The final part of Genesis concerns a story which is familiar to many, the story of Joseph. It is a story that appeals to children as well as adults, a “goody wins over the baddy” story. It has even been made into a musical, although the popular references to a multicolored coat are probably inaccurate. It was more likely a coat specifically with long sleeves, rather than any kind of multicolored garment – the major point being that Joseph was made foreman over the others and wore attire which emphasized that he did not have to do manual work. Such preference was odd since Joseph was not the eldest son, so it led to considerable resentment.
Joseph is the fourth generation, the great-grandson of Abraham, and yet again he is not the eldest. There is a clear pattern here: the natural heir does not receive the blessing. God chooses in his grace who receives it. The pattern has been for it to be one of the younger sons.
In one important way, however, the pattern does not continue. I noted earlier that there is a great difference between Joseph and the previous three generations. God never calls himself “the God of Joseph”. Angels never appear to Joseph and his brothers are not rejected like those of the other three. His brothers are included in the Godly line of Seth, so there is not the same contrast to be seen in that respect. Furthermore, Joseph is never spoken to directly by God. He receives dreams and is given the interpretation of dreams, but he never actually receives communication from God as the other three patriarchs do.
So it seems that somehow Joseph stands on his own. Why is he different, and why are we told his story?
In part the reason is obvious, for his story links in naturally with the very next book in the Bible. In Exodus we find this family in slavery in Egypt and somehow we need to explain how they got there. The story of Joseph is the vital link, explaining how Jacob and his family migrated down to Egypt for the same reason that Abraham and Isaac had gone down to Egypt earlier: because of a shortage of food. (Egypt does not depend on rain since it has the River Nile flowing down from the Ethiopian highlands, whereas the land of Israel depends for its crops totally on rain brought by the west wind from the Mediterranean.) At the very least, therefore, the story of Joseph is there to link us with the next part of the Bible. The curtain falls after Joseph for some 400 years, about which we know nothing, and when it lifts again the family has become a people of many hundreds of thousands – but now they are slaves in Egypt.
If this is the only reason that the story of Joseph is included in Genesis, then it hardly explains why so much space is given to it. We are told almost as much detail as we are about Abraham and far more than we are about Isaac or Jacob. Why are we told about Joseph in such detail? Is it simply the example of a good man with the moral that good triumphs in the end? Surely there is more to it than that.
There are at least four levels at which we can read the story of Joseph.
1. THE HUMAN ANGLE
The first level is simply the human level. It is a vivid story told superbly with very real characters. It is a great adventure, stranger than fiction. There are some extraordinary coincidences in it, and you could summarize Joseph’s life in two chapters: Chapter 1, down, and Chapter 2, up. He went all the way down from being the favorite son of his father to becoming a household slave, and he went all the way up from being a forgotten prisoner to being Prime Minister. In between we have the envy of his brothers which brought him low, and the key to a successful ending lying in the dreams. At the human level, therefore, it makes a good musical show for London’s West End and thousands see it and enjoy it.
2. GOD’S ANGLE
You can also read the story from God’s angle. Even though he does not actually talk to Joseph, he is there behind the scenes, the invisible God arranging circumstances for his purposes and plans and revealing them through dreams. It is clear in the Bible that sometimes God needs to speak to his people in this way, but it always needs an interpretation. Joseph said these dreams were from God and that the interpretation would come from God. Daniel would later be noted for the same gift. Joseph believed that his circumstances were overruled by God and that God was behind the things that happened to him.
The key verse in the story of Joseph is found in Chapter 45, verse 7, when he finally made himself known to his brothers after humbling and embarrassing them greatly. Having forgiven them for what they had done to him, he then said, “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
Joseph’s brothers thought they had got rid of him by selling him to traveling camel traders as a slave and covering his special coat with the blood of a goat to trick their father into believing that his favorite son was dead. Yet Joseph could see that God’s hand was in it. He could look back on his work in Egypt, having been elevated to high office following his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream (i.e. there would be seven fat years with good harvest, and seven lean years to follow). By advising that food should be stored during the plentiful years he had actually saved the whole nation of Egypt – and his own family when they also became short of food. He became their savior.
