Old Testament Lesson 11 (Genesis 37–41)
Hartman Rector Jr. said:
“The story of Joseph, the son of Jacob who was called Israel, is a vivid representation of the great truth that ‘all things work together for good to [those] who love God.’ (Rom. 8:28). Joseph always seemed to do the right thing; but still, more importantly, he did it for the right reason. And how very, very significant that is! Joseph was sold by his own brothers as a slave and was purchased by Potiphar, a captain of the guard of Pharaoh. But even as an indentured servant, Joseph turned every experience and all circumstances, no matter how trying, into something good.
“This ability to turn everything into something good appears to be a godly characteristic. Our Heavenly Father always seems able to do this. Everything, no matter how dire, becomes a victory to the Lord. Joseph, although a slave and wholly undeserving of this fate, nevertheless remained faithful to the Lord and continued to live the commandments and made something very good of his degrading circumstances. People like this cannot be defeated, because they will not give up. They have the correct, positive attitude, and Dale Carnegie’s expression seems to apply: If you feel you have a lemon, you can either complain about how sour it is, or you can make a lemonade. It is all up to you.”1
INHERITANCE AND BIRTHRIGHT
The scriptures in this section of the Bible often interchange these terms, making it hard to discern exactly what was being discussed. We would benefit from understanding the differences between them.
● Inheritance: All male sons inherit an equal portion of their father’s wealth. But the oldest son receives two portions so that he can care for his mother and sisters (until they marry) and any widows or orphans that may exist among the family. This is true whether a son is righteous or not. Daughters inherit through their husband’s families only.
● Birthright: This has reference to the right to preside as a priesthood “patriarch” to the family. Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “It appears that anciently under the Patriarchal Order certain special blessings, rights, powers, and privileges—collectively called the birthright—passed from the father to his firstborn son. (Gen. 43:33). In later ages, special blessings and prerogatives have been poured out upon all the worthy descendants of some who gained special blessings and birthrights anciently. (3 Ne. 20:25–27). Justification for this system, in large part, lies in the pre-existent preparation and training of those born in the lines destined to inherit preferential endowments.”2
The Rules of Primogeniture
To understand the stories of Jacob and Esau and then the stories of the twelve tribes of Israel, we must know something about how the birthright was granted to new generations in ancient Israel. The rules for this procedure are called the rules of primogeniture:
— The oldest son of each wife in turn has birthright before all others.
— Thereafter, the order of birth prevails, according to the mother.
— Natural-born children inherit before children of a wife’s handmaiden.
— Children of handmaidens are considered children of the owning wife.
Birthright — The Requirement of Righteousness
● Being the firstborn is not enough to receive Abraham’s birthright. In determining the heir to the covenant, the Lord chose:
— Isaac over his older brother Ishmael, and Jacob over his older brother Esau (Galatians 4:22–23).
— Joseph over his older brother Reuben (1 Chronicles 5:1–2).
— Ephraim over his older brother Manasseh (Genesis 48:17–20).
● For Abraham’s family righteousness is also required for birthright:
— Marrying outside the pure blood of the patriarchs disqualifies all children of such wives from birthright, though not from inheritance.
— The right of patriarchal presidency is granted only on condition of the keeping of all these requirements.
JOSEPH WAS THE CHOSEN HEIR
The story of Joseph and the birthright is closely tied to the sacredness of the covenants that Jacob tried to teach his sons at Bethel. Joseph remained true to his covenants under all circumstances, while several of his older brothers did not.
Joseph Was Chosen by Birthright
● Jacob (Israel)’s Sons Listed by Birthright Order:
Son # Name Mother Birthright #
1. Reuben Leah 1
11. Joseph Rachel 2
2. Simeon Leah 3
12. Benjamin Rachel 4
3. Levi Leah 5
4. Judah Leah 6
9. Issachar Leah 7
10. Zebulun Leah 8
5. Dan Bilhah 9
6. Naphtali Bilhah 10
7. Gad Zilpah 11
8. Asher Zilpah 12
His Older Brothers Forfeited Their Birthrights (Genesis 34:1–12; 35:22; 38:1–30)
● Reuben was disqualified for incest. When Jacob blessed each of his sons at the end of his life, he referred to Reuben’s moral transgression and described Reuben as “unstable as water” (Genesis 49:3-4). As a result, Reuben was told he would not excel.
● Joseph, therefore, became the birthright son (see table above). We can compare Joseph’s determination to be virtuous while in Egypt with how Reuben chose to be immoral (1 Chronicles 5:1-2). Reuben lost his birthright while Joseph excelled and became the birthright holder in Jacob’s family.
● Joseph was also chosen for his righteousness.
— Genesis 37:1–4 Joseph was blessed for his personal righteousness.
— Genesis 37:13–14 Joseph was obedient to his father.
● Genesis 34 Simeon & Levi were disqualified for breaking their covenants and for slaughtering defenseless enemies.
● Genesis 38:1–5 Judah was disqualified for adultery and for marrying outside the covenant. Judah had three sons by a Canaanite woman.
— Genesis 38:6–11,27–30; JST Genesis 38:8–9 A chosen lineage was preserved, despite the negative results described below (see Matthew 1:3; Luke 3:33).
— Tamar was to marry the brothers of her husband—as widows of deceased men did in that culture. The purpose was to produce a male heir for the dead man, and thus perpetuate his name and memory. It was regarded as a great calamity to die without a son.
— Onan, who by virtue of the death of his older brother would have been next in line, refused to raise up seed through Tamar because the inheritance would have stayed with his older brother’s family. He went through the outward show of taking Tamar to wife, but refused to let her have children.
● Genesis 38:12–26 Judah treated his daughter-in-law Tamar shamefully after committing adultery with her.
— When Judah failed to keep his promise to send the youngest son to her, Tamar resorted to deception in order to bear children (1 Chronicles 5:1).
— v. 24 Note Judah’s twisted sense of values. He had no qualms about sending Tamar home with unfulfilled promises nor of picking up a harlot along the road. But when he heard that Tamar was pregnant he was so incensed that he ordered her put to death.
● Therefore the final list of Jacob’s sons by birthright order looked like this:
Son # Name Mother Birthright #
11. Joseph Rachel 1
12. Benjamin Rachel 2
4. Judah Leah 3
9. Issachar Leah 4
10. Zebulun Leah 5
5. Dan Bilhah 6
6. Naphtali Bilhah 7
7. Gad Zilpah 8
8. Asher Zilpah 9
THE JEALOUSY OF JOSEPH’S BROTHERS
The Coat of Many Colors
● Genesis 37:3 A special and symbolic “coat” was given to Joseph by Jacob.
—It was more than just a beautiful piece of clothing.
—It had priesthood and birthright significance.
— “There is some question as to what Joseph’s coat actually was. The Hebrew word denotes ‘a long coat with sleeves . . . i.e. an upper coat reaching to the wrists and ankles, such as noblemen and kings’ daughters wore.”3
— “The coat may have been of different colors, but its significance seems to have been far more than its brightness and beauty. One noted scholar suggested that it was “a tunic reaching to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; the long tunic with sleeves worn by young men and maidens of the better class; in the case of Joseph, supposed by Bush . . . to have been the badge of the [high priesthood] which had been forfeited by Reuben and transferred to Joseph.”4
— Some scholars speculate that this “coat” was the coat given to Adam in the Garden of Eden, and then passed down from presiding high priest to presiding high priest through Seth, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
— The daughters of King David wore similar coats (2 Samuel 13:18).
● Genesis 37:3–11 Joseph’s dreams about his preeminence over his brothers were true—they were later literally fulfilled in Egypt. But it was not wise to brag about it. His brothers hated him for it.
Joseph’s Brothers Seek His Destruction
● Genesis 37:13–17 Jacob asked Joseph to go to Shechem to see how his brothers are doing. Shechem was 45 miles away. Dothan was another 12 miles away.
● Genesis 37:18–28 Some of his brothers conspired to kill him.
— vv. 21–22, 26–27 Reuben’s reasons for sparing Joseph’s life differed from Judah’s. But neither of them stood to inherit the birthright if Joseph was killed.
— v. 28 Sold for 20 Pieces of Silver. There is great symbolism in that fact that this was the price paid to Judas Iscariot for Jesus. It is the same price specified later in the Mosaic law for a slave between the ages of 5 and 20 (Leviticus 27:5). Typically, the price for a slave was 30 pieces of silver (Exodus 21:32).
