Summary: Joseph’s family background

The beginning of Joseph’s life Genesis 37:1-11

Two Cape Bretoners went to a western movie and just before the end one of them said to the other, “I’ll bet you five dollars the guy in the white hat gets shot.” And the other guy said, “All right, you’re on.” And just as the movie came to an end, the guy in the white hat was shot. Well, the second guy handed the first his five dollars but after a while his friend felt guilty and he told him he wasn’t being completely fair because he had already seen the movie. And then the other guy said, “Well, I saw it too, but I thought he had learned his lesson by now.”

I remember one of my neighbors in Cape Breton whose name was Johnny MacDonald (which is basically the name of every second person from Cape Breton) anyway, Johnny went to a doctor with what he considered to be a very serious problem. He said, “Doc, when I touch my head, I can hardly stand the pain, when I touch my stomach it hurts so bad it almost makes me sick and even if I feel the back of my legs or my feet the pain is absolutely unbearable. So, the doctor took several x-rays of his complete body and they discovered Johnny’s finger was broken.

I don’t read a lot of poetry but I thought this one by Nancy Fitzgerald relates to the life of Joseph and it’s called, “The meaning of life.”

“There is a moment just before a dog vomits when its stomach heaves dry pumping what’s deep inside the belly to its mouth.

If you are fast you can grab her by the collar and shove her out the door. Avoid the slimy bile, half chewed food from landing on the floor.

You must be quick, decisive, controlled. And if you miss the queue and the dog erupts enroot; you must forgive her quickly and give yourself to scrubbing up the mess. Most of what I have learned in life leads back to this.”

As sickening as this poem is; there’s a lot of truth here because as we look at Joseph’s life we see that he spent more time suffering than he did enjoying any fruit from his labors.

So today, there are just three points I want to look at in this passage and they are Joseph’s background in terms of where he came from and who his family were, how he fit in or didn’t and then how his life was a prophetic picture of Jesus Christ. So, let’s begin by reading the scripture.

“And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.

And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them, hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said to him, shalt thou indeed reign over us? Or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, what is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying.”

I In terms of Joseph’s background we have to understand something of his family history in order to appreciate both his spiritual understanding and also his family situation.

In the book right after Genesis is the book of Exodus where God introduced Himself to the Jews by saying; “He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and these three men were Joseph’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father. And our first reaction to hearing this is that Joseph had really come from good spiritual stock because God was actually using the names of these three to introduce Himself to the people of Israel; but listen very carefully or you’ll miss what’s actually going on. I think that what God was saying was; I’m the God of sinners like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and by saying this, He was telling us; now you know there’s hope for the rest of you as well.

Let me show you what I mean. Back in Genesis 12 we see that Abraham had come from a pagan background and then God called him out from there to follow Him. As soon as he was called; God gave him what we refer to as the ‘Abrahamic Covenant’ and this was a covenant where God promised him three things and these three things were the land, the seed and the blessing and that’s the promise of the land of Israel, the seed of the Messiah and the continuous ongoing blessing of God. And all this would be a continuous promise not only to Abraham but also to all his descendants and there’s coming a day where we’ll see the total fulfillment of this covenant in what’s referred to as the Millennial Kingdom which is when Jesus will come back and rule the world from Jerusalem. So, this was a tremendous promise that reached across the centuries and touched everyone that ever shared his faith.

Now, if you read where God gave Abraham these promises and then continue down to verses 10-16 you’ll see where Abraham was tested in terms of how he’d respond to God when the going got tough. But; rather than trusting God to deliver and take care of him Abraham resorts to lying about himself and his wife in order to escape any kind of suffering and then he enjoys all the benefits that came from lying.

Listen to Genesis 12:10-16, “And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land. And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, this is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee. And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.”

So, not only did he lie about Sarah not being his wife but you also get the impression that he was really enjoying all the stuff he got from Pharaoh and Pharaoh was very generous because he saw Abraham as his new brother-in-law. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think

Abraham looks kind of sleazy at this point.

Well, the good news is that God spoke to Pharaoh and straightened the entire situation out. We see this in verses 17-20, “And the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife. And Pharaoh called Abram and said, what is this that thou hast done unto me? Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? Why saidst thou, she is my sister? So, I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way. And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had.”

