Joseph and the famine - Genesis 41 - 42

Joseph and the Famine

Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.

Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore them to him. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. "For," he said, "God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house." The name of the second he called Ephraim, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."

The seven years of plenty that occurred in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. There was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do."

So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.

When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, "Why do you look at one another?" And he said, "Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die." So ten of Joseph's brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph's brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.


Just to recap, we remember that Pharaoh had two dreams; one of seven cows, plump and attractive, which came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass and the seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, who ate the fat ones up, and they looked no fatter after the meal than before. Then came the dream of seven ears full and good on a stalk, and along came seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, which in our case would be the north wind, and the thin ones swallowed up the full ears. We then know that the only person who was able to explain to Pharaoh what all this meant was Joseph, and he also offered a solution to Pharaoh. Pharaoh thought that his idea was great, so Joseph went from prisoner to second in command in the space of a few minutes.

Next, I think we need to summarise how Joseph was able to interpret the dreams. It is important, as this next passage shows the workings of God as well.

"It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer."

We can recall Daniel who also states: "But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days." I mentioned to our Bible study class the other day that we were reading about Enoch, a man who walked with God and God took him. Hebrews 11 tells us this: "By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." These three examples provide the recipe for us in all parts of our walk in life. God interprets dreams; God reveals secrets; God is there to be pleased which will only occur through faith. Neither Joseph nor Daniel would have had God telling them the answers to the dream questions if they were not the same as Enoch, walking with God, pleasing God, and being rewarded for diligently seeking God out. I am not saying that the promotion of Joseph was a reward for serving God; a far bigger God– action was at work there for God needed Joseph exalted for greater purposes than he could imagine – that reaches right through history to today. No, God rewarded Joseph by having him be an interpreter of dreams for those that God gave dreams to, as part of His plan – he becomes God's representative to the Gentile so the whole world can be saved. Though yes, becoming second in command was a reward from God for his faithfulness, much as Enoch's translation to heaven was a reward for his 300 years of faithful service. At the end of the day, in our text today, Joseph runs the country for Pharaoh just as God promised thirteen or more years before.

What does our passage of today tell us then?

It is not an easy question to answer. The context is broad, and deep. It more than a story of saving grain for the lean periods. God does not just tell us stories for nothing. All things in the Bible have a purpose. This story has at least three purposes to begin with, all practical lessons for the day. The first, it gave the Egyptians insight into God, and the power of God. Second it brought Joseph's family to Egypt to fulfil prophecy, third, it brought the seeds from which the nation of Israel would grow into a place where they would prosper, grow into a large number of people, in order to have the numbers and strength to take the land forcibly that the Lord had promised Abraham even longer before.

However, there is an even bigger picture. The story of Joseph enables the readers of the Bible today see how God has a purpose, and Israel is centred in that purpose, and God enabled a nation to appear that still has significance in today's world. Without the famine, and Joseph's administration skills, without the food to get through the famine, without the favour the people had with Egypt to enable them to stay there for 400+ years then go on to conquer and become Israel the nation with its own State; to have the throne of David in Jerusalem; to have a place for Jesus to come and walk and to die and be resurrected – we would not be here today.

There is an even bigger picture than that though as well. Joseph is a type, a living example that shows us Jesus, before Moses, before the Law, before Israel was established and before the failure of Israel to live according the commandments of God. Joseph was there because God wanted the Israelites to have an idea about what Jesus would be like, a servant of all, as Joseph was, who walked with God, and had a singular faith in knowing that God's purposes would be fulfilled, as He had prophesied. Joseph and Jesus, two thousand plus years apart, yet God presents Jesus in Joseph, so His people would recognise Jesus when He came, and for us to see God's sovereign power and control.

On this latter point, we need to note that Joseph is now thirty years old. How old was Jesus when His ministry began? See the parallel? Neat isn't it! Where did Joseph spend his years from age 17 to age 30 — in servitude, first for Potiphar, then for the Prison Chief who had the best years of his life as Scripture tells us:

"But the Lord was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison looked not to anything that was under his hand; because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper."

Nothing much was said of Jesus during his formative years, except he astounded the Rabbi's at age twelve. He was in the carpenter's shop 'til age thirty and one can speculate that, that was the shop to go to if you wanted the best constructed table or chairs (or couches as they were of that time). But back to Joseph; he had now spent 13 years becoming fluent in Egyptian, learning the culture, undoubtedly learning the hieroglyphs that were the writing of the day, and learning to have faith in God. One commentator writes that it is as sure as sure that Pharaoh did not make Joseph in charge of everything because he was impressed with Joseph's faith in God, though he certainly recognised the faith as something else no one had, but I suspect that he saw that Joseph was a great administrator. He would also have seen, or had testimony from the prison boss, that Joseph ran an exceptional unit. Given that, and the spiritual power he seemed to have, Pharaoh made no qualms about employing Joseph (undoubtedly with a prod from God). Joseph had learned his trade well, running a household, running a prison, now running a country. That takes work, hard work, dedication, and attention to detail. Is there a life lesson in this for us?

