The story of Joseph and his brothers is a rich source of spiritual lessons. Believers throughout the ages have learned great truths about faith, perseverance in hard times, overcoming injustice, forgiveness and reconciliation, and other issues. However, one lesson is often overlooked, even though it introduces a theme that has preserved the Jewish people’s ethnic and religious identity throughout the ages. That lesson is the importance of being set apart, and it is a lesson that Christians today need to relearn.
The story of Joseph and his brothers takes up a significant part of the book of Genesis, but I will focus primarily on Genesis 46 and 47. To avoid extending this post unnecessarily, I will urge readers who are not familiar with this story to read Genesis 37-45 (yes, it is a lengthy story!)
After Joseph identified himself to his brothers and forgave them for selling him into slavery, he urged them to bring their father and the rest of the family to Egypt, since they faced a famine that would last several more years. God appeared to their father, Jacob, in a dream, reassuring him that he should go to Egypt. Even though it involved leaving the land that God had promised to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, this was God’s will. He would use the sojourn in Egypt to preserve the people of Israel.
Upon their arrival, Joseph (who probably had adopted many of the cultural mannerisms and clothing of an Egyptian by now) met his father in the Egyptian region of Goshen:
“Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, ‘I will go up and tell Pharaoh and will say to him, “My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. And the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of livestock, and they have brought their flocks and their herds and all that they have.” When Pharaoh calls you and says, “What is your occupation?” you shall say, “Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,” in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians'” (Genesis 46:31-34, ESV).
It is worthwhile to note that Goshen was in the northeastern corner of Egypt. By staying in Goshen, the Israelites would be on the outer fringes of Egyptian territory and, as a result, on the outer fringes of that nation’s culture. I do not know if Joseph knew the significance of his decision at that time or not. Joseph knew the famine would last five more years; perhaps he figured he would escape with his family (or they would return without him) to the land of Canaan after the famine. However, it turns out that the people of Israel would be in Egypt for about 400 years. They arrived as a small contingent of about 70 persons; the Bible tells us they grew to become an entire nation while in Egypt.
It would have been easy for that small group of sojourners to be absorbed by the Egyptian culture and disappear into the shadows of history. Yet, God had planned to bless the entire world through the seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6). His desire was to use Egypt as an incubator where the fledgling nation of Israel could grow, not as a place where they would become part of another culture.
This principle of being “set apart” continued throughout the Old Testament. Leviticus 20:24-26 gives an example where one of the Old Testament’s purity laws is a reminder of the Israelites’ need to separate themselves from the pagan nations around them:
“But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:24-26).
Just in case anybody thinks that this is an Old Testament concept, irrelevant to New Testament believers, I also cite 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you.”
God did not intend for this separation to be a source of national bigotry or arrogance, but a means of preserving their identity as the covenant people of God. One thing is certain: this separation has preserved the Jews throughout the ages. Even though they spent almost 1900 years without a land of their own, they have survived as an ethnic and religious group. Where are the Hittites of the Bible? What about the Idumeans and Edomites? I have not met any. Yet, even during nearly two centuries of dispersion throughout Europe, they preserved their cultural identity, even when the Gentiles around them tried to destroy their culture.
Now, this seems to pose a challenge for Christians in modern culture. Sadly, we have lost our sense of separation. We assume that we live in a “Christian nation” with a Christian culture, but for the most part, this is an illusion. We have adopted many of the values of a post-modern, humanistic and/or existentialist society.
In the 1950s, many evangelical Christians would not attend movies, because they viewed the entire film industry as opposed to Christian values. In the 1980s, the mindset was more like, “Well, we can go to movies if they do not have sex, nudity, or too much foul language.” Now, it seems like many Christians will say, “This movie had some tastefully-done sex and nudity, and a bit of foul language, but it also had a redeeming social message.” We have adopted so much of the culture’s values, that we will no longer set a serious moral standard for our entertainment choices.
Throughout the Old Testament law, the Jews were taught to abstain from eating certain foods, or to avoid wearing certain kinds of clothing, and so on. Perhaps we do not want to slip into the trap of legalism. Yet, maybe it would be wise if each Christian would consider in his or her own heart: “In what ways does the non-Christian world try to absorb me into its value system and culture? What radical steps can I take to separate myself from the world?” It might be a different set of choices for each of us. “I do not go to movies, because I am trying to follow Christ.” “I do not watch sitcoms, because I am trying to be transformed by the renewing of my mind.”
I am not sure that there is a hard-and-fast, one-size-fits-all, solution to the church’s worldliness. Maybe there is one, but I am leery to propose it. One thing is certain: Christians need to recognize that we have been set apart by Christ and bought with a price. We must make a choice to resist the forces that seek to absorb us into the value system of a world in rebellion against God.