We continue our study of the book of Genesis in chapter 38, which constitutes an interlude in Joseph’s story. Following his sale into Egyptian slavery by his brothers, from whom he would be separated for about 22 years, the one who had proposed the trade enslaved himself in a different way. Judah left the hill country, went down to the coastal plain and lived among the indigenous people, marrying a Canaanite woman (Genesis 38:1–2). Together they had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. The account of Judah’s life away from his father and brothers takes up most of the intervening years until he meets Joseph again.
In the abbreviated history of Judah’s family, Genesis records that the first son married the Canaanite Tamar. As with other members of Jacob’s family, moral problems never seem far from the surface. In Er’s case, his wickedness brought about his death at Yahweh’s hands, leaving his childless widow to become Onan’s wife (by what is known as the law of levirate) and thereby have children. Onan proved incapable of exhibiting such outgoing concern, and while he appears to have been happy to have intercourse with Tamar (the verb form suggests more than once), it was coitus interruptus, thus avoiding the requirement to “raise up an heir to [his] brother” (verse 8). For this, God dealt with him by taking his life.
“It is here [in the book of Genesis] more than anywhere else that the emphasis is on personal relationships, and here that the themes of hostility, resentment, estrangement and reconciliation are explored in all their depth and pathos.”
Judah then asked his daughter-in-law to return to her parental home until his third son would be old enough to marry. The problem was that he never intended to have her marry Shelah, thinking that this son might also die as a result. Tamar exacted the price for this betrayal by disguising herself as a prostitute and deceiving the now-widowed Judah into fathering a child by her. Not knowing that he was the father, his reaction to the news that his daughter-in-law was pregnant “by whoredom” was to call for her death by burning (verse 24, King James Version). Tamar revealed what had happened, and Judah was honest enough to admit that he was the wrongdoer, the betrayer. As it was, Tamar had twins, Perez and Zerah. Perez became an ancestor of the Israelite king David (Ruth 4:18–22) and of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3–16).
The reason for this interlude in the story of Joseph is to record Judah’s repentance and his unchanged status in the line of Jacob (in contrast to Reuben), despite his wrong decisions vis-à-vis selling Joseph and deceiving their father. It also provides a contrast with the righteous Joseph, who meanwhile had successfully resisted sexual advances.
Ups and Downs
Joseph was on a promising path in Egypt. We learn that just as Yahweh had been with the patriarchs, so He was now with Joseph (Genesis 39:2, 3, 21, 23). The pharaoh’s chief of the guard, Potiphar, had bought him from Ishmaelite traders. Entrusted with more and more responsibility, Joseph seemed set until his good looks attracted the attention of his master’s wife, who tried to seduce him on several occasions. But Joseph knew this would be wrong. Demonstrating knowledge of divine moral law well before the codification of the Ten Commandments in Moses’ time, he said to her, “How . . . can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (verse 9). Still she pressured him. His final refusal led to her grabbing his outer garment and spitefully producing it as evidence that he had tried to rape her. For this, Potiphar had Joseph put in prison. Though God gave him favor with the prison keeper (verses 21–23), it would be several years before his release.
In the meantime two notable prisoners arrived: Pharaoh’s cupbearer, or butler, and his baker. Now Potiphar put Joseph in charge of them (40:4). Joseph was able to interpret their dreams, asking that when free, the butler would plead his case before Pharaoh. But Joseph was to be disappointed. The baker was executed, while the cupbearer promptly forgot about the man who had interpreted his dream (verse 23).
Joseph was to wait another two years in prison, until the opportunity arose for the interpretation of two much more significant dreams. This time Pharaoh himself was the recipient. He saw seven healthy cows come up from a river to feed in a pasture. Seven ugly, gaunt cows followed them and devoured the healthy ones. The second dream involved seven healthy heads of grain on one stalk being devoured by seven blighted heads. Asking his magicians and counselors for the interpretation of these troubling images, Pharaoh could get no satisfactory explanation. The cupbearer then spoke up, recalling his promise to Joseph and telling Pharaoh of the young man’s skill of interpretation. Sending for Joseph, the ruler heard that the ability came not from the man himself: “Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace’” (41:16). The ruler then added more details to the first dream and explained that the river was the Nile, that the first animals were sleek and fat, the others gaunt, ugly and lean. Yet when the starved cows devoured the healthy ones, there was no appreciable improvement. He repeated the second dream almost verbatim.
“There is no record of God speaking directly to Joseph as He did to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet Joseph had faith, because he believed in the Word of God that had been passed down from Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob.”
Joseph explained that the dreams carried the same message: a prediction of seven years of plenty and seven years of famine in Egypt and surrounding lands (verses 25–32). He advised the appointing of a leader to supervise the collection of a reserve into city granaries—20 percent for each of the seven years of abundance. Under Pharaoh’s control this would feed the land during the famine.
