Rags to Riches, the Story of Joseph | Genesis 39-41
Brian Hedges | March 7, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to Genesis 39; we’re going to be in Genesis 39-41.
I think all of us are familiar with stories that we might call “rags to riches” stories. Think about the story of King Arthur. Here’s a little boy, a squire, in the courtyard of St. Paul’s churchyard, and he sees there a sword in a stone. No one can pull the sword from the stone except this little boy, and when he does it becomes clear that he is destined to become the King of England. So you have the whole King Arthur legend.
Think about the story of a flower girl with a Cockney accent who’s transformed into a beautiful and refined woman of high society; you may recognize the story of My Fair Lady. There are many other examples of rags to riches stories—the story of Aladdin, or the novels Jane Eyre or David Copperfield.
There’s an author named Christopher Booker who wrote a book called The Seven Basic Plots, and he analyzes the basic plots of novels and of short stories and films and so on, and one of those is the rags to riches plot. He says that there are several movements in this kind of story. It begins with initial wretchedness of the protagonists, but then they go out into the world to experience initial success; but then they face a central crisis, the crisis of the story, and that leads them to emerge eventually in independence with union, completion, fulfillment of the story—whatever the specific plot may be.
I want to suggest to you this morning that when we come to the story of Joseph in the Bible, which we’re looking at this morning, that it is a rags to riches story. It begins with this initial wretchedness, as Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, as we saw in Genesis 37 last week. But when you get to Genesis 39 there’s an initial success, as God is with him and God is blessing him at every turn. We’ll see that in the first three verses of Genesis 39.
But then he’s falsely accused, falsely accused of rape, actually, and then thrown into prison, where he spends several years in prison; he’s forgotten there in prison. That’s really the central crisis of the story. It’s only after languishing in prison that eventually he emerges, in Genesis 41, as this interpreter of dreams, the interpreter of Pharaoh’s dreams. That leads him all the way from prison to the very position of prime minister of Egypt. He is second in command only to Pharaoh, as he will then lead Egypt into this crisis of famine, providing for them in famine through his wisdom and his skill; and of course it provides for his own family, with whom he is eventually reunited as well. So you have every element of the rags to riches story right there in the story of Joseph.
We’re going to cover a lot of ground this morning, and then we’re going to return to it next week. This morning we’re looking mainly at Joseph in Egypt, from this point when he initially comes into Egypt as a slave until he emerges as the prime minister. Next week we’ll look at the reunion with his family.
As we look at this story this morning, I want us to see three things about it. I want us to see that Joseph is an encouragement to Israel, an example to believers, and a type of Christ. In other words, this is a story that gives us theology, it gives us practical application, and it gives us gospel. We’re going to see all three of those things this morning.
1. An Encouragement to Israel
Number one, I want you to see how Joseph is an encouragement to Israel. We have to remember the first readers of the Joseph story. Who were they? They were the children of Israel; in fact, they would have been the exodus generation, Moses being the author of this narrative. How would they have read this story? I think that’s important for us to understand, because there are some very distinct resonances between their experience and the experience of Joseph.
(1) First of all, they would have seen this as a story of God’s deliverance. Here is Joseph in Egypt, and he’s a slave in Egypt, but he emerges out of slavery in Egypt into a position of success and of prominence. He’s delivered and actually becomes a deliverer of his people.
That’s exactly what God’s people, 400 years later, will experience. They are slaves in Egypt, and yet they emerge out of Egypt as God delivers them by the hand of Moses. They would have seen certain resonances between their own experience and the experience of Joseph.
But not only that, there’s a pattern in the Joseph story that gets picked up by Israel’s sacred writers later on. I was reading one scholarly article yesterday that was showing that there are very distinct linguistic connections as well as sequential connections in the sequence of events between the Joseph story and the story of David in 1 Samuel, so that it’s really clear that the author of 1 Samuel is telling the story of David in a way that connects to the story of Joseph, because they understood Joseph here was a deliverer, he was a savior, so to speak, a type of a savior that would later come. Well, this is, then, a story of deliverance.
(2) But it’s not just a story of deliverance, a story of salvation; it’s also a story of God’s steadfast love. We see this particularly in the details of Genesis 39. I want to read just the first three verses of chapter 39 and then the last three verses. I want you to see that chapter 39 is framed in a certain way by how it speaks of God. Look at Genesis 39:1-3.
It says, “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites and had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph…” Underline that phrase. We’re going to see it again. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man. And he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.” There’s the initial success we see in Joseph, even though he’s been in this state of wretchedness.
Drop down to verses 21-23. By this time Joseph has been accused of rape, he’s been thrown into prison; but look at what it says in verse 21. It says, “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.”
Here’s the motif in the story of Joseph: The Lord was with him, the Lord showed his steadfast love to Joseph. Now, you’ll remember that that phrase “steadfast love,” that word is the word for the covenant faithfulness of God. It’s a covenant word.
It’s interesting, as we’ve seen in the book of Genesis, the theme of covenant really figures prominently in the stories of Abraham and again in Isaac and then in Jacob. It’s not quite as prominent in the story of Joseph. You don’t have anything like a covenant renewal ceremony with Joseph, but what you do have is this sense running through the whole story that God’s covenant faithfulness is working through Joseph, that God is being faithful. In fact, God is continuing to overcome every obstacle to the fulfillment of the covenant, and he’s doing it through Joseph. As we will see both this morning and next week, God is going to use Joseph to provide for the family of Israel, to save them from starvation during a famine; so he’s preserving the messianic line, and he’s doing it through Joseph. But it’s all through God’s steadfast love.
This should be a great encouragement to use, brothers and sisters, that God in his steadfast love, even in our trials, even when we feel like Joseph, languishing in a trial, a tribulation—we’re not in prison, but we’re languishing in some other way—we need to know that God’s steadfast love is with us.
Do you remember the wonderful words of that hymn based on the prophet Isaiah, the words that go like this?
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
God is with us. He’s with us even when we’re going through fiery trials.
(3) So this is a story of God’s steadfast love; then, thirdly, it is a story of God’s providence. Now, when we talk about the providence of God we essentially mean that God works all things “together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose,” Romans 8:28. That means that he works even the evil things for good. It doesn’t mean the evil things are good, but it means that God is working in spite of them, that God is working in them, God is working through them. We see that in the story of Joseph.
Just think about all of his sufferings. Here’s Joseph, hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, thrown into prison; then, as we see in chapter 40, he is forgotten for two years and left in prison. But all of this is to work out God’s purpose, and eventually Joseph becomes the one who will bring deliverance and provision for both Egypt and for Israel in a time of famine. In all this we see God’s hand.
You know what? Joseph himself was able eventually to discern God’s hand as well. We know that because of specific statements that Joseph made. Let me read a couple of these to you.
Here’s one from Genesis 41:50-52. This is after Joseph has come to a place of prominence. He’s now interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams in chapter 41, he’s risen to this position of prime minister, he’s now married and he has two children; and listen to what he names his children, Genesis 41:50. It says, “Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asinath the daughter of Potiphera the priest of On bore them to him. Joseph called the name of his firstborn Manasseh, for he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship in all my father’s house.’ The name of the second he called Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’”
He recognizes the hand of God, doesn’t he? “God’s made me forget my affliction; God’s made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” That’s language that’s pointing us to God’s good providence in Joseph’s life.
Here’s one more passage. In Genesis 50:20, after Jacob his father has died, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that at this point Joseph will take vengeance on them. As we’ll see next week, Joseph actually is a wonderful model of forgiveness. He doesn’t take vengeance, he shows no inclination towards revenge. Listen instead to what he says to them. This is Genesis 50:20. These are his words to his brothers. He said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
It’s a story of God’s providence! Joseph recognized God’s providence, and this would have been a great encouragement to the people of Israel, to see God’s providence working through their trials, through their sufferings, through their afflictions as well.
Brothers and sisters, you and I also need to trust in the providence of God. We look to God. Now that’s not fatalism. It doesn’t mean that whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. It means, rather, that there is a loving and a wise heavenly Father who is guiding us, who is protecting us, who is providing for us, who is directing us; and even in our trials, God is with us. That’s our comfort, that’s our hope. This is a great encouragement to the people of Israel, and of course therefore an encouragement to us.
2. An Example to Believers
There are some other practical lessons for us to learn, and I want you to see, secondly, that Joseph is an example to believers.
As we’ve studied the story of these patriarchs, we’ve noted a lot of things not to emulate. I mean, there’s a lot of brokenness, as we’ve seen in these stories. We are not to be like Isaac in his spiritual blindness and showing favoritism to our children the way Isaac did to Esau or Rebekah did to Jacob. We’re not to be like that.
We’re not to be like Jacob, deceitful and manipulative and scheming. We’re not to be like Jacob with his polygamy. We shouldn’t imitate that.
We should not be like Jacob’s sons, characterized by their violence; or like Reuben and Judah in their immorality.
But listen, in all of this mess, there is one character who is a bright spot, and that character is Joseph. When you read through the story of Joseph, there’s never a negative thing that’s said about him. Now, I’m sure he was a sinner, as all human beings are; but he stands out in the Genesis narrative as a righteous man, as someone who’s characterized by godliness.
In fact, John Sailhammer in his commentary says that this is very intentional and that Joseph kind of stands out as a necessary contrast to the characters who’ve gone before. He notes that in Genesis 41, Joseph is the only one of the patriarchs who is said to be “one in whom the Spirit of God dwells.” He says that this is sort of looking forward to the new covenant. Joseph is an example of a new covenant believer, even though the new covenant hasn’t come yet, but he’s one in whom God’s Spirit dwells; and he’s a person who’s characterized by godliness. So there’s a lot for us to learn from Joseph.
Let me point out three ways in which Joseph is an example, really quickly.
(1) Number one, Joseph is an example of integrity. We see this in Genesis 39. Let me read a passage; this will be the longest passage I read to you, Genesis 39:6-20. You might want to follow along as I read. It says,
“Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” Okay, he’s in Potiphar’s house at this point, rising in success. “And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’” Listen, she doesn’t want to take a nap, okay. You have to understand the idioms here. This is an attempted seduction.
Verse 8: “But he refused and said to his master's wife, ‘Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, ‘See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.’ Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.’ As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, ‘This is the way your servant treated me,’ his anger was kindled. And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.”
Now, this is the story of an attempted seduction that does not succeed. Joseph is the righteous person in the story, but Joseph ends up being the victim in the story, falsely accused of at least attempted rape, and then thrown into prison.
What I think is so interesting is how Joseph retains his integrity even though she is persistent in trying to seduce him. “Day after day,” it says, she was trying to seduce him. We have to read this as not only Joseph being an example of integrity, but he’s actually a contrast to his brother Judah, who we saw last week in Genesis 38. In fact, I think one reason the story in chapter 38 is there is to serve as a foil for Joseph. You have Judah here who, in a time of grief after he loses his wife, goes into Tamar, thinking she’s a prostitute. We see his immorality. But here’s Joseph, who has suffered far more than Judah has, and yet Joseph does not use his suffering and does not use his temptation as an excuse for immorality. We see his resilience despite the constant temptation and his resilience in spite of all that’s happened to him.
What a lesson this is for us, because this is a pattern. Sometimes we let trials and suffering take our guard down. We begin to feel sorry for ourselves. It makes us an open target, a sitting duck for temptation. We begin to think it’s justified for us to give in to the wrong kinds of desires, sinful desires, the desires of the flesh; and we do that because we feel like we’ve suffered in some way. But Joseph doesn’t do that. Joseph resists; he is resilient. He retains his integrity. Even when he has been so unjustly treated in his life, Joseph says, “How can I then do this great wickedness and sin against God?” His consciousness of God keeps him strong in temptation. He is an example of integrity.
(2) Secondly, he is an example of faith, of trusting in God. We see this in the way he responds to the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker in prison in Genesis 40. Really, as you know, the story of Joseph really turns on these dreams, the two dreams he had in chapter 37, then the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker in chapter 40, and then the dreams of Pharaoh in chapter 41.
What’s really interesting is that Joseph is confident in God speaking through these dreams, he’s confident in God’s ability to help him interpret the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer, even though the dreams that he had in Genesis 37 have not yet come to pass. Now that’s faith.
