What Can Millennials Learn From Joseph in Egypt?

Joseph in Egypt


Shaped Through Our Trials by Hank Smith taken from You've Got This! How to Look Up When Life Has You Down (For Teens)


I am a scripture guy. I’ve taught from the scriptures as a full-time seminary teacher and a BYU religion professor now for almost two decades. I see the stories, doctrines, and principles in the scriptures as the stuff of the eternities.  

While I couldn’t choose a favorite story or character from the scriptures, certain stories and characters have impacted me more than others. It is these stories that get me bubbling over with excitement when I enter my classroom, and I don’t know of many stories that make me more excited and inspired than the story of Joseph of Egypt (see Genesis 37–45). 

Joseph’s Story

 The first night that Joseph, son of Jacob, slept in an Egyptian prison must have been one of the lowest points in his life. He must have looked up to the stars outside through the bars in his window and thought, God, why do you hate me? 

He must have said, “Every time I have something going for me, you allow someone to take it from me.” Through tears, he probably said, “Why is this happening to me?” 

Just a decade earlier, Joseph had been a teenager in Canaan. Life was good. His parents, Jacob and Rachel, absolutely adored him. At the time, Joseph was excited for the future. 

Excited for all the good things his father was telling him were going to come his way. Jacob wasn’t the only one telling Joseph about his future. God, through Joseph’s dreams, was giving him glimpses of what was going to come. 

Then one day, it all changed. In one moment, all that was important to him was taken from him. Joseph’s brothers, in an act of jealousy and anger, sold him to a group of Ishmaelites. 

His brothers turned their back on their despairing brother as he was taken away. Days later, the Ishmaelites sold Joseph as a slave to Potiphar, a member of the Egyptian military. 

What Joseph’s older brothers did to him was callous and cruel. He did not deserve such horror at the hands of those who were supposed to love him. Joseph should have been able to look to his older siblings for support and guidance, but instead all he received was pain and betrayal. He was now all on his own. 

Incredibly, somewhere along the way, Joseph accepted his situation. He wasn’t going to get his old life back. Nobody was coming to save him and take him home. If he was going to make something out of this tragedy, it was entirely up to him. 

Perhaps he said to himself, “I am going to be a slave for a long time. I’ll work hard to make something out of this.”

Joseph eventually became the “head servant” in Potiphar’s house. In fact, Potiphar trusted Joseph so much that he gave him control over his entire estate without ever checking on him. 

He handed Joseph the Egyptian Bank Account, the Egyptian Express Credit Card, and the keys to the chariot. Potiphar felt lucky to have the best servant on the earth working for him. 

If Joseph’s story were to stop there, it would be an amazing story. It would be a testimony that betrayal can be overcome, that anyone can succeed despite the pain of other people’s choices. Joseph would have showed us that life doesn’t have to be defined by the pain others cause through their own selfish decisions. 

But Joseph’s story wasn’t over. He was going to be betrayed again. 

Potiphar wasn’t the only one who thought highly of Joseph. Potiphar’s wife had evil ideas of her own. She tried to coerce Joseph into a sexual relationship. Joseph refused. 

He had too much respect for Potiphar to hurt him like that. Joseph stayed true to his love for God and the commandments. He told Potiphar’s wife he would not commit such a “great wickedness.” To make sure he didn’t give in to the temptation, he ran away and removed himself from the situation. 

Potiphar’s wife was likely not used to being turned down. She was embarrassed and angry. She accused Joseph of attacking her. Potiphar was furious with Joseph and sent him to prison. For the second time in his life, everything had been taken from Joseph by the selfish and cruel choices of others. 

As he lay in the Egyptian prison, looking up at the heavens outside his window, tears must have been streaming down his face. At this point, he could have easily given in to the anger and hatred. He had every right to be angry. He had every right to hate many people—his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and Potiphar. Perhaps he was angry with his father for not coming for him. Perhaps he was even angry with himself. He may have shaken his head at his own naivety. How could he have allowed himself to trust someone again? How could he have been so foolish to believe that he could have happiness in life? Perhaps he was angry with God for allowing this to happen. Perhaps he doubted that God loved him or even cared about him. Perhaps, in his darkest moments, he doubted that God actually existed at all. 

God had a much bigger plan in mind for Joseph, but Joseph didn’t know that. All he knew was that he was in an Egyptian prison and may never get out. This may be where he would spend the rest of his life. For all he knew, he was going to die within those walls. 

