IV. Joseph (Genesis 37:1–50:26)

37:1-4 Jacob’s family dysfunction continued into the next generation. This should not surprise any discerning reader. The cause of the problem in chapter 37 is a familiar one—favoritism. Israel (that is, Jacob) loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was the son of his favorite wife, Rachel (37:3). Joseph was the eleventh of twelve boys, which made the favoritism sting his older brothers who surely felt passed up. So when Jacob made a robe of many colors for Joseph (37:3), which was a garment symbolizing the privilege of the firstborn, the sibling rivalry erupted. Joseph’s brothers hated him and could not bring themselves to speak peaceably to him (37:4).

43:15-23 When Joseph’s brothers returned, they were taken to Joseph’s personal house, a turn of events that hardly inspired any confidence in them (43:16-18). Approaching Joseph’s steward, they attempted to clear up the misunderstanding about the money (43:19-22). But the steward replied, Your God and the God of your father must have put treasure in your bags (43:23). This suggests that Joseph’s faith must have spread to his staff, because here was an Egyptian servant invoking the name of the God of the Hebrews! Apparently Joseph had been talking about the Lord from the time he was a slave in Potiphar’s house right up until the present moment of prosperity. This begs the question, Are you speaking up about God in every moment of your life—in the moments of adversity as well as in the moments of prosperity?

43:24-31 Simeon was delivered to his brothers, and together they prepared for the meal (43:24-25). When Joseph saw Benjamin for the first time, he couldn’t contain his emotion for his brother, and he was about to weep (43:30). Knowing that to do so would cause suspicion, though, Joseph rushed away until he could regain composure (43:31).

43:32-34 It must have been a shock to Joseph’s brothers to see that in the seating arrangements, they were seated . . . in order by age, from the firstborn to the youngest (43:33). How could this Egyptian ruler have known their birth order?

44:1-12 As Joseph’s brothers left Egypt, Joseph arranged for one final test. He had his steward put his cup, the silver one, at the top of the youngest one’s bag (44:2). In this move, he was framing Benjamin for theft to see whether his brothers would defend him. The steward, following Joseph’s orders, overtook his brothers and charged them with stealing the cup of his master (44:5). The brothers denied it, but of course, when the bags were searched, the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack (44:12). The penalty for such an act would have been Benjamin becoming Joseph’s slave (44:10).

44:13-16 The immediate response of Benjamin’s brothers indicates that they were no longer the heartless, cruel, deceitful men they had once been. When Benjamin was exposed as the thief, they tore their clothes (44:13), showing intense grief. Not only did they grieve, but they also refused to abandon Benjamin to his plight. The steward would have been content to return with Benjamin, but the brothers each . . . loaded his donkey and returned to the city (44:13), signaling to their youngest sibling that they were in the mess together. Even when Joseph repeated his intentions to imprison only Benjamin, they offered themselves as willing slaves in solidarity (44:16).

44:17-34 Joseph kept up his poker face for a while, insisting that Benjamin must stay as his slave (44:17). At this point, Judah once again moved to the forefront. He had already stepped up to lead his brothers by promising their father to bring Benjamin back alive (44:32). At this point he led them by giving an impassioned plea for Joseph to show mercy, both for Benjamin’s sake and for the sake of his father Jacob (44:34).

The pinnacle of Judah’s appeal—the proof that he had truly experienced a change of heart—was the staggering offer he made to remain here as [his] lord’s slave, in place of the boy (44:33). Once Judah had been so bereft of virtue that he thought nothing of sacrificing his brother’s life for his own convenience; now he was willing to lay down his own life so another brother could be free. The character transformation was complete, and God was ready to carry out the next step in his plan.

45:1-3 Joseph couldn’t take the suspense any longer, so he commanded, Send everyone away from me (45:1). Then, alone with his brothers, he revealed his identity (which may have included revealing his circumcision and, thus, confirming his descent from Abraham). He also asked about their father (45:3). Joseph had been thinking about this moment for weeks, so he was ready to have the reunion. But his brothers weren’t as prepared! They sat in stunned silence, terrified in his presence (45:3). Joseph, the brother they had intended to kill, was now standing before them with all the power in the world. And to their surprise, he was extending not vengeance but mercy. (May we follow his example.)

45:4-8 Joseph displayed varsity-level maturity next. Though he’d been imprisoned by his brothers without cause, he was able to see the hand of God in that evil thing the brothers had done. He said, God sent me ahead of you to preserve life (45:5). The terrible string of events had all led Joseph to his position of privilege just in time to save the lives of tens of thousands, and he had noticed the connection (45:7-8).

Think about it: had Joseph gotten his way at any point along this journey, he might have stopped God’s plan. Had he not been sold into slavery, he wouldn’t have been in Egypt. Had he not been falsely accused in Potiphar’s house, he wouldn’t have been in the jail. Had he not been in the jail, he wouldn’t have met Pharaoh’s servants. Had the cupbearer remembered him and had him released earlier, he wouldn’t have been in a place where he could be easily summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. If any one of the links in this chain were broken, famine would have overtaken the land, killing countless people, including Joseph and the rest of his family. All the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and even Jacob would’ve come to nothing.

Joseph’s entire life demonstrated the truth that Paul declared, “All things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). When God doesn’t intervene in your life the way you want and in the moment you want, it may be that he is working, behind the scenes, to accomplish in his perfect timing something so much bigger and so much better than you could ever imagine.

45:9-13 Joseph told his brothers to return quickly to their father and give him the news (45:9). He invited Jacob to settle in the land of Goshen with all of his children . . . grandchildren, flocks, herds, and everything else (45:10). Thus Jacob and also Joseph’s brothers came under Joseph’s authority and care, just as God had long ago promised Joseph that they would.

45:14-15 Full of emotion, Joseph and his brothers were reunified. Both Joseph and Benjamin wept (45:14), and Joseph proved his renewed intimacy with his brothers by offering each one a kiss (45:15). It had taken twenty-two years, but Joseph and his brothers were finally reconciled.

45:16-23 The reunion was so exciting that even Pharaoh wanted to get involved. Out of gratitude to Joseph, he offered his entire family the best of the land of Egypt and the richness of the land (45:18). He also arranged for their transportation, so that the large caravan could make the long journey with all of their belongings (45:19-21). Jacob’s family, seemingly on the cusp of starvation, had become fabulously wealthy in a moment.

45:24 Just before the journey, Joseph gave his brothers one command: Don’t argue on the way. The unity they had just achieved had taken decades to accomplish, and Joseph did not want to see it undone by quarrels over who was most responsible for the negative events of the past. He encouraged his brothers to move forward in their newfound unity rather than peering backward into the sinful disputes that had fractured their lives. We too are quick to resurrect old quarrels and remind each other of past sins, but God speaks to us a bold word of encouragement through this story: you are all fellow travelers and fellow sinners; don’t argue on the way through life.

45:25-28 Jacob, the last family member to learn about Joseph, was stunned and did not believe the report at first (45:26). But eventually the testimony of his sons, combined with the phenomenal gifts sent from Egypt, convinced him. And his spirit . . . revived (45:27). God’s plan, when hidden from our eyes, can often lead us to despair. But if we can hold out until God is prepared to reveal what he is doing, our spirits will be revived. Who knows what reunions, reconciliations, and renewals God has in store for those who trust him?

46:1-7 Even though Jacob would have been thrilled to travel to Egypt and see Joseph, there must have been a question in the back of his mind: What about the promised land? Would God bring his people back to Canaan if they left, en masse, for Egypt? Knowing Jacob’s anxieties, God appeared to Jacob in a vision to reassure him. The journey to Egypt would fulfill part of his promise, making Jacob into a great nation there (46:3). At the appointed time, God would bring them back (46:4). And in the meantime, God promised to be with Jacob for the journey (46:4). Armed with God’s presence and a renewal of God’s promise, Jacob was able to make the trek with hope.

