Joseph's Story

After explaining Judah's connection to the coming Messiah, the Genesis writers finish their narrative with the telling of Joseph's story.
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We've taken a side trip in looking at a portion of Judah's life. He was Jacob's fourth son. The purpose of the story was to explain the background of Jesus' genealogy from Jacob through Judah.

We will now carry on with the narrative concerning the main story of Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, and how he fared after being sold into slavery in Egypt. The last time we saw him he had been transported to Egypt and sold to a man named Potiphar who was the king's captain of guard and chief executioner.

This chapter will deal with Joseph's experience in this new country and situation.

Ancient Egypt

Egypt was already an old country by the time Joseph arrived there. It was a nation ruled by Pharaohs (meaning great house) who handed power down from generation to generation through family dynasties.

Scholars do not know for sure which king ruled when Joseph was there (the Bible only refers to him as Pharaoh – the title). Some believe that it was the HYKSOS dynasty because these rulers were foreign kings that had conquered Egypt and had a Semitic (from the family of Shem – Noah's son, Abraham's ancestor) blood. This explains the king's favorable treatment of Joseph and his family later on.

In later centuries these dynasties were forced out of power and replaced by native Egyptian born kings which some suggest may explain why Joseph's ancestors were subsequently treated harshly. This was probably done because the descendants of Joseph may have been seen as distant relatives of the foreign kings now expelled and replaced by Egyptian ones.

Nevertheless, Joseph is in a pagan country that had very low moral standards and practiced polytheism (worship of many gods).

Joseph in Potiphar's House

1Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, so he became a successful man. And he was in the house of his master, the Egyptian. 3Now his master saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge. 5It came about that from the time he made him overseer in his house and over all that he owned, the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Joseph; thus the Lord's blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and in the field. 6So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge; and with him there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.
- Genesis 39:1-6

Potiphar was captain and chief executioner. The word "officer" means eunuch.

  • It was common in those days to castrate high officials to prevent them from interfering in the king's harem or staging a military coup in order to begin a family dynasty of their own.
  • Potiphar may have agreed to this in order to reach high office after marriage, or his wife married him to reach a high social plateau without regard to his sexual limitations.

This part also gives us a good physical and character description of Joseph (which the Bible rarely does). Joseph was handsome and intelligent. He was a good administrator and trustworthy. He became successful and, as far as a slave could, became independent. He showed that he was a godly, spiritual man.

All of Joseph's good qualifications and work were attributed to the presence of God in his life and this was made evident to Joseph's master.

7It came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me." 8But he refused and said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me here, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. 9There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?" 10As she spoke to Joseph day after day, he did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her.

For reasons made a little clearer by the fact we know Potiphar was a eunuch, his wife became desirous of Joseph and tried to have sex with him.

We see Joseph deal with the situation but in an ineffective way. He tries to reason with her by convincing her with the things that he is convinced with: it would be hurtful to her husband who has been so good to him and it would be a sin against God.

The point here is that this woman does not care about what her husband feels (she is seducing a slave in her husband's own house) and she is a pagan so arguments about God will have no effect on her. Joseph is probably being naïve here in thinking that reviewing his own reasons for avoiding sins will dissuade the one who is tempting him to sin.

Sometimes this is just a stalling tactic we use in order to take in the aroma of sin without taking a bite. Like Eve, we stand around reviewing why we should not do something instead of being proactive and rebuking the temptation and the tempter.

Joseph was in a difficult position because telling his master might have gotten him killed. One thing he did not do, however, was to appeal to God for help at this point.

11Now it happened one day that he went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there inside. 12She caught him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" And he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside. 13When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14she called to the men of her household and said to them, "See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I screamed. 15When he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me and fled and went outside." 16So she left his garment beside her until his master came home. 17Then she spoke to him with these words, "The Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me; 18and as I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me and fled outside."

19Now when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke to him, saying, "This is what your slave did to me," his anger burned. 20So Joseph's master took him and put him into the jail, the place where the king's prisoners were confined; and he was there in the jail.

The seduction fails and the wife is angry and humiliated at being refused, so she cries "rape".

  • The thrust of her attack, however, is not that she may have been sexually attacked, but that a foreigner had such power in the household and thought he could try something like this. (Jealous of his influence)
  • Note that Potiphar's anger is kindled but it does not say he was angry at Joseph.

The fact that he was not killed and ultimately rose to prominence in the prison suggests that Potiphar may have been less angry about his wife's accusations and more annoyed in losing his right hand man.

  • Had he been in a jealous rage, Joseph would have been a dead man; instead he was put in prison and still allowed a lot of freedom there.
  • This does not minimize his suffering or the injustice of the matter, but it does explain why he was not executed.
21But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22The chief jailer committed to Joseph's charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. 23The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph's charge because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made to prosper.

Joseph demonstrates his great talents and the fact that God is blessing him. The Bible shows that even though Joseph was gifted, it was God's blessings that made him prosper, not just his abilities.

Joseph in Prison – Chapter 40

1Then it came about after these things, the cupbearer and the baker for the king of Egypt offended their lord, the king of Egypt. 2Pharaoh was furious with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. 3So he put them in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, in the jail, the same place where Joseph was imprisoned. 4The captain of the bodyguard put Joseph in charge of them, and he took care of them; and they were in confinement for some time.
- Genesis 40:1-4

These men were officers in the king's court:

  • The cup bearer is responsible for vineyards, wine and service, and also protects against poisoning.
  • The baker is responsible for food preparation and service as well as protection.

The fact that they were imprisoned and one subsequently executed may seem that they were involved in some sort of conspiracy (possibly assassination). While an investigation is pending to find out which one is really guilty, both were imprisoned.

The fact that Joseph served and saw to their needs says that they were well treated while the investigation went on.

5Then the cupbearer and the baker for the king of Egypt, who were confined in jail, both had a dream the same night, each man with his own dream and each dream with its own interpretation. 6When Joseph came to them in the morning and observed them, behold, they were dejected. 7He asked Pharaoh's officials who were with him in confinement in his master's house, "Why are your faces so sad today?" 8Then they said to him, "We have had a dream and there is no one to interpret it." Then Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please."

Joseph had much experience with dreams and was especially concerned regarding the dreams which they had which troubled them so much. He declares that God is the interpreter of dreams (because dreams are often about the future and God controls the future). From this we also learn that Joseph was aware of his own ability to interpret dreams given to him by God.

9So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, "In my dream, behold, there was a vine in front of me; 10and on the vine were three branches. And as it was budding, its blossoms came out, and its clusters produced ripe grapes. 11Now Pharaoh's cup was in my hand; so I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I put the cup into Pharaoh's hand." 12Then Joseph said to him, "This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; 13within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh's cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer. 14Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house. 15For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon."

The butler's dream is interpreted as a sign that in three days he would be freed and restored. The fact that the branches gave grapes which he immediately presented to the king showed that there was no tampering with the wine before it got to the Pharaoh.

The official is relieved and as a fellow innocent prisoner, Joseph asks him to use his influence to get him out of jail when he is released.

16When the chief baker saw that he had interpreted favorably, he said to Joseph, "I also saw in my dream, and behold, there were three baskets of white bread on my head; 17and in the top basket there were some of all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, and the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head." 18Then Joseph answered and said, "This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days; 19within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and will hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat your flesh off you."

The baker, encouraged by the favorable interpretation of the butler reveals his dream to Joseph. His dream holds the clues to his downfall. There is no sequence where the preparation of the food and service to the king are linked without interruption. This suggests that anyone could have put the baked goods together. The fact that the birds come to eat some of the food says that the king did not get everything that was intended for him.

The dream, if a reflection of the baker's work, showed that he failed to guarantee the purity of the food and failed to protect it from its source to its destination. Joseph interprets the dream and gives the bad news to the baker along with the fact that all of this will take place in three days. Here is where God's power is seen in his ability not just to give meaning to images but to be specific about future events.

20Thus it came about on the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21He restored the chief cupbearer to his office, and he put the cup into Pharaoh's hand; 22but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

The king's birthday along with the attending feast (birthday parties are an old custom) was an ideal opportunity to announce the results of his investigation. With all the servants present, the king could make a good object lesson about the consequences of disloyalty or poor service. The butler is restored and immediately takes up his former position, but the baker as Joseph predicted, is convicted and sentenced to die.

This should have impressed the butler greatly but because of his new duties and perhaps the fear of competition from such a gifted man, he forgot about Joseph and his promise to him.

In Genesis 41 we find out that another two years goes by as Joseph languishes in prison before the butler remembers him and speaks to the Pharaoh on his behalf.


1. Your boss is watching you

If you want to know what kind of Christian you are, ask your boss because he/she is always watching you. Joseph provided a tremendous witness for his faith to his slave masters because they in their role as taskmasters naturally observed not only what he did but how he did it.

It should be quite evident to our superiors that we are Christians because of the quality of our work and our attitude. Bosses usually like to hire Christians because they know that there is something different and better in Christian employees, and they are blessed because of them.

If you cannot convince your boss that you are a Christian, you will have a hard time convincing anyone else.

2. Run from temptation

Joseph was young, ambitious and thought he could handle anything (he had survived a kidnapping)! Satan is smarter and stronger than we are by ourselves – when you hear or see a poisonous snake, you do not tease it or play with it, you run away. Joseph could not run but he could have asked God for help; he did not and the evil of others overwhelmed him and hurt him.

Sometimes we can avoid sin but we need help to avoid the schemes and attacks of others against us. A wise man runs away not only from personal temptation, but runs away from the appearance and the occasion of sin so that he can avoid it touching him, even indirectly.

3. God is a slow cook

The best food is usually cooked slowly to preserve the flavor and not burn or dry up the ingredients. God is a slow cook because He takes all the time necessary to prepare people for certain works, service, or ministry. Joseph was seventeen when sold into slavery; he was thirty years old when made the head of Pharaoh's courts.

Thirteen years as a slave in Potiphar's house and prison. It may have seemed like wasted time for this young, intelligent and talented man to spend thirteen years as a slave and a prisoner. But if your life is dedicated to God and His service, there is no wasted time, He uses every moment to either:

  • Perfect your holy character
  • Prepare you for a specific ministry
  • Point you towards a person

God gives back the wasted years here and promises unlimited time in heaven if we submit our time to Him and His purpose now.

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss how the environment of ancient Egypt enabled Joseph to fulfill God's will.
  2. Summarize how Joseph came to be the steward of Potiphar's household with emphasis on Joseph's response to the events.
  3. Summarize Joseph's time in prison and answer the following questions:
    • Why would God not release Joseph from jail immediately?
    • How can we use Joseph's example to continue to serve God in times of trial?
    • What can we do if we fail in our faithfulness during a hard situation?
  4. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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