The second half of the book of Genesis tells the history of one family, beginning with Abraham, and following down to his great-grandchildren - the sons of Jacob. Of the twelve, one child stood out, favored by their father, and blessed by God. His name was Joseph, and his story is one of the most popular in the Bible. He was the favored son of his father’s favorite wife, Rachel. Joseph received a fabulously colored coat and rose to become the second most powerful man in the Egyptian empire. His devotion to the God of his fathers and to his family, as well as the fascinating twists and turns in his life, make him a Biblical figure whose life is both interesting and instructive.
Whether you are looking for a lesson for a youth, a young adult, or someone well over middle age, part of what makes Joseph’s life useful for learning virtue is that it follows him from a young age until his death, and even beyond. Each vignette holds pertinent lessons about conduct, righteousness, and what it means to live according to God’s Word.
Here are five lessons we can learn from the life of Joseph, son of Jacob, leader of Egypt.
1. Obeying your parents is important
Most people know that Joseph was well-loved by his father Jacob, as evidenced by the gift of the many colored-coat. Beyond being the son of his father’s favorite wife, Rachel, the Bible shows how obedient to his father Joseph was. Being seventeen, Joseph was not yet sent to tend the sheep with his brothers, but Jacob did send his second-youngest son to go check on his ten older brothers in Shechem.
When Joseph arrived, they were not there. They had traveled another twelve miles away to Dothan. Rather than return to his father and tell Jacob his brothers were derelict in their duties, “Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan” (Genesis 37:17b). He obeyed his father, seeking out his brothers miles away, in order to honor his father.
2. Do what is pleasing to God, regardless of the consequences
After being sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph served in the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, and quickly earned the highest position in the household. As a young and handsome man, he drew the sinful attention of Potiphar’s wife, and she tried to seduce him. She was aggressive, with the Bible asserting in Genesis 39:10, “...she spoke to Joseph day after day.”
Despite her many attempts to lure Joseph into sin, Joseph would not sin, “But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’” (Genesis 38:8-9).
Joseph knew that sinning against Potiphar was wrong, but that it was even worse to commit the sin because it was offensive to God. Ultimately, Potiphar’s wife lied about Joseph, claiming he assaulted her, and he was thrown in jail.
Joseph obeyed God and was thrown in jail for it. Yet even in jail, “...the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21). Doing what is right in God’s eyes, rather than man’s ways, is always the right thing, even if there are negative ramifications. God will take care of those who love and obey him, just like he did with Joseph.
3. Relying on God’s guidance will help you prepare for the future
Throughout his life, God blessed Joseph with the ability to interpret dreams. While in jail, Joseph performed this act for servants in Pharaoh’s home, one of whom was pardoned and returned to serve the Egyptian leader. Later, Pharaoh had a confusing dream, and his servant told him to summon Joseph.
Joseph told Pharaoh the dream meant Egypt would have seven years of bounty, followed by seven years of drought and famine. Because of this, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of preparing his nation for the years of want. God enabled Joseph to have the wisdom and guidance to perform this difficult task: “ During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured” (Genesis 41:47-49).
Because of this, the people in Egypt ate during the famine, and people came from all over the world to purchase the food during that time as well. Relying on the Lord for council and wisdom will always be the best place to start preparing for the future.
4. Forgiveness should always be extended, even years after the injury
Because of the famine, Joseph's family in the Valley of Hebron needed food. So the brothers journeyed at the behest of their father to Egypt. They did not recognize the second-in-command of the most powerful nation in the world at that time as the younger brother they had sold into slavery decades earlier. Joseph did know his brothers at first sight, and wept several times in private.
After a few more journeys to Egypt, bringing with them the youngest brother Benjamin at Joseph’s request, he revealed himself, and extended forgiveness to them. They were afraid to approach him, but he said, “Come near to me please” (Genesis 45:4b). After all those years, Joseph forgave his brothers for their wrong-doing, even though they initially approached him in fear rather than repentance.
Foreshadowing the undeserved grace that Jesus would bring centuries later, Joseph did not hold a grudge, ready and waiting with open arms, calling for those who needed forgiveness to accept it. It is a great model for believer’s today who may be struggling with forgiveness and dealing with someone with an unrepentant spirit. Patience and grace are important, as Joseph illustrated.
5. God is sovereign over the darkest moments of our lives
Though eventually Joseph rose to power, wealth, and prominence, he experienced many dark days. His brothers hated him and sold him into slavery; he spent years in jail for choosing not to engage in sin, and he was forgotten by those he helped for quite some time. Despite all these trials, he kept his faith.
When he was reunited with his brothers, he could say sincerely, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life... 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…” (Genesis 45:5&7-8a).
In the storms of life, in the darkest moments, cling to God’s promises, knowing His sovereign plan involves the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” (Psalm 23:4), but He is with His children. Joseph shows how to glorify God in the dark places, and how to credit Him for carrying His followers through those places.
It can seem like living up to the life of Joseph is impossible, but God calls us all to different destinations. While most people will not be the leaders of great countries or mighty empires, Joseph walked with the Lord, and his character - the virtues he lived by - are attainable for the believer who walks with the Lord.
There are two great themes in Joseph’s life which summarizes all five points well. The first comes from a declaration made by Joseph to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20a). This sentiment is also true of Potiphar’s wife, and for times in the life of the modern believer. In fact, it is true of the whole of human history, what mankind intends for evil, the Lord intends for good, and for His plan. The other important theme and lesson is that “The Lord was with Joseph…” (Genesis 39:2a), and of course He is with all His children, even today.
Remembering these two themes, and learning from the Biblical example of Joseph, can bring believers closer to their Lord. Partner a study of Joseph with prayer during times of difficulty, and seek God’s will, and see what other lessons can be gleaned from this remarkable man from history.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Ahmed Hasan
Beitzel, Barry J. Biblica The Bible Atlas: A Social and Historical Journey through the Lands of the Bible. Victoria: Global Book Publishing, 2006.
Kendall, R.T. God Meant It For Good. Waynesboro: Authentic Media, 2006.
Mann, Thomas. Joseph and His Brothers: The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Bethany Verrett is a free-lance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.