Joseph: Savior in Egypt
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Formerly titled "Was Joseph a Type of Jesus?"
Published 10 October 2011; Revised 10 December 2020
Scripture: Scripture quotations may be taken from different versions. Click here for abbreviations of Bible versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the author.
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Works without page numbers are cited ad loc. References to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Citations marked as "DSS" are from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of Jewish manuscripts of Scripture and sectarian documents found in the Qumran caves. Online DSS Bible. The numbering system of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH," Strong's Hebrew number. Strong's Online.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).
Genesis is the book of origins, and the story of Joseph is a significant part of it. Indeed, the story of Joseph is really a preamble to the book of Exodus. The book of Genesis was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as were the other canonical books considered Scripture (2Tim 3:16; 2Pet 1:21). The authorship of Genesis has long been attributed to Moses by Jewish and Christian scholars. The biblical record provides evidence that Moses had help in writing Genesis.
The bulk of the composition was likely derived from collecting actual written records of the past and bringing them together in final form as guided by the Holy Spirit. The written records are mentioned with the Hebrew word toledoth (SH-8435), which means "generations" and is used to indicate accounts of men and their descendants, or "records of the origins." Genesis contains eleven mentions of these records and who provided them (Gen 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). The question remains whether the specific record references are to be treated as subscripts ("written below") or as superscripts ("written above"), or some of each.
Henry Morris makes a strong argument for subscripts when the order is followed sequentially from the first mention in Genesis 2:4 (27). All events preceding the subscript must then be contained in the record from the previous record mention. These records would be passed on and maintained by those in the Messianic line. The narrative beginning at 37:2b ("Joseph a son of seven and ten years") to the end of the book was added and edited by Moses, probably based on oral history from Joseph and his family, perhaps even Egyptian records, and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob and fulfilled Rachel's longing for a child (Gen 30:22ff). Rachel gave her newborn son the Hebrew name Yosef, which means "he adds, increases" (BDB 415). In the LXX Yosef is transliterated as Grk. Iōsēph. Joseph's name appears 213 times in the Tanakh and 9 times in the Besekh (John 4:5; Acts 7:9, 13 (2t), 14, 18; Heb 11:21, 22; Rev 7:8).
[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 born in Paddan-Aram while Jacob served his father-in-law Laban (Gen 35:26). Jacob spent twenty years in Haran and when he returned to Canaan no information is provided on the ages of his sons at that time. Jacob perhaps showed favoritism toward Joseph early in his return. Fearing the wrath of his brother Esau Jacob arranged his family in a special order. "And he put the maidservants [Bilhah and Zilpah] and their children first, and Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last" (Gen 33:2 BR).
The account of Joseph's life, beginning at age 17, is found in Genesis Chapters 37–50. Chapter 37 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 (Dan and Naphtali) and the sons of Zilpah (Gad and Asher) (verse 2). It was during these days that Joseph brought a report of evil committed by his brothers to his father. Almost all Bible versions, including Jewish Bibles, and commentators, such as Gill, Keil, Morris and Wesley, interpret the report as about the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. However, the KJV translation interpreted the verse as saying that the report originated from the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. This is also the interpretation in the Talmud (Sanh. 106a).
Moses offers no information on the content of the report of evil, so Clarke and Edersheim chose not to speculate on who or what was the subject of the report. However, Rashi attributes the report of evil as concerning the sons of Leah and charged them with unclean and immoral conduct. Rashi notes that the Hebrew word for "report" (Heb. dibbah, SH-1681) denotes gossip and slander (Prov 10:18; Jer 20:10), but the word is also used of a true report (Num 14:36-37; Prov 25:9-10). There is nothing to suggest that Joseph's report of evil conduct was untrue.
Moses then 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, which the KJV translates as "a coat of many colors." Edersheim notes that in reality it was a tunic reaching down to the arms and feet, such as princes and persons of distinction wore. The CJB and TLV accurately translate the Hebrew term as "a long-sleeved robe/tunic."
Edersheim suggests that the special tunic signaled Jacob's intent to transfer to Joseph the right of the first-born, since the three oldest sons of Leah had disqualified themselves by virtue of grievous sins. Simeon and Levi had murdered all the males in Shechem as revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah (Gen 34:25; cf. Gen 49:5-6), and Reuben had lain with his father's concubine-wife Bilhah (Gen 35:22).
In ancient times the firstborn son had three important rights. First, the firstborn would be superior rank in his family and therefore exercise leadership authority over the clan. Second, the firstborn had the spiritual responsibility of performing the priestly office and officiating at the altar. Third, the firstborn received a double portion of the father's inheritance. Even though there is no indication that Joseph sought first-born privileges, the symbol of Jacob's love became a cause for hatred to fester among the brothers against Joseph.
