Old Testament Lesson 11 (Genesis 34; 37–39)
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
BETHEL—THE HOUSE OF GOD
● While Jacob was traveling from Canaan to the land of his kindred to find a wife, he stopped to rest for the night and had a remarkable dream of a ladder that reached up into heaven (Genesis 28:10–19). (See lesson 10).
● Jacob named the place Bethel, which means “house of God (Genesis 28:19; see footnote 19a).” Temples have the same name today. Elder Marion G. Romney stated, “Temples are to us all what Bethel was to Jacob.”2
● Jacob later took his family back to where he had this vision (Genesis 35:1–15). Because of the sacredness of the place, he asked his family to “put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (v. 2).
— President Spencer W. Kimball said concerning the false gods that we worship: “The Lord has blessed us as a people with a prosperity unequaled in times past. The resources that have been placed in our power are good, and necessary to our work here on the earth. But I am afraid that many of us have been surfeited with flocks and herds and acres and barns and wealth and have begun to worship them as false gods, and they have power over us. Do we have more of these good things than our faith can stand? . . . In spite of our delight in defining ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had—in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people a condition most repugnant to the Lord.”3
JOSEPH WAS THE CHOSEN HEIR
The story of Joseph and the birthright is closely tied to 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.
— We can compare the price that Joseph paid to be virtuous with the price that Reuben paid to be immoral (1 Chronicles 5:1–2). Reuben lost his birthright while Joseph exelled and became the birthright holder in Jacob’s family.
● Simeon & Levi were disqualified for breaking their covenants and for slaughtering defenseless enemies (see Genesis 34).
● Judah was disqualified for adultery and for marrying outside the covenant. Judah had three sons by a Canaanite woman (Genesis 38:1–5).
— 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.
● Judah treated his daughter-in-law Tamar shamefully after committing adultery with her (Genesis 38:12–26).
— 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).
— Note Judah’s twisted sense of values (v. 24). 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
Joseph Was Also Chosen for His Righteousness
● Joseph was blessed for his personal righteousness (Genesis 37:1–4).
● Joseph was obedient to his father (Genesis 37:13–14).
THE JEALOUSY OF JOSEPH’S BROTHERS
The Coat of Many Colors
● A special and symbolic coat given to Joseph by Jacob (Genesis 37:3).
—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.”4
— “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 itwas “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 hi-Ph-right which had been forfeited by Reuben and transferred to Joseph.”5
— The daughters of King David wore similar coats (2 Samuel 13:18).
● Joseph’s dreams were true—they were later literally fulfilled in Egypt (Genesis 37:3–11). But it was not wise to brag about it. His brothers hated him for it.
Joseph’s Brothers Seek His Destruction
● Jacob asked Joseph to go to Shechem to see how his brothers are doing (Genesis 37:13–17). Shechem was 45 miles away. Dothan was another 12 miles away.
● His brothers conspired to kill him (Genesis 37:18–28).
— Reuben’s reasons for sparing Joseph’s life differed from Judah’s (vv. 21–22, 26–27).
— Sold for 20 Pieces of Silver (v. 28). 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).
● His brothers sold him as a slave instead (Genesis 37:31–33).
● The remnant of Joseph’s coat (v. 32).
— 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.6
● Potiphar’s Position (Genesis 37:34–36). 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.”7
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
● The Lord blessed Joseph after he was sold as a slave (Genesis 39:1–4).
● Potiphar, a wealthy officer of Pharaoh, put his trust in Joseph because: (Genesis 39:5–6)
— He was loyal, forgiving, and responsible.
— He trusted in God.
— He worked hard.
— He was patient.
— He developed leadership qualities.
● The incident with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7–20).
— Joseph refused the temptations of Potiphar’s wife out of loyalty to him (v. 9).
— Joseph finally avoided the temptations by running away (vv. 11–12).
— He was unjustly put in prison after refusing to do evil, but it is remarkable that he wasn’t executed (v. 20).
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.”8
1. “Live above the Law to Be Free,” Ensign, Jan. 1973, 130.
2. “Temples—The Gates to Heaven,” Ensign, Mar. 1971, 16.
3. “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976, 4, 6.
4. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. , 1:1:335.
5. Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “colour,” 82.
6. An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. , 178–179.
7. Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:1:338.
8. “Live above the Law to Be Free,” 130.