Incredibly, Joseph did the emotionally impossible. Somehow, he found the mental and spiritual strength to reach deep down and decide he could make something out of his horrible circumstances. Perhaps he said to himself, “I am probably going to be here for a very long time. I’ll work hard to make something out of this.” And just as he had in Potiphar’s house, Joseph eventually became the “head prisoner” in the dungeon. The keeper of the guard trusted Joseph so much that he gave him control over all the prisoners without ever checking on him. 

If Joseph’s story were to stop there, it would be an incredible story. It would be a testimony that not only one, but multiple tragedies can be overcome. It would be an example of perseverance and dedication overpowering the negative effect of others’ choices. Once again, Joseph would have shown us that life doesn’t have to be defined by the pain others cause through their own self-centered choices. 

But Joseph’s story wasn’t over. In his interaction with the other prisoners, Joseph was introduced to Pharaoh’s chief butler. He interpreted the dream of the butler with one request. 

He asked the butler to “make mention of [him] unto Pharaoh, and bring [him] out of this house [prison].” 

After the butler was released, Joseph must have been waiting in anticipation. Surely the butler would do what he said he would. This must be Joseph’s big chance. When Pharaoh hears of Joseph’s gift, he will surely want Joseph to work for him. The last verse of Genesis chapter 40 is quick for the reader, but must have been a slow and crushing realization for Joseph: 

“Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.” 

For two more years Joseph sat in prison, forgotten. But God hadn’t forgotten Joseph. Through all of the ups and downs of Joseph’s life, God had been moving him into a specific location. But it wasn’t only geography that mattered. 

Not only did Joseph need to be in the right place at the right time, but he had to be the right kind of person when he got there. Joseph’s trials were shaping him for this future. Without the difficulties, God could have put Joseph in the right location, but Joseph would not have been the type of man he needed to be in order to become what God intended him to become. In order to do what he needed to do next, Joseph needed to be in Egypt, but he also needed to be wise. It was what Joseph had been through that had given him wisdom: the wisdom that only comes from experience. It was wrestling with the effects of betrayal; it was the experience he gained working in Potiphar’s house; it was the years in prison. Through it all Joseph had changed, he had been schooled and shaped through both prosperity and suffering. And now he was finally ready. 

In a single day, Joseph’s life had been seemingly ruined by his brothers many years previous. But now, in a single day, his life would to change dramatically for the better. 

Joseph likely woke up that morning and assumed it would be like any other. That all changed when word came that Joseph had been summoned out of the prison. By who? The pharaoh himself. 

Pharaoh had been suffering from the same dream night after night. A dream he didn’t understand. His butler then remembered a young man from the prison, a young man that could interpret dreams. So Pharaoh sent for Joseph. 

Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and laid out a plan to save Egypt from an upcoming seven-year famine. Because of this, in a single day, Joseph went from being a prisoner to second-in-command in Egypt. From prisoner to Vice Pharaoh.

 Quite a promotion. 

If Joseph’s story were to stop there, it would still be an extraordinary story. It would be a testimony that God keeps his promises. The promises He made to Joseph in his early life were being fulfilled in God’s own time. He had shown Joseph his incredible future and it was unfolding before Joseph’s eyes. 

Joseph showed us that our trials can be gateways to future happiness and prosperity. But Joseph’s story wasn’t over. Joseph was about to see his brothers again. 

The famine Joseph saw in Pharaoh’s dream became a harsh reality, not only for Egypt, but for all the neighboring lands. Joseph’s father and brothers, still in Canaan, were also suffering. They heard about the food stored in Egypt, and Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy food. 

For Joseph, that day must have begun as any other. He was now married and had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The days of being a slave and his time in prison were distant memories. Life was, once again, happy. Perhaps he was in the middle of a friendly conversation or conducting official business when he noticed a large group approaching. Perhaps there was a first glance, then a turn to take a second look. Then the recognition must have swept over him. His mouth probably

dropped open a little, his heartbeat probably quickened. He likely couldn’t stop staring. Is it really them? What are they doing here? 

This was where Joseph was going to find out what the decades apart had done to him and to them. What kind of man had he become? What kind of men had they become? 

Joseph decided to test them. 

Joseph disguised his voice and spoke to his brothers through an interpreter. He accused them of being spies for the enemies of Egypt. In response, they told Joseph who they were and where they were from. They explained that they were from

a family with twelve sons—the youngest, Benjamin, was back in Canaan with their father, and that the other was dead. They had no idea that their dead brother was standing in front of them. 

