Predictable unpredictability

On a surface-level reading of Exodus 17:8-16, it seems like Moses hands the reigns to Joshua, saying, “You go fight. I’m going to grab my hiking stick and climb that mountain.” Moses feels no need to explain himself to Joshua, or to us. Why did no one protest or ask questions? I certainly have a few!

The risks of delegation

At this point in the Exodus story, Moses’ track record leading his own people is fairly brief. Since the day he reappeared from 40 years’ solitude in the wilderness, the people’s relationship with their untested leader has been running hot and cold. Their gratefulness and worship in Exodus 4:31 quickly turns to accusation by 5:21 when Pharaoh takes his anger out on the people. Moses then manages a series of crises—some of which he provoked. A few weeks after the highs of the miraculous Red Sea crossing (Ex 14), the people are ready to mutiny and stone Moses to death (Ex 17:4). And it won’t be long before the people give up on Moses when he spends six weeks on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24, 32). There’s a surprising arms-length detachment in their assessment of him in Exodus 32:1: “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

What kind of leader is Moses? In these first months of his leadership, some of his idiosyncrasies and patterns of his leadership style are still developing. So, at the point the Amalekites attack, Moses hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt with the people.

Viewed through that lens, the risks Moses takes in walking away from the fight are enormous. The quarrel only a few verses prior was no small dispute; Moses feared for his life. It was no-confidence territory. Insubordination. Potential mutiny. So God gave a solution that was very public and deliberate in elevating Moses before the people.

With his leadership so recently in danger, we could forgive an inclination from Moses to solidify his leadership further with one more bold demonstration that he is in charge.

Instead, he walks away.

By delegating the key responsibility, Moses also risks the people latching onto Joshua and giving him credit, just as David’s successes would be a threat to King Saul (1 Sam 18:8) and Absalom would one day steal followers from his father, David (2 Sam 15:6). But Moses shows no fear.

Moses’ choice looks naive, uncalculated. He simply isn’t driven by politics. He clearly knows God has called him to this role, but these are God’s people. This stewardship view of leadership removes any fear that he might lose his job. Yes, Joshua might get the glory and gain some followers due to his hands-on, ground-level leadership among the people. Moses isn’t driven by those motivations, and that allows him to make a courageous choice.

I find Moses to be unpredictable, and yet also entirely predictable.

What about me?

I ask myself: Is my spiritual practice, my means of leading out of my relationship with God, predictable? Have I established a track record of obedience, of hearing God, of drawing on my time with him to take courageous steps? So, when God prompts surprising plans or methods, the one predictable thing about me is my quickness and readiness to follow?

I’ve had years with my senior leadership team, and they’ve noticed my style of decision-making and leading. Would an action like Moses’ be out of character for me? Would my team trust me implicitly?

The key seems to be Moses’ focus on following God, no matter what. My first instinct often isn’t spiritual leadership. I think things through and gather data. My responses are measured, and it’s really only in the past decade that I’ve learned to lean on my intuition. I’m still early in my journey into using discernment methods. One of Ruth Haley Barton’s foundational principles for discernment is to rely on God’s goodness and “ask God for the grace to desire his will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else” (Pursuing God’s Will Together, p188)

Moses’ authority to lead is spiritual in nature. It comes from the fact that his followers know he has spent time with God. By Exodus 33:7-11, he will eventually establish a pattern of conversing with God face to face in the tent of meeting. It’s obvious to the people exactly how much time he spends with God; when he goes in the tent, they stand at the doors of their tents and worship. Even his countenance reveals he has been with God.

How obvious is it with your followers the amount of time you’ve spent with God?

When you have been with God and then propose a wacky idea like marching silently around a city for seven days or throwing nets on the other side of a boat or walking away from battle to climb a mountain, followers’ doubts are quelled. That predictable unpredictability is the signature of a leader worth following.


Moses on the Mountain series:

  • Don’t delegate this!
  • Predictable unpredictability
  • Who was Joshua? (coming soon)
  • Eyes wide open (coming soon)
Advertisements

Moses on the mountain: Don’t delegate this!

I have been on a journey around spiritual leadership in the past seven years. That kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to me. In terms of my style of leadership, I’m more of a king than a prophet or priest. When it comes to spiritual leadership, there is no better model than Moses. Ever since a board member first handed me a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, I have been intrigued at the depth of Moses’ relationship with God as the basis for his leadership. However, I’m not sure spiritual leadership came naturally to him either—it was an acquired discipline, skill and way of life. Over the next few weeks, I want to mine some gold from one event in particular.

In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel faces its first battle since God miraculously helped them escape Egypt and single handedly wiped out Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Now, as Amalek attacks, Moses turns to someone never before mentioned in the Bible and tells him to choose men, go out and fight while he goes up on a mountain. The passage never definitively unpacks what happens at the top of that mountain.

Have you ever read a passage where numerous things don’t quite add up? You sense it needs deeper study to understand the complexity. Over the past year, I’ve been continually drawn back to Exodus 17. At one point, I read it every day for a month, writing down my discoveries. It’s not transparent, and there are layers to be peeled back. Some of the questions that triggered my study were:

  • If Moses has a “tent of meeting,” where he regularly talks to God face-to-face, why does he go up on the mountain to pray?
  • When we have so many great prayers of Moses recorded, why do we know nothing of Moses’ day on that hill other than his hand positions?
  • When he comes down at the end of the battle, why does he have a message about Amalek so completely out of touch with Joshua’s experience that day?

My study of this passage has shaped my understanding of spiritual leadership and how my role needs to shift. Let’s jump in.

Don’t delegate this!

To be effective, every leader has to ask the question, “What is it that only I can do?”, then delegate everything else. That’s the lesson Moses will get drilled into him by his father-in-law in the next chapter. The ancient historian Josephus says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Sure, he’s long retired from his own fighting days, but when Amalek attacks, he chooses to delegate on-the-ground leadership while keeping spiritual leadership responsibilities. Why?

There are some hints about the insights that lead Moses to this conclusion.

The first thing I noted is that this story begins with the word, “then.” It begs the question, “what came before this?” Moses has just produced water from a rock, but in a context where the people are angry enough to stone him. It’s a critical-enough moment in Israel’s history that the place will forever be identified with the events of that day. However, rather than naming it after the miracle, Moses names it after the danger: “Testing and Quarrelling.” There are several fundamental questions raised in that event:

  • Is God among us or not?
  • Does Moses speak for God?

Moses clearly identifies the circumstances as a spiritual attack – an indirect attack on unity, using accusation and division.

Before they have even left that site, a direct attack comes. It’s a test of a very different nature, and Moses recognizes that it needs a different response.

We also have the benefit of hearing Moses’ commentary on that moment, recorded years later. In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, he would remind Israel that, “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind.” Such predatory behaviour, picking off the weak and isolated, resembles Peter’s warning to believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). 

The second half of the chapter is a continuation of the same two foundational tests: whether God is among them, and whether Moses speaks for God. Moses could dive into the task at hand, boldly leading the people in battle from the front. Instead he holds onto components that address the deeper spiritual nature of this challenge. That is the part he can’t delegate.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Happy to Serve, Reluctant to Lead

It’s been a while since I’ve written on reluctant leadership, my original passion and motivation for this blog. But last week I saw an amazing article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal that made some excellent points. Let me write a preface for it and send you with expediency to the Wall Street Journal. It’s that good.

The article is built on the models of a handful of reluctant leaders, including Moses, George Washington, and Chuck Stokes (CEO of Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston), with President Dwight D. Eisenhower headlining the list. His motivation for running as president was the same as entering the military: his country needed him. So he approached both military service and public service with a reticence to put himself forward. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” That was Eisenhower’s m.o.

As I read the article, I was reminded of Jesus’ words:

But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored. (Matthew 23:8-12, CEV)

My takeaways were in the discussion about the CEO and COO roles. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

Being an enthusiastic, charismatic, highly visible public figure with a lively Twitter account may add value, but those duties won’t coax a hesitant leader out of hiding. Some executives, like Mr. Stokes, would rather shut the office door and apply their vast experience to solving problems. Ideally, a leader excels at both, but let’s be honest. These proclivities rarely flower in the same pot.

Maybe we should start paying COOs like CEOs and invite the vice president to live in the White House, too. Or split the toughest jobs between people with complementary skills, as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff recently did by elevating his trusted operational chief, Keith Block, to the role of co-CEO.

Without further ado, go read the article (it should be free if you haven’t read anything on WSJ in a while).

eisenhower code

Evidence of the Spirit

I’ve been thinking about search processes and succession planning recently—not because I’m thinking about a change, but because I’ve been asked to give feedback about some candidates for a position. I want to dust off some thoughts I posted in 2015, which I’m repackaging here as a new blog post:

In Numbers 27:15-23, Moses had the audacity to tell God what He should look for in his successor:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Look at that list of requirements: a male, a guide, