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Joseph's Life and Legacy -- a study of Genesis 50

Are you doing everything you can for your family's good future?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 50

We have learned that Joseph is a true hero and model of the faith. In this final passage, we see his spiritual maturity, his understanding of God's justice, and the impact he is making on his future descendants. Until the very end, he made decisions based on what would be the most helpful for their spiritual identity. (And then a new pharaoh came ...)

Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? (50:19)

What's the Dirtiest You Ever Did Somebody?

Let me start this with a VERY IMPORTANT CAVEAT: my expectation is that you have matured in your faith since then and would never want to do anything like that again. If this is something you did last week, then I need you to get in touch with me so we can talk about forgiveness and retribution.

Back to the icebreaker topic.

Everybody eventually gets so mad at a person that we want to give them a piece of our mind or do something really nasty to them. When we're younger, we're not very sophisticated about it. When we're older, we have more resources at our disposal. (And yes, this is a plot point from every movie in the 90s.) What is the worst thing you actually went through with?

I wasn't very creative or ambitious with things like that, so I don't have any good stories. I have friends who poured jello mix into a person's pool (not sure how effective that really was), and I have it on authority that a friend successfully pulled off the swap-deodorant-for-ben-gay trick on a school bully. But that's about it; at our school, if somebody was sufficiently mad at somebody else, they just punched them.

And Then You Became a Christian

My favorite variation of this topic is the person who wants to take revenge on someone and then they become a Christian, and then they're incredibly conflicted. Perhaps you have a story like that -- how you came to grips with not following through with a revenge desire.

Most missionary and church planter memoirs have multiple versions of this situation. My favorite comes from a missionary to Thailand. A rival "chief" had killed a lady's husband, and she wanted to kill him in revenge. The missionary led her to Jesus, and eventually told her this means she can't kill that man. She replied, "I know; I'll let my daughter do it." Soooo after a lot more discipleship, they asked her if she still thought about that man. She said, "Oh I do; I'm praying for him to become a Christian."

I never get tired of reading testimonies like that.

That's where Joseph is in this week's passage. He has the power to do something terrible to his brothers, but he has no desire to. He has forgiven them. (Well, he did put Simeon in prison for a while, but...)

Your Hopes and Dreams for Your Kids and Grandkids

Today, I'm going to have to talk a bit about Jacob's prophecies/"blessings" on his kids. He clearly has a complicated relationship with them. But it opens up a great topic for thought -- what are the blessings you would like to bestow on your kids or grandkids?

Have You Thought Much about Your "Final Arrangements"?

You probably want to hold off on this topic until it comes up in this week's passage (truly, this would be a weird way to start a group discussion), but we find out that Joseph has some very specific instructions for his remains after his death. Have you thought much about that for yourself, and have you communicated that with your family?

As a pastor, I have two thoughts:

  1. The more guidance you can give your family, the better. Families who are dealing with the sorrow of loss don't also want to be dealing with the stress of making a bunch of decisions.

  2. Remember that things like funerals and graves are for the benefit of your family, not you. You're not there. If you're a Christian, you're in the presence of Jesus. That body is not "you" anymore; it's returning to the dust that it came from.

PSA: wills and testaments. I prefer to stay away from giving legal advice, but I've seen too many examples of this going badly. I'm sure you like to think that your surviving family members would be kind and gracious and loving, but the sad truth is that somebody in your family just wants your stuff, and they'll take it to the courts to get it. Be very clear about your wishes for your personal remains and your personal property.

We see this in two different ways in this week's passage. First, after Jacob's death, the brothers tell Joseph that Jacob was very clear that he wanted Joseph to forgive them. (I.e., not take all of their stuff and throw their families in prison.) (Joseph wouldn't have done that.) Second, at the end of Joseph's life, he tells his relatives to bring his body with them when they one day leave Egypt. (Note that Jacob had said the same thing back in 47:30.)


This Week's Big Idea #1: Jacob's Twelve Sons

After last week's passage, we find out that Jacob lived another 17 years in Egypt. The bulk of what we skipped is Jacob on his deathbed giving blessings to his sons. These blessings project forward to the tribes that would eventually come out from them. I don't think you have time to cover this in a Sunday morning Bible study, but it's interesting information for you to have. I'm just going to hit some highlights.

  • The most positive statements are made about Joseph and Judah.

  • Jacob blessed Joseph first, meaning that Joseph had taken the "status" of the firstborn from Reuben. Jacob claimed Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his own. [Wait -- does that mean there are 13 tribes? Well, kinda. Ephraim and Manasseh are sometimes called the "half tribes of Joseph". But usually, you'll notice that Levi is not listed among the tribes; the Levites have a unique place that we don't have to worry about right now.] This means that Joseph got a "double-portion" of Jacob's inheritance.

  • Ephraim (the younger brother) takes precedence over Manasseh. Joshua was an Ephraimite.

  • Reuben loses his inheritance because he defiled Jacob's bed.

