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Joseph

The last of the patriarchs in Genesis is Joseph, the first son of Rachel. In many ways, Joseph stands in stark contrast to his father. While Jacob was a schemer who cheated his brother out of a birthright and therefore not very sympathetic as a character, Joseph holds fast to his integrity even when it costs him dearly. In fact, while we know Joseph did sin, none of those sins are mentioned at all in the book of Genesis. This stands not only in contrast with the life of Jacob, but even the life of the great patriarch Abraham (such as when he lied about not being married to Sarah).

The narrative of Genesis switches from Jacob to Joseph when the youth is seventeen years old. We read: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3). We might have expected that the friction caused by the fact that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah might have led Jacob to a more balanced relationship with his children, but it seems he never learned that lesson. As a result: “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” (verse 4).

To compound the issue, Joseph received a dream from God, which caused his brothers to hate him all the more. In the dream, his brothers were bowing down to him, serving him. And if that wasn’t enough, we read:
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind (Genesis 37:9-11).
All this tension came to a head one day when Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers who were tending their flocks in the town of Dothan. And we read of his brothers:
They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams” (Genesis 37:18-20).
One thing I noticed here is that even though the passage earlier has stated that it is because Jacob loved Joseph more than the other brothers that they first began to hate him, it is Joseph’s dreams that provoke the brothers to desire the death of their brother. Given that these dreams were from God, we can wonder if God has singled out Joseph by painting a figurative target on his back. This is reminiscent of the book of Job, where God points out Job’s righteousness to Satan, who immediately attacks Job and causes great suffering. Here, God gives dreams to Joseph, and those dreams prompt his brothers to seek his life.

Thankfully for Joseph, his brother Reuben intervened and rescued him from death. Instead of killing him outright, the brothers cast Joseph into a cistern to deal with him later. Reuben intended to use the delay to rescue Joseph and restore him to Jacob unharmed. The motivation for this action is not given, but it could be that because Reuben had slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah earlier, he may have seen this as a means of regaining favor with his father. But we do not really know since his motivation is not recorded for us.

In any case, after tossing Joseph into the cistern, the brothers sat down for their evening meal. Reuben had left at this point, so when the brothers saw a caravan of Ishmaelites, Judah convinced his other brothers to sell Joseph to the traders, and Joseph was taken to Egypt as a slave. When Reuben found out about it, he was angry and fearful of what Jacob’s reaction would be because, as the eldest son, Reuben had been in charge of Joseph’s care.

The brothers devised a scheme whereby they took Joseph’s cloak and dipped it in the blood of a slaughtered goat. They then presented it to Jacob and claimed that a wild animal had killed Joseph. Jacob fell into deep mourning and refused to be comforted, because he had lost his favorite son.

The narrative then moves to Egypt. Joseph had been sold to the captain of the guard of Pharaoh, a man named Potiphar. We read:
The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer in his house and put him in charge of all that he had (Genesis 39:2-4).
We see that God had not abandoned Joseph at all, but instead—similar to how He had blessed Jacob with the flocks of Laban—God causes everything Joseph does to succeed in Egypt. Potiphar sees that God is blessing Joseph and he does the wise thing: he appoints Joseph overseer of his entire household. In fact, so secure is Potiphar in Joseph’s capabilities that verse 6 even says “he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.”

We cannot pass by this paragraph without also noticing once again a passage of Scripture that can only make sense in a compatibilistic view. Joseph is a successful man, the text says, because “the LORD caused all that he did to succeed.” Notice that there are two actors involved. There is the LORD causing success, but that success is not out of thin air. What succeeds is “all that he did.”

