Scripture commands us against forming images of God, made clear in the second commandment. That command is based on God’s jealousy for his own glory, because there is no other like him. Those Israelites who broke the law were punished for generations afterward. But those Israelites who faithfully kept from building idols of God or any kind of depictions of him were blessed throughout the generations. Even today, Jews and Christians refuse to portray God in any kind of art. Movies like “An Interview With God,” that claim to actually be made by Christians, should be understood as blasphemous violations of the second commandment, no matter how sweet they might intend to be.
But there’s no command against portraying other characters in the Bible. People know that there’s always a draw to the epic stories in Scripture. Charlton Heston played Moses in “The Ten Commandments”, and that movie won all kinds of awards for special effects. “The Prince of Egypt” is a fan favorite, a kids’ movie about Moses growing up in Egypt. The cinematic masterpiece “Noah”, that came out a few years ago, starring Russel Crowe, drew more on the book of Enoch than the book of Genesis. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is somehow more about Judas and Mary Magdalene that Jesus. It seems like every Easter there is some new production on cable TV about the life of Jesus.
And of course there’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, the musical about the life of Joseph. There have been dozens of novels written about Joseph.
Joseph’s story, like Moses’ and many others from Scripture, resonate because of their great struggle. There’s betrayal, murder, lying, family drama, all the makings of a great Agatha Christy novel. So surely that is not the point. If that’s what we focus on, if that’s all the story we tell, then what do we do with the fact that God is not mentioned until the end of Joseph’s life? Is God’s word primarily concerned with being relatable? A good story? What if God has a higher purpose for the life of Joseph? What if we should look beyond Joseph and see him in the grand scope of all that God is doing?
All of history is God’s history, and we are not the point. God loves us dearly; he proved as much by ordaining his Son to die in history so that the greatness of our sin would be overshadowed by the greatness of his holiness. God is arching history toward his desired ends, and we see a snapshot of that in the dreams that Joseph was given. God cares immensely that we see all of creation is under his sovereign care. God cares immensely that we see all of redemption history is under his sovereign care. Joseph is a microcosm of God’s greater plan that points forward to the finished work of Christ. Joseph is one stop between creation and redemption.
All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
God’s plan of redemption is older than you. God’s plan of redemption is older than this church. It’s older than Joseph. It’s older than creation, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:4, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” We should take comfort in the fact that God is not reacting but providentially moving history forward to his desired ends.
That means the betrayal we face, the mockery for our moral and ethical standards, the rejection for not obliging the cultural revolution, cannot be seen as anything detrimental to our redemption and God’s kingdom. All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord. Or as Joseph will later tell his brothers, the ones who tried to sell him into slavery for money, play him off as dead, and lie to their father about it, “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” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph’s story doesn’t appear in Genesis until well over halfway through. Often chapters 1-11 are called prehistory, meaning world history before God began working through the life of Abraham. That’s the turning point for when we start to see the promise of the nation of Israel. Not only will Abraham not see that promise fulfilled in his lifetime, but it will be over 400 years after Joseph that the promise is fulfilled. But God is in control of the direction of history, so his promises come true regardless of the length of time.
Abraham’s son was Isaac, whose son was Jacob. Jacob would be renamed Israel, and his twelve sons would become the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob began to work for his uncle Laban and fell in love with one of his daughters, Rachel. If Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, he could marry Rachel.
However, Rachel was younger than her sister Leah, and it was customary to marry off the older daughter first. Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. Jacob loves Rachel so much that he is willing to work for another seven years just to marry her as well. Jacob has no sons, and Leah is seemingly the only one who has an easy time getting pregnant. Just so Rachel can say that she has her own children with Jacob, she lets him sleep with her servant, who gives him two sons. Not to be outdone, Leah does the same thing, and gives him two more sons through her servant. Rachel does then get pregnant twice, giving birth to Joseph and Benjamin, the two youngest of Jacob’s sons. In Genesis 30, Rachel prays that God would add another son to her family, and she gives birth to Joseph. So Joseph’s name means “may he add”, as a way of being reminded that Joseph was a special blessing to a previously barren woman.
Isaac had two sons: Jacob and Esau. Isaac was in general a good father, but he did what many parents do and played favorites. He favored Esau, the burly, bruiser outdoorsman. While Esau is out hunting a wild animal to feed his father, Jacob is making soup with his mom. Isaac wanted a relationship with Esau. Isaac’s favoritism and preferential treatment of Esau caused a lot of friction between Jacob and Esau, as you can imagine. At one point, Esau said he was going to murder Jacob, so Jacob left and went to live with his uncle Laban, which brings us full circle to where he meets Rachel and falls in love with her. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
But that also makes you wonder why Jacob so easily fell into the trap of playing favorites with his children. He knows firsthand the kind of pain it causes. He knows firsthand how it ruptures families. But Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, and Joseph was the firstborn from Rachel. So when Rachel finally conceived and gave birth to a son, it was easy for Jacob to have a tender spot for Joseph. And then especially when Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, Joseph was a constant reminder of the wife he loved.
