The Nation of Israel, as depicted in the Old Testament, faced many problems from the very start. Samuel Emadi explained that, for one thing, “intermarriage with foreign nations threaten[ed] the seed’s purity.”
There was famine to contend with, and if that did not kill them off, violent division within Jacob’s (Israel’s) family would contribute to the demise of God’s chosen people.
Eventually, Israel would be enslaved under Pharaoh, which seemed only to make them more vulnerable, but before that happened, Jacob’s son Joseph would rise to power in Egypt, and everything that happened was according to his plan. Why was it important that Joseph go to Egypt in the first place?
A Recap of Joseph’s Story
Jacob “loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3).
His brothers knew that Joseph was favored, especially when they saw him wearing the brightly colored coat, which their father had given Joseph. “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” (v. 4).
Jacob started the problem by favoring Joseph, but Joseph contributed to the dangerous situation by sharing his dreams with the brothers. “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf” (v.7). Joseph was telling his older brothers that he would one day be ruler over them.
The boys decided to kill their brother until a caravan came by, and Joseph’s life was spared — he was sold and taken to Egypt as a slave (v. 28).
Here, Joseph rose up in the household of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers. He experienced trials, which saw him rise and fall and then rise again in status until he was second only to Pharaoh himself.
When famine struck Canaan, Jacob sent his sons to find help in Egypt. Here they met their brother, whom they did not recognize.
He tested them and finally found that the boys had become men whose characters had grown and who now exhibited compassion and wisdom. He revealed himself and saved his family from famine.
Why Did Joseph Have to Go to Egypt?
Joseph’s exile into Egypt was required for at least four reasons: physical rescue; spiritual rescue; protection of Israel as a nation; and future rescue prophesied.
1. Physical rescue: Israel faced death due to a severe famine in Canaan (Genesis 43:1), so God was setting up a situation, which would benefit Jacob’s family and their wider community from starvation.
As Joseph had said in Genesis 50:20, his brothers “meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
2Spiritual rescue: but the beginning of Joseph’s story reveals that the hearts of the men involved needed to be transformed.
After witnessing their father’s grief and growing more mature and empathetic, the older brothers’ experienced remorse over what they had done to Jacob and Joseph.
We see this when Reuben tells Jacob he must bring their youngest brother, Dan, to Egypt in order to satisfy the Vizier (Joseph).
Jacob was tormented by fear of losing his youngest son. “Then Reuben said to his father, ‘Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you’” (Genesis 42:37). Now a father himself, Reuben understood Jacob’s anguish.
Joseph had some growing of his own to do too. His relationship with Reuben and the other brothers exposed prideful tactlessness and naive, foolish self-involvement. Joseph needed to develop discernment and empathy.
When he revealed himself to the brothers, “he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?’”
Then this great man reassured his brothers, saying, “‘Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life’” (Genesis 45:2-5).
He showed mercy to the men in spite of what their actions had put him through, and he also demonstrated great faith and wisdom.
3. Protection of Israel: Joseph had to go to Egypt for himself and for his brothers, but the entire nation of Israel followed. In the years to come, successors to Joseph’s Pharaoh grew to resent Israel and would isolate them by means of slavery.
Emadi notes that living “in Goshen, shield[ed] them from foreign cultural influence. Safeguarded by the Egyptians’ prejudices (Genesis 46:33–34), Israel develops as a nation without dangers posed by intermarriage with foreign peoples.”
4. Rescue prophesied: Israel had to dwell in Egypt for a time and then emerge from their place of exile according to God’s great plan, a plan he had already revealed.
God had declared, “I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:14).
Joseph’s situation facilitated the arrival of Israel in Egypt, which would eventually lead to their dramatic exit and every dramatic event, which occurred before, during, and immediately after the Exodus.
Israel would receive God’s law and experience their first Passover, the meal that foreshadows Christ’s last supper and his crucifixion.
Israel’s Pivotal Prophecies
The Nation of Israel, symbolically God’s son as per Exodus 4:22, received this promise through one of God’s prophets centuries after Joseph’s story: “when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
Jacob (Israel) was not called out of Egypt but migrated to Egypt. Joseph did not come out of Egypt but was taken as a slave to that country.
Moses was called out of Egypt during the Exodus when God rescued him and his people by separating the waters of the Red Sea.
Is Hosea talking about Moses? Actually, Hosea’s prophecy, given to him by God, calls back and looks forward at the same time.
Think of the prophet’s words as a pivot point between the Old and New Testaments. Pivot backwards to Genesis 46:3-4 where the Lord had reassured Jacob, saying,
“I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4).
Pivot forward, and there is Jesus, who is the Son called out of Egypt after a period of exile while Herod sought to kill the infant King.
Joseph had to arrive in Egypt because he would bring Israel, and then Israel would have to leave. Joseph is a foreshadowing of Jesus as one who stayed faithful to the Father through trials.
One cannot help but think, also, that Joseph is an early picture of Jesus — not a perfect picture, but he gives an impression.
When Jesus’ family was called out of Egypt, one might think back to Joseph and be reminded of God’s bigger plan.
Small People, Big Plan
While sharing his dreams with his brothers, perhaps Joseph imagined he would be a big man, or maybe he was oblivious. Certainly, the events that unfolded affected him in very personal ways, but his is one life.
He wanted to be freed from prison, and when he interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, he asked, “Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house” (Genesis 40:14). The cupbearer forgot.
When many different troubles seem to enter into life one after the other, and a person feels battered, the suffering can make one feel as though he has been forgotten by God.
But the Lord is always aware of and with us in our pain. Joseph never lost sight of God’s goodness. He chose to remain faithful and to serve the Lord.
Joseph had to go to Egypt so that Christians and seekers could see that God went with him. Readers witness the testimony of a life that emerged fruitful out of tragedy, not so much in terms of the material wealth Joseph gained but in his spiritual fortitude and growth.
Each person needs to “go to Egypt” in order that God can not only call him or her out but also walk with his followers by the Spirit of his Son, Jesus Christ. He shows us in these times just how close and personal is.
A Terrible Neighbor?
Biblically, Egypt is associated with oppression, deceit, and disgrace, but also refuge. Ham was sent away to settle the land after his disgrace. Here, Abram told Sarai to lie and say she was his sister. Egypt became a place of refuge for Israel as it would be for Jesus and his parents.
Egypt is a geographical place, not a person guilty of sin. Egypt is not the enemy; sin is the enemy. It is “crouching at your door” (Genesis 4:7) in both a spiritual and a physical sense.
Joseph’s story shows that we are far from home, and we must remain close to the Lord. He is not limited by geography, and our faith is not tied to a time or a place. Our faith is tied to the one true, eternal, omnipotent King.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.