Of course, if the story ended here it would be an interesting side path, but not one with any real importance. Instead, just when everything seems to be going well for Joseph, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. Joseph’s integrity is shown by his refusal to sleep with her, and his wording is worth noting:
But he refused and said to his master's wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8-9)
Joseph’s concern is two-fold. First, he does not want to undo the trust that Potiphar has in him. But even if that pragmatic reason were not sufficient, he also maintains that to sleep with Potiphar’s wife would be a “great wickedness and sin against God.” In answering this way, Joseph indicates both a concern for the people around him, and a concern for God’s righteousness.

And it should be noted that even though the initial sin here would have been against Potiphar, the sin is also described as one that is against God. In the end, even when there are other innocent victims involved in a sinful act, all sins are sins against God.

Unfortunately, Joseph’s steadfastness did not make Potiphar’s wife cease her advances. And one day, when there was no one else in the house, she seized Joseph by his garment trying to get him to sleep with her. Joseph tore off his garment and fled the house. Potiphar’s wife decided to have vengeance upon Joseph because he still refused to sleep with her, so she presented his garment and claimed that Joseph has tried to rape her. At this, Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison.

Joseph’s fortunes now seem to have faded even further. He had been sold into slavery, but God had caused all Joseph did to succeed and he had risen to the head of the household of Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. But now he is in prison, a fate much worse than slavery, for while purchasing slaves was a financial cost and therefore provided some incentive for an owner to not kill their slaves, in prison it is much cheaper to kill a prisoner than to care for one. But in the midst of all this, we read the following:
But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed (Genesis 39:21-23).
Did you catch that? While Joseph was in prison, it says the LORD “showed him steadfast love.” How many of us would consider it loving of God if we wound up unjustly in prison? Yet clearly the Bible indicates that it was not unloving on God’s part at all when Joseph was in prison.

Just as with Potiphar, God blessed Joseph. And note that the ultimate cause of Joseph gaining favor is not because of his own works. It was the LORD who made Joseph’s work succeed, and it was the LORD who showed favor and had the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of everything.

It can be easy to overlook the implications of verse 21, so let me repeat a portion of it: “But the LORD...gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.” Think about that for a moment. What does it mean for us to say we favor someone? It means that we prefer them, that we like them, that we wish to do them good. These are all internal aspect of our being. We often think of these areas as “who we really are” and yet here God is saying that He has complete control over those internals. God can make it so that another person favors you. That means that God is sovereign over your internal preferences and He can change them in order to make someone like another person enough to grant them favor.

This point is not often taught, so it deserves to be emphasized. This passage does not say (as in the case of Potiphar) that Joseph “found favor” in the sight of the prison keeper, where there is no explanation as to how that favor was found, and therefore it could have been for any number of reasons. Here it says explicitly God “gave him” that favor. God is not just sitting by while events go on. He is active in them. He moves and directs things as He sees fit. He is not an aloof God, akin to the Deist’s view of the Cosmic Originator who starts things in motion and then never interacts again. Instead, the Bible is clear, these passages in particular, that God has a vested interest in what occurs, and He does not mind interjecting Himself into the events of history as He sees fit. If He desires for someone to be blessed and to find favor, God makes that circumstance come to pass.

As we continue with the story of Joseph, we see that sometime after he is put in charge of the whole prison, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and his baker are both put into prison because they offended the Pharaoh. One night, they each had dreams that troubled them. Joseph could see they were troubled and said of the dreams: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (Genesis 40:8).

The cupbearer went first, and after hearing the dream, Joseph told him that in three days he would be restored to his official post. Joseph then asks the cupbearer to remember Joseph when that happened; to tell Pharaoh about how the dream was interpreted, so that Joseph could be freed.

The baker, seeing it was a good interpretation, told his dream as well. But this time, Joseph said that in three days Pharaoh would execute the baker.

Sure enough, three days later Pharaoh restored the cupbearer and executed the baker. But the final verse of chapter 40 reads: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Genesis 40:22). In fact, it would be two whole years before the cupbearer would remember Joseph again, after a night when Pharaoh himself had a disturbing dream. When Pharaoh could find no one to interpret the dream, the cupbearer told him of Joseph and the prisoner was brought before Pharaoh:
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:15-16).
Just as with the cupbearer and the baker, Joseph is quick to deny credit for interpreting the dreams. It is God, not Joseph, who understands the dream. Joseph is merely the conduit who speaks the words of interpretation.

