Joseph (Genesis 37:2-50:26)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Recall that God accompanied his call to Abraham with core promises (Gen. 12:2-3). First, God would multiply his descendants into a great nation. Second, God would bless him. Third, God would make Abraham’s name great, meaning that Abraham would be worthy of his renown. Fourth, Abraham would be a blessing. This last item pertains to the future generations of Abraham’s family and beyond them, to all the families of the earth. God would bless those who blessed Abraham and curse those who cursed him. The book of Genesis traces the partial fulfillment of these promises through the chosen lines of Abraham’s descendants, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons. Among them all, it is in Joseph that God most directly fulfills his promise to bless the nations through the people of Abraham. Indeed, people from “all the world” were sustained by the food system that Joseph managed (Gen. 41:57). Joseph understood this mission and articulated the purpose of his life in line with God’s intention: “the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20, New International Version).
Joseph Rejected and Sold into Slavery by His Brothers (Genesis 37:2-36)Back to Table of Contents
From a young age, Joseph believed God had destined him for greatness. In dreams, God assured Joseph that he would rise to a position of leadership over his parents and brothers (Gen. 37:5-11). From Joseph’s point of view, these dreams were evidence of divine blessing, rather than his own ambition. From his brothers’ point of view, however, the dreams were further manifestations of the unfair privilege that Joseph enjoyed as the favorite son of their father, Jacob (Gen. 37:3-4). Being sure that we are in the right does not absolve us from empathizing with others who may not share that same view. Good leaders strive to foster cooperation rather than envy. Joseph’s failure to recognize this put him at severe odds with his brothers. After initially plotting murder against him, his brothers settled for selling him to a caravan of traders bearing goods through Canaan to Egypt. The merchants, in turn, sold Joseph to Potiphar, “the captain of the guard” who was “an officer of Pharaoh” in Egypt (Gen. 37:36; 39:1).
The Schemes of Potiphar’s Wife and Joseph’s Imprisonment (Genesis 39:1-20)Back to Table of Contents
Joseph’s stint in Potiphar’s employ gave him a wide range of fiduciary responsibilities. At first, Joseph was merely “in” his master’s house. We don’t know in what capacity he served, but when Potiphar recognized Joseph’s general competence, he promoted him to be his personal steward and “put him in charge of all that he had” (Gen. 39:4).
After a time, Potiphar’s wife took a sexual interest in Joseph (Gen. 39:7). Joseph’s refusal of the wife’s advances was articulate and reasonable. He reminded her of the broad trust that Potiphar had placed in him and described the relationship she sought in the moral/religious terms “wickedness” and "sin" (Gen. 39:9). He was sensitive to both the social and theological dimensions. Furthermore, he offered his verbal resistance repeatedly, and he even avoided being in her presence. When physically assaulted, Joseph made the choice to flee half-naked rather than to submit.
The sexual harassment by this woman took place in a power relationship that disadvantaged Joseph. Although she believed that she had the right and power to use Joseph in this way, her words and contact were clearly unwelcome to him. Joseph’s work required him to be at home where she was, yet he could not call the matter to Potiphar’s attention without interfering in their marital relationship. Even after his escape and arrest on false charges, Joseph seems to have had no legal recourse.
The facets of this episode touch closely on the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace today. People have different standards of what counts for inappropriate speech and physical contact, but the whims of those in power are what often count in practice. Workers are often expected to report incidences of potential harassment to their superiors, but often are reluctant to do so because they know the risk of obfuscation and retaliation. To compound this, even when harassment can be documented, workers may suffer for having come forward. Joseph’s godliness did not rescue him from false accusation and imprisonment. If we find ourselves in a parallel situation, our godliness is no guarantee that we will escape unscathed. But Joseph did leave an instructive testimony to Potiphar’s wife and possibly others in the household. Knowing that we belong to the Lord and that he defends the weak will certainly help us to face difficult situations without giving up. This story is a realistic recognition that standing up to sexual harassment in the workplace may have devastating consequences. Yet it is also a story of hope that by God’s grace, good may eventually prevail in the situation. Joseph also provides a model for us, that even when we are falsely accused and wrongly treated, we carry on with the work God has given us, allowing God to make it right in the end.
