Joseph, Model of Excellence
September 1980

“Joseph, Model of Excellence,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, 9

Special Issue: Old Testament

Joseph, Model of Excellence

Children have always fascinated me. They are a biological blend of two different people, the combining of two parents into one flesh. Further, the way children adopt the characteristics of their parents intrigues me—their speech mannerisms, gestures, laughs, attitudes, fashion consciousness, and so on.

For this reason genealogy has likewise intrigued me. I sometimes wonder how much of my ancestry I still carry in me, how far back into my genealogical roots I could trace my own mannerisms, physical attributes, and character traits. How fascinating it would be to have a detailed written and visual account of each of our ancestors with which to compare ourselves.

Unfortunately, such records are not available to us and our vision of our total ancestry is sketchy at best. Ironically, some of our best genealogical information is that concerning our earliest parentage. Sometimes we forget when reading the early portion of the Bible that many of us are reading our own family history and that we share a very special relationship with those individuals.

Few of us would think of claiming Iraq as an ancestral homeland, yet that is where our father Abraham was born and reared to early maturity. Syria remains a foreign country in the minds of many of us, yet our grandmothers Rebecca and Rachel were born there, as was our grandfather Joseph. And while our grandfather Joseph claimed Israel as his homeland, his wife, our grandmother, Asenath, was not only Egyptian, but a daughter of an Egyptian priest. Ephraim and Manasseh, then, were both half-Egyptian. Truly, through our roots, most of us are citizens of the world, and whatever happens in the world often affects those who are our distant cousins.

Although separated by an unrecorded gap from these early ancestors, we can still find models worthy of imitation. Joseph, whose name (or that of one of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh) appears on hundreds of thousands of our patriarchal blessings, is a good case in point. If we would adopt his manner of life we would not only excel as citizens of this world, but we would also become candidates for celestial life in the next.

Firstborn of Jacob and Rachel

To his father, Jacob, Joseph was the living reminder of one of the greatest love stories of all time. Few, like Joseph, could lay claim to a father who had given fourteen years of service for the hand of their mother. So intense was Jacob’s love for Rachel that Moses records concerning the first seven years, “They seemed unto him [Jacob] but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Gen. 29:20).

After this marriage Rachel had difficulty in bearing a child, which fact troubled her deeply. Her sister, Leah, was to produce six sons and one daughter before Rachel was blessed with her firstborn, Joseph. A third wife, Bilhah, and a fourth, Zilpah, were each to add two more sons to Jacob’s posterity before the birth of Joseph.

By that time Jacob was nearly ninety years old, almost the age that his grandfather, Abraham, had been when Sarah bore Jacob’s father, Isaac. He and Rachel had waited long for this child and loved Joseph with a special love. But within a few short years of that birth Rachel would die in another land while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Within seventeen years Jacob would lose Joseph to slavery in Egypt, thinking him dead; and it was nearly a quarter of a century after that before Jacob was reunited with Joseph, now grown to maturity and second in authority to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Thirty years after this reunion Jacob himself would die and be returned to his native land for burial.

It would be interesting to know how much Joseph remembered of the first seventeen years of this life. It is doubtful that he would remember much about the land of his birth, Haran, for shortly after Joseph was born Jacob took his family back to his native land—the land that now bears his name, Israel. What, if anything, would Joseph remember of the tenseness of the dramatic parting of his father from his grandfather, Laban, or of the fear-laden reunion of his father and his uncle, Esau, after twenty years of separation—a separation that had occurred when Jacob had fled for his life from the wrath of Esau?

It is doubtful that Joseph remembered much because he likely was a babe in arms during most of this. Yet we would do well to remember that Joseph was an important part, in the eyes of his parents, of all of these experiences. This young man, favored of the Lord, was also highly favored of his father, especially after the death of his mother.

Kinship With Moses

For Moses, who lived two centuries later, Joseph must have held another type of fascination. Perhaps Moses also was interested in the characteristics of his famous kinsman. He doubtless wondered what Joseph was like as the Israelites carried his body in a coffin for forty years of wandering in the wilderness. What were his thoughts concerning the man who had saved the Israelites by leading them into Egypt as Moses would save them by leading them out? Both men had known positions of great power in that nation; both had suffered at the hands of their brethren. Both were capable administrators; both were highly blessed of the Lord.

Where had Moses received his information concerning Joseph? How much did he know of Joseph as he worked on the Torah? Was it given to him by revelation, as a portion of his record would later be given to another Joseph? Or was he reading from records dictated by Joseph himself so many years before?

Of special interest to Moses must have been the prophecies of Joseph now contained in the last chapter of Genesis as rendered by Joseph Smith. What feelings must have coursed through the mind of Moses when he first read the words: “For a seer will I raise up to deliver my people out of the land of Egypt; and he shall be called Moses. And by this name he shall know that he is of thy house; for he shall be nursed by the king’s daughter, and shall be called her son” (JST, Gen. 50:29).

Joseph further prophesied that Moses, with a rod in his hand, would smite the waters of the Red Sea and lead the children of Israel from their bondage. Moses’ brother, Aaron, was to be his spokesman, as Moses would be the spokesman for the Lord in delivering God’s law to the Israelites. It would be interesting to know if Moses read these prophecies before or after they had been fulfilled. If before, were they instrumental in determining the course he followed?

Also contained in the information given to Moses was a prophecy of Joseph’s concerning a record to be written by his posterity after a branch of them had been severed from the main body of Israelites. That prophecy spoke of another Joseph—one named after his father—who would be chosen seer in latter-day Israel. These prophecies are also contained in the Book of Mormon, a record of Joseph’s posterity, translated by this other Joseph, the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. (see 2 Ne. 3). The interest of the Nephites in Joseph of old is demonstrated in Lehi’s comment concerning the prophecies of Joseph: “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 Ne. 4:2). Apparently, then, these brass plates of Laban contained a Josephite record. They traced the ancestry of Lehi back to Joseph. They contained information concerning prophets such as Zenos and Zenock—who were also descendents of Joseph but are not mentioned in the Bible. They also record information concerning Joseph that is not found in other sources. Moroni, for example, refers to Joseph’s coat that his brothers brought back to Jacob, telling him that Joseph had been devoured by wild beasts.

Apparently Jacob kept a fragment of that coat as a reminder of his son. Later, as he neared death, Jacob looked upon the fragment of the coat he had preserved, now over a half century old, and prophesied that as part of the remnant had been maintained, part of Joseph’s seed would be preserved; as part had decayed, part of Joseph’s seed would be lost to the Lord (Alma 46:24–27).

Fascination of Biblical Scholars

Biblical scholars have also found great interest in Joseph and his story, especially those who seek archetypes—prophetic foreshadowings of events to come, notably those related to the life of the Messiah. A good example of a rendering of biblical history in archetypical fashion is found in Paul’s comparison of the birth of Ishmael and Isaac to the giving of the Mosaic law and the law of Christ (see Gal. 4:22–31). In its general outline, the account of Joseph’s life is an excellent foreshadowing of the life of the Master.

He is the favored son of the father, sent by the father on a mission to his rebellious brethren. His brethren, resenting his closeness to the father and his teachings to them, reject his message, maltreat him, and eventually take his life, as it were. The next phase of his life, beginning with his descent into the pit and concluding with his experience in prison in Egypt, may be compared typologically with the descent of Christ into the pit of hell and his mission to the spirit prison.

Ultimately he is brought out of the prison and given a position of power second only to the ruler of the kingdom. His coat, which his brethren had taken from him (a symbol of his flesh), is replaced with a majestic robe, and every knee is made to bow to him. In his new exalted position he becomes the savior of his brethren, extending forgiveness, and feeding them, as it were, with the bread of life.

It is easy to see why Joseph should hold such a fascination for biblical scholars, as well as for literary figures, such as Thomas Mann, who wrote a four-volume work on the theme of Joseph and his brothers. But it seems to me that Joseph should be of greatest interest to us, his posterity. Not only is he a great historical and religious figure, but he can also be a personal example to us, a model in our lives.

A Knowledge of Christ

If we were to follow Joseph’s example and acquire his character traits our lives would be richer and generally more successful. He shows us the way to a knowledge of the Master, and in that sense learning about our father Joseph (or any of our righteous ancestors) is an exercise in growing closer to the Lord. Elder Bruce R. McConkie described how near the Lord we must eventually draw. Noting that we must know Him to gain eternal life. Elder McConkie said in a general conference address, “To know God in that full sense which will enable us to gain eternal salvation means that we must know what he knows, enjoy what he enjoys, experience what he experiences. In the New Testament language, we must ‘be like him’” (Improvement Era, June 1966, p. 528).

In speaking of those character traits that qualify one for a knowledge of Christ, the Apostle Peter lists the following: “Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;

“And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;

“And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity,” for, Peter continues, “If these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5–8).

Faith in God is the beginning, including trust in his way and his promises. To follow the way outlined by God requires courage—Peter’s virtue—and understanding. Further, it requires one to have temperance or self-control, subjecting one’s own will to that of God. It requires patience if one is to see the fruits of Christian efforts; it requires also a piety that attempts to remain close to God in understanding his way. Ultimately, it requires the development of brotherly kindness and then the blossoming of that brotherly feeling into the quality of charity, the pure love of Christ—love like Christ and love for Christ.

Joseph’s Faith and Virtue

Joseph was the living personification of all of these character traits; they truly did abound in him. His faith in God was tried almost to the limit. If anyone ever had reason to feel that God had abandoned him it would be Joseph, rejected and sold into slavery for teaching what God had told him through his dreams, falsely accused and cast into prison for attempting to keep the commandments of God, remaining in that prison for more than two years.

His namesake, Joseph Smith, who was to suffer a similar fate, cried out from his prison, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1). Joseph of Egypt must have had similar feelings, yet there is no evidence in all of the record that he ever let his faith waver. Instead he continued to sense the hand of God in every incident of his life.

