A Walk Through the Old Testament, Part 5, Joseph and his Brothers

August 6, 2006



A Walk Through the OT, Part 5, Joseph and His Brothers (8/6/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Today is week 5 in our series on the Old Testament, and I promise, we will get through the Book of Genesis today. If you have followed the series this far, you know that we have just finished the story of Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s birthright, as well as the blessing of his father, Isaac. Jacob’s name is changed to the name “Israel,” and he has twelve sons, each of whom becomes the father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Four women bring forth Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob’s first wife, Leah, gave him six sons: Reuben, the firstborn; Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel gave him two sons: Joseph and Benjamin.

Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah gave Jacob two sons: Dan and Naphtali.

Leah’s maidservant Zilpah gave Jacob two sons: Gad and Asher.

What I will now provide is a synopsis of the story of Joseph and his brothers. We’ll start with a passage from Genesis chapter 37:

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
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Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Well, it would seem that Joseph had a pretty high opinion of himself, and it is easy to see why his brothers would have resented him. The twelve brothers were spread out over the land, and one day Jacob asks Joseph to go out into the fields and find his brothers, and report back about how well their flocks are doing.

The brothers see Joseph coming and they plot against him. They decide to kill him, to take his fancy coat and tell their father that a wild beast has eaten Joseph. Reuben is the only brother who does not want to kill Joseph, and he convinces his brothers instead to throw Joseph into a deep waterless well instead of killing him outright.

Now, this is one of those many places in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, where the story is confusing because it is two or more versions of the story woven together as one. If you think back to the first week of this series, you remember there are four distinct voices in the Torah, or Pentateuch.

But to combine these stories together, here is what happens. After throwing Joseph in the dry well, the brothers go off some distance and sit down to eat a meal. As they are eating they see a band of foreign merchants passing by, and that gives them an idea. Instead of killing Joseph—allowing him to die in the well—they will remove him from the well and sell him into slavery to the wandering merchants.

When they go to retrieve Joseph from the well, they discover he has already been taken into slavery by another band of travelers. The bothers then plot to hide the evil they have done from their father, Jacob. They take Joseph’s fancy coat, smear it with animal blood, and take it to Jacob, who believes his most beloved son has indeed been killed by wild animals. Joseph, of course, is actually still alive. The traveling merchants take him to Egypt and sell him into slavery to a man named Potiphar.

Potiphar was a very powerful man, one of the Pharaoh’s officials and captain of the guard. But the Lord was with Joseph throughout his enslavement in Egypt. I’ll read from the 39th chapter of Genesis:

The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master Potiphar. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.

Now it is time for some more of those wonderful biblical family values we are always hearing about. I’ll read on from the same passage:

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”

And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.

When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”

Should we really be encouraging our children to read this stuff? Anyway, Potiphar believes his wife and has Joseph thrown in jail. Joseph spends two years in jail, and is forgotten by Potiphar and his former friends in Potiphar’s household. But the Lord remained with Joseph, and helped Joseph interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners, as well as the dreams of the guards.

The Pharaoh soon hears of this amazing interpreter of dreams who is in one of his prisons, and sends for him. It seems the Pharaoh had a terrible dream he could not understand, and none of his court was able to interpret the dream for him. He explains the dream to Joseph. In the dream, the Pharaoh sees seven fine, healthy cows coming up from the Nile River. But behind those healthy cows come seven thin, sickly cows, and those sickly cows devour the healthy ones!

A similar dream follows on the heels of the first. The Pharaoh sees seven fine ears of corn, and those healthy ears of corn are eaten by seven sickly ears of corn. What does it all mean?

Joseph easily interprets the dream. He tells the Pharaoh that even though the land of Egypt is very rich at the time, and the crops are very good, this good fortune will last for only seven years. Those seven good years will be followed by seven terrible years in which a famine will strike the land. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that he will be a hero to his people if he plans ahead for the famine. Set aside some of the excess in each of the good years, and the people will not starve when the famine arrives.

In an amazing twist of events, the Pharaoh is so thrilled with the interpretive power of Joseph that he places him in charge of the Egyptian treasury. He gives Joseph the power to tax the people, and to put aside huge amounts of food so it would be available when the famine struck.

Joseph, the one time slave who is now the governor of the land of Egypt, did his work well. And after seven years, a famine does indeed strike not only Egypt, but the entire region. Soon people from all over the world are coming to try to buy food from Joseph. Among those who showed up at Joseph’s door trying to buy food for their starving families are his brothers from the land of Canaan—the very brothers who had tried to kill him and sell him into slavery in the first place.

The brothers do not recognize Joseph, but Joseph certainly recognizes them. Only ten of his eleven brothers are present. The youngest, Benjamin, had remained behind with their father, Jacob. Joseph, hiding his tears, accuses them of being spies, and tells them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to him. They reluctantly agree, go back to Canaan to retrieve Benjamin, and return to Egypt to face the governor, believing Benjamin will be taken into slavery.

When all eleven brothers return to Egypt, however, Joseph has a great feast prepared for them. He finally reveals his true identity, and he tells his brothers to go back to Canaan, and to bring their father Jacob, all their families and all their property to Egypt, where they will be able to live comfortably in the land of plenty.

And that is exactly what happens. There is a wonderful reunion between father and son as Jacob learns that Joseph is still alive, and they all live and prosper in Egypt. The book of Genesis comes to a close some one-hundred years later when Joseph dies, and the twelve brothers have had lots of children and grandchildren, blossoming into a great nation. As Genesis ends, the Hebrew people—the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the future nation of Israel—is alive and well in the land of Egypt.

But in the first chapter of the next book of the Bible—Exodus—we learn that a new king takes control of Egypt, and soon things are not going well for the Israelites. The new pharaoh, seeing that these foreigners, these Hebrews, are prospering so well in the land of Egypt, decides to enslave them. Life becomes bitter for the Hebrew people. They are forced into unbearable heavy work, and are treated as the lowliest of slaves. Clearly, a hero is needed, a savior of the Israelites. And that savior is Moses.

We’ll talk about Moses next week. This is a pivotal moment as we study the Old Testament. I will now tell you what you will not hear from many pulpits. According to the best scholarship, and according to the overwhelming majority of scholars of the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible—everything we’ve talked about so far can be labeled as myth.

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his eleven brothers; these are all believed to be fictional characters. These are characters that sprung from the imagination of our ancient ancestors. Is it possible that the man Abraham really existed, in some form? Yes, it is possible. But the stories we find about him in the Bible would have been handed down orally for over a thousand years before they were ever put in print.

But what about Moses? Was there really a man named Moses who led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness? Scholars disagree over whether or not Moses is an historic figure. The academic world is divided over whether Moses belongs to the mythical figures of the ancient past, such as Noah and Abraham, or was a real, flesh and blood human being, like King David and King Solomon.

That is why I say we are at a pivotal moment in our walk through the Old Testament. We are at that point where the murky past of pre-history is bumping up against the real-life history of the world. Moses is the pivotal character, and we’ll turn to him next week.

In the meantime, I think it is worthy to ponder the fact that the pre-historic figures of our faith, if they are indeed mythical characters, are very human. We could have fabricated perfect men and women who never did any wrong, who were ideal examples of how to live a godly life. But even our prehistoric characters ring of truth. They are flawed, each and every one of them. They are a combination of light and darkness, good and evil, love and selfishness that mark the very nature of humanity. And whether they existed as real people or are mythical characters, we can learn much about ourselves by reading about them. They are mirrors of our own souls.