Joseph replied that he would believe them if they could produce their younger brother. One brother, Simeon, would stay in Egypt in prison. The rest would go home and return with the younger brother. With Joseph listening on, the brothers spoke to one another about the past, the pain they still felt over what they did to him so long ago, and how they were still suffering from what they had done. Joseph learned that they had also suffered all these years. 

Hearing their regret, Joseph had to leave the room. He exited and wept. The brothers returned to Egypt from Canaan with Benjamin. Joseph released Simeon from prison and arranged a feast for him and his brothers. After a wonderful evening, Joseph told them they would return to Canaan with their sacks full of food. He told his guards to sneak a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. 

Not long after the brothers began their journey back to Canaan, Joseph’s guards caught up to them and accused them of stealing from Joseph. The sacks were opened and the silver cup was discovered. They returned to Egypt where Joseph told them that Benjamin would be executed, but the rest could return home. 

Would they walk away from Benjamin like they walked away from him all those years ago? The brothers, with Judah as their spokesman, offered themselves in the place of Benjamin. They couldn’t return to their father without him. They had broken their father’s heart once and wouldn’t do it again. 

What must have the brothers been thinking when this Egyptian ruler sent his guards away so he could be alone with them. Tears were flowing from his eyes. They must have wondered, What is going on? Why is he doing this? 

Then, in a mere sentence, their lives changed forever. “I am Joseph; doth my father yet live?” The shock of this statement came in waves. First, they were surprised he spoke their language. He had mentioned Joseph, their brother. Had they ever said his name to this man? Then recognition flowed, he doesn’t just know Joseph’s name. He had said, “I am Joseph.” 

Joseph realized they were stunned. They didn’t comprehend what he had just said. He saw that they needed a closer look. A small smile came across his lips as he said, “Come near to me. I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.” 

It was as if they had seen a ghost. They whispered his name in near disbelief and gathered around him. Joseph embraced each of them, one by one. Tears of joy pooled, then dropped from all of their eyes. 

As the shock wore off, there was a realization of what needed to be said. They needed to tell him how they had suffered for what they did to him. They needed to tell him how sorry they were. They needed to tell him how they had wished every day since they last saw him that they could take back what they had done. His anguished face as the Ishmaelites carried him away had never left them. His screams for help had haunted them. 

They had never had a truly happy moment since that day. Joseph saw the regret in their eyes. He knew what they wanted to tell him. He put his hand up to speak to them. 

He had thought through exactly what he would say at this moment. He needed to ease the pain in their hearts. He said slowly and quietly, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” This was God’s plan for Joseph. 

He was where God wanted him to be. He had never truly been alone. Eternal Principles The story of Joseph of Egypt is one of the greatest stories ever told. I believe that heaven designed that story to be preserved in order for us to find comfort and peace in what we learn from the details. In my own personal study, I have found myriad principles in Joseph’s story that have brought me profound solace during the most difficult times of my life. 

God can use the damaging choices of others to lead us to where He wants us to be. 

The Lord frequently reminds us that he can make “all things” work together for “our good.” This includes the choices of others. When Lehi spoke to his son Jacob, he reminded him of the difficult childhood he had because of Laman and Lemuel,

and then told him God would “consecrate [his] afflictions for [his] gain” (2 Nephi 2:2). When Joseph Smith was incarcerated in the deplorable conditions of Liberty Jail, the Lord told him, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Heavenly Father isn’t caught off guard by the cruel choices of others. On the contrary, His infinite foreknowledge enables Him to use those choices as tools to shape us into what He’d have us become. 

One example is Karl G. Maeser. I’ve often been amused by how Karl G. Maeser, the founding principal of Brigham Young University, first came to hear of Mormonism. 

In the early 1850s, Maeser was teaching in the Budich Institute in Dresden, Germany. While there, he came across an anti-Mormon book written by Moritz Busch. Maeser and his brother-in-law Edward decided to investigate this new religion further. Soon, both he and Edward and their families joined the Church. We should all be thankful to Moritz Busch for writing that book! 

Often the most difficult times in our lives pave the way to future happiness. Speaking on having patience through difficulties and trials, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “Often the deep valleys of our present will be understood only by looking back on them from the mountains of future experience. Often we can’t see

the Lord’s hand in our lives until long after trials have passed.  

Often the most difficult times of our lives are essential building blocks that form the foundation of our character and pave the way to future opportunity, understanding, and happiness.” If you are in the middle of terrible difficulty, perhaps now isn’t the time to try and understand God’s purposes for them. 

Concentrate on moving forward through this low valley toward the mountains in front of you where you’ll be able to look back and understand. 

Some of the greatest men and women ever born found opportunity because of the hard times they went through. 

Had Joseph never been sold by his brothers, he never would have interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Had Alma the Younger never been spit on in Ammonihah, he never would have met Amulek, one of his dearest friends. Had Esther not lost both her parents, she never would have been able to save her people. 

Had Joseph Smith’s family not lost all of their crops to freezes in Vermont, they never would have moved to New York where Moroni had buried the plates. Perhaps this great difficulty you are going through is leading you to something you will love. 

God uses trials to shape us into the type of people we have to be in order to fully enjoy the future opportunities He has prepared for us. 

Elder Richard G. Scott, who passed through heartbreaking trials himself, taught, “To exercise faith is to trust that the Lord knows what He is doing . . . for your eternal good even though you cannot understand how He can possibly do it. . . . Your Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son love you perfectly. They would not require you to experience a moment more of difficulty than is absolutely needed for your personal benefit.” 

It is crucial to remember that your “personal benefit” is at the heart of your trials and difficulties. This knowledge doesn’t take away the pain and heartache, but it does give it purpose. 

Elder Scott was able to touch lives through the decades of his ministry, in part, because of what he had suffered. 

My friend and fellow author, Kris Belcher, wrote of the difficulties she’s had over her forty years of life in her book Hard Times and Holy Places. After cancer took a great deal of her vision as a child, the cancer returned again in her adult years and caused her to go completely blind. Her advice to her readers was to not “allow your heart to be hardened by hard times; make the choice to turn to Christ. There is a purpose in your suffering. You and I are being changed, remodeled, stretched, and polished for eternal glory. If we trust in and choose Christ amid our difficulties, our hard times will become holy.” 

Though Kris has lost her sight, she says, “My vision has never been clearer.” She now travels the country as a speaker, changing lives with her humor and enthusiasm. The trials you are going through now may be the key to you having the knowledge you need in order to become effective in your career, understand your future child’s or spouse’s mental illness, or save a family member from poor decisions. 

The circumstances will vary with as many people as there are on the earth, but the Lord’s strategy is still the same. He uses our trials to change and prepare us to be successful in future opportunities. 

The impulses of the natural man can have devastating effects on our own lives and on the lives of those we love. 

Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife can teach us about the damaging effects that come from allowing the natural man or woman to control our decisions. We often don’t need the Lord to send us trials because we do too good of a job creating

our own. This mortal life has enough trials built into it; we shouldn’t be making decisions that we know will add trouble it. Because the brothers lashed out in anger against Joseph, they not only ruined Joseph’s life, but stole happiness from their parents, and ruined what could have been years of happiness for themselves. The decisions of the natural man leave a bad aftertaste. For Joseph’s brothers, it was a bitter aftertaste that lasted decades. 

Because Potiphar’s wife allowed lust to cloud her thinking, Joseph’s life was destroyed and the entire household lost the benefit of having Joseph to manage the estate. Potiphar must have had his doubts about her story. Joseph was always honest with him and had never acted in such a way before. What must have that doubt done to their marriage? The natural man sacrifices long-term goals, which are truly important, for short term satisfaction and painful consequences. A fool’s bargain! 

Be smart. Christ calls us His disciples because he expects us to be disciplined! Forgiveness is an essential virtue in becoming what God hopes for you to become. 

Joseph’s story could have ended much differently had he allowed anger to fill his heart. When he saw his brothers again he could have exacted revenge and put them into slavery or sent them to prison. As second only to Pharaoh, he could have done the same to Potiphar’s wife. He could have had the “satisfaction” of watching them all suffer. But why didn’t he? 

Elder James E. Faust taught, “If we can find forgiveness in our hearts for those who have caused us hurt and injury, we will rise to a higher level of self-esteem and well-being. . . . Only as we rid ourselves of hatred and bitterness can the Lord put comfort into our hearts.”4 Joseph understood that forgiving those who hurt him was a gift for himself. He understood that their suffering would not heal the wounds they had inflicted upon him. Hatred and revenge would keep his wounds open, but the Savior could heal them completely. 

Can you can see why I get so excited about the story of Joseph? His story isn’t just about him; it’s a story about all of us. It’s a story about how God works in the lives of His children. It contains principles that guide and heal. Joseph’s story is one of the greatest ever told because he allowed the Lord to tutor him through his trials. 

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  1. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Continue in Patience,” Ensign, May 2010. 
  1. Richard G. Scott, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, November 1995. 
  1. Kristin Warner Belcher, Hard Times and Holy Places (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009), 23. 
  1. James E. Faust, “The Healing Power of Forgiveness, Ensign, May 2007.