Joseph is certainly one of the most righteous and dedicated men of the Old Testament. Although he was kidnapped, sold into slavery, wrongfully accused, incarcerated in prison for many years, and seemingly forgotten by even God, Joseph remained faithful. He was faithful to God and faithful to his father and brothers, despite the fact that his brothers were the very ones who had planned his death and succeeded in selling him into slavery. Even though he was assimilated into a foreign culture by the Pharaoh of Egypt, he remembered who he was and where he came from. He maintained his sexual morals in a culture that encouraged men to take what they can get.
The interaction between Joseph and his brothers is fascinating and instructive, particularly as we pay attention to Joseph, Reuben, and Simeon. In Genesis 37 we read that the initial plan was to kill Joseph out of jealousy. The brothers cooked up a plan to leave Joseph to die a slow death by hunger and dehydration in a dry cistern. Reuben, the firstborn, had pity on Joseph and planned to rescue him but he gets left out of the further plot by Judah (fourth-born), Simeon (second-born) and the rest of the brothers. Instead of letting Joseph die, they decided to profit from his disappearance by selling him to slave-traders and tell their father that an animal killed Joseph. We don’t know precisely which of the brothers were present for all of this plotting and scheming, but we do see in Genesis 37:2-4 that all of his half-brothers (sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah) hated him for being an honourable man who made them look bad in the eyes of their father. Joseph was only 17 at this point and so Benjamin, the youngest brother would have been at home and would not have been involved in the kidnapping of Joseph or deception of their father.
So, Joseph was sold into slavery and lost to the family story for many years. But God guided Joseph through those many years and prepared a means of rescue for all of the descendants of Jacob (who later became the people of Israel). Joseph worked many years as a slave but because of his good work ethic and righteousness before God and the people of Egypt, he was given much responsibility. Joseph was handsome and well-liked and so eventually his master’s wife took an interest in him and tried to lure him into her bed. Joseph remained an upstanding man but the woman scorned takes out her anger on him and has him thrown in prison for many years.
One might expect Joseph to curse God and die at this point in his life for he has had nearly as many calamities as Job. But Joseph remained true to his honour and faithful to his God by working diligently in the prison. Once again, he distinguished himself even in that environment and became a trusted leader in the prison. He helped others by asking God to interpret their dreams and even when those he helped forgot him, he continued to be a faithful friend and a trusted worker. Eventually, by God’s grace, Joseph’s life was restored, and he found himself out of the prison and in charge of managing the storehouses and wealth of all of Egypt. This represented a meteoric rise of one man from slave to second-in-command of all of Egypt. Through all of the good and bad, ups and downs of his life, Joseph remained composed, faithful, and worthy of respect.
Even as we see his interactions with his brothers in Genesis 37 through Genesis 50, he displayed a remarkable sense of composure, grace, and wisdom. He knew the whole truth. He knew that Reuben participated in the kidnapping, but he also knew of Reuben’s honourable attempt to rescue him from his brothers. He put all of the brothers in prison for three days, perhaps so they could meditate upon their lives and the wrongs they had done. He sent them back to Jacob with food and their money and demanded that they bring his youngest brother (the one innocent of Joseph’s slavery) to him. He knew the main perpetrators of his slavery and so he took the opportunity to tie up Simeon and lock him in prison while the rest returned to their father. Yet, he also treated Simeon with care and respect. What lesson did Simeon learn during his time in an Egyptian prison? What lessons about their own sins and God’s forgiveness did each of the brother’s learn?
This last phase of Joseph’s journey is particularly interesting for, in God’s economy, he rescued the children of Israel through Joseph’s life in Egypt. Think about this: because of the cruelty of the sons of Jacob, Joseph, the very one whom they planned to allow to starve in a cistern, is now in a situation in which he is able to rescue the sons of Jacob from starvation. As Joseph says in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” Truly, the sons of Jacob intended harm, which God redeemed and turned the intention into something good. Of course, years later, we who follow Jesus recognize that God is in the habit of turning horrible harm into things which he intends for good. The greatest example of this is the cruel cross upon which Jesus died which becomes the means by which salvation is delivered to all who accept the work of the cross. We see other examples of God redeeming bad situations and bringing good instead. Perhaps we might even point to a tiny virus known as SARS-CoV-2 and see how God is redeeming many things in the current COVID-19 crisis of our world.
Joseph may be just the right message for a world dealing with loss and the need to deny ourselves of the joys normally experienced; or even a world in which we must deny ourselves of retaliation for wrongs done to us. Joseph shows us grace and faith in the midst of great injustice. Let us meditate upon his life and find that which is there for us to learn today.