This is part 13 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.
Click here to read the entire series.
Today we enter our last Saga of Genesis - the Generations of Jacob.
Now if you gave the average Christian a list of the eleven sagas, and ask which were the most important in Genesis, their answer would be clear: 1, 2, and 4: Creation, Fall, and Flood. Those three probably account for 90% (or more) of what you can find in commentaries and on Christian sites.
Yet that apparently was not what was most important to the Spirit, or Moses, or the early Jews. Below is a chart of the length of each of these Sagas:
As you can see, the three that Christians spend the most time discussing account for only 15% of the length of Genesis. The vast majority of the book is actually focused on Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph -- the stories of these Patriarchs account for 75% of Genesis. I hope that for all of my readers, you will start thinking of Genesis not as "the story of Creation," but rather, "the story of God and the Patriarchs"--which is its true purpose and overwhelming focus.
So today we enter the tale of the Sons of Jacob, chapters 37-50. The majority of this Saga will focus on the tale of Joseph, one of Jacob's sons.
Recall that in the Seventh Saga, we saw Abraham led by God into Canaan. When things got tough, he fled Canaan to Egypt, but this was a mistake. He had to return to Canaan to see God's promises for him fulfilled. In the Ninth Saga, we saw Jacob born in Canaan but--due to his own trickery and deceit--forced to flee. Only after he was gone for years and grew into a mature man did he return to Canaan, receiving God's blessing. These two serve as a framework for Moses' readers--for they too are outside of Canaan in Egypt, and need to return to it.
Now here in the Eleventh Saga, we will see Joseph serve as the connection piece to explain how they got into Egypt in the first place. This is the segue story between Genesis 1-36 and Exodus-Deuteronomy. It is the longest Saga in the book of Genesis and, I would argue, perhaps the most crucial: it is Joseph's story which connects the Patriarchs to the Egyptian slavery of Moses' time. It is Joseph's story which serves as the pivot around which the tales of Genesis and Exodus turn.
Joseph's Early Life: Beloved Son to Slave to Prisoner to Vizier of Egypt (Gen 37-41)
The primary focus of this Saga is the life of one of Jacob's sons, Joseph. Joseph lives in Canaan at the start of the story, with his eleven brothers--ten are half brothers and one (Benjamin) is a full brother.
Right off the bat we see that Joseph was favored by his father and mother. We are told that Jacob (Israel) loved Joseph more than his other sons (v.3), and that apparently Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale (v.2b), bringing bad reports of his brothers to Jacob. Jacob loved him so much that he made Joseph a special coat, pac kethoneth. We normally translate this as a "coat of many colors," but that translation is actually fairly suspect. The word pac actually means either the sole of your hand or foot, so it is usually used to describe the length of something. Meanwhile the word kethoneth refers a linen tunic. When these words appear together again in 2Samuel 13:18-19, most people translate them as a "long robe," noting that this is a royal garment. The Hebrew text, in fact, says nothing of the color or multi-colored aspect of the garment. This came in during the Septuagint translation into Greek, centuries later. So instead of this being a multi-colored robe, it likely should be translated that Jacob gave Joseph a "royal robe" to indicate that he was the favored heir--just as we see Tamar wearing in 2Sam 13.
Jacob's favoritism caused division in the family--a fact made worse when Joseph begins having prophetic dreams. These dreams indicate that he will rule over his entire family, including father and mother (36:5-10), making his brothers even more angry with him.
The resentment grew into a mob mentality over the years, and by the time he was seventeen, eleven of his brothers were willing to kill Joseph by faking an animal attack. Only two of the brothers resist at all: Reuben says that it would be a sin and should not be done (42:21-24), and Judah builds on this argument by saying they could turn a profit by selling him into slavery instead (37:1-27). It appears from the later context (42:21-24) that Reuben was against this as well but was overruled.
Joseph is sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver--about 11 grams of silver, or $200 in modern money. However, it is wrong to see this as a small amount or a trifle. As I mentioned in our cultural post, a slave cost about the same as renting a small one bedroom home for a year. So perhaps if you were to look at it in terms of modern buying power, you might see it as more equivalent to $5000-6000, enough to pay your rent for a year. Not a small amount of profit for doing nothing. Even those who claimed to be against selling him, though, are complicit in the decades-long cover-up that follows: so none of Joseph's brothers have clean hands, here.
