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.
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: 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.”