  • Simeon and Levi, due to their violence against the Shechemites, are lumped together and dispersed among the other tribes. With Levi, this is literal -- Levites did not have their own land; they were given cities in other tribes' territory. Simeon's territory existed wholly within the borders of Judah.

  • Judah is declared to have future kings. This reflects well on Judah's own repentance for his past sins and his willingness to sacrifice himself for Benjamin.

  • Zebulun was born after Issachar, so their reversal is striking. Also, Zebulun never really claimed their territory by the sea. Issachar had fertile territory and worked it hard.

  • Dan's future treachery is hinted at.

  • Gad's territory was vulnerable, so they had to become warriors to defend themselves.

  • Naphtali had fertile territory in Galilee.

  • Benjamin would aggressively seek power. Saul the king was a Benjaminite.

I like this chart -- it makes the birth order easier to follow.

The website it came from has some helpful information about each tribe:

Be forewarned that it gets into the lore about the "lost tribes of Israel".

To me, the most striking thing about Jacob's blessings on his sons is how negative they are. Jacob knew how rough his sons could be; he knew what they had done to Joseph. But this must have been hard to listen to himself say. Loving your kids doesn't mean you don't think truthfully about them, but sometimes the truth hurts. That's pretty evident in the strange line Jacob inserts in the middle of this chapter:

"I look for Your deliverance, Lord." (49:18)

God could bring good from his sons and their descendants.

This Week's Big Idea #2: Vengeance

Joseph had no intention of taking vengeance on his brothers. And good for him! The Bible is very clear that "vengeance" belongs to God, not to us. We've talked about that in more than a few Bible studies, including:

The Deuteronomy lesson goes into detail how God prohibited vigilantism in the law. The Luke lesson goes into how Jesus did the same thing in His "law".

I'm going to highlight another lesson we did on the topic:

Jesus is very clear about what a Christian is to think about "revenge".

This is one of the most difficult teachings in the Bible -- not because we don't understand it, but because it is so hard to do:

Matt 5: 38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist[o] an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is where the Romans 12 lesson becomes very helpful. If you have trouble coming to grips with the truth that God doesn't want you to "get even" with your enemy, remember how Paul put everything into the larger context of eternity and identity:

Rom 12: 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20 But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. 21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Find a way of working these passages into your discussion.


Part 1: The Fear of Vengeance (Genesis 50:15-18)

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said to one another, “If Joseph is holding a grudge against us, he will certainly repay us for all the suffering we caused him.” 16 So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before he died your father gave a command: 17 ‘Say this to Joseph: Please forgive your brothers’ transgression and their sin—the suffering they caused you.’ Therefore, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when their message came to him. 18 His brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your slaves!”

Context note: after Jacob's death, Egypt observed 70 days (!) of mourning, then the entire court went to Canaan to bury him where there was 7 additional days of mourning.

The brothers wouldn't have talked to Joseph about this during the mourning, so they had months for the fear to build up in their minds.

"Grudge" and "repay" is the language of vengeance in this context. Why could they not believe what Joseph had told them before about forgiveness? Because their hearts didn't really understand forgiveness. They feared Joseph taking vengeance because it's what they would have done. There's a huge lesson in that if you want to get sidetracked

The brothers' tactic is manipulative and pathetic -- invoking Jacob's "wishes" and being willing to become Joseph's slaves in exchange for their lives.

No wonder Joseph wept! How disheartening that must have been for him.

Last week, my group talked about the difference between --

  • forgiveness, something every Christian must extend in every circumstance;

  • reconciliation, an honorable goal in conflict resolution but one that requires heart change in both parties to be realistic or healthy;

  • restoration, or returning the relationship to what is was before as if nothing had happened, something that is rarely possible or even advisable.

Joseph's brothers were right to ask for (not demand!) forgiveness. As proof of how far their hearts were from God, they simply could not believe that Joseph had truly forgiven them.

Aside: repeatedly asking for forgiveness from someone who says they have forgiven you means you don't believe they have forgiven you. Think about that.

Anyway, your best topic is to ask your group to define "forgiveness". Here's the one-sentence summary from by Bible Dictionary:

Term used to indicate pardon for a fault or offense; to excuse from payment for a debt owed.

Make sure your group includes both of those ideas in their definition.


Part 2: No, I Really Did Forgive You (Genesis 50:19-21)

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. 21 Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

This is about as simple a section as there is. This is where your discussion of vengeance would go. Christians should not take vengeance. Ever. Instead, we forgive, and we trust God to handle proper punishment or retribution. (And remember that there is no greater punishment than an eternity in hell.)

Let me sidetrack on the word "planned", which can also be "devised". Does that suggest that God was behind the brothers' sins? Again, this is where I have trouble explaining the difference I see between "God caused" and "God allowed". God does not "cause" anyone to sin. Instead, He sees the sins that people are planning to commit, and He works His plan through them. In other words, the brothers' sins were a part of God's plan, but that doesn't mean God is responsible for them. That makes sense to me; how about you?