Ancient Jews identified from the Hebrew text that Joseph is actually sold at least four separate times on this trip. First he is sold to the Ishmaelites (v.25), who were keeping Joseph in a pit. Later he is sold to Midianites traders (v.28), who took him to Egypt. Then he is sold to a different group in verse 36--the Medanites. (Most likely your Bible does not distinguish between the traders in v.28 and 36; however in the Hebrew different terms are used--the traders' ethnicity in v.28 is identified as nashim midyanim sohrim, while in verse 36 they are identified as m'danim.) The m'danim then sell him to the Egyptians (v.36), ending up in the house of Potiphar. Potiphar was a major player in Egypt, being captain of the Pharaoh's personal guard.
Joseph was successful in Potiphar's house, being blessed by God as a clever worker and becoming Potiphar's favorite and most trusted slave (39:1-4). As was often the case in the ancient world, a trusted slave was given authority to act on behalf of his master in any business deal; generally speaking, engaging in trade was seen as "beneath" most nobles, so their slaves did so. Joseph finds himself in this role for Potiphar, and is very successful at it (5-6).
Potiphar's wife became attracted to Joseph, and tried to get her to sleep with him. But he refused, pointing out that it would be a sin against his God and dishonor his master (39:9). She continued to try and seduce him daily, but he would not. One day she corners him alone and begins trying to undress him; he flees the house naked (39:10-12). Furious, Potiphar's wife calls in other Egyptians as witnesses, points to the garment, and accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, saying that her screams drove him away (39:13-18).
This false accusation lands Joseph in prison. Joseph finds himself at one point imprisoned with some other helpers of nobility--the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh*. They are given dreams and he interprets them. Joseph remains in prison for two more years, until eventually the Pharaoh begins having strange dreams that bother him (39-41). The cupbearer remembers that Joseph was able to interpret his dreams, and suggests for Joseph to be brought out as an interpreter (41:14).
Pharaoh dreamed that seven thin cows eat seven fat cows, and also that seven good ears of crops were replaced with seven withered ears. None of his court magicians could interpret these dreams in a satisfactory way, but Joseph immediately understands. He says that there are about to be seven very plentiful years followed by a severe famine. Joseph then recommends that Pharaoh select a wise advisor to be his Vizier and store up enough grain to handle the coming famine (41:15-36).
Pharaoh consults with his advisors and says that none of his men is as wise and discerning as Joseph, and therefore he shall be the man. He says specifically that Joseph is to be set over all of Egypt, and will be second only to the throne (41:38-41), and gives him a royal robe (not unlike the one stolen from him by his brothers!) and his own ring (41:42).
As I mentioned in this post, the royal Vizier of Pharaoh is a well-known position from antiquity. The Vizier was responsible for the day to day administration of the kingdom--collecting taxes, surveying the land, managing building projects, and so forth. (To use a Game of Thrones reference, he was basically "The Hand of the King".) Under him were 42 direct reports--the local governors.
Joseph was renamed with an Egyptian name by Pharaoh--Zaphnath-Panneah, "the man to whom secrets are revealed." He is given as a daughter of Potipherah as his wife; some say that this is the same as Potiphar, but this is without good reason (this is like saying that if you read a story with a man named "Micah" and a man named "Michael", they must be the same man--similarity of names does not mean much). His new wife is a pagan, daughter of a pagan priest; some ancient Jewish sources say that she converted to YHWH after marrying Joseph, but this is unknown with any kind of certainty.
Eventually the famine hits--and it hits severely. The surrounding nations come to visit and buy the excess stored up by the Egyptians (41:37-57)...and Canaan was no exception.
A Family Reunited (Gen 42-50)
The famine had hit hard in Canaan, and Jacob's tribes are dwindling and unable to feed themselves. How hard have times gotten? Just a few generations ago, Abraham kept an army of nearly 400 well-armed full time soldiers on him at all times. Here in a few chapters, we will see that Jacob's house only has about 70 people still living with him full time. Since we've never been through famine in our generations, we often forget how devastating it can be. Jacob's grandfather's tribe was the wealthiest and most powerful in the region, with so many people and livestock it had to be split in half with Lot traveling to the southeast of the Jordan River valley. Then another generation goes by and Jacob's father--who inherited only Abraham's half of the tribe and livestock--still had so much that it had to be again split in half: Esau takes his half and moves southwest, leaving Jacob alone in Canaan still with a tribe which must have been thousands or tens of thousands strong.
Yet by now, just one generation later, Jacob has seen this famine devastate him. Now he has only his direct family and their servants left, and the lands they possess do not provide even enough food for just the seventy of them.
