Joseph in the Old Testament

The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is an inspiring account of a faithful man who endured many trials and went from prisoner to prime minister.

Joseph is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible, and God gives us insight into his life from his privileged early years, through the injustices and trials of his young adulthood, to his rise to power in the great nation of Egypt. Through it all, Joseph was growing into a man of faith who would be highlighted in the Faith Chapter.

In his youth he may have been spoiled and lacking in wisdom. But in the end, he was noted for his faith, his wisdom and his willingness to forgive and not seek revenge.

It can take time for men of faith to gain the maturity God desires them to have. It appears that Joseph made some youthful mistakes in his relationship with his brothers, but as a man of faith, he persevered. Men of faith learn their lessons, they hold fast to their faith even in difficult circumstances, and they don’t hold grudges.

The story of Joseph

Joseph’s family situation was complicated. His father, Jacob, had children by four different women. But Joseph’s mother, Rachel, had been Jacob’s first choice and his favorite.

Of course, Joseph’s older brothers could tell that their father loved Joseph most, even before he gave Joseph a special coat of many colors.

And Joseph didn’t score any points with his brothers when he gave his father a bad report about them (Genesis 37:2).

Then Joseph had some dreams, and perhaps unwisely, he told his brothers about these dreams that seemed to imply his family would bow down to him.

His brothers’ anger and jealousy grew stronger over time.

Joseph is sold into slavery

Things came to a head when Jacob sent Joseph to see how his brothers were doing. They saw him coming and began plotting to murder him! Reuben, the oldest brother, convinced them to throw Joseph in a pit instead.

When a group of traders passed by, Judah said, “Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh” (verse 27). They sold Joseph for 20 shekels of silver, and he became a slave.

The brothers decided they couldn’t tell their father the truth, so they put goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat, and Jacob concluded Joseph was dead.

Meanwhile, Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold to “Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard” (verse 36).

In spite of all he had been through, Joseph didn’t give up or get bitter. He continued to obey God. He worked diligently for Potiphar, and he “found favor in his sight and served him” (Genesis 39:4). God “was with Joseph, and he was a successful man . . . The LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake” (verses 2, 5).

Joseph was faithful to God and to Potiphar. His master trusted Joseph and made him overseer of everything he owned.

Tempted to sin

But Potiphar’s wife was not faithful, and she “cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, ‘Lie with me’” (verse 7).

Joseph refused to break God’s law. He told her: “Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (verses 8-9).

Joseph knew about the command against adultery long before it was stated at Mount Sinai. See our article “Were the 10 Commandments Around Before Moses?

Day after day she tempted him. But Joseph kept refusing her because he knew it was a sin.

“But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside, that she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside” (verses 11-12).

Angered by his refusal of her advances, she then accused Joseph and lied to Potiphar, claiming that Joseph had tried to rape her.

Potiphar became very angry with Joseph and committed him to prison (verse 20).

Joseph’s unfair punishment

It was so unfair! Joseph was being punished for something he didn’t do. Instead of being rewarded for obeying God, he was now in an even worse situation.

But Joseph was still faithful to God, and he diligently served the keeper of the prison. The keeper of the prison trusted Joseph and put him in charge of all the prisoners.

One day Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, put his butler and his baker into the prison. And one night both the butler and the baker had dreams.

In the morning Joseph asked Pharaoh’s butler and baker, “‘Why do you look so sad today?’ And they said to him, ‘We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.’ So Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please’” (Genesis 40:7-8).

God revealed to Joseph the meanings of the men’s dreams. The baker would be killed, but the butler would get his job back.

Joseph asked the butler to remember him when he was released, and to tell Pharaoh about his unjust imprisonment (verses 14-15).

But the butler forgot. So Joseph remained in the prison for two more long years.

Pharaoh’s dreams

Then Pharaoh had two dreams. He called all the magicians and wise men of Egypt, but he couldn’t find anyone who could tell him what his dreams meant.

The butler then remembered that Joseph could interpret the meaning of dreams.

Pharaoh sent for Joseph, who was quickly brought out of the prison, and explained that he had heard Joseph could understand and interpret dreams.

“So Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace’” (Genesis 41:16). Joseph faithfully gave the credit to God.

Joseph then explained that both of the king’s dreams were about seven good years and seven years of famine. During the first seven years, Egypt would grow an abundance of food. But then there would be seven bad years when very little food would grow.

Joseph is blessed

Joseph suggested that Pharaoh should appoint a wise man to prepare for the famine and that Egypt should stockpile food during the good years.

