The story of Joseph begins in the land of Paddan-aram, but he is only mentioned as being born in chapter 30. His story doesn’t start in earnest until chapter 37 of Genesis, at this point his story is the primary focus for the rest of the book.
Joseph was the favorite
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Keeping with the themes of favoritism throughout Genesis, Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. This favoritism was resented by Hagar and Ishmael, by Esau, by Leah, and now by Jacob’s 11 other sons.
Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they only hated him the more. He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves gathered round it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him yet more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
This favoritism causes Joseph to be so hated that his brothers couldn’t even talk to him. The final nail in his coffin was telling them about a series of dreams, these dreams seemed to indicated that Joseph’s older brothers would be his servants, and it only made them hate him more.
The plot agains Joseph
They saw him afar off, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” and they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty, there was no water in it. Come, let us sell him to the Ish’maelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers heeded him. Then Mid’ianite traders passed by; and they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ish’maelites for twenty shekels of silver; and they took Joseph to Egypt.
This hatred set into motion a series of events, events that were meant for harm, but that God turned out for good. His brothers end up throwing him into a pit and then selling him to Ishmaelite traders headed to Egypt.
Then they took Joseph’s robe, and killed a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood; and they sent the long robe with sleeves and brought it to their father, and said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
It’s not a coincidence that Jacob’s sons deceive him in a similar manor to the way he deceived his father. He wore his brother’s robes and goat skin on his arms to deceive his father, while his sons used goat’s blood on Joseph’s robes to deceive him. This is a reinforcement of the idea of “reap what you sow” that can be found throughout the Bible ( see Story of Salvation; Jacob for more on this).
Joseph in Egypt
Once Joseph gets to Egypt (Genesis chapters 39-50), his story takes an interesting turn, he goes from being a slave, to a prisoner, to a high ranking Egyptian official. From this point forward there are three main themes that I’d like to explore.
- 1. Integrity
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharoah, the captain of the guard.
Joseph finds himself as the slave in the household of Potiphar, and here is has his integrity tested in a very severe way.
The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian, and his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and having him he had no concern for anything but the food which he ate. Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph, and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, having me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand; he is not greater in this house than I am; nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie with her or to be with her. But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and got out of the house. And when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment with me, and fled and got out of the house.”
Joseph’s integrity wouldn’t allow him to violate the trust that his master had put in him. He couldn’t lie with another man’s wife.
All this takes place about 500 years before God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, so there wasn’t a sixth commandment against adultery yet, but this is where natural law comes into play. Even though Joseph wasn’t living under the Mosaic law, he still knew that adultery was a sin against his master, but more importantly against God. He was guided by his conscience, just as we should all listen to our consciences.
Potiphar’s wife wanted what she couldn’t have, so she persisted in her seduction of Joseph to no avail. She kept this up day after day, but he wouldn’t listen to her and he wouldn’t even be in the house with her alone. It says she caught him when there wasn’t any other of the workers in the house, this means that Joseph would only be in the same room with her if there was other people around.
This is how we should treat temptations, and our weaknesses, it doesn’t even have to be about adultery. We can apply this to any sin, vice, weakness, or temptation that we have; Don’t listen to it, don’t entertain it, don’t rationalize it.
The second we start to debate with the devil, is the second we lose the debate. Had Eve just walked away from the serpent in the garden she wouldn’t have been persuaded by its argument, instead she debated whether eating the fruit was a good or bad idea. Had Samson not played around with telling his secret to Delilah, maybe he wouldn’t have ended up blinded and enslaved in the temple of Dagon.
Joseph didn’t argue with Potiphar’s wife, beside the initial confrontation, he just avoided her, and by doing so he avoided the near occasion of sin and what could lead him to sin (if that sounds familiar it’s because it’s from the traditional act of contrition).
- 2. God always has a plan
Now we get to the second theme. God always has a plan, even if it doesn’t seem obvious to us at the time, if we seek to do His will then everything will work out.
So after being accused of attempted rape, Joseph is thrown in jail. Maybe Potiphar didn’t believe his wife’s accusation, or maybe he let his relationship with Joseph cause him to show a little mercy, because jail time for attempted rape by a foreign slave seems a little lenient for ancient Egypt (and would even be somewhat lenient today).
And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
At this point it seems very odd to say that the Lord “shoes him mercy.” He was thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, falsely accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife, and now is serving a jail sentence based on false accusations, what about this story is merciful?
But all this was happening for a reason. At this moment, that reason has yet to be revealed, but Joseph was a righteous man and he trusted God.
Joseph and the dreams
In chapter 40, Joseph interprets the dreams of two other prisoners. After this he asks the butler to remember him (put in a good word) with Pharaoh so that he may gain release from prison.
In chapter 41, Pharaoh has a dream that cannot be interpreted by any of his wiseman and magicians.
In a scene that will be replayed about 1200 years later in Babylon between Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel (Daniel 2), Pharaoh sends for Joseph to give him an interpretation of his dream.
So Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream that there will be seven years of plenty, and seven of famine, and that Egypt should prepare by storing up food for the lean years that were coming.
This proposal seemed good to Pharaoh, so he sets Joseph up as the man to take on this responsibility.
