down to him, just as Joseph’s own early dreams had foretold. Joseph recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. That’s when Joseph began to play some mind games with his brothers.
Excursus: Mind games
The phrase “Mind Games” is used to refer to a couple of different things:
One is mental exercises designed to improve the functioning of one’s mind. This could be brain teasers or puzzles, sudokus, crosswords, or that Lumosity computer exercise that trains your brain in various things such as memory, attention, problem solving, etc.
The other is doing or saying things that psychologically put others down while raising your own profile and prestige in the fields of office politics, sports, and even relationships. Office mind games are often played by aggressive and ambitious people who want to get ahead at all costs.
The serious athlete will meet a variety of mind games – challenges, gestures, and trash talk from his / her opponents – all attempting to intimidate and discourage.
In intimate relationships, mind games can be used to undermine one partner’s belief in the validity of their own perceptions. Personal experience may be denied and driven from memory, and such abusive mind games may extend to denial of the victim’s reality, social undermining, and the trivializing of what is felt to be important.
Some of you have experience playing the second kind of mind games. Mind games are generally not a healthy way to deal with personal or work relationships. But be aware… you’re not the first generation to play mind games, nor will you be the last.
b. Joseph’s mind games
Joseph could play mind games with his brothers because they did not recognize him. He accused them of being spies, wanting to find the weakest link in Egypt’s defenses. He accused them of lying about their youngest brother, who was the only one that stayed back in Canaan with dad. He put them in custody for three days. When they were discussing their predicament, he used an interpreter to act as if he didn’t understand them, while, in reality, he understood every word they said, because it was his mother tongue. He required that they bring back their youngest brother – his own full brother – otherwise they wouldn’t see him again or receive any more grain. He bound Simeon and kept him, and then sent the rest of the brothers back home with provisions for their journey, bags of grain, and their silver secretly returned to them. When they discovered the silver in their bags, they were afraid, because they believed that, when they returned to Egypt, this harsh ruler would accuse them of accepting the grain and not paying for it at all.
But the famine persisted and the time came for Jacob to say to his sons, “Go back to Egypt and buy some more food.” This time, though, they were compelled to take Benjamin along, against Jacob’s better judgment. They brought Joseph the silver that had been returned the first time, as well as more silver to buy food, and some personal gifts for Joseph. He invited them for a meal with him, and for the second time had to turn away from them as his emotions got the best of him.
Then more mind games. He sent them all home again with grain, and their silver. This time, he had his servant put Joseph’s own silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. By lunch time, he had his servants chase them down, accuse them of theft, and threaten that whoever had his goblet would become his slave. Of course, they found the cup in Benjamin’s sack, and the brothers knew this news would send their father to the grave in grief. Judah, the fourth oldest, offered himself as Joseph’s slave in place of Benjamin so that Benjamin could return home to Jacob. And that’s where our Joseph story ends for today. We still have one more episode to deal with next Sunday.
So, how do we explain all this? What does it mean?
First of all, it’s a story with intrigue, and twists and turns in the story line. You could write a book about it, or make a movie… yeah, both of those things have already been done! Genesis is actually one of the most interesting books of the Bible, with some pretty memorable characters and remarkable accounts. But have you noticed that every faith hero that we have talked about has been a sinner? Adam had the obvious fruit disobedience episode. Noah was the naked drunk. Abraham lied about his wife being his sister. Jacob cheated his brother out of his birthright and deceived his father into giving him the blessing that belonged to his older brother.
Joseph was no saint either. His anger over against his brothers may have been justified, righteous anger, but he had to exercise caution and self-control so that his anger would not lead to a more grievous sin against his brothers than the one his brothers had committed against him. It would have seemed appropriate for him to throw his brothers into a cistern and say, “How do YOU GUYS like it down there?” It would have been easy for him to send them back to Canaan and say, “Starve to death, losers, this is Egypt’s grain.” It would have been tempting for him to put them all in prison, and then to send for Jacob and Benjamin and to look after dad and brother.
Anger itself isn’t necessarily wrong. Getting angry is part of being human. But anger can tempt us to respond in the wrong way to those who offend us. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker, which reads “I don’t angry, I get even.” It’s another way of saying, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” It means pay somebody back later, when they don’t expect it. The Bible’s teaching about anger is: “In your anger do not sin.” Now, we have to remember that, in the Joseph story, a lot of time had passed. Joseph was 17 when his brothers threw him into the cistern and sold him. He was 30 when he took over as Pharaoh’s right hand man. Seven more years of plenty had passed, and maybe a couple of years of famine. That’s over 20 years all told. Can grudges last that long? You tell me. Joseph wasn’t expecting to see his brothers again, so when they suddenly appeared, he bought himself a little more time with his mind game shenanigans. Lashing out at someone is the worst thing you can do when you’re angry. Joseph asked them about their father, planted a silver cup in one sack, lined them up in birth order. Some people may criticize Joseph for not letting them off the hook right away. But real life isn’t like that. Some hurts are so deep – deep as a cistern, I guess – that they take time and gradual pressure from God to get them out in the open to begin healing and reconciliation. The bags of grain episodes gave Joseph time to think things through and to control the anger that raised its ugly head after all those years.