Joseph’s Interpretation of Dreams in Prison (Genesis 39:20-40:23)Back to Table of Contents
Joseph’s service in prison was marked by the Lord’s presence, the jailer’s favor, and Joseph’s promotion to leadership (Gen. 39:21-23). In prison, Joseph met two of Pharaoh’s officials who were incarcerated, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. Many Egyptian texts mention the role of cupbearers, who not only tasted wine for quality and to detect poison but also who enjoyed proximity to those with political power. They often became confidants who were valued for their counsel (see Neh. 2:1-4).  Like chief cupbearers, chief bakers were also trusted officials who had open access to the highest persons in the government and who may have performed duties that extended beyond the preparation of food. In prison, Joseph did the work of interpreting dreams for these politically connected individuals.
Interpreting dreams in the ancient world was a sophisticated profession involving technical “dream books” that listed elements of dreams and their meanings. Records of the veracity of past dreams and their interpretations provided empirical evidence to support the interpreter’s predictions. Joseph, however, was not schooled in this tradition and credited God with providing the interpretations that eventually proved true (Gen. 40:8). In this case, the cupbearer was restored to his former post, where he promptly forgot about Joseph.
The dynamics present in this story are still present today. We may invest in the success of another who rises beyond our reach, only to be discarded when our usefulness has been spent. Does this mean that our work has been for nothing and that we would have been better off to focus on our own position and promotion? What’s more, Joseph had no way of independently verifying the stories of the two officials in prison. “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines” (Prov. 18:17). After sentencing, however, any prisoner can assert his or her own innocence.
We may have doubts about how our investment in others may eventually benefit us or our organizations. We may wonder about the character and motives of the people we help. We may disapprove of what they do afterward and how that might reflect on us. These matters can be varied and complex. They call for prayer and discernment, but must they paralyze us? The Apostle Paul wrote, “Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all” (Gal. 6:10). If we start with a commitment to work for God above all others, then it is easier to move ahead, believing that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NIV).
Joseph’s Promotion by Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1-45)Back to Table of Contents
Jesus Working Beside You: Genesis 41 Sermon Notes (Click Here to Read)
Especially for pastors: sermon notes on Joseph in the context of today's workplaces. Whether at the top of our game or the pit of disaster, God is with us, not only as a calming presence, but actually blessing us with the gifts and connections needed to work well and diligently, escaping difficult conditions to a better place.
Two more years passed until Joseph gained an opportunity for release from his misery in prison. Pharaoh had begun to have disturbing dreams, and the chief cupbearer remembered the skill of the young Hebrew in prison. Pharaoh’s dreams about cows and stalks of grain befuddled his most skilled counselors. Joseph testified to God’s ability to provide interpretations and his own role as merely the mediator of this revelation (Gen. 41:16). Before Pharaoh, Joseph did not use the covenant name of God exclusive to his own people. Instead, he consistently referred to God with the more general term elohim. In so doing, Joseph avoided making any unnecessary offense, a point supported by the fact that Pharaoh credited God with revealing to Joseph the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams (Gen. 41:39). In the workplace, sometimes believers can give God credit for their success in a shallow manner that ends up putting people off. Joseph’s way of doing it impressed Pharaoh, showing that publicly giving God credit can be done in a believable way.
God’s presence with Joseph was so obvious that Pharaoh promoted Joseph to second-in-command of Egypt, especially to take charge of preparations for the coming famine (Gen. 41:37-45). God’s word to Abraham was bearing fruit: “I will bless those who bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Like Joseph, when we confess our own inability to meet the challenges we face and find appropriate ways to attribute success to God, we forge a powerful defense against the pride that often accompanies public acclaim.
