Here is an interesting contrast: The Holy Spirit allotted a quarter of Genesis to the story of one man named Joseph. Compare that with the ten words that God chose to make the first statement about creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Ten words, followed by two chapters of a largely undetailed account of the creation of the universe. It seems like you would want to reverse that. Wouldn’t most people be more interested in origins, where we came from, how it all happened?
And yet the Holy Spirit has a different priority and emphasis than we might. He wants to make it all about people, rather than origins. Enter Joseph, a person of whom nothing bad was said. That puts him in rare company in the Bible, along with Daniel and Joshua. It doesn’t mean they were sinless; rather, their sins were not recorded. Contrast that with what is recorded about Joseph’s brothers, for example. Not good. But nothing evil is said of Joseph, and this is significant because he was a unique type—a symbolic forerunner—of Jesus Christ.
From that big-picture perspective, then, it isn’t so surprising that the Lord would spend so much time and focus on one person. The story of Joseph is a rags-to-riches classic. An obscure kid, introduced in Genesis 37 at the age of seventeen, becomes the second-most-powerful person in the world—the prime minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Even more than that, it’s a story of providence—God taking natural events and arranging them supernaturally for a predetermined outcome.
Providence doesn’t necessarily mean miraculous. A miracle is when God intervenes in natural law or contravenes natural law. Providence is when God works through natural law. Whereas a miracle is God acting supernaturally unnaturally, providence is God working supernaturally naturally—natural events, normal events, the stuff that makes up everyday life. But when you look back and you see the providence of God—God’s sovereign hand leading people through events—you realize that it isn’t circumstantial, it’s God working supernaturally through natural events. We all have examples of providence.
I look back on my life. One night I was invited by a previous girlfriend to a potluck, where I noticed a young woman across the room. When I asked her name, she told me, “Lenya.” It didn’t “just so happen” that when I met her I met my future wife. Not circumstance, but providence. That was the Lord. Another time, years ago, a good friend of mine told me one night, “I’m thinking of moving to Albuquerque.” That started a chain of events in my own life that has led to more than thirty years of ministry in New Mexico.
Things that seem to come out of nowhere tend to be providential. When the landlord at our previous building wanted to charge our church more rent, we weren’t willing to pay it. Just as he was getting ready to kick us out of that building, the building we use now was up for sale and vacant. Did it just so happen? Was it circumstantial? No. God’s hand was in it, setting up a situation according to His plans. Providence was key in the story of Joseph, a young man despised by his brothers and a victim of hardship after hardship. But God wove all things together for good for this one who loved God and was called according to His purpose. Joseph’s story is a beautiful testimony of the promise of Romans 8:28.
When you read Joseph’s story, look at the big picture, that overarching element of God’s patience and mercy. Betrayed by his brothers, separated from his beloved father, and sold as a slave, Joseph would come to a place of great prominence and power in Egypt. Why? Because God was fulfilling a promise that He made to Abraham back in Genesis 15, one that had been left dangling since:
Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete (Genesis 15:13-16).
Let’s set the stage. Abraham was in the land God promised to him. God told him, “Your descendants are going leave this land and be in another place for a period of time. And then I’m going to bring them back here.” Which begs the question: why bother? Once the people were there to begin with, why not keep them there? Why take them to a different place? Number one, to teach them a very important lesson, which we’ll see through Joseph’s story. Number two is because God is a merciful God. We see this here with the Amorites, mentioned in Genesis 15:16, a chief tribe of Canaan.
God would give the Canaanites an opportunity to change, to repent. You see, God was going to judge them; He was going to usurp their authority and position in the land by bringing the Israelites to take over. But He wasn’t going to do that without warning. He would give them 400 years to change. He would give them the testimony of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—all followers of the monotheistic God who loves people and wants to change their world. That message would resonate in Canaan for 400 years. Then, however, when the iniquity—the sin—of the Amorites would reach the level at which God would say, “Now I have to act,” then God would move forward in judgment.
Do you understand how patient God is? Four hundred years, I would say, is a long time to wait for people to change. God is a very patient and merciful God. When He told Abram (not yet Abraham) that preview of coming attractions, it didn’t sound so good for his descendants. But that’s where Joseph would come in. By God’s providence, Joseph would go to Egypt and become second in command, not only to save his own family and the Egyptians from a famine, but to set up this prophecy God gave to Abram.
And the children of Jacob would go to Egypt, be given the land of Goshen, prosper, and increase in population until a fearful Pharaoh enslaved them (Exodus 1-2). After 400 years of this, they would make their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 10-12) and return to the land God had given them. At that time, the Amorites would also be judged. Joseph’s story shows God’s providence, His care for His people, and His care and mercy available to all people—the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Amorites, and all through history to us today.