Question: "What should we learn from the life of Joseph?"
Answer: Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob, and his story is found in Genesis 37–50. As a 17-year-old shepherd, Joseph is something of a tattle-tale, bringing a bad report about his brothers to their father (Genesis 37:2). This behavior, combined with Jacob’s overt favoritism towards Joseph, causes his older brothers to resent him to the point of hatred (37:3-4). Because of Jacob’s open love for Joseph, his favoritism was begrudged by his other sons. And when Jacob presented Joseph with a highly decorated coat, he was hated and resented by his brothers all the more (Genesis 37:3). To make matters worse, Joseph begins relating his dreams—prophetic visions showing Joseph one day ruling over his family (Genesis 37:11-15). The animosity towards Joseph peaks when his brothers plot to kill him in the wilderness. Reuben, the eldest, objects to outright murder, so instead, the brothers sell Joseph as a slave and deceive their father into thinking his favorite son had been slain by wild beasts (Genesis 37:18-35).
Joseph is sold to a high-ranking Egyptian named Potiphar and eventually becomes the supervisor of Potiphar’s household. In Genesis 39 we read of how Joseph excelled at his duties and became one of Potiphar’s most trusted servants and was put in charge of his household. Potiphar could see that whatever Joseph did, God looked favorably on him and he prospered in all that he did. However, Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, and when her advances are rebuffed, she falsely accuses him of attempted rape. Joseph, although innocent in the matter, is cast into prison (Genesis 39:7-20). In jail, Joseph interprets the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners. Both interpretations prove to be true, and one of the men is later released from jail and restored to his position as the king’s cupbearer (40:1-23). Two years later, the king himself has some troubling dreams, and the cupbearer remembers Joseph’s gift of interpretation. The king calls for Joseph and relates his dreams. Joseph predicts seven years of bountiful harvests followed by seven years of severe famine in Egypt and advises the king to begin storing grain in preparation for the coming dearth (41:1-37). For his wisdom, Joseph is made a ruler in Egypt, second only to the king (41:38-49).
When the famine strikes, even Canaan is affected, and Jacob sends ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 42:1-3). While there, they meet their long-lost brother, whom they do not recognize. Joseph’s brothers bow down to him, fulfilling the earlier prophecy. Joseph then reveals his identity to his brothers and forgives their wrongdoing. Jacob and his family move to Egypt to be with Joseph. Jacob’s descendants stay in Egypt for 400 years, until the time of Moses. When Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, he takes the remains of Joseph with him, as Joseph had requested (Genesis 50:24-25; cf. Exodus 13:19).
There is much to learn from Joseph’s story. As parents, we have warnings concerning Jacob’s favoritism and the effects that can have on other children as seen in Joseph’s youthful pride and his brothers’ envy and hatred. We have a good example of how to handle sexual temptation—run (Genesis 39:12; cf. 2 Timothy 2:22), and we have a clear picture of God’s faithfulness. He does not forsake His children, even in the midst of suffering: “the Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:3, 5, 21, 23).
There may be many distressing circumstances we find ourselves in, and some of them may even be unjust, as were those in Joseph’s life. However, as we learn from the account of Joseph’s life, by remaining faithful and accepting that God is ultimately in charge, we can be confident that God will reward our faithfulness in the fullness of time. Who would have blamed Joseph if he had turned his brothers away when they were in need? Nevertheless, God desires that we exercise mercy above all other sacrifices we may offer Him in our lives (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13).
Perhaps most profoundly, Joseph’s story presents amazing insight into how God sovereignly works to overcome evil and bring about His plan. After all his ordeals, Joseph is able to see God’s hand at work. As he reveals his identity to his brothers, Joseph speaks of their sin this way: “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. . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5, 7-8). Later, Joseph again reassures his brothers, offering forgiveness and saying, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Man’s most wicked intentions can never thwart the perfect plan of God.