Joseph Faithful and Fruitful
When the bedridden old Jacob was pronouncing a prophetic blessing on each of his sons by Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, he must have looked forward with anticipation to what God had in store for his two youngest sons – Joseph and Benjamin. These were the sons of his “first love,” the wife for whom he had worked so long, his beloved Rachel
Rachel had been barren for many years while her sisterly “rival,” Leah, had given Jacob no less than six sons! Even though her handmaid Bilhah (according to the custom of those days) had provided Jacob with two sons, Rachel still longed for children of her own flesh and blood. In desperation she had cried out to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die ” (Gen. 30:1). In tender mercy God responded to her cries of longing. “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb. And she conceived, and bore a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach: And she called his name Joseph; and said, The Lord shall add to me another son” (Gen. 30:22-24). The name given to the child, Joseph, meant in Hebrew, may he add. In other words, as thankful as Rachel was for this son, she desired at least one more! God also granted that request when she gave birth to Benjamin right before she died (cf. Gen. 35:16-18).
A Look Back
Jacob’s opening words strike the keynote of this entire oracle, which is the longest in this marvelous series of prophecies. “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22). Fruitfulness marked Joseph’s past life (vv.. 22- 24), and it would also characterize his descendants (vv. 25-26).
The reference to Joseph as a “fruitful bough” (efforts of some modern translations to make him a “wild colt” have a poor linguistic and contextual basis) recalls Joseph’s own remark in Genesis 41:52, “And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” In spite of numerous obstacles which he faced, Joseph was faithful and fruitful in overcoming each one.
Many writers on Joseph have noted some interesting parallels between his experiences and events in the life of the Lord Jesus. Consider the following that have been mentioned in many sermons and devotional studies. (1) Joseph was the delight of his father (Gen. 37:3); Jesus was the “beloved Son” of His Father (Mt. 3:17). (2) Joseph was rejected by his brothers (Gen. 37:4, e.g.); Jesus’ “own” did not receive Him (Jf!. 1:11; 7:5). (3) Joseph was sold into Egypt (Gen. 37:28); Jesus fled there with His parents under duress (Mt. 2:14·l,5). (4) Joseph withstood temptation to sin (Gen. 39:7-12); Jesus withstood Satan’s temptations (Mt. 4:1-11). (5) Joseph was raised from the death of prison and exalted to the side of Pharaoh (Gen. 41:14-43); Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to His Father’s right hand (Acts 2:32-33). (6) Joseph mercifully forgave his brothers for causing him to suffer (Gen. 50:15-21); Jesus prayed that the Father would forgive those responsible for His suffering (Lk. 23:34). (7) Joseph took a Gentile bride (Gen. 41:45); Jesus is calling out Gentiles to be part of His bride (Col. 1:24-27).
Although these parallels appear striking, care should be taken about emphasizing them too much. It is significant that the New Testament nowhere mentions Joseph as a type of Christ. Furthermore, an emphasis on typology at this point tends to obscure the real and vital lesson that Joseph has for all readers, i.e. how he trusted God in the midst of his trials.
When Jacob looked back at his son’s life, it is this vital lesson that he mentions. “The archers have harassed him, and shot at him, and hated him; But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob (from there is the shepherd, the stone of Israel)” (Gen. 49:23-24). ln spite of the suffering caused by his brothers, A Joseph’s trust in God was unshaken. The commentator, George Bush, aptly explains the text: “The prophecy here points to Joseph in person, from whose history its fulfillment appears evident. He was aimed and shot at, as it were, by the bitter and reviling words of his brethren, and still more deeply wounded by their cruel treatment. He was sold into Egypt through envy, and imprisoned by a lie. His virtue was violently assaulted by his mistress, his innocence wronged by his master, and his patience severely tried by the ingratitude of a fellow-prisoner. Yet ‘his bow abode in strength,’ The divine favor forsook him not.” The source of Joseph’s strength was his knowledge of the true God. Five different titles of the Lord are mentioned in this passage. Each of them illustrates some aspect of His character – “the mighty God of Jacob,” “the shepherd,” “the stone of Israel” (v. 24), “the God [El] of thy father,” and “the Almighty” (v. 25). Although each of these titles bears out much precious truth, consider only the last one -“Almighty.” The Hebrew word is Shaddai, which really carries the idea of All-Sufficient One or Sustainer. It is formed from the Hebrew word for a mother’s breast (shad), which nourishes and sustains the child. So God sustained Joseph in his weaknesses. It is interesting that when Jacob describes the abundant blessings on Joseph, he carefully mentions “blessings of the breasts (shad).
Joseph was able, because of his intimate knowledge of God, to discern His hand even in his personal setbacks. When he finally revealed his identity to his brothers, he told them, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life . . . And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in·the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me here, 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” (Gen. 45:5, 7-8). It is striking to note that almost every time that Joseph speaks he mentions God in his conversation. Such a God-filled life will also lead us to discern God’s hand even in our trials and troubles -to perceive His purpose and leading even in the “hard knocks” which we all encounter. This is the real lesson for us from the life of Joseph.
A LOOK AHEAD
The remainder of Jacob’s prophecy looks forward to the blessings to be experienced by the “tribe” of Joseph. “The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren” (Gen. 49:26). Six times the words “bless” or “blessings” appear in verses 25 and 26. These blessings are placed squarely on Joseph’s head, “the head of him that was separate from his brethren.” The word separated is nazir, which is used later to describe one who took a Nazirite vow to be separated from the vine and from dead bodies as well as not to cut his hair (Num. 6:2-21). This word, however, recalls the long period of time that God set Joseph apart from his brothers and advanced him to preeminence over them.
It is obvious that the patriarchal blessing, normally reserved for the firstborn, has been imparted instead to Joseph. Reuben, due to his incest with Bilhah, had forfeited his leadership role to Judah and forfeited the father’s double blessing to Joseph (Gen. 49:3-4). This is clearly stated in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2: “Now the sons of Reuben, the first-born of Israel (for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright; For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the prince; but the birthright was Joseph’s).” Furthermore, according to Deuteronomy 21:17, the privilege of the firstborn was to receive a double portion of the inheritance – a portion twice as large as that of each of his brothers. If Joseph was now to receive the blessing of the firstborn instead of Reuben, how did this work out for his descendants?
When he became established in Egypt, Joseph and his wife Asenath had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (cf. Gen. 41:50- 52). After Jacob, their grandfather, had been in Egypt seventeen years, Joseph and his two sons visited the old man on his sickbed. In the touching scene recorded in Genesis 48:1-22, Jacob actually adopted young Ephraim and Manasseh as his own, elevating them to the level of his other sons. He told Joseph, “And now thy two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine” (Gen. 48:5). Therefore, the double blessing on Joseph meant that instead of producing onetribe, he would produce two! From that time onward, the lists of the tribes normally mentioned not the tribe of Joseph, but the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. To be exact, tribal lists appear sixteen times in the Bible after Genesis, and Joseph is mentioned only three times, his place normally taken by Ephraim and Manasseh.
The great fruitfulness of these tribes is illustrated in the two census calculations taken at the beginning and end of the wilderness wandering. In Numbers 1 the population of Ephraim and Manasseh (i.e. the tribe of Joseph) is 75,900, compared to the 74,600 of the next largest tribe, Judah. In Numbers 26 their population was 85,200 while Judah’s was 76,500. Jacob prophesied that the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh would “grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Gen. 48:16). He even wittingly switched his right hand to the head of the younger and prophesied that Ephraim would be greater than his older brother Manasseh, following a pattern practiced earlier in Genesis (Gen. 48:17-19). Manasseh was great in that his descendants had the largest land allotment of any tribe, actually settling on both sides of the Jordan with an eastern and western branch. Ephraim, however, produced greater individuals – for example, Joshua and Samuel. Actually, the prominence of Ephraim is illustrated by the fact that the entire northern kingdom was often simply called by that name in many of the later prophets (consider Hos. 11:3; 12:1; Jer. 31:9, 20).
An effort has been made on the part of some to identify England and America as the modern tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim and thus the recipients of these promises. This teaching of British Israelism, which began in the nineteenth century, is now a doctrinal plank of many cults and white supremacist groups. Based on questionable exegesis of isolated texts and discredited by dubious historical identifications, this movement is but one of many that seek to answer the question of the whereabouts of the so-called “ten lost tribes.” A later article will explore this fascinating subject and offer some alternative suggestions. Suffice it now to say that we need look no farther than the scriptural history of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh to find the fulfillments of these promises of blessing and fruitfulness.
After meditating on the faithful life and fruitfulness of Joseph, one final lesson emerges. Joseph is a cogent example of the truth stated in 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” Humanly speaking, it must have been extremely difficult to wait for God’s timing when you have been unjustly sold as a slave, unjustly imprisoned for remaining pure, and unjustly forgotten by an acquaintance whom you helped. Most of us would have cried out, “Why me?” Yet Joseph waited on God during his trials without seeking his own advancement. Finally, in His timing, God honored His faithful servant and exalted him to a place of honor where he could continue to be a blessing to others.
Our responsibility is not to be ambitious and self-seeking. It is to be faithful. His job is to hand out the promotions. Let’s leave it to Him then!