The Coat, vv.1-4
Joseph was son number 11, but he was treated like the firstborn. As the firstborn son of the woman Jacob loved, the woman he wanted to marry first, Jacob simply may have decided to give the birthright to Joseph. And in giving him the special coat, that seems to be exactly what has happened. Traditionally, it’s translated as a coat of many colors. That’s the hard part of turning Hebrew into English. Really the word implies a coat of great length, meaning sleeves to the wrists and a robe to the ankles. This wasn’t a coat you wore while spending your days and nights with the sheep. It was probably highly decorative, because that kind of coat was reserved for the eldest son, the leader of a tribe, or the king of a nation. This word is also used in 2 Samuel 13 for the coat king David gives his daughter Tamar. It represented a noble person of great purity in that passage. So not only will Joseph be a leader, but he’s actually a good person, which makes it even worse for the brothers. If there was any doubt among his older brothers that he was the heir-apparent, they doubted no longer.
But was it just that Jacob played favorites? Or did Joseph’s brothers forfeit certain rights by the way they lived their lives? Rebuen committed adultery with his father’s concubine. Levi and Simeon went on a slaughtering spree in an act of vengeance. These weren’t well-rounded, self-controlled individuals we’re talking about.
As a young man, Joseph is being trained as a shepherd with his brothers. Shepherds were like sailors. They spent all their time away from civilization, stuck with a few other shepherds and a bunch of dirty animals. They lived outdoors and moved their flocks from place to place, looking for new ground to graze. Shepherds weren’t known for their high level of decorum. They weren’t gentlemen. That kind of isolation has a way of depriving a man of his manners. You could read “Lord of the Flies”, or you could spend a weekend with some shepherds and get the same impression.
But at age seventeen, Joseph witnesses the wicked lives his brothers are leading out there in the fields, isolated from humanity, only influenced by each other. It would be easy to peg Joseph as tattle-tale since he goes back home and tells their father about how they’re living. We can assume there was some kind of consequence for their actions, especially since they shepherded as a family. They represented their father and the rest of their family. There’s nothing here to make us think that Joseph was just a snot-nosed brat. Even at seventeen, we see a man of integrity, doing the hard thing. Joseph’s first responsibility was to his father, not turning a blind eye to sin. Even when the people he worked with took the low road, Joseph retained his character.
It’s after Joseph gives this bad report on the lives of his brothers that we’re told just how much Jacob loves Joseph. It’s impossible to hide favoritism, especially in a family. The brothers know how Joseph gets all the preferential treatment. And even though it’s not Joseph’s fault, they hate Joseph for it. They can’t act out against their father and his sins without being charged with being disrespectful. So, they expend their mental and emotional energy on hating their brother. They hated him so much that they couldn’t even speak peacefully to him. Every interaction was a fight. Every conversation turned angry.
This is what envy looks like. Sometimes it’s directed at the right person, sometimes it’s not. The brothers were envious of Joseph not because of Joseph’s inherent greatness but because of the way their father treated him. So they felt envy and jealousy when they see Joseph have success and get praise from his father. They also feel a great deal of satisfaction later on in the story when they see him suffering as they shove him into a pit and leave him to die. They did all of this because they truly felt they were righteous in doing so. It was the right thing to do, to balance the scales, to show their father his own sins, to get what they deserve.
The dreams, vv.5-11
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the family dynamics only get worse from there. Joseph is given two dreams from God. It’s not as if Joseph is infatuated with himself and has these visions of one day coming to power and oppressing his family. These dreams are prophetic. Joseph receives a prophetic message from God. Regardless of how his brothers and father react to the dreams, they come from God.
His first dream is of him and his brothers being in the field binding sheaves of wheat. This was probably familiar enough. They were farmers and shepherds. So far, so good. But the sheaf that Joseph made stood up on its own. The sheaves his brothers made went to Joseph’s and bowed down to it. Now, did the brothers get angry because they didn’t understand the dream? No. They got angry because they did understand it. Their father has already elevated the eleventh son to first place. They already expect Joseph to be the one who receives the birthright and the majority of their father’s estate. They already expect Joseph to have charge of the family. And they hate him for it. There’s a little play on words here, because Joseph’s name means, again, “May he add”. And verse 8 literally says that they added hate upon hate to Joseph. This dream isn’t what made them hate Joseph; it’s just one more insult as far as they’re concerned.
But that’s not the end of it. Favorite-son Joseph has another dream. This time, it’s not just about a field. Now Joseph’s dream is about intergalactic, space power. In this dream, Joseph is still Joseph, but now, the heavenly beings are bowing down to him. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. His brothers can’t take it anymore. Joseph has to go.
But his father is less ready to kick Joseph out. He’s still his firstborn, as far as he’s concerned. At first, Jacob is a little upset, as well. Will Jacob have to bow down to one of his sons? And Rachel, who is already gone by this point, how exactly will she bow down to you? The brothers are jealous and ready to get rid of him. But at least Jacob, we’re told, “kept the saying in mind” (37:11). He gave it some thought and didn’t just dismiss it in anger and jealousy.
The point is this: Joseph didn’t always get the warm-and-fuzzys, even from those who said they loved him. Joseph’s dreams confronted their pride. Pride is the root of many sins. Even back to the temptation of Adam and Even in Eden, the serpent fanned the flames of pride by telling them that God was holding back knowledge from them. Didn’t they deserve to know?
It wan’t as though Joseph sought out the gift of a kingly robe. It was a gift from his father. He was a shepherd. He spent his days in the filth with his brothers. That’s how he knew of their wickedness. He would not stand for their wickedness. Their father has a right and a responsibility to know what’s going on his own fields. How many of Christ’s parables teach as much?
Shepherding was a common image used for the kings of Israel. God tells King David that “you shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). Shepherding a people means to rule and reign over them. A shepherd knows when to push the sheep and when to let them graze. He knows when to be firm and authoritative and when to be gentle and lowly. All of this is ordained by God to prepare Joseph for the work that lies ahead.
Joseph has no idea that he’s about to be sold as a slave by his own brothers. But in receiving his dreams, he gets a word of comfort. Consistently throughout Scripture, having something repeated is a confirmation. Later, when Joseph is in Egypt but stuck in a prison unfairly, Pharaoh receives two different dreams about an upcoming famine in the land. He tells Pharaoh, “the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Genesis 41:32). Joseph has plenty of experience in dreams, and it has prepared for a time such as this. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
Little did his brothers know that when they poked fun at him, asking, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” that they were simply confirming they understood the meaning of the vision from God. And instead of looking forward to that day, instead of trusting that the goodness of God would be what was best, the hate in their heart exploded. The natural inclination of man’s heart is to hate the things of God, to hate the word of God. Turning the heart from stone to flesh is a supernatural work of God and God alone. It’s not something Joseph can do for them. It’s not something the brothers can do on their own.
It’s not something your parents can do for you, and it’s not something you can do for your kids. It’s not something a preacher can force on anyone. Regeneration is a work of God. You raise children in the Lord, to know the things of God, and you leave saving faith in God’s hands. You don’t hesitate to talk about the goodness of God with friends and family, but only God can regenerate, or make new, the human heart. Until God does the hard work of regeneration, we are like the brothers, dead in our sin.
Throughout the Old Testament, there will be men like Joseph who inspire hope that one better than Joseph is coming. There is a deep-seated need for a messiah, for a rescuer, for a mediator between a holy God and sinful people. As the book of Hebrews tells us, the things that came before Christ were simply copies and shadows of the real thing. The real thing, the real person, is Christ. And God gave his people tastes and types of what he would do in the person and work of Christ.
God promised Abraham that there would come a nation from whom the messiah would come. In Joseph’s day, the nation was just these twelve brothers, but they were the beginning of Israel. The sons of Israel hated Joseph; the nation of Israel hated Jesus. Joseph was the favored son of Jacob; Jesus was the favored son, the only begotten son, of God. Joseph was given the robe of a king that would eventually be covered in animal’s blood to corroborate a lie about Joseph’s death; Jesus was given a kingly robe as way of being mocked, and his own blood soaked the robe. Joseph would ascend to the second highest position in Egypt and save his brothers, the sons of Israel, from death and famine; Jesus would ascend to the Ancient of Days and save his brothers, all who confess his name, from the curse of sin. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
And if all history is under God’s command, then the generations of disfunction in your own family will ultimately be used for your own good. It’s okay to ask how. Lots of people go through unmentionable evil, often at very young ages. Joseph himself faced the death of a parent, attempted murder by his family, and the slave trade, all as a teenager. It’s one thing to ask God why you must endure the evils of this world; it’s another thing to cast God as evil himself and claim God has done wrong by you. The righteous men and women of Scripture suffer immensely. And when they do, they do not curse God but instead seek him all the more.
Job was tormented by great loss, his friends and support system were utterly useless, and he never cursed God. Any self-pity he felt for his poor life was eradicated when he was forced to reckon with the incomprehensibility of God. Esther was herself taken away as an exile from her homeland and faced a potential holocaust, but she put on a brave face and took action. She was unsure of herself and knew that the chances of success were slim-to-none, but she was was going to be faithful to God over against her instinct of self-preservation. These examples and many more show that it is possible, even if the result of days, weeks, months, and years of hard work, to change your perspective, grow into greater maturity, and to trust God with our past, present, and future.
All of our lives leave an indelible impression on who we become. When we come face-to-face with the evil of this world, and we feel as though there’s nothing to do about it but wallow in self-pity, the gospel reminds us that there is the God-man Jesus Christ who stood on the shore and reached his hand out to us as we were sinking.
There is no greater evidence that all of history works for our good and God’s glory than the incarnation of Jesus. In Christ, we see the foreordained plan of God to shed his own blood and take it into the heavenly temple on our behalf. In the atonement, we see our greatest good, that of being reconciled to God. In the atonement, we see God’s greatest glory, that of redeeming his own enemies. And the work he began in us, he will see to completion. The world will mean much for evil, but God will mean it for good. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.