The time of plenty

Now we come to the famine, well first the years of plenty, then the famine, but it is the famine that is important here. However, on the former, it does us well to note the words that are recorded in Scripture.

"And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt. Now in the seven plentiful years the ground brought forth abundantly. So he gathered up all the food of the seven years which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities; he laid up in every city the food of the fields which surrounded them. Joseph gathered very much grain, as the sand of the sea, until he stopped counting, for it was immeasurable."

How was food gathered during the years of plenty? Joseph went out to gather the food. What is this passage about? For the Western World and now the rising East there are times of plenty, but man sits back and enjoys them. In fact, one could say that man corrupts the times of plenty — the more we have, the more slovenly and materialistic we get. Joseph needed to go out to gather in the harvest. Jesus Christ when he was in the world went out to all far and wide, he walked hundreds of kilometres up and down Israel, gathering souls for His Kingdom. What was His command to the disciples? Those who heard the second service last week heard these verses. "And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease… These twelve Jesus sent forth," (Matthew 10:1–5) followed by: "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." (Matthew 28:18–20)

The world does not care that times are good and a famine like no other is coming. The world does not understand the significance of the period of grace. We, like Joseph and Jesus must go out, to the end of our street, our suburb, our nation, another nation, wherever God will have you to go, to bring in the harvest. For the famine is coming, and the famine will be like nothing seen before on this earth.

We note as well that Joseph had two children during the years of plenty – for he got married, as well as being made the second in command. Things were looking well for Joseph. You may say that Jesus had no wife, nor children, but we cannot be absolutely literal about this. We are the Bride of Christ, we will be His wife. Isaiah 53 verses 10 into 11 tells us this as well: He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities." He shall see His seed. He shall see the labour of His soul.

Does not the parallel exist in such a beautiful way? A commentator says this: 'Rejected by his brethren, his path had been one of suffering and toil, but Joseph has had great reward and becomes fruitful in the land of his affliction. Nor is it otherwise with Christ. His ancient people may despise and reject Him, they may number Him with the transgressors, but in the day of His rejection, when His soul is made an offering for sin, the "he shall see His seed" yea, He shall see the fruits of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied." Israel could say "His blood be on us and our children" and they will drink to the dregs their cup of guilt, but Christ has not lost by their rejection. His toil has its glorious answer in a great harvest of souls gathered out of the world during the time of His rejection in Israel, The time when He is "forgotten" by Israel is the time when He gathers fruit among the Gentiles.[1]

Application today

The interpretation of these passages lie with time and understanding. These passages are for the present – a regular historical record. They are also prophecy for the future as well, beyond us; they are also a prophetic writing for the Israelites, so that they would recognise the Messiah when He came for them. The same is said for the famine. It is a historical record; however, it has present meaning as well as future prophetic meaning.

We must remember that Egypt represents the world and its bondage; Israel the chosen of the Lord, and that God is a just God and hates sin. This means God will judge sin and those that sin. Finally, we must keep in our minds that the famine was also for a big picture purpose; that of establishing His nation that of Israel. Just for our own edification, let me give you a different example where God tells of His plan when Israel was ready to go into Canaan: "I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee. By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land." (Exodus 23: 29–30) See the purpose of God, a single line here tells you why Israel did not enter and inherit the whole land all at once — if the population wasn't big enough, the areas not occupied would become a haven for wild animals, and make life tough. God knows what is required; he makes it happen at His pace, with His perfection present. But it is also a lesson for us, we won't know everything about God the moment we become Christians, he will teach us little by little through the Holy Spirit, however, there is an end point we need to aim for, even if it takes years. With this in mind let us enter the meaning of the seven years of famine.

Seven we know is a perfect number in God's language. It is significant in terms of tribulation or troubles as well. Seven years are spoken of in Daniel and Revelation about events to come. We need to think of the famine of Joseph's life as being a shadow of this great event to come, and as a series of messages already known to those who learned their history as an Israelite, as they went through their tumultuous history. It takes me to many little events that tell us of God, and how he teaches lessons, judges, or punishes. For example Israel spent 70 years in exile for failing to obey God over one of the aspects of the law — six years they were to crop, and the seventh was to be fallow (Exodus 22).

