Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
These are the generations of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. – Genesis 37:1-4 ESV
The story of Joseph is one that has intrigued people of faith for generations. It contains the recounting of the life of a man who experienced more ups and downs, peaks and valleys, in his life than any one individual should have to face. It is a story that deftly blends what appears to be fate with the invisible providence of the all-knowing, all-seeing God of Israel. The central figure in the story is Joseph, a son of Jacob, and a great-grandson to Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. Joseph’s life stands in stark contrast to that of his father, Jacob. The preceding chapters reveal the story of Jacob’s life. He and his twin brother, Esau, were born to Isaac. But as the meaning of his name “heel-grabber” reveals, Jacob was the second born, but he came out literally holding on to his brothers heel. And he would spend the early years of his life attempting to supplant his brother as the first-born. His was a life marked by deceit and artful scheming. He was a trickster, a conniving conman, who was always looking out for his own best interests. After having manipulated his brother into selling him his birthright, and then deceiving his father into giving him the blessing intended for the firstborn, Jacob was forced to flee for his life. He ended up spending much of his young adult life in exile, only to return years later under the prompting of God Himself. Jacob was shown mercy by God and extended forgiveness by his brother, Esau. He was welcomed back into his family. And he given the privilege of having a number of sons to carry on his legacy and to care for him in old life. Joseph was one of those sons.
When the story of Joseph opens up, he and his family are living in the land of Canaan, just as Abraham had done. They are essentially nomads, not yet having experienced the comfort or convenience of living in their own city within the land promised to them by God. They are shepherds. Theirs is a simple life. And Jacob is enjoying his role as father over a growing family, living once again in the land of his fathers. But there is a problem brewing. All is not well in the house of Jacob. The text reveals to us that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3 ESV). He was playing favorites. He even had a beautiful robe made for Joseph. But his favoritism was going to result in sibling rivalry. It would also create in Joseph a certain sense of privilege and superiority. The text seems to paint Joseph as somewhat of a tattle tale, a snitch who enjoyed sharing less-than-flattering news about his brothers to their father. This, along with Jacob’s blatant acts of preferential treatment, would not endear Joseph to his brothers. In fact, it produced in them a hatred for their brother that would escalate over time.
But there is far more going on in this story than the blind nepotism of a father toward his son. This is the story of the people of Israel and God’s promises concerning them. It is part of the larger narrative about God’s sovereign selection of Abraham and His descendants to be the chosen recipients of His grace and mercy. The story of Joseph is a window into the providential work of God in the lives of men. From beginning to end, Joseph’s life will intertwine the seeming independent actions of men with the all-powerful intentions of God.
The theme of the Joseph narrative concerns God’s hidden and decisive power which works in and through but also against human forms of power. A “soft” word for that reality is providence. A harder word for the same reality is predestination. Either way God is working out his purpose through and in spite of Egypt, through and in spite of Joseph and his brothers. – Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 293. Richard D. Patterson, “Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007)
Undergirding and heavily influencing the narrative of this story are the promises of God made to Abraham.
I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you. – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT
This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them! – Genesis 17:4-6 NLT
God would reaffirm that same promise to Jacob.
I am El-Shaddai — “God Almighty.” Be fruitful and multiply. You will become a great nation, even many nations. Kings will be among your descendants! And I will give you the land I once gave to Abraham and Isaac. Yes, I will give it to you and your descendants after you. – Genesis 35:11-12 NLT
Up until this moment in time, the promise of God had remained just that – a promise. They were not yet a great nation. They did not possess the land of Canaan. They were a nomadic, insignificant tribe of shepherds living in a land occupied by much more numerous and powerful people groups. But God was not done. His promise was still unfolding. The story of Joseph is actually the story of God as He unveils His sovereign plan in time and space, through the seemingly autonomous lives of mortal men. There are few other places in Scripture where you see the free will of man and the providence God so intricately entwined. Decisions will be made. Human emotions will be displayed. Circumstances will be altered based on nothing more than the whims or wishes of men. But throughout the story, God will remain in control and His divine plan to fulfill His promise will remain unaltered.
To read the story of the life of Joseph is to reminded of the unwavering, unstoppable providence of God over the lives of men.
…for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” – Daniel 4:34-35 ESV