'Studies in the Old Testament'

The Abrahamic Covenant - 9

February 2009

(Continued from page 485)

Joseph in Egypt

Chapter 37 begins the narrative of Joseph. We read in verse 2  that Joseph was seventeen years old, in the year 1898 B.C., when he brought back a report about his brothers.  It is noticeable that the brothers he recounted tales about were his ten older half-brothers, since Benjamin was just a baby, probably between two and seven years of age.  No-one likes a tell-tale and the brothers disliked Joseph for broadcasting their sin, but also because he was the favourite son of Jacob. Joseph was Rachel's son and she died when Benjamin was born.  Because of this attachment, and because he was born when Jacob was an old man, Joseph became the favoured son.  As a token of his love for him, Jacob presented Joseph with a the historically famous "coat of many colours"  (Genesis 37:3) which acts as another lesson to parents everywhere against showing blatant favouritism - for it acted like a "red rag to a bull" to his brothers!  It is something of a disappointment to read the NASB translation "a varicolored tunic," although this is a correct translation of the original Hebrew text, since for most of us this description will never match the image conjured up by the famous "coat of many colours." Joseph continued to show poor judgement and boasted of dreams he had which implied that he would one day have the rule over the whole family.  Finally, his brothers grew so indignant at his attitude that they plotted to kill him, planning to tell their father he had been slain by a wild beast. The pleading of Reuben dissuaded them from shedding their own brothers' blood and instead they threw him into a pit and then followed an alternative plan by pulling him out to be sold to a caravan of nomad Ishmaelites who sold him on into slavery in Egypt.  As usual we have a "warts and all" account in Genesis, for the inspired writer, while obviously holding Joseph in high regard, looks at the situation objectively.  It is true that Joseph's brothers treated him more harshly than he actually deserved, but it is also true that the picture we have of Joseph as a teenager with a wonderful gift from God is one of insufferable arrogance.  This should act as a warning to all Christians regarding the use of spiritual gifts.

Re-capping from Genesis 35, beginning in verse 33, we have a summation of the twelve sons born to Jacob. Leah had given birth to six sons - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. The sons born to the deceased Rachel were Joseph and Benjamin and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel's maid, were Dan and Naphtali; the sons of Zilpah, Leah's maid, were Gad and Asher.  Isaac dies (v29) aged 180 years of age (v28), so Esau and Jacob were 120 years old. Isaac's death would have occurred about twelve years after Joseph disappeared and he died without knowing the fate of his grandson Joseph. Jacob was despondent, having lost his father Isaac, and his favourite son Joseph had been presumed dead for over a decade. We can imagine the heartache he would have shared with Isaac and the rest of the family for all these years, for they were still unaware of Joseph's fate.  He still had eleven sons at home, including the youngest, Benjamin upon whom he lavished even more affection and protection, lest the same fate as Joseph befall him.

Little did he know that during this time Joseph had not died at the jaws of a wild beast, but was being severely tested in the land of Egypt. His God-given abilities have caused him to be promoted to the position of overseer of Potiphar's house.  As Joseph matured the arrogance of his adolescence left him and he acquired the noble character and dedication to God we commonly associate with him.  When he rejected the amorous advances of his master's wife she had him thrown into prison on the false charge that he had tried to seduce her.  But even in prison God was with him and he became a trusted assistant to the chief jailer.  While he was in jail, he correctly interpreted the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners.  Later, when the Pharaoh had a dream which troubled him, Joseph was called upon to offer an interpretation. Joseph informed Pharaoh that the dream was a portent of a seven year famine which was to fall upon the land.  Before this famine, however, there was to be a seven-year period of abundant harvest and prosperity which would enable the Egyptians to prepare for the approaching famine.  We see the wonderful way in which the gifts of God far exceed the counterfeit powers demonstrated through the magicians at the court of Pharaoh, who was so overwhelmed by Joseph's wisdom and favour with his God that he appointed him as his personal assistant in administering the affairs of Egypt.  Thus, in the course of thirteen years, the youth who entered Egypt as a slave now sat at the right hand of Pharaoh, second in command in the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.

When the period of famine arrived, Joseph's skilful administration had left Egypt prepared for the emergency.  As was customary in times such as these, people poured in from the North and East in order to get food.  Among these were the ten sons of Jacob, Joseph's brethren. Joseph displayed no real desire for revenge against his brothers but, when he saw they did not recognize him, he could not resist the opportunity to manipulate them a bit.  First, he spoke roughly with them and accused them of being spies.  Then he kept Simeon as a hostage until they should return from Canaan with his full brother, Benjamin, who had remained at home with his father. Jacob was extremely reluctant to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt, but finally relented at Judah's urging.  When they appeared before Joseph a second time, he prepared a feast for them and inquired of the health of his father.  Still, he concealed his identity from them and always spoke through an interpreter.  As they prepared to return home with their grain, Joseph instructed his steward to secrete his silver cup in the grain sack belonging to Benjamin.  Before the brothers had gone very far, Joseph had them apprehended and brought back to him.  When Benjamin's sack was found to contain the cup, Joseph announced that Benjamin would have to remain in Egypt as his slave.  The brothers were dismayed. Judah, who had convinced his father of the safety of the mission, offered himself in Benjamin's place, pleading with Joseph that the shock of losing Benjamin would probably kill their father.

It is not possible to say just what lay behind all of Joseph's actions concerning his brethren, but when they spoke of their love for their father and their concern for his welfare, the bond of brotherhood overcame the last vestige of resentment.  With uncontrollable sobs that could be heard throughout the royal buildings, Joseph made himself known to his brethren, who stood before him in speechless bewilderment which bordered on terror.  When Joseph sensed their discomfort, he called them close to him and assured them they had no cause to be distressed.  There was no reason for their fear, he told them (Genesis 45:5-8

5  "And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.  6  "For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.  7  "And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.  8  "Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
This statement is characteristic of the theological outlook of the patriarchal narratives and for much of the rest of the Old Testament.  God will be faithful to his promises.  Despite reversals and near disasters His people may suffer, there will always be a remnant left through which His will may be brought to fulfilment.  First, it seemed incredible that Abraham and Sarah should have a son of their own.  Then, it appeared as if that promised child would be sacrificed on Mount Moriah.  Even after Jacob became the father of twelve sons, there was reason to fear his entire clan would be wiped out by an angry Esau.  Now, ten of these brothers have committed a terrible crime of envy against their brother but this, too, becomes a channel of God's blessing.  So pervading is this idea that Joseph is led to declare: "It was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt" (45:8
1).  If Joseph had not been sold into Egypt, the people of God would have starved in the great famine.  Through God's providence, however, they were to live in comfort in the land of Goshen in the delta area of the Nile, which was truly "the best of all the land of Egypt" (45:20).  In Chapter 47 we read of Joseph's wise administration of Egypt during the years of famine.  It may seem somewhat harsh by modern standards but, in return for food from the Pharaoh's granaries, men gave their money, their cattle, and their land; finally, they sold themselves into state slavery, preferring even this to death by starvation.

God had used Joseph's mistreatment, suffering, and exaltation to preserve the Hebrew nation and the Seed of promise.  As Christians we can look at the example of Joseph's life to examine our lives and the situations and environments that surround us and see God's hand moving, shaping, and designing our lives and the circumstances around us for our own good.  As a result of God's Sovereign care Jacob and his family lived out their lives in Egypt under the protection and blessing of the Pharaoh and the last chapter of Genesis tells us that Joseph died in Egypt at 110 years of age, in approximately 1805 B.C., and was embalmed and placed in a coffin in the land adopted for him by God, who "meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20)



New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, 1977
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin; Edited by Nora Barlow, pp.86-7, Collins, 1958
Origin of Species; Penguin, 1968, p.293
4. Ernst Mayr,
"The Nature of the Darwinian Revolution", Science volume 176 p.981; 2 June 1972
5. Dr. H.. M.  Morris,
"The Troubled Waters of Evolution"; Creation-Life, San Diego, California, 1974, p.55
"The Freethinker," Secular Humanist Monthly, founded by G.W. Foote in 1881; editor Peter Brearey; printed Hattersley and Son
Studies in Genesis One and Genesis Three by Professor E.J. Young; Banner of Truth
'Transactions of the Victoria Institute'; E. J. Young and F. F. Bruce, 1946, p.21
9. W.P. Woodring,
'Marine Pleistocene of California,' Treatise on Marine Ecology and Palaeoecology, Vol. 2, Palaeoecology.  H.S. Ladd editor, Washington: The Geological Society of North America, Memoir 67,1957, p. 594-595
10. Wilfred Francis, 
Coal: Its Formation and Composition - London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1961. p. 18-19
11. W.B. Wright,
The Quarternary Ice Age, p. 111, cited by Immanuel Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval, Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1955, p. 57-58
12. J.G. Funkenhouser and John J. Naughton 
"Radiogenic Helium and Argon in Ultramafic Inclusions from Hawaii", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73 #14, p4602

13. "Biblical Customs and the Nuzu tablets" - The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, Vol.  II,  21-33; Gordon Cyrus H.

'The Abrahamic Covenant'

Genesis 3:15 and its importance to Old Testament history and Christianity

Theories of the origin of the world and mankind

Abram's brothers

Promises and validation of the Abrahamic covenant

Isaac's prayer for his barren wife related to twentieth century Christianity

Jacob and Esau

Jacob's eleven sons

Esau, Jacob and Laban

Joseph in Egypt

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