Were the Israelites already in slavery when Joseph died?

Email Received:

I had a question about the time of death of Joseph. I did the calculation about the years of the slavery of the Israelites, and it seems when Joseph was alive, they had already been put to slavery. Otherwise, my numbers didn't add up if assuming Joseph died at 110 as a free man. Normally, when you read the Bible it feels like (we assume) Joseph died at 110 as a high official with honor.

I don't know whether you have done this calculation. The fact that there was a king who did not know Joseph, and Joseph's bones were not buried in Canaan after his death, seems to indicate the Israelites were not free to do so at the death of Joseph. I have tried to search many books, commentaries, none seems to relate to that question. I asked the question to my pastor, his response is, "Why you want to know that?"

I want to know that because this will picture a different Joseph for me. This Joseph is one who died as a slave but truly trusted God's promise and asked his descendants to bury him in the promised land. It will show a man of great honor and high position, even at the lowest point as a slave.

Ted's Response:

When Joseph was about to die, he made the Israelites promise that after God took them out of the land of Egypt, they would take his bones with them to be buried in the promised land (Genesis 50:24,25). At that time, the Israelites were not in slavery; therefore, they had no desire to leave Egypt.

Joseph died at age 110 in Egypt (Genesis 50:26). He and his brothers had taken their father Jacob's body to Canaan to bury him; but then they all had returned to Egypt (50:5-14). After that, Joseph, all of his brothers, and all of their generation died in Egypt (Exodus 1:1-6), and their descendants multiplied greatly in Egypt (1:7). It is because the Israelites became so numerous that the Egyptians perceived them to be a threat and put them into slavery.

The Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40,41), and for most of that time they were in slavery. But Joseph and all of his brothers died before the new king/pharaoh came to power and placed the Israelites in slavery (1:8-11). So it wasn't until a few centuries later that the Israelites, in their exodus out of Egypt, took Joseph's bones with them (13:19). Decades after that, Joseph's bones finally were buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32).

The picture you'd like to have of Joseph is nice. However, it is idealistic rather than realistic, since Joseph did not die in slavery.

Joseph was one of the greatest men in history. Although he never was in slavery when the Israelites were, there were times when he was in captivity or incarceration. His brothers kept him in a cistern (Genesis 37:23,24); then they sold him to Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt and sold him to one of Pharaoh's officials (37:27,28,36), who became Joseph's master (39:1,2). For a short time, Joseph was enslaved to this master, who put Joseph in charge of his household and affairs (39:3-6).

Later, he was falsely imprisoned (Genesis 39:20). There he remained for two years and then was released and placed in charge of all of Egypt (41:1,14,39-41). This was a picture of Jesus' being in the pit of the earth for two days, resurrected on the third day, and later to rule over the Kingdom of God.

In all of the tribulation and hardship he had to endure, Joseph depended on God to get him through, just as believers during the Great Tribulation will need to rely on God for aid and assistance to get by. Joseph's life is one of the greatest accounts of faith and trust in the entire Bible.

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