Genesis 37-41: Joseph’s story

Jimmy JoGenesis, O.T. Survey, SermonsLeave a Comment

In a Nutshell…

Read the passage here.

We are skipping all the way to Genesis 37 today and we’ll actually encompass several chapters again as we take a look at the story of Joseph. Our story today immediately opens focused on Joseph. And what we know is that Joseph is the second youngest son (the youngest being Benjamin).  Once again, in a patriarchal, hierarchical society such as this one (probably), it would be expected that any inheritance, any status or privilege, would be carried by the eldest son.  However, we have seen throughout God’s story of redemption that this is not how God operates.  God repeatedly chooses to bless, and chooses to carry the blessing to be a blessing, the less favoured.

  • Cain and Abel
  • Isaac and Ishmael
  • Jacob and Esau

A second thing worth noting is that, again right at the beginning, we learn that Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. This reminds us of the tension that existed in the previous generation:  Isaac loved Esau but Rebekah loved Jacob.  So immediately we might guess that this tension between brothers will play a significant part of the story.

Furthermore, we are once again reminded of the consequences of sin as the very notion of brother against brother is contrary to the created order, the intent of God. It’s this conflict that gets played out in the rest of this part of the story. Joseph tells his brothers of a dream that he had where his brothers all bow down to him, and then a second dream where the sun and the moon (which are presumed to represent his father and mother) bow down to him as well.

The reaction of his brothers, who are incensed with Joseph, launches us into a surprising drama. We learn that Joseph’s brothers hatch a plan. They intend to kill Joseph and only relent when one of his brothers, Reuben, pleads for his life.  Instead, they decide to sell him into slavery.  He winds up in the household of Potiphar, an Egyptian who was the captain of the guard for Pharaoh.  Because Joseph wouldn’t give in to the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife, she has him thrown into prison under a false accusation.

While in prison, Joseph finds himself accompanied by Pharaoh’s cupbearer and a baker. Each the cupbearer and the baker have dreams which Joseph interprets, accurately giving them the meaning of those dreams.  Despite Joseph’s success, he remains in prison until two years later.

After these two years, we learn that Pharaoh has a dream that troubles him. Genesis 41 tells us this dream as follows:

He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up.

He fell asleep again and had a second dream: Seven heads of grain, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprouted—thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream.

Pharaoh is disturbed by these dreams and even more so that no one in his court can interpret them. Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers Joseph who had correctly interpreted his own dream and tells Pharaoh of him.

14 So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh.

15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”

16 “I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”

So Pharaoh tells Joseph his dreams, just as we’ve already read.

25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream. 27 The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine.

28 “It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, 30 but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. 31 The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. 32 The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.

33 “And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. 35 They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. 36 This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.”

37 The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. 38 So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?”

Pharaoh decides that Joseph alone, as one who is favoured by God, is the man for the job.

41 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” 42 Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. 43 He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, k and people shouted before him, “Make way!” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt.

44 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt.” 45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt.

Now obviously, we’ve passed through this story extremely quickly. There’s a lot going on here (for example, we’ve excluded entirely the story of Judah and his encounter with his daughter in law).  But our purpose here is to pay attention to the bigger story, though the smaller elements to the story are not less important.  And there is also an extent to which this is only the first half of the story.  We don’t get the full-big-picture until we include the rest of the story, which we’ll look at in a couple of weeks.

But looking at the bigger story, there’s a couple of elements that, in my mind, are worth pointing out. Unlike the stories of Abraham and Jacob, there is no theophany – no divine visitation, or revelation, neither by God Himself, nor angels. There’s no proclamation or affirmation of covenant.  Nevertheless, especially in light of the entire story from Abraham, there’s little doubt that God is orchestrating, or perhaps better, attending, the events here.  Joseph acknowledges in his interpreting dreams that it is God who interprets and not himself.  And Pharaoh himself seems to recognize God’s hand in Joseph’s life.  Most revealing is the verse that we haven’t got to yet, Genesis 50:20.  When Joseph is talking to his brothers, forgiving them for selling him into slavery, he says:  “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

We can see this in the development of the plot, so to speak (and I’m not discounting the historicity of the events here). Remember back in Genesis 12, after Abram receives the call from God, we find out that Abram leaves the land to which God had called him because there is a famine in the land, and he goes to Egypt.  In a sort of mirror image, Joseph is sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, where there is going to be a famine.