So--even though it ended badly for his grandfather before him--Jacob decides to try to avoid famine by leaning on Egypt for help. He sends his sons with treasure to buy food for him. But Jacob is still playing favorites: having lost one of Rachel's sons (Joseph), he is not willing to risk the other (Benjamin); so he keeps this son with him while sending the other ten to the south. (42:1-6)
The sons arrive at Egypt and of course are sent to the Vizier, who is administering the food sales...who of course is the brother they sold into slavery. (Though seeing him as an Egyptian noble, with an interpreter and wealth and an Egyptian wife, they do not recognize him.)
Joseph then begins a process of testing his half-brothers. Why does he do this? We are not told directly, but I think the context makes it clear. The last thing he knew, his half-brothers had him kidnapped and thrown into slavery and now they clearly are in poverty decades later. He has a full brother, who is not with his half-brothers in front of him--and no doubt he fears that his half-brothers have also harmed Benjamin. Additionally, Joseph has a father whom he loves and misses, but who is clearly now poor and starving and who may or may not know what Joseph's half-brothers did to him.
What Joseph needs is information. Were I in his shoes I would want to know if: (a) my brother Benjamin is safe; (b) the half-brothers who attacked and sold me have repented; (c) the half-brothers have matured into honest men; and (d) if my father and mother are healthy and surviving the famine. Based on his following actions, I think that Joseph must have felt very similarly to how I would have in that situation.
Joseph keep his advantage of surprise, speaking only in Egyptian and uses an interpreter, hiding the fact that he speaks Hebrew. He accuses his half-brothers of being spies and sends them to prison for three days. The Hebrews are left there for three days and then Joseph told them that they must prove themselves to be honest men if they wished to live.
It is rather clever, actually. Joseph wants to know if his brother is truly safe and if his half-brothers are now honest men: so he convinces them that they are seen as spies, so that proving their honesty is precisely what they want to do most in the world.
Joseph then casually decides that the best proof of their honesty is to leave behind a brother as a captive and travel back home to retrieve Benjamin. The brothers agree to do so. In the process they have a discussion in Hebrew, believing it to be private: they (rightly) decide that this calamity upon them today is happening because of what they did to Joseph years before. Joseph leaves the room for a moment, overcome by emotion, and weeps. He now begins to see that they probably are indeed repentent: after all, how quickly they came to this conclusion implies that the conviction is something they struggled with often (42:21-24).
Joseph has Simeon put into prison as a guarantee of their return, and gives them the grain that they purchased. However, he also has their money secretly returned to their sacks. On the trip back, the brothers notice the extra money and their hearts fall: how will they convince the Vizier that they are honest, when some mistake will make it appear as though they stole the money? They return to Jacob and relate their story, asking for Benjamin.
Jacob does not take this tale well, as you might imagine! The way he sees it is much darker: I had twelve sons, one is dead (Joseph), one is in prison (Simeon), and now you ask to take a third one and travel down to Egypt again! Reuben--still the lone son fighting for what is right--asks Jacob to let them be men of their words and return, offering Jacob his own sons in return for Benjamin. But Jacob says no, preferring to leave Simeon in prison forever than to risk losing Benjamin.
But the famine grows even more severe, and the tribe of Jacob quickly runs through their remaining grain. Eventually he has to send them back, and to do so, Benjamin must return with them (Gen 43:1-10). Jacob tells them to take double money, perhaps in case they are accused of stealing from their last trip, and half to pay it back.
When they arrive, Joseph invites them to dinner. Now this is quite strange: traveling Semites dining with an Egyptian noble was unheard of. (Egyptians only 'Bought Egyptian'--they would not eat or drink or wear anything from outside of Egypt, and never eat with foreigners.) The brothers are suspicious of it, fearing that it might be a way to accuse them of theft (43:15-18). The steward of the house reassures them though that they are not in trouble. They sit down to dinner with Joseph and--much to their surprise--Joseph joins them at their Hebrew table rather than sitting with the Egyptians. (Most likely this is because Joseph never sat at the Egyptian table! For as mentioned, Egyptians did not dine with Semites. But to his brothers, rather than being a hint as to his identity, they saw it as yet another uncomfortable faux pas.)
Then something very interesting happens: he serves Benjamin five times more than anyone else gets. This is often missed by Christians but is critical. Joseph is testing to see if his half-brothers react badly to the son of Rachel being shown special favor (as they did to him). They do not react badly, however--they all have a merry evening (43:33-34), showing Joseph that they get along well with his full brother Benjamin, and are not consumed with jealousy as they once were.
Joseph however does one more test to see how they treat his brother, Benjamin. He sends them all away happily, well fed and with full sacks of grain and keeping their money. All brothers are back on the road. But Joseph has his special silver chalice--the one he apparently uses when divining/interpreting dreams sent by God (44:1-5)--into Benjamin's pack. His servant chases the brothers down on the road and accuses them.