● Genesis 37:31–33 His brothers sold him as a slave instead.
— v. 32 The remnant of Joseph’s coat.
— Captain Moroni spoke of two torn pieces of Joseph’s coat
— This story was totally unknown to the world in Joseph Smith’s day (Alma 46:23–27).
— But it was familiar to the Jews in ancient times.
— Hugh Nibley quotes two ancient scholars to tell the same tale.5
● Genesis 37:34–36 Potiphar’s Position. The Hebrew phrase which is translated as “captain of the guards” means “chief of the butchers or slaughterers.” From this meaning, some scholars have thought that he was the chief cook or steward in the house of the pharaoh, but other scholars believe that butcher or slaughterer is used in the sense of executioner, and thus Potiphar was the “commanding officer of the royal bodyguard, who executed the capital sentences ordered by the king.”6
JOSEPH’S INTEGRITY IN EGYPT
The Hyksos Pharaohs
Joseph came to Egypt during the reign of the non-Egyptians called “Hyksos,” which means “rulers of foreign lands.” These were Semitic-speaking invaders (the “shepherd kings”) who conquered Egypt, adopted Egyptian culture, and ruled as pharaohs for many years. When Joseph was elevated to authority, most likely it was under these pharaohs. Otherwise, his non-Egyptian origins would never have been accepted by his Egyptian masters.
When these Semitic Pharaohs were overthrown, native Egyptian hatred for them and their reign was so strong that they erased any mention of them from their monuments—a common practice under such circumstances in Egypt.
Joseph’s Continued Righteousness in Captivity
● Genesis 39:1–4 The Lord blessed Joseph after he was sold as a slave.
● Genesis 39:5–6 Potiphar put his trust in Joseph because:
— He was loyal, forgiving, and responsible.
— He trusted in God.
— He worked hard.
— He was patient.
— He developed leadership qualities.
● Genesis 39:7–20 The incident with Potiphar’s wife.
— v. 8 Joseph refused the temptations of Potiphar’s wife out of loyalty to him.
— vv. 8–9 He also did not wish to offend God.
— v. 10 Joseph “hearkened not” to the temptation even though it continued “day by day.”
— vv. 11–12 Joseph finally avoided the temptations by running away.
— v. 20 He was unjustly put in prison after refusing to do evil, but it is remarkable that he wasn’t executed.
● Genesis 39:21–23; Romans 8:28 “The Lord was with Joseph”, even in prison, as he continued in faith rather than questioning or blaming God for his situation.
Hartman Rector Jr. explained:
“Joseph vividly demonstrated why he was favored of the Lord, or, as the scriptures said, why ‘the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man. . . . ‘ (Gen. 39). His reliance was upon the Lord. His trust was in the Lord, and his allegiance ran to the Lord.
“I believe this is the greatest lesson that can be learned by the youth of Zion—to do the right thing because you love the Lord. It is so vitally important that, I feel, if you do anything in righteousness for any other reason than you love the Lord, you are wrong—at least you are on very shaky ground. And, somewhere your reasons for acting in righteousness will not be strong enough to see you through. You will give way to expediency, or peer group pressure, or honor, or fame, or applause, or the thrill of the moment, or some other worldly reason. Unless your motives are built upon the firm foundation of love of the Lord, you will not be able to stand.”7
● Genesis 40 Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker while they were all three in prison together. The butler promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph but failed to do so.
● Genesis 41 Pharaoh dreamt of the cattle and the ears of grain.
— Joseph interpreted the dreams as seven years of plenty and seven of famine in Egypt.
— He proposed a grain storage program whereby all those in Egypt could be saved from the famine.
— Pharaoh made Joseph ruler of all Egypt.
— Joseph oversaw the gathering of grain “as the sand upon the seashore.”
— Joseph sold grain to the Egyptians and others who came into Egypt during the famine.
1. “Live above the Law to Be Free,” Ensign, Jan. 1973, 130.
2. Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 87.
3. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. , 1:1:335.
4. Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “colour,” 82.
5. An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. , 178–179.
6. Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:1:338.
7. “Live above the Law to Be Free,” 130.