Lessons From the Life of Joseph

There is so much we can learn from the life of Joseph:

Have you been treated unfairly, even by members of your own family? Have you ever known injustice, betrayal and hatred? Have you ever done that which was right, and what you felt was of God’s clear leading, yet been reviled and abused for it? If so, you are not alone: others have gone through the same thing, including Joseph.

The story of Joseph found in Genesis 37-50 is incredible for so many reasons. Although hated and treated so very cruelly even by his own family members, he did not become bitter or vengeful but trusted God and blessed those who persecuted and mistreated him. We have a lot to learn from godly Joseph.

Let me offer a bit of background here. The Joseph story serves as a bridge between the patriarch narratives and the Exodus account. Joseph is the one through whom the nation of Israel comes. Some 70 people (Ex. 1:5) in his extended family eventually move to Egypt. So God is providentially protecting them for his purposes.

And he is the one through whom the saviour of the world eventually comes as well. Judah is promised that a royal sceptre will not depart from his house (Gen. 49:10) – the messiah comes though him and his line. So Joseph is such a crucial figure in the biblical timeline.

If you are not familiar with his story, please have a read of the 14 chapters – they will take just an hour of your time. But a few details of his life can be mentioned. His brothers hated the 17-year-old and the preferential treatment he had received from his parents, including the long-sleeved garment. (Reuben was the first born but lost his birthright by sin – see 1 Chron 5:1-2.)

He had two dreams which he reported to his brothers, but perhaps not in a very wise fashion, and that sealed his fate. While the dreams were from God and would one day be completely fulfilled, the idea that they would bow down to him was not well received.

So they dumped him in a pit and left him to die. But then he was sold to Ishmaelite/Midianite traders. He ended up in Potiphar’s household in Egypt. But “the Lord was with him” (Gen. 39:2), so he was put in charge of it. Acts 7:9 also says that God was with him.

However, while there, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. He resists her temptations, and for that he is thrown into prison (Gen. 39). See my write-up of this event here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/01/13/make-up-your-mind-now/

While in there he interprets the dreams of two officials from Pharaoh’s court who are also imprisoned. He hopes the cupbearer will remember him (40:14-15) but he forgets (v. 23). So Joseph remains there for two full years. Then Pharaoh has two dreams (ch. 41) which Joseph interprets. Both speak of 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine.

He is released from prison and elevated to second in command. “Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Gen. 41:46). So he had to wait 13 years to see the promises of God begin to be fulfilled in his life.

The famine extended beyond Egypt, so Jacob sent ten of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy grain, while keeping Benjamin behind. After some tests, Joseph finally reveals himself to them. As we read in Gen. 45:5-8:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.

Wow, talk about an amazing man. Instead of exacting revenge and getting back at his brothers, he shows love and kindness to them. He shows complete forgiveness. And he also sees the hand of God fully behind all these circumstances. He can see the bigger picture here.

This is repeated in another famous verse: Gen. 50:20. Indeed, this passage is the key to the whole story, and it comes right at the very end: “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’.”

All the evil and malice and envy and hate he had to endure from his brothers did not embitter him and turn him against them. Instead, it all served in the sovereign purposes and plans of God. God’s people were kept alive during this time of famine, and the Messiah would come as a result.

Here we see the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility: even the evil choices of men can be used for God’s purposes. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

As we find so often in Scripture, a series of bad events, obstacles and opposition looks like the covenant promises made to Abraham will be thwarted. But God comes through and works out his purposes. The tests, trials and temptations along the way can involve both God and Satan. Satan wants to ruin us while God wants to establish us in holiness.

But the ability of Joseph to maintain godly character throughout all this is certainly quite amazing. Most of us under similar circumstances would have become so angry, so embittered and so unforgiving to all those who did so much evil to us.

And we would be angry with God as well. Why bother to serve him so faithfully if it seems like he keeps turning his back on us, and keeps allowing us to suffer so greatly? The key to all this was the deep trust and love for God that Joseph had.