As a result, the Egyptian ruler appointed the 30-year-old Joseph to the post of vizier or prime minister to supervise the famine relief effort: “Then Pharaoh took his signet ring off his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand; and he clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ So he set him over all the land of Egypt” (verses 42–43).
A Break With the Past?
It is puzzling, on the surface, that Joseph did not contact his father once he rose to power in Egypt. But we may arrive at a reasonable explanation by going back over the details more carefully.
It’s possible that Joseph came to believe that Jacob’s anger over the dream of exaltation above his father, mother and brothers (37:9–11) had led his father to expose him needlessly to the brothers’ resentment when he sent Joseph to find them as they grazed their flocks near Shechem (verses 12–14). The result was the plot to kill the lad, modified to selling him into slavery. Joseph may have concluded that his father was unremittingly angry with him in the way he had been with Simeon and Levi after their attack on Shechem (34:30; 49:5–7), and with Reuben after he slept with his father’s concubine (35:22; 49:4).
Indicative perhaps of Joseph’s sense of abandonment is his taking on a new life and identity in Egypt, including a name change by Pharaoh to Zaphnath-Paaneah (“God speaks and He lives”), the gift of an Egyptian wife, Asenath, and the fathering of two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Of the firstborn’s Hebrew name he said, “For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house”; of the second’s, “For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:51–52). This demonstrated Joseph’s continuing attachment to the God of his fathers, despite his marriage to the daughter of the priest of On, a sun worshiper.
As the famine took hold, Pharaoh sent his people to Joseph to buy food. Because surrounding lands suffered the same fate, visitors began to seek out supplies in Egypt. This development brought Joseph and his brothers back into contact 20 or more years after their last meeting. Jacob sent 10 of his sons to Egypt in search of food, keeping Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, at home (42:1–4). No doubt he feared losing his remaining son by Rachel.
When the brothers arrived, Joseph recognized them but did not reveal himself. Unknowingly fulfilling the prophetic dream that had caused such problems in the family, they bowed to him. In response he asked where they came from, accusing them of being spies. They denied the charge, saying that they were honest men, part of a family of 12 sons, with a father in Canaan. They said the youngest was with his father, and one son was deceased. Pretending not to believe them, Joseph put them in jail for three days, then offered to provide them with grain to take home, keeping one brother as security till they returned with their youngest brother as proof of their story.
What immediately came to their minds was what they had done to Joseph. The brothers were guilt-stricken as they recalled their brother’s pleas for mercy: “We saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us” (verse 21). The firstborn, Reuben, was particularly overcome; he had tried to dissuade his brothers from their plot (verse 22; 37:21–22).
Joseph listened to all that was said, the brothers thinking that he could not understand Hebrew since an interpreter was present (42:23). Then he chose Simeon, the second eldest, as the one to stay behind. He sent them on their way with food and secretly put the money they had paid for grain into their sacks. When they were back in Canaan and discovered this, they were troubled along with their father.
The loss of Joseph, the ransom of Simeon and the demand that Benjamin return with them to Egypt was too much for Jacob: “You have bereaved me: Joseph is no more, Simeon is no more, and you want to take Benjamin. All these things are against me” (verse 36). Reuben now offered to be surety for Benjamin if his father would allow the youngest to travel to Egypt. Jacob was unwilling, but the famine became so severe that their grain ran out and a return to Egypt offered the only possibility of relief.
Now Judah, who had suggested the sale of Joseph to the slave traders, offered to be surety for Benjamin if Jacob would release his youngest for the journey. Reluctantly Jacob agreed, telling them to take gifts of balm, honey, spices, myrrh, pistachios and almonds. There was some food in Canaan, but not the much-needed grain. They should also take twice as much money as before, including the funds that had been found in the sacks of grain (43:11–12).
When they arrived in Egypt, Joseph gave instruction that they should be brought to his house. Afraid, they speculated that the money in their sacks was the issue and they were about to be punished by being made slaves and dispossessed. Joseph’s steward reassured them that he had received payment (no doubt Joseph had paid from his own resources) and that what was returned was indeed their own. Simeon was then freed to meet his brothers.
When Joseph returned to his home, they were taken to meet him. Giving him their gifts, they bowed to him, again fulfilling the prophetic dream. Joseph asked if their father was still alive. Answering, they again bowed. Hearing that his father was well, Joseph asked whether the youngest among them was Benjamin. Suddenly, at seeing his brother after so many years, he could not contain his emotions. Leaving the room, he composed himself and came back to dine with them, making sure that Benjamin’s plate was filled more than any other. He also arranged their seating from eldest to youngest, something that also surprised them; how did he know?
