The story of Joseph, son of Jacob (Israel) is one of the better-known ones from the Old Testament. Eldest son of his father’s beloved Rachel, Joseph was consequently apparently doted on, which led to resentment from his older brothers, which in turn led to his being sold into slavery and ending up in Egypt.
Joseph must have been an incredibly talented man, for everywhere he went he ended up being placed in positions of authority. Potiphar quickly noticed that everything Joseph attended to “prosper[ed] in his hand” (Gen 39:3), and consequently put him in charge of his entire estate, making “…him overseer in his house, and all that he had he put into his hand…. And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat.” (Gen 39:4, 6)
What happens next is well known. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him; he refuses and ends up in prison for his refusal to compromise his covenants. Through his ability to interpret dreams he ends up one of the most powerful men in Egypt – second only to Pharaoh – and saves not just the people of Egypt, but also his own family, from a devastating famine.
There are so many beautiful lessons we can learn from this Old Testament story, but I’d like to focus on just three of them: 1. The “test” the older brothers went through to prove their repentance, 2. Joseph as a “type” of Christ, and 3. Our dependence on the Lord to see us through the tough times in our lives.
The Brothers’ Test
As we remind ourselves of how Joseph ended up in Egypt, there are several characteristics of the events that led to his brother selling him that I’d like to highlight:
- The brothers had a younger brother who their father loved the most (Joseph), “Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age…” (Genesis 37:3). Benjamin was younger than Joseph of course, but the focus here is on Joseph, and Jacob is favouring him above his older brothers. This created resentment – the scriptures say this resentment was so great that the brothers “hated” him, and couldn’t “speak peaceably unto him” (Genesis 37:4).
- Compounding matters was the fact that this favoured (by father), and despised (by brothers) son was able to divine the future through his dreams. Of course these prophetic dreams put Joseph in a position of honour amongst his brothers, and for whatever reason Joseph felt compelled to tell his older bothers about them. It’s probably safe to say that this didn’t make his brothers feel any better towards him, and they started to sarcastically call him the “dreamer” (Gen 37:19)
- We aren’t told why, but Joseph isn’t initially sent out into the hot desert to work with his brothers. While his brothers are working to maintain the flocks that will sustain the family, Jacob is keeping his favoured son close to him
- When Joseph was finally sent to the brothers – essentially to check up on them and report back to Jacob on their behaviour – they see:
- an opportunity to save themselves from their usurping younger brother.
- Reuben wanted to intervene to protect Joseph but had been unable to because the other brothers had made the decision to sell him opportunistically while he was absent (see Gen 37:29-30)
- It was Judah’s idea to sell him to some merchants
- for silver (Gen 37:26-27)
As they return to the tent of their father Jacob, with their annoying younger brother now gone, we can almost imagine hearing an echo of the words of Cain after he had killed his brother Abel, “[We are] free” (Moses 5:33).
We now need to fast-forward more than 20 years, as these same brothers are presented with an almost identical situation as each of the things highlighted in bold above is repeated. How would they react the second time? Had they truly felt free after they had rid themselves of Joseph?
Note how the circumstances identified above are re-created.
During the appalling famine that affected the entire region, word spreads that there is food in Egypt, and Jacob sends his sons to buy food to sustain them. By now Jacob has a new favoured younger son, this time Benjamin. And once again, Jacob sends all the older sons into the desert for that which will sustain them, while keeping Benjamin close to him.
At this point in the story, we don’t know how the older brothers feel about Benjamin. Are they as resentful of him as they were of Joseph? They’ve had 20+ years to see the pain their deliberate actions had caused their father, but would that be enough?
It’s not surprising that they don’t recognise their younger brother Joseph when they arrive in Egypt – Joseph has now spent the majority of his life living in Egypt, and looks and talks like a powerful Egyptian. But he recognises his brothers and at their first meeting simply asks them to return with their youngest brother, keeping Simeon as prisoner until they do.
When they get home, though, Jacob isn’t prepared to let Benjamin go – not even to save one of his other sons. Now if the older brothers were again feeling resentful at a favoured younger brother’s welfare being put above their own this could really increase tensions as one of them is knowingly kept “lost” to the family just for the possibility of harm coming to the younger brother. But it doesn’t increase tensions. Instead Reuben attempts to intervene, offering his own sons as a form of collateral if he is not able to return with both Simeon and Benjamin, but Jacob refuses (Gen 42:37-38).
When the famine continues and their food is about to run out once again, Jacob is forced to send his sons back to Egypt, and eventually realises that he has no choice but to send Benjamin.
As the brothers prepare to leave Egypt with food to sustain their families again, Joseph organises to have his silver cup secretly placed in Benjamin’s sack (Genesis 44:2, 12). The silver cup wasn’t just an expensive item, importantly it was used to divine the future (Genesis 44:5).