Joseph’s promotion brought him significant accoutrements of leadership: a royal signet ring and gold chain, fine clothing appropriate to his high office, official transportation, a new Egyptian name, and an Egyptian wife from an upper class family (Gen. 41:41-45). If ever there was a lure to leave his Hebrew heritage behind, this was it. God helps us deal with failure and defeat, yet we may need his help even more when dealing with success. The text presents several indications of how Joseph handled his promotion in a godly way. Part of this had to do with Joseph’s preparation before his promotion.
Back in his father’s home, the dreams of leadership that God gave him convinced Joseph that he had a divinely ordained purpose and destiny that he never forgot. His personal nature was basically trusting of people. He seems to have held no grudge against his jealous brothers or the forgetful cupbearer. Before Pharaoh promoted him, Joseph knew that the Lord was with him and he had tangible evidence to prove it. Repeatedly giving God credit was not only the right thing to do, but it also reminded Joseph himself that his skills were from the Lord. Joseph was courteous and humble, showing a desire to do whatever he could to help Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Even when the Egyptians were bereft of currency and livestock, Joseph earned the trust of the Egyptian people and of Pharaoh himself (Gen. 41:55). Throughout the rest of his life as an administrator, Joseph consistently devoted himself to effective management for the good of others.
Joseph’s story to this point reminds us that in our broken world, God’s response to our prayers doesn’t necessarily come quickly. Joseph was seventeen years old when his brothers sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:2). His final release from captivity came when he was thirty (Gen. 41:46), thirteen long years later.
Joseph’s Successful Management of the Food Crisis (Genesis 41:46-57; 47:13-26)Back to Table of Contents
Joseph Creates a Long-term Agricultural Policy and Infrastructure (Genesis 41:46-57)Back to Table of Contents
Joseph immediately went about the work to which Pharaoh had appointed him. His primary interest was in getting the job done for others, rather than taking personal advantage of his new position at the head of the royal court. He maintained his faith in God, giving his children names that credited God with healing his emotional pain and making him fruitful (Gen. 41:51-52). He recognized that his wisdom and discernment were gifts from God, but nevertheless that he still had much to learn about the land of Egypt, its agricultural industry in particular. As the senior administrator, Joseph’s work touched on nearly every practical area of the nation’s life. His office would have required that he learn much about legislation, communication, negotiation, transportation, safe and efficient methods of food storage, building, economic strategizing and forecasting, record-keeping, payroll, the handling of transactions both by means of currency and through bartering, human resources, and the acquisition of real estate. His extraordinary abilities with respect to God and people did not operate in separate domains. The genius of Joseph’s success lay in the effective integration of his divine gifts and acquired competencies. For Joseph, all of this was godly work.
Pharaoh had already characterized Joseph as “discerning and wise” (Gen. 41:39), and these characteristics enabled Joseph to do the work of strategic planning and administration. The Hebrew words for wise and wisdom (hakham and hokhmah) denote a high level of mental perceptivity, but also are used of a wide range of practical skills including craftsmanship of wood, precious stones, and metal (Exod. 31:3-5; 35:31-33), tailoring (Exod. 28:3; 35:26, 35), as well as administration (Deut. 34:9; 2 Chr. 1:10) and legal justice (1 Kgs. 3:28). These skills are found among unbelievers as well, but the wise in the Bible enjoy the special blessing of God who intends Israel to display God’s ways to the nations (Deut. 4:6).
As his first act, “Joseph...went through all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:46) on an inspection tour. He would have to become familiar with the people who managed agriculture, the locations and conditions of the fields, the crops, the roads, and means of transportation. It is inconceivable that Joseph could have accomplished all of this on a personal level. He would have had to establish and oversee the training of what amounted to a Department of Agriculture and Revenue. During the seven years of abundant harvest, Joseph had the grain stored in cities (Gen. 41:48-49). During the seven lean years that followed, Joseph dispensed grain to the Egyptians and other people who were affected by the widespread famine. To create and administer all this, while surviving the political intrigue of an absolute monarchy, required exceptional talent.
Joseph Relieves the Poverty of Egypt’s People (Genesis 47:13-26)Back to Table of Contents
After the people ran out of money, Joseph allowed them to barter their livestock for food. This plan lasted for one year during which Joseph collected horses, sheep, goats, cattle, and donkeys (Gen. 47:15-17). He would have had to determine the value of these animals and establish an equitable system for exchange. When food is scarce, people are especially concerned for the survival of themselves and their loved ones. Providing access to points of food distribution and treating people even-handedly become acutely important administrative matters.
When all of the livestock had been traded, people willingly sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh and sold him the ownership of their lands as well (Gen. 47:18-21). From the perspective of leadership, this must have been awful to witness. Joseph, however, allowed the people to sell their land and to enter into servitude, but he did not take advantage of them in their powerlessness. Joseph would have had to see that these properties were valued correctly in exchange for seed for planting (Gen. 47:23). He enacted an enduring law that people return 20 percent of the harvest to Pharaoh. This entailed creating a system to monitor and enforce the people’s compliance with the law and establishing a department dedicated to managing the revenue. In all of this, Joseph exempted the priestly families from selling their land because Pharaoh supplied them with a fixed allotment of food to meet their needs adequately (Gen. 47:22, 26). Handling this special population would have entailed having a smaller, distinct system of distribution that was tailored for them.
Poverty and its consequences are economic realities. Our first duty is to help eliminate them, but we cannot expect complete success until God’s kingdom is fulfilled. Believers may not have the power to eliminate the circumstances that require people to make hard choices, but we can find ways to support people as they—or perhaps we ourselves—cope. Choosing the lesser of two evils may be necessary work and can be emotionally devastating. In our work, we may experience tension arising from feeling empathy for the needy, yet bearing responsibility to do what is good for the people and organizations we work for. Joseph experienced God’s guidance in these difficult tasks, and we also have received God’s promise that “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
Happily, by applying his God-given skill and wisdom, Joseph successfully brought Egypt through the agricultural catastrophe. When the seven years of good harvests came, Joseph developed a stockpiling system to store the grain for use during the coming drought. When the seven years of drought arrived, “Joseph opened the storehouses” and provided enough food to bring the nation through the famine. His wise strategy and effective implementation of the plan even allowed Egypt to supply grain to the rest of the world during the famine (Gen. 41:57). In this case, God’s fulfillment of his promise that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to the world occurred not only for the benefit of foreign nations, but even through the industry of a foreign nation, Egypt.
In fact, God’s blessing for the people of Israel came only after and through his blessing of foreigners. God did not raise up an Israelite in the land of Israel to provide for Israel’s relief during the famine. Instead God enabled Joseph, working in and through the Egyptian government, to provide for the needs of the people of Israel (Gen. 47:11-12). Nonetheless, we shouldn’t idealize Joseph. As an official in a sometimes repressive society, he became part of its power structure, and he personally imposed slavery on uncounted numbers of people (Gen. 47:21).
Applications from Joseph’s Management Experience (Genesis 41:46-57; 47:13-26)Back to Table of Contents
Genesis’s interest in Joseph’s management of the food crisis lies more in its effect on the family of Israel than in developing principles for effective management. Nonetheless, to the degree that Joseph’s extraordinary leadership can serve as an example for leaders today, we can derive some practical applications from his work:
1. Become as familiar as possible with the state of affairs as they exist at the beginning of your service.
2. Pray for discernment regarding the future so that you can make wise plans.
3. Commit yourself to God first and then expect him to direct and establish your plans.
4. Gratefully and appropriately acknowledge the gifts God has given you.
5. Even though others recognize God’s presence in your life and the special talents you have, do not broadcast these in a self-serving effort to gain respect.
6. Educate yourself about how to do your job and carry it out with excellence.
7. Seek the practical good for others, knowing that God has placed you where you are to be a blessing.
8. Be fair in all of your dealings, especially when the circumstances are grim and deeply problematic.
9. Although your exemplary service may propel you to prominence, remember your founding mission as God’s servant. Your life does not consist in what you gain for yourself.
10. Value the godliness of the myriad types of honorable work that society needs.
11. Generously extend the fruit of your labor as widely as possible to those who truly need it, regardless of what you think of them as individuals.
12. Accept the fact that God may bring you into a particular field of work under extremely challenging conditions. This does not mean that something has gone terribly wrong or that you are out of God’s will.
13. Have courage that God will fit you for the task.
14. Accept the fact that sometimes people must choose what they regard as the better of two very unpleasant yet unavoidable situations.
15. Believe that what you do will not only benefit those whom you see and meet, but also that your work has the potential to touch lives for many generations to come. God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
Joseph’s Dealings with His Brothers (Genesis 42-43)Back to Table of Contents
In the midst of the crisis in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers arrived from Canaan, seeking to buy food, as the famine severely affected their land also. They did not recognize Joseph, and he did not reveal himself to them. He dealt with his brothers largely through the language of commerce. The word silver (kesef) appears twenty times in chapters 42 through 45 and the word for grain (shever) nineteen. Trading in this commodity provided the framework on which the intricate personal dynamics hung.
Joseph's behavior in this situation became quite shrewd. First, he concealed his identity from his brothers, which—while not necessarily rising to the level of open deceit (Hebrew mirmah as with Jacob in Gen. 27:35)—certainly was less than forthright. Second, he spoke harshly to his brothers with accusations he knew were unfounded (Gen. 42:7, 9, 14, 16; 44:3-5). In short, Joseph took advantage of his power to deal with a group he knew could be untrustworthy because of their earlier treatment of him. His motive was to discern the present character of the people he was dealing with. He had suffered greatly at their hands over twenty years prior, and had every reason to distrust their words, actions, and commitment to the family.
Joseph’s methods verged on deception. He withheld critical information and manipulated events in various ways. Joseph acted in the role of a detective conducting a tough interrogation. He could not proceed with full transparency and expect to get reliable information from them. The biblical concept for this tactic is shrewdness. Shrewdness may be exercised for good or for ill. On the one hand the serpent was “the shrewdest of all the wild animals” (Gen. 3:1 New Living Translation), and employed shrewd methods for disastrously evil purposes. (The NLT's consistent use of "shrewd" makes it clear that the same Hebrew word is being translated. The "NRSV" uses "crafty" here.) The Hebrew word for shrewdness (ormah and cognates) is also translated as “good judgment,” “prudence,” and “clever” (Prov. 12:23; 13:16; 14:8; 22:3; 27:12), indicating it may take foresight and skill to make godly work possible in difficult contexts. Jesus himself counseled his disciples to be “as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16 NLT). The Bible often commends shrewdness in the pursuit of noble purposes (Prov. 1:4; 8:5, 12).
Joseph’s shrewdness had the intended effect of testing his brothers’ integrity, and they returned the silver Joseph had secretly packed in the baggage (Gen. 43:20-21). When he tested them further by treating the youngest, Benjamin, more generously than the others, they proved they had learned not to fall into animosity among themselves the way they had done when they sold Joseph into slavery.
It would be superficial to read into Joseph’s actions the claim that thinking you are on God’s side is always a justification for deceit. But Joseph’s long career of service and suffering in God’s service gave him a deeper understanding of the situation than his brothers had. Seemingly, the promise that God would make them into a large nation hung in the balance. Joseph knew that it was not in his human power to save them, but he took advantage of his God-given authority and wisdom to serve and help. Two important factors differentiate Joseph in making the decision to use means that otherwise would not be commendable. First, he gained nothing from these machinations for himself. He had received a blessing from God, and his actions were solely in the service of becoming a blessing to others. He could have exploited his brothers’ desperate predicament and spitefully exacted a greater sum of silver, knowing they would have given anything to survive. Instead, he used knowledge to save them. Second, his actions were necessary if he was to be able to offer the blessings. If he had dealt with his brothers more openly, he could not have tested their trustworthiness in the matter.
Judah’s Transformation to a Man of God (Genesis 44:1-45:15)Back to Table of Contents
In the final episode of Joseph’s testing of his brothers, Joseph framed Benjamin for an imaginary crime and claimed Benjamin as a slave in recompense. When he demanded that the brothers return home to Isaac without Benjamin (Gen. 44:17), Judah emerged as the group’s spokesman. What gave him the standing to take on this role? He had broken faith with his family by marrying a Canaanite (Gen. 38:2), had raised such wicked sons that the Lord put two of them to death (Gen. 38:7, 10), had treated his daughter-in-law as a prostitute (Gen. 38:24), and had hatched the plan to sell his own brother as a slave (Gen. 37:27). But the story Judah told Joseph showed a changed man. He exhibited unexpected compassion in telling of the family’s heart-wrenching experience of starvation, of his father’s undying love for Benjamin, and of Judah’s own promise to his father that he would bring Benjamin back home, lest Jacob literally die from grief. Then, in an ultimate expression of compassion, Judah offered to substitute himself in place of Benjamin! He proposed that he be retained in Egypt for the rest of his life as the governor’s slave if only the governor would let Benjamin go home to his father (Gen. 44:33-34).
Seeing the change in Judah, Joseph was able to bless them as God intended. He disclosed to them the full truth: “I am Joseph” (Gen.45:3 ). It appears that Joseph finally saw that his brothers could be trusted. In our own dealings with those who would exploit and deceive us, we must tread carefully, to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, as Jesus instructed the disciples (Matt. 10:16). As one writer put it, “Trust requires trustworthiness.” All of the planning Joseph had done in his discussions with his brothers reached this culmination, allowing him to enter into a right relationship with them. He calmed his terrified brothers by pointing to the work of God who was responsible for placing Joseph in charge of all Egypt (Gen. 45:8). Waltke spells out the importance of the interaction between Joseph and his brothers:
This scene exposes the anatomy of reconciliation. It is about loyalty to a family member in need, even when he or she looks guilty; giving glory to God by owning up to sin and its consequences; overlooking favoritism; offering up oneself to save another; demonstrating true love by concrete acts of sacrifice that create a context of trust; discarding control and the power of knowledge in favor of intimacy; embracing deep compassion, tender feelings, sensitivity, and forgiveness; and talking to one another. A dysfunctional family that allows these virtues to embrace it will become a light to the world.
God is more than able to bring his blessings to the world through deeply flawed people. But we must be willing to continually repent of the evil we do and turn to God for transformation, even if we are never perfectly purged of our errors, weaknesses, and sins in this life.
Contrary to the values of the societies around Israel, the willingness of leaders to offer themselves in sacrifice for the sins of others was intended to be a signature trait of leadership among the people of God. Moses would show it when Israel sinned regarding the golden calf. He prayed, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Exod. 32:31-32). David would show it when he saw the angel of the Lord striking down the people. He prayed, “What have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Sam. 24:17). Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, would show it when he said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18).
Jacob’s Family’s Move to Egypt (Genesis 45:16-47:12)Back to Table of Contents
Joseph and Pharaoh lavishly gave Joseph’s brothers “the best of all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:20) and supplied them for their return to Canaan and transportation of the family. This apparently happy ending, however, has a dark side. God had promised Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan, not Egypt. Long after Joseph passed from the scene, Egypt’s relationship with Israel turned from hospitality to hostility. Seen this way, how does Joseph’s benevolence to the family fit with his role as mediator of God’s blessing to all families of the earth (Gen. 12:3)? Joseph was a man of insight who planned for the future, and he did bring about the portion of God’s blessing assigned to him. But God did not reveal to him the future rise of a “new king…who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). Each generation needs to remain faithful to God and receive God’s blessings in their own time. Regrettably, Joseph’s descendants forgot God’s promises and drifted into faithlessness. Yet God did not forget his promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants. Among their descendants God would raise up new men and women to impart God’s promised blessings.
