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Land, Seed & Covenant - a study of the Life of Joseph (Part 1)

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The bible’s telling of the Joseph story doesn’t begin “once upon a time”. And the first point to make is that this isn’t just a fable or a great moral tale. Although we can learn many moral lessons from the story, it appears to me that this isn’t the chief reason God included this narrative within His word. There is much more to it than that, and the greater significance can perhaps be missed by a solely moralistic approach to interpreting the story.
The life of Joseph isn’t really about Joseph at all. Joseph is a link in the chain of redemption. And what I want us to consider today is the broader narrative of God’s redemption, and the part which Joseph played in that. To see that, we need to explore the Joseph story in context - its gospel-centred, redemptive-historical context.
We will do that by examining the story in its historical, literary and theological setting. We must also allow the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament. So, we will take what we know about God’s redemption of sinners through the person and work of Christ and use that as the grid through which to interpret and unlock the Old Testament story of Joseph.


First a little historical context. Before we look at how the story of Joseph connects to the broader themes of scripture, we need to understand where the story sits in the book of Genesis and its historical significance for the author of that book. Now, we know that Genesis (together with Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – the Pentateuch) was written by Moses – the man whom God appointed to deliver the children of Israel from their captivity and oppression in Egypt. And what we’ll discover is that Joseph’s story, perhaps unsurprisingly given its author, is littered with hints as to the exodus of God’s people from Egypt.
It’s possible to see how Joseph connects with the rest of Genesis by looking at how the author divides the historical narrative. The chapter breaks in our English bibles are not original, of course, and neither are the chapter headings. But in the original text, we find certain markers (chapter headings, if you like) which show how Moses intended to divide the book of Genesis.
Moses uses the Hebrew word TOLEDOT (pronounced tow-lay-dot or tow-lay-doth) 11 times in the book of Genesis. It’s the Hebrew word for genealogy. Each occurrence is translated “these are the generations of…” in our English bibles. I believe we should see this little phrase as a chapter heading.
[Handout] The sheet being passed around sets out these 11 (10, as one is duplicated) toledots – starting with Genesis 2:4, “these are the generations of the heavens and the earth” which is then followed by the generations of Adam, Noah, Noah’s sons, Shem, Terah, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – these are pivotal transitions, chapter breaks in the Genesis narrative.
You will know that Genesis has many lengthy sections of genealogy (which indeed feature elsewhere in the scriptures too). So why the great interest in family line? And why the use of the word “toledot” as a way-marker throughout the book of Genesis?
The answer, I believe, lies in what was spoken to the serpent in Genesis 3:15:
"And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel." (Gen. 3:15)
This is sometimes referred to as the first gospel sermon and it was preached by God Himself. And God promises a Seed – a child, a descendant – who would come from Adam and Eve and who would crush the head of the serpent (Satan). This is the promise of redemption – our release from the bonds of the evil one by reason of his defeat. And it’s the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ – He is the Promised Seed. That’s why tracing the family line is so important – Moses and subsequent authors were tracing the line of promise, the promise of Gen. 3:15, which would ultimately lead to Christ.
Interestingly, Moses doesn’t confine his records to the line of promise. In fact, three of the toledots have to do with other offspring who were not in the line of promise – Noah’s sons, Ishmael and Esau. Moses uses these toledots to highlight the relationship of other offspring to the line of promise, since those relationships will remain important throughout redemptive history. They’re a feature of the Joseph story too (e.g. the Ishmaelite traders).
Now, let’s bring this back to Joseph!
The Joseph story begins in Genesis 37 and it opens immediately with a toledot (Gen. 37:2). These are the generations of Jacob! This story is about the line of Jacob, the last of the patriarchs. Jacob was himself in the line of promise – Romans 9 makes that clear, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13). Joseph, however, does not appear in the genealogy of Christ. He is not in the line of the Promised Seed.
Yet, the toledot of Jacob turns immediately into the story of Joseph! Why? The pattern of Genesis, as well as the ultimate resolution of the narrative, makes it clear that this is indeed all about Jacob. But Jacob’s story can’t be told without this focus on Joseph.
So, seeing Genesis chapters 37-50 as the toledot of Jacob and understanding that, though he’s the central character of the story, Joseph is not in the line of the Promised Seed, causes us to search for the relevance of Joseph to the line of promise. What we will find is that, just as the toledot of Noah, the toledot of Jacob is about God’s mighty deliverance of the son of promise – and Joseph is instrumental in that deliverance.
We’ll also see that God is indeed going to fulfil his promise to make Israel a great nation and Joseph will be the primary means by which that task is accomplished. The events which Jacob sets in motion by his sinful favouring of Joseph over his other sons (despite having seen the damage of favouritism in his own family) will accomplish God’s purposes.