After hearing the two dreams that Pharaoh has had, Joseph says: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” (verse 25). Again, this phrasing needs to be emphasized, so forgive me if I’m a bit repetitive once more.

God is not just passively telling Pharaoh what is about to happen, like some divine oracle who can see the future but do nothing about it. God is telling Pharaoh what “He is about to do.” This helps confirm once more that God does not know the future because He foresees it, but instead that the future is the unfolding of what God has decided to do. God makes plans and decrees what He is going to do, and then at times like this He tells people what those plans are. The reason God knows what the future will be is because God is the one making the future into what it will be. God is not a passive observer; He is the world maker.

And if verse 25 isn’t sufficient, Joseph repeats himself in verse 28: “God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” And what is it that God is about to do?
There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. And the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about (Genesis 41:29-32).
Thus we see that God is sovereign over whether a nation has plenty or whether it has a famine. Again, we see that it is God who “will shortly bring it about.” Not only that, but “the thing is fixed by God.” Note the implications that 1) it is God who fixes it, and 2) that God did not have to fix it this way but has decided to do so and will not change His mind. This cannot be true without God having complete control over those events. God is going to give food throughout the land for seven years, and He is going to withhold food for seven years. He gave Pharaoh two dreams about this so Pharaoh would have no doubt it will happen, and that it will happen soon.

Think about what we’ve learned here. God is sovereign over what actions He will take, including how much yield a crop will have. He can make it so that there are lots of crops, and He can bring about a famine. Furthermore, He can interfere with the normal sleep cycle of a human being and cause not just one dream, but two dreams to occur. Dreams that have specific meaning that He can then provide to Joseph, so Joseph can tell Pharaoh what God is going to do. This is God at work causing things to happen, interfering with the normal processes. Not just in nature, but also within the mind of human beings—causing favor to fall upon Joseph from the prison keeper on the one hand, and causing communicative dreams to Pharaoh in another, as well as somehow revealing the meaning of the dream to Joseph (in a method that the Bible does not describe).

Because this is going to happen, Joseph recommends Pharaoh put someone in charge of taking one-fifth of food produced during the good years to store for the upcoming famine. That way they’ll have a reserve for the time of the famine. Pharaoh and his officials approve of this plan, and Pharaoh appoints Joseph to oversee it. In effect, Joseph has now become the second in command of all Egypt. So from a slave, Joseph became head of Potiphar’s house; then he is imprisoned, and now he de facto rules all of Egypt. When he began to rule with Pharaoh, he was thirty years old. This means that in just over a dozen years, he has gone through almost every life station it is possible to go through!

Over the course of the next fourteen years, everything goes exactly as Joseph said it would. First, the seven years of bounty, and then seven years of famine. It is a bad famine, affecting the entire known world at the time. But while everywhere else in the world became famished, in Egypt there was plenty of grain.

Because the famine was so widespread, it even affected Jacob and his children in the land of Canaan. In Genesis 42, Jacob sends his sons (all except for Benjamin) to Egypt to buy grain. When the brothers got to Egypt, Joseph was in charge of distributing the grain, and we read:
And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them (Genesis 42:8-9).
That Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him is no surprise, given that they probably assumed he was dead by then. And if not dead, surely still a slave somewhere. It is interesting that as soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he remembered his original dreams, about how his brothers would bow down to him. He had reached his position of authority because of how he could interpret dreams, and now the dreams that had started the whole journey to Egypt in the first place are fulfilled. He is the ruler over his brothers and his entire family.

At this point, the story takes a bit of a strange turn as Joseph engages in some clandestine behavior. First, Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies sent to scout out Egypt to attack the country. The brothers of course deny it, but Joseph tells them that they will prove themselves not to be spies if they return with their youngest brother.