Now, a little parentheses here. When you think about dreams, I suppose we read this story and you might wonder, how should we think about dreams in our own lives? Well, I think we have to remember that in Scripture dreams were sometimes a means of divine revelation. But they lived at a different point in redemptive history than we do; and even then, it was not as if this was common and happened every day. This happened six times in Joseph’s entire life, as far as we know, and only two of them were his own dreams. This is something you see occasionally in Scripture, but not often, and it was a way in which God was speaking.
I think in our own lives, dreams are just a part of God’s providence in our lives. They should be evaluated by God’s word, just as everything else is. Every conversation you have, every book you read, every sermon you hear, and every dream you have, you should just interpret that in light of the word of God. Now, God might speak in a dream in the sense of inclining your heart in a way that accords with Scripture, but we don’t get new revelation. We have the completed revelation in the word of God.
But for Joseph, the dreams, these specific dreams, were God’s word; in Genesis 37, that his brothers would bow down before him. It hasn’t come to pass yet, but he still believes that God is speaking, and he has not lost his faith. So when the cupbearer and the baker dream and they’re troubled and Joseph discerns that in Genesis 40:8, he says to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me,” and he interprets their dreams. His interpretations come true, and that will then lead to him interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh in chapter 41.
You remember Pharaoh has a dream about the seven fat cattle who emerge out of the Nile, and then seven sickly cattle emerge and they devour the fat cattle. Then he has another dream that has a similar meaning. Both of the dreams are saying there are going to be seven years of plenty, seven years of famine. Joseph interprets that, and it’s through that interpretation that Joseph then rises to prominence.
But all of this is demonstrating Joseph’s faith, his trust in God. You and I also should demonstrate faith and trust in the clear word of God, even when we are going through difficulties, even when we cannot yet understand how God’s word will be fulfilled. There are things that we don’t understand. There are things that are revealed in Scripture that we can’t understand; we cannot fully comprehend all the purposes of God. But faith means we keep walking with him and we trust him, even when we don’t understand. Joseph is an example of that, an example of trusting God.
(3) Thirdly, Joseph is also an example of wisdom. This is really interesting. Alan Ross in his commentary points out how the story of Joseph has often been connected to wisdom literature. There are themes of wisdom that show up in the Joseph story. Now, I believe this is genuine historical narrative, but it’s told in such a way that it connects with wisdom literature.
We even see it in the text in a couple of places in chapter 41. When Pharaoh has this dream, you remember that one of the men who was in prison, who was spared by Pharaoh, he suddenly remembers, “Oh, there’s this guy I knew in prison, and he interprets dreams! You should talk to him.” So they bring Joseph out of prison to interpret the dream of Pharaoh, and this is what Pharaoh then says about Joseph. I want you to hear this, from Genesis 41:38-40, and listen to the wisdom type of language. It says, “And Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.’”
Joseph becomes second in command, right—prime minister, vice president; whatever you want to call it—of Egypt. Why? Because he is so discerning and wise; there’s nobody wiser in Egypt than Joseph. So he becomes an example of wisdom to us.
Ross in his commentary just connects to the book of Proverbs and shows how many ways Joseph exemplifies wisdom. I don’t have time to go into these in detail, but just listen to a listing here.
- Joseph fears the Lord more than he fears man; we see that in chapter 39, when he will not sin, when he resists temptation.
- He flees from the adulterous woman in Genesis 39; of course, that connects to Proverbs 6 and the warnings about the adulterous warning.
- He gives wise counsel in chapter 41; Proverbs is full of that. Proverbs 16:13 and 21.
- He is diligent in preparation when there’s plenty, preparing for the famine that is to come. The proverbs also talk about that; Proverbs 21:5, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” He shows wisdom in the way he organizes things, in the way he runs the economics of Egypt, preparing for this time of famine.
- Joseph refuses to act out of revenge, as we’ll see next week in Genesis 42-50. Proverbs also warns against that in Proverbs 20:22 and 24:29.
He is an example of wisdom. If you want to learn what it looks like to be a wise person, read the story, study the story of Joseph and imitate him and his fear of God, his fleeing from temptation, his wise and diligent preparation for the future, and his refusal to act out of bitterness and vengeance. These are characteristics of wise people.
3. A Type of Christ
Joseph is an encouragement to Israel, he is an example to believers, and then finally, Joseph is a type of Christ.
