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The Pit of Despair

Two week ago, we started looking at the life of Joseph – and last we left him, he was on his way to check up on his brothers as they were tending their father’s flocks some 70 miles away from home.

Now before we jump into what happened next, let me give you a quick summary of what we’ve learned about Joseph so far.

To begin with, Joseph came from the family tree of Abraham. He was Abraham’s great-grandson and it was Joseph and his 11 brothers who would eventually grow to become the 12 tribes of Israel. Their father Jacob would actually have his named change by God from Jacob to Israel, and so Jacob’s 12 sons would eventually became known as the 12 sons (or 12 tribes) of Israel.

So Joseph and his family are some very famous and some very central characters of the Old Testament. However, this family was also extremely dysfunctional. Jacob had married four wives (two of them sisters, and the other two were servants of those sisters) and so family relationships were complicated to say the least! 

But to make a long story short, both the wives and the children in this family, felt they continually had to compete for Jacob’s love and affection – and as a result, their home was filled with jealousy, favouritism, bitterness, and a pile of anger.

However, not everyone felt they had to compete for Jacob’s love. Joseph knew without a doubt that he was dearly loved by his father. He was clearly the favourite son of Jacob because he was the first-born of Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel. 

And as evidence of this assured love, he had been given a beautiful robe – or a coat of many colours. But this wasn’t just any coat of many colours – this was a special robe that was intended to elevate Joseph’s status and position far above that of his brothers’. His father might as well have given him a crown – that’s almost the kind of statement this robe made!

So as you can imagine – because of their father’s favouritism, Joseph’s brothers didn’t have much love for Joseph. In fact, we’re told repeatedly that Joseph’s brothers’ hated him.

Of course, Joseph’s dreams didn’t help the situation either. You’ll remember that he had two dreams (which he happily shared with this family) in which his brothers and his parents bowed down before him. Joseph must have thought these dreams were great – they must be a sign from God! But the rest of the family wasn’t so sure. In fact, Josephs brother were pretty convinced that they would never allow such a thing to happen and they hated him all the more.

So that’s the introduction we were given to life of Joseph. Joseph was hated by his brothers because he was dad’s favourite, he was hated all the more when he got that beautiful robe, and then he was hated even more when he talked about those dreams he had.

And that sets the stage for the first major, life changing event for Joseph. It all began when Jacob sent Joseph to go check on his brothers as they tended the flocks….

We read from Genesis 37, verse 14 last week…

14 “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are getting along,” Jacob said. “Then come back and bring me a report.” So Jacob sent him on his way, and Joseph traveled to Shechem from their home in the valley of Hebron. Genesis 37:14

Now the brothers had actually moved their flocks a little further on from Shechem – another 15 miles or so to a place named Dothan. And so it took Joseph a while to find them, but eventually did. And as Joseph approaches his brothers, we read this in verse 18…

18 When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him. 19 “Here comes the dreamer!” they said. 20 “Come on, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns. We can tell our father, ‘A wild animal has eaten him.’ Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!” Genesis 37:18-20

It’s pretty obvious that these brothers had no love for Joseph. In fact, their bitterness and anger towards him had grown over the years to the point where they were quite literally ready to kill him. It seems pretty shocking that things could get this bad – where these guys are willing to plot and to plan to end the life of their own brother. But that’s the path that uncheck anger will eventually take you.

And that’s kinda where we left it last week – with Joseph approaching his brothers from the distance – completely unaware that they were plotting to kill him when he arrived.

But it’s right about then that we see the providence of God intervene in this story. Let’s continue and find out what happened at verse 21.

21 But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. “Let’s not kill him,” he said. 22 “Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty cistern here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him.” Reuben was secretly planning to rescue Joseph and return him to his father. Genesis 37:21-22

Now this is kinda interesting. Apparently Reuben wasn’t part of the original plot to kill Joseph. He must have been off somewhere else as they came up with this plan. But when he heard what they wanted to do, he couldn’t go along with it. Now I’m sure that Reuben wasn’t the biggest fan of Joseph either. He probably had no more love for Joseph than his brothers. But unlike his brothers, he didn’t think it was the right thing to do to kill the guy.

And it’s almost a little surprising that Reuben was the one to come to the rescue. Although Reuben was the oldest brother in the family, and was probably the leader of the pack, he wasn’t known for being a saint. A few chapters earlier in Genesis 35, we read that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine – Bilhah – who would be like his step-mom. (Which is even more evidence of how messed up this family was…) In fact, because of what Reuben did, he would eventually lose his birthright as the first-born, and that birthright would be transferred to Joseph. That all comes out later on, but for now, the point I wanted to note was that Reuben’s relationship with his father would have been rocky at best.

And so maybe Reuben’s desire to rescue Joseph came from him wanting to get back into his father’s good graces again? I imagine Reuben was on the bottom of the list of Jacob’s favorite children, but if Jacob knew that Reuben had rescued Joseph from being killed by his brothers, perhaps Reuben would move up a little higher on the list. 

We’re not really told what Reuben’s motivation was, but regardless of his motivation, God used Reuben to save Joseph’s life. His brother’s listen to his advice and decided they would just throw Joseph in the cistern and let nature finish him off – let him starve to death or something… rather than spilling his blood with their own hands. It says in verse 23…

23 So when Joseph arrived, his brothers ripped off the beautiful robe he was wearing. 24 Then they grabbed him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

Genesis 37:23-24

And I’m just going to pause here for a minute to further paint the picture of what’s going on here. Remember again, that Joseph is the youngest of these brothers and he’s 17 at this time and so his brothers are all grown men in their 20s and 30s. Imagine the scene as Joseph arrives and his brother surround and grab him. They rip off his coat – his special coat given to him by his father that proclaimed his special status above his brothers – they rip that off him and they throw him down into this empty cistern.

Now this passage doesn’t include any details of how Joseph reacted, but we do get a hint a little further on. In chapter 42, verse 21 we read…

21 Speaking among themselves, they said, “Clearly we are being punished because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his anguish when he pleaded for his life, but we wouldn’t listen. Genesis 42:21

Through out the struggle as they grabbed him and tore off his coat and from down in the pit, Joseph pleaded and begged his brothers to let him go. It says in anguish he pleaded for his life, but his brothers wouldn’t listen.

I can only imagine the fear and the despair that Joseph felt as he called to his brothers – but they ignored his every plea. 

I imagine most of you are familiar with the movie – The Princess Bride. When the hero, Wesley, was captured by the bad guys, where did they take him? To the pit of despair – where he was mercilessly tortured until he was mostly dead.

Well, Joseph’s cistern really was the pit of despair. After such treachery by his brothers, he sat there in anguish, helplessly and hopelessly, pleading and begging for his life – but no one paid him any attention. No one, that is, but God.

It’s interesting that at this point in our story, we don’t read any commentary about what God was doing. In fact, you don’t find God mentioned at all in this chapter. But that certainly doesn’t mean God was absent. Years later as Joseph reflected back on all this, he said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.”

Now of course, he sure didn’t see that at this point in life. As he sat in the pit of despair, he had no idea what God was doing. In fact, I wonder if he questioned if God was there at all. 

 Did God even know what was happening? 

If so, why in the world, would God let this happen? Why didn’t God intervene? Why didn’t God change his situation? How could God just let him sit in that pit of despair – feeling helpless and hopeless?

And maybe you can relate to that. Maybe you feel like you’re in bit of a pit of despair yourself. Maybe your world feels like it’s crashing down around you. Maybe you’ve had people – people that you trusted – turn on you and betray you. Maybe through some crazy circumstances, your life has gotten flipped upside down and maybe you’re wondering if God’s there at all? And if so, why isn’t He doing something about your situation? Doesn’t He care? Doesn’t He hear your prayers? Doesn’t He hear your pleading and begging? Why has God left you in this pit of despair feeling helpless and hopeless?