Throughout the exchange, Joseph had been using an interpreter, and we read:
Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them (Genesis 42:21-23).
At this point, Joseph turns away and weeps over what has happened. Even though his brothers do not recognize him, they understand that their current calamity is because of what they had done to him. When Joseph gets himself under control, he returns and engages in the next part of his subterfuge. He takes Simeon hostage, then sends the brothers on their way, secretly returning the money they had paid for the grain in the mouth of every sack. When the brothers discover this when they camp for the evening, “their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’” (Genesis 42:28).

Most of us today would consider getting free grain to be a blessing, but because the brothers knew they had sinned against Joseph, the sudden appearance of the money filled them with dread instead. They must have felt like God was cursing them, punishing them for their sin.

When they return to Jacob, they tell him what has happened and how the Egyptian had demanded that Benjamin return with the brothers to prove that they were not spies. Jacob refused to allow this, lamenting that Joseph was already dead, and now Simeon was no more too. He could not stand to lose Benjamin as well. Reuben put his own children on the line, offering that Jacob could sacrifice both his sons if they did not return with Benjamin, yet Jacob refused to change his mind.

But the famine was severe and long. Eventually, they ran out of food and the brothers had to return to Egypt. Facing starvation, Judah now intervenes, saying that Benjamin will be his responsibility. Jacob relents and sends the brothers back with double the money from before, so they could pay for the free grain they had gotten as well as new supplies.

When the brothers meet with Joseph again, he has them brought in for dinner, claiming that the money for the original grain had been paid in full and that God must have given the brothers treasure. He sits the brothers at the table by order of birthright, amazing his brothers. He then feeds all of them, giving Benjamin five times as much as the others.

Joseph then gives his brothers the grain, returns their money as before, but this time also puts his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack for the next stage of his plan. After the brothers leave, Joseph overtakes them and accuses them of theft. The brothers protest their innocence and declare, “Whichever of your servants is found with [your cup] shall die, and we also will be my lord’s servants” (Genesis 44:9). Joseph agrees to this, and searches through the bags, starting with the eldest and ending with Benjamin. At the sight of Joseph’s silver cup, they tore their clothes in sadness, returning to the city.

In the city, Judah offers himself in exchange for Benjamin, telling Joseph how Jacob would die at the loss of his only remaining son from Rachel. Joseph could no longer control himself, and ordered all the Egyptians from the area. We read:
And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence (Genesis 45:2-3).
This surely must have been the last thing the brothers were expecting. Their dismay is quite understandable, but Joseph what is perhaps the most remarkable thing in the entire saga:
And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:5-8).
What an amazing declaration! It was well within Joseph’s rights to have his brothers executed for what they had done to him. Instead, Joseph recognizes that it was not his brothers who had sent him to Egypt, but rather God had sent him. Joseph can see the purpose of his being sold to Egypt was so that there would be a remnant preserved, so that not everyone would die from the famine. Seeing the big picture, Joseph held no animosity toward his brothers.

While it may sound like a broken record, again God being in charge cannot be stressed enough. Joseph literally says “God sent me before you” and again “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Now we know that the actions of Joseph’s brothers were fully their own. There was no compulsion or coercion on their part. They did what they did of their own free will. And yet, nevertheless, it is God who determined what they would do, for it is God who sent Joseph. Again, this concept requires compatibilism to be true for it to work.

But note that there is another aspect that we haven’t touched on yet. The actions of the brothers were evil. They admitted as much earlier when they said, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother” and when Reuben declared, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?” So what the brothers did was evil.

Yet God sent Joseph. Doesn’t this imply that God does evil?

Do not gloss over this question! If you are honest in wrestling with the truth, this should cause you discomfort until you find a resolution. And indeed, there is a resolution which Joseph himself will give to us. But you will need to wait a bit for that resolution because I intend that you intellectually wrestle with this for a time.

