Outside of Jesus, Joseph has one of the lengthiest stories in the Bible, following him across hundreds of miles from birth to death, from riches to rags to riches again. This story also sets into motion the birth of Israel as a nation, one particularly favoured by God. In an interesting parallelism, Joseph becomes one of the forefathers of a nation that is favoured by God through his own father’s favouritism towards him.
Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37. After a long period of infertility, Rachel finally has two sons – Joseph and Benjamin – and then dies in childbirth. Both because she was his favorite wife and because she died, Jacob treasures Rachel’s sons more than his others. As Joseph grows up, he becomes something of an overseer and informer to his father about his older brothers – behavior that Jacob openly encourages. At one point, when he’s seventeen, Joseph tattles on his brothers, and his father rewards him with the famous coat of many colors. This ornate robe likely would have demonstrated to anyone who saw him that Joseph was set apart from – and above – his brothers.
The Bible makes the consequences of Jacob’s favoritism clear: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him” (37:4 NIV).
The fact that Joseph has several dreams soon after where his brothers and his father bow down to him certainly didn’t help. Eventually, his brothers reach the breaking point. They beat him up, throw him in a cistern, and come close to killing him. He’s saved only by Reuben, who is hoping to come off as Joseph’s savior and gain some favor of his own in the process. While Reuben is gone, though, the other brothers sell Joseph as a slave to Midianite traders bound for Egypt, cover his beautiful coat in goat’s blood, and bring it back to their father in tatters.
Jacob’s reaction is heartbreaking to read. “Some ferocious animal has devoured him!” he cries, and tears his clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes, a public symbol of mourning. Then he vows that he will not be comforted by any other family member, but will grieve for Joseph until he joins him in the grave.
“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him." Acts 7:8 ESV
Instead of getting more attention from Jacob by getting rid of his favorite, Joseph’s brothers have pushed their father away. Now they have to deal with the lifelong knowledge that they broke their father’s heart and sold their brother into slavery and probable death.
The chain of reaping and sowing that began with Abraham has added another link. Favoritism has bred jealousy, jealousy deception, and deception betrayal. What is it going to take for the children of Abraham to break the cycle?
This is, however, the beginning of the story, not the end. Joseph arrives in Egypt as a slave, but will find himself on a mission there. His efforts will eventually lead to the rise of the nation of Israel - who will be claimed by God as his own favoured people. They in turn will serve God’s purposes to reveal Himself to the world until the Messiah emerges from their midst and establishes the Church. It is through these representatives that God opens His arms to the whole of the human family.
What do you think was the greater betrayal: Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt, or telling Jacob that Joseph was dead? Is it ever possible to really be completely fair and impartial?
God speaks multiple places in the Bible about how he hates favoritism (Acts 10:34-35), but Joseph is also one link in a chain of God’s favored, chosen people. How do you reconcile these two ideas?
Jacob is known in the Bible for being a deceiver - he receiving a blessing and inheritance meant for his brother by fooling his blind, elderly father. In this story, it is now Jacob who is deceived by his own sons. Why do you think Jacob didn’t learn from his past mistakes? Why do you think he didn’t see through his sons’ deception?
How much of Joseph’s position was his father’s fault, and how much was his? Does it take two participants for favoritism to occur? If a child is raised as a favorite, do they have any real influence over how they turn out?
Genesis 22:17-18 reads: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
- According to this passage from the Old Testament, does God only care about Israel, or the whole world? How will God bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s descendants? How does Joseph’s experience factor into that plan?