As Theodore Epp said, “God was an ever-present reality to Joseph. God dominated every aspect of his life. This was why Joseph could be so greatly used – his trust was in God, not in himself nor in his circumstances. The thing that was uppermost in Joseph’s mind was not his own needs and wants but that he should please God in everything.”

That is why he could tell his brothers that what they meant for evil God meant for good. As R. T. Kendall put it:

For Joseph to say ‘God meant it for good’ was the easiest thing he ever did. He had forgiven them long, long before. What is more, Joseph was thinking beyond the sphere of this present, earthly journey. When we become enamored with heaven, there is no place for holding a grudge. What is more, it was true: God meant it for good. Joseph was only telling them the truth.

Image of God Meant it for Good
God Meant it for Good by R. T. Kendall (Author) Amazon logo

Charles Swindoll concurs: “Joseph was led by grace. He spoke by grace. He forgave by grace. He forgot by grace. He loved by grace. He remembered by grace. Because of grace, when his brothers bowed before him in fear, he could say, ‘Get on your feet! God meant it all for good’.”

Forgiving and forgetting is hard to do. We find it difficult to do this, and often for much less worse offences we may have experienced. Think of what Joseph went through. Betrayed by his own brothers; sold into slavery; imprisoned under false charges; forgotten by those he helped; etc. In spite of all this, his heart and mind were fully in tune with God and his purposes.

So what can we take from this man and his life? Forgiveness is one major lesson. Do we have those that we need to forgive? Are there those who have mistreated us and abused us and turned on us that we still harbour resentment and bitterness towards? Do we allow memories of past hurts to block present relationships? If so, we may need to spent some time with God on all this.

For further reading

There are plenty of devotional books on the life of Joseph. Here are a few good ones, the three that I quoted from above.

Epp, Theodore, Joseph: ‘God Planned it for Good’. Back to the Bible, 1971.
Kendall, R. T., God Meant it for Good. Kingsway, 1986.
Swindoll, Charles, Joseph: A Man of Integrity and Forgiveness. Word, 1998.

Afterword on dreams

One thing that stood out to me while reading Genesis again was how important the issue of dreams is in the Joseph story. That got me thinking about the role of dreams in the economy of God. Other dreams are recorded in Scripture of course. So I started sniffing around, seeing if there are any good books on dreams.

While there seem to be plenty of how-to type books, telling us how to interpret our dreams, and so on, I could not find any solid theological volumes looking carefully at the dreams which are found in Scripture. I would think such books exist, but could not find any so far.

However, two volumes can briefly be mentioned. One book I checked out in a bookshop but did not end up buying is the 600-page, 2011 book, The Divinity Code by Adam Thompson and Adrian Beale. It seems to be the most comprehensive book on dream interpretation.

But a second book can be noted, at least indirectly. When I wrote my piece on Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, I was looking through the 3-volume expository commentary on Genesis by James Montgomery Boice. He does spend two pages (pp. 950-951) on the issue of dreams. He says in part:

What are we to think of these dreams? Or of the freedom of God to speak through dreams generally? We begin by noting that God was certainly in these dreams both in the giving of them and in the giving of their interpretation to Joseph. Moreover, God is involved in all the dreams of this story. He gave and fulfilled Joseph’s initial dreams about the time his brothers and father would bow to him (Gen. 37:5-7, 9; cf. 43:26, 28). Later he gave Pharaoh his dreams about the seven plentiful years and the seven years of famine and enabled Joseph to interpret them (Genesis 41)….

This does not mean that God always speaks in dreams or even that He does so at all in our day. It is worth noting, for example, how little significance dreams have in the Bible. The Bible is a big book covering many thousands of years of history. But there are only three places in the Bible where dreams figure prominently. In the Old Testament they are restricted to Genesis and Daniel. In the New Testament people sometimes had visions, as John did on the island of Patmos. But strictly speaking, there are only six dreams, and all these occur in Matthew.