And if that’s where you’re at right now – I just want to encourage you first of all, that you’re not alone. You’re not the only person who’s been through the pit of despair. In fact, many of the Psalms were written by people who experience the pit of despair. Psalm 22, which was quoted by Jesus as he hung on the cross, goes like this:

1 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

    Why are you so far away when I groan for help?

2 Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.

    Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. 

Psalm 22:1-2

That sure sounds like someone in the pit of despair. Psalm 13 is another psalm that is very similar.

1 O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?

    How long will you look the other way?

2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,

    with sorrow in my heart every day?

    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

3 Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!

    Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.

4 Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”

    Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.

Psalm 13:1-4

Maybe you can relate to that. Maybe you’re going through that right now. The pit of despair is a reality that probably most of us will go through at some point in our lives. There are going to be times when God feels a million miles away. There are going to be times where it seem that God isn’t listening to our prayers. There are going to be times where you may question if God even cares at all. 

But I assure you, that He does. And just because God feels distant – it does mean that He is. Our feelings don’t determine reality. 

And the reality is that God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. 

The reality is that God has promised that nothing can ever separate us from his love. 

The reality is that we can cast our cares upon Him because He cares for us.

We can have confidence knowing, that despite our circumstances, God still loves us like crazy and He has our ultimate good in mind.

In this Psalm 13 – even though the writer, David, begins by expressing how he feels like he’s abandoned and struggling alone – he concludes at the end that despite his feelings, he can trust in God. He says in verse 5…

5 But I trust in your unfailing love.

    I will rejoice because you have rescued me.

6 I will sing to the Lord

    because he is good to me.

Ps 13:1-6

That’s such an encouragement to us. Even though we may find ourselves in the pit of despair – we can rejoice… we can sing to the Lord because He is good to us. We can trust in his unfailing love.

I’m not sure how much rejoicing Joseph was doing as he sat there in the pit – I’m sure it didn’t feel like God was ‘rescuing him’ – but in fact, that’s exactly what God was doing. Not only had He spared Joseph’s life by sending Reuben to convince his brothers not to immediately kill Joseph, but then, God also sends along this caravan of Ishmaelite traders who would end up rescuing Joseph from that pit – although not in the way that Joseph might have expected or hoped for.

So let’s read what happened – continuing on from verse 25…

25 Then, just as they were sitting down to eat, they looked up and saw a caravan of camels in the distance coming toward them. It was a group of Ishmaelite traders taking a load of gum, balm, and aromatic resin from Gilead down to Egypt.  26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother? We’d have to cover up the crime. 27 Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!” And his brothers agreed. 28 So when the Ishmaelites, who were Midianite traders, came by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to them for twenty pieces of silver. And the traders took him to Egypt. Genesis 37:25-28

So as you can see, this was not exactly the kind of rescue that Joseph was hoping for – but it was a rescue none less.

It seems his brothers had some second thoughts about killing Joseph – after all, they didn’t want to go through all the trouble of trying to cover up their crime. That would be a real hassle. Instead, they reasoned, by selling Joseph as a slave to these traders, they could solve their Joseph problem and at the same time, make some profit. It was a win/win situation for everyone! 

However, this threw a real monkey wrench into Rueben’s plans to rescue Joseph and bring him back to their father. Apparently, he was absent again while his brothers made this plan to sell Joseph, and so when he came back to find Joseph missing – he was not a happy camper. Verse 29 says…

29 Some time later, Reuben returned to get Joseph out of the cistern. When he discovered that Joseph was missing, he tore his clothes in grief. 30 Then he went back to his brothers and lamented, “The boy is gone! What will I do now?” Genesis 37:29-30

Reuben’s plans had fallen apart. He would not be the hero of this story as the loyal brother who rescued Joseph and brought him back to his father. Maybe, had he stood up to his brothers in the beginning and insisted that they do not harm Joseph in anyway – then maybe he could have been that hero. But that opportunity to stand for what was right had come and gone. Joseph was on his way to Egypt, and as for Reuben… What could he do now?

