-Grace Institute: Genesis: Genesis 37, 39-47, 50: Joseph

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership


Genesis 37, 39-47, 50

March 9, 2008

Table of Contents

The narrative of Joseph is the longest continuous narrative in the entire bible [1]. While lengthy, this plot is well developed and full of excitement. But the primary point of the entire narrative is revealed to us in the final chapter of Genesis.

God Sends Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37, 39-41)

Joseph Sold Into Slavery (Genesis 37)

Hatred of Joseph's Brothers (vs. 2-17)

In chapters 30 we see that all is not well in Jacob's family. Rivalries between his wives create an atmosphere of contention and strife amongst the sons of Jacob. This contention and hatred heats up to the point where eight of the sons are willing to murder one of the other sons of Jacob.

There are five reasons why Joseph is so hated by his brothers. First, he is a tattletale. In 37:2 we learn that he gives a bad report about his brothers. While we don't know the content of this report, it sets Joseph against his brothers. Secondly, we learn that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other brothers (37:3a) because he was the first born of his favorite wife, Rachel. Third, Jacob had given Joseph a multi-colored robe, which announced Jacob's favoritism in Technicolor (37:3b).

Then, Joseph has dreams in which his brothers and parents symbolically bow down to him as bowing sheaves of wheat (37:5-8) and as the sun, moon and the stars (37:9-11). Finally, as the straw that breaks the camel's back, Jacob sends Joseph to spy on his brothers who are keeping sheep (37:12-14).

The hatred of Joseph by his brothers is partially Jacob's fault for expressing his blatant favoritism. It is, however, also partly Joseph's fault for his lack of discretion when sharing his dreams. But mostly it comes down to the hatred and jealousy of the brothers.

The Plot Against Joseph (vs. 18-36)

As the brothers see Joseph in his multicolored coat coming, they decide this is their chance to kill him. Reuben, the firstborn, however, tries to persuade the other brothers not to kill him. Instead they should throw him into an abandoned well. Reuben intended to later come back and rescue Joseph out of the well. Reuben, as the firstborn, felt a responsibility to protect this favored brother for the sake of his father.

After they toss Joseph into the well, it appears that Reuben has left the rest of the brothers. For as they awhile the rest of the brothers see a caravan of Ishmaelites heading to Egypt. Judah, fearing that the other brothers would leave Joseph in the well to die, suggests that they sell Joseph as a slave to the caravan. Judah sells the idea to the brothers as a way to gains some cash. But we learn that Judah's real intention was to keep Joseph alive.

Reuben returns to rescue Joseph only to discover that he's gone. Reuben states he can not return to face his father because as the firstborn he would have been responsible to Jacob. He cries out to his brothers, “where am I to go?” (vs. 29). The other brothers offer a suggestion to Reuben. They would lie and say that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. So after slaughtering an animal and sprinkling the blood on Joseph's coat, they take it home and deliver the bad news to Jacob, who becomes inconsolable.

Joseph With Potiphar (Genesis 39)

Potiphar Blessed by God Through Joseph (39:1-6)

Meanwhile, Joseph is sold by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, who we learn is the captain of Pharaoh's body guard. We learn that Joseph quickly rose to preeminence in Potiphar's household because Yahweh was with Joseph (vs. 2). Furthermore God blessed the household of Potiphar because Yahweh was with Joseph.

Potiphar recognized the blessing of Yahweh on Joseph (vs. 3). But how did Potiphar, who very likely was not a worshipper of the true God, recognize Yahweh's blessing on Joseph? It was not the result of some direct revelation from God, but through the testimony of Joseph. Throughout the narrative Joseph attributes his success to God. Joseph believes strongly in the sovereignty of God, and this must have come out as Joseph and Potiphar interacted with each other. Joseph gave the credit for his success always back to his God.

Joseph serves as a great example for us here. We, too, should publicly give credit to God for all the success that He gives to us. First, because God deserves the credit, and secondly because it is a way for others to see the goodness and sovereignty of God through us.

Under Joseph's stewardship, Potiphar does not have to worry at all about his household, leaving the biggest decisions in Potiphar's day to being what to eat for dinner (39:6).

Joseph Falsely Accused (39:7-18)

Joseph was a handsome guy, and had attracted the attention of Potiphar's wife. She tried on several occasions to seduce Joseph. But Joseph shows himself to be a man of integrity, stating to her that to lie with her would be a betrayal against his master Potiphar and would be a sin against God (vs. 9).

Sin as an offense against God

Joseph had attributed all his success to Yahweh. If he were to sleep with Potiphar's wife, it would ruin his testimony about the character of God and would blaspheme the name of God. When tempted, do we see sin as an offence against God as Joseph does? Too often we justify our sin by thinking it won't hurt anybody, so it is okay. But our sin does hurt the character of God. If we claim to be a Christian, then our sin becomes attached to the name of Christ. Our sin maligns the character of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 6:15, the apostle Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for their sexual sin. He tells them that because they are part of the body of Christ, if they lie with a prostitute, it is as if they are taking the body of Christ and forcing Him to lie with that prostitute as well. As Christians, our sin drags Christ into that sin. Therefore our sin is not victimless. The victim is Christ and his reputation. Joseph understands that principle, and sees this sin as an offense not just against Potiphar, but against his God as well.

Flee Sexual Immorality

In this same chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul gives advice to us when we face sexual temptation. He tell us to “flee immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). When one day Potiphar's wife traps Joseph alone in the house, this is exactly what Joseph does. He flees (39:12). Sexual temptation is not a temptation that we should stay and battle it out. The power of sexual temptation is such that Paul's advice and Joseph's example says we should flee, removing ourselves from the situation so that we can not be in a place where we have the opportunity to give in to the sin.


While Joseph flees, Potiphar's wife is offended by Joseph's rejection. So she falsely accuses him of rape. In her accusation she calls him by a racist epitaph: “Hebrew slave.” This is the first of several references in Genesis to the racism the Egyptians felt against the Israelites. The Egyptians hated the Hebrews, who were seen as inferior to the cultured and civilized Egyptians.

To give us some sense of the racial dynamics taking place in this situation, this would be as if the wife of a southern slaveholder in nineteenth century had tried to seduce her African American slave, and then accuse him of rape when he rejected her. Imagine the shame of this white woman if people knew that she had tried to sleep with her black slave. Imagine the willingness of others to believe that a black man would try to rape a white woman. This is the same sort of racial bigotry that is taking place in the narrative of Joseph.

Joseph Imprisoned (Genesis 39:19-23)

Joseph is thrown into prison. But Yahweh is with Joseph (vs. 21) and causes him to prosper, even in jail (vs. 23). It doesn't seem to matter where Joseph is, God raises him to the top of every situation in which he is found. This truth is often used by some preachers to proclaim that if we obey and trust God that He will always bring about our success and prosperity. This so-called “health and wealth” gospel equates holiness and success.

But how does this teaching really match up with what Joseph is experiencing? Yes, God has caused Joseph to prosper. But God has also allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery, to be falsely accused of rape, and to be thrown into prison. Joseph's life to this point is a nightmare.

But Joseph does not allow his misfortunes to overwhelm him. He blooms wherever he is planted. He trusts Yahweh has a greater purpose in the midst of these personal tragedies. While we see the end of the story, how God is going to use this situation to rescue his people, Joseph can not see the happy ending. But rather than be depressed by his terrible situation, he still recognizes the sovereignty of God, and in the process God prospers him, even in prison.

Do we allow God to prosper in whatever situation we find ourselves? Or have we too often defined for God what our prosperity should look like? Do we accept the situation into which God has placed us as being part of his sovereign plan for our lives and give him credit for whatever success we find there?

This attitude of Joseph is found also in another prisoner, the apostle Paul. In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul says

…I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Joseph Interprets Dreams (Genesis 40-41)

Dream of the Cupbearer and Baker (Genesis 40)

In prison, Joseph meets a couple of other political prisoners who have offended Pharaoh: the cupbearer and the baker. Joseph had been placed in charge of these prisoners. Both these prisoners have a dream, and Joseph interprets their dreams for them. But Joseph, as always, gives full credit for the interpretation to God (40:8).

The cupbearer dreams of three vines which grow. He squeezes the grapes and gives the wine to Pharaoh. Joseph tells him that means that in three days he will be restored by Pharaoh to his position. The baker, “hearing the favorable outcome” of the cupbearer's dream, shares that he dreamt of three baskets of baked goods which were offered to Pharaoh, but which the birds ended up eating. Joseph tells him that in three days he would hang and the birds would eat at his flesh. Both of the dreams come true.

Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him when he is restored. But the cupbearer forgets Joseph, and he remains in prison for another two years.