Did these reveal the future? Yes. But largely at a time when the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament had not been given. This was clearly the case in Genesis; and with Daniel the dreams were part of the revelation that God was then giving. We are wise to conclude that today dreams are not revelations from God, though they may be accurate reflections of our own subconscious states. For a true and trustworthy revelation we are to turn to Scripture alone, Sola Scriptura

I do not doubt that God can speak to people today in dreams and visions. Think of how many Muslims are coming to Christ in this way. But we must always take care with them, and hold up everything to the light of the inerrant Scriptures.

[2003 words]

8 Replies to “Lessons From the Life of Joseph”

  1. Thank you, Bill, for illustrating so well how God’s grace worked in the lives of Joseph and his family.

    Other fascinating features of this part of the Old Testament are the uncanny parallels between the account of Joseph and his brothers, and the life of Jesus. Some parts of Joseph’s life seem almost like a pre-enactment of the earthly ministry of our Lord.

    Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him (Gen. 37:18), in the same way that the Jewish authorities in the New Testament plotted to kill Jesus.

    Joseph’s brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver (Gen 37:28). Judas sold Jesus to the Jewish authorities for 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 26:15).

    Joseph was despised by his blood-brothers and given up for dead. Jesus was despised, not by his blood-brothers, but by a large number of his extended family, the children of Israel.

    Joseph’s suffering, however, like that of Jesus, was all part of God’s plan. Joseph subsequently forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery. He said, “It was God who sent me ahead of you to save men’s lives” (Gen. 45:5).

    Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so Joseph served his prison sentence with two other captives, Pharaoh’s baker and butler (Gen. 40).

    The prophetic images of bread and wine appear in the dreams of Joseph’s fellow-prisoners (Gen. 40).

    Later, when Pharaoh seeks Joseph’s interpretations of his own dreams, he is so impressed by Joseph’s shrewdness and intelligence that he says: “You shall be in charge of my household, and all my people will depend on your every word.” (Gen. 41:39-40).

    Two points can be made about Pharaoh’s words here:

    First, Joseph is thereby given authority over the gentiles. In a similar way, Jesus is ruler, not just of his own people, the Jews, but of all the gentile nations as well. The matter is stated by David: “For kingly power belongs to the Lord, and dominion over the nations is his.” (Psalm 22:28). Furthermore, Scripture says, “Also I will name him my first-born, highest among the kings of the earth.” (Psalm 89:27).

    Secondly, Pharaoh, in saying that all of his people “will depend on his [Joseph’s] every word”, echoes what Scripture says on depending not on bread alone, but on God’s every word (Deut. 8:3 and Matt. 4:4).

    Joseph was 30 years old when he entered Pharaoh’s service as prime minister of Egypt (Gen. 41:46). Jesus was the same age when he began his earthly ministry (Luke 3:23).

    Joseph’s wise management of the Egyptian granaries ensured the supply of the “bread of life” to the famine-stricken people – not only of Egypt, but of “the whole world” (Gen. 41:55-57).

    The bread of life, like God’s grace, is a free gift from God – as Joseph’s brothers found out when they discovered that Joseph had secretly returned the silver with which they had paid for their grain (Gen. 42:25-28).

    Just as Jesus mourned for the children of Israel who rejected God’s messengers (Matt. 23:37), so Joseph wept for his brothers who had rejected him (Gen. 42:24).

    When Joseph had his brothers arrested for being spies and demanded that Benjamin be kept as a hostage, Reuben believed that their plight was a well-deserved punishment for their unjust treatment of Joseph (Gen. 42:21). As Reuben expressed it, “His blood is on our heads” (Gen. 42:22). In the New Testament, when the Jews called for the release of guilty Bar-Abbas and for the death of Jesus, they declared, “Let his blood be on our heads.” (Matt. 27:25).

    At the appointed time in the future, when Jesus comes again, it is prophesied that the Jews will behold “him whom they have pierced, and shall wail over him as over an only child, and shall grieve for him bitterly as for a first-born son” (Zechariah 12:10).