They all respond as innocents would: they all confidentally trust that none of them would do such a thing and say so (44:6-10). This is as good a proof as any that they have a healthy love for each other, for the family inherently trusts every other brother. Even better is their reaction when the cup is found in Benjamin's sack: they tear their clothes in mourning and return to Egypt with the accused-thief Benjamin (44:11-13). This is VERY significant. Seeing little Benjamin accused of this was the worst possible thing they could imagine, as they showed with tearing their clothes. And unlike their actions toward Joseph they actually refuse to return home and instead walk right back into Egypt -- refusing to abandon their half brother. They are much changed from the half-brothers Joseph had years before! Indeed they offer themselves into slavery in his place (44:14-17), and Judah gives a heartfelt appeal to the importance of freeing Benjamin on behalf of their father (Gen 44:18-32, read it here to see what one writer once called "the manliest, most straightforward speec ever delivered by any man"). Judah, the very one who suggested selling Joseph two decades before, is willing to die on behalf of his remaining half-brother.
After Judah's speech, Joseph absolutely loses it.
He yells for everyone to leave him alone but even so his weeping was so loud the Egyptians outside heard him. Joseph tells them who he is, and the men are terrified. But Joseph reassures them, drawing them in closer, and while weeping forgives them. He tells them that God used their planned evil for good, and that if He had not allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery, no one in Egypt would have saved up the grain necessary for Jacob's family to live (45:1-8).
Joseph wept and kissed and hugged and talked to his brothers, sending them back to retrieve his father. Pharaoh overheard the emotional display and was very pleased, offering to transportation, riches, and blessings and a place of honor in Egypt to Jacob.
Jacob's sons return and convince him of the need to go to Egypt. God tells him to to go down to Egypt--reassuring him that, unlike Abraham's trip, this one is God-ordained. Seventy people come down with him to Egypt, with Judah leading the way (45:9-46:34).
The reunion is a happy one, and this is how the people of God found themselves living on Egyptian land. They live there for quite some time, until eventually Jacob died and is buried in the land of his fathers. This tale and blessings he gives his children are recounted in chapters 48 and 49, but as we are already quite long today I will skip this. Joseph dies in his old age, being put in a coffin in Egypt...but not buried. We shall see these bones again in Exodus 13:19, when they are returned to Canaan some four centuries later (Gen 50).
So what are the key lessons we get from this passage? Obviously there is much to learn about faith in God through trial and tribulation, and the story of Joseph is rich enough for ten thousand practical sermons.
But remember that I tend to want my primary focus to be upon the passage as it is intended to its original audience, and only then can we draw out the meaningful modern relevancies. So what were the key lessons for those to whom Moses was inspired to give this?
1. Unlike Abraham's journey out of Canaan and into Egypt, this one was God-ordained.
This passage would have reassured them that it was not wrong for their ancestors to have come down into Egypt (in spite of their slavery).
2. Joseph was a slave in Egypt, but became a prince. So too are Moses' readers recently-escaped slaves, and this passage is a reminder that God has a purpose for that slavery and a great reward at the end.
3. People did evil to Joseph, but God turned it into good. Likewise, the evil done to the Hebrews during their enslavement is going to be used for good in the end.
4. God should be trusted in tough times, for He has a plan--and it involves them being in Canaan, not Egypt. This is a good reminder for the Jews as they begin the painful process of re-taking their ancestral homeland of Canaan, now in other hands. (As we shall see, it is so hard that some wish to give up and go home!)
5. God has been building toward getting His people to their current point in history, and will not abandon them now. Something big is about to happen.
Remember, to the original readers of Genesis this is their history textbook. These were the Sagas told to them around campfires, and the Holy Spirit--via Moses--has laid it out perfectly to drive home the point that they should be patient as they retake Canaan: for God has brought them out of Egypt before, and He will do so again.
* Which Pharaoh is Joseph's Pharaoh? Hard to tell. We can be pretty confident about the timing of Moses, and the length of the enslavement, so we can put Joseph's time with Pharaoh as somewhere in the 19th century BC. That means any of the following could have been his Pharaoh: Senusret I, II, III; Amenemhat II, III (not in order). Interestingly, we know from the Khu-Sebek inscription that around this time, Senusret III raised an otherwise unknown member of his bodyguards to a position of great power. Whether this was a reference to Joseph, or just a period of meritocracy, is uncertain. But obviously the Joseph story is not an impossible one for that era.