Joseph: Savior in Egypt

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Formerly titled "Was Joseph a Type of Jesus?"

Published 10 October 2011; Revised 8 January 2020


Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).


Childhood/Adolescent Years

The story of Joseph (Heb Yosef, "he increases") is found in the extensive narrative of Genesis 30:22–Exodus 1:6. [NOTE: while in English "Joseph" begins with the letter "J," ancient Greek and Hebrew had no such letter. Early English versions (1395-1611) spelled his name "Ioseph." The English rendering of "Joseph" began with the King James Version of 1769.] Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob and fulfilled Rachel’s longing for a child (Gen 30:22-25). His birthplace would be considered Haran in the region of Aram while Jacob served his father-in-law Laban. Jacob spent twenty years in Haran and when he returned to Canaan no information is provided on the ages of his sons born in Haran.

Genesis continues the story of Joseph, at the age of 17, in Chapter 37, which establishes the background of animosity between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph shepherded his father's flock along with his half-brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen 37:2). It was during these days that Joseph brought a bad report to his father about them. Moses offers no information on the bad report, but there is nothing to suggest the report was untrue.

Moses interjects into the narrative that Jacob loved Joseph more than the rest of his sons, because "he was the son of his old age" (verse 3). Because of this affection Jacob gave Joseph received a special tunic. This symbol of love became caused hatred to fester among the brothers against Joseph. The tipping point came when Joseph received a revelation from God. One night Joseph had two dreams, the first of which depicted he and his brothers as sheaves in the field and their sheaves bowed down to his. The second dream captured the imagination more than the first. In the second dream the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph.

Joseph shared his dreams with his brothers and his father. By unanimous interpretation Joseph's brothers and his father concluded that one day Joseph would rule over his family. Jacob on hearing the report of the second dream interpreted the sun as representing himself, the moon as his wife Rachel, and the stars as Joseph’s eleven brothers. The family was clearly unhappy about the meaning of the dreams. Jacob seems to be correct in his interpretation of the eleven stars, since the second dream is parallel to the first in the aspect of the brothers bowing down to Joseph.

However, Jacob was wrong in his interpretation of the "moon" because Rachel died before Joseph was sold into slavery. She was not alive to bow down to Joseph in Egypt with the rest of the family. In Joseph’s situation the sun, moon and stars more likely referred to Egypt's political and religious leadership since they worshiped the heavenly bodies and did bow down to Joseph at the order of Pharaoh (Gen 41:40). The brothers reacted with jealous anger and conspired to kill him, but his brother Reuben interceded on his behalf and they put him in an empty cistern for a time. Then a caravan of Ishmaelite traders happened to be passing by and the brothers seized the opportunity to be rid of Joseph. They sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph was seventeen at the time.

Upon arrival in Egypt Joseph was sold to Potiphar, an important man. Joseph soon rose from lowly servant to overseer of Potiphar’s household. After about eleven years with Potiphar, Joseph was tempted to commit adultery with his owner’s wife. Refusal of the woman’s advances and falsely accused of assault resulted in being sent to prison. Joseph gained the favor of the prison jailer, as well as two fellow inmates, a royal cupbearer and baker, for whom he interpreted dreams that predicted life for the cupbearer and death for the baker.

After two years in prison Joseph was given the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh on the recommendation of the cupbearer. Joseph explained that the dreams predicted seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Moreover Joseph dared to advise Pharaoh to appoint someone with discernment and wisdom over the agriculture of the nation and exact a 20% tax on production to store grain for the famine years. Because of this advice Pharaoh recognized these qualities in Joseph and appointed him to the job. Joseph's authority was less than Pharaoh and the job description could be titled "Secretary of Agriculture and Land Management." Joseph wielded considerable power over a country whose prosperity and trade depended on agriculture, but he did not control other important functions of government, such as the military and judicial system. Joseph was thirty years of age when he began ruling.

The famine came about as predicted, impacting Egypt, Canaan and other lands. As the famine settled in Canaan news of available grain in Egypt reached Jacob. He sent all his sons, except Benjamin, to Egypt to buy grain. Upon arrival the ten sons of Jacob met with Joseph who at first accused his brothers of being spies and imprisoned them for three days. On the third day he released them, but required that one of them remain in prison while the rest took grain back to their families in Canaan. Joseph chose Simeon, the second son of Leah, to stay. Joseph insisted that when the brothers returned for more grain they must bring their youngest brother Benjamin. En route home the brothers discovered that their money had been returned to them, which left them with a sense of dread. Jacob was extremely distressed by the report of his sons, particularly with the knowledge that when his sons went back for more grain they must take Benjamin.

