Among the great men of the Old Testament, Joseph is truly unique. Joseph’s father, Jacob, originally intended to take only one wife, but his father-in-law, Laban, deceived him, and he ended up with two wives who were sisters. The account is given in Genesis 29-30. Competition between the two of them led to two more wives, women that had been handmaids. So, Jacob ended up with four wives and twelve sons. Six were from Leah, and two each from the other three. Joseph’s birth occurred much later than that of his brothers because his mother, Rachel, had been barren for many years. The family atmosphere was far from ideal, the usual result of polygamy. Joseph’s younger brother was Benjamin. Rachel died in childbirth when he was born.
In Genesis 37, we pick up the beginning of Joseph’s story. Joseph was tending the flocks with his brothers, but some of them were doing what the Bible regards as evil. Joseph told his father what they were doing, and the brothers deeply resented this. In addition, Jacob gave Joseph preferential treatment because he was the son of Rachel, the real love of his life. He made Joseph a coat of many colors, and his brothers resented this as well. They were hostile toward him and especially filled with hate. Joseph was more or less isolated, and stayed close to his father and brother Benjamin. There was a sort of cold war between the sons of the secondary wives and the sons of Rachel. The brothers were very also jealous because God had given Joseph a special gift-the ability to interpret dreams.
Joseph’s inexperience and naivety soon became apparent. Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers. What he told them only goaded their resentment. Joseph would have been wiser to have kept the dream from them and to have told it only to his parents.
Here is the dream:
And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. (Gen. 37:5-8)
Then, to add insult to injury, Joseph told them of another dream.
And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying. (Gen. 37:9-11)
Joseph’s father sent him to Shechem to bring back a report on the condition of the flocks, but his brothers had moved the herds to Dothan. Joseph then went to Dothan. Recognizing him from a distance his brothers conspired to kill him. Simeon appears to have been the ringleader, but Rueben, the eldest, intervened and prevented the murder. His plan was to return him to his father. The brothers threw Joseph into a pit, and while Reuben had gone elsewhere, Judah persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph to some Ismaelites who were on their way to Egypt. In order to cover up this foul deed, they soaked Joseph’s robe with goat blood and took it to their father. Jacob immediately concluded that a wild beast had killed him, and he mourned many days. All the while, his sons continued the ruse.
In Egypt, Joseph was sold into slavery, and a man by the name of Potiphar purchased him. Potiphar was a high-ranking government official-captain of the guard. Some Bible commentators believe that Potiphar was a eunuch, and if this is true, it might explain the conduct of his wife. Joseph was 17 years of age at the time, but unknown to him, God was working out a great purpose by this set of circumstances.
Genesis 39 relates how God was with Joseph in everything he did. He was successful in all he undertook. Joseph was dependable and sound-minded. He was very competent, and his master observed this. As a result, he placed him in charge of his entire house. Joseph spent ten years in Potiphar’s house under these conditions, no doubt learning the language and Egyptian culture. God blessed Potiphar’s house for Joseph’s sake. Joseph was not only very capable, but also very handsome. The Bible uses the term “goodly and well-favored,” which means handsome in form and appearance. But this got him into trouble. Potiphar’s wife went after him, not just once, but repeatedly.
And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand; There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. (Gen. 39:7-10)
Most young men would have been unable to resist, but Joseph knew the difference between right and wrong. He knew God’s Law forbade adultery. He could not do this disloyal act against his master. So, Joseph refused this liaison. Had he committed this sin, God could not have used him for the great purpose He had in mind. Joseph’s reply to Pothiphar’s wife reveals an insight into his values and character.
But Joseph’s rejection did not solve the problem. The woman would not give up.
And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out. And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out. And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home. And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me: And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out. And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison. (Gen. 39:11-20)
Hell knows no wrath than a woman scorned. She had exacted her revenge. Joseph was now in an impossible position. This prison appears to have been a place of incarceration for high-ranking people. The head-jailor quickly recognized Joseph’s capabilities and put him in charge of the whole prison. It is possible the jailor was aware of the trumped up charges, as well as Joseph’s reputation. What was taking place was that God was setting the stage for Joseph’s introduction to the Pharaoh.
Two of Pharaoh’s servants-the chief butler and the chief baker-had offended him and were cast into the prison. The charges against them were serious enough to merit the death penalty. Joseph was charged with their care and, as a result, was in contact with them regularly. On the same night they both dreamed a dream, but there was no one who could tell them what the dreams meant. Because of this they were both depressed. When Joseph found out, he said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Gen. 40:8) With the gift God had given him, he correctly interpreted the dreams. The butler was forthrightly restored, and the baker was hanged. Just before the butler left the jail, Joseph urged him to bring his case before Pharaoh. But the butler forgot.
For two more years Joseph remained in the prison. Then, Pharaoh himself had a dream. He dreamed about seven fat cattle and seven thin ones, and seven good and seven lean ears of corn, but no one could tell him what the dream meant.
Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day: Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in ward in the captain of the guard’s house, both me and the chief baker: And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream. And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged. Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh. (Gen. 41:9-14)
Joseph was now 30 years of age, mature and capable of the responsibility soon to be given him.
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it: and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it. And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace . . . . And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine. This is the thing which I have spoken unto Pharaoh: What God is about to do he sheweth unto Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt: And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; And the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous. And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass. Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine. And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants. (Gen. 41:15-16, 25-37)
Pharaoh was deeply impressed. For not only did Joseph tell him the meaning of the dream but also gave him the solution.
And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art: Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt. (Gen. 41:38-44)
God had now set in motion the way and means by which Joseph’s entire family would be saved. Famine would soon stalk the entire region, and Jacob and his family would not escape it.
Just as Joseph had predicted, the seven years of plenty took place. “And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls. And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same. And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number” (Gen. 41:47-49). Then came the seven years of famine. “And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended. And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread” (vv. 53-54). The land of Canaan was also deeply affected by the famine. “Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another? And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die. And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt” (Gen. 42:1-3).
We will recall that Joseph’s brothers were deeply incensed by Joseph’s dreams-the idea that their sheaves would bow down and do obeisance to Joseph’s sheaf. They correctly understood the meaning of the dream but could not accept it, yet it would soon happen without their even knowing it.
And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth. And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food. And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him. And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come. (Gen. 42: 6-9)
Did they deserve this harsh treatment? Indeed they did! After all, they plotted to murder him and then sold him into slavery. In addition, they had kept the dirty secret from their father, and put him through great agony. They needed to suffer themselves. They needed to be humbled and made afraid!
In fear of the govenor, they revealed more than was necessary. They told about a younger son still at home. Joseph immediately knew this was his brother, Benjamin. They had now made themselves vulnerable to exploitation by revealing this. What did Joseph say? “Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies” (Gen. 42:15-16). The information they had given was now being used against them. “And he put them all together into ward three days” (v. 17). Now it was the brother’s turn to sweat.
But on the third day Joseph said: “. . . This do, and live; for I fear God: If ye be true men, let one of your brethren be bound in the house of your prison: go ye, carry corn for the famine of your houses: But bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die . . . ” (Gen. 42:18-20). Now they were forced to bring Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother to him. And they were in a great deal of anguish. “And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required. And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter” (vv. 21-23). Their sins were now coming back upon their own heads, and they knew it. “And he [Joseph] turned himself about from them, and wept; and returned to them again, and communed with them, and took from them Simeon, and bound him before their eyes” (v. 24). Reuben and Judah were less guilty than the rest because they were the ones who spared Joseph’s life, but because Simeon apparently was the instigator, he was put in prison while his brothers returned home. Joseph was a kind man, but he was also a man of justice. They would have learned nothing had they been given all they wanted without realizing their guilty past.
Joseph now gave them something more to be concerned about. “And they laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence. And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the inn, he espied his money; for, behold, it was in his sack’s mouth. And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God hath done unto us?” (Gen. 42:26-28). They did not realize Joseph was the one dealing with them.
Jacob strongly opposed sending Benjamin to Egypt with them, but eventually was forced to do so. They were looking starvation in the face.