And I urge you, please do struggle with it. You need to face the fact that God could send Joseph to Egypt through the means of his brothers selling him into slavery. This ought to make most Christians uncomfortable because it seems so alien to how God is typically portrayed. Could that be because so few churches actually portray the God of the Bible? (That might be something else you should ponder too—how faithful to Scripture is your church?)

Let us pick up the narrative again. Joseph now has his father move to the land of Egypt. Pharaoh is glad to see Joseph’s brothers and family, and grants them the land of Goshen. God tells Jacob that it is safe to go to Egypt, and Jacob rejoices to see his lost son again. But he makes Joseph swear not to bury him in Egypt.

Later, when Jacob is on his deathbed, he blesses his sons. Yet even in the blessings, there are consequences for the evil that the brothers have done. Reuben, who had slept with Jacob’s concubine, is stripped of his rights as firstborn. Simeon and Levi, who killed everyone in town after Dinah had been raped, are told “Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company.” Because of that, it is Judah who is given the leadership role. Jacob pronounces: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10).

After Jacob finishes blessing his other sons, he gives instructions on where to be buried and then breathes his last. And we reach the conclusion of Genesis with Joseph’s brothers in fear of what Joseph might now do to them:
When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:15-21).
Just as earlier in Genesis 45, Joseph tells his brothers that God engineered these results in order to save lives. But in this passage, he says something even more poignant for us to look at. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Let us be clear. It is plain that what the brother’s did was evil. We have seen Reuben call it a sin, and in the passage quoted above the brothers plainly speak of “all the evil that we did to him.” It is also clear that because it was “evil that we did to him” that the brothers were responsible for what they did.

Yet as we read before, it was God who sent Joseph to Egypt, and here we see that repeated. God put Joseph in Egypt “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” So both truths must be declared: the brothers acted freely and God determined what they would do. This just is the definition of compatibilism.

Furthermore, what the brothers did and what God did are the exact same action. What differs is solely the intent for the action. As Joseph said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” This point is critical as we understand the relationship between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty, and it resolves the earlier question about whether God Himself commits evil when He uses the evil actions of others to enact something.

Joseph says God brought about his being sold into slavery in Egypt in order that people would be spared from the famine. This was a good thing. Yet, the fact that God engineered his trip to Egypt does not mean that his brothers acted without evil. It would be tempting to think that if we did what God wants us to do in a situation, then that must mean we are doing good. Or, conversely, if we are doing evil but that is what God wanted us to do in a situation, then He must be doing bad too. But clearly, if Joseph’s brothers can mean something for evil while God means it for good, then it is possible for us to actually do what God wants while still sinning, and the fact that we sinned does not mean what God did was sinful.

In other words, it is possible for the same action—Joseph being sold—to be both good in how God acts, while also being evil in how the brothers act.

Again, I am fully aware just how infrequently this is taught in our churches, so I ask you to carefully read over these chapters in Genesis and see for yourself whether or not the text can mean anything else. And while you do so, there’s one more curious thing still remaining about this story.

You know the famine that kicked this whole thing off? Don’t forget that it wasn’t some unavoidable natural phenomenon that God had to deal with so this was His best effort to salvage a bad situation. Instead, God sent the famine. As Joseph said, “the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Genesis 41:32).

One could obviously ask the question, then: if God sent it, then He was in control the whole time. He could decide who it would affect, when, and why. So, why did God go through the rather convoluted process of giving Joseph dreams that would cause his brothers to hate him so much that they would sell him into slavery where he would then be falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown in jail, so that he would be in the place where two officials of Egypt would be sent in order for Joseph to interpret their dreams, so that years later when Pharaoh had a dream Joseph would be brought out of prison, become the second in command of Egypt, save countless people, and finally to have his brothers and father bow down to him just as his dream had predicted at the very beginning?

For now, I will leave you to ponder this question.

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