The Torah: Joseph: The Hand of God

For an overview of what will be covered in this chapter, read Genesis 37-50.

The Egyptian officer prodded his horses in excitement. Dust and rocks flew up behind the stately, ornamented chariot as the horses, already lathered and breathing hard, began galloping again. In the distance, he could see a train of donkeys driven by men and women in Hebrew garments. He could barely make out an old man with a long beard. His anticipation grew. The officer, Hebrew himself, was sure it was his father, whom he hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.

The horses’ hooves beat against the ground in a hypnotic rhythm as Joseph’s thoughts drifted back to his separation from his family so long ago. He was only 17 then, a youth just learning what it was to be an adult. In an innocent zeal to please Jacob, his father, Joseph had alienated his older brothers. Total commitment to his father had blinded him to their growing jealousy until it was too late.

Joseph looked up at the caravan, which had come to a sudden halt. The Hebrews had seen his chariot. They stood, squinting into the distance, unsure of what they saw and what it meant.

Joseph prodded the horses again and they renewed their gallop. Memories of so many years pressed down on him, emotions he’d suppressed so long. He had suffered at the hands of his brothers. He had also suffered at the hands of his Egyptian master, whom he’d served with respect and even love.

Through it all, he’d seen the hand of Almighty God. And now he would once again see his father. His father and brothers recognized Joseph as he pulled into their circle. He reined in the horses, turning the chariot at the last moment, and jumped down before it stopped. Running toward his father, he felt irrepressible love and joy.

As the two men embraced each other, Joseph’s brothers looked on, but no longer with envy. Instead, they shared the joy of the moment with the brother they had wronged so many years before.

 Young Joseph
Egyptian statuette“Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more” (Genesis 37:5). This scene is depicted in James Tissot’s watercolor (above). A statuette of an Egyptian high official (right), showing how Joseph probably dressed.

Joseph’s life story (Genesis 37–50) is one of the most poignant and compelling in the Bible. It has all the elements of drama, ranging from the deepest sorrow to the greatest exultation. It is a story of faith and hope during years of trouble, but it is also a story of success and joy.

Although some disagree, most scholars place Joseph’s life around 1700 B.C., coinciding with the rule of the early Hyksos kings in northern Egypt and a native Egyptian dynasty in southern Egypt. The Hyksos kings were foreign invaders, a mixture of Semitic and other races who came to power more through gradual infiltration than through military dominance.

The Bible does not clearly identify the dynasty ruling during Joseph’s rise to power. However, it would seem reasonable that a Hebrew would be more acceptable to a Hyksos king who shared with Joseph a common Semitic background. If so, one has to see the hand of God in the history of Egypt, preparing the land for Joseph’s rise to power and the consequent growth of Israel in Goshen.

Perhaps the principal theme of the story of Joseph is the power and love of Almighty God. The reader, like the participants, begins to feel an overwhelming sense of God’s presence, of his hand working out the destiny of all humanity.

For example, the dreams of Joseph (Genesis 37) came true, despite the plotting of his brothers and the injustice of Potiphar’s wife. The dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker (Genesis 40) also came true, just as Joseph interpreted. And, finally, the dreams of Pharaoh (Genesis 41), which foretold the future of Egypt, came true.

Joseph, inspired by God, explained the meanings of the cup-bearer’s and baker’s dreams, as well as Pharaoh’s. More importantly, he believed them. Instead of being at odds with God, working against his will, Joseph believed God and took consolation in his plans. Unlike his brothers, who had attempted to thwart God’s purpose for Joseph, he had worked to fulfill God’s will.

Joseph’s name, also prophetic, attests to divine intervention, even from the beginning of his life. Rachel had been barren the first 26 years of her marriage. Eventually, God had compassion on her. As the Bible records, “God remembered Rachel,” and she conceived Joseph. In Hebrew, the name is Yoseph, which means “adding” or “he who adds” (Genesis 30:22-24).

illustration caravan of people

The patriarchs’ journeys into Egypt were probably part of the migration of West Semitic tribes at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. The reasons for these migrations included famine in Canaan, trade, and settlement in the fertile Nile Delta. The illustration above is based on a mural discovered in an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hasan, dating from the beginning of the 19th century B.C. The painting portrays a caravan of Asian peoples, possibly Amorite, on its way to Egypt.

 slaves measuring grain In this scene from the tomb of Menna, in Thebes circa 1400 B.C., Egyptian slaves measure grain for taxation purposes. This reminds us of the time when “Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain…so much that he stopped keeping records” (Genesis 41:49).

God blessed everything Joseph set his hand to, from his work as a slave in the house of Potiphar, to his duty in the court prison, to his work as Pharaoh’s chief government minister in Egypt. God, through Joseph, brought Israel to Egypt and preserved his chosen people during the great famine. God put Israel in a position to grow and prosper, just as Joseph’s name meant.

Articles about Genesis in “Exploring the Word of God”

Joseph’s story is encouraging for another reason, a reason on the personal level. God often uses hardships to accomplish his plans for the individual. We can easily see how the evil that Joseph’s brothers did to him prepared him for rulership. It made him more compassionate and understanding.

Although Joseph was upright as a youth, the biblical account shows that he didn’t exercise tact in dealing with his brothers while he still lived at home. Later in life, even after they hurt him so much, he graciously extended mercy and compassion to them. Joseph overcame the pain his brothers caused him and extended mercy to them because he saw God’s hand in his life: “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” (Genesis 45:5).

His brothers naturally felt guilt and fear. Joseph went to great lengths to alleviate both, encouraging his brothers repeatedly: “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” (verse 8).

Years later, after the death of their father, Jacob, the brothers again feared that Joseph would punish them. Once again, though, Joseph showed his compassion: “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’” (Genesis 50:19-20).

Earlier, at the time of the famine, Joseph had also dealt wisely with his brothers. He knew that 20 years can change people. The years had changed him, and he wanted to know what kind of character his brothers had developed. So Joseph tested them.

After holding them in custody for three days (Genesis 42:17), Joseph set them free. Simeon, however, was to remain in Egypt until the others returned with Benjamin, the youngest brother. The plan served two purposes. First, Joseph wanted his entire family in Egypt. Second, he wanted to know whether his brothers would act honorably toward their brother Simeon, who remained behind in Egypt while they returned to their father in Canaan.

When his brothers finally did return with Benjamin, Joseph made it appear that Benjamin had stolen his silver cup (Genesis 44:1-13). This, too, was a test of their character. Joseph knew that Benjamin, as the youngest son and the only other son of Rachel, was special to Jacob. He knew his brothers could be jealous toward Benjamin, as they had been toward him. He knew they could easily leave Benjamin in Egypt. After all, they had sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:26-28).

This time, instead of 20 pieces of silver (the price the brothers received for selling Joseph), it was their lives and freedom at stake. The brothers passed the test.

Judah had already offered himself to Jacob as surety for Benjamin. He had been the brother who suggested selling Joseph into slavery more than 20 years earlier. Now he was the one who spoke for the others. After a passionate speech explaining how much Benjamin meant to Jacob, Judah offered to take upon himself Benjamin’s punishment: “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers” (Genesis 44:33).

Joseph then knew the character of his brothers. He saw the positive changes the years had made. At last, he knew he could rely on them.

The story of Joseph is not just a story of his faith and success; it is a story of the faith and success of the entire family. It is a story of growth and change. More importantly, it is a story of God’s love and power in the lives of those who serve and follow him.

 Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh
“Then Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands knowingly, for Manasseh was the firstborn” (Genesis 48:14, NKJV).

God did not leave the destiny of Joseph or that of his family to chance. Ultimately, God dealt with the sins of Joseph’s brothers just as surely as he protected and elevated Joseph. Joseph didn’t need to exact retribution. He didn’t need revenge. He left the matter in God’s hands. Through it all, God worked out his plan to plant the seed of Israel in the fertile land of Egypt. He put the sons of Israel in a place where they could grow into a nation and begin to fulfill their destiny. As we shall see, God would continue to accomplish this plan in the book of Exodus.

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