Joseph is not just a favorite biblical character with a great story. His experience typifies the relationship of the House of Judah and the House of Joseph through time. Joseph is spoken of both in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. The people who created the Book of Mormon record were descendants of Joseph, and they received promises from the Lord. Joseph was a savior to the tribes of Israel in the Bible narrative, and his descendants have nurtured Judah’s descendants in these last days.
Joseph’s abilities become apparent in the Biblical record. He was intelligent, handsome, righteous, valiant, and long-suffering. He was a prophet, leader, and guide. His ability to turn everything into something good appears to be a godly characteristic.
“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” (Hartman Rector, Jr., “Live above the Law to Be Free,” Ensign, January 1973, p. 130 ).
Joseph was the first-born son of Rachel. Though Rachel was Jacob’s beloved, Laban’s duplicity had made Leah Jacob’s first wife, guaranteeing that Leah’s first-born son would receive the birthright. However, Reuben lost his birthright because of his sins. This surely added to the tension in the family, comprised of Jacob, two wives and two handmaidens, and their children.
Firstly, Reuben may have expected his father’s forgiveness and may not have accepted that the birthright was lost to him. Simeon was the second son of Leah and next in line following Reuben; he could have assumed the birthright would come to him after Reuben lost his right to it. Judah could have argued that not only Reuben had lost the right, but so had Simeon and Levi, through the massacre of the Shechemites (see Genesis 34 ). The disqualification of these sons would make him the rightful legal heir. Because Dan’s mother, Bilhah, was considered Rachel’s property, he could argue that he was Rachel’s firstborn, not Joseph, and therefore should have received the birthright when Reuben lost it. Gad was the firstborn of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaiden. He could easily have thought he should have taken the birthright after Reuben forfeited it.
Joseph’s dreams (see Genesis 37:5–11 ), which clearly signified future leadership, only added to the resentment among the brothers. As a youth, Joseph had a lot of candor, but not much tact. His openness appeared to be bragging to his brothers, and even to his parents, as is often the case with precocious, intelligent children.
Joseph was a boy-prophet; his dreams were prophetic when he was a youth. He continued to have visions, to be able to interpret dreams, and to commune with God throughout his life. His greatest prophecies were actually recorded, saying that he saw “the beginning from the end,” but we don’t have them, because we’re not worthy yet to read them. The Book of Mormon says,
“Wherefore, Joseph truly saw our day. And he obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of his loins the Lord would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel; not the Messiah, but a branch which was to be broken off, nevertheless, to be remembered in the covenants of the Lord that the Messiah should be made manifest unto them in the latter days, in the spirit of power, unto the bringing of them out of darkness unto light — yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom” (2 Nephi 3:5).
In 2 Nephi 3 it also records a prophecy of Joseph foreseeing the deliverance of Israel under Moses, and a last-days prophet named Joseph who would be a Moses to us. He prophesied that the scriptures written by the Judahites and the scriptures written by the descendants of Joseph would be had in one and testify of each other, bringing people to a knowledge of their fathers and their covenants.
“For behold, he truly prophesied concerning all his seed. And the prophecies which he wrote, there are not many greater. And he prophesied concerning us, and our future generations; and they are written upon the plates of brass (2 Nephi 4:2).
The “Coat of Many Colors” and Sale of Joseph into Slavery (Genesis 37)
Joseph’s coat of “many colors” was a symbol of his birthright. It may or may not have been colorful. The Hebrew denotes “a long coat with sleeves . . . i.e. an upper coat reaching to the wrists and ankles, such as noblemen and kings’ daughters wore” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:1:335; note also 2 Samuel 13:18 , which says that the daughters of King David wore similar coats). It incited jealousy among Joseph’s brothers.
The price received for Joseph, twenty pieces of silver, is the same price specified later in the Mosaic law for a slave between the ages of five and twenty (see Leviticus 27:5 ). Typically, the price for a slave was thirty pieces of silver (see Exodus 21:32 ).
Joseph was sold into service at the house of Potiphar, who was called the “captain of the guards.” This literally 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 body-guard, who executed the capital sentences ordered by the king” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:1:338). Either way, Potiphar was an important man, but the latter position especially would give him great power and status in Egypt.
Judah’s Sin (Genesis 38)
Judah engaged in an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It is important to 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 to be put to death.
