Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis

This introduction to the story of Joseph found in Genesis reviews Joseph’s childhood, his model character, and his similarities with Jesus.

Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
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We will take a closer look at Joseph’s childhood and how God prepares him for the difficult life he will live to protect and preserve his family.

The story of Joseph covers more space than any other person in the book of Genesis—more than Adam, Noah, or even Abraham and Jacob.

Even those unfamiliar with the OT will recognize Joseph. Just as Noah is known for his ark, Jonah is known for the big fish, Joseph is known for his multicolored coat.

I’m going to cover five topics in our introduction to the Joseph narrative:

  • Joseph’s childhood and upbringing
  • Joseph’s model character
  • Joseph in the New Testament
  • Joseph’s similarities with Christ Jesus
  • Joseph and God’s providence

1. Joseph’s Childhood

His story begins in Genesis 37. Let me read Genesis 37:2

These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old.

Stop there. In this portion of Genesis with the 11th and final toledot heading, “These are the generations of Jacob,” we follow the life of Joseph from age 17 to 110. Now if you have been studying with me through the Old Testament the last 3 months, you already know his family background and his challenging upbringing as a child. But if you haven’t, let me remind us of his family.

His great-grandfather was the first patriarch Abraham. His grandfather was Isaac. His father was aptly named Jacob meaning “heel grabber”, “supplanter” or “deceiver.”

  • Jacob supplanted his brother Esau by manipulating him to give the birthright in exchange for red lentil stew in Genesis 25.
  • Jacob deceived his father Isaac to receive the covenantal blessing, a blessing that Isaac had intended to bestow on Esau in Genesis 27.
  • Jacob fled to Haran for his life since his brother wanted to kill him.

Joseph’s maternal grandfather Laban was also a schemer.

  • Laban persuaded Jacob to work for him for 7 years as a bride-price for his daughter Rachel. 3 or 4 years of manual labor was the going rate for a bride-price during this time.
  • Laban later deceived Jacob by switching daughters, slipping in Leah instead of Rachel to be Jacob’s wife on their wedding night in Genesis 29.
  • Laban forced Jacob to work for him seven more years for the right to marry Rachel.
  • When Jacob wanted to return to Canaan after 14 years of labor, Laban prevented Jacob from leaving Haran. Laban had the legal authority to forbid his daughters from leaving their homeland.
  • For the next six years, Laban tried to cheat Jacob out of his fair wages, hoping that Joseph’s father Jacob will remain destitute and forced to stay in Haran as Laban’s forever servant.

It is in Haran where Joseph is born.

  • Six of Joseph’s brothers were first born to Leah.
  • Four other sons and one daughter are born to Jacob’s two concubines.
  • Rachel remained infertile until she finally conceived and gave birth to Joseph.
  • Joseph is the 11th son born, but he was the firstborn son to Jacob’s beloved and favored wife, Rachel.
  • So Jacob had 10 brothers and 1 sister.
  • There were four mothers in the family. Rivalry and competition plagued these mothers, and this must have also permeated to the brothers.
  • When Joseph’s father Jacob takes his family to quietly leave Haran, running away from his grandfather Laban, Joseph is probably only 6 years old. But at his age, he would have remembered his family’s flight.

Joseph would have remembered his grandfather chasing his father and catching up to his family at Gilead.

  • He would have seen his mother taking his grandfather’s household gods.
  • He would have witnessed the subsequent confrontation between his father and grandfather.
  • He would have heard his grandfather accusation that his father left without letting grandpa kiss his grandchildren one last time.
  • He may have helped his family set the boundary markers to confirm the promise that his family would cross the boundary and visit his grandfather again.
  • He understood all the deceptive tactics employed by his grandfather, his mother, and his father.

Joseph would have remember his uncle Esau approaching with 400 armed men and the threat of death.

  • He crossed the ford of Jabbok in the middle of the night with his mother and brothers without his father.
  • What thoughts must have filled Joseph’s mind when he saw his father set his concubine’s and children in front, then Leah and her children, leaving Joseph and his mother Rachel in the back. He was always favored because his mother Rachel was favored.

Joseph’s sister Dinah was kidnapped and raped before he was an teenager.

  • He saw his brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter all the male townspeople of Shechem.
  • He saw their family forced to leave Shechem and sojourn amongst neighbors that feared and abhorred his family.

Joseph was no stranger to seeing death.

  • He never saw his grandmother Rebekah but witnessed the death of her nurse Deborah.
  • Worse, he sees his mother Rachel die while giving birth to his younger brother Benjamin.

Joseph had an imperfect family

  • Pervasive deception, unmerited favoritism, heinous sins like rape and murder, and the unexpected death of his mother.
  • He experienced a lot by the time he was 17.
  • But God used these trials and challenges to prepare Joseph for the difficult task of life in Egypt that will allow him to save his family.

