Why Do God’s Servants so Often Suffer?

Torah Portion for week 9: Genesis 37 – 40

וַיֵּשֶׁב

Vayeshev (And he settled)

Why do God’s chosen servants so often suffer? This week’s Torah portion gives us two very different answers to that troubling question. Our Torah portion focuses on Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, the firstborn of his chosen wife, Rachel. It recounts Joseph’s elevation to preeminence both by his father and by God, who gives Joseph prophetic dreams concerning his future leadership of the family.

Throughout his life, Joseph remained consistently faithful to God, and we are repeatedly reminded that the LORD was with him (Gen 39:2-5, 21, 23). Nevertheless, Joseph has become a prime example of unjust suffering: after being sold into slavery by his own brothers, he was slandered and unjustly imprisoned, and then abandoned by those whom he had helped there. In Acts 7, in his trial before the Sanhedrin, Stephen gives Joseph and Moses as two examples of God’s designated redeemers who were rejected by their own people – even as the Messiah Yeshua had been (Acts 7:9, 27, 35, 39, 51-52).

Ultimately God used Joseph, and all of his sufferings, to save his entire family – and the people of Egypt as well – from a deadly, prolonged famine. As Joseph would later say, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good . . . that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20; cf. Gen 45:5-8).

But there is another unsung hero in this story, another “servant of the Lord” who had a very different route to glory.

Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob, usurped the leadership role of Reuben (the firstborn) in selling Joseph into slavery. “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh’” (Gen 37:26-27). While hypocritically justifying his plan as avoiding bloodshed, in fact Judah was committing his own brother to a fate worse than death – a short, bitter life of harsh manual labor – in order to make a “quick buck.”

Genesis 38 is a surprising interruption in Joseph’s saga; it describes in graphic detail Judah’s slippery slide into moral oblivion. Judah’s character and behavior are in direct contrast to Joseph’s: having sold his brother, he willingly abandons the rest of his family to build a life among the debauched Canaanites. There Judah himself is no stranger to suffering: his first two sons are killed by God for their wickedness.

But Judah himself is no better. He rejects time-honored custom – later enshrined in the Torah (Deut 25:5-10) – by refusing to give his third son in marriage to his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, in order to raise up descendants for his own clan. Judah’s selfish pursuit of short-term interests once again threatens the very existence of one of Israel’s tribes! Finally, after unknowingly impregnating his disguised daughter-in-law, Judah is confronted with his own wickedness and hypocrisy and is forced to confess, “She [this Canaanite prostitute!] is more righteous than I” (Gen 38:26).

Genesis 39 returns to the trials and tribulations of Joseph. (We will not see Judah again until he appears before his brother – who has now become the lord of Egypt – to beg for bread.)  Judah has rejoined his brothers following the incident with Tamar and he is a changed man.  When the need of the family again becomes desperate, it is Judah who offers to be the guarantor for Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, so that they might return to Egypt to buy more food (Gen 43:8-10). And when Benjamin is caught with the silver cup in his grain bag, it is Judah who offers to take his place as a slave forever to the “lord of Egypt,” so that the young man may return to his bereaved father (Gen 44:18-34). Suffering has transformed Judah, enabling him to acknowledge the wickedness he committed against Joseph and against his father, Jacob, and to become – like Joseph, and like his own ultimate descendant, Yeshua the Messiah – a willing, suffering servant of God for his people’s redemption.

Through Joseph’s story, we learn that God uses unjust suffering to prepare and position his chosen servants to fulfill his good purposes and their exalted destiny. But God also uses suffering to confront and transform the wicked, that they might become willing servants in his redemptive plan.

First Peter 4:15-16 challenges us: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a follower of Messiah, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”[1]

[1] ESV reads, “suffers as a Christian.”

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