Updated: Oct 1, 2019
WHAT IS FAITH?
Faith is believing that it is possible be “at home” spiritually in spite of where we might be physically.
“22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones” (Hebrews 11:22).
Of all the astonishing examples of faith that we can trace through the life of Joseph, this one seems the least important. Yet to the writer of Hebrews, this forward-looking prophecy is the greatest of all Joseph’s expressions of faith.
Joseph’s story is told in Genesis 37-50 and begins when he was just a boy.
Jacob’s attitude toward Joseph, his first son by his beloved Rachel, set the stage for the drama that follows. Jacob had married two sisters. That had not been his intention, but Jacob the deceiver was deceived by his own father-in-law in marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. In order to get the girl he wanted Jacob was forced to work an extra seven years to earn his bride of choice. Leah’s children were never favoured by their father, but when Rachel gave birth to Joseph all the old man’s lavished all his attention on the boy, and created an atmosphere of envy and anger that would erupt and change the course of the family’s history—at least from a human standpoint.
There is a whole lot that could be discussed about favoritism. This is not the first time the problem appears—you’ll remember the story of Abraham and the relationship between Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac. As well we have the example from the lives of Esau and Jacob and the trouble caused by the preferences shown by their parents. We might have thought that Jacob would have known better considering that he had been through the trauma caused when his own parents showed preferences toward one son over the other. The lessons of history often need to be repeated when they aren’t learned well. Still, we know, because we know the end of the story, why and how God used this family dysfunction to move HIS-tory forward. For the players the end was not known. For Joseph, to persevere in his belief that God would bring all the twists and turns in his life to the right conclusion, was an exercise of faith.
Adding to the problem were two dreams that Joseph had. In each dream he was pictured as one before whom his brothers and parents would one day bow. Perhaps Joseph shared his dreams in innocence, not understanding how his brothers or his parents might react. In the days before revelation was written down and before the canon of Scripture was completed, dreams were one of the means that God used to reveal Himself. They were important. Perhaps Joseph anticipated support from his family, delight that he would make such advances in his life that would result in him becoming a person of stature. That is what he might have gotten if this family had already not been so dysfunctional that such support was impossible to give.
The brothers take advantage of an opportunity when they have Joseph away from home to sell their younger brother to a passing group of Midianite merchants. They in turn, arriving in Egypt, sell the boy at the captain of the Pharaoh’s household guard. In Potiphar’s house, in prison, and even in the palace of the Pharaoh, the dreams that Joseph had been given would have served as a reminder of the promises God had made through those dreams, even though the circumstances of Joseph’s life seemed to deny the truth of every single one of them. This example ought to be a reminder to us that we are never victims of the circumstances but victors because of the promises.
Genesis 37:12-36 recounts how it was that Joseph ended up in the household of Potiphar in Egypt. From Genesis 39:2-9 we discover what Joseph’s behavior under difficult circumstances looked like. Joseph took the adversities in his life in his stride, making the most of every opportunity to do what was right without complaint even when he was falsely accused, and wrongly convicted, of crimes he hadn’t committed.
He was exemplary!
We are reminded that, like Joseph, we are to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:13) even the “slavish” tasks that we might not like, or that no one notices. We have no record of whether or not Joseph said anything to anyone about the God of his forefathers, but there are clues that perhaps that opportunity might have arisen. For example, Potiphar noticed not simply Joseph’s good service, but apparently understood the reason behind that good service (though it is never explained how Potiphar recognized that God was at work in Joseph).
When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did…
In spite of doing the right thing, Joseph ends up losing everything he had worked so hard to gain and is thrown in jail (39:19, 20). Faith is hardest when it is tested, but faith is also strongest when it is tested.
We talked about the Biblical principle of perseverance in the introduction to this series of studies. That Joseph continued to do what was right is evidence that, despite the circumstances and the injustice of those circumstances, he was not discouraged enough to “throw in the towel” but continued to exemplify godliness. The only reason to be godly when it doesn’t “pay off” is if you are responding to Someone greater than you are, and greater than the circumstances you are dealing with. Joseph’s life appears to be one of faith, though none of these events in his life are the focus of Hebrews 11.
Genesis 40 tells us about the encounter that Joseph had with Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker while they were in prison together. Pharaoh’s servants had been accused of some offense and thrown in jail. Each of the men had a dream that he believed gave a clue as to what was to come. But neither man could interpret what he had seen in his dream. The interpretation of dreams was a gift that God has given Joseph and are the instrument by which he makes himself useful to these two men. He tells them both what God has revealed about their futures through their dreams. The baker is killed, the cupbearer returned to his post. Despite extracting a promise to remember Joseph to Pharaoh when he gains his freedom, the cupbearer forgets (40:23). This would have been an even more difficult test of Joseph’s character as well as his faith.