And Pharoah said to his servants, “Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” So Pharoah said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharoah said to Joseph, “Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”
Now Joseph is elevated to the position of vice pharaoh (or deputy prime minister, if you prefer the parliamentary system), and he is probably wondering what God is up to. After all he’s been a slave, then a trusted head of a prominent household, then a prisoner, and now the second most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world.
It must’ve seemed surreal to him, and also confusing. Why was this happening? What was the purpose of his life? What about his dreams as a young man? Well now it’s all starting to come together, and pretty soon God will reveal the purpose of all these seemingly random, and unfortunate, events.
So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses,and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.
The famine begins, and what it brings to Egypt will be surprising for Joseph, and all his family.
At the beginning of chapter 42 it is revealed that the predicted famine has struck the land of Canaan, and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain. It is now that Joseph will begin to see the plan that God has put in place, a plan to save Jacob and his sons and thus preserve the covenant that was made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan. Now Joseph was governor over the land; he it was who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came, and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground.
This bowing down fulfilled Joseph’s dreams, the same dreams that got him thrown in a pit in the first place. But it was the dream that angered his brothers, that led to him being sold into slavery, that led to him being accused of attempted rape and thrown in jail, then to the palace of Pharaoh, and now as governor of all Egypt, a long and treacherous journey that all started with a dream. Now God’s plan for Joseph had come full circle, and was ready to bear fruit, but only if Joseph cooperated. Joseph could’ve had them arrested and executed for what they did to him, but instead he shows a mercy that was never shown to him.
Later on, when Joseph is forgiving his brothers, he tells them not to be angry with themselves because this was all in God’s plan;
And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
But I’m getting ahead of the story, now we need to deal with the final theme; forgivness.
- 3. The power of forgivness
Joseph plays an elaborate ruse on his brothers, he calls them spies and has them all thrown in jail. While pretending to need an interpreter, he overhears their talk of remorse for how they treated their brother and their lamenting the fact that this imprisonment is most likely divine retribution for what they’d done (Genesis 42:41)
It’s unclear if Joseph is moved to mercy by the fact that his brothers have changed so much, or if he already intended to show mercy and this just confirmed his decision. But what is clear is the fact that Joseph is moved to tears by this (Genesis 42:24).
Joseph holds Simeon hostage until the other brothers return with his youngest (and only full blooded) brother. The other nine brothers return to Jacob and tell him that they must return to Egypt with Benjamin, but Jacob is unwilling to risk his youngest son (and, to his knowledge, the only surviving son of his favorite wife).
After an indeterminate amount of time, Jacob and his family run out of food, and after promises for his other sons to keep Benjamin safe, Jacob relents and allows them to return to Egypt. Upon their return Joseph hints at his true identity by showing affection towards his brother Benjamin (Genesis 43:29), and seated them at the table according to the order of their birth (Genesis 43:33).
When they tried to return to Canaan Joseph has his servants put a cup I’m Benjamin’s pack and arrest him for stealing. After listening to Judah’s impassioned plea for clemency, and his insistence to take the place for his younger brother, Joseph can’t take it any more and reveals himself to his brothers.
Joseph reveals himself
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Make every one go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharoah heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, I beg you.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and I can imagine their shock and horror. They had sold him into slavery some 30 years earlier, and now he is the second most powerful man in Egypt and they are at his mercy. Thankfully for them, mercy was exactly what Joseph had in mind.
Joseph can now see the entirety of the plan that God had for him and his family. He understands that he was put into the position he’s in for this moment. God preordained him to be in this position at this exact moment, and although this really should be in the previous section, it’s relevant to Joseph forgiving his brothers. It’s this knowledge of a plan of God that would make forgivness possible, and forgivness is the path that Joseph chose.
Joseph can be seen as an allegory of Jesus too, he was forsaken and gave up for dead by His own people, and even so He chose to forgive them, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In choosing to forgive, Joseph showed he really was greater than his brothers, just as his dreams had predicted.
Joseph assures his brothers of his forgiveness
After Jacob dies and is brought back to the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron, his other sons begin to worry that Joseph is now going to seek revenge on them (kind of like Michael Corleone does to Frado almost 4000 years later). Joseph puts their mind at ease and assures them that they are truly forgiven, and reminds them that all things worked out for those who love God (Romans 8:28)
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil which we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died,B’Say to Joseph, Forgive, I beg you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him, and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he reassured them and comforted them.
- Final thoughts
Two of the three themes that I highlighted here from Joseph’s life invoke direct acts of the will; integrity and forgivness. The third is beyond our control but is up to us to recognize, that is to discern and trust in God’s will.
We should all guard out integrity as closely is Joseph guarded his. We should strive to seek and do the will of God, and accept His will even when it hurts (see post God’s will & suffering ). And we should all be as forgiving as we can, and pray for the grace to forgive even more, because Jesus teaches us in the parable of the unforgiving servant and in the Lord’s Prayer, that in the measure that we forgive we will be forgiven;
And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers,till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The church tells us that the model for all men, and especially men with families, is St Joseph (spouse of the Blessed Mother). I propose that we can all look to another Joseph as well as St Joseph of the Holy Family. If all men, and women too, would model our lives on that of Joseph the Patriarch, then we’d all be a step closer to sainthood ourselves.
(For all posts on this series go here; Story of Salvation )