So, not only did he tell him to get out of town but he also let him keep all the stuff he gave him. Now, my point in telling you all this is to show how Abraham was just as sinful as anybody who was living around him or even as the rest of us; but that doesn’t change anything because God chose him and used him anyway.

And then we see Abraham’s son Isaac and Isaac had the same attitude as his father because he even repeated the exact same sin and he probably did it because it had worked for his father. In Genesis 26:6 and 7 it says, “And Isaac dwelt in Gerar and the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, she is my sister: for he feared to say, she is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon.” In other words, Isaac was just as sinful as his father Abraham; but God used him anyway.

And then we come to Joseph’s father Jacob and this is the best one. You’ll remember when Jacob was still living at home; how he and his mother got him all dressed to look like his older brother Esau and then Rebekah cooked up some meat and all this was to get the birthright that was intended for Esau. But; as soon as they got what they wanted they realized Esau was going to kill Jacob, so, his mother told Jacob to take a trip and go visit her relatives and wait for things to calm down at home.

Now, the reason Jacob’s mother had him dress up like Esau was because if Jacob got Esau’s blessing, that meant that he would be treated as though he were the first born and the first born in the Middle East always got double the portion of the inheritance and since Jacob was his mother’s favorite then he would probably have the responsibility of taking care of her; but if he only got his regular share which would only amount to one third of the estate then they wouldn’t have very much to live on. So, out of pure selfishness, she dreamed up this plan and he played his part but the whole thing backfired and he had to get out of town.

So, when Jacob left; he went to his uncle’s place and his uncle was Laban who was his mother’s brother and it seems like he barely had his clothes unpacked when he fell in love with his cousin Rachel. So, he went to his uncle to see if he could marry her but back then you had to pay an endowment but Jacob had no money. So, his uncle said; “If you work for me for seven years I’ll give you Rachel for a wife.”

And then when the seven years were up, Jacob said, “O.K. it’s time to give me my wife” and they probably had some kind of ceremony which would have been followed by a big meal and then Jacob would take his wife who was covered from head to toe with a wedding garment to his tent. And since this was before the invention of the light bulb; everything went as normal as could be expected except when he rolled over in the morning he found out his wife was her older, ugly, weak-eyed sister. (Now, I know you think I’m stretching it but Genesis 29:30 describes these sisters by saying, “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored” and most of the commentators agree that they were just being kind by referring to Leah’s eyes because when the scripture draws a comparison between the two it describes Rachel’s beauty and her shape which is like saying, compared to her sister, she was a real knock-out.)

So, getting back to the marriage tent, you can imagine what happened in the morning because when Jacob woke up and expected to see Rachel lying beside him but found her sister Leah instead it doesn’t say what happened probably because the written word can’t do justice to the scream he let out but he went immediately to his father-in-law who said, “Well, she was the older one and she had to be married off before the younger one.” And the impression we get from scripture is that because Leah was rather unattractive her chances of getting married were somewhere between slim and none. I mean, why else would her father have set up this trap to get Jacob to marry her? And not only that; but consider this; Leah had to be part of the plan right from the beginning. So regardless of what a nice person she was or how many kids they had; her relationship with both Jacob and her own sister Rachel were probably strained for the rest of their lives.

And think about Leah, how could she expect this marriage to work out under these conditions? I mean, Jacob had no interest in her, their marriage wasn’t based on any kind of love; as a matter of fact it was completely built on deceit. Anyway, it says he fulfilled her week which meant he spent the honeymoon with her and then he served another seven years for Rachel but most commentators agree that she probably married him right away and then he put the time in.

Well, you can imagine there was a lot of tension in that home between Leah and Jacob but also between Leah and her sister Rachel and then the tension got even worse because Leah started having children and Rachel couldn’t have any.

So, having children was their goal and since both Leah and Rachel had personal servant girls; these girls eventually functioned as concubines for Jacob and the term concubine refers to women who were used for breeding purposes and yet they had no legal status and no rights of inheritance. The children they bore were publicly acknowledged as the father’s sons but they were also considered to have a lower social status than the sons of his real wives and they were also less likely to inherit anything from the father then the children of his wife or wives.

So, right from the get-go these two women and eventually their maids and all their kids would be fighting both for recognition and acceptance and this would last for the rest of their lives.