God blessed the whole family through Joseph, and in spite of all the intervening trials, Joseph’s dreams came true and his faith was rewarded.The king was impressed with Joseph’s wisdom and appointed him to the job. After years of trials, Joseph went from being a prisoner to being the prime minister, second in charge of the great nation of Egypt in a matter of moments!

As before, God blessed Joseph’s diligent efforts. He mobilized the Egyptians to stockpile enough food for themselves and surrounding peoples willing to pay the price.

And in the meantime, Joseph received Pharaoh’s favor and God’s blessing.

“Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah. And he gave him as a wife Asenath, the daughter of Poti-Pherah priest of On. So Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt” (verse 45).

During the seven good years, God blessed Joseph and Asenath with two sons.

It’s interesting to note that even the names Joseph gave his sons reflected his faith that God was working in his life. He named his first son Manasseh (making forgetful), “for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” (verse 51). He named his second son Ephraim (fruitfulness), “for God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (verse 52).

His brothers bow before Joseph

When the famine came, Jacob sent Joseph’s 10 brothers to Egypt to buy food, but he kept the youngest, Benjamin, at home. When the brothers saw the Egyptian governor, they bowed down before him—just as Joseph’s dreams had predicted so many years before. They didn’t recognize Joseph—he acted like a stranger and spoke through an interpreter. But he recognized them.

Joseph decided to test his brothers to see what kind of men they were now. He accused them of being spies. His brothers denied it and told Joseph about their father and youngest brother. Joseph still accused them of spying and put them all in prison for three days.

Afterward he let nine of them out and sold them grain to take back to their families. He told his brothers to bring their youngest brother back with them in order to verify that they were honest men—but until then, Simeon would remain in prison (Genesis 42:19-20).

The brothers told their father what had happened, but Jacob, who still thought Joseph was dead, didn’t want to risk losing Benjamin as well.

However, the famine was severe, and when all the grain was used up, Jacob reluctantly allowed Benjamin to go with them to Egypt.

Jacob said, “May God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may release your other brother and Benjamin. If I am bereaved, I am bereaved!” (Genesis 43:14).

Tearful reunion

Again, his brothers bowed down before Joseph. They still did not know who he was.

But when they were on the way home, Joseph sent men to find his silver cup, which had been planted in Benjamin’s belongings. The brothers were brought before Joseph again, and Joseph announced he was going to keep Benjamin as a slave. But the brothers begged Joseph to let him go. They worried that their father would not be able to take the loss of his youngest son.

If Joseph was testing his brothers, he got his answer. They had changed and showed real concern for their half-brother and for their father. They were now willing to sacrifice themselves for Benjamin and for their father.

Joseph couldn’t pretend any longer. He told his brothers, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4).

His brothers were understandably afraid. But instead of punishing them, Joseph comforted them. He told them that he realized that God had worked this all out. “God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (verse 7).

Joseph arranged for his brothers to bring Jacob and the rest of the family down to Egypt. Then they would have food through the remaining five years of famine.

Jacob was, of course, shocked to hear that Joseph was still alive! There was another tearful reunion when Jacob and Joseph reunited after more than 20 years.

Through it all, Joseph faithfully obeyed God and diligently performed every task he was given. God blessed the whole family through Joseph, and in spite of all the intervening trials, Joseph’s dreams came true and his faith was rewarded.

Blessings for Joseph’s sons

The blessings didn’t end there. God had promised great blessings to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham (see “God’s Promises to Abraham”). These blessings had been passed down to Isaac and then Jacob. Now Jacob decided to adopt Joseph’s two sons and pass many of the material blessings on to them.

So Jacob told Joseph, “And now your two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine” (Genesis 48:5).

Then he put his hands on the heads of Ephraim and Manasseh and proclaimed this blessing:

“God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has fed me all my life long to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; let my name be named upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (verses 15-16).

Joseph was concerned that his father put Ephraim, his younger son, before Manasseh, his firstborn. But Jacob did it knowingly, under God’s inspiration. Jacob said: “I know, my son, I know. He [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations” (verse 19).

For more about how God has fulfilled these blessings, see “How the Blessings of Abraham Came to the United States.”

Joseph’s faith in the future

Joseph showed faith throughout his life in many ways. So it is interesting that the Faith Chapter focuses on only one example, and not necessarily one most would think of.

“By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22).

This refers back to what Joseph said to his family when he was drawing near death:

“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 . . . God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (Genesis 50:24-25).

Read more about this in our article “Bones of Joseph: Lesson of Faith.”

Throughout his life, Joseph grew in faith and trusted God. He recognized that even his most severe trials could be used by God for His purpose. Joseph learned diligence and patience and grew in godly character that prepared him for the amazing future that God has in store for all of His children—the men and women of faith.

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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