The main reason why Joseph didn’t seek ultimate revenge against his brothers is that they were his brothers, and he still loved them. Joseph twice wisely found a private place to weep and to express his emotions. And when he finally determined to reveal his true identity to them, he sent all of the Egyptian servants out of the room so that his emotions could be openly shared with his brothers and so that they could forgive and be reconciled – but, oh, that’s part of next week’s story.
Now how do we apply such a story to our lives?
First, if you think that God won’t love you or use you because you are a sinner, think again! God used Joseph (and other sinners) in amazing ways, and God can and will use you. God can take you, sins and all, and raise you up to positions you never thought you could take on. Whether you’re a dreamer or not, I bet many of you never dreamed as a young person of what you have now become or accomplished. And if you are a young person, you maybe can’t imagine where God will lead you. Don’t underestimate what God can do with the gifts and the personality and the passion that God has hard-wired into who you are. Wait for, look for opportunities to use those things to demonstrate love to God and to others.
Second, think about anger and revenge. There is that famous Bible verse in which God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” Getting even isn’t a God-pleasing response to an offense, because it perpetuates the offense and can begin a vicious cycle of “getting even.” Consider anger in the context of marriage. I usually counsel engaged couples to avoid the silent treatment, because it’s about control over who determines if and when communication will resume. But I do concede that when things get heated over a certain issue, it’s OK to buy yourself a little time – like Joseph did – by separating and thinking things through. And I always advise that a time ought to be given when the discussion will resume. “I need to cool down a bit. Otherwise I’ll say something I might regret later. Can we talk about it again an hour from now?” That’s a healthy way to approach an angry and fiery situation – not blowing up in the heat of the moment, but not ignoring the issue either.
That Bible verse in Ephesians 4:26 – “In your anger, do not sin,” – is only the first half of the verse. That part deals with the attitude. The second half deals with the practical, as it proposes, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” That means, deal with the issue and resolve it before you go to bed. Going to bed angry will undoubtedly result in a poor night’s sleep as both parties mull over the other person’s fault and consider their own arguments to defend their position. If you go to bed angry, you will certainly wake up angry. This advice is not just for married couples. If you and a brother, or you and a friend have a disagreement that leads to hard feelings and anger, get it out in the open and come to a place of resolution before you part ways. Otherwise the health of the relationship is in jeopardy.
Often we find that underneath our angriest feelings is deep love. We don’t often get truly angry with an individual stranger because we don’t know that person and we don’t deeply care for him/her. We get angry with someone because we love and care for them. Joseph’s brothers got angry with him over his arrogant dreams. He had every right to be angry with them over their harsh treatment of him. But1 Peter 4:8 says that “Love covers over a multitude of sins.” Joseph’s brotherly love ultimately led him to a place of self-revelation and of forgiveness. What a great end result for us to imitate with those we love – love in the midst of anger, and forgiveness.
- How does Jesus fit in?
Finally, because we always want our messages and understanding of God’s Word to be Christ-centered, we need to ask, “How does Jesus fit into this story?”
The first thing to note is that Jesus, Himself, got angry. He expressed that righteous anger one day when the sellers and money-changers had turned the temple into a marketplace instead of a house of prayer for God’s people. His point in doing this was simply to turn people back to God in joyful worship and sincere prayer.
In the Joseph story, it was brother Judah who offered to take the place of Benjamin, and to become Joseph’s slave. He didn’t want his father to experience sorrow and grief and misery at the loss of another son. Jesus, who not coincidentally was one of Judah’s descendants, didn’t just offer to take our place, he actually took our place, becoming a slave to our sin, and to our death, and giving us His freedom and forgiveness and forever. Jesus didn’t want His heavenly Father to experience sorrow and grief and misery over our sin and condemnation, which would separate us from Him eternally. He didn’t allow God’s righteous anger over our sins to outweigh His love for us. He loved and cared for us so deeply that His love and His sacrifice on the cross did indeed cover over a multitude of sins, a multitude of YOUR sins. God doesn’t play mind games with us. He doesn’t tempt us and trick us and deceive us. His message of grace in Jesus is clear, concise, consistent and compelling. As we sang in that last hymn, “Neither life nor death shall ever From the Lord His children sever; Unto them His grace He showeth, And their sorrows all He knoweth. Though He giveth or He taketh, God His children ne’er forsaketh; His the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.” Amen.