46:8-27 What follows here is a list of Jacob’s descendants at the time of his journey to Egypt. Each of Jacob’s sons had a bundle of sons of their own, so that the entire family numbered seventy persons (46:27). God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky was already on its way to fruition. This was an enormous family by any measure. But the specific number seventy would have been significant as well. In Hebrew culture, the number seven indicated completion and fullness. In pointing out that Jacob had a family of seventy, the author hints to us that Jacob’s family was fulfilling the promise that God had made.

46:28-30 After an absence of twenty-two years, Joseph was reunited with his father Jacob. Joseph threw his arms around him, and wept for a long time (46:29). Jacob was overcome with emotion as well, exclaiming that he was ready to die now because he had seen Joseph’s face (46:30). This reunion once again confirmed to Jacob that God’s promises were good and dependable, even when circumstances had seemed to threaten them.

46:31-34 Joseph gave his family a brief lesson in cross-cultural communication, helping them know how to interact with Pharaoh. Specifically, he encouraged them to emphasize not only that they were shepherds—since all shepherds are detestable to Egyptians—but also that they had raised livestock from their youth (46:34). Joseph hoped to acquire for his family the land near Goshen, which was suitable for raising sheep and cattle.

47:1-6 Joseph’s family met Pharaoh; they asked to settle in the land of Goshen; and Pharaoh agreed (47:4-6). God had sent Joseph ahead to save his family and prepare a place for them; here God was fulfilling his promise and settling Jacob’s family in the land.

47:7-12 Jacob’s brief audience with Pharaoh hints at the fulfillment of another aspect of God’s covenant with Abraham. The promise had three parts: (1) multiplying Abraham’s offspring, (2) giving them the promised land, and (3) blessing all the families of the earth through them (see Gen 12:1-3). Jacob’s family had already settled in the land. They had multiplied phenomenally. Here Jacob blessed Pharaoh as a firstfruits fulfillment of God’s intention to bless all the nations of the world (47:7) through this line.

The direction of this blessing is staggering, and it displays Jacob’s deep faith. Pharaoh sat on his throne, thinking that he was ruling over the world. He should have been the one bestowing blessings. But Jacob knew better: Jacob saw that in God’s economy, he had the greater wealth; in God’s kingdom, he had the true position of privilege.

47:13-26 As the famine dragged on, the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan were exhausted (47:13). Under Joseph’s authority, the people were saved from starvation and Pharaoh’s treasury was filled to the brim with silver (47:14). Eventually the people of the region ran out of money, so Joseph began to barter for their livestock. In short order, all of the horses, the flocks of sheep, the herds of cattle, and the donkeys in the entire region belonged to Joseph (47:17). The famine dragged on for years more, so the people then began to offer their very land in exchange for food (47:19). In the end, because of Joseph’s wisdom, he acquired all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh (47:20), asking in return only that the people provide a tax of a fifth of their produce, a practice that held for hundreds of years (47:24, 26).

47:27-31 As Jacob neared death, he charged Joseph, Do not bury me in Egypt (47:29). He remembered the promises of God and wanted his bones to rest where his ancestors’ did—in the promised land (47:30). Joseph, swearing with a solemn oath, agreed to Jacob’s request (47:31).

48:1-12 The time came for Jacob’s life to end. Joseph brought his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (48:1), so that Jacob would give them a final blessing (48:9). Recalling the special place that Rachel, Joseph’s mother, held in his life, Jacob decided to double Joseph’s inheritance accordingly. In saying that Ephraim and Manasseh belong to [him] just as Reuben and Simeon do (48:5), Jacob expressed his desire for each son to receive a portion of the inheritance equal to that of the other true brothers. Thus the twelve portions became thirteen, and Joseph—once again the son of honor—would receive the double portion usually reserved for the firstborn.