Certain words and themes appear multiple times throughout Genesis. This a deliberate literary device that the author uses to show the progression of his main theme, namely God’s work of redemption. In particular, I want you to see how Moses develops the themes of land, seed and covenant to produce contrast and tension throughout the narrative of Joseph’s life. And we will see how these themes give theological context to the Joseph story.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them"; and it was so. (Gen. 1:1, 11)
God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; (Gen. 1:28-29)
Notice that Moses introduces these themes right at the very beginning – verse 1, land, and verse 11, seed. Then the start of a covenant, to which further detail will be added in chapter two. And the covenant brings together the theme of land and seed. God has created the land as a stage for the crowning glory of His creation, man, to manifest the glory of his Creator by subduing and ruling it. And He created seed-bearing fruit, that there might be satisfaction for man too. So that man’s experience of honouring God in the land would also be fulfilling, satisfying, pleasurable. And the means by which man would fulfil his charge to subdue the earth was by himself (like the plants) bearing seed, being fruitful and multiplying.
Now fast-forward to Abraham.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: (Gen. 15:18)
The intervening years have seen the fall and the effects of the curse upon the land and the process of seed-bearing. Yet, here once again, God covenants with a man in terms of land and seed. He promises Abraham a land as an inheritance, an eternal possession – prosperity. And He promises Abraham seed, a great nation of descendants, who would come from him to fill that land – posterity. And both these things come to Abraham from a God who is true to His word and who binds Himself to fulfil by entering into covenant – a covenant of promise.
Now back to Joseph!
[Handout] In the handout being passed around, I’ve attempted to show the prevalence of the themes of land, seed and covenant in Genesis chapters 37-50. The Hebrew word for “land” has been highlighted green in each case (where “Egypt” is green, it reads “land of Egypt” in the original, for example). The Hebrew word for “seed” has been highlighted yellow and I have also highlighted the word for “grain” given its close connection to the theme of “seed” in these passages. Finally, although the Hebrew word for “covenant” is not used in these chapters, the theme is very prevalent. I have highlighted blue the name of God and the covenant name of Jacob, “Israel”. I have also underlined in blue passages that I believe bear connection to the theme of the covenant.
It will be evident from a quick glance, that LAND plays a major part in the Joseph story. There are numerous references to the land of Canaan (the land promised to Abraham in the covenant of promise) and to the land of Egypt. Now, we said we’d observe how Moses develops the themes by creating contrast and tension. It seems obvious that the Moses is seeking to contrast the two lands.
And here’s the tension - in the opening scenes of this story, Joseph moves progressively farther away from the Promised Land, finally ending up not just in any other land, but in the land of Egypt – the land that will come to represent oppression and bondage throughout the rest of redemptive history!
When Joseph leaves home, aged 17, on a simple fact-finding mission, he does so for the last time. Joseph will never return to the Land of Promise until his bones are brought back after the Exodus! Something we’ll come back to in a moment.
Has God forgotten His promise? Is the covenant in jeopardy? What does the comparison between the land of Canaan and the land of Egypt teach us and how does it shape our interpretation of the Joseph story? I believe Moses intended us to notice that this is not a feel-good story about a young hero who returns victorious. This is a tale of redemption, in which one man pays an unthinkable price for a purpose much greater than he.


Let’s start with the foremost feel-good chapter – chapter 41, which narrates Joseph’s exaltation to great prominence. How are we to interpret this? A moralistic reading of the story might see this as the reward for obedience, the final big pay-off for the faithfulness which Joseph has shown through the experiences of pit and prison. But is this the culmination of God’s providential work in Joseph’s life. Is it the grand finale of Joseph’s story? Is it the big pay-off for a life of faithful obedience?
[Handout] Moses creates several contrasts in this chapter, which underline the difference between the two lands we’ve spoken of. The bottom line is that Joseph is in the wrong land serving the wrong leader of the wrong nation! What’s more, I think Moses intended us to see that Joseph is still a slave!
"You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you." (Gen. 41:40)
But he refused and said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me here, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?" (Gen. 39:8-9)
The similarity of these phrases is not a coincidence. Moses is leading us to the similarity of Joseph’s position in each case. In other words, Joseph is as much a slave now as he was then!
And that’s important because, as a slave, Joseph had no choice but to accept his new name and his new wife. Yet his own heart is revealed for us in the naming of his own sons – in this he is able to exercise his own will and by doing so evidence his faith.
By giving his sons Hebrew names, Joseph shows that he has not accepted his Egyptian identity at the expense of his Hebrew identity. He chooses to identify with his father and to keep faith with the covenant. Remember that for approximately 20 years before his sons are born, Joseph’s entire world has been Egyptian. This is his first chance to make a clear demonstration of his identity and allegiances – and he does!
But that’s not all. The names Joseph gives to his children give further hints as to the contrast which Moses designs us to discern in this chapter.
Manasseh – means forget. When Joseph says that God has caused him to forget, I think we are to understand that Joseph has forgotten his suffering at the hands of his brothers. He does not harbour resentment or bitterness. Rather, God has enabled him to forget the pain of the past; instead, he is gripped instead by the promise of the future.
Ephraim – means fruitful. There’s a link here to the theme of “seed” which we’ll come back to later. Joseph says he’s been fruitful in the land of his affliction. This is very important. Joseph flat out rejects Egypt and all that it has brought him! He’s living an opulent life far beyond the riches he could ever have expected as the son of a shepherd, yet he calls it “affliction”. It must have been obvious to him that he was never going “home”. He’d spent more time in Egypt than anywhere and for all practical purposes was an Egyptian. Yet his heart beat with the hope of the promise made to Abraham and confirmed to Isaac and to Jacob.
Chapter 41 is not the grand finale! Joseph knows it and Moses intends us to understand it too. Here we see Joseph clinging to the covenant – preferring to identify his sons with Israel, the shepherd, rather than Pharaoh, the king of the world – and holding onto the hope of the Land of Promise, rather than the temporal pleasures of the land of Egypt.
Joseph’s rejection of Egypt points us forward – there’s more to come!!