Joseph's spiritual maturity never ceases to amaze me. He understood (chapter 39) that sexual sin was a sin against God. He understood (chapter 41) that God was responsible for every good outcome. He understood (chapter 45) that God could work through human sin. And here he understands that believing those things about God means that he must trust God in all things -- including forgiveness, revenge, and the future.

Can you see how he came to that conclusion and how it affected his words here?

I want to camp out on "spoke kindly". The Hebrew phrase is "spoke to their heart". Why do you think "kindly" would be an appropriate translation of the Hebrew? What does "kindly" mean? And also importantly, what does our culture think "kindly" means?

[I add that final question because I just saw an upcoming movie advertised, "Kinds of Kindness", and the review described it as being filled with "unbearable cruelty". I'm sure they mean the title ironically, but will our culture get the joke?]

Let's shift everything ahead to the New Testament. What are the fruit of the Spirit?

Gal 5: 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things.

What is kindness in that context, and why does Paul list it on its own? And then a fun "make you think" question -- what of the fruit of the Spirit did Joseph exude?


Part 3: One Final Request (Genesis 50:22-26)

22 Joseph and his father’s family remained in Egypt. Joseph lived 110 years. 23 He saw Ephraim’s sons to the third generation; the sons of Manasseh’s son Machir were recognized by Joseph. 24 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will certainly come to your aid and bring you up from this land to the land he swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 25 So Joseph made the sons of Israel take an oath: “When God comes to your aid, you are to carry my bones up from here.” 26 Joseph died at the age of 110. They embalmed him and placed him in a coffin in Egypt.

Narratively, this passage is critical to the Bible in setting the stage for the book of Exodus.

But let's just read it on its own for a bit.

The Bible makes a big deal of Joseph being a grandpa and a great-grandpa. That's nice, but we have great-great grandmas in our church family. Just saying.

Why would Joseph make such a big deal about his remains? Is it because of Jacob? Maybe. But Joseph was so spiritually mature, why would he worry about his body? If he understood that vengeance belonged to God and also that vengeance wasn't always seen in this life, he must have had an inkling of a life to come. But even if he didn't, the author of Hebrews praised this request:

By faith Joseph, as he was nearing the end of his life, mentioned the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions concerning his bones. (11:22)

I think this has to do (1) with the Egyptian practice of embalming and (2) the symbolic meaning of the exodus.

Embalming itself is not the issue. Embalming is a common process today, and it's very important for a funeral with an open casket! Rather, it was the religious meaning for the Egyptians. Egyptians believed that the soul had to return to the body after death. If the body was badly decomposed, the soul would be helpless. [As an aside, I worry that there is some such confusion even today among American Christians.] Joseph did not want his body to be retained under the sway of the Egyptian religions. He wanted it released to his people and his God.

And I think that leads to the bigger meaning -- when the Hebrews would one day leave Egypt, Joseph didn't want them leaving anything behind. Now you say, "Wait, what about the remains of all of the other Hebrews who died in Egypt?" Good question -- they almost certainly weren't embalmed. It was not a Hebrew practice. But remember that Joseph was an important Egyptian official. He was embalmed and put in a coffin. That coffin would become a symbol of his presence. It couldn't stay in Egypt -- not for Joseph's sake, but for the Hebrews'!

[Aside: some people think they embalmed Joseph in order to fulfill this request. Maybe. But I think the Egyptians were going to embalm him as a function of who he was, so the request was the result, not the cause, of the embalming.]

[And here's my last soapbox about the handwringing that can go on in a family about what to do with a loved one's physical remains. I already said that whatever arrangements are for the sake of the family still living, not the deceased. If the deceased is a Christian, they're in heaven in the presence of Jesus, and they're not the least bit concerned about their old, corrupt body. One day they'll inherit a new body that God "makes fresh" for them! Joseph made his request because he saw the importance it would have to his descendants. Likewise, if you want to make a very specific (and perhaps involved) request about your body, make sure it is because you think that the process of fulfilling it will bring your family closer together, not to satisfy your ego. You'll be dead! You won't care about that anymore!]

Note that the book of Genesis ends on an upbeat note. I believe Joseph believed he had done everything he could to give his people a positive future. And that's all we can do.

The first paragraph of the book of Exodus explains where things went wrong, and it wasn't Joseph's "fault". However, it was part of God's plan.

What impact do you want to leave on your family after you're gone? What steps have you taken to bring that about?

Our lesson from 2 Thessalonians 1 covers a lot of fruitful ground directly related to this idea:

It includes:

  • controlling fake news,

  • focusing on your own basic Christian virtues,

  • worrying about your relationship with God, not others',

  • warning people from hell,

  • understanding the legacy you are leaving.

If you want to take a New Testament perspective on what Joseph was doing, that's the passage for you.


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