God Meant All for Good (Genesis 50:15-21)Back to Table of Contents
The penitent words of the brothers led Joseph to one of the finest theological points of his life and, indeed, much of Genesis. He told them not to be afraid, for he would not retaliate for their mistreatment of him. “Even though you intended to do harm to me,” he told them, “God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:20-21). Joseph’s reference to “numerous people” echoes God’s covenantal promise to bless “all families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). From our vantage point today, we can see that God sent far more blessing than Joseph could have ever asked or imagined (see Eph. 3:20).
God’s work in and through Joseph had real, practical, serious value —to preserve lives. If we ever have the impression that God wants us in the workplace only so we can tell others about him, or if we get the impression that the only part of our work that matters to God is building relationships, Joseph’s work says otherwise. The things we make and do in our work are themselves crucial to God and to other people. Sometimes this is true because our work is a piece of a bigger whole, and we lose sight of the result of the work. Joseph took a larger perspective on his work, and he was not discouraged by its inevitable ups and downs.
This is not to say that relationships at work aren’t also of the highest importance. Perhaps Christians have the special gift of offering forgiveness to people in our workplaces. Joseph’s reassurance to his brothers is a model of forgiveness. Following the instruction of his father, Joseph forgave his brothers and thus verbally released them from guilt. But his forgiveness—like all true forgiveness—was not just verbal. Joseph used the extensive resources of Egypt, which God had placed under his control, to support them materially so that they could prosper. He acknowledged that judgment was not his role. “Am I in the place of God?” (Gen. 50:19). He did not usurp God’s role as judge but helped his brothers to connect with God who had saved them.
The relationship Joseph had with his brothers was both familial and economic. There is no clearly defined boundary between these areas; forgiveness is appropriate to both. We may be tempted to think that our most cherished religious values are primarily meant to function in identifiably religious spheres, such as the local church. Of course, much of our work life does take place in the public realm, and we must respect the fact that others do not share our Christian faith. But the neat division of life into separate compartments labeled “sacred” and “secular” is something foreign to the worldview of Scripture. It is not sectarian, then, to affirm that forgiveness is a sound workplace practice.
There will always be plenty of hurt and pain in life. No company or organization is immune from that. It would be naive to assume generally that nobody deliberately means to cause harm by what they say or do. Just as Joseph acknowledged that people did intend to harm him, we can do likewise. But in the same sentence lives the larger truth about God’s intention for good. Recalling that point when we feel hurt both helps us to bear the pain and to identify with Christ.
Joseph saw himself as an agent of God who was instrumental in effecting the work of God with his people. He knew the harm that people were capable of and accepted that sometimes people are their own worst enemies. He knew the family stories of faith mixed with doubt, of faithful service mingled with self-preservation, of both truth and deceit. He also knew of the promises God made to Abraham, of God’s commitment to bless this family, and of God’s wisdom in working with his people as he refined them through the fires of life. He did not paint over their sins; rather, he absorbed them into his awareness of God’s grand work. Our awareness of the inevitable, providential successfulness of God’s promises makes our labor worthwhile, no matter the cost to us.
Of the many lessons about work in the book of Genesis, this one in particular endures and even explains redemption itself—the crucifixion of the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8-10). Our places of work provide contexts in which our values and character are brought to light as we make decisions that affect ourselves and those around us. In his wise power, God is capable of working with our faithfulness, mending our weakness, and forging our failures to accomplish what he himself has prepared for us who love him.