Joseph died a young man, his eyes hollow, his body gaunt, his stomach distended. He suffered deeply in those final days before he finally succumbed to the great hunger that had already claimed so many members of his family, so many of the people of his land and the ones surrounding it. As his breathing slowed, as his eyes closed, he thought back to a day not too long before.
He remembered pleading and praying as his brothers, made mad with anger and envy, had lowered him into a pit. He remembered crying out to them, asking them to show mercy, to show kindness, to show compassion. He remembered crying out to God, begging that his life would be preserved, that he would be rescued from the pit, that he would be restored to his father’s side. He remembered the despondency that overcame him as the shadows lengthened, as evening fell, as hope waned. He remembered that it was just then that God finally answered his prayers, for he heard a muted voice, he saw the form of Reuben high above, he clasped an outstretched arm, he was drawn out of his pit. “Run,” said Reuben in an urgent whisper. And run he did. He ran as though his life depended upon it, he ran until his body ached, he ran until he was safely home.
But then, just a few short years later, a great famine had struck the land. Old Jacob was the first to go, his weakened body quickly succumbing to starvation. Several of the brothers and their families were gone now as well. A few of those who remained had set out on a long journey to find food, but though they had searched through Moab, Midian, and Egypt, they had returned home empty-handed. The family’s burying ground, the cave at Machpelah, was full to overflowing. And now young Joseph’s time had come as well. He closed his eyes, he breathed his last, and he slipped into darkness.
None of this is true, of course. None of this except for the praying, for surely a man as blameless as Joseph would have cried out to God to deliver him from the wrath of his brothers. Surely he would have begged God to rescue him through means ordinary or miraculous. Surely he would have been disappointed when God seemed deaf to his cries, when he was sold to Midianite traders for a mere handful of silver, when he was hauled off to a life of captivity in Egypt. Surely it would have been agonizing to be forced to serve as a household servant, to be falsely accused, to be unjustly imprisoned. Surely he must have wondered if God had turned his back on him when he realized he had been forgotten and left to languish in an Egyptian jail.
It was only much later that it all began to make sense, only much later that he began to see the great story God had been writing. For a great famine did strike the region and the family did begin to starve. But when they traveled to Egypt, they found that the country was overflowing with grain. It had enough not only for its own needs but also plenty to sell to them and to anyone else. Egypt had this abundance only because of Joseph, only because he had been taken to that land, only because he had risen to a place of great honor, only because he had been diligent in his responsibilities. Egypt had all this only because God had not answered Joseph’s prayers in the ways he had longed for.
When Joseph was in the pit he must have cried out for God to deliver him then and there, to return him to his father that very day. But if God had answered that prayer, he would have preserved Joseph’s life only for it to end in starvation. He would have preserved Joseph’s life for a time, but cut off the promises he had made to Abraham as the family succumbed to the great famine. God knew better than to answer the prayers in the way that seemed so good and so necessary to that young man.
Many years later Joseph pondered all that God had done and he could only marvel. Standing before the brothers who had treated him so cruelly, he said, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Their hands had cast him into the pit, their hands had received the pieces of silver, their hands had dipped a robe in blood to deceive their father, but behind the hands of men was the hand of God. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God had worked his purposes. God had fulfilled his promises. God had redeemed evil intentions and evil actions. God had triumphed.
The story of Joseph closes with these words: “Joseph lived 110 years. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation.” He lived until he was 110 years old, he saw his children’s children’s children, he died in peace and at a ripe old age, only because God had known better than to grant the most immediate answer to his most urgent prayers.