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Learning about Mahanaim from Joseph’s life

Two-Camp Living
Two-Camp Living
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

A recent post, “Time for Fear or Faith?” described how Elisha’s and his servant’s spiritual eyes were opened so they could see God’s angelic army around them while they were completely surrounded by Syrian enemies. Elisha said, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16, NIV).

This author related Elisha’s supernatural experience with one Jacob had in Genesis 32:1-2. Jacob had named the place “Mahanaim,” (two camps) to commemorate the reality that God’s invisible camp was surrounding his physical one, to protect and deliver him. Both Elisha and Jacob could live in faith not fear. And so can all of God’s children. (See previous post here.)

In addition, these passages offer another insight that can excite and encourage us. Elisha’s city, surrounded by both the Syrian army and God’s (invisible) army, was Dothan. This city has only one other mention in Scripture--Genesis 37:17, where Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him but sold him into slavery instead. Joseph’s adversities had started in Dothan.

The narrative of his life comprises Genesis 37-50, and has an unusual literary structure—everything is told in pairs. This post will examine a possible reason for this unique structure.

It begins in chapter 37 with two occasions of trouble between him and his brothers (the bad report to Jacob and Jacob’s favoritism). Then Joseph has two dreams, and the brothers devise two plots to get rid of him: death or deportation.

The next two chapters (38-39) present two accounts of sexual temptation. Judah gives in, but Joseph does not. Mrs. Potiphar falsely accuses Joseph twice.

In prison Joseph interprets two dreams of two prison mates and, after two more years, he interprets Pharaoh’s two dreams and becomes the Number Two leader of Egypt (chs. 40-41). Need I mention how many sons he had?

In chapters 42-44 the brothers come to Egypt to buy food twice and Joseph tests them by returning their money both times. In the next two chapters, the brothers discover Joseph’s identity and have a reunion. Then his father learns he is alive and is reunited with him.

Chapter 47 tells about Joseph providing for his family’s welfare, and also for the nation’s welfare during the famine. Next, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, and then he blesses all his sons (chs. 47-49). Finally Jacob dies after giving burial instructions (Bury me in Canaan) and Joseph dies after giving the same instructions.

This dualistic structure[1] of the narrative must have a significant purpose for everyone who hears or reads Joseph’s life story. Perhaps it ties back to the experience Joseph’s father had at Mahanaim.

Mahanaim reminds us that every Christian’s life has two realities: the one we see and do and the invisible one that God does. The co-existing physical and spiritual realms work together to accomplish God’s purposes. Joseph had this awareness: “So now it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:8). What helped Joseph reach this perspective?

He must have realized that God was camping with him when his brothers put him in a pit, sold him into slavery, and exiled him to a foreign land. Four times in Genesis 39 the text states, “The Lord was with him,” describing Joseph being enslaved, tempted and accused of rape, and imprisoned.

After thirteen years of adversity, Joseph stood before Pharaoh (who considered himself a god) and referred to the true God five times. Then this ex-con boldly offered Pharaoh advice! Soon Joseph faced a new set of problems: ego-popping power and the stress of managing a nation’s economy.

Nine years into his rule, his past suddenly confronted him when his ten brothers showed up. Joseph may have thought God was giving him the perfect opportunity for justice, or at least closure. But Joseph’s life verse must have been Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (NIV).

From ages 17 to 30, Joseph had lived in the camp of “You intended to harm me.” He survived and thrived because he stayed aware of the other camp: “God intended it for good.”

Derek Kidner states, “This biblical realism, [is] to see clearly the two aspects of every event — on the one hand human mishandling . . . on the other the perfect will of God — and to fix attention on the latter as alone being of any consequence.”[2]

Perhaps God structured the narrative of Joseph’s life dualistically to help us remember something important about our Dothan-like struggles. We are always in two camps. We may be able to feel only the pit or see prison walls, but God camps around us too.

Reversals, roadblocks, and detours all play a significant role in His purposes for us. Keeping God’s camp in mind helps us view our earth-camp with heavenly perspective. Mahanaim![3]

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[1] I have amplified David A. Dorsey’s synopsis in The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, p. 59.

[2] Derek Kidner, Genesis, p. 207

[3] The author’s expanded article appeared in Bible Advocate, May-June, 2011.