When Joseph’s first son is born, he names him with honesty: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51). Whether Joseph is referring to a recovery from homesickness or from bitterness, it’s easier to just forget his family and the betrayal he endured. But God isn’t willing to let it go; he intends to bring it all back again as his family re-enters the picture. God does this to bring Joseph to full healing and complete the good work in him. He also does it to fulfill the dream he had given him so many years before; his family must bow before him.

Returning to our roots is the true test of change. Joseph never returns to Canaan while his father is alive, but his family comes to him. When we head home for the holidays, or go to a class reunion or spend time around old friends, it creates all kinds of tensions in us. Those who know us well today may start seeing different behaviours and mannerisms that they don’t recognize. But it’s also true that those who knew us well before may not recognize the person we have become. Clearly Joseph is a different man today than the boy his brothers knew. How will he handle those tensions?

I won’t spend a lot of time examining the details of Genesis 42-45 because I want to keep the focus on Joseph’s development and leadership. But there are some things worth noting.

The tests
Joseph needs to know some things about his brothers, so he engineers a series of tests—somewhat like an extreme behavioral interview.

  • First, Joseph tests for honesty (Gen 42:16) and discovers that the brothers are not completely honest with him—or themselves—that one brother “is no more.” It seems to have become a shorthand way of referring to him that dodges personal responsibility. His test produces a brutally honest discussion among the men (42:21-23) that’s marked by guilt and blame.
  • Second, Joseph reproduces his own imprisonment—the entire group for three days and then Simeon for months. Twenty years later, Joseph is the first thing on their minds when they re-emerge (Gen 42:21). The fact that they would attribute current misfortune to their actions against Joseph is a testament to the remarkable staying power of guilt.
  • Third, Joseph tests their integrity by returning their money (Gen 42:25) and hiding his cup in their sacks (44:1-2). They respond with a sense of self-centred victimization (42:28).
  • Fourth, Joseph overwhelms them with kindness (Gen 43:16-25), which produces fear.
  • Finally, Joseph singles out their younger brother—first with special favor (Gen 43:34) and then an opportunity to blame and abandon Benjamin (44:9-17) as they had Joseph. Rather than responding to a chosen younger brother with envy, the ten brothers now respond with fierce protection.

Dr. Leong Tien Fock says the hoops he makes his brothers jump through have a purpose.

The accusations, tricks and torment could be interpreted as payback, but each move has a purpose; Joseph carefully exposes his brothers’ motivations, challenges their memories, and tests their character. Joseph used his political skills to test his brothers and the authenticity of their repentance and sorrow. He created conditions to draw out character and sacrifice, prompted confession and reproduced the favouritism before he revealed himself. “For ‘only by recreating something of the original situation—the brothers again in control of the life and death of a son of Rachel—can Yosef be sure that they have changed’ (Fox 1983: 202; cited in Waltke 2001: 566).”

These tests eventually reveal the weight of guilt carried by the brothers, the deep conviction of Reuben and the transformation in Judah’s character. It’s their response to favouritism that moves the needle for Joseph. He can hold back no longer, and he reveals himself.

The reunion is also a test
At first, the brothers are speechless and dismayed (Gen 45:3). Joseph suggests they are distressed or angry with themselves (45:5), but he’s never been all that great at emotional intelligence. It is Benjamin, his blood brother, who recognizes him and embraces him, breaking the ice for the others. When Joseph kisses them and weeps over them, their hearts finally open to him (45:15). As God tested Joseph and forced him to deal with his bitterness, now he does the same for the brothers.

