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.
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).
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).
Thanks to everyone who has invested in the Theology of Work Project! Thanks to your generosity, we were able to meet all our needs for 2017! We ask that you continue to keep us in your prayers and charitable giving in 2018 as we equip Christians to connect to God's purposes for work.