And the famine was sore in the land. And it came to pass, when they had eaten up the corn which they had brought out of Egypt, their father said unto them, Go again, buy us a little food. And Judah spake unto him, saying, The man did solemnly protest unto us, saying, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you. If thou wilt send our brother with us, we will go down and buy thee food: But if thou wilt not send him, we will not go down: for the man said unto us, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you . . . . And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds: And take double money in your hand; and the money that was brought again in the mouth of your sacks, carry it again in your hand; peradventure it was an oversight: Take also your brother, and arise, go again unto the man: And God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your other brother, and Benjamin. If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved. And the men took that present, and they took double money in their hand, and Benjamin; and rose up, and went down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph. (Genesis 43: 1-5, 11-15)
Upon their arrival in Egypt, Joseph invited them to his home. They immediately thought that the purpose was to do them evil. “And the men were afraid, because they were brought into Joseph’s house; and they said, Because of the money that was returned in our sacks at the first time are we brought in; that he may seek occasion against us, and fall upon us, and take us for bondmen, and our asses” (Gen. 43:18). A huge banquet was now held for them, and a much larger portion was given to Benjamin. “And when Joseph came home, they brought him the present which was in their hand into the house, and bowed themselves to him to the earth. And he asked them of their welfare, and said, Is your father well, the old man of whom ye spake? Is he yet alive? And they answered, Thy servant our father is in good health, he is yet alive. And they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance” (vv. 26-28). When Joseph saw Benjamin, he was so moved he went into another room and wept. He had now seen Benjamin for the first time in many years, and Simeon had now been released from prison.
Now Joseph really put them to the test. He wanted to see if they would stand by Benjamin in a time of crisis. “And he commanded the steward of his house, saying, Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth. And put my cup, the silver cup, in the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his corn money. And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken” (Gen. 44:1-2). “And when they were gone out of the city, and not yet far off, Joseph said unto his steward, Up, follow after the men; and when thou dost overtake them, say unto them, Wherefore have ye rewarded evil for good? . . . Then they speedily took down every man his sack to the ground, and opened every man his sack. And he searched, and began at the eldest, and left at the youngest: and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack” (vv. 4, 11-12).
Back in the city, they appeared before Joseph. Now we see the importance of Judah. He stepped forward and offered to take the place of Benjamin for the punishment he thought was sure to come. His answer to Joseph is one of the most heartfelt pleas in the entire Bible. It is recorded in Genesis 44:16-34. He now saw the brothers would stand by Benjamin, and Joseph was so moved by the words he could no longer refrain himself. “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known unto his brethren” (Gen 45:1). “And Joseph said unto his brethren, I am Joseph; doth my father yet live? And his brethren could not answer him; for they were troubled at his presence. And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt” (vv. 3-4). The brothers had passed the test, and they were astonished to find out this was Joseph.
What made Joseph great was his ability to comprehend what was really taking place. He clearly knew why God had allowed him to be sold into slavery. He knew he had been sent to preserve the lives of his entire family. He told his brothers:
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him, Thus saith thy son Joseph, God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me, tarry not: And thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen, and thou shalt be near unto me, thou, and thy children, and thy children’s children, and thy flocks, and thy herds, and all that thou hast: And there will I nourish thee; for yet there are five years of famine; lest thou, and thy household, and all that thou hast, come to poverty. (Gen, 45:5-11)
Joseph was a man of great insight, yet full of mercy and the ability to forgive. He clearly understood the providence of God in his life. He had already made plans for his family to settle in the land of Goshen.
Before Jacob went down to Egypt, God gave him assurances. “And God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob. And he said, Here am I. And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation: I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again: and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes” (Gen. 46:2-4). Joseph made a wise decision by separating his family from the rest of Egyptian society. The Egyptians regarded stockmen as an abomination, and it would not have been a good thing for the two societies to mingle.
After going to Egypt Jacob lived another 17 years. Before his death he passed the birthright on to the sons of Joseph. But after the death of Jacob the brothers were afraid Joseph would seek revenge. They were afraid for their lives. When Joseph heard this, he was deeply hurt at their lack of trust.
And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants. (Gen. 50:15-18)
What was Joseph’s answer?
“And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them” (Gen. 50:19-21).
Joseph was, indeed, a man of compassion. He was a man of faith who believed God’s promises. He anticipated the time when the people of Israel would return to their homeland. “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones” (Heb. 11:22). Like his father Jacob, he could look into the future and knew the value of preparing for it. He was a man who went from rags to riches, but was unaffected by it. He was forgiving and returned good for evil. He did not harbor any feelings of revenge that could thwart the divine purpose of God. He was truly a unique and special servant. Will he be in the Kingdom of God? Yes, indeed! (vv. 39-40) Joseph was truly a great man of the Old Testament!