After some period of time Jacob sent his sons again for more grain, this time allowing Benjamin to accompany them. In addition, Jacob sent some of the best products of the land that had not been impacted by the famine. Upon meeting his brothers Joseph provided gracious hospitality and then a lavish banquet for them to enjoy, during which Benjamin was given twice as much food as his brothers. After providing grain to his brothers Joseph engaged in a deception. Joseph commanded his steward to put his cup secretly into Benjamin's sack. The sons of Jacob departed with the grain they had purchased, but Joseph commanded his steward to pursue them, and charge them with having stolen his cup. The brothers protested their innocence, and offered to submit to be slaves should the cup be found with any of them. A search was made, and the cup was found in Benjamin's sack. They were brought back and submitted themselves to Joseph who determined that Benjamin alone, with whom the cup was found, would remain a prisoner.

Judah then made an impassioned appeal for Benjamin's release, and offered himself to be a substitute prisoner. Moved by Judah's appeal, Joseph revealed himself to his brother, excused their conduct towards him, and attributed his being brought to Egypt as the providence of God. The revelation produced first shock and then a tearful reunion. He ordered them to hurry back to Canaan, and bring their father and their own families and livestock, because there would be five more years of the famine. He also promised that their families could settle in a fertile territory called Goshen.

Pharaoh learned of Joseph's brothers having come to Egypt, and having met them reiterated Joseph's instruction and promise. Moreover Pharaoh offered wagons to facilitate the move of their families and goods. Joseph provided them with the wagons, as well as presents of money and clothing and sent ten donkeys loaded with the best of Egypt to his father. Before departing Joseph exhorted them not to quarrel on the way.

After receiving the report that Joseph was alive and the gifts sent by Pharaoh, Jacob set out for Egypt. He apparently only intended a short-term stay, but en route he received a revelation from God that he would settle there and become a great nation. Jacob arrived in Egypt at the age of 130 and lived with his family in the land of Goshen 17 years. He gave final blessings to his sons and died at the age of 147. Jacob's body was embalmed. After Jacob's death and a mourning period of seventy days his body was carried with great ceremony to Canaan and buried in the cave of Machpelah, the family burial plot (Gen 49:29-33; 50:1-12). After the death of Jacob the brothers repeated a request of their father that Joseph forgive them, so Joseph assured his brothers of his continuing goodwill and provision for their families.

Moses reported that Joseph lived to see the third generation of his son Ephraim, died at the age of 110 and was also embalmed. Before his death he spoke to his surviving brothers and male relatives and reminded them that God would fulfill the promise made to Abraham of their return to Canaan. Moreover he required his family members to swear an oath that they would carry out his request. He may have anticipated fulfillment of God's promise within their lifetimes.

Yosef and Yeshua: Parallels

Bible commentators in comparing the lives of Joseph and Yeshua have suggested numerous parallels, although there is no direct comparison of Joseph and Yeshua in Scripture. Some substantive similarities may be noted:

• Joseph was beloved of his father: Genesis 37:3a and Matthew 3:17b.

• Joseph's brothers hated him without just cause: Genesis 37:4 and John 15:25b.

• Joseph foretold that one day he would rule: Genesis 37:7 and Matthew 26:64.

• Joseph was envied by his brothers: Genesis 37:11 and Matthew 27:17-18.

Joseph's brothers rejected his right to rule: Genesis 37:8 and Luke 19:14.

Joseph's brothers conspired against him: Genesis 37:23 and Matthew 27:1.

Joseph's brothers stripped him of his garments: Genesis 37:23 and Matthew 27:28.

Joseph's kinsman named Judah betrayed him: Genesis 37:26-27 and Matthew 10:4.

Joseph was sold for silver: Genesis 37:28 and Matthew 26:15.

Joseph was tempted and did not sin: Genesis 39:9 and Hebrews 4:15. [However, Joseph was not sinless.]

Joseph was imprisoned based on false charges: Genesis 39:19-20 and Mark 14:56.

• Joseph possessed wisdom recognized by others: Genesis 41:39 and Matthew 13:54.

Joseph began his public service when he was 30 years old: Genesis 41:46 and Luke 3:25.

God planned the suffering of Joseph in advance to save many: Genesis 50:20 and John 3:16.

Rabbinic sages considered Joseph a type of Messiah and dubbed the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 as Mashiach ben Yosef (Sukkah 52a). The fact that the name of Yeshua's surrogate father was Joseph may hint of this truth.