And this is where Joseph’s problems began; because he’d be considered to be a step up socially from his brothers because he was the oldest son of Jacob’s chosen wife Rachel and also because of the coat he was given by his father because this coat set him apart from his brothers as the rightful heir to the families’ fortunes.

Now, let me point out who were the main players in this family. Besides, Jacob there were his two wives, Rachel who gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin and Leah who had six sons and one daughter and then Rachel’s maid Bilhah who had conceived two children and then Leah also had a maid called Zilpah and she had two as well. So, altogether there were twelve sons and one daughter.

This reminds me of the woman who called her kids; Eni, Meni, Mini and Gordon and one of her friends said, “That doesn’t seem to make much sense.” And she said, “When you’ve had kids like mine, you don’t want no moe.” And I think that’s probably what happened when these people got to thirteen.

So, if you went back and took the time to read chapter 30 you’ll get the impression that there was not only a little bit of tension in the family but there was also a race for the bedroom to see who could produce what. And all this tension was passed on to the sons of these four women.

The interesting part is that Leah actually became Jacob’s primary wife because Rachel died when she gave birth to Benjamin. So, most of Jacob’s married life was actually spent with Leah and she was the one who gave birth to six of Jacob’s sons and they became the forefather’s of the future tribes of Israel. It was also Leah who was buried with Jacob in the cave in Hebron.

Someone said, “When a man gets married, he may think he’s marrying Rachel: the beautiful woman he chose in his dreams but in reality, he always ends up with Leah, who with all of her shortcomings and imperfections can challenge him to transcend his ego and become the person he was meant to be.”

And there’s also a hidden gem in this story because we see where God sees and understands Leah and her situation and in Genesis 29:31 it says, “And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb.” And this causes us to wonder why would God care about someone who obviously got themselves into this mess in the first place by her own stupidity or sinfulness? I mean, weren’t there bigger things for God to worry about? Well, there doesn’t appear to be; because God saw Leah as someone who was unloved and He got involved. You see, God is more than just the creator of the human race; He’s intimately involved with every one of our lives and He even cares when we get ourselves in a jam and it’s all our fault.

So, God enabled Rachel to eventually have Joseph and when she was pregnant for the last time something went wrong and she died a few minutes after Benjamin, Joseph’s brother was born.

So, that left three women in the house with ten older half-brothers and a sister and a little brother that Joseph probably have to watch out for. Now, just try to imagine the constant struggle in this family because Jacob was not only a polygamist because he had two wives but he also had two on the side for producing children and on top of that he also seems to be what’s known as a passive parent, who openly showed favoritism among his children and that made everyone either jealous, insecure or really angry.

I read where Mark Twain was lecturing in Utah and he got into a debate with a Mormon over polygamy. And the Mormon angrily said, ‘Show me one place in the Bible where it says polygamy is wrong.” Mark Twain responded, ‘Jesus said no man can serve two masters’. And just think; Jacob had four. Well, we can only imagine the family meetings about things that had gone wrong.

I understand his situation from the perspective of growing up in a home like his. When I was around six or seven; my mother who had been separated from my father had another man move in with us and after a couple of months he decided that he didn’t want to pay for four kids, so, he gave her a choice and it was to keep any two of the four or he said he was moving out. So, she decided she’d keep my two sisters and send my brother and I down east to live with my grandmother.

The only problem was; my grandmother didn’t really have any room for us and she couldn’t afford to keep us. She had an old coal company semi-detached house that was about one hundred and ten years old and not much had been done to it since the day it was built. There was no foundation, it wasn’t painted; it had no insulation in the walls or ceiling and there was no bathroom. And on top of that; there was my grandmother, my uncle; his wife and three kids, my cousin, my dad who would pop in for a month or two, a boarder and my brother and I. There were eleven of us living in this tiny little half a house and I think I can safely say that none of us wanted to be there. There was a lot of tension most of the time but the good news was; it only lasted for ten years.

The term dysfunctional is used quite often today to describe many families. The word refers to families where there’s a lot of hurt and that hurt could be the result of divorce, lack of communication, rivalry among the children, self consumed parents, addictions, child abuse, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, extramarital affairs, pornography and the list goes on and on. And one of the strange dynamics of families is that when the children grow up they often repeat the mistakes they grew up with. After all, what we know about marriage and parenting we’ve learned in our homes and while some of us tend to repeat the mistakes we grew up with; others have a tendency to run in the opposite direction and have no connection with their roots.

