We are two weeks into our bible study and what progress we have made! But what have we learned? What have we read that was new, different, confusing, maybe even frightening? After reading through the 50 chapters in Genesis, I want to show you something you might not have noticed.
More Than Just a Man
Did you know that the last twenty chapters of Genesis are focused on a single family and, in particular, a single man? Who doesn’t know the stories about Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham? His actions eventually bring Israel into the circumstances that Moses saves them from in Exodus, but there is so much detail given us about his life that it covers nearly half of the entire book. What is so special about him? What is so important about Joseph?
Joseph’s Early Years
We first see Joseph mentioned briefly in chapter 30. His birth is both significant and routine: Significant that he is the first-born son of Rachel, the woman that his father Jacob love above all others. Routine, however, in the fact that he is only the latest in a long line of children who were conceived in what has to be the strangest case of sibling rivalry I’ve ever heard of. For years, we see Rachel and her sister, Leah, struggle to one-up each other for Abraham’s affection in the best way a woman of that period could: childbirth. In the end, Jacob ends up with twelve sons (there are probably a lot of daughters, however few are ever mentioned).
As we have seen time and again, and will understand more as we progress further in our reading, God’s plans and covenants are constantly moving forward, usually in spite of the actions of his people. Through rivalry and enmity, Jacob now has the beginnings of the nation that God had promised to his grandfather Abraham so long ago. But Jacob, human that he is, creates more strife and turmoil by favoring the youngest of his sons, Joseph and Benjamin, who were born of his favored wife Rachel.
Beginning in chapter 37, we see one calamity after another befall Joseph. At this point in his life, his mother Rachel is dead from complications when giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Being the eldest son of his favorite wife, Jacob dotes on him to the point of obsession. His older brothers (sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah) hated him because of it (3-4). To make matters worse, Joseph appears to have been a bit of a jerk about it. What does Joseph do when he has a dream that, from the telling, is not too hard to interpret? He goes and brags to his brothers about it; Twice (5-11)! I can’t say I blame them for how they felt about him, but their reaction is a bit extreme: kill him off and lie to dad about it (18-20)!
However, thanks to the conscience of Reuben, Joseph is not killed by his brothers (21-22), but ultimately sold into slavery by them (23-36). They are delighted to get their spoiled brat of a brother out of their hair and don’t expect to see him ever again. But God had different plans.
Joseph in Egypt
Being a shepherd, Joseph is ideal for physical labor. He gets sold in Egypt and put to work, but God favors all that Joseph does and he quickly finds favor in the eyes of his master Potiphar. He eventually becomes the head attendant in Potiphar’s house (39:2-6).
He is soon approached by Potiphar’s wife. Being a good, honest boy, Joseph rebuffs her and is quickly rewarded with… jail time (39:7-20)! It seems that no matter what Joseph does, he gets a bum rap.
God, however, continues to favor Joseph in jail to the point that he is put in charge of the jail by the warden (39:21-23). In time, we see Joseph’s interaction with the Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer (40:1-22) The cupbearer is so happy about being restored to his position that… He completely forgets to mention Joseph to Pharaoh (v23).
Joseph remains in jail for two more years until Pharaoh has his dreams. Threatened by death, the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph (41:9-13) and he is brought to Pharaoh and interprets his dreams (14-36).
Pharaoh rewards him with power and authority. Suddenly, Joseph is the most powerful man in Egypt other than Pharaoh (39-45). Joseph spends the next seven years building up Egypt (and his new family) in preparation of the famine from Pharaoh’s dreams. Once the famine hits, everyone is affected, including Jacob’s family.
Joseph’s Brothers in Egypt
Chapters 42 through 45 cover the accounts of Joseph testing his brothers. I can only guess that Joseph is conflicted during this time. He must be upset with them for what they did and he initially wants them to suffer (42:7-17).
Eventually, his brothers show remorse, compassion, and self-sacrifice when Joseph tries to keep Benjamin (ch 44). He finally reveals his identity and invites the entire tribe to relocate so they can prosper.
Israel in Egypt
Why did all of this happen? Why all of Joseph’s sufferings? Why the chain of events leading to the nation of Israel moving from the land given to them by God? We can answer these by Looking back at God’s bigger picture.
God’s covenant with Abraham promised a nation to bless the world. However, we are already seeing Jacob’s family messing up. Not only do we have Jacob’s flaws that caused enmity between sisters Leah and Rachel, we also have enmity between their children. As mentioned earlier, the elder sons hated Joseph, not because of anything that he did, but because of who’s son he was and how his father showed preferential treatment to him alone.
We also have two accounts in chapters 34 and 38 showing trouble brewing between the Canaanites and Jacob’s family. The sons’ intermingling with foreign customs was threatening to destroy the family before it had a chance to develop into the promised nation.
What was God’s solution? We can find that all the way back in chapter 15 when God passes through the split animals:
Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (15:13-16)
God had already determined to isolate Israel in Egypt for four hundred years. How isolate? Well, the Egyptians were extremely racist and they hated sheep herders. When Pharaoh permits Joseph to move his family into Goshen (46:31-47:12), it is the outskirts of the kingdom; as far away from Egyptian society as possible.
When we look at the bigger picture, we can see God hand in working towards the fulfillment of his covenant with Abraham. Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Joseph, his brothers, Potiphar and his wife, Pharaoh, the famine, and even the racist tendencies of the Egyptians all played a role in the creation of the nation of Israel.