Dream of Pharaoh (Genesis 41)

The Dream Interpreted (41:1-37)

Two “full” years later, Pharaoh has a two dreams. In the first, he is by the Nile when he sees seven skinny cows eat seven fat cows. In the second he sees seven ears of thin grain swallow seven plump ears of grain. None of Pharaoh's court is able to interpret the dreams. Finally the cupbearer remembers Joseph and tells Pharaoh how Joseph was able to interpret his dream. So Pharaoh call for Joseph out of prison.

Before Joseph tells Pharaoh the interpretation of the dreams, Joseph has to be sure that the proper credit for the interpretation is given. “It is not in me, God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (41:16). Just as Joseph gave credit for his success with Potiphar to God, so also he is doing this with Pharaoh. The credit will go to God so that Pharaoh would understand the power of God.

The dreams mean that God is sending seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph emphasizes that the double dream means that it is determined already by God and God will bring this about quickly.

This is further indication of Joseph's strong belief in the sovereignty of God. It is God who will cause the abundance. It is God who will cause the famine. Just as God has caused Joseph's personal prosperity and persona famine, so now God will do the same for all Egypt. Both the prosperity and the famine are part of God's plan.

But just as God prospered Joseph in the midst of slavery and prison, so now God would prosper Egypt through the wisdom of Joseph in the midst of its famine. Joseph sees famine not as suffering at the hand of God, but an opportunity for God to show his goodness in the midst of suffering.

Joseph Put in Charge (41:38-57)

Pharaoh recognizes the power of God through Joseph (41:39) and gives credit to Joseph's God. As a result he puts Joseph in charge of all Egypt to manage this crisis. Joseph is given an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah, and given an Egyptian wife, and is given power over all Egypt.

Joseph is 30 years old at this point, meaning that for the past 13 years of his life, in the prime of his life, he has wasted away as a slave and a prisoner. But Joseph does not see this as wasted, but as an important part of God's preparation. His tragedies and his suffering was ordained by God to prepare him for this moment when he would save Egypt and eventually when he would save Israel.

Do we see our tragedies and our suffering as God's will for our lives? Do we see our personal famines as ordained by God to prepare our character? In Romans 5:3-4, this is exactly how the apostle Paul says we should think about our tribulations:

…we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance, and perseverance proven character, and proven character hope; and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hears through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

God Moves Israel to Egypt (Genesis 42-46)

Under Joseph, Egypt stores up food from the years of plenty for the time of famine. As a result, when the famine comes, all the earth comes to Joseph for food (41:57). This sets the state for the real drama of the Joseph narrative. More time in this narrative is given to the interaction of Joseph and his brothers than to the grand political drama unfolding in Egypt. The real purpose of this story is not to tell of Joseph and Pharaoh and the national crises in Egypt, but to tell about the family drama of Joseph, his brothers and his father Jacob.

Sons' of Israel First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)

The famine has affected Israel as well. Jacob is frustrated at the lack of leadership in his sons, and asks them, “why are you staring at one another.” This lack of leadership stand in stark contrast to the leadership exhibited by Joseph. With the not so subtle encouragement of their father, ten of the brothers head for Egypt to purchase food for the family.

On their arrival they meet Joseph, and not recognizing him, bow down to him, thus fulfilling Joseph's dream in chapter 37. Joseph recognizes them, but hides his identity from them. He treats them quite harshly, accusing them of spying. The brothers deny that they are spies and tell Joseph all about their family, their father Jacob, their dead brother Joseph and the brother they left behind, Benjamin. Joseph tells them that to prove they are telling the truth and that they are not spies, they need to bring their younger brother Benjamin the next time they come.

The requirement that they bring back Benjamin struck them hard. The loss of Joseph devastated Jacob so much, that the brothers knew that bringing Benjamin would be very difficult. They attribute this misfortune at the hand of this Egyptian to be due to the guilt they have over selling Joseph into slavery (vs. 21). Reuben uses this as an opportunity to say, “I told you so.”

Joseph, knowing their language, understand this entire conversation and it causes him to weep. He realizes that they are talking about what they did to him. He hears them feel guilt and remorse. But he wonders if that remorse has led to a change of heart. So tells them that Simeon must stay behind as surety that they will bring Benjamin back. But he also packs their bags with the food and hides the money they used to purchase the food back in their bags as well.

After the brothers leave, when they find this money, they again see it as punishment from God for their sin against Joseph: “what is this that God has done to us?” (vs. 28).