The end result is that dysfunctional families can often create dysfunctional families for generations. I believe that this is at least a part of what the Bible is speaking about when it says in Numbers 14:18, that God visits “…. the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.”

So, this gives us some insight into Joseph’s family and where they all came from and now, let me show you how Joseph didn’t fit in.

II Somehow, he was different.

As I said, he was his father’s favorite and I think this had to do with the fact that Rachel was the one Jacob wanted to marry in the first place and also because it says Joseph was the son of his old age. He was the second last one born and Benjamin was the end of the line. And the first thing we see about Joseph is that he was only seventeen and according to the record; all of his brothers or half-brothers were older and so it seems; it was his responsibility was to keep his father aware of what was going on with the flocks. And I’m sure he just saw this as his job. After all, he was just doing what he thought was best for the families’ interest and by reporting to his father everything that was happening out in the field, he thought everything would be more productive.

And that’s where the problem came in because it says, “Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.”

So, it wasn’t just that he was the favorite son but his father made it obvious to everyone by giving him this special coat and every time he wore it; which seems to be all the time; he was reminding everyone who he was and who they were.

Joseph’s brothers probably wore coats that were short and sleeveless because they had to climb up hills, wade through swamps, and carry sheep on their shoulders but Joseph’s coat or robe declared that he was exempt from manual labor and hardship. Even the bright colors indicated that he didn’t expect to get it dirty in any way from hard work.

Now, the coat itself was special because it had probably had sleeves and was extremely bright, so, you could see him coming a mile away. And Jacob had given him this coat as a sign of who he was. You see, this wasn’t just a nice thing to wear but it actually signified that Joseph was Jacob’s choice as the future head of the clan and this was an honor that was normally given to the firstborn.

I assume that Joseph who it says was seventeen was also a normal teen-ager who really didn’t really understand everything that was going on around him. I mean, he must have been somewhat naïve and possibly even a little arrogant because as I said, he wore this coat everywhere he went; even when he went to the fields to check on his brothers. This would be like wearing a tuxedo to mow the lawn. It was not only inappropriate but it was also a little proud.

The question of why Jacob would even give him this coat is worth thinking about because it’s a classic example of parental mistakes of Bible characters and there are a lot of them.

Some commentators say this coat was not only a social statement but it was also a symbol of purity. In the story of David’s daughter Tamar it says she wore a robe of many colors and 2 Samuel 13:18 tells us that it was a symbol of her purity because she was a virgin. And when she was raped by her half brother she immediately removed the robe and tore it into pieces because in her mind her purity had been taken away.

And if anything Joseph brothers were certainly not noted for their purity. As a matter of fact, in verse two we’re told that, “Joseph brought a bad report” about his brothers to his father and there are some who think, they may have been yielding to the pressures of the pagan societies around them which were well-known for their immorality.

So, every time they saw this coat they were reminded of the difference between their lives and that of Joseph and they came to hate him for being all the things they weren’t. And as much as they resented him for being dad’s favorite they also realized that one day he’d be their boss because he was considered to be the first born.

And then they were really offended when they heard his dreams. Now, we can imagine they were all sitting around the camp fire talking and they’d have to give Joseph some kind of report to give their father about the flock about how many were born, how many died and whatever else they had to say and then they’d probably want to know the news from home and whatever else Joseph heard along the way. Don’t forget they had no television, radio or any kind of newspapers so the only way they’d know what was happening is if someone from the outside world gave them some news.

And after he told them what was going on; he might have felt like he was accepted as a brother and then started to share some of the dreams he was having. And these weren’t the regular dreams of fame and fortune but they were dreams where everyone including his brother’s, his mother and father all ended up bowing down to him and as far as they were concerned these dreams were just one more put down.

In spite of what they thought; I think Joseph was simply telling about dreams he had because he didn’t understand them and maybe, he was just talking out loud and trying to figure them out himself.

Have you ever said something out loud and then said to yourself, I shouldn’t have said that? I went to Eaton’s to work one Christmas and I didn’t know anybody, so when lunchtime came I sat with three other guys who had been there for a while and listened to the conversation. Well, one of them told a joke and someone told another one and I thought I’d be part of the crowd and I said, “Did you hear the one about the Jewish Santa Claus? He came down the chimney and woke up a kid and said, “Abby, Abby, wake up, you want to buy some toys?” And there was dead silence, and one of them said, “Hugh, did you know that Bob here is Jewish?” It wasn’t my intention to offend anyone but my tongue got moving before my mind was in gear.