2. Joseph’s Model Character

One thing is remarkable. In the entire Joseph narrative from Genesis 37 through 50, never do we see Joseph depicted negatively. The book of Genesis highlights faults in most of its heroes of faith: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But there is no obvious character flaw recorded about Joseph.

The portrait of Joseph is extraordinary. We have to press very hard to find anything blameworthy in Joseph.

When we read about Joseph’s life in the Genesis narrative, the story is descriptive, not prescriptive. The verbs used are in the indicative mood, not the imperative. But we can see Joseph as a model for all of us as Christians. In the Joseph narrative over the next 14 chapters, we see Joseph

  • overcomes envy
  • faces adversity
  • resists sexual advances
  • plans for the future
  • forgives others
  • trusts in God’s promises
  • recognizes God’s sovereignty and providence

3. Joseph in the New Testament

More spoken words are recorded by Joseph than any other character in Genesis. But Joseph is not quoted once in the New Testament.

NT mentions Joseph only 4 times

  • John 4:5 refers to land near Sychar that Jacob had given Joseph.
  • Acts 7:9-14 is Stephen’s summary of the Joseph story.
  • Hebrews 11:22 where Joseph is included in the OT heroes of the faith.
  • Revelation 7:8 speaks of 12,000 people from tribe of Joseph.
  • Jesus himself never referenced Joseph.

And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. (Acts 7:9-14)

A few observations on Stephen’s summary in Acts 7

  1. Joseph’s 10 brothers are referred to as “patriarchs.” Jacob and the 11 other sons were referred as “our fathers.” All of Israel are God’s chosen people, not just the tribe of Judah or Joseph’s two sons.
  2. But despite his brother’s rejection, Joseph was not alone. God was with him. God rescued him. God gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh.
  3. Joseph is described as summoning Jacob and their family and household, 75 in all. Joseph is able to save the entire family from the great famine that plagued all Egypt and Canaan.

By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. (Hebrews 11:22)

Before Joseph dies, he instruct his brothers to take his bones and bring them back to Canaan. The final destination is not safety and comfort in Egypt. Joseph spent only a few years of his childhood in the promised land, but he looked forward in faith in God’s covenantal promises, seeing their final destination would be to return to the promised land of Canaan.

And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” (Genesis 50:24)

4. Joseph’s Similarities with Christ Jesus

There are similarities between Joseph and Jesus.

  • A.W. Pink lists over 100 similarities in his book Gleanings in Genesis (1922).
  • beloved of his father - 37:3
  • envied and hated without a cause - 37:4
  • stripped of his clothing - 37:23
  • sold for silver - 37:28
  • resisted temptation - 39:7-12
  • falsely accused - 39:17-18
  • all people commanded to bow to him - 41:43
  • his people did not recognize him - 42:8
  • he embraces God’s purpose even though it brings him intense physical harm
  • He welcomes Gentiles to be part of his family

5. Joseph and God’s Providence

There is a pervasive theme in the Joseph narrative recorded in Genesis. This story is one of the best examples of the benevolent providence of God.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20)

God’s providence boggles my mind more than any miracle.

  • a miracle is when God suspends natural law to do something outside of natural law.
    • walking on water
    • raising dead people
  • providence is when God accomplishes His ends and purposes without suspending natural law.
    • rather, He takes all the elements of natural law and blends them together in a masterful way to achieve His purposes.
    • all the actors, their activities, their thoughts and words, all the surrounding events and contingencies.

Think about how God works in this narrative through the various actors through providence

  • Joseph’s father and the multicolored coat given with favoritism
  • Joseph’s brothers and their sinful jealousy and envy
  • The timely caravan of Ishmaelites traveling to Egypt
  • Potiphar and his wife
  • Captain of the guard
  • Pharaoh of Egypt
  • The cupbearer and baker, with the cupbearer who survived and remembering Joseph 2 years later

Summary of the Introduction to Joseph

  • Joseph’s trials in childhood
  • Joseph’s model character
  • Joseph’s four references in the New Testament
  • Joseph’s similarities with Christ Jesus
  • Joseph’s recognition of God’s providence

Can you tell that the Joseph narrative in Genesis 37-50 is one of my favorite stories in all of Holy Scripture. Join me as we study this great adventure orchestrated and recorded by our great God.

Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph

  1. Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
  2. Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
  3. Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
  4. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
  5. Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
  6. God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
  7. Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
  8. Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
  9. Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
  10. Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
  11. Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
  12. Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
  13. Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
  14. Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
  15. A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
  16. It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
  17. Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
  18. God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
  19. "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
  20. Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
  21. God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)