God’s providence can also be seen in the movement of Joseph’s family down to Egypt. Although God had promised the land to them, he had told Abraham many years previously that he would have to leave his family in Egypt for 400 years “until the wickedness of the Amorites was complete”. God would not let the family of Abraham take the promised land from those living in it until they became so dreadful that they forfeited their right to both their land and their lives. God is a moral God: he would not just push one people out and his own people in. Archaeology has indicated to us just how dreadful these people were. Venereal diseases were rife in the land of Canaan because of their corrupt sexual practices. Eventually they reached the point of no return, and only then did God say that his people could have their land. Those who complain about God’s injustice in giving that land to the Jews are quite mistaken.
But there were other reasons too. God wanted his chosen people to become slaves. It was part of his plan to rescue them from slavery so that they would be grateful to him and live his way, becoming a model for the whole world to see how blessed people are when they live under the government of heaven. So he let them go through the evils of slavery, working seven days a week for no pay, with no land of their own, no money of their own, nothing of their own. Then, as they cried out to him, he reached down and rescued them with his mighty hand. God let it happen for his own purposes. He wanted them to know that it was God who delivered them and gave them their own land.
3. JOSEPH’S CHARACTER
We can also approach the narrative as a study of Joseph’s character. The remarkable thing is that nothing said about Joseph is bad. We have already noted that the Bible tells the whole truth about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who certainly had their weaknesses and sins. Not one word of criticism is leveled at Joseph. The worst thing he did was to be a bit tactless and tell his brothers about his dream of future greatness, but there is no trace whatever of a wrong attitude or reaction in Joseph’s character. His reactions as he sinks down the social ladder are first class: there is no trace of resentment, no complaining, no questioning of God, no sense of injustice that he should finish up in prison, on death row in Pharaoh’s jail. Furthermore, even though he was far from home and totally unknown, he maintained his integrity when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. Even at rock bottom, languishing in jail, his concern seems to have been primarily to help others as he seeks to comfort Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker. Joseph is a man who seems to have no concern for himself, but a deep concern for everyone else.
His character is also flawless when he ascends to be second-in-command of Pharaoh’s government. Note his reaction to the brothers who had sold him into slavery. He gives them food and refuses to charge them for it, putting the money back in their sacks. He forgives them with tears, intercedes for them with Pharaoh, and purchases the best land in the Nile delta so that they may live there. They had thrown him out and told his father that he was dead, but here he is providing for their every need.
Joseph is unspoiled either by humiliation or by honor. He is a man of total integrity and the only one so presented in the Old Testament. All the Old Testament characters are presented with their weaknesses as well as their strengths, but here is a man who only has strengths. There is only one other person in the Bible who is like this.
There is one chapter in the middle of the story of Joseph that comes as a shock. It is about his brother Judah. In the middle of the story about this good man there comes a stark contrast with his own brother Judah. Judah visits a woman he thinks is a prostitute, but who is actually his daughter-in-law with a veil on. He takes part in incest and the sordid story is told right in the middle of the Joseph narrative. Why is it there? It is there because it serves to highlight Joseph’s integrity by contrast. Just as Abraham was contrasted with Lot, Isaac with Ishmael and Jacob with Esau, so Joseph is contrasted with Judah.
4. A REFLECTION OF JESUS
So far we have discussed this story at three levels: the human story of a man who was taken all the way down to the bottom and then climbed right up to the top, and who became the savior of his people and the Lord of Egypt; the story of God’s overruling of this man’s life, using it to save his people; and finally the story of a man of total integrity, who all the way down and all the way up remained a man of truth and honest goodness.
Each level of the story reminds us of another: Jesus himself. Joseph becomes what is known as a type of Jesus. “Type” in this sense means “foreshadowing”. It is as if God is showing us in the life of Joseph what he is going to do with his own son. Like Joseph, his own son would be rejected by his brethren and taken all the way down to utter humiliation, then raised to be “Savior” and “Lord” of his people.
Once we recognize the “type”, the comparisons are remarkable. The more we read the story of Joseph the more we see this picture of Jesus, as if God knew all along what he was going to do and was giving hints to his people. Jesus himself encouraged the Jews to “search the Scriptures, for they bear witness of me”, referring to the Old Testament. As we read the Old Testament we should always be looking for Jesus, for his likeness, for his shadow. Jesus himself is the substance, but his shadow falls right across the pages of the Old Testament, especially in Genesis.