Ancient customs of the Middle East provided that a brother of a deceased man should marry his widow. Under Moses this custom became law (see Deuteronomy 25:5–10 ). The purpose of such a marriage 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, for then the man’s lineage did not continue and also the man’s property reverted to someone else’s family (through daughters, if he had any, or through other relatives). It may be that Onan, who by virtue of the death of his older brother would have been next in line for the inheritance of Judah, refused to raise up seed through Tamar because the inheritance would have stayed with the elder son’s family. He went through the outward show of taking Tamar to wife but refused to let her have children. Thus when Judah failed to keep his promise to send the youngest son to her, Tamar resorted to deception in order to bear children. She enticed Judah himself, who should have made sure that the Levirate Marriage contract was honored for Tamar. Through their lineage, the Messiah came, proving that a child’s lineage, or the situation from which he descends, has no bearing on his greatness or worth.
Joseph is Cast into Prison
The Book of Jasher has an interesting perspective on Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife. It says that she was so smitten with Joseph that she tried every possible behavior to seduce him, even pretending to be a potential convert to his one-God faith. At one point she invited her female friends over for a meal and seated them in a location where they could observe him. It has been the custom for many centuries for Middle Eastern people to have fruit for dessert, with each guest given a small knife with which to cut pieces of fruit. Her friends cut themselves when they saw Joseph, because he was so handsome. Evidently, her seductive, deceptive, and covetous behavior went on for quite some time, for the Book of Jasher also records that when Joseph was cast into prison, the first thing he did was to fall to his knees and thank the Lord for delivering him out of the hands of Potiphar’s wife!
Because Potiphar had great power with the pharaoh and perhaps was even head of the royal executioners (see Genesis 39:20), it is remarkable that Joseph was only put into prison and not executed. A slave accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife would seem to have deserved the most severe punishment, and yet Joseph was only imprisoned. Could it be that Potiphar, knowing of Joseph’s character and his wife’s character, suspected the truth and, although he felt compelled to take action, chose comparatively lenient punishment? Whatever the case, the hand of the Lord certainly preserved Joseph from what would otherwise have been almost certain death.
Altogether Joseph served thirteen years with Potiphar and in prison. The record does not tell how long he served Potiphar before his imprisonment, but that he worked his way up to be the overseer of the prison implies some period of time before the butler and baker joined him. So it is likely that Joseph was in prison at least three years and possibly much longer. Joseph was released from prison in order to prophetically interpret the Pharoah’s troublesome dreams. His interpretations and his adept management saved Egypt from the coming famine and provided a haven for his own kin.
Israel’s Family in Egypt
Over 20 years passed until Joseph saw his brothers again. By keeping Benjamin for ransom, Joseph proved to himself that his brothers still felt guilt for the way they had treated him, and that Judah especially was repentant and willing to go to any lengths to protect his youngest brother, Benjamin.
Joseph, through his actions and the Lord’s design, became a type of Christ. The touching scene in Genesis 45:4-8 in which Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, demonstrates the Christlike nature of his character. He forgave without bitterness, extended love when undeserved, and saw the Lord’s hand in all that happened. But his similarities to Christ go much deeper. As Nephi said, all things from the beginning of the world were given to typify, or symbolize, Christ (see 2 Nephi 11:4 ; Moses 6:63 ). It has already been shown how Abraham was a type of the Father and Isaac a type of Jesus when Abraham was commanded to offer Isaac in sacrifice. This act was “a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” ( Jacob 4:5 ).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that all prophets are types of Christ: “A prophet is one who has the testimony of Jesus, who knows by the revelations of the Holy Ghost to his soul that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In addition to this divine knowledge, many of them lived in special situations or did particular things that singled them out as types and patterns and shadows of that which was to be in the life of him who is our Lord” ( The Promised Messiah, p. 448).
Likewise, the life and mission of Joseph typifies the life and mission of Jesus. Consider the following:
4. Judah, the head of the tribe of Judah, proposed the sale of Joseph. Certain leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ day turned Jesus over to the Romans. Judas (the Greek spelling of Judah ) was the one who actually sold Jesus. (See Genesis 37:26 ; Matthew 27:3 .)
5. Joseph was sold for twenty pieces of silver, the price of a slave his age. Christ was sold for thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave His age. (See Genesis 37:28 ; Matthew 27:3 ; Exodus 21:32 ; Leviticus 27:5 .)
6. In their very attempt to destroy Joseph, his brothers actually set up the conditions that would bring about their eventual temporal salvation—that is, Joseph, by virtue of being sold, would become their deliverer. Jesus, by His being given into the hands of the Gentiles, was crucified and completed the atoning sacrifice, becoming the Deliverer for all mankind.
Joseph Smith re-translated Genesis 48:5-11:
“And now, of thy two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, which were born unto thee in the land of Egypt, before I came unto thee into Egypt; behold, they are mine, and the God of my fathers shall bless them; even as Reuben and Simeon they shall be blessed, for they are mine; wherefore they shall be called after my name. (Therefore they were called Israel.)