Well, we said the narrative is pointing us forward and I believe there’s more than hint of that in the passage we’ve just read.
[Handout] The handout is based on verses 16-20 of chapter 45 and illustrates the contrasts of Israel’s journey into Egypt with their journey out of Egypt, the Exodus. I believe the author intended us to spot the contrast and, if you think that’s a bit far-fetched, let’s just remind ourselves that the author is none other than the leader of that Exodus – it’s Moses. Once again, then, he’s pointing us forward with subtle reminders that this is the wrong land. Indeed it’s the land of Joseph’s affliction and soon to be the land of Israel’s oppression. But God’s plan of redemption is not complete – indeed, it’s just getting started!
One thing that this little table highlights – perhaps the most striking contrast between the Eisodus and the Exodus – is the numerical increase of the descendants of Israel. God used Egypt to make Israel a people – He literally made them a nation, numbering in the millions! We’ll say more about that later when we consider the theme of seed. But notice that the land of Egypt is an “incubator” for the nation of Israel. Their journey down to Egypt is a necessary part of God’s plan to grow and multiply them without intermingling them with other nations. Unlike the Canaanites, Egyptians were segregationists, meaning that the land of Goshen was like a protective “womb” in which God was able to form a nation, kept apart from many of the distractions which would have been present in the land of Canaan.
Now, we said that this is the toledot of Jacob and at the beginning of chapter 46, the aged patriarch takes centre stage. While trusting God to fulfil the promise to make him a great nation, Jacob lives in a world where Egypt is the great nation. Now he hears his son has become the ruler there! How much he still has to learn of God’s redemptive purposes.
Moses has already built the tension in the story around the central character, Joseph’s coming to Egypt. What about the land promise in God’s covenant? Has God forgotten His word? Now the tension builds as, not only Joseph, but the patriarch and his whole clan depart the land of promise and descend to Egypt.
In trusting God and coming down to Egypt, Jacob shows that he’s not holding onto the Promised Land as his own promise in the here and now. If he believed the land to be the quintessential expression of God’s promise, he wouldn’t have left. His leaving proves that he had a hope which went beyond that land. Jacob’s hope is in something greater than a mere, physical land. His hope is in the God of the promise!
Doubtless, as he worships at Beersheba on his way to Egypt, Jacob has particular need of support lest his faith should falter. He is about to be deprived of the sight of his promised inheritance. But Jacob already knows the promise of God to be multigenerational. Both Abraham and Isaac have been buried in the land without seeing fulfilment of the covenant. Jacob is the third in line. And by its very nature, the promise – of a great nation with descendants as numerous as the stars – is not something that would be fulfilled in a single generation.
Jacob realises that the promise is bigger than him! His hope is in God’s faithfulness and the survival of his descendants. He’s not looking to his own day for the fulfilment (though, ironically, in Egypt he will get a greater glimpse of fulfilment than he had ever imagined possible). And so, as he journeys to Egypt, he turns to the God of the covenant and he worships.
At this point in the narrative – in this chapter of revelations – the God of the covenant reveals Himself to Jacob. And what a need there is for God to speak at this point – God’s people are about to leave the land of promise and enter Egypt. In Genesis 46:2-4, God speaks and confirms His will in the matter. He:
· reminds Jacob of his covenant faithfulness (I am the God of your father)
· assures Jacob of His presence (He promises to be “with” Jacob. This ties the promise to the providential work of God in the life of Joseph – God has been “with” Joseph in Potiphar’s house and the prison for the purpose of delivering His promise to be “with” Jacob!)
· reiterates the multigenerational nature of the covenant (Joseph’s hand will close his eyes, i.e. Jacob will die in Egypt. And yet, God will bring “him”, i.e. the nation that will descend from him, out of Egypt.
Jacob cannot know the magnitude of his journey. God doesn’t reveal the hundreds of years of oppression and bondage. But He tells Jacob, I am God…. I am in control…. You can trust Me…. I will accomplish all that I’ve promised…. I am going to bring you out! That is all Jacob needed to know.
Once again, Moses has raised the tension in the story around the contrast between the two lands, expressed in Jacob’s own fears about descending to Egypt. But again, we’ve been pointed forward – this time by the words of God. God has not abandoned His covenant!


