Genesis 37–41“Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” (Gen. 37:10)
Few Bible characters are as admirable as Joseph. He suffered injustice after injustice, yet persevered. His faith was ultimately rewarded, and Joseph realized that God had used each painful experience to accomplish good.
Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, was hated by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery (37:1–36), even though Joseph’s brothers were far less godly than he (38:1–39:23). God rewarded Joseph’s faithfulness with an ability to interpret dreams (40:1–23), which catapulted Joseph from prison to political power in Egypt (41:1–57).
Understanding the Text
Joseph. Joseph’s faithfulness enabled God to use him greatly. Joseph’s rise to political power in Egypt laid the foundation for the family to move to that land. For some 400 years the Hebrew people stayed there, first as guests and later as slaves. During that span of time the small family of 70 persons grew into millions. In effect, Egypt served as a womb in which God grew the nation which was born through Moses’ ministry. While war after war ravaged Canaan, God’s people were safe in Egypt, free to multiply “greatly” (Ex. 1:7). At the same time, the story of Joseph is the dramatic portrayal of a truly good man who overcame a series of tragedies. Joseph accepted the role of a slave and then of a prisoner, served his masters faithfully, and retained his trust in God. God used each tragedy to place Joseph where Pharaoh would hear of his gifts, invite Joseph to interpret his dreams, and then give Joseph great power and authority. On the one hand the story of Joseph is an inspiring account of a young man whose faith in God is finally rewarded. On the other, it is a reminder that God truly is capable of transforming the “all things” in our experience so that they “work good” (Rom. 8:28). Dreams. Dreams are critical in the story of Joseph. In the Old Testament, dreams may be ordinary (as Job 7:14) or may be means through which God reveals information (as Num. 12:6). Frequently revelatory dreams are symbolic and require interpretation. In other ancient religions, books existed that purported to provide a key for interpreting dreams, just as there are dream books found in modern bookstores! But in Scripture symbolic dreams can only be interpreted by God Himself or a prophet whom He gifts. As Joseph told Pharaoh, “I cannot do it [interpret a dream], but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (Gen. 41:16). The role of the interpreter in most of Scripture’s dream stories should warn us against seeking personal guidance through dreams, or taking our dreams as a direct word from the Lord. “A young man of seventeen” Gen. 37:1–11. Life must have seemed exciting to Joseph at 17. He was his father’s favorite. And he dreamed that he would have a great future! Filled with such visions, Joseph was not aware of how his father’s and his own behavior affected his brothers. They were jealous, and when Joseph told them of his dreams, they were angry. We can’t fault a 17-year-old for a lack of wisdom. We can, however, note how important it is to be sensitive to others and to be aware of how what we do and say affects them. “What will we gain?” Gen. 37:12–36 The brothers’ jealousy and anger spilled over when Joseph was sent to find them and their flocks. Most wanted to kill Joseph. But Judah, showing himself one of the better of the brothers, saved Joseph’s life by suggesting he be sold as a slave to a passing caravan of Midianite merchants. None of the brothers except Reuben intended for Joseph to be returned to his father. Only Reuben seemed to care for the anguish the death of Joseph would surely cause their father (cf. vv. 31–35). “Judah” Gen. 38:1–30. Judah applied the moral standards of his culture in his relationship with Tamar, the wife of one of his dead sons, who pretended to be a prostitute. The story suggests just how superior Joseph truly was. Judah seems to have done what he thought was right out of fear (v. 11), and was quick to judge Tamar when he thought she had sinned (v. 24). Joseph, pressured by far greater temptations, did what was right out of respect for God (39:9), and when he was later reunited with the brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph freely forgave them (cf. 45:4–8). It’s one thing to be “good” by the standards of our culture. It is something else again, out of love for God, to rise above those standards to be truly righteous. Placed side by side, the stories of Judah and Joseph remind us that God uses the person who is totally committed to Him. The Judahs do have roles in God’s plan. But the Josephs find truly significant places! “Sin against God” Gen. 39:9. Our system of law makes a distinction between victim and victimless crimes. The notion is that some crimes, such as assault or theft from a home, create victims. Other criminal acts, such as prostitution or homosexuality, theoretically have no victims. Each person involved is a consenting adult! Joseph was urged to have sex with his master’s wife. She’d keep the secret. Potiphar would never know. Who could possibly be hurt by a little fling? After all, as our movie rating systems suggest, these are the kinds of things “adults” both do and enjoy! Joseph wasn’t fooled. The “victimless” crime was in fact a “sin against God.” Satan eagerly sticks new labels on old sins, trying to confuse humanity and provide us with excuses to do what we know is wrong. It’s important that our vision be as clear as Joseph’s, and that we be as honest with ourselves as Joseph was with Potiphar’s wife. “Two officials” Gen. 40:1–23. The title