In Genesis 37:9, Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and twelve stars bowed down to him. Joseph was just seventeen years old, and there was no way that he himself could have planned his destiny and imposed it onto a dream. This was God’s plan for him, God’s choice, no less than God’s choice of Jacob when he and Esau were both in the womb (Gen 25:23). These dreams were God-initiated rather than Joseph-initiated; God was the main actor behind the scenes.
It made sense neither for Joseph to boast as if it were his own plan (though the text does not specify that Joseph was boasting) nor for Joseph’s brothers to be jealous as if they could control their own destinies. It was God’s plan—and ultimately it would prove to bring about the deliverance of them all.
As in the case of Cain’s jealousy of Abel, however, there was something in the character of the human actors that would be consistent with God’s plan. Sin was crouching in Cain’s heart (Gen 4:5–8) leading to his murder of Abel, and many of Joseph’s brothers harboured hatred, even to the extent of wanting to kill him (Gen 37:20). Joseph, by contrast, kept serving the Lord (Gen 39:9) and, in his hardship, continued attributing honour to the Lord (Gen 40:8; 41:16). God has planned it so that human responsibility is part of his plan; God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are complementary, not mutually exclusive, options.
Yet despite the grandeur of the sun-moon-and-stars imagery in his dream—a step above his brothers’ sheathes bowing to him in Genesis 37:7—God does not reveal that all Egypt and Canaan will bow down to Joseph. Joseph will not need advance warning about that; when it happens, Joseph will have no reason to refuse it! God reveals only that his family will bow down to him, because Joseph will later need to recognise that as God’s plan.
Joseph’s exaltation over Egypt would rescue his generation of Egyptians and Canaanites. Yet the restoration of his family was a key part in God’s plan, since God had a special plan for his family that would extend beyond that generation and through history. Joseph may have been satisfied to be exalted over Egypt, but when his brothers unknowingly bowed down to him in Genesis 42:6, Joseph remembered his dreams (Gen 42:9). God calls us, but we do not know all the details in advance. He is the one who orchestrates our lives, and he works through our obedience even when we do not understand.
We tend to exalt the human heroes of the stories when we retell them to children. But the real hero, though often behind the scenes, is the Lord himself. Let’s neither be proud of ourselves nor jealous of others that God exalts. Let’s praise the wise Lord of history and embrace gladly his wise plan.