“And thy issue which thou begettest after them, shall be thine, and shall be called after the name of their brethren in their inheritance, in the tribes; therefore they were called the tribes of Manasseh and of Ephraim.
“And Jacob said unto Joseph when the God of my fathers appeared unto me in Luz, in the land of Canaan; he sware unto me, that he would give unto me, and unto my seed, the land for an everlasting possession.
“Therefore, O my son, he hath blessed me in raising thee up to be a servant unto me, in saving my house from death;
“In delivering my people, thy brethren, from famine which was sore in the land; wherefore the God of thy fathers shall bless thee, and the fruit of thy loins, that they shall be blessed above thy brethren, and above thy father’s house;
“For thou hast prevailed, and thy father’s house hath bowed down unto thee, even as it was shown unto thee, before thou wast sold into Egypt by the hands of thy brethren; wherefore thy brethren shall bow down unto thee, from generation to generation, unto the fruit of thy loins for ever;
“For thou shalt be a light unto my people, to deliver them in the days of their captivity, from bondage; and to bring salvation unto them, when they are altogether bowed down under sin.” ( JST, Genesis 48:5–11 .)
Judah’s Blessing, Joseph’s Blessing
Judah and Joseph were given great blessings by their father Jacob (renamed Israel by the Lord).
The blessing given to Judah indicates that kings would come from his lineage (see 1 Chronicles 5:1–2 ; Hebrews 7:14 ). Old Testament history teaches that this promise was fulfilled. King David, King Solomon, and King Rehoboam are just three of the kings who came through Judah’s lineage. The King of Kings, Jesus Christ, referred to here as Shiloh, also came through this line. Elder Ezra Taft Benson said of this promise:
“The great blessing to Judah is that it contemplated the coming of Shiloh who would gather his people to him. This prophecy concerning Shiloh has been subject to several rabbinic and Christian interpretations and the object of considerable controversy. The interpretation given this passage by the Mormon Church is one based on revelation to modern prophets, not on scholarly commentary. It was revealed to Joseph Smith that Shiloh is the Messiah. (See [ JST, Genesis 50:24 ].)” ( “A Message to Judah from Joseph,” Ensign, Dec. 1976, p. 71 .)
Joseph’s blessing showed the following: “First, he should become a multitude of nations. We understand what this means. In the second place, his branches should run over the wall. Now what does this mean? The Lord in ancient times had a meaning for everything. It means that his tribe should become so numerous that they would take up more room than one small inheritance in Canaan, that they would spread out and go to some land at a great distance. . . .
“Joseph’s peculiar blessing, which I have just read to you, was that he should enjoy possessions above Jacob’s progenitors to the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills. This would seem to indicate a very distant land from Palestine.” (Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 14:9.)
The seed of Joseph came to the land of America at the time Lehi and his family departed from the Mediterranean world. The land of America is specifically designated by the Lord as the land reserved for “a remnant of the house of Joseph” ( 3 Nephi 15:12 ).
Note: Joseph was given a wife by Pharaoh. Her name was Asenath, and she is called the daughter of the Priest of Nun. Jewish literature identifies her as the daughter of Dinah, Joseph’s sister.
Patriarchal Blessings and the Lineage of Members of the Mormon Church
A Patriarch holds an office in the Melchizedek Priesthood that sets him apart as a revelator with a special purpose — to reveal unto those who are in his assigned area their lineage in Israel. True gentiles, who have not the blood of Israel, are adopted into a tribe according to their fore-ordained roles on the earth. Along with this revelation of lineage often comes guiding prophecy for the seeker’s life.
“The First Presidency (David O. McKay, Stephen L Richards, J. Reuben Clark, Jr.), in a letter to all stake presidents, dated June 28, 1957, gave the following definition and explanation: ‘Patriarchal blessings contemplate an inspired declaration of the lineage of the recipient, and also where so moved upon by the Spirit, an inspired and prophetic statement of the life mission of the recipient, together with such blessings, cautions, and admonitions as the patriarch may be prompted to give for the accomplishment of such life’s mission, it being always made clear that the realization of all promised blessings is conditioned upon faithfulness to the gospel of our Lord, whose servant the patriarch is. All such blessings are recorded and generally only one such blessing should be adequate for each person’s life. The sacred nature of the patriarchal blessing must of necessity urge all patriarchs to most earnest solicitation of divine guidance for their prophetic utterances and superior wisdom for cautions and admonitions.’” ( Mormon Doctrine, p. 558.)
This article is adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.