Patterns of Providence

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The apostle Paul tells us that we are God’s workmanship created for good works (Eph. 2:10). The Greek word for “workmanship” is literally “poetry.” The idea is that our lives express form and pattern along with beauty. Like the underside of grandmother’s cross-stitch,the everyday of our lives may look to be knotted and hopelessly tangled. But when we turn the fabric over, we see design and beauty that was there all along but that we never foresaw. Joseph’s life is like that. Through all the reversals, betrayals, and slanders he suffered, God was poetically designing his life so that he would be able to accomplish many good works, including saving his own family and then the entire world from the famine that was to come (Gen. 45:5, 50:20).

The patterns in the life of Joseph reveal the “poetry” of God’s provident hand and offer a basis to understand why Joseph was able to persevere under such terrible trials to his faith. We can learn much by looking for the form and pattern in Joseph’s everyday life. For example, Joseph underwent three cycles of demotion and promotion wherein he was always raised to be the second in authority, never the first. He began as the favorite of his father Jacob, trusted over all his brothers (Gen. 37:3). But his brothers treacherously sold him into slavery down in Egypt (Gen. 37:28). He rose up to be the favorite of Potiphar, in command of all the household of his master (Gen. 39:1–4). But he was slandered by Potiphar’s wife and cast down into a dungeon in Egypt (Gen. 39:20). Once again Joseph rose up to be the favorite of the warden, in charge of all the prisoners (Gen. 39:21–23). At last he was delivered from this downward spiral to be elevated as the favorite of the pharaoh, ruling all Egypt (Gen. 41:40–41). But through all these ups and downs, Joseph was second to Jacob, second to Potiphar, second to the jail warden, and finally, second to the pharaoh himself.

During the outworking of the cycles of his rising and falling, Moses notes that every time Joseph altered his position, there was a marked change in his clothing. His father gave Joseph a beautiful coat of many colors, but his brothers stripped it off him and used his garment to deceive his father (Gen. 37:23, 31–33). Similarly, Potiphar’s wife stripped Joseph’s garment off of him, and used his clothing to deceive his master (Gen. 39:12, 16–18). When Joseph was later summoned by the pharaoh, the text notes that after he left the jail, he “changed his garments” (Gen. 41:14). Finally, when the pharaoh invested Joseph with plenipotentiary authority over all Egypt, he gave him a garment of fine linen along with a golden collar of authority (Gen. 41:42).

When Moses recorded the account of Joseph, he identified and preserved these patterns as noteworthy providences in the history of redemption. Why did Moses record them? One lesson we learn from such patterns is that the apparently random walk of our everyday lives is not random at all. A design emerges from these data, and such patterning demonstrates an intelligent providence directing all things. Joseph understood that even adversity is superintended by God to accomplish worthy ends, that God in His sovereignty intends what men purpose for evil to accomplish good  (Gen. 45:4–8; 50:20). 

There is an additional pattern in Joseph’s history that gives us a clue to his ability to persevere against the treachery of his brothers and the slander of his master’s wife. This pattern has to do with prophetic dreams. There are three sets of two dreams in the Joseph narrative, giving us a total of six dreams. Joseph had two dreams in Canaan (Gen. 37:5–11). Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker dream in the prison, having two dreams in one night (Gen. 40:5). Finally, the pharaoh had two dreams in one night (Gen. 41:1, 5). Joseph recognized the significance of the pattern of two dreams. He explained to the pharaoh that God had given two dreams to confirm the truth of the message communicated by the dreams, a sign that God would surely bring the dream to pass (Gen. 41:32).

In this light, it is instructive to note that when Joseph in jail heard the dreams of the pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, he readily offered to interpret their dreams. Joseph had already had two dreams foretelling that his brothers would bow down to him. After the years that had passed since he had been sold into bondage, if ever there was an occasion to doubt the prophecy of Joseph’s dreams, Joseph in the dungeon had reason to disbelieve. But God had spoken to his grandfather Abraham and to his father Jacob through dreams (Gen. 15:12–21, 28:10–15). It is therefore clear that Joseph offered to interpret the dreams of the pharaoh’s ministers because he still believed in prophetic dreams! In spite of all the adversity that had befallen him, Joseph fully expected to see his brothers again someday as they would bow before him!

God worked mightily through all Joseph’s adversity to preserve the family that was to become Israel. In the fullness of time, God, who delights in working His providence through patterns, would once again give two prophetic dreams to another Joseph, and the true Israel would once again be preserved thereby in Egypt (Matt. 1:20, 2:19), all that the true Bread might be given to the whole world in yet another time of desperate hunger (John 6:48).  

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.