    Joseph’s parting words to his brothers, before they returned from Egypt, are like Christ’s words to his disciples: “Do not be afraid…” (Gen. 43:23).

    Joseph’s father Jacob and his family journey to Egypt. “Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to meet his father Israel in Goshen.” (Gen. 46:29). Likewise, Jesus is prophesied to come in kingly glory (Zechariah 14:4; Jude vs 14-15).

  2. I have deliberately avoided books and articles about interpreting dreams. There is only one way to interpret dreams that I know of from scripture, and is a method I have successfully used myself (regarding whether our pets are saved), and that is to seek the Lord. Of course the usual checks need to be in place to ensure you are hearing from God and not being mislead by a deceptive spirit but when you are lead to scripture to answer your question that is very good evidence. We should all, of course, be open to God’s teaching on how to correctly hear from Him and recognise His voice.

  3. It is with reflection, decades removed, that I understand so much of my youth and why it was the way it was. Distance can give perspective.

    I am glad you mentioned dreams. I have talked with so many that take dreams as being from God to the point of adding to Scripture even though denying it their words and actions show otherwise. So many Christians seem to treat dreams and visions this way even so called visitations to heaven. It is dangerous. Many times these are on subjects the Bible speaks little of but to elevate them to Scripture in authority and use them to prove something borders on on heresy.

  4. of course Michael that is part of the problem so much of the church has NO discernment whatsoever and will believe anything that sounds right. if a spirit say it is God or from God too much of the church simply believe the spirit with no testing. in fact some think testing wrong because ‘you shall not tempt the Lord thy God’. so if the spirit say it is God they don’t check. too much blind faith not enough reasoned faith. “faith and reason are like the shoes on your feet you can go father with both than you can with just one”. true there are time when you are lacking in evidence and must take that leap of faith but usually there is at least some evidence to support you. it is rare you have to take a leap of faith with nothing to go on. some think they are more spiritual because they don’t rely on any evidence ‘only God’. (I believe and that is enough). they make all of us look like fools.

  5. Thanks Bill and John. The story of Joseph is the only place in the Bible that makes me deeply sob as it shows the love and forgiveness of God. Jesus also forgave many but because the events written about Him are short and sweet eye witness accounts I don’t get so emotional. I should because when you think about the woman caught in adultery (she was due to be stoned to death) and the paraplegic, blind, lepers, lame etc and then His unlawful crucifixion with all the hatred and discrimination he had to endure I should be sobbing every time I read the gospels. Maybe I need to pray for a better understanding of the gospels.
    Regarding dreams and visions, we should discern the difference between what happened on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:17 where Peter explains what is happening ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:’ and what Jesus said in Matthew 24: 5&11 ‘And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.’

  6. I think the commentator got it right that dreams are most likely to be reflections of our own sub-conscious state. Maybe a psychiatrist or psychologist could confirm that. I dream a lot (when I am asleep!) but I have concluded that God does not speak to me in my dreams. In fact I think it’s most likely dangerous ground to think otherwise. On the other hand I have encountered angels when I am awake so anything is possible. I have asked God to let me see my son since he died but the answer has always been no. But with an assurance that Tim is with Jesus.

  7. I wouldn’t say it is dangerous to this he does but you must always check to be sure not assume it is from God. personally when I hear from God it is more of a dream but in the time between wake and sleep just as I am getting up. too many just run with something they are so sure is from God without checking. or they have this secret code where God sends some animal across their lawn after a prayer to confirm. such a code could be faked by satan easily. but yes so many dream do come from self or from satan and without any discernment or any questioning to be sure we will fall for a lot. I wish I could remember the verse but so many take the don’t tempt the lord thy God so far that they can’t verify he told them something or send them a dream. I mean if you got a letter in the mail asking you to put on a chicken outfit and dance the charleston on 5 ave and it was signed Jesus don’t you think you MIGHT want to ask Jesus about it first????? The same is true for any word or dream supposedly from God.

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