Dreams of the Future
The tipping point came when Joseph experienced two dreams. In ancient culture dreams were considered a means for God to communicate His will and to portend the future. Previous to Joseph, Abimelech (Gen 20:3, 6), Jacob (Gen 28:12; 31:10f) and Laban (Gen 31:24) experienced such divine-initiated dreams. Revelatory dreams were rare and their occurrence would naturally be treated seriously. In addition, having two dreams that told the same story illustrated the biblical principle of two or three witnesses as essential to confirming truth (Deut 17:6; 19:15; Matt 18:16).
In Joseph's first dream, he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly Joseph's sheaf stood upright and the sheaves of his brothers gathered around and 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. Apparently, Joseph was not represented by an astronomical object in the sky, but these points of light in interstellar space bowed to the person Joseph. The bowing could have an idiomatic meaning of conferring heavenly power or praise on Joseph (cf. Ps 144:5; 148:3).
Joseph shared his dreams with his brothers and his father, but it's important to note that Joseph offered no interpretation of the dreams. By unanimous interpretation Joseph's brothers concluded that according to the first dream Joseph would one day rule over his them. The dream indicated nothing about Egypt and the brothers' interpretation likely assumed that Joseph would try to assume the rights of the firstborn. The very idea was thoroughly repugnant to them.
As for the second dream Jacob interpreted the sun and moon as himself and his wife Rachel, and the stars as Joseph's eleven brothers. Jacob was duly incredulous at the idea that he and Joseph's mother would bow down to him, because the second dream implied Joseph assuming a higher authority than the rights of the firstborn. Jacob couldn't imagine such a thing happening, but gave close attention to the two dreams, because he knew personally the power of revelation through dreams.
Of course, in the fulfillment of the second dream Jacob was wrong in his interpretation of the "moon," because Rachel died before he moved to Egypt. She was not alive to bow down to Joseph in Egypt with the rest of the family. In the context of Egypt 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). While the brothers and Jacob made no connection to Egypt, the sharing of the dreams served as a trigger to motivate the brothers toward adversarial action that would actually insure their fulfillment.
Betrayal and Bondage
Some of the brothers reacted with jealous anger and conspired to kill him. This homicidal plot was probably led by Simeon, an experienced murderer, considering Joseph's later action as ruler to imprison him. Reuben learned of the plot and 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 Judah, the one through whom the Messiah would come, instigated the conspiracy to sell Joseph into slavery. The price of betrayal was twenty pieces of silver.
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.
Ruler in Egypt
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 to take Benjamin's place as 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.
Family Reunion and Final Days
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 noted numerous parallels. Rabbinic sages considered Joseph a type of Messiah and dubbed the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 as Mashiach ben Yosef (Sukkah 52a). Some Christian scholars agree and find many elements of Joseph's life that foreshadow the Messiah. The following comparisons have been noted:
• Joseph was a shepherd: Genesis 37:2 and John 10:11.
• Joseph was beloved of his father: Genesis 37:3a and Matthew 3:17b.
• Joseph's brothers hated him without cause: Genesis 37:4 and John 15:25b.
• Joseph's brothers rejected his right to rule: Genesis 37:8 and Luke 19:14.
• Joseph was envied by his brothers: Genesis 37:11 and Matthew 27:17-18.
• Joseph was sent by his father to seek his brothers' welfare: Genesis 37:12-14 and Matthew 15:24; Luke 20:13.
• 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 Judah betrayed him: Genesis 37:26-27 and Matthew 10:4.
• Joseph became a servant: Genesis 39:1-2 and Luke 22:27; Philippians 2:7.
• Joseph was sold for silver: Genesis 37:28 and Matthew 26:15.
• Joseph resisted temptation: Genesis 39:7-12 and Hebrews 4:15; 7:26.
• Joseph was falsely accused: Genesis 39:17-19 and Matthew 26:60-61.
• Joseph was condemned with criminals: Genesis 39:20; 40:2-3 and Luke 23:32.
• Joseph promised deliverance to a condemned man: Genesis 40:13 and Luke 23:43.
• Joseph foretold the future accurately: Genesis 41:13 and John 13:19.
• Joseph manifested wisdom: Genesis 41:39 and Luke 2:52; Matthew 13:54.
• Joseph was exalted over the nation and given a new name: Genesis 41:41, 45 and Philippians 2:9.
• Joseph received obeisance from all people: Genesis 41:43 and Philippians 2:10.
• Joseph's kinsmen did not recognize him: Genesis 42:8 and Luke 24:15-16; John 20:14-15.