Virtue, the second of the character traits listed by Peter, has far wider ramifications than sexual purity—which Joseph demonstrated in the incident with Potiphar’s wife. Virtue in its root vir is associated with the “virile,” and has connotations of manliness, of courage, and of strength. Living in the manner of Jesus, who was to be known as the Son of Man, Joseph followed a lifestyle that commanded the notice of men as well as women. Not only were women, such as the wife of Potiphar, drawn to him, but also many of the men he met quickly recognized his leadership potential. Potiphar placed him in charge of his household and left everything to Joseph. The jailer in the prison placed him over the other prisoners, and Pharaoh made him second in command only to himself.

Joseph’s Knowledge and Patience

Peter records, “Add to your … virtue knowledge.” God would have knowledgeable disciples. Christ said, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Paul records, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (1 Cor. 14:20). Blind faith is not sufficient for the Christian disciple.

When we consider the rise of a shepherd to a position of world power, then we begin to glimpse the knowledge and understanding that Joseph must have accumulated. We assume that initially his knowledge was gained through listening to the Lord; but we must also note the wisdom that must have been required in his position in the Egyptian government, especially in the administration of the crops and lands of Egypt. After Joseph had interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh he commented, “Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.” To this Pharaoh responded, “There is none so discreet and wise as thou art” (Gen. 41:33, 39). While this may be viewed as a statement of Pharaoh’s recognition of Joseph’s spiritual powers, it proved to be true of Joseph’s wisdom in temporal administration as well.

Joseph’s self-control and patience are seen again and again in the fabric of his lifestyle. They show in the incident with Potiphar’s wife; they show in his willingness to trust in the Lord during his long imprisonment. In fact, Josephus, the Jewish historian, makes an interesting comment concerning Joseph’s reaction to his imprisonment. In a passage sounding amazingly like Christ before Pilate, Josephus records:

“Now Joseph, commending all his affairs to God, did not betake himself to make his defence, nor to give an account of the exact circumstances of the fact, but silently underwent the bonds and the distress he was in, firmly believing that God, who knew the cause of his affliction and the truth of the fact, would be more powerful than those that inflicted the punishments upon him” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, v:1).

Joseph’s Godliness and Charity

Piety or godliness was also an integral part of Joseph. Though none of his prayers are recorded, one senses throughout the narrative of his story the closeness that he feels with the Lord. The hand of God is in every affair of his life. He refuses the invitation of Potiphar’s wife on the grounds that it would be an offense against God. When he is reunited with his brothers in Egypt, he quiets their fears of retaliation by explaining that their selling him into Egypt was the Lord’s way of allowing him to prepare the way before them.

It is in Joseph’s relationship with his brothers that one sees his most Christlike features, especially the characteristics of brotherly kindness and charity. In naming his son Manasseh, Joseph gives the understanding that the Lord has caused him to “forget all my toil, and all my father’s house” (Gen. 41:51). What a shock it must have been, then, when Joseph confronted his brothers again for the first time in twenty-two years. What thoughts must have raced through his mind! Again one senses his great patience in not revealing himself to them until he discovers their feelings.

History would search far to find another scene so filled with human feelings as that of Joseph listening to his brethren (who were unaware that he could understand them, since he had always spoken to them through an interpreter) speak of their punishment for having sold their brother into slavery. Joseph responded with sternness, as God must sometimes do with us, but when one sees him moved to tears on two occasions—to the point that he must leave the room to hide his face from his brethren—one senses the depth of his Christlike love, filled with forgiveness for the truly penitent.

I respect our father Joseph for many things—for his faith, his virtue, his knowledge, his temperance and patience, and for his godliness. But most of all I respect him for his brotherly kindness and love. These are his most godlike attributes; these are his touch-point with the Savior and his touch-point with us, his posterity. These are the attributes we should attempt to emulate as the grandchildren of this model of Christian excellence; one of the greatest men this world has ever produced, a father who taught all of his posterity what it means to truly know Christ.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Joseph, Model of Excellence,” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a family gospel study period:

  1. The article mentions that “the account of Joseph’s life is an excellent foreshadowing of the life of the Master.” Why do you suppose the Lord supplies us with such foreshadowings? What can we learn from them?

  2. Joseph retained his faith in God even though he suffered greatly at the hands of his brothers and Potiphar. What can we do to develop such faith?

  3. After all that his brothers had done to him, Joseph freely forgave them. What can we do in our home to foster similar humility and love? How can we, like Joseph, love others in a Christlike manner?

  4. What other attributes of Joseph can we learn from? How can we better follow his example of trying to emulate the Savior in all things?

  • Arthur R. Bassett, associate professor of humanities at Brigham Young University, teaches Sunday School in his Salt Lake City ward.

Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Baker and the Butler, by Francois Gerard

Joseph Makes Himself Known to His Brethren, by Peter von Cornelius

Joseph Cares for His Father, by Tobin © Providence Lithograph Company, 1947