“Only now, with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, can the story move on to the birth of Israel as a nation, passing from the crucible of slavery to the constitution of freedom as a people under the sovereignty of God.”
Joseph was now about to carry out the next part of his plan to bring all of the family to Egypt. He instructed his steward to fill sacks of grain for the brothers, to return their money secretly as before, and to add his silver cup to Benjamin’s sack. Soon after they left for Canaan, Joseph sent his steward after them to accuse them of stealing. They were stunned; why would they steal? So sure of their innocence, they allowed a search, saying that if anything were found, that man should die and they should become slaves. Joseph’s test was to see if they would abandon Benjamin as they had him when it suited their purpose.
At the discovery of the silver cup, they were so shocked that they tore their clothes and went back to face Joseph. Pretending to have found them out by divination, Joseph accepted their general profession of guilt and said he would take Benjamin as a slave and let them return to their father. Now a distraught Judah came forward to remind Joseph of their father’s situation—old, with a favorite son of his old age, bereaved of another son. Judah said that Jacob would die if Benjamin did not return. He begged Joseph to keep him in Benjamin’s place. This in effect was Judah’s recognition of his guilt in selling Joseph. Now he was willing to stand ransom for his father’s favorite, Benjamin. It was also reflective of the brothers’ concern for their father, a concern which they had not shown when they sold Joseph and lied to Jacob about his disappearance.
At this Joseph could not contain himself any longer. Sending all but his brothers out of the room and weeping loudly, he told them who he was. Stunned once more, they did not know what to say. Again Joseph explained who he was, now telling them not to be upset with themselves for what they had done to him, because “God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:7).
With several hard years to go, Joseph asked them to bring Jacob and his entire household to Egypt: “Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph: “God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near to me, you and your children, your children’s children, your flocks and your herds, and all that you have. There I will provide for you, lest you and your household, and all that you have, come to poverty; for there are still five years of famine”’” (9–11).
The emotional reunion gave way to Pharaoh’s expression of favor. They were to be given all the help they needed to make the journey back to Egypt with their father, where they would live without want (verses 17–18).
A Family Reunited
When Jacob met his returning sons, he too could not believe the story. Joseph alive? Impossible. Yet they proved it to his satisfaction, and together they traveled back via Beersheba. There God appeared to Jacob, saying: “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).
Jacob and his progeny in Egypt amounted to 70 persons in all, including Joseph’s sons but not including any wives, husbands of daughters or most granddaughters (verses 26–27). There may therefore have been upwards of 300 people in the party when servants and other family members are considered. They went to Goshen, an area rich in pastureland and generally thought to have been located in the eastern Nile delta.
It was there that Joseph first met his father again after their long separation. Joseph planned that some of them should meet Pharaoh with the object of his granting them land in Goshen since they were livestock breeders. Their occupation would keep them separate from the Egyptians, who did not regard shepherds highly. Pharaoh was accommodating, even offering employment to any among them who were expert herdsmen. At his meeting with Jacob, Pharaoh asked about his age. Jacob’s reply was meaningful, honest and reflective of a life filled with much sorrow: “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are one hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage” (47:9).
During the continuing famine, Joseph’s wise resource management gradually gave Pharaoh control of all the land in Egypt in return for grain (verses 13–26).
Jacob lived another 17 years in Egypt, and his family grew large. Toward the end he called Joseph to his side to have him promise that he would bury him with his fathers in Canaan. Shortly after this, Jacob fell ill and Joseph took his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to visit him. Jacob reminded Joseph of God’s promise of descendants and property; “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a multitude of people [this had been fulfilled by the time of their famous departure; see Exodus 1:7], and give this land to your descendants after you as an everlasting possession’”(Genesis 48:3–4).
“The great national drama of the slavery and the Exodus is about to unfold. Yet the Book of Genesis closes with an assurance of redemption. The people of Israel will possess the land pledged to them by God in His oaths to the patriarchs.”
With this in mind Jacob now singled out Joseph’s two Egyptian-born sons for a special blessing and inclusion in the family of Israel. As he reached out to the two boys, Jacob crossed his hands, placing his right on the head of the younger, giving him the elder brother’s blessing. This is one more example in Genesis of the unexpected outcome, particularly as concerns the one who is chosen and the one who is not: Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Reuben and Joseph/Judah (see 1 Chronicles 5:1–2). Specifically, the boys would be included in the family line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 48:16) despite their half-Egyptian lineage. Together they would “grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” Joseph tried to correct what he assumed was his father’s error, but Jacob insisted that this was his intention: “I know, my son, I know. He [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations” (verse 19).