• Joseph's brothers bowed to him: Genesis 42:6 and Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 15:25; 20:20.
• 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; Romans 5:15.
• Joseph's brothers later repented for what they did to him: Genesis 42:21-22; 50:15-17 and Zechariah 12:10/Matthew 24:30; Revelation 1:7.
Yosef and Yeshua: Contrasts
There are some areas of Joseph's life that do not fully measure up to the biblical expectations of the Messiah and argue against Joseph being a type of the Messiah.
• In contrast to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) God never actually appeared to him, nor were any covenant promises given to him in any special way.
• Joseph was not in the Messianic line of descent. In reality, it was Judah through whom God would fulfill the coming of the Messiah (Gen 49:10; Matt 1:2-3).
Joseph as Ruler
• 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 and His Brothers
• Joseph put his brothers through a period of suffering, made false accusations against them and put them in prison for three days (Gen. 42:6-17). He then played games with his brothers imprisoning Simeon to insure the return of the other brothers with Benjamin (Gen 42:19-24). He then arranged to have Benjamin falsely accused to keep him in Egypt (Gen 44:1-4, 6-12, 16-17). He was not immediately ready to deal with his brothers in a straight forward manner (cf. Matt 18:15; Luke 17:3).
• Joseph and his servant claimed to his brothers that he could practice divination, i.e. hydromancy with implied power to learn secret things (Gen 44:5, 15). Joseph may be acquitted of sin, since divination was not specifically prohibited until the Sinai covenant (Lev 19:26; Deut 10:14, 18). However, the practice does show some influence of Egyptian culture rather than relying on direct revelation from God as previously (cf. Ex 41:16).
• Joseph's brothers admitted among themselves the wrong they had 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). There is no statement that Joseph pronounced forgiveness on his brothers, although he implied that only God could forgive their sin (Gen 50:19). 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). In contrast, Yeshua while on the cross asked the Father to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34).
Joseph's life is remarkable in many ways. He endured suffering brought on by the treachery of his brothers, forced emigration to Egypt, his life as a slave, his arrest and imprisonment on a false charge. Then his life was changed by a miraculous elevation to a royal status. The end result of this strange series of events was that Joseph was able to procure salvation for his family. Joseph's most shining virtue was that in recognizing the sovereignty of God in bringing good out of evil (Gen 50:20) and providing for the needs of his brothers' families (Gen 50:21). Joseph's life was one of faithfulness to the core principle of loyalty to God.
At the end of his life Jacob offered a lengthy and glowing prophecy about his favorite son and began by complimenting him as 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).
In God's sovereign plan the life of Joseph was essential in fulfilling the prophecy of Abraham: "Know for certain that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. 14 But I am going to judge the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will go out with many possessions" (Gen 15:13-14 TLV). Of course, Abraham did not say that his descendents would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. In reality the time spent in Egypt was closer to 215 years. See my commentary on Acts 7:6.
Joseph lived in Egypt over 90 years, until the third generation of Ephraim's sons (Gen 50:23), dying at the age of 110 (Gen 50:26). Abraham's prophecy also said the Israelites would "go out" in the fourth generation (Gen 15:16). A generation in that time was in excess of a hundred years. So, Moses arrived at least century later when Joseph had been forgotten by the Egyptian people (Ex 1:8). Before his death Joseph spoke to his surviving male relatives and reminded them that God would fulfill the promise made to Abraham of their return to Canaan (Gen 50:24). Moreover he required his family members to swear an oath that they would take his bones from Egypt for burial in Canaan (Gen 50:25).
In the Besekh Paul included Joseph in his list of faithful Israelites and commended him for his prophecy of the exodus (Heb 11:22). This final comment on Joseph's life is an important assessment. Regardless of how we might view his economic and political decisions and his initial treatment of his brothers, Joseph not only saved his family, but also a nation that was not his own. The latter was very much like the Messiah.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Clarke: Adam Clarke (1762–1832), Commentary on the Holy Bible. 6 vols. J. Emory and B. Waugh, 1831. Online.
Gill: John Gill (1697-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible. Online.
Edersheim: Alfred Edersheim, Bible History Old Testament (1876-1887), Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1995. Also online.
Keil: C.F. Keil, The Pentateuch. Commentary on the Old Testament (C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, 1866-1891), Vol. 1. Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
Morris: Dr. Henry Morris, The Genesis Record, Baker Book House, 1976.
Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (1040-1105), Commentary on the Tanakh. Online.
TDSS: The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. Rev. ed. Trans. Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr. and Edward Cook. HarperOne, 2005.
Wesley: John Wesley (1703-1791), Genesis. Explanatory Notes on the Bible. Online.
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