Joseph, a Study of God's Providence


     To introduce our study of the providence of God as seen in the case of Joseph, allow me to present some cogent statements pertaining to God's dealings that reveal his foreknowledge and pre-arrangements (Joseph is speaking to his brothers at the end of the thirteen years of providential events in the following quotation):

     "5: Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. 6: For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. 7: And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8: So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. 9: Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him, Thus saith thy son Joseph, God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me, tarry not" (Gen. 45).

     Providence is derived from the Greek word pronoia (Acts 24: 2). Pronoia is made up of two words, pro, before, and noeo, to think. Hence, providence means to "think before." Providence, then, necessarily involves predestination and presupposes foreknowledge (Rom. 8: 28, 29, Eph. 1: 4, 5). I suggest to you that in our consideration of the Bible story of Joseph, we see God's providence at work in the life of the young man Joseph, whom God loved and used. For the sake of order, we shall divide our study of Joseph into three parts. They are: Joseph sold into slavery; Joseph in Potiphar's house; and Joseph as Prime Minister in Egypt. Our study covers Genesis 37 through chapter 47.

     Joseph sold into slavery. Joseph was a special gifted child. Joseph was Jacob's "son of his old age" (Gen. 37: 3). Jacob appears to have been 91 when he and Rachel had Joseph; hence, Jacob would have been 108 at the time of Genesis 37 when Joseph was 17 (Gen. 37: 2). Early in life, Joseph was loyal to Jacob and had a special character of great spiritual quality (cp. Gen. 37: 2). Jacob gave Joseph a "coat of many colors". This coat seems to have stood for the fact that Jacob viewed Joseph as a prince (Gen. 37: 3, Joseph's dreams revealed to him that he would be a prince and ruler, even over his father and brothers, Gen. 37: 5-11). Joseph was endowed with a special supernatural gift of being able to interpret dreams (Gen. 37: 5 ff.). However, his brothers did not appreciate Joseph's special place and gift. His brothers hated him and were envious against him (Gen. 37: 5-11, cp. Acts 7: 9). They hated and envied Joseph so greatly that they plotted to kill Joseph (Gen. 37: 18). Joseph must have been very lonely and have felt rejected in view of his brother's hatred of him.

     The envy and hatred of Joseph's brothers continued to build until they decided to take action. Had it not been for Reuben and Judah, the brothers would have killed Joseph (the human element only considered). Instead of killing Joseph, he was sold to some passing by Midianite merchantmen for twenty pieces of silver (probably the price of a juvenile slave, Gen. 37: 29, cp. Matt. 27: 3). The Midianites sold Joseph into Egyptian slavery (Gen. 37: 36). Joseph's brothers returned to their father and told Jacob that Joseph had been "devoured by an evil beast." They presented Joseph's coat of many colors to Jacob with goat blood on it as proof (Gen. 37: 31 ff.). Jacob grieved as if it were true (Gen. 37: 34). Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been the end of the story of Joseph. However, God's providence was involved in Joseph's life and as a result, this was only the beginning.

     Joseph in Potiphar's house. Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard purchased Joseph from the Ishmeelites (Gen. 39: 1). Potiphar was of great political force, being probably the head of the Egyptian military. The future is dark indeed for Joseph. Such slavery would have been bad enough but to have such a high ranking military leader as a master would have meant total doom for Joseph. "And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man, and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian," we are told (Gen. 39: 2). Let us appreciate that when the Lord is with one, such a relationship also reflects admirably on the person. Hence, we read, "And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand" (Gen. 39: 3). In view of the excellent character of Joseph, Potiphar placed great confidence in Joseph and he soon excelled in the household and estate of Potiphar. We are not sure how long Joseph served Potiphar, but the usual estimate is ten years.