It is important to remember that Manasseh and Ephraim were born to Joseph while he was in Egypt. Yet Jacob made it clear that both were to be treated as though they were Jacob’s sons; therefore, they were to receive an inheritance in the promised land. The claim to the inheritance of Jacob was not a matter of skin color, but instead a matter of lineage. The critical question was, “Who was your father?” not “What color is your skin?”

48:13-20 Joseph positioned his two sons so that Manasseh, the older, would receive the more prominent blessing from Jacob’s right hand (48:13). Much to Joseph’s shock and disagreement (48:17-18), Jacob switched his hands so that Ephraim, the younger, would receive the firstborn blessing (48:14). It is amusing that Joseph, of all people, would be surprised by this departure from worldly tradition. His father and grandfather were the younger brothers, receiving the blessing and inheritance in place of the firstborn sons in their households. And Joseph himself had ten brothers older than he, yet God raised him to a position of distinction. Jacob was simply continuing the pattern of reversal that God had used all throughout the history of the Jewish patriarchs, proving that God’s ways are not ours.

Jacob was the first person in Scripture to say that God . . . has been my shepherd all my life (48:15). Hundreds of years later, King David would expand on this imagery in writing Psalm 23, but David certainly didn’t invent the idea. Jacob had spent decades tending sheep—feeding them, cleaning them, defending them against predators, binding them up when they were injured, searching for them when they wandered. He knew how much tenderness and devotion it required to care for sheep. And by the end of his life, Jacob had come to see God through that light. He realized that in all of his wanderings, God had been tenderly and devotedly providing for him, defending him, healing him, and searching for him.

Jacob bestowed on Ephraim and Manasseh two blessings, reminding us of the wonderful chance that God offers grandparents today to speak hope and life into their own offspring’s lives. The lesser blessing, that they grow to be numerous within the land (48:16), is the sort of blessing that we all inherently want. It’s a prayer for material prosperity. And God, in his faithfulness, would be quick to answer Jacob’s prayer. But the greater blessing that Jacob gave was that they be called by [his] name and the names of [his] fathers Abraham and Isaac (48:16). Material blessings come and go; in the end, we can’t actually keep any of them. But to be included in the family of God is a blessing that bears fruit for eternity.

48:21-22 Before calling in the rest of the brothers, Jacob reminded Joseph once again of God’s promise. Even though the family would grow numerous in Egypt, God would deliver them back to the land of their fathers (48:21). Israel was supposed to interpret their coming years in Egypt as only a detour, much like Joseph’s. God had not changed their final destination. He would deliver them to Canaan.

49:1-2 Jacob then called his sons to his bedside to tell them about the days to come (49:1). Jacob’s blessing was distinct from that of Isaac and Abraham before him. Isaac and Abraham passed on God’s promise to their children, but Jacob went beyond that. He issued prophetic words about the future of each son, reflecting the destinies that their tribes would live out.

49:3-4 The first three sons were rejected from being able to lead the messianic line. Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn (49:3), would have been the most natural candidate for the job, but he disqualified himself by defiling his father’s bed (49:4). Years earlier, Reuben had slept with one of his father’s concubines (35:22). That one adulterous decision came back to haunt him, keeping him from carrying the torch of God’s messianic promise.

49:5-7 Jacob said of the next two brothers, Simeon and Levi (49:5), that they were men of anarchy and violence. In their anger they kill men, and on a whim they hamstring oxen (49:6), Jacob said, remembering their deceitful attack against the inhabitants of Shechem (34:24-29). They may have consoled themselves that they were doing right because they defended the honor of their sister, but Jacob recognized that their motives were mixed. They responded in violence because they cherished violence.