During the conversation we have recorded in Genesis 40 we have the first recorded statement made by Joseph about his circumstances.
“But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
The faith question
There is the one place in Scripture that we sense in Joseph some desperation when he realizes that the cupbearer had forgotten him. He must have felt the disappointment. In moments of disappointment we face a choice—give in to the feeling and spiral into discouragement, depression, self-pity and possibly a crisis of faith, or deal with the disappointment through a renewal of that faith believing as Roman 8:28 tells us that everything, even the bad things in life, have a purpose in God’s divine design and will turn out for good.
The character question
But somewhere in the back of the human mind must linger this question: Why continue to be helpful when you seemingly get nothing from the exercise?
Though we are not told of any more incidents where Joseph interpreted the dreams of other prisoners, we know that his conduct continued to be exemplary. But how many of us would continue to do good, to be good, when it seems that doing so doesn’t get us anywhere? Once more, faith that perseveres in the face of difficulties is the result of submission and trust in Someone beyond ourselves and greater than our circumstances.
Years passed before Joseph finally gets a “break,” an episode described for us in Genesis 41:1, 8, 9: “When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream…so he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but no one could interpret them for him. Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh…”
From rags to riches as Joseph goes from prison to palace as described in Genesis 41:15, 16, 25-40.
Joseph is summoned to the palace and is presented with the problem.
This episode with Pharaoh tells us a lot about Joseph’s character.
This was Joseph’s golden opportunity to take the credit for his ability to interpret dreams. But he doesn’t.
“Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ ‘I cannot do it,’ Joseph replied to Pharaoh, ‘but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.’”
Joseph is careful to give credit where credit is due. It is humility wrapped in confidence bolstered by faith. Joseph has nothing to prove so he can let God do the “proving.” So impressed is Pharaoh with Joseph that he places this ex-prisoner in charge of the plan to make sure that the seven good years of harvest as revealed in the dream are used wisely in preparation for the seven years of famine that will follow.
Eventually the famine reaches Canaan and begins to take its toll among Jacob, his family and his many dependents. This forces the brothers to make a trip to Egypt to buy food. They are unaware that they are about to live out the dreams of the younger brother than they now believe they will never see again. Genesis 42 to 45 describes the encounters between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. Years have passed and Joseph has taken on maturity and the look of an Egyptian. His brothers do not recognize him.
In Genesis 45:1-13 Joseph is reunited with his brothers as they come to buy food for their families. This is the perfect opportunity to give them back what they deserve for all the grief they had caused in his life. But while Joseph takes his time to test whether or not his brothers are repentant for what they did to him, he does not take advantage of their weakness and his strength. Joseph’s faith in a greater purpose makes it possible for Joseph to forgive his brothers despite all that their actions have cost him.
Once again Joseph’s attitudes and actions are Romans 8:28 worked out in practical reality. Faith believes that not only do circumstances, good or bad, become part of the divine design for our lives, but the actions of others for or against us are also part of that divine design that will somehow result in good. Of course, Joseph was now living out the good that had come from his brother’s actions so we might say that he could afford to be magnanimous. The fact that he did not seek revenge for their actions against him is a stronger argument as an example of the faith that believes that “all things work together for good” and for God. Joseph could have forgiven them but still wanted them to suffer some kind of consequences for their evil.
I am reminded of a discussion being played out currently in the public forum as to what Canada and the United States should do about two women who want to return to their respective homelands after having gone overseas to be with their husbands who were members of ISIS. One was repentant and the other was not. The backdrop for the discussion was the story of the Prodigal Son and the question was whether or not these women should be forgiven and not have to face the consequences of their actions. Opinions were varied but many thought that forgiveness was separate from justice and that justice needed to be served. What will happen in these two cases remains to be seen.
But instead of seeking justice Joseph chose to forgive and to forego what administering the justice the brothers deserved. He let it all go as an act of faith that a just God would look after anything and everything that had to do with his brothers’ behavior.
Later, as Jacob (Israel) is about to set out and move his entire family (seventy people in all) to Egypt, the Lord appears to him in a vision. In Genesis 46:2-4 we read:
“And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘I am God, the God of your father,’ he said. ‘Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.’”
There might have been some trepidation in Jacob’s mind about going down to Egypt. Even the desire to see his long-lost son may have faded a little in the face of the prospect of entrusting his family into the hands of people who had enslaved and imprisoned his son until he proved useless to them. This renewal of the covenant promise that God had made to Abraham and to him, would have reassured him that he and his people were actually safe even in the presence of their enemies. This sounds so much like a part of David's song in Psalm 23—one he often experienced himself—"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies."
Jacob (Israel) moves to Egypt where he lives for seventeen years (Genesis 47:28).