     Toward the end of Joseph' s stay in the house of Potiphar, a serious problem began to develop. Life is often a series of ups and downs, highs and lows, joyful and sad experiences. What the godly have to realize is that sometimes these experiences may be a part of God's workings in the lives of his people. Single events, especially the bad ones are usually such that we throw up our hands in despair and say, "why is this happening to me?" The pivotal event that changed Joseph's life again is seen in the following:

     "7: And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. 8: But he refused, and said unto his master's wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand; 9: There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? 10: And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. 11: And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. 12: And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out" (Gen. 39).

     There are few young single men of Joseph's age (probably 27) and opportunity who would have continued to have refused the invitation to commit fornication (see Gen. 39: 10, cp. 2 Pet. 7,8). As a result of Joseph's refusal, Potiphar's wife became a scorned woman. She then slanders Joseph (Gen. 39: 14). Potiphar accepts her word and then something terrible, as we would view it, happened: "And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison…" (Gen. 39: 20). Joseph has now incurred the wrath of one of the most powerful men in all Egypt. Again, this would surely seem to be end of the story of Joseph. What chance would a foreign slave have, especially after having made such an enemy? Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt? Keep in mind also that some of Joseph's miraculous dreams had revealed to him that he would be a ruler (Gen. 37: 6-11). Joseph had remained pure and loyal to his God and his master, but he has been lied on and is now in prison. It could have also been that Joseph might feel God has taunted him regarding him reigning as a ruler. All would seem hopeless to most people. However, we still read: "And the Lord was with Joseph…" (Gen. 39: 21). Soon, Joseph is again excelling and gaining the recognition of his superiors (Gen. 39: 21 ff.). Alas, how could the terrible experience with Potiphar and his wife do anything but permanently doom Joseph to failure and the worst of conditions?

    Joseph as ruler in Egypt. Joseph had not been in prison long when an event occurred that at the time, seemed totally without any consequence. Two important men in the King of Egypt's structure "offended their Lord" (Gen. 40: 1). These men held the position of chief butler and chief baker. As a rule, involved in these men's responsibility would not only be the matter of feeding and seeing to such related matters pertaining to the King and his household but the matter of making sure no one poisoned the King by food or drink. (The idea of "butler" is cupbearer, these men were "chief," which would imply that they were in charge of men under them). The chief butler and baker were placed in prison with Joseph. They both dreamed a dream and Joseph interpreted the dreams for them (Gen. 40: 5-19). The butler was to be restored to his position in the King's house and the baker would be hanged within three days (Gen. 40: 18, 19). Joseph's interpretation came to pass on the third day (vs. 22, 23). However, yet "did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him" (vs. 23). Again, all hope seems to be gone.

     At the end of two years (probably three years since Joseph was imprisoned), Pharaoh himself dreamed a dream and none of his "wise men" could interpret the dreams he had experienced (Gen. 41: 1-8). Two years after the butler's release from prison, he told the King of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams (vs. 9-13). Pharaoh sent for Joseph and Joseph interpreted the dream for Pharaoh (Gen. 41: 25-36). Pharaoh rewards Joseph to the point of making Pharaoh only superior to Joseph. Joseph, in effect, is appointed Prime Minister over all the vast and powerful empire of Egypt (Gen. 41: 37-43, see also Acts 7: 10). (This event was the realization of the dream Joseph had experienced thirteen years earlier when he was a lad of seventeen, Gen. 37: 5-11.)

     Thus far, Joseph had experienced a life of many ups and downs. As we have seen, all pointed to a total impossibility of Joseph ever arising above the condition of a foreign slave. However, Joseph now has power and riches unimaginable. Joseph marries and has sons (Gen. 41: 45, 46: 20, see addendum). Joseph also enjoys a warm and tender family reunion, first with his brothers and then with his father (Gen. 45, 46). Joseph is thirty years of age at this time (Gen. 41: 46). Thirteen years have gone by since Joseph was sold into slavery (Gen. 37: 2). He was probably a slave in Potiphar's house for ten years and three years in prison. Remember what was said in Genesis 45: 5-9? God arranged for Joseph to be Prime Minister in Egypt. The likelihood of a Hebrew raising to any position of importance in Egypt was very remote. For a Hebrew slave to rise to Prime Minister was humanly impossible!