49:8-10 Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, and I think he would have been Jacob’s personal choice to continue the messianic line. But God had chosen Judah—in spite of his failings—to father the line of kings leading to Christ, as the scepter will not depart from Judah or the staff from between his feet until he whose right it is comes (49:10). He would be the new leader of his brothers, full of power and majesty like a lion (49:8-9). From Judah would come the kingly line of David and Solomon and all of their descendants. More importantly, Jesus would be called the “Lion from the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5). He is the one whose right it is to carry the scepter throughout eternity, and the obedience of the peoples belongs to him (Gen 49:10).

49:11-12 The wine and milk imagery that Jacob chose to express Judah’s reign (and, by extension, Jesus’s reign) was meant to communicate richness and plenty. As the biblical storyline would clarify later, these promises would be fulfilled in part in the promised land, but they would await final fulfillment in the millennial kingdom of Jesus in the age to come.

49:13 Jacob continued going down the line, addressing his two sons by Leah, Zebulun and Issachar. Zebulun will live by the seashore and will be a harbor for ships, indicating the future trade of this son’s descendants. When the people of Israel would return to the promised land and apportion the land, the tribe of Zebulun would be given land near the ocean, and they would make their living on the sea.

49:14-15 Issachar, whose tribal inheritance was not far from Zebulun’s, would not fare well during the return to Canaan. Issachar leaned his shoulder to bear a load and became a forced laborer (49:15), a prophecy about the tribe’s approach to the native inhabitants of the promised land. Even though Issachar had strength enough to drive the people out as God promised (49:14), they grew comfortable living alongside them. And what began as a seemingly harmless partnership between the groups eventually led to Issachar’s slavery.

49:16-17 Jacob, finishing the blessings for the sons of Leah, moved on to the sons from his concubines. Dan, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “has judged,” will judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel (49:16). In their best moments, the people of Dan were to provide justice for the rest of the nation. In reality, however, they proved to be treacherous, like a snake by the road, a viper beside the path, that bites the horses’ heels so that its rider falls (49:17). During Israel’s conquest of the promised land, Dan quickly gave up on the land to which God had called them (see Judg 2:3-4), leaving the land to the Philistines. Worse than that, Dan appears to be the first tribe to plummet into full-scale idolatry during that same time (see Judg 18).

49:18 In the midst of his blessings, Jacob interrupted himself to remind his sons of their need to follow the Lord and be dependent on him. Even with so many of God’s promises fulfilled, Jacob knew that he still needed to wait for [God’s] salvation. In this life, Christians never graduate from faith, and faith is seen in those moments when we hope for what is unseen.

49:19-21 Jacob’s other three sons by concubines—Gad, Asher, and Naphtali—were given rapid-fire prophecies. Gad would be attacked by raiders (49:19), indicating the constant conflict that the tribe would experience. Asher, whose name means “blessed,” would live a life worthy of the name, with rich food and royal delicacies (49:20). Naphtali would be a free people, dwelling in the mountains to the north (49:21).

49:22-26 Last of all, Jacob came to the sons of Rachel. Unsurprisingly, Jacob spent a great deal of time blessing his favorite son Joseph. As in his life, so in his tribe’s future, Joseph would be a fruitful vine beside a spring (49:22), not only succeeding for his own sake, but also blessing the lives of others. Joseph’s tribe would continue to be one of the most prosperous of the twelve, victorious in battle and overflowing with blessings (49:25-26).

49:27-28 Jacob concluded his blessing with the youngest son, Benjamin. Though Jacob favored Benjamin personally, it appears that the future of this tribe would be a mixed one. Jacob characterized the Benjaminites like a wolf that tears his prey and divides the plunder (49:27). They would be a tribe with a violent spirit, which was seen perhaps most vividly in their two most famous descendants. King Saul, Israel’s first king, was a Benjaminite; so too was the persecutor-turned-apostle Paul.

49:29-33 Jacob understood that he was about to be gathered to [his] people (49:29)—that is, he was about to die. So he instructed Joseph to bury him, not in Egypt, but in the land of promise, with [his] fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Heth-ite (49:29). Notably, he finally gave honor to his first wife, Leah, asking to be buried with her (49:31) rather than with his beloved Rachel. In death Leah found the honor that so often eluded her in life.

50:1-13 Jacob died and was buried as he had requested. Joseph arranged it all, ensuring that Jacob was embalmed after the style of Egyptian royalty (50:3). The entire nation mourned for Jacob seventy days (50:3), a phenomenal show of respect that proves how dearly beloved Joseph was among the Egyptians. When the days of mourning were over (50:4), Joseph obeyed his father’s dying wishes, bringing his body back to the land of Canaan for burial (50:5). The funeral procession was very impressive (50:9), which is an understatement: with all Pharaoh’s servants, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt joining with all Joseph’s family (50:7-8), the scene would have been jaw-dropping. In fact, it was such a spectacular caravan that the Canaanite inhabitants of the land renamed one of their cities because of it (50:11).

50:14-15 Joseph’s brothers had happily received the gifts and the land from their younger brother, but Jacob’s death proved that they were still uneasy with the entire situation. After Joseph buried his father (50:14), his brothers realized that one of the last impediments to Joseph taking any vengeance on them had just disappeared. Perhaps, they thought, Joseph is holding a grudge against us. Maybe he was merely waiting to strike until after their father was gone. If so, he will certainly repay us for all the suffering we caused him (50:15).

50:16-18 The brothers were scared, so they did what many of us do in our fear: they lied. They sent a message to Joseph, claiming that their father had said, Please forgive your brothers’ transgression and their sin (50:17). They even reverted to the same posture they assumed when they first came to Egypt, bowing down before Joseph and saying, We are your slaves (50:18).

50:19-20 Joseph held the highest position in the world—other than Pharaoh, and Pharaoh would certainly have looked the other way if he had acted against his treacherous brothers. Now his father was dead, so there was no one else who would have pleaded with him to stop. Yet Joseph responded with one of the most profound statements of faith in the entire Bible. You planned evil against me; God planned it for good (50:20).

We often give people too much credit. Yes, what Joseph’s brothers did was horribly wrong. But even through their sinful actions God was orchestrating something bigger than they were. They had small-scale evil intentions, but God was overriding their evil for eternal good. Joseph recognized that the detours of his life were part of God’s providential plan. How could he possibly respond in anger when God had used their terrible acts to deliver him to such a lofty position? Please note the order: evil, God, good. When we experience unjust evil, we must look for God who is able to bring about incredible good.

50:21 Joseph responded to his brothers with forgiveness, promising to take care of them and their children. The very brothers who threw him in the pit, he comforted . . . and spoke kindly to. Joseph had discovered the secret of forgiving your enemies: you need the right view of God. Throughout his tumultuous journey, Joseph believed that God was with him and guiding him to an intentional destiny. And if God was guiding the process then, Joseph was content to let God guide it now.

Vengeance belongs to God, and the longer we cherish an unforgiving attitude in our hearts, the more we harm ourselves. Unforgiveness acts like a leash that keeps snapping us back, painfully, to the past. Only when we choose to let God be the God of vengeance (and take ourselves off that lofty throne) does the leash disappear, allowing us to march forward toward the destiny God has in store for us. God’s destiny for us will always bring blessing and benefit to others.

50:22-26 Joseph ended his days in peace, living among his brothers (50:22) and watching his family grow (50:23). When the time came for him to die, he remembered the promises made to his forefathers, that God would bring him to the land he swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (50:24). Thus he made his brothers promise to carry [his] bones to the promised land (50:25).

And that’s exactly what they did. Years later, after the Lord rescued the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery, entered a covenant with them, disciplined them in the wilderness for their sins, made them victorious in battle, and delivered the promised land to them, the Israelites buried Joseph (see Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32).

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