This “escape” to Egypt is, however, markedly different from Abram’s flight to Egypt. Remember that when we looked at Genesis 12, Abram’s departure was surprising because immediately preceding that, God had told him that the land to which he was called was promised by God.  Nevertheless, because of the famine, presumably because of Abram’s fear (he had not yet learned to trust God), he flees to Egypt.  And in Egypt, we find out that Abram, again presumably because of fear, lies about Sarai, claiming that she is his sister instead of his wife, which leads directly to her adultery with Pharaoh.

Now note the difference with Joseph’s story. Joseph is sent to Egypt because of the anger and jealousy of his brothers (though, again, we understand and are later confirmed that this would be, at least, used by God).  Joseph is pursued by Potiphar’s wife but refuses to fall into adultery, saying, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (39:9)  Then, later in our story, Joseph is put into a position in charge of all of Egypt, in preparation from the famine – in effect, he is not running from famine as Abram was, but is now rescuing people from it.

Now I don’t want to over-state these elements – I don’t want to “over-spiritualize” or read too heavily into these details. On the one hand, it’s worth noting how the “escape to Egypt” stories serve as a kind of frame or bracketing for the Patriarchal stories.  More importantly, however, looking at Abram’s story vs. Joseph’s story, we see a distinct difference in the redemptive work of God. In other words, Abram goes to Egypt “without” God – Joseph goes to Egypt very much “with” God.

So What Now…?

As I’ve said, we’re going to finish up our discussion of Joseph’s story next time – in a few weeks – so there’s an extent to which I want to hold off on conclusions until then (because this story is so tightly held together). Nevertheless, there’s a couple of things that might be worth saying:

Joseph had a heck of a time of things. Imagine going through what he went through – sold by his own brothers. Several commentators have noted that, at the beginning of the story, he may have been conceited, self-centered, oblivious to others – it’s actually hard to tell. At the very least, that’s no excuse for what he had to endure.  But as the story develops, we quickly get the sense that he, at least, has learned or is learning to trust in his God.

Now, as we said, unlike Abram, Joseph goes to Egypt “with God.” And, as we see and will see next week, things work out in the end for Joseph.  But the bigger reality is that the story is not about Joseph – not really.  Joseph’s story is just a part of the larger story of God bringing about His redemption in creation.  Joseph, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, doesn’t see the real fulfillment of God’s promises.

So there are a couple of things to think through.

I know many of us are going through things. Some of us aren’t going through things right now, but we know what that’s like.  Some of us aren’t going through things right now, but just you wait.  My question is, are we going with God, or on our own?  Are we trusting in our own strengths and abilities, or will we trust in God?  And what does it mean to you, what could it mean for us, to know that no matter what we’re going through, God is on our side.

The second thought I have about this is, as I said, things seemed to work out for Joseph. But as we will see, God is still working in this story.  We’ll see this as we get to Exodus, and we’ll see it throughout the OT story.  Everything we see here is precursor to the finished work of Jesus Christ.

We live on the other side of the climax of the story in Jesus Christ – but still, the fulfillment of the completed work is yet to come. What does it mean to you, what could it mean to you to know that, no matter what you’re going through, redemption is coming?

Maybe you’re going through it, whatever it is, and you don’t see God yet. You don’t see God working yet.  Don’t worry, He is still working.  He is still coming. Maybe you’ve gone through it, and you feel like God’s made everything better, that you’re in a pretty good place. Just imagine what paradise will be like.  Because whatever you’re seeing, whatever you’ve received, it’s just a shadow – just a reflection.  Rejoice, because He is still working.  He is still coming.

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