Well, the brothers decided that the only thing to do now was to cover up their crime – which ironically was the reason they sold Joseph rather than killing him – because they didn’t want to have to cover up the crime. So I’m not exactly sure what they were thinking – but here’s what they did – in verse 31…

31 Then the brothers killed a young goat and dipped Joseph’s robe in its blood. 32 They sent the beautiful robe to their father with this message: “Look at what we found. Doesn’t this robe belong to your son?”

33 Their father recognized it immediately. “Yes,” he said, “it is my son’s robe. A wild animal must have eaten him. Joseph has clearly been torn to pieces!” 34 Then Jacob tore his clothes and dressed himself in burlap. He mourned deeply for his son for a long time. 35 His family all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “I will go to my grave mourning for my son,” he would say, and then he would weep.

Genesis 37:31-35

The brother’s cover-up had worked like a charm. They didn’t even have to come up with a story – their father came to all the right (but wrong) conclusions. In Jacob’s mind, Joseph was dead. And to the brothers, he may as well have been. As far as they were concerned, their plan had worked and they would never see Joseph again. They’d never again have to put up with him acting like he was in charge. They would never have to listen to his crazy dreams about them bowing down to him. They’d never have to see him wearing that fancy, king-like robe that elevated him above all of them. All of that was in the past… So they thought.

But unbeknown to them, God had a different plan and we get just a hint in the last verse of this chapter. In verse 36 it says…

36 Meanwhile, the Midianite traders arrived in Egypt, where they sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard. Genesis 37:36

And we’ll leave it there for today – but this gives us just a glimpse that God was up to something. Despite Joseph’s brothers’ strongest intentions to harm him, God had rescued Joseph and was positioning him to be exactly where Joseph needed to be.

Now for Joseph, I’m sure he didn’t see that. He had woken up that morning, 17 years old, free as a bird, the favourite of his father, not a care in the world…. But by the end of that day he would be in chains, marching towards slavery a foreign land, having been betrayed by his brothers and thought to be dead by his father. I am confident that Joseph didn’t see this coming. He would have been hurt, angry, confused, scared, and a whole world of other emotions. 

We don’t really know what kind of relationship Joseph had with God at this point, but I really doubt that Joseph was rejoicing and praising God as he walked along with the other slaves in this caravan.

I would think instead that Jospeh would be saying right along with David in Psalm 22 as well as with Jesus as he hung on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

But you know, despite how Joseph felt, God had not abandoned him. Even though Joseph’s circumstances had changed drastically in just one day – God’s love and care and his plan for Joseph had not changed. Even though Joseph would have to go through a lot of difficult stuff over the next several years, God had a good plan for Joseph – a plan that would actually save the life of his brothers, his parents, his nieces and nephews – his entire family actually – not to mention the lives of many, many others in Egypt.

And I hope that’s an encouragement to you this morning. Even though you may be in the pit of despair or you feel like your marching in chains towards slavery in a foreign land – even though you may feel like God has abandoned you – I assure you, He has not. His love and his care and his plan for you has not changed – even though your circumstances may have.

It possible that you may have to go through some very difficult things on the road ahead – but you can have confidence that through it all, God will be with you. He still loves you. He cares about everything that happens to you – and he will use all of it for good.

I can’t imagine any situation that we might go through that would feel as hopeless as what Jesus experienced on the cross. After being betrayed and sold out by his close friend Judas, and after all his other disciples abandoned him, after being physically whipped and beaten and nailed to cross, and after taking on the guilt and the shame and the weight of all the sin of everyone in the world, on that cross, Jesus experienced the ultimate pit of despair. It’s no wonder that, as Jesus hung on the cross, he cried out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

And yet, it was through Jesus’ death on the cross, that God brought about the greatest good ever! By going through that pit of despair, Jesus would save the life of you and I and the millions of people who have put their faith in Him. Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, we would have no hope of our own future resurrection. His pit of despair is exactly what gives us hope.

Even though we may go through those pits of despair and maybe it feels like God has abandoned us – we can know that He certainly hasn’t. We can know that God loves us dearly, and He has a good plan for us which includes (but is not limited to) eternal, abundant life in His presence forever.

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