When the silver cup is subsequently discovered in Benjamin’s sack, the scene is set for the perfect test as the older brothers have an opportunity to return safely to their father, leaving their younger brother in Egypt.
So a summary of the parallels:
- Joseph and Benjamin were both favoured younger sons
- Both Joseph and Benjamin were kept close to their father while their older brothers were sent into the desert to obtain sustenance for their families
- Jacob eventually sent each son to join their brothers
- Joseph was able to divine the future, and a divining cup was found with Benjamin
- Reuben desired to intervene to obtain the safety of both younger brothers, but was unsuccessful on both occasions
- Silver was involved both times – in selling Joseph and in trapping Benjamin
- The older brothers have an opportunity in both cases to rid themselves of their favoured younger brothers
- And just as it was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph, it now falls to Judah to determine whether the brothers return to their father with or without Benjamin.
A difference, of course, is that when the brothers had sold Joseph so many years before they knew exactly what they were doing – it was their idea, and they had deliberately taken actions that led them to their great sin. This second time, however, they were not responsible for being in the position they were in.
How often do we make mistakes in life through our own poor choices, and then end up in a similar situation through no fault of our own? Are we ever placed in situations where the Lord tests our repentance; where we can demonstrate that our efforts to change and improve our lives have been genuine and effective? How do we respond?
Here Joseph represents the Lord in our own lives, he is, “…[proving] them herewith…” (Abraham 3:25) to see whether they were the same selfish brothers of more than 20 years ago, who put their own desires above those of another, or whether they had learned the lessons of their life.
The next few verses I find to be incredibly powerful and emotive. It is the climax of this part of the story as Joseph faces Judah. As Joseph watches intently, how will his brother respond?
Firstly, Judah asks to have a quiet word with this great man of Egypt. He is not putting on a public show – this is very personal. And then he makes an impassioned plea:
“My lord asked his servants, saying, Have ye a father, or a brother? And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for if he should leave his father, his father would die. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Except your youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more.”
“And thy servant my father said unto us, Ye know that my wife bare me two sons: And the one went out from me, and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since: And if ye take this also from me, and mischief befall him, ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad be not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad’s life; It shall come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave.” (Genesis 44:19-23, 27-31)
I love this passage: I can hear the pleading of Judah as he attempts to convey the importance of Benjamin to his father, and the impact it would have if he did not return. This is no easy plea by Judah – the brothers had agreed that whoever had the silver cup would die, and that the rest of them would become slaves (Genesis 44:9), and this penalty had already been reduced to that of Benjamin becoming a slave while the rest were free. They had been offered a merciful deal, and for all he knew Judah may well have been putting himself at risk with his further pleas.
While we may therefore think that this was sufficient evidence that Judah and his brothers had indeed repented of their sin against Joseph so many years before, there is still more. For Judah is not simply pleading for the release of Benjamin – they could by now return to their father and say with integrity “We really tried!” No, Judah goes further still, and offers himself in place of his brother, “For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren.” (Genesis 44:32-33)
If anything shows just how much Judah had changed, this is it. He is not just pleading on behalf of his younger brother – he is sacrificing himself for his brother, “I shall bear the blame”. There is no reason for him to think that Benjamin hadn’t in fact stolen the silver cup – but that is beside the point. He nonetheless seeks to redeem his brother at the cost of his own welfare. In a few short chapters Judah has gone from one who would sell into slavery his innocent younger brother out of jealously, to one who would offer himself as a sacrifice for a younger brother’s apparent sin. He has gone from sinner, to one who symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice for us all.
It is a beautiful story that parallels our own mortal journeys as we seek to overcome our fallen natures, repenting of our own sins, and increasingly seeking to emulate Christ. It is a story of hope for us all – if even one who would secretly plot to sell a brother into slavery can repent and become like Christ, then it is possible for us all.
And it is not just a story of repentance, but also of forgiveness. For Joseph had been that brother so brutally wronged all those years ago. How would he respond? “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him…. And he wept aloud…. And Joseph said unto his brethren, I am Joseph.” (Genesis 45:1-3) And here Joseph represents our Saviour.
Whether or not we have wounded others with our sins, we have certainly all wounded Christ, for He took our sins upon himself, “…he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…” (Isaiah 53:5). He chose to bear the blame of our mistakes. But as the one whom we injured, He nevertheless ever stands ready for us to approach Him, weeping for joy when we make full use of the blessings of His atoning sacrifice. And just as Joseph revealed himself to his brothers when their transformation had been proven, so too, to the degree that we are able to become like Christ, He will reveal Himself to us.
For me, that is the greatest message from this story.
In the next post, found here, I look in more detail at how Joseph represents Christ, and how we need His help through our own famines in life.