When they return home Jacob is saddened by the poor judgment shown by his sons. First they lost Joseph. Now they have lost Simeon. And then they are also suggesting that they take Benjamin back with them so they can lose him as well! Reuben does stand up and say that if Benjamin does not return, then Jacob can kill Reuben's sons. But Jacob is firm. He will not let Benjamin go.

Sons' of Israel Second Trip to Egypt (Genesis 43-44)

The famine only gets worse, and finally the brothers have to return to Egypt to get more food. Jacob finally admits this, but tells them that they should go down without Benjamin. Finally Judah stands up and shows some leadership. He reminds Jacob that they can not return with Benjamin. Jacob, in his frustration, starts throwing blame around telling them again how they screwed up their last meeting in Egypt. But Judah stands firm, pleading with Jacob and finally telling his father that he will personally be responsible for the life of his youngest son (43:9). Jacob lets them go, but insists that they take twice the money, as well as luxury goods, such as balm, myrrh, nuts and almonds. Jacob is hoping that this bribe will ensure the life of Benjamin.

When Joseph sees that they have returned with Benjamin, he invites them to a feast. The brothers confide in Joseph's servant that they found the money in their bags, but they didn't do it. The servant tries to put them at ease saying “your God and the God of your father” provided the money (vs. 23). At dinner they show Joseph all the goods they brought and they present Benjamin. Joseph is overcome at the site of Benjamin and has to run out of the room to cry

After dinner, as they prepare to leave, Joseph hatches a plan to see if his brothers' hearts have really changed. He had already seen them face their guilt. Now he wanted to determine if they just felt guilty or if they had repented of their sin. So he tells his servant to, this time, not only return the money in their bag, but to set up Benjamin by putting his silver cup in Benjamin's bag. Then the servant was to follow them as they left and catch Benjamin in the act of stealing the cup.

The servant does this, and they all return to face Joseph. Joseph accuses them and threatens to take Benjamin into slavery. But Judah speaks up to defend his brother. First, Judah does not offer any excuses (vs. 16). But he pleads with Joseph, recounting the whole conversation he had with his father where he had promised to watch out for Benjamin. He tells Joseph that if he does not come back with Benjamin, that his father would die of grief. Then in the ultimate act, Judah pleads with Joseph to take him as a slave instead of Benjamin.

This act of selflessness in Judah finally convinces Joseph that the brothers had indeed repented of their sin against him. The brothers had sold him into slavery, but now under Judah's leadership, they were not going to allow Benjamin to become a slave. Their jealousy had given way to repentance and genuine concern for their brother and their father. Judah had shown Joseph that he was the leader of the family and was willing to take responsibility for their past sin and offer himself up in Benjamin's place.

This same willingness to take responsibility for the sins of others and to offer himself in our place is found in Judah's descendent, the seed of Eve, that is Jesus Christ. Judah is a type of Christ in his willingness to give himself for the punishment of another even though he was innocent.

Israel Moves to Egypt (Genesis 45-46)

Joseph Reveals Himself (45:1-15)

With this expression by Judah, Joseph can not contain himself. He sends his Egyptian servants out of the room and he breaks down in tears and reveals himself to his brothers. His brothers are greatly dismayed by this, for they realize this one whom they sold into slavery now has the power of life and death over them. But Joseph tells them not to grieve, for he sees that in their sin they meant for harm, but God had used it to accomplish great things.

God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God (Genesis 45:7-8).

Joseph is saying it was not his brothers that sold him into slavery, but God, for God had a greater purpose in mind: namely the preservation of the remnant. This is a reference to the Abrahmic covenant and to the promise of salvation through the seed of Eve. Without Joseph having gone through his tribulations, the family of Abraham and the Messianic line, the seed of Eve, would have perished due to famine. But this was all part of God's design to save Israel and ultimately to save the world through the Messiah.

Joseph Moves Israel to Egypt (45:16-47:30)

Joseph insists that the whole family move to Egypt, and it pleased Pharaoh to offer them wagons and goods to help in the move. So the brothers head back to tell Jacob that Joseph is alive and to ask him to move to Egypt.

Jacob is overwhelmed at the news that Joseph is alive. But he is also concerned about moving to Egypt. He understood the Abrahamic covenant, and that God had given him this land. So, he offers a sacrifice to God. God responds by giving him a vision in which God tells Israel that it is alright for them to move to Egypt, for this is part of God's design to turn them into a great nation.