People have been pointing this out for years, that there are so many connections between the story of Joseph and the story of Christ. Jonathan Edwards, in his volume of Typological Writings, has ten pages on how Joseph is a type of Christ. A.W. Pink, in his little book Gleanings in Genesis, actually saw over 100 ways in which Joseph was a type of Christ! I think Pink probably stretches the exegesis a little bit, but there are certainly many ways in which Joseph is a type of Christ. Keil and Deiltzsch in their commentary point out that Joseph is a type of the pathway of Christ, from lowliness to exaltation, from slavery to liberty, from suffering to glory.
Let me just point out a few of the ways, because this is where the story of Joseph I think points us to the gospel.
- Here is a man who was hated by his brothers, and Jesus came to his own, but his own received him not. Jesus was also rejected by his brothers.
- Joseph was sold into slavery. You remember it was his brother Judah’s idea; he was sold for 20 pieces of silver. You remember how Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot for 30 pieces of silver.
- Joseph was stripped of his cloak and of his robe, and Jesus, when he’s hanging there on the cross, stripped of his robe, with the soldiers gambling for it.
- Joseph resisted temptation, and Jesus triumphed over temptation in the wilderness.
- Joseph was innocent, yet treated as guilty. He was falsely accused; so was Jesus. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners; he was the just, and yet he suffered and died for the unjust.
- When Joseph is in prison, he encounters two other people in prison, one of which is saved and rescued, one of which dies. When Jesus was crucified, he was crucified between two thieves, one of which was saved by faith in Jesus Christ—“Today you will be with me in paradise,” he said—one of which was unrepentant.
- Joseph seemed to his father as if he had died, but Jacob later discovers that his son was alive; and Jesus actually did die, but he defeated death. He emerged out of death in resurrection. Suffering followed by glory, humility followed by exaltation. We see the same pattern in Jesus.
- Then Joseph, by the end of the story, what does he do? He’s exalted, and he uses his position to bless the very people who had betrayed him! Isn’t that what the gospel is about? That Jesus, who is crucified by the hands of wicked sinners, crucified because of our sins, and yet he is resurrected and he is exalted, and in his exaltation what does he do? He blesses us, he draws us to himself, and he saves us for Jesus’ sake.
Edmund Clowney, in his wonderful book The Unfolding Mystery, sums it up well. He says, “Joseph was God’s righteous servant, suffering because of his faithfulness to God; yet the path of suffering led to a throne and to the fulfillment of the word of God given by the revelation of his dreams. God had made the life of Joseph a sign of the way in which his blessing would come. By the word of God and the servant of God, the mercy of God would be made known to the nations.”
That’s the gospel. By the word of God the servant of God, the servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ himself, made known the mercy of God to the nations. How did he do it? He did it through suffering, suffering that led to glory.
This is a wonderful story, isn’t it? In the story of Joseph we get theology; it’s a story about salvation, it’s a story about God’s faithfulness, his steadfast love, it’s a story about God’s providence. We get practical application as Joseph is such a wonderful example for us of integrity and of trusting in God and of wisdom. We should imitate Joseph. And in the story of Joseph we get the story of the gospel.
The most important application for us this morning is to look to Jesus, Jesus who is the true and better Joseph, who suffered for us and then was exalted for us to provide for us and to deliver us. Look to Christ this morning, brothers and sisters. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, how we thank you for your word, how we thank you for this beautiful story of Joseph. What a man he was, by your grace, what an example for us; and yet also what a picture pointing us to the greater Joseph, your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank you for it. We thank you for the encouragement it gives us. May we in our trials be as steadfast as Joseph was. May we in our temptations be as resilient and as resistant. May we in our sufferings trust in your providence as he did. Lord, may we especially this morning lay hold of Jesus, our Savior, our deliverer, our provider, the one who suffered for us, was exalted for us, and who now stands ready to bless.
Father, as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may we come with the same kind of faith, the same kind of trust in you that Joseph demonstrated; trust that whatever we’re going through, you are good, and you are doing good in our lives. Lord, prepare our hearts for the table; may we receive these emblems as signs of the suffering of Christ for our behalf, and may we receive this morning from Jesus the grace and the strength that we need. So draw near to us and be glorified, we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.