As Fretheim (1994: 630) puts it, ‘the brothers need to pass through an ordeal in order to bring their memories and guilt to the surface, where it can be dealt with adequately, before reconciliation can truly take place, and hence safeguard the future of the family.’” (Tien Fock)

But the brothers have reason for skepticism themselves. They once saw firsthand Joseph’s pride and unskilled attempts at leading with few followers. Now imbued with power, he has real capacity for abuse. Just as he was gauging their character from behind his Egyptian disguise, they are now no doubt watching him. They don’t have the benefit of constructing a behavioral interview, but they can closely observe his character over time. No doubt they watch how he interacts with Pharaoh (Gen 46:31-47:12). They watch how he manages the crisis and responds to the desperate Egyptians (47:13-26). Clearly they still have suspicions by chapter 50 when their father passes away. They reason that perhaps Joseph has been restraining himself, putting on an act for his father while he lived.

Returning to second place
Joseph clearly provides for his brothers and saves their lives (Gen 50:20). He takes the role of leader in the family for a period of time, giving orders to his brothers and bringing back his father. But Rev. Bernard Bouissieres points out that, “When his father shows up again in his life, Joseph treats him as number one and submits to him.” While his father submits in accordance with Joseph’s dream, Jacob is clearly the patriarch, and Joseph is no longer in charge. In fact, Jacob commandeers Joseph’s boys as his own, and they will replace Joseph in the twelve tribes from this day on. Of course, this act of adoption has another meaning: it officially installs Joseph—firstborn son of Jacob’s favourite wife—as his legal firstborn (1 Chr 5:1-2). Joseph gets the double portion of the inheritance and the place of honour.

But in this clan, being firstborn never implies primary leadership. Joseph soon slides into the second chair again. There is no doubt that Judah is leading the clan at this point. Rev. Bernard notes that when it comes time for their father to bestow blessings, Judah receives the prime blessing (Gen 49:8-12) while Joseph receives second-best (49:22-26).

These two half brothers are an interesting contrast. A showdown of sorts takes place in Genesis 44:18-34, when Judah gives an emotional plea to his yet-to-be-revealed brother. While Joseph holds political power, Judah’s integrity, vulnerability and unselfish sacrifice gives him immense personal authority. In laying down his life for his brother, he wins over his father, earns the respect of his brothers and foreshadows the Messiah who will descend from his bloodline. Joseph blinks first.

Why does Judah emerge as leader of the nation of Israel instead of Joseph? While Judah went into self-imposed exile and repented of his sins in chapter 38, I don’t think Joseph ever repents of his own culpability in stoking his brothers’ jealousy. Joseph’s tone in Genesis 50 strikes me as mildly paternal and self righteous. The result is that Judah becomes spiritual leader of the clan and gets the spiritual blessing while Joseph earns lingering mistrust.

Concluding well
As the account of Joseph ends, he leaves his brothers with God’s vision of the future. “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place” (Gen 50:25). The nation’s sojourn in Egypt will be temporary, and God will lead them to their own land.

Upon his death, Joseph is honored both in Egypt and Israel for his leadership and character. The Egyptians embalm him and entomb him as a hero. 400 years later, Israel remembers their promise to him. Exodus 13:19 tells how, even in Moses’ rush to leave the land of Israel’s captivity, he demands the bones of Joseph. Remarkably, the Israelites carry his sarcophagus with them for 40 years and eventually bury him in Jacob’s land in Shechem (Josh 24:32).

Shaped by his circuitous and painful path to leadership, Joseph’s character was radically challenged and reworked so God could use him for his purposes. One of those purposes is foreboding; he uses this man who has seen the dark side of favouritism so many times to create those conditions at a national level and lay the foundation for Exodus 1. As Bob Deffinbaugh says, “the prosperity of Israel at this time paved the way for her future persecution.” Psalm 105:24-25 looks back on this time of disparity and notes that it is God’s intent:

The Lord made his people very fruitful;
he made them too numerous for their foes,
whose hearts he turned to hate his people,
to conspire against his servants.

This nation-within-a-nation will become a threat once a new Pharaoh takes the throne, “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (Ex 1:8).

Throughout his life, Joseph bore the mantle of second chair leadership well, and we can learn much from his example. But his greatest lesson to us might be the fact that he was a vessel available to help accomplish God’s purposes. After all, every Christian leader should be a follower first.


Joseph series: