What to learn from the story of Joseph: A Christian perspective
The Biblical accounts indicate that the name Joseph means, “The Lord will add” (Genesis 30:24). It was a very common name in Biblical times. Although there are many different Josephs mentioned in the Bible, there is one Joseph whose story stands out — that of the son of Jacob. Despite facing many difficult circumstances and evil people, Joseph remains true to God and generous to other people. As a result, God makes him extremely successful and uses him to save the whole Hebrew race.
Joseph is somewhat of an unusual figure in the Hebrew Bible. He is one of a few figures in which his story is told from birth to death (Genesis 37:1-44:9). Joseph is especially important because his relationship with God starts at an early age. From the beginning of his story, God seems especially interested in him and begins to communicate with him, by way of dreams, at a very early age. Joseph, for his part, believes, trusts, and has faith in his God.
As the story is told in the Hebrew Bible, as Joseph grows and develops from later adolescence to early adulthood and then to middle adulthood, he will face trials, tribulations, and, eventually, triumphs.
However, through it all, Joseph remains faithful, honest, and true to the principles established by God. Thus, he serves as an almost perfect role model for young – and old! – adults.
The story begins with Rachel, the mother of Joseph, who is unable to have children (Genesis 30:24). She is not a young woman, but she is of childbearing age. She herself serves as a role model, because in her hardship she turns to God for help. Joseph will be the eleventh son to Jacob. However, Joseph was special: he was the first born to Rachel. Then Rachel prays to have another son, “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:24) who was going to be Benjamin.
Joseph and his jealous brothers
After his birth, in Chapter 30 of Genesis, Joseph does not appear in the Hebrew text again until he is 17 years of age. At this time, he has no power, authority, or status within the family structure. He, for the most part, is the second man from the bottom. He is eligible for responsibilities, but there are eight others ahead of him.
Nevertheless, he has status: he is the favorite son of his father, Jacob. The Hebrew text does not provide any explanation as to why he is Jacob’s favorite, and Jacob does not seem to hide the fact Joseph is his favorite.
There is a message here. Although power and authority can be sought after, they must be granted by someone who is in a position of authority. However, status can be earned by the individual, without help from anyone.
We must consider that Joseph always had status with God, but no earthly power and authority until later in life. By the end of his story, Joseph will have power and authority on earth among men and status with God, which in the Hebrew text does not happen often. As power and authority are granted to him, Joseph could use them in ways that are inappropriate. However, he does not, and he keeps his status with God until his death. Some other figures, like David and Solomon, receive God’s favor at an early age, but are unable to sustain it later in their lives. It is Moses, the next chosen deliverer of the people after Joseph, who will be the example. Moses will have status, power, and authority within his relationship with God, and all these will come to him when he is an older adult.
Next stage of development: family betrayal
As young adults, individuals must learn self-control and self-reliance during hardship. In many cases, young adults may feel that a bad situation is out of their control. During these times, young and early adults must begin to trust in God. It is the faith they develop during these times that will become the foundation of good moral and ethical behavior toward others when, and if, they have power and authority.
Joseph is placed in this situation at the age of 17, when the very people he should be able to trust betray him. They place him in a situation where he is totally powerless. He is completely at their mercy and, in the end, is shown no mercy. Joseph, later in life, will place his betrayers in a very analogous situation of being totally powerless and totally at the mercy of another. However, Joseph will not treat them as he was treated. No, he will exercise the proper authority and control over others and will be merciful toward them.
As stated earlier, Joseph is the favorite of his father, and because of this favoritism, Joseph’s brothers hate him. Their envy towards Joseph only gets worse when Jacob gives Joseph a ground-length, long-sleeved, multicolored robe (Genesis 37:3-4). The animosity of his brothers increases even more when Joseph reveals to them he is having dreams where his brothers will one day bow down before him.
Because of this, when Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers and the flocks near Shechem, his brothers attack him, place him in a well, and sell him to a caravan of traders going down to Egypt. Genesis 37:25-28 states: “While Joseph was in the well, the brothers sat down to eat. When they looked up, they saw a group of Ishmaelites traveling from Gilead to Egypt. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh. Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and hide his death? Let’s sell him to these Ishmaelites. Then we will not be guilty of killing our own brother. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.’ And the other brothers agreed. 28 So when the Midianite traders came by, the brothers took Joseph out of the well and sold him to the Ishmaelites for eight ounces of silver. And the Ishmaelites took him to Egypt.”
Joseph’s brothers then take his robe, dip it in goat’s blood, take it back to Jacob, and claim that Joseph has been killed by wild animals (Genesis 37:31-35). It is very important that we point out that the Hebrew text does not describe Joseph putting up a fight, complaining in any way, or even trying to escape. However, you can only imagine how Joseph must have felt or what he must have been thinking while his own brothers attacked him for his coat, dropped him in a well, then sold him into slavery.
Joseph displays a level of emotional and spiritual control for a seventeen-year-old that is far beyond his years. This amount of self-control and self-restraint will not be displayed by a young person again in the Hebrew text.
Joseph should serve as a model and example of having control over yourself even when events are out of your control. Joseph’s nature comes from his reliance on God. Joseph knows, by way of his dream, that greatness awaits him if he just trusts in God, no matter what the situation.
Imprisoned in Egypt: the final stage of development before leadership
Joseph is 17 years old when he is sold to Potiphar (Genesis 37:36) and he is 30 years old when he becomes ruler of Egypt (Genesis 41:53-56). For 13 years, God works on Joseph’s moral, ethical, and spiritual character, preparing him for leadership. However, Joseph does not get his education from a formal institution, but from the school of hard knocks. It seems that he is placed in situation after situation after situation where one event is worse than the next. Only one other person in the Hebrew text faces as many trials and tribulations as Joseph. That person, of course, is Job.
When Joseph arrives in Egypt, God arranges for him to be bought by an Egyptian officer who needs someone to manage his home. Joseph, who has never had power and authority over anything, is blessed by God to start out small, with a single home and a small staff. Joseph’s story can serve as an illustration to young adults that power and authority do not have to be gained all at once. Sometimes, God will take you from one situation to another, moving slowly forward while preparing you for the greater blessings.
However, trouble soon arises for Joseph because of Potiphar’s wife, who is attracted to Joseph and tries to seduce him (Genesis 39:6-10). Joseph persistently resists her advances, saying that to comply with her wishes would be a disservice to his master and a sin against God (Genesis 39:9). One day, however, Potiphar’s wife grabs Joseph’s coat; Joseph runs away, but leaves his coat behind. With Joseph’s coat as her evidence, Potiphar’s wife puts the blame on Joseph, and Potiphar believes her (Genesis 39:19). Joseph is put in the king’s prison (Genesis 39:20). However, God again arranges for Joseph to find favor in an awful situation. Joseph has lost his freedom, but he has gained status among individuals who, according to society, have no status. Genesis 39: 20-23 states: “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him kindness and caused the prison warden to like Joseph. The prison warden chose Joseph to take care of all the prisoners, and he was responsible for whatever was done in the prison. The warden paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s care because the Lord was with Joseph and made him successful in everything he did.”
In the Hebrew text, we learn the Pharaoh’s butler and baker are also confined there. While in prison, Joseph, with God’s help, interprets these men’s troublesome dreams. As Joseph predicts, the baker is executed and the butler restored to royal favor (Genesis 40:21-22). Two years later, Pharaoh has dreams that his magicians and wise men cannot interpret. The butler, remembering Joseph, has him summoned from prison. God reveals to Joseph that the dreams foretell seven years of abundance in Egypt, followed by seven years of great famine (Genesis 41:25-36). Pharaoh, impressed with Joseph’s interpretation, makes him ruler of Egypt, second only to himself (Genesis 41:39-44). Joseph is given a new name, Zaphenath-paneah, and a wife, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera (Genesis 41:45).
Exercising your spiritual gifts
In the Hebrew text, God will often place individuals in dreadful situations so they will come to find and use the talent that he has placed inside them. These hidden talents are called spiritual gifts.
Joseph has a special relationship with God because God has a purpose for his life. God makes sure that young Joseph understands this by communicating with him in his dreams.
Joseph was 30 years old when he became ruler of Egypt. Success had come to him at a young age, even by today’s standards. Joseph’s life can be used as an example to young adults: to teach them that a relationship with God can begin early and that power and authority are gifts granted to a person by Him. Joseph’s story teaches that trust in God during the worst times can lead to better times if you believe and keep His commands.