Yosef and Yeshua: Contrasts

There are some areas of Joseph's life that do not compare well with Yeshua and do not fully measure up to biblical expectations of the Messiah.

• Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian pagan priest (Gen 41:45) and there is no evidence she accepted Israel's God. While there was no prohibition against marrying an Egyptian (Abraham had married Hagar, after all, Gen 16:1-3), the history of idolatry in Joseph's descendants could be traced to this unequally yoked beginning.

• Instead of encouraging private storage of grain to save for the anticipated famine Joseph imposed a 20% "flat tax" on all grain production, in order to create a national reserve held in storage cities under Pharaoh’s protection (Gen 41:34-36). Joseph's plan may be contrasted with the God’s standard of tithing (10%) already established by the example of Abraham (Gen 14:20) and Jacob, his father (Gen 28:22).

• Rather than operating a charitable "welfare" system, Joseph sold the legally confiscated grain to people from other nations suffering the famine (cf. Gen 42:5), and even charged the Egyptians to buy their own grain from the reserve (Gen 42:6; 47:15). Requiring the Egyptian people to buy their own grain from the government resulted in the people running out of money and they were forced to sell their land to Pharaoh for food.

• Joseph facilitated the development of a totalitarian regime. The system designed to save the Egyptian nation from the famine had the consequence of transferring ownership of all currency, livestock and land in Egypt to Pharaoh, while exempting the pagan priests (Gen 47:13-25). Pharaoh gained unprecedented and unparalleled power and the people became serfs (Gen 47:23-24). Joseph made the flat tax permanent (Gen 47:26), thereby ensuring the growth of Pharaoh’s power.

• Joseph made no comparable sacrifice as Yeshua. Joseph lived in the lap of luxury and his family was given the most fertile portion of Egypt while the Egyptian people sank into poverty and lost their liberty. The divide between the rich and the poor widened considerably, a natural consequence of bloated government and nepotism. Joseph, who with the best motives only wanted to save the nation from destruction and did, unwittingly set the stage for the oppression of the Israelites during the days of Moses.

• Joseph's brothers later admitted among themselves the wrong they committed against Joseph (Gen 42:21-22) and after the death of Jacob repeated a request of their father that Joseph forgive them (Gen 50:17). Joseph's behavior toward his brothers was inconsistent. Upon meeting his brothers and recognizing them he treated them badly. He put them in prison for three days (Gen 42:17). Then he kept Simeon imprisoned when the brothers returned to Canaan (Gen 42:24), but secretly returned their money (Gen 42:25). On the second visit of the brothers to buy grain he again returned their money, but arranged for Benjamin to be falsely charged with stealing a silver cup (Gen 44:2). Joseph recognized the hand of God in all that happened to him and the fulfillment of the dream prophecies (Gen 45:5-7). He did not seem to harbor any lingering resentment or hatred and was willing to provide for the needs of his brothers and their families (Gen 50:21). Yet there is no statement that Joseph pronounced forgiveness on his brothers, although he implied that only God could forgive their sin (Gen 50:19). In contrast, Jesus while on the cross asked the Father to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34).


Joseph’s life is remarkable in that no sin is attributed to him. He endured suffering brought on by the treachery of his brothers, forced emigration to Egypt, his life as a slave, and his arrest and imprisonment on a false charge. In so doing Joseph was able to ultimately procure salvation for his family. Joseph's most shining virtue was that in recognizing the sovereignty of God and provide for their needs (Gen 50:15-21). Joseph’s life was one of faithfulness to God and fruitfulness for Him (Heb 11:21-22).

At the end of his life Jacob offered a lengthy and glowing prophecy about his favorite son (Gen 49:22-26). Joseph was likened to a "fruitful bough" (Gen 49:22), perhaps an allusion to Joseph's two sons, but more likely to the fact that through Joseph's position Jacob's family received gifts of immense wealth, including the best land, from Pharaoh (Gen 45:17-23; 47:5f). Moses also offered a high commendation of Joseph and blessed him and his posterity with all the best that heaven has to offer (Deut 33:13-17).

Joseph is a fascinating study of a life well lived. His moral and ethical choices perhaps justify Jacob's favoritism. There was a quality of character recognized very early. Joseph always did the best he could with the knowledge and wisdom given by God to handle his circumstances. Regardless of how we might view his economic and political decisions, he not only saved his family, but also a nation that was not his own. The latter was very much like the Messiah.

Copyright © 2011-2020 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.