Scripture Readings: Genesis 37, 39, 41-48, 50
Significant Moments in The Story
Joseph’s Brothers Sell Him into Slavery – Genesis 37
The LORD was with Joseph in Potiphar’s House – Genesis 39
Joseph Interpret’s Pharaoh’s Dream – Genesis 41
Joseph’s First Visit From His Brothers – Genesis 42
Joseph’s Brothers Return with Benjamin – Genesis 43
Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers – Genesis 45
Jacob (Israel) Settles in Egypt – Genesis 46
The Burial of Jacob and the Death of Joseph – Genesis 50
The supremacy of God
Perhaps no verse has come to serve as a better summary of the story of Joseph than Genesis 50:19-20. After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared that he might finally seek his revenge for their actions 20+ years earlier when they sold him into slavery. However, Joseph refuses to lash out at them, saying “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” We can perhaps hear an echo of the voice of the apostle Paul who will write centuries later in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Both Paul and Joseph are proclaiming that God is indeed Lord over all things and that His will for the salvation of creation will not be stopped by man’s sin.
The fulfillment of the promise
God had said to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Now, through Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, not only are Abraham’s descendants saved but also the peoples of Egypt and surrounding nations. God uses Joseph to insure there will be food in the midst of a devastating world-wide famine (Genesis 41:53-57). We are seeing God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled, and at the same time we are seeing that the ultimate intent of God’s salvation is not restricted just to this one family or people.
An introduction to wisdom
Within the Old Testament we see evidence of what is sometimes called the Wisdom tradition. This tradition sought for truth that God embedded within all creation. Experience and study of reality allowed mankind to learn this truth and thus grow closer to God while improving life and relationships. Joseph’s story has sometimes been used as a paradigm for wisdom. Unlike the stories of Abraham and Jacob, we rarely hear God speak directly in Joseph’s story. However, Joseph does model some of the basic expressions of the Wisdom tradition. Failure comes when one does not follow the teachings of wisdom, as modeled by the antagonism of Joseph’s brothers when he boasts about his dreams (See Proverbs 27:1-4). On the flip side, success comes when one follows wisdom’s dictates. Joseph’s faithfulness to Potiphar and the Pharaoh and his rejection of the advances of Potiphar’s wife, ultimately resulting in his rising to a position to save the people from famine, seems to be a parable of Proverbs 3:1-10.
Joseph’s coat – Genesis 37:3
Many of us are familiar with Joseph’s “coat of many colors”. However, this phrase came from a translation of the Greek and Latin texts of the Old Testament, not the original Hebrew. While the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain, the reference seems to be not to a multi-colored coat but to a coat with sleeves. Typically, a young man would have worn a sleeveless tunic that reached to the knees. This coat seems to have been more like a long robe of a type that could have royal connotations, which certainly would have increased the brothers’ agitation when Jospeh shares his dreams. Another possible agitation is that such a robe is not one that Joseph could have done manual labor in, perhaps indicating that Jacob excused Joseph from tasks that he expected the rest of his sons to do. Notice that Jacob is not with his brothers pasturing the flocks in Shechem (Genesis 37:12-14).
Reuben – Genesis 37:21-22
Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son, has had interesting history within his family already. In Genesis 35:22, we are told, “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.” To sleep with his father’s concubine while his father was still alive was an act that could be viewed as rebellion or an attempt to claim his father’s role in the family. Later on, in Genesis 49, when Jacob address all his sons before his death, Reuben does not receive a blessing as we would expect the firstborn to receive. Instead, Jacob says of him, “… you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it – you went up onto my couch!” (Genesis 49:4). All this raises the question if Reuben’s motivation for preserving Joseph’s life was an attempt to return to his father’s good graces.
Potiphar’s wife – Genesis 39:7-20
This story parallels an ancient Egyptian story called “The Tale of Two Brothers”, in which the wife of one brother made sexual advances toward a second brother. When the second brother refused her advances, she laid false accusations against him, causing the first brother to seek to kill the second brother. However, the first brother eventually becomes convinced of the second brother’s innocence and has his wife killed instead. Obviously the story of Joseph has a very different ending.
Pharaoh’s cupbearer – Genesis 41
After the incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is thrown into prison. Soon after, he makes an impression on the chief jailer, who gives Joseph responsibility over the other prisoners. Two of those prisoners were former servants of the Pharaoh, a cupbearer, whose job it was to taste the Pharaoh’s drink to insure it was not poisoned, and a baker. While in prison, both of these men have dreams that they cannot understand. They ask Joseph to interpret their dreams, and Joseph tells them that their dreams indicate that the cupbearer will be returned to the service of the Pharaoh but the baker will be executed. Sure enough, this is what happens, and Joseph asks the cupbearer to plead his case before Pharaoh so that he might be released from jail. However, upon his release, the cupbearer returns to his duties and forgets about Joseph until Pharaoh has a confusing dream of his own.
Benjamin – Genesis 43
Benjamin was Joseph’s only full brother. Benjamin and Joseph were the only sons of Jacob by his wife Rachel. The remaining 10 sons were Jacob’s children by Jacob’s other wife, Rachel’s sister Leah, and their two handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah. Genesis 29:30 tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, so his preference for Joseph and Benjamin is perhaps not surprising.
Ephraim and Manasseh – Genesis 48
The story of Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh serves as an explanation of later social and cultural realities in Israel. Jacob asks Joseph to bring the two boys to him so that he can adopt them as his own sons (“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are” – Genesis 48:5). In later generations, while each of Jacob’s sons will have a tribe associated with them, the tribe of Joseph will exist split into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh. This story serves to explain that split and why they are considered equal in status to the other tribes.
During the adoption ceremony, Jacob places his right hand on Ephraim’s head, indicating the greater favor. Typically, the elder son would have received the greater blessing by virtue of being the firstborn. This story probably served as an explanation for why, especially during the period of the Judges and in the early years of the kingdom of Israel, the tribe of Ephraim wielded more influence and power than the tribe of Manasseh.
“Carry Up My Bones From Here” – Genesis 50:25
In the Biblical account of Israel’s departure from Egypt, we are told in Exodus 13:19, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.'”
This odd oath that Joseph makes the Israelites take brings to our attention a fundamental problem at the end of Genesis: the descendants of Abraham are not in the land that God had given to Abraham. The covenant would seem to be at risk, a feeling that will only be heightened by the events at the opening of the book of Exodus.
Some Questions That Might Come Up
How exactly did Joseph get out of that well?
The story of how Joseph gets out of the well that his brothers threw him in and ends up in Potiphar’s house is a little confusing. Was he sold to Ishmaelites who then turned around and sold him to Potiphar or was he pulled out of the well by the Midianites who then sold him to Potiphar? The Ishmaelites and Midianites were different people groups. Likely, the oral tradition of this story varied on this detail and so the author of Genesis sought to join the two stories together rather than choose one over the other.