     Based on a consideration of God's providence in the case of Joseph, we see that God's plans and arrangements can take time to come to fruition. It is also apparent regarding Joseph that the events that are involved in providence when viewed in isolation, appear to be inconsequential. Not only do they appear to be of no future value, but also often times they seem to be totally preclusive of any future good. We have seen that the particular events in Joseph's life involved both the "ordinary" and the "extraordinary." By "extraordinary," I am referring to the miraculous. For instance, the dreams and their interpretation involved the supernatural. In the case of providence today, we must realize that the extraordinary is not involved (I Cor. 13: 8-10, click on "Have Miracles Ceased?" to read more). God used a number of people and circumstances to make Joseph Prime Minister of Egypt. "God made Potiphar's wife evil," some would argue. Some further explain, "Potiphar's wife had no choice, God made her that way before he created the earth." They would correspondingly say, "Joseph had no choice but to refuse the advances of Potiphar's wife, each simply acted out how God had programmed them." Such a doctrine (Calvinistic predestination) is patently false and presents God as a totally arbitrary Being (to read more about Calvinism, click on "What is Calvinism?"). God did not made Potiphar's wife evil and God did not arbitrarily make Joseph good; God did, however, use both Potiphar's wife and Joseph to effect his will. After a similar fashion, God uses people today. The fact that God used Potiphar's wife and Joseph does prove God knew their natures and what they would do (this point ascends the scale of foreordination to a higher point of difficulty of understanding, cp. Acts 18: 9, 10).

     How about God's providence today?  Some will concede that God's providence is seen in the case of Joseph (Gen. 45: 5-9). However, they contend that the matter of Joseph is in "the Old Testament" and that God no longer so functions in the affairs of individual men. I would ask, then, how does God "make a way to escape" if God is removed and inoperative today? (I Cor. 13: 10.) What does the language "the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous" mean if God is incognizant of man? (I Pet. 3: 12.) (For additional study, please consider Philemon vs.15, vs.10; 2 Peter 2: 9; Proverbs 20: 24; 16: 3; and 3: 6.)

     As we close our study of "Joseph, a Study of God's Providence," let us be assured that God is on his throne (Rev. 4). God in his dealing with men does not act arbitrarily to his moral laws and to the free moral agency of man, but he is presently involved with his people. It is certain that some events are just happenings that have been occasioned by happenstance, however, other occurrences may be providential. How can the righteous distinguish between the happenstance and the providential? Herein lies a serious problem. In the course of time, it is much easier to look back and say, "I see now that…may have been providential." Since man cannot always tell, the attitude should be to examine the events of life by applying applicable biblical principles and to always have a godly character, as was the case with Joseph.

     Addendum: The matter of how Joseph could retain his Hebrew heritage and dedication to the God of the Hebrews and still participate in the pagan Egyptian culture has been a mystery to some. Others have argued, "Joseph compromised religious principles in order to blend in with the Egyptian climate; hence, we may so compromise today to effect God's plans for us." However, such is not the case. It must be admitted, though, there are some challenges and questions to be answered. For instance, we read regarding Joseph when the King called for him, "and he shaved himself" (Gen. 41: 14). The male Hebrew did not shave but typically wore a beard, whereas, the male Egyptian was clean-shaven (Herod. ii. 36). Also, Joseph married "Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah priest of On" (Gen. 41: 45). Would not this intermarriage be proof that Joseph compromised his God? Not at all. It must be remembered that the text does not provide any details regarding these matters. It could have been that Asenath accepted Joseph's God. Remember that Potiphar and Pharaoh both acknowledged that "God was with Joseph" (Gen. 39: 3; 41: 38). Hence, they did not view the religion of Joseph as valueless. Besides, Joseph's godly character is seen as constant and static throughout the narration. Therefore, such suggested compromise is inconsistent to the detail that is provided.