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Genesis – Patriarchs – Joseph

The Patriarchs: Joseph

This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the five recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.

& Justice
Love &
Pursuit of
& Sin
A Redeeming

The book of Genesis is traditionally considered to have been written by Moses, who lived somewhere around 1300-1400 B.C. 1 However, the events referred to go much farther back — literally to the beginning of time — so the information must have been conveyed orally for generations. The lineage from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was deeply ingrained into the Hebrew people’s history by the time of Moses, though. It was the glue that held the people-group together.

The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.

This book provides the start of our story, and lays the foundation for everything that comes afterward. It includes all five of the major themes presented in this article series.

Note: Genesis is a long book, covering everything from Creation, through the Flood, through the Israelite patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and ending with the story of Joseph. It has been split into four smaller articles:

Joseph Goes to Egypt

Chapter 37 is the story of Joseph, the spoiled 17-year-old brat. His father Jacob/Israel repeated the family history of favoritism among children: Abraham preferred Isaac over Ishmael; Isaac preferred Esau while Rebekah preferred Jacob; and now Jacob preferred Joseph over ten other brothers. Adding to the conflict, Joseph had two dreams showing his future as ruling over the rest of the family, and happily shared those dreams with his already-angry brothers. They reacted by selling him into slavery but telling their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal instead. They manufactured evidence by putting animal blood on the fancy coat that Jacob had given to Joseph. The slave traders sold Joseph to a man in Egypt, a captain in the pharaoh’s guard who was named Potiphar.

Judah Gets Caught

Chapter 38 sidetracks from the story of Joseph to tell a story of his brother Judah. Judah married a Canaanite woman named Shua, and had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er grew up to marry a woman named Tamar. Er was “wicked in God’s sight” so God put him to death (no details are given on the wickedness or the manner of death). Judah told Onan to do his brother-in-law-ly duty, and sleep with Tamar so that she could have a child in Er’s name. Onan did not want to father a child that would not be his to claim, so he refused. This also was wicked in God’s sight, and God put him to death as well. Judah told Tamar to live as a widow (celibate) in her father’s house until the third son, Shelah, was old enough. But much time went by; Shelah grew up; and Judah did not call Tamar back to his household.

Tamar took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a prostitute, disguising her face, and successfully solicited Judah’s business. The payment was to be a young goat from his flock, which he didn’t have with him right at that moment. Tamar took his personal seal and his staff as pledge until he returned with the goat. Then she abandoned the disguise and went back to her widowhood.

When Tamar became pregnant, Judah was outraged and demanded that she be put to death for her prostitution. Until, that is, she brought out the seal and staff to prove that he was the father! Her twin boys, Judah’s sons, were named Zerah and Perez. Perez became the ancestor of King David, and eventually of Jesus.

Joseph’s Ups and Downs

Chapters 39-41 tell of Joseph’s roller-coaster life as a slave in Egypt.

  • Up: He advanced in Potiphar’s household until he was in charge of all the other slaves.
  • Down: He refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife. She retaliated by accusing him of assault, and Potiphar had him thrown into prison.
  • Up: He advanced in prison until the warden put him in charge of all the other prisoners.
  • Down: While in prison, he successfully interpreted dreams for two of his fellow prisoners. Both came true: One was executed, and the other was restored to favor with the pharaoh…but forgot Joseph’s request that he put in a good word for him.
  • Up: Two years later, the pharaoh had a disturbing dream, and the ex-prisoner remembered Joseph. Joseph was able to tell the pharaoh that his dream meant seven coming years of plentiful harvest followed by seven years of famine. He recommended that someone be in charge of preserving food during the good years so there would be enough to last during the bad years. Pharaoh answered “Good, you be in charge”. Joseph ended up as second only to the pharaoh in charge of the entire country.

Joseph’s Reunion with His Family

Chapters 42 through the first half of 47 tell how the famine ended up reuniting Joseph with his father and brothers. When food became scarce in Canaan, Jacob sent his sons (all except Benjamin, the youngest and the only other child of favorite wife Rachel) to Egypt to buy grain. In their audience with second-in-command Joseph, he recognized them but they did not know him; he had changed considerably from the teenager they had last seen.