Genesis 50:22-26 tells us: “Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father’s family. He lived a hundred and ten years and saw the third generation of Ephraim’s children” And returned once to Canaan to bury his father. Egypt was more home to him than Canaan had been. When he came to the end of his life, Joseph delivered this message:
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.’”
Joseph was the second youngest of Jacob’s sons and yet he died before some of his older brothers—interesting detail. Despite the fact that he had lived most of his life in Egypt he wanted to go “home” after his death, perhaps a symbolic gesture that would reunite him with the promise that God had made to his forefathers. He believed that even though he had offered protection and provision to his family during the famine years that Egypt would never be their home and that they would return to the land of Canaan.
Of all the things that happened to Joseph this seems to be an odd one to mention in connection to an expression of faith. Perhaps being a prophetic statement was what makes it significant. To foretell with the confidence that what is said will come true is faith in advance of the events rather than faith in the midst of the events.
For the brothers, to whom Egypt would still be a foreign country, Joseph’s death would have produced a lot of anxiety. Their protector against the Egyptians was gone. Joseph’s message would have been a tremendous encouragement to them.
Benson’s Commentary says: “Genesis 50:24. I die; and God will surely visit you — To this purpose Jacob has spoken to him. Thus we must comfort others with the same comforts wherewith we ourselves have been comforted of God, and encourage them to rest on those promises which have been our support. Joseph was, under God, both the protector and benefactor of his brethren, and what would become of them now that he was dying? Why, let this be their comfort, God will surely visit you. God’s gracious visits will serve to make up for the loss of our best friends: and bring you out of this land — And therefore they must not hope to settle there, nor look upon it as their rest forever; they must set their hearts upon the land of promise, and call that their home.”
Matthew Henry writes: “50:22-26. Joseph having honoured his father, his days were long in the land, which, for the present, God had given him, When he saw his death approaching, he comforted his brethren with the assurance of their return to Canaan in due time. We must comfort others with the same comfort with which we are comforted of God, and encourage them to rest on the promises which are our support. For a confession of his own faith, and a confirmation of theirs, he charges them to keep his remains unburied [the tradition of the time might have been to bury Joseph, as a high official, near or with the Pharaoh he served which might have made it difficult if not impossible to access his remains when the Hebrews left Egypt] till that glorious day, when they should be settled in the land of promise.Thus Joseph, by faith in the doctrine of the resurrection, and the promise of Canaan, gave commandment concerning his bones. This would keep up their expectation of a speedy departure from Egypt, and keep Canaan continually in their minds. This would also attach Joseph’s posterity to their brethren.”
Despite having spent most of his life in Egypt, and despite the fact that when you’re dead, you’re dead and it doesn’t really matter where you are buried, Joseph’s instructions had much to convey to those who would follow him and pass on those instructions to future generations.
There is a bigger issue here. It appears that despite having lived so long in Egypt and having been assimilated into Egyptian culture, Joseph never lost his “hebrew-ish-ness.” It would appear that the whole idea of settling his family in Goshen was his attempt to keep his family from becoming too Egyptian—from being assimilated. He specifically told his family to describe themselves as shepherds when Pharaoh asked about their occupation because “…all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34). The plan appears to have worked from what we see in Exodus 1. In one Hollywood movie about the Exodus, the coffin bearing Joseph’s bones is seen sitting in the centre of the Hebrew place of worship, a constant reminder of the ancient covenant promise made by God to His people, the vision of the land that was theirs because of that promise, and a constant reminder not to be Egyptian, but to remain Hebrew with a belief in one God: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even after death, Joseph became a constant reminder to have faith in God and to remain committed to Him always.
The efforts Joseph made to keep his family separate highlight a valuable principle described in other places in Scripture.
Deuteronomy 7:1-11 says, in part: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you…For you are a people holy to the Lord your God…
Deuteronomy 12:29-32: “The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods…You must not worship the Lord your God in their way…”
Deuteronomy 14:2: “…you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.”
This blessing, and the warning, are transferred to believers in Christ.
1 Peter 2:9 says: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ ‘Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.’ ‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.’ Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”
The instructions given in the Old Testament seem brutal to us, but instinctively, or because he knew what God wanted, Joseph kept his people away from the Egyptians. Their return to Canaan meant a complete sweeping away of any influences that might lure them away from God and their obedience to God. The consequences of failure to follow the instructions were devastating but the purpose for the instructions was clear:
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord you God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all people. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery…”
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. Hebrews 11 only mentions one aspect of Joseph’s faith but his story demonstrates many more. Summarize the ones that are most relevant to your experience and describe why they are relevant.
2. What lessons can we learn from Joseph’s efforts to keep his people separate from the Egyptians and their influence?
3. The truth of Romans 8:28 is demonstrated in the story of Joseph, but so is Romans 8:35-39. Explain.
4. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
 Genesis 39:3
 Genesis 40:14, 15
 Genesis 41:15, 16
 Genesis 50:24, 25