This affirmation from God is important for Moses' audience, so that the Israelites of Moses' time will understand that the trip to Egypt was not a mistake, and that their time in slavery in Egypt was part of God's master plan to turn them into a great nation.

To emphasize how God would use Egypt to turn this family into a nation, the rest of chapter 46 tells us the name of everyone in the family who moved to Egypt. In verse 27 it is summarized by showing that there were a total of 70 people in the family who went to Egypt. From these seventy, God would create a nation of millions in just the course of four centuries.

But Joseph was concerned that this family would be absorbed into Egyptian culture. So Joseph creates some safe guards to keep the Egyptians and the Israelites apart. He advises his father to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds and that they need land for their sheep. This accomplishes two things. First, the Egyptians despise shepherds, seeing them as lithesome. Therefore the Egyptians will not want to intermarry with Israel's family. Secondly, Pharaoh gives them the land of Goshen, thus providing a physical separation between the Egyptians and Israel.

So the family of Israel settles in Goshen, and they prosper there while the rest of the world suffered in famine. Finally the time came for Israel to die, and he calls upon Joseph and his brothers to bury him not in Egypt, but back in the promised land, affirming that their time in Egypt was temporary and that the promised land still belonged to the family.

Conclusion (Genesis 50)

The Providence of God in the Life of Joseph

In contrast to the early life of his father Jacob, throughout the narrative, Joseph seems to be keenly aware of the protection and providence of God. Even in the midst of his crisis he trusts that God is sovereign and in control of the events of his life.

Joseph is a slave in Egypt , yet in the midst of his slavery God is with him and helps him to succeed, becoming the head of the household (39:2). Joseph ends up in prison, falsely accused. But God is with him and puts Joseph in charge of the other prisoners (39:23). While others may have despaired in slavery and in prison, Joseph's focus is on the providence of God.

His sense of God's providence is so strong after predicting the coming famine in Egypt , he reiterates to Pharaoh “the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about” (41:32). His strong sense of God's sovereignty, requires that he gives credit to God for his successes. When Joseph is finally out of prison, he gives God all the credit for his ability to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh (41:16).

Because God is in control of all events, Joseph can not be angry at his brothers for selling him into slavery. It was all part of God's master plan to help preserve the remnant of God's people (45:5-8).

The Providence of God in the Nation of Israel (Chapter 50)

Israel and his family, numbering 70 in total, all settle in Egypt , in the land of Goshen . Israel blesses his family in chapter 48-49, and then dies. As per his last request, Joseph and his brothers take Israel 's body back to the Canaan and bury him with his fathers in the only plot of the Promised Land which they actually possessed.

Now, however, the brothers are afraid of what Joseph will do to them (50:15). With the restraint of their father gone, Joseph might use his great power as ruler of Egypt to do whatever he wants. Joseph, however returns to them with a remarkable answer, and an answer which is one of the primary lessons of the book of Genesis:

But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? "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. "So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones." So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)

All these events have taken place within God's sovereignty. Therefore Joseph doesn't have the authority to judge them- only God does. Furthermore, God used their sin to bring about good, namely the preservation of the family of Israel . If Joseph were to punish his brothers, it would go against the providence of God. Therefore, rather than judge them, Joseph will work within the providence of God and provide for them.

Providence of God and the Redemption of Israel

As Joseph is ready to die he reiterates his confidence in God's sovereignty, telling his brothers, “God will surely take care of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob.”

To Moses readership, this ending has great relevance. Israel 's four hundred years of slavery in Egypt was not an accident but part of God's larger plan. As they stand on the doorway of the Promised Land they need not be afraid, for God will care for them and bring them into the land. The very bones of Joseph which they carried with them out of Egypt served as evidence of that (Exodus 13:19).

Providence of God and our Redemption

The book of Genesis ends with the same principle with which it began: God excels at turning chaos and evil and turning it into order and goodness. Just as the creation itself was a picture of God moving his creation from disorder to order, the narrative of Joseph is a picture of God moving his people from sin to redemption.

In the bigger picture of the book, Genesis is the story of God moving humanity from the sin of Adam and Eve to the redemption of humanity. As we trace the seed through to the line of Judah we see a foreshadowing of how Jesus will ultimately take the chaos of Adam and Eve's sin and turn it to good.


  1. Fee and Stewart, 32.

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