Joseph challenged them. First, he accused them of being spies and had them jailed for three days. Then he let them go, but kept Simeon as hostage until they returned with Benjamin. As they left, he had the money that they had paid for grain put back into their sacks, where they did not find it until they were well out of town.

Back home, when the grain ran out, Jacob had no choice except to let Benjamin go along on the next trip to Egypt. When they arrived, they admitted the “found” money, offering it back along with more to pay for additional grain. Joseph treated them well, brought Simeon out to them, and had them eat with him…but still did not admit who he was. As they left, he again had their money returned in their sacks to be found later.

But he had one more challenge for them. He had his own silver cup put into Benjamin’s sack. Then he had his men catch up to them, find the “stolen” cup, and bring them back for questioning. He acted as if he were going to keep Benjamin as a slave permanently. But Judah intervened, offering to be the slave instead so that Benjamin could be restored to their father. They had changed a lot also!

At that, Joseph broke down. He sent everyone else out of the room and, crying, revealed to his brothers that he was the one they had sold into slavery all those years ago. He told them to bring their father Jacob and the rest of their families to him in Egypt. He would take care of them, provide them with homes and food to last for the remaining years of the famine.

The pharaoh agreed, honoring Joseph enough to make his entire extended family welcome. So the entire clan moved from Canaan to Egypt. On the way there, God appeared to Jacob, promising that:

I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will close your eyes.

Genesis 46:3-4

Joseph’s Blessing to the Pharaoh

Chapter 47, verses 13 through 26 tell how the pharaoh benefitted from Joseph’s governing. As the people ran out of money to buy his stored grain, he started accepting other forms of payment on behalf of the pharaoh. First, people paid in livestock, expanding the pharaoh’s flocks and herds. Then they paid in land, giving up ownership of their property. Then, Joseph gave them seed for their crops, in return for a fifth of the harvest coming back to the pharaoh. By the end of the famine, the pharaoh was sitting pretty, and the people were practically servants to him.

Jacob’s Death and Burial

The end of chapter 47 on through chapters 48 and 49 describe Jacob and his family prospering in the Goshen area of Egypt for 18 more years, until time for Jacob to die. At that point, Jacob gathered his sons to give them a final blessing and prophecy for their futures. He included Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh alongside his own sons; they became the heads of the last two of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob instructed Joseph to see that he was buried in Canaan rather than Egypt. The first part of chapter 50 describes that funeral, with the entire family and much of pharaoh’s court accompanying Jacob’s body back to Canaan.

Good From Evil

The last part of chapter 50 shows Joseph’s brothers getting worried: With their father gone, would Joseph now feel free to punish them for their original crime of selling him into slavery? He reassured them with words that have rung true many times since then:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.

Genesis 50:20

Joseph’s Last Days

Joseph and all the family continued to live in Egypt. Joseph was able to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren before he died. He instructed the Israelites to see that his bones were returned to Canaan when all of Jacob’s descendants eventually left Egypt (which happened years later, in Joshua 24:32).

One Story

Major ThemeExamples in this Scripture
God’s Sovereign PlanGod chose to use Judah and Tamar’s sinful actions to further His plan, using their son Perez as the ancestor of Jesus.
God put Joseph into the right place at the right time, and gave him the interpretations of all the dreams. He used even the sins of Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife to bring about the plan that He had in mind: “You meant evil, but God used it for good”.
God used the famine to bring Abraham’s descendants to Egypt, where they would grow into the nation He planned for them to be.
God’s Majesty, Holiness & Justice
God’s Love & Pursuit of RelationshipGod was with Joseph through all of his trials and successes.
God reassured Jacob that He would be with him through the move to Egypt.
Man’s Rebellion & SinJacob’s favoritism and the brothers’ treachery were definitely sin. Joseph’s boasting wasn’t a high point, either.
Judah and his sons’ misbehavior with Tamar, and hers with Judah, were all in violation of God’s righteous standards.
God’s Solution: A Redeeming SacrificeJudah’s willingness to stay as a slave in Benjamin’s place was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ willingness to take the place of all sinners.

Continue to Exodus.

Footnotes and Scripture References

  1. There are differing schools of thought on the exact dates.