The future for these two sons of Joseph was to include greatness and many descendants, but those from Ephraim would become the more dominant, not always numerically (see Numbers 1:32–35 and Numbers 26:28–37) but in terms of leadership position. Eventually, once the children of Israel returned to the Land of Promise, the name “Ephraim” would be applied to the northern tribes of Israel—a multitude of nations/peoples/tribes (see Isaiah 7:2, 5, 9, 17; Hosea 9:3–16).
Jacob knew that his days were coming to an end, and he told Joseph that after his death the God they served would bring the family back to the land of Canaan—a prophecy of the Exodus (Genesis 48:21). Soon after, he called all of his sons together to explain their future as tribes (49:1, 28) in terms of their individual character and history.
Reuben’s sexual sin in displacing his father with the concubine Bilhah was the cause of his displacement from the birthright. His emotionally unstable character meant that he would not excel in the way that he should have by his preeminent position in the family (verses 3–4).
Jacob’s disassociation with the character of his second- and third-born sons, Simeon and Levi, is recorded next as he recalls their fierce anger and extreme violence against the men of Shechem (Genesis 34): “Cursed be their anger” (49:7). As a result, it was their lot to be scattered among the forthcoming tribes of Israel rather than having territories of their own.
The first three sons were, in effect, not blessed but shown the end result of their embedded traits. With Judah, the direction shifts. He was to inherit part of the firstborn’s removed blessing: “Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s children shall bow down before you. . . . The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people” (verses 8, 10). As time went by, the tribe of Judah emerged in a powerful leadership role, pictured in the form of a lion (verse 9). Ultimately the Messiah would come from this tribe (verse 10).
Zebulun was to become a tribe that lived by the sea, close to Sidon on the Mediterranean (verse 13). In the history of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun was landlocked on both east and west by other Israelite tribes, but their position on major trade routes would make it easy for them to engage in commerce, including seaborne trade. Nearby territorially, Issachar was prophesied to become strong, agrarian and predisposed to an easier life (verses 14–15), yet also benefiting from proximity to the sea and overland trade (Deuteronomy 33:18–19).
Dan would become a judge and a successful fighter that would wait for Yahweh’s rescue (Genesis 49:16–18). Similarly, Gad would be attacked, yet retaliate (verse 19). His territory would be east of the Jordan River, open to invasions from the deserts and requiring constant oversight.
Jacob made only two comments about Asher: that he would eat fat or oily food and produce delicacies suitable for kings (verse 20). After the children of Israel returned to the land, his territory was along the Mediterranean coast and well known for olive production. A short verse explains that Naphtali would be free to run like a deer, agile in combat, and capable of good use of words. These characteristics would become evident later in the tribe’s history (see Judges 4:1–24 and 5:1–31).
The final two blessings from Jacob concern his two sons by Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin. What was to become of them in days to come?
Benjamin is described in terms of a warrior, the type of a wolf. He would successfully fight, tear in pieces, and share the spoil (Genesis 49:27). Later scriptures indicate that several fighters came from Benjamin in the years ahead.
The longest entry in the account of Jacob’s final blessing is devoted to Joseph (verses 22–26). It focuses on the fruitfulness and wealth that would come to him through his descendants, Ephraim and Manasseh, who combined would become numerically the largest of the tribes. The account recalls Joseph’s many years of struggle against persecutors, and his spiritual resilience, faith and reliance on God, who is referred to in these verses by five separate names: the Mighty God of Jacob, the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel; the God of your father; and the Almighty.
“This closing [Genesis 50] is essential to the biblical drama of redemption, for if brothers cannot live together, how can nations? And if nations cannot live together, how can the human world survive?”
The End of the Patriarchs
When Jacob completed his review and blessing, he explained that his burial place should be with his family members—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and his wife Leah—near Mamre in Canaan (verses 29–31). Immediately after he had finished speaking, he died. Mourned by the Egyptians for 70 days, Jacob was embalmed in the manner of his host country, and with Pharaoh’s permission was taken to Canaan for burial.
Joseph’s brothers were naturally somewhat concerned that after Jacob died, Joseph might retaliate against them. Sending a message to him, they said that Jacob had directed them to approach him for forgiveness. Joseph’s response was characteristic of him: “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones” (50:19–21).
Joseph’s own death did bring great changes in the lives of the family, but that did not come for another 54 years. In that time he saw three generations of Ephraim’s and Manasseh’s children before his death at age 110. He was embalmed and put in a coffin (verse 26) until the fulfillment of his prophetic words to his family: “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” back to the land of Canaan (verse 25).
So closes the first book of the Bible, with the slightly suspenseful coda as to what the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would face in Egypt as the era of Joseph passed.
When The Law, the Prophets and the Writings resumes, we’ll begin the book of Exodus.