[Handout] Chapter 47 is another chapter of contrasts. We’re reminded that Egypt, through prosperous and powerful, has nothing to offer the people of God compared with the promise for which they wait. For Jacob as for Joseph, no amount of prosperity outside of God’s promise was worth as much as the hope in God’s promise to which they held. We know that to be true because of the instructions both men gave concerning their burial, to which we’ll come in a moment.
Israel’s prosperity in Egypt, then, does not change anything we’ve said about Egypt being the wrong land. All of the contrast we’ve looked at point to that fact! It does however, reassure us (if we need further reassurance after God’s own words in chapter 46!) that God is in control. He has not abandoned His covenant – indeed, He gives Jacob a greater glimpse of its fulfilment than he might ever have imagined possible in the land of Egypt. But the fulfilment is yet to come. Yet again, the narrative points us forward. This is not the end.


So, we’ve looked at some of the key themes Moses utilises throughout Genesis and we’ve allowed them to shape our understanding of Moses’ theology and our interpretation of the Joseph story.
Now, finally, we come to the New Testament to check our understanding and to observe its interpretation of the Old. There are just a couple of references to Joseph in the NT – Acts 7 (Stephen’s defence) and Hebrews 11 (the faith hall of fame).
By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones. (Heb. 11:22)
Joseph made mention of the exodus and gave orders concerning his bones. That’s it. That’s the NT commentary on Joseph’s great life.
Was the promotion to the palace not significant? Temporally, yes. But we are not merely temporal people; we were made for eternity. Joseph’s story is about faith – a faith which allowed him to look beyond Egypt to the exodus. And it’s this aspect of the story that warrants his mention in the Faith Hall of Fame.
This is where the good news, the message of hope, sits within the Joseph story. The good news is not that he went “from the pit to the palace”. If it were, the palace would be the end of the story rather than its halfway point. This is a story of redemption – yes, in the temporal sense – but far more profoundly, in terms of what it anticipates, in the eternal sense. It’s a story of the birth of a nation from whom will come the Saviour, through Whom will come eternal redemption!
That’s why the NT makes no significance of Joseph’s rise to prominence in Egypt. Instead it focusses on his choice of covenant over convenience. The most extensive NT commentary on Joseph is in Acts 7:9-16. There, just as in Hebrews, there is emphasis on the choice of covenant and land in the matter of burial. No matter how bad things were in Canaan and no matter how good they appear in Egypt, Jacob and Joseph know that this is not what God has in store for them in the long run, hence their similar requests regarding burial. This is not a matter of superstition but of hope! They believe God is going to make Israel a great nation and to bring that nation into the land of promise.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13-16)
The land was their inheritance; but it’s pretty tough to inherit something after you’re dead. Yet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their many descendants would die before receiving all God swore to them. So we’re left with two options: either God reneged on his promise, or the promise anticipates – even demands – a resurrection! When Jacob requested burial in Canaan and when Joseph requested the transport of his bones to Canaan, they revealed their faith that in death God’s people lose nothing of His promises. God’s promises extend beyond the grave! Death is not the end. God can raise the dead.
That is the faith demonstrated by Joseph in the face of death. Once again, then, Joseph’s story points us forward: to the exodus, to the conquest of Canaan and beyond, to the true Land of Promise, the heavenly homeland and the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. That is what Joseph and the patriarch’s before him were looking for.
And you know what, wealthy or poor, this is the land of our affliction! Any prosperity we might know here is but a temporal expression of God’s promised inheritance. Because in a sense, this world is all Egypt! Israel’s opinion of Egypt was just the same as Joseph’s. They both long for home and so should we!


The Joseph story is actually the story of God fulfilling his promise to Jacob. But the story’s set in the wrong land. Has God abandoned His promise? No! Joseph clings to the covenant and identifies with the land – his faith repeatedly pointing us forward to the fulfilment of God’s redemptive purposes. But what about his relationship with the seed….. we’ll look at that next.
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