It is Jacob’s lowest point. As far as he knows, Joseph is dead. That’s the story his sons have led him to believe, showing him the blood-stained “coat of many colors” (Gen. 37:31–33). He mourned his son’s death and “refused to be comforted” despite the hypocritical attempts of his sons who knew full well that Joseph was alive somewhere.
Many years have now passed. Joseph has spent two years in prison, been installed as second-in-command to the pharaoh, and enjoyed seven years of abundant harvest. Now the predicted seven years of famine have begun (something that Joseph had interpreted from Pharaoh’s dreams), and his father, Jacob, has sent all his brothers, except Benjamin, to Egypt to buy grain. In an act that seemed vengeful but in fact was full of kindness and mercy, Joseph (whom the brothers did not recognize) has accused the men of stealing and has locked them up in prison for three days (42:17). The act was designed to bring them to a realization of their sinful, duplicitous character. Simeon, Jacob’s second son, is taken as surety and held in prison until Benjamin is brought to Egypt (vv. 19–20, 24).
Simeon, rather than the first-born, Reuben, is taken, perhaps because Reuben had showed him pity and saved his life when his brothers had left him to die in a pit all those years before (37:21–22). Joseph has asked for Benjamin, knowing that as his only full brother Jacob will be reluctant to let him go. Joseph and Benjamin were the two sons of Rachel whom Jacob had really wanted to marry first, had not his conniving uncle Laban not tricked him into marrying her sister, Leah. This, of course, had been the reason why Jacob (never one to hide his ability to love some of his children more than others) had kept Benjamin back.
As his sons returned, another twist to the tale unfolded: the silver, meant in payment for the grain they had brought with them, was duly found in each man’s sack. Things looked grim. Joseph, the one they know only as “the lord of the land” (42:30), will accuse them of stealing, and they are caught between a rock and hard place: if they fail to go back, Simeon is lost, and if they do return, Benjamin will be taken. Jacob sees the dilemma all too clearly, and in a heart-breaking moment exclaims: “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me” (v. 36). And it gets worse, adding insult to injury, Jacob is locked into a defensive posture in which he manages to disinherit his other sons in one bleak sentence: “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol” (v. 38). What Jacob’s sons felt on hearing that Benjamin was the only son left to him we can only conjecture. It is indicative of the dysfunctionality of this patriarchal family, and we are tempted to say to poor Jacob: “You have brought all of this upon yourself!”
It is worth pausing and reflecting on the bleakness of Jacob’s comment: “All things are against me.” Note the contrast with the following texts: “This I know, that God is for me” (Ps. 56:9); “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
Jacob is drawing a false generalization from his own experience and interpretation of providence. He can only see a very small picture, and he is surrounded by misinformation coming from his own sons, which has seriously distorted the true picture. Even if the circumstances were correct, his conclusion would still be wrong. The statement he makes is astonishingly self-centered: the Hebrew reads, “Me you have bereaved…against me is all this.” Where is Jacob’s God? Has he forgotten that God has made a covenant with him (Gen. 31:44)?
Dark providences can do this — make us distort everything and turn everything in upon ourselves. It is the way of self-destruction that leads to such dark places as the closing cry of Psalm 88, which could be rendered, “Darkness is my only friend.” Satan has taken hold of Jacob’s mind and shut the door to hope. There is no way out. His fate is sealed. A hostile fate threatens to do its worst against him, and there is no way of deliverance.
How different are his son’s words later in the narrative: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). One has reckoned with God and another had not. One has viewed things from a divine perspective and another from a human perspective.
Jacob could not have been more wrong, of course.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
and He will make it plain.
— William Cowper, 1731–1800