The Famine

Famine is used by God for a specific, loud message. He used it during Elijah's time (we studied this a year or so ago) to bring Ahab to his knees, to destroy the prophets of Baal, to help Elijah make a point, to identify 7000 faithful. A commentator writes that:

The Hebrew word for 'drought' is 'choreb' which also means heat and dryness. There are only six references to drought in the Bible. The Bible, however, refers to famine in different contexts as many as 85 times in the Old Testament and 10 times in the New Testament. The Hebrew words for 'famine' are 'raab' and 'rabown' and the Greek word is 'limos', which also mean dearth, scarcity of food and hunger.

Famine is one of the many things and events that will signal the end times as Jesus himself warned: against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.[2]

In this seven year famine, Joseph held all the grain he had collected. The grain had not been collected for resale without pain for the Egyptians. They first handed over all their money, then their land, then themselves. Commentators write that one can compare this Scriptural account as compared to times during the tribulation. Joseph becomes the type of Christ, as well as picturing the opposite to the antichrist. People will sell their souls to the devil, in order to get food and goods in the last days. They will be willing to have the mark of the Beast on them for trade. However, Jesus Christ will offer salvation through the 144,000 sent to the world, at the price of death that will be exacted from those who reject the beast (See the book of Revelation).

The famine was so wide spread that people came down to Egypt to find food from all places, including of course Canaan's population along with Joseph's brothers. Here is a central core aspect of God's plan. God wanted Israel to commence in Egypt – to grow and thrive. He had a place for Joseph in His plan, He gave Joseph's two dreams, prophecy to fulfil, which required Joseph to become what he did, second in command in Egypt. So a kidnapping was needed, then slavery, followed by becoming a prisoner in Pharaoh's jail for Pharaoh's miscreants, then interpreting dreams for two prisoners, and finally being remembered when Pharaoh needed dreams interpreted 13 years down the track from when it all started. As you can see — this is a long list of linked events. God, using the same famine, provided a reason to get the family of Israel out of Canaan, to re–connect with Joseph and fulfil the prophecy — famine moves men; God controls the climate, he can move men whenever!  Even if they did not want to! God's plan is amazing in its complexity, and for our simple human minds, you wonder what He is doing. In faith we need to accept that God is sovereign, His ways are perfect, His plans are exactly what was going to work, to get the big picture sorted. Romans 11:33 – Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!


Joseph through his wisdom in collecting food, ensures the survival of those that come to him to be fed, Jesus of course, through his messengers does the same, although they die, they are translated to eternal life with the Father. It becomes our choice; do we accept the food (grain — bread of life), or famine and death? We must put in safe storage for the bad times that which is gold, silver and precious stones, those things that glorify God, to have and remember His goodness to us, for our own spiritual food, during our own famines. I found this list of verses that give us great insight into the meaning of these verses about the years of plenty and that of the famine, what the lessons of Joseph teaches us, this biblical method of Joseph being a representation as a type of Christ, and us today. They are a fascinating list, with all the key lessons we need for the ups and downs of life. They start with the need to be a Joseph, or Enoch, Job or Paul, or perhaps an Elijah — we must walk with God, in faith:

Job 27:8, "For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?"

Matthew 3:2, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Matthew 24:42–44, "Watch therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh."

Mark 8:36, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Romans 13:11, "And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed."

2 Corinthians 5:10, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad."

Hebrews 2:1–3, "Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him."

Hebrews 9:27, "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."

2 Peter 1:10, "Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall."

Revelation 20:15, "And whosoever was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire."

Here we see that belonging to God – with Jesus Christ as Saviour is paramount. We need to treasure a relationship with the Lord above all else. Make certain that we know that our names are written in God's Book of Life and that our souls are secure. No feast or fancy thing here on earth can compare to the peace of heart and joy of spirit that comes from knowing that heaven is your true home and that you are just a pilgrim here passing through.

In closing, let us learn from these last few important verses:

Matthew 6:19–21, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Luke 12:16–21, "And he [Jesus] spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

1 Corinthians 2:9, "But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."

2 Corinthians 5:1, "For we know that, if our earthly house of this tabernacle [our body] were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."


[1] Hamilton–Smith Joseph: Revealer of Secrets, Saviour of the World, p. 44 BibleTruth Publishers  — also online: eg (Accessed 14 April 2013)

[2] R. R. Kelkar 2010 Bible MeteorologyA Synthesis of the Science of Meteorology and What the Bible Says About the Weather.  eBook at (accessed 14 April 2013)

Stephen B Simon (CCC) 14 April 2013
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