of “cupbearer” and “baker” were given to two important officials in ancient Egypt. These discoveries by archeologists are two of many which mark Genesis 40–41 as amazingly accurate in its report of practices in Pharaoh’s court. Even a list of convicts in a royal prison, many with Semetic names, has been recovered. The Genesis report is history, not fiction. Joseph, whose life teaches us so many lessons about God, was a real human being, with whose tragedies and triumphs you and I can identify. It’s helpful to make a list of Joseph’s experiences, and to imagine how he must have felt as each event occurred. It’s even more helpful to think back over your own life. Have you had experiences that affected you as the events of Joseph’s life affected him? How good of God to include the stories of men and women like Joseph, to give us insight into what the Lord may be doing in our own lives. Jospeh’s Life
|Happy childhood||Gen. 37:1–3|
|Jealous brothers||Gen. 37:4–11|
|Faithful service||Gen. 39:1–6|
|Commitment to right||Gen. 39:7–10|
|Unfair treatment||Gen. 39:11–20|
|Hard work||Gen. 39:21–23|
|Helping others||Gen. 40:1–22|
|Forgotten by others||Gen. 40:23|
|Unique opportunity||Gen. 41:1–40|
|Recognition at last||Gen. 41:41–57|
|Forgiving his family||Gen. 45|
|Reunion at last||Gen. 46|
Egyptian wall paintings show high officials invested with the symbols of authority that Pharaoh gave to Joseph. “God will give Pharaoh the answer” Gen. 41:1–40. When Joseph was called from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he might have been filled with self-importance. Instead Joseph was careful to give God all credit. Joseph’s words, “I cannot do it . . . but God” (v. 16) are an absolutely accurate reflection of our own spiritual condition. All too many Christian leaders have fallen because they forgot the truth that Joseph remembered. Successes fill us with self-confidence, and all too soon we begin to act as if the achievements for which we are known were our own doing. We need to remember—and to say aloud what Joseph did. Such a confession will point others to God. And such a confession will protect us from the spiritual pride that goes before a fall. “In charge of the whole land” Gen. 41:41–57. Joseph was only 30 when he was made chief official of the land of Egypt. But from age 17 God had placed Joseph in positions where he could develop the needed skills. In Potiphar’s household, and then prison, Joseph was schooled to be an administrator! There is no telling how God intends to use our painful experiences to equip us for significant service in the future. But Genesis reminds us that we must deal with such experiences as Joseph did, remaining positive and making the best of the opportunities we are given. If we follow Joseph’s example, God will be able to promote us too.
“While Joseph Was There in Prison, the Lord Was with Him”(Gen. 39:1–23)
One of the most difficult experiences any of us has to handle is being treated unfairly. Carmine spent untold hours as an adult helping his parents with their business. Yet recently they told Carmine he would be left out of their will in favor of a brother and sister who never helped or seemed to care. Jackie still cries whenever she thinks of the crash that took the life of her 21-year-old son on his wedding night. Don is bitter because he learned that his wife, who treats him and his sons so coldly, has had an affair. Maria has been passed over for promotions in the law office where she works. Younger women who are more attractive than she, are given the promotions, even though she knows more and works harder than they do. Gil, forced to bring a law suit by the persecution of an ex-boss trying to drive him from the field where they both work, is being unmercifully attacked by Christian friends for taking a Christian brother to court. I know each of the five persons I’ve just described personally, though I’ve changed their names. I know how much pain each feels. What hurts each most is that what’s happening to him or her just isn’t fair. Joseph would surely understand, for he was treated unfairly too. In this passage which relates Joseph’s story, we find three principles that could help each one deal with the unfair things in his or her life. (1) Maintain a clear conscience. Joseph resisted Potiphar’s wife’s attempts at seduction. When she lied and had him thrown into prison, Joseph’s conscience was clear. He knew what happened had not been his fault. We can’t stop others from treating us unfairly. But by living good lives we can make sure that what happens to us is not a consequence of our own sin. (2) Keep on doing your best. Prison was very different from the palatial estate Joseph had supervised for Potiphar. But even there Joseph did his best. As a result he was “made responsible for all that was done there.” By doing our best despite life’s unfairness we demonstrate our innocence, and we prepare ourselves for whatever task God may have for us in the future. (3) Practice God’s presence. The Bible says that “while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him.” God is with us too even when life seems most unfair and the future bleakest. We can survive and triumph by practicing God’s presence. We do this by remembering He is with us, by prayer, by consciously relying on Him, and by doing our best, aware that we serve the Lord and not man. God does not guarantee that we will never be treated unfairly. But God does guarantee us His presence. If we practice that presence, keep on doing our best, and maintain clear consciences, we will not only survive. Like Joseph, we will triumph.
How is life unfair to you? Are you responding as Joseph did?