The Joseph narrative is the longest in Genesis, occupying nearly a quarter of the book by itself. The length may be due to the fact that this narrative would have been the most relevant to God’s people as they came out of Egypt, connecting the covenant promises God gave to the patriarchs with the fulfillment that Moses’ generation experienced in the Exodus. For the delivered Israelites, the Joseph narrative explains why the nation went down to Egypt in the first place and the covenantal basis for God’s delivering them. It does not evidence direct revelatory engagement between God and His people, but both Joseph and his brothers come see God’s providential working in the events that unfold. In the New Testament, while the Apostle Paul does not refer to the Joseph narrative directly, his statement in his letter to the Romans is apropos of the account: “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In seeing God’s working, the discernment of divine providence requires a higher level of faith than that which comes from direct engagement, and it is this level of faith that God’s people are called to even to this day.
The Joseph narrative starts and ends in Canaan, the land of God’s covenant promise. Joseph, probably a teenager at the outset of the narrative, receives two dreams, the import of which is that he will be exalted over his brothers and parents. Joseph’s dreams and his ability to interpret them are indications that would eventually show that he is indeed a prophet of the true God, even more so than his patriarchal forefathers were. Coming as it were on the heels of being the favored son of Jacob’s favored wife, however, this caused no small degree of resentment among his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt after first considering murdering him outright.
Following in the promise originally given to Abraham about making him a blessing to others, God’s covenantal blessing is definitely upon Joseph: he is a blessing to Potiphar’s house (39:3, 5), to the warden in prison (39:23), to the cupbearer, whose life was spared by Pharaoh, and then ultimately to Egypt and his own family in guiding them through the famine and preserving their lives. That Joseph has heard the covenant can be seen in his response to Potiphar’s wife in rejecting her sexual advances: it is not just that he would disgrace Potiphar if he were to lay with her, but he would sin against God (39:9). He gives glory to God in the interpretation of dreams (40:8, 41:16, 25, 28). He gives glory to God as well in the naming of his sons. He names Manasseh (“making forgetful”) that because “God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house.” Similarly, he names Ephraim (“fruitfulness”) because “God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:51-52). Most visibly, he gives glory to God and acknowledges God’s providence in his brothers selling him into slavery (45:5-8). Joseph is able to endure all the hardship that he went through because he looked forward to and held fast to God’s covenantal promises.
No doubt, Joseph learned of God’s covenant from his family. This is most clearly evident at the very end of Genesis when Joseph tells his brothers, “I am dying; but God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land to the land of which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” The passage then concludes by saying, “Then Joseph took an oath from the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here’” (Gen. 50:24-25). In this, Joseph follows the example of Jacob. On the eve of Jacob and his family going to Egypt, God appears to him and says, “I am God, the God of your father; do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will put his hand on your eyes” (46:3-4). Why would Jacob have been afraid to go to Egypt? Because the promise of the covenant was in Canaan. Jacob remembered that God’s covenantal promises were tied to the Promised Land, and for this reason he made Joseph solemnly swear to him that when he died, he was not be buried in Egypt but where his fathers are buried (47:29-30). Joseph honored this vow (50:4-9), and expected fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise to Abraham (ch. 15) that He would bring the nation out of Egypt to the land of promise. The people fulfilled this in the Exodus and they in turn brought Joseph’s bones with them when they came out of Egypt (Exod. 13:39). In the New Testament, Stephen recounted this how Israel brought Joseph’s bones with them in the Exodus as part of his description of the covenantal expectations of God’s people (Acts 7:4-16).
In this overarching account of Joseph, the narrative takes a seemingly odd diversion in chapter 38, with the story of Judah and Tamar, and this requires some explanation. Judah marries a Canaanite woman, something previously discouraged in the history of God’s people to this point (see Gen. 24:3-4, 27:46-28:2 & 6), and has three sons by her. Two of his sons are killed, and he tells his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, to wait until his third son comes of age before he will give him to her as a husband. Yet when Shelah is grown, Judah effectively reneges on his promise. Since marriage and child-bearing would have provided for Tamar’s security, to have been denied this was an injustice to her. She responds by disguising herself as a prostitute, having intercourse with Judah, and conceiving a son by him, without him realizing that it was with her that he had sex. When she becomes pregnant, he is ready to kill her for harlotry until she confronts him with evidence that it was by him that she became pregnant. At that point, he acknowledges his sin and her righteousness (38:26).
Tawdry as this account is, it serves a few different purposes in the Joseph narrative. First, it highlights by way of contrast, the godliness of Joseph in subsequent chapters. Where Judah had sex with who he thought was a harlot by the roadside, Joseph rejected the lustful advances of his master’s wife, only to be falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison; he would only be delivered from this by rightly interpreting Pharaoh’s dream about the impending famine. Second, it marks a turning point in Judah’s life and the emergence of his leadership of the family. When reference to Judah resumes in chapter 43, it is Judah who exhibits leadership in saying that he and his brothers needed to return to Egypt for food and it was Judah himself who was willing to be a surety for the life of Benjamin, to fulfill the stipulation that the vizier (actually Joseph in disguise) laid down during their first trip to Egypt. Moreover, it is Judah that acts as an intercessory mediator between his family and Pharaoh’s court in chapter 44. This change in Judah lays the basis for the extensive blessing he receives from Jacob on his deathbed in 49:8-12, becoming the leader of the nation, since Reuben, Simeon, and Levi disqualified themselves by disgrace. Looking forward, it is from Judah’s line by Tamar that David, Israel’s greatest earthly king, would come, and from that same line that humanity’s ultimate king, Christ Jesus, also would come. Repentant and redeemed Judah foreshadowed the mediatorial role Christ Himself would exhibit in fullness.
God’s covenantal love is also manifest in the Joseph narrative. Joseph himself recognized this, both when he revealed his true identity to his brothers (45:3-8) and after his father died (50:15-21). In both cases, his brothers repented of the evil they had done to him in selling him into slavery, but he saw their actions in the broader context of God’s providential working to save people—and specifically the covenant people—through the famine. Moreover, this recognition of God’s overarching grace enabled Joseph to extend forgiveness to his brothers who had truly wronged him. Although in the early chapters of the narrative, there was much evidence of sibling rivalry, jealously, and strife, by the narrative’s conclusion self-sacrificial (covenantal) love can be seen in in the attitude of Judah towards Jacob, and in the reconciliation, grace, forgiveness, and covenantal solidarity between Joseph and his brothers. Such love was to be marks of God’s people and were to mark God’s people. This fact would have been particularly poignant as the Israelites came out of Egypt, but subsequent Israelite history shows they often failed at this. As a New Covenant people, such love is to mark us as well.