And then I remember my first interview with Galco Foods. I had to meet with the president of the company and he was a tall man who sat behind his desk and hardly ever looked at you. He just sat there reading the application and asking relevant questions. Most of them were the usual but then he said, “Why is it I see you’ve had six jobs in six years?” And I just blurted out, “Because I couldn’t get the other six on the paper.” And my immediate thought was; this might have been a nice place to work. But then he just went on to the next issue and hired me anyway.

So, here Joseph told them his first dream and it was about him ruling over his brothers, and then later on it seems like he told them the second one when he was home, where he said, his father and mother and everyone bowed down before him. Now, I don’t know if Joseph knew these dreams were from God and somehow assumed they’d be glad to hear them but everyone seemed to think he had really big head with a little too much ambition.

I was reading last week where creative people have often credited dreams for their discoveries. French chemist Auguste Kekule saw snakes biting their tales in a dream before he stumbled onto the mystery of the correct ring structure for the benzene molecule. Inventor Elias Howe attributed the discovery of the sewing machine to a nightmare where he was captured by cannibals and he noticed the holes at the tip of their spears and that was how he designed the sewing machine. Vladimir Horowitz and other well-known pianists have described playing piano pieces or discovering a new fingering in their dreams that turned out to work perfectly. Robert Louis Stevenson said that his book “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” also came to him in a dream.

But; obviously Joseph’s dreams and later on the interpretation of dreams were given to him by God. There are several commentators that say, Joseph didn’t know enough to be quiet but there are also those who think he was simply sharing what was on his heart and meant no harm by the things he said. And the truth is; we don’t know if Joseph became the man he’d be because of the suffering he went through or if he was already a godly person; because the scripture portrays both him and Daniel as the only two men other than Jesus who were not guilty of any public sin.

III The prophetic portrayal of his life.

Joseph’s life is like Jesus’ life in at least three ways:

1. There is no record of sin in his life.

2. He was rejected by his brothers just as Jesus was rejected by the Jews.

3. He went to another place (Egypt) to prepare a place for his family just as Jesus went to heaven to prepare a place for us.

Joseph also teaches us some very important lessons and the first one is; you are not your family tree. If your parents were saved that’s great but their salvation will never save you; that’s a decision you have to make yourself. And if your parents are unsaved that certainly won’t stop you from getting saved. God neither rewards us for who our parents are nor holds against us either what they did or didn’t do.

And just like Joseph was so different from his father, your kids won’t be a carbon copy of you either. Let me demonstrate this from the Bible: how many of you can name any of the children of the twelve apostles? There’s no record of any of their family as to whether they were saved or not.

Listen, God even works in every generation in a different way. In D.L. Moody’s day he was turned down for membership at a local church because they said he didn’t have a good grasp on systematic theology. And today if you can raise your hand and are willing to get wet you’re in. Is either one right or wrong? No, but the key is, are you saved or aren’t you?


Everyone here wants to be successful in life and success means different things to different people. We all have dreams, hopes and ambitions but we also realize that one of life’s toughest lessons is that things don’t always go the way we plan. Businesses go bankrupt, people get fired or laid off and at times we even get sick. Some even get accused of things they didn’t do or all of our friends move away. And one of the questions we often ask is; why did this happen to me?

Why does God allow us to get in the situations where we find ourselves? Maybe your parents weren’t perfect. Maybe your home life is less than ideal. I mean, very few of us might have picked our families or even the towns we were born into? But maybe God knows our weaknesses and the trials we’ll face and He allows certain things to happen that will shield us from these things.

Joseph’s life may have begun as a dream because he was the favorite but it soon turned into a nightmare and yet in the end it all resulted in God’s glory. Now, I hate to tell you this but I don’t think too many of us are going to become world leaders and get the chance to snub everyone who gave us a hard time along the way but our vision goes beyond the riches of this world to where our rewards are eternal.

And listen, God is using every little thing in our lives whether we consider them likeable or not to make us to be the people He wants us to be. And all He asks is that we trust Him and some day we’ll see that His rewards for being faithful will outshine anything we could ever ask for or imagine.