Spiritual Cliff-Hanger (Genesis 50)
Well, here it is. The last post in my Genesis series. Genesis ends on a spiritual cliff-hanger. The promises of God to Abraham, first spoken decades ago in chapter 12, remain unfulfilled. Some of them at any rate. God did indeed bless Abraham, and his descendants. He made their name great and made them a blessing to the peoples around them – most significantly when Joseph’s wise planning helped preserve many peoples through a severe famine. Israel was well on the way to being a great nation. From the unlikely beginning of a childless 99-year-old-man they now numbered over 70 and were growing fast. By the beginning of Exodus they would number in the millions and make the ancient world’s superpower afraid of them.
But the main promise was not yet fulfilled. God promised Abraham ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ (Gen 12:7), meaning Canaan. This promise was repeated to Isaac and Jacob. Now that Jacob was dead his sons hung on to this promise. They had not given up on it, supposing it would never come true after so long. In an act of faith they obeyed their father’s dying command and buried him in Canaan. It was a symbolic act of defiance, going to be buried in a land that had been promised to him but was not yet his. Like a nation-state putting a flag in the ground of enemy-occupied territory. In doing this the Israelites were committing to going back one day.
When Joseph died he encouraged his brothers to keep believing. He told them, ‘God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Gen 50:24). This is some faith. Most of us struggle to believe promises that don’t come true instantaneously. We live in a world of instant gratification where any kind of delay brings dismay. But even in the slower world of ancient Egypt it took great courage and perseverance to keep believing in a promise made years and years ago.
This promise – of the Promised Land – was in fact the only promise given with a specific time-frame. In chapter 15 God reveals to Abraham that it will be over 400 years before his descendants take possession of the land and realise the promise. He gives good reasons and advance warning for the delay. I don’t know how many of these extra details filtered down to Joseph’s generation – they certainly make no mention of them – but God was staying true to His word. We ignore the details of what God says to us at our peril. Not one syllable is without significance.
Yet even if Joseph didn’t know about, or had forgotten the 400-year delay clause, he still met his maker with faith in his heart. He knew God would come through for His people. He also seems to prophesy that they will be in need, for God will ‘come to your aid’. Thus the suffering at the beginning of Exodus is hinted at.
So we end Genesis with unfinished business. Perhaps the traditional book-divisions here are unhelpful and we should read straight from Genesis 50:26 to Exodus 1:1, because they’re all part of the same story. Yet the cliff-hanger for me is significant, and mirrors other spiritual cliff-hangers in the Bible. At the end of the Old Testament the Messiah has been promised and foretold but He hasn’t appeared yet. At the end of Revelation we’re given a glimpse of paradise and of God making all things right, and yet that perfect new world couldn’t have been further from the persecution and toil at the end of the first century. Hundreds of years passed between the messianic prophecies and the coming of Jesus; and it’s nearly two thousand years and counting since Jesus promised to return. Some promises take a long time to come. Remember what Peter told us not to forget?
“With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
Put that way we’ve only been waiting for the Second Coming for a couple of days. That’s not so bad. But the point is that God works to His own timetable. Knowing all things, He does the right thing at the right time. No matter how many promises He makes (and He’s made a lot), they are all guaranteed (2 Cor. 1:19). God fulfills all His promises. Every single one.
What promises are you waiting on? Has it been a while – ages even – since God promised you something? That’s a tough place to be, and I suppose the Israelites at the end of Genesis could empathise with you. But do what they did. Hold on to the promise. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, but it will happen. Look back on the promises God has already fulfilled in your life – your own personal milestones – just as the Israelites could look back in Genesis at how time and time again God came through for them. We all have to face spiritual cliff-hangers at some point in our lives, but there’s no better place to grow in our faith.