Joseph, Slave in Egypt
As we enter into the book of Exodus, we encounter Joseph. Exodus 1:5 says:
After telling us that Joseph was already in Egypt, the author then tells us:
Can we assume that we know who Joseph is? He is the one who received the “technicolor dream coat” from his father. But, do we really know Joseph? Do we understand what he lived for and what his ambitions were? What made him great? Was he great?
I think of our own country. We all know the name of Abraham Lincoln, but do we know him? Was he a great man? What did he stand for? I think of his Gettysburg address where at the conclusion he said:
-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Freedom and government of the people, by the people, for the people were the principles that he espoused and lived and died for. However, although we know some details of his life, we know only a small portion of what he said and did. Even so, his influence continues to affect us today.
The same can be said of Joseph. Although he passed away millennia ago, his influence affects us even today.
Joseph started out as the favorite of his father. He was born 12th out of 13. However, what made him special in his father’s eyes was the fact that he was the son of the woman that Jacob loved. Jacob had four wives. However, when he spoke of what grieved him most in life he said:
Then your servant my father said to us, 'You know that my wife bore me two sons. One left me, and I said, "Surely he has been torn to pieces," and I have never seen him since. ()
I am looking at this statement right now because this is Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, speaking. Judah was born through Jacob’s wife Leah. This statement by Jacob does not even recognize his other wives and children. What does Jacob mean by “two sons” when he has 12, and what does he mean by “my wife” when he has four wives? We can explain this away as just a matter of speech and the moment, but this is a picture of how Jacob lived. Joseph was his father’s favorite just as his mother, Rachel, was his father’s favorite, and his father demonstrated it in extreme ways. This is why the colorful robe is so significant. Jacob was literally dressing his favorite boy up as royalty and in the face of all his brothers.
Jacob’s extreme behavior and favoritism of his young son was the root of great bitterness among Joseph’s older brothers. This set Joseph apart from his earliest days. It also set him up to be hated by his brothers. Joseph was a special child and a blessing, but so were each of Jacob’s children. Of each one, it is said that God gave them. Each of Jacob’s children was a gift from God, and each needed to be loved.
As parents, we must see that every child is honored for the treasure that he or she is. I am not talking about favoritism or worship like Joseph experienced. And we all know that Proverb 13:24 says:
We discipline and train our children carefully and thoughtfully because we love them. It seems to go without saying that if we are to love our neighbor as ourself, we should at least count our children as a neighbor. I think of the principle of 1 Timothy 5:8.
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. ()
It should be clear that to love and care for each person is an essential part of providing. God has singled out each of us and communicated His love by giving His only Son to die for us. This is the love of a father. God provides everything we need. How much are we as fathers focused on what our children need? Jacob was focused on his own needs and not those of his sons, and this seems to be a problem in many households.
Joseph was special. He knew he was special and it became a problem.
Genesis relates the story of Joseph’s two dreams. In his first dream, he and his brothers were working in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Joseph’s bundle stood up, and all his brothers’ bundles bowed to his bundle. Joseph should have kept this to himself, but he told it to his brothers. His brothers hated him before this because of their father’s favoritism. They hated him even more for his arrogance. They were wounded by their father’s comparative treatment of Joseph and angered by Joseph’s flaunting of his preferred position. Then Joseph shared a second dream. This time the Sun, Moon and 11 stars bowed low before him. Again, God’s message was for Joseph, and yet Joseph told it to brothers who already hated him.
Things got so bad in the family that 11 men plotted together to kill their 17-year-old little brother. These were men. We are not talking about children doing childish things. Joseph was spared when Judah suggested they sell him as a slave.
Having been purchased by a high government official, Joseph served his master faithfully for years and ended up as the manager of the household. Everything he did was successful. However, his master’s wife had a thing for Joseph. Joseph refused her advances day after day. Then finally she got angry and accused him of rape. Thus, Joseph ended up in jail.
Genesis tells us that Joseph served the other prisoners so well that the jailer put him in charge of the jail. However, if we look in the Psalms, we find more information about his imprisonment. Psalm 105:16-19 says:
When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him. ()
These verses tell us a great deal about Joseph’s sufferings. I want to consider with you what verse 18 says. The ESV translates this verse as:
His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron (Psalms 105:18 ESV)
This is not a mistranslation, but it is not precisely what is written. Young’s Literal Translation says,
They have afflicted with fetters his feet, Iron hath entered his soul, (Psalms 105:18 YLT)
The word translated as soul by Young is “nephesh,” and it means:
a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion
In other words, Psalm 105:18 is saying that the iron made its way down into Joseph’s very person. According to Ellicott’s commentary, the Latin Vulgate translates this phrase, “the iron passed through his soul.”
Iron passing through the soul is not a reference to Joseph being as strong as iron. Instead, it is a reference to his great, deep suffering. More than the physical suffering was the anguish of his soul.
As Psalm 105:19 says, Joseph’s imprisonment was the word of God testing Joseph. It seems apparent that as brilliant as Joseph was, he needed to get over his privileged upbringing.
The same can be said of many of God’s servants. Let’s just consider two others, Moses and David. Moses knew he was called but ended up watching sheep in the wilderness for 40 years. David was anointed king but spent approximately 8 years running from Saul in the wilderness. When we examine the lives of great men of God, we find this pattern of suffering and testing.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book, The Gulag Archipelago, says:
In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts... So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.
Joseph could have said, “In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible.” However, because of God’s work in his life, he said to his brothers,
“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. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. ()
Joseph was a great man, but his road there was through suffering and hardship. After his time in prison, Joseph was elevated to ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He built cities and saved the lives of the Egyptians as well as the Hebrews. In his statement to his brothers, we see that for Joseph it was about what God was doing and it was about keeping many people alive. He had learned humility, forgiveness and kindness. He spoke kindly to his brothers. He comforted them.
Let’s consider Psalm 105:16-17. It says,
When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. (ESV)
You will notice that the Psalmist says that God summoned the famine and that it was God who sent Joseph ahead. This echoes the words of Joseph to his brothers where he says “God meant it for good.” Joseph had unshakable confidence in both God’s goodness and God’s sovereignty. This is something we all must learn. At one point, God told a king named Ahaz,
This is true of all of us. It is not that we do not ever doubt. However, we must have a firm foundation fixed on the word of God so that we can stand in the day of testing.
The day of testing comes for all of us. Ephesians 6:13 tells us:
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. ()
This verse does not say “if the day of evil comes.” It says, “when the day of evil comes.” The day of evil will come, but it comes under the control of God and with his loving care. It comes only to consume our dross and refine our gold. When the iron passes through your soul, it comes to make you strong in faith.