Genesis 37–50 is not just about God’s providence; it’s also about his promises. God uses Joseph to turn back the effects of the curse and accomplish, in part, his promises to Abraham. He stacks the odds against himself and then demonstrates his power by using an imprisoned slave exiled by his own family.
Moses gives Joseph more time in Genesis than he does any other character—a striking fact given the significance of Genesis’s other main characters: Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This prominence is even more striking considering the apparent insignificance of Joseph in the rest of Scripture.
What then do we make of the Joseph story? Why is it so prominent in Genesis?
Many Christians fail to notice how Joseph’s story contributes to the Genesis narrative and to redemptive history in general. Within Reformed circles, preachers often use Joseph merely to illustrate how divine sovereignty and human responsibility intersect, focusing almost exclusively onGenesis 50:20: “What you meant for evil God meant for good.” Certainly, we are meant to read Joseph’s life in light of this verse. God’s sovereignty is a major theme in Genesis 37–50, and Joseph himself intends for us to interpret his life in light of God’s providence (cf. Gen. 45:1–9).
But reducing the story to an illustration for the doctrine of compatibilism misses the rich contribution Joseph’s life makes to the storyline of Scripture. God’s sovereignty figures largely in the Joseph story because God wants us to see how he puts himself in impossible situations and yet finds a way to keep his covenant promises. Joseph highlights how God’s providence secures God’spromises.
In this light, we can see how Joseph uniquely contributes to Scripture’s opening book.
Genesis records a series of reoccurring threats that endanger the survival and purity of the covenant line. In chapters 37–50, all the threats converge, creating an impossibly dire situation for Jacob and his children:
- Family division and violence, reminiscent of Cain and Abel, threaten the seed’s survival. (Gen. 37; cf. Gen. 4)
- Unrighteousness and intermarriage with foreign nations threaten the seed’s purity. (Gen. 38; cf.Gen. 12:10–20)
- Global famine endangers the entire covenant line. (Gen. 42:1–2; cf. Gen. 3:17–19; 12:10; 26:1)
Yet God uses Joseph to resolve each of these recurring problems in Abraham’s family:
- Instead of exacting revenge, Joseph reconciles with his brothers and restores family unity by extending forgiveness. (Gen. 45:1–15)
- Joseph settles his family in Goshen, shielding them from foreign cultural influence. Safeguarded by the Egyptians’ prejudices (Gen. 46:33–34), Israel develops as a nation without dangers posed by intermarriage with foreign peoples.
- Joseph preserves his family (and the world) amid severe famine through wisdom and administrative genius. (Gen. 41:25–35; 47:13–26)
Through Joseph, God is reversing the curse—unraveling violence through forgiveness, unrighteousness through righteousness, and hunger through wisdom.
Further, Genesis 37–50 records how God fulfills (in part) his promises to Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:1–3).
Through Joseph, Yahweh blesses the nations. Potiphar appoints Joseph as a steward over his house; then God blesses Potiphar for Joseph’s sake (Gen. 39:4–5). Later we again find Joseph established over the house of Pharaoh (Gen. 41:40). The result is the same: Joseph blesses the nations by providing grain during a severe famine, first for Egypt (Gen. 41:56) then for all the earth (Gen. 41:57).