Genesis/Exodus Week 9

“Lurking Providence”: Genesis 39:1–50:26

William de Brailes, Joseph's Cup found in Benjamin's Sack, Walters MS W.106 (c. 1250). Illuminated manuscript. Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons.
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Joseph Under Potiphar

Once Joseph is under his Egyptian master Potiphar, we learn that God is with him (Genesis 39:2, 3, 21, 23). The phrase is curious in that, so far, one is hard put to see divine favor on him. So far his brothers have plotted to kill him (37:18), tossed him into a pit (37:24), and then sold him into slavery (37:28). Does this seem blessed?

Granted, circumstances improve a little when he successfully runs his master’s household (39:2–6). Still, he is a slave. Plus, Joseph’s good looks contribute to another reversal. Potiphar’s wife tries mightily to seduce Joseph, but to no avail. Eventually she turns on him and falsely charges him (39:6c–20).

However, even in prison God is with him. Again, he is still a prisoner. It also is intriguing that others recognize God’s being with Joseph, including Potiphar (39:3) and the prison warden (39:21–23). Perhaps Joseph has not been singularly blessed in every way, but he has become a blessing (39:5). The promise God made to Abraham long ago (12:2) is already being partially fulfilled.

Joseph’s fortunes change when two prisoners whom he supervises have dreams (40:1–8). We might well wonder why Joseph is keen to interpret them, since his own dreams hardly turned out to be predictive. Nevertheless, insisting that he has divine help, Joseph proceeds to explain the two dreams. In both cases, he accurately predicts the fate of the two men based on their dreams (40:8–22). Unfortunately, the man who is restored to Pharaoh forgets Joseph afterwards (40:14–15, 23). Joseph languishes in prison, even though God is with him.

Dreams come into play once more with Pharaoh. His vivid dreams featuring fat and emaciated cows, and plump and blighted ears of corn, stump everyone (41:1–8). This impasse jogs the memory of Joseph’s previous fellow prisoner. He informs Pharaoh of “a young Hebrew” with a prowess for dream interpretation, which gets Joseph an audience with the monarch (41:9–14). Appearing before Pharaoh, Joseph assures him that his ability to interpret dreams is from God (41:15–16). Again, we are left scratching our heads, since Joseph’s own dreams seemed to predict the opposite of what actually happened to him.

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams

Joseph does more than interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He asserts that the fact that the two dreams are alternate versions of the same dream indicates divine providence. There is no question what Egypt’s future holds (41:32). Does Joseph know this because God is with him? Again, while we cannot help but be impressed with his interpretive ability, not to mention his assessment of God’s providential hand, we are still confused about Joseph’s original dreams. After all, the man has just gotten out of prison. Has anyone bowed to him even once since he had those dreams? If providence is at work, as Joseph insists, it is a strange providence, indeed.

Not content to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and put a theological spin on the interpretation, Joseph also offers a strategy for formulating Egyptian economic policy on the basis of those dreams. Joseph encourages Egypt to buy up all the food it can during the boom years. Then, when the famine hits, Egypt will have a monopoly. Joseph also advises Pharaoh to find a man “discreet and wise” to put in charge of implementation (41:32–36). We are hardly surprised that Pharaoh not only deems this a brilliant idea, but also deems Joseph precisely the sort of man who should be in charge (41:39).

Pharaoh therefore makes Joseph second in command. From now on his only superior in Egypt will be Pharaoh himself. Though just out of jail, Joseph is outfitted with Pharaoh’s own signet ring, given fine linen clothing to wear, and adorned with a gold necklace. When Joseph is also offered a ride in the chariot just behind Pharaoh’s own, his transformation is complete.

At this point it appears that Joseph’s dreams have come true except for a slight adjustment. His dreams intimated that his family would bow before him. Instead, during this parade, Egypt bows down to him (41:40–43). Apparently this is not exactly what Joseph had in mind, but it was not a bad substitute! Now, armed with political power, a new Egyptian name, a mandate from the king himself, and a new Egyptian wife, Joseph could go to work to implement the policy he had devised (41:44–45). His program becomes spectacularly successful (41:46–57).

Joseph’s Brothers Journey to Egypt

We are so wrapped up with Joseph we have almost forgotten his family. Yet, in the overall story, his family represents God’s elect and is more important than any single member. Once again the family comes into focus when it is threatened with the famine. To avoid starvation, Jacob sends all his sons but Benjamin to Egypt to buy supplies (42:1-5). Jacob is unaware of or does not care about his obvious favoritism to his children by Rachel (42:4).

When his brothers appear and bow before Joseph, the full measure of his original dreams is fulfilled. Joseph thinks of his dreams at this singular moment. Still, nothing deters him from accosting his siblings and accusing them of being spies. Joseph even incarcerates his brothers, offering to release them only if they produce the brother back home that they mentioned (42:6–17). In a way, we are caught a little off guard by the honesty of the brothers, who mentioned to Joseph that they had two more brothers, one still with their father and one who was “no more,” which was poignantly a reference to Joseph (42:11–13). Joseph remains unmoved, or at least pretends to be unmoved.

Joseph takes another tack when he agrees to release all the men but one. He insists that they still produce the other brother, but at least they will be able to feed their families with this new condition. Joseph’s treatment prompts the brothers to think they are being punished for what they did to him previously, though of course they have no idea that the Egyptian official is Joseph or that he can understand them. Joseph appears tough as nails, but still has to hide his own emotions. Finally, Simeon is forced to stay behind and the brothers are freed. But Joseph gives orders to sneak into their grain bags the money the brothers had brought to pay for their purchase (42:25). When the brothers discover that the money had been returned, they interpret this mystery as divine punishment (42:26–28). Are they correct?

Benjamin Must Come to Egypt

More tension is generated in Jacob’s family as a result of the sons’ journey to purchase food. They are distraught about the money in their bags, while Jacob believes he has lost another son. There is no way he will allow Benjamin out of his sight now, regardless of Reuben’s offer to put up his own sons as collateral. Reuben’s ploy is absurd on its face. It does not help that Jacob’s partiality has only increased (42:29–38). What will happen to this divinely elected family when their food supply is depleted? Is its future in jeopardy?

Everything comes to a head when the food is gone. The brothers have to return to Egypt. Jacob reluctantly gives permission for Benjamin to accompany his brothers. Unlike the ignoble Reuben, Judah puts his own life on the line in Benjamin’s behalf (42:37; 43:8–10). He has improved a little since the Tamar incident (Genesis 38). Jacob has the brothers take double the money on the chance that there had been an oversight in Egypt, but seems resigned to losing more sons (43:1–15). In any case, Joseph’s brothers — all of them (except Simeon, whom Joseph had forced to remain behind) — return to Egypt.

They have no idea what to make of their second appearance before Joseph. As soon as Joseph lays eyes on his only full-brother, Benjamin, he makes plans for a special meal. This was most disconcerting to the brothers, who feared they were about to become slaves. Things become stranger still when they try to return the money to Joseph’s steward for the first purchase of food. The steward insists that there is no outstanding bill. Just as odd, the steward credits the men’s God for putting the money in their grain bags.

As they prepare to dine with Joseph, they bow before him once more, thus reminding us of Joseph’s original dreams. Joseph appears to be engaging in small talk with questions about the men’s father back home, but he is overcome with emotion upon seeing Benjamin. He has to leave the room to weep, returning only when he composes himself. At the dinner itself, Benjamin is specially treated. While enjoying this meal with what they suppose to be Egyptian royalty, the brothers have no clue they are in Joseph’s presence (43:16–34). They may now be excused for thinking that something that started badly has turned out well.

But Joseph is not done. When his brothers are about to return home, he orders that their grain sacks be filled to the top and their money once again placed in them. He also orders that his personal silver cup be placed in Benjamin’s bag. Finally, Joseph has his aides see to it that his brothers are overtaken and accused with theft. When this happens, the brothers maintain their innocence about the money, but agree to become slaves if Joseph’s cup is found with any of them. Of course, the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers are forced to return to Joseph only to hear Joseph’s verdict that only Benjamin need suffer the fate of slavery (44:1–17). For all the dreams in this story, the brothers are having their worst nightmare.

As he had back home, Judah rises to the occasion one more time. He gives an impassioned speech outlining to Joseph the dilemma they are in because of Benjamin’s plight. Benjamin’s loss will surely cause Jacob’s death. So Judah asks to be made a slave instead (44:18–34). If Joseph put his brothers through all this misery, not for vengeance but to see if they had over the years become honest men of character, Judah’s remarks doubtless made a positive impression.

Joseph Reveals His Identity

After seeing to it that he was alone with his brothers, Joseph identifies himself to their astonishment. One can only imagine the range of emotions they felt. But in the end this scene is about much more than family dynamics or a moment of heart-tugging reconciliation. Joseph’s theological take on all that has transpired is most important. He does not want his brothers to be distressed or blame themselves. Why? Joseph interprets the whole episode in providential terms: “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Before his statement is concluded Joseph will make manifestly clear that God has positioned him to be in the right place at the right time to save the elect family (45:1–9 (see verses 5, 7, 8, 9)).

Because of Joseph’s lofty position, he is able to arrange for his entire family — including his aged father — to settle in Egypt. In the providence of God, Egypt will become a safe haven for God’s elect family. God was able to bless Egypt through Joseph. Now Joseph’s family will be in turn blessed by Egypt (45:10–28). It is no longer necessary to wonder about the future of Jacob’s family. The brother who his siblings pretended was dead and the father who believed he was dead will soon be in Egypt under its auspices and with Pharaoh’s explicit approval (45:17–20). The future is saved.

If there is any doubt at all about the providential nature of these events, it is removed when Jacob encounters God as the family travels to Egypt at Joseph and Pharaoh’s invitation. As Jacob presents offerings to God, the deity communicates with him through visions. God confirms the Egyptian journey and promises one day to bring the family back to the land of promise. For now the family’s place is in Egypt (46:1–7). As though to underscore the family’s continued growth even during a time of hardship, Jacob’s genealogy is provided (46:8–27).

A Reunion Before Dying

After Jacob’s reunion with the son he thought he would never see again, the whole family is situated in Egypt (46:28–47:6). As Joseph had blessed Egypt with his dream interpretations, his economic policies, and his competence, so now the elderly Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Again, this echoes the blessing that God promised would come through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah (47:7, 10; 12:1–3). The blessing continues when Joseph makes Egypt fabulously wealthy (47:13–26). Jacob still wants eventually to be buried in the land of promise, but while he and his family are in Egypt, blessing will continue to abound (47:27–31).

As Jacob’s death draws near, he repeats the divine promise to Joseph (48:1–4). He even adds to the promise by blessing Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (48:5–16). In this blessing the pattern continues that the elder child is not necessarily the one that is most favored, in spite of Joseph’s ironic protest (48:17–22). Toward the end, Jacob announces what the future holds for each of his sons (49:1–27). Granted, not every future would be positive, but that was secondary to the fact that there was a future. The famine had almost robbed the family of a future until providence intervened. Jacob’s outline for the future is aptly called a blessing (49:28).

The Death of Jacob

Jacob’s wish, with Pharaoh’s blessing, was granted when he died. He was buried in Canaan, the land of promise (50:1–14). Mourning for Jacob was not confined to his family. The Egyptians mourned (50:3) too, and provided for his escort to Canaan (50:9). Even the Canaanites marked the extent of Egypt’s mourning (50:11).

Joseph returned to Egypt and one more time assured his brothers of God’s providence in the whole drama. His brothers were concerned that upon their father’s death Joseph might seek vengeance. But Joseph held fast to his view that providence had guided the whole episode. He expressed this with his famous statement to his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (50:20). So Joseph died in Egypt, but not without hope. His last words were that God would keep the divine promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by eventually bringing their descendants up from the land of Egypt. That promise would include Joseph himself (50:22–26).

Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 39:1–50:26

  1. What do you make of the subtle manner in which the providence of God is reflected in the story? Is this how we might discern providence in our own lives?
  2. What conclusions might be drawn from the extreme dysfunction present in Jacob’s family? Are not “family values” important to God?
  3. How should we think about Egyptians in the light of this story? After all, they worship other gods and are foreigners. How is it that they are used by God in behalf of God’s people? Are there parallels to this today?
  4. What inferences should we draw about Joseph’s religious deportment or spirituality on the basis of the way he is presented in the story?
  5. Joseph’s brothers acted egregiously against him, even though they had some legitimate grievances. Should they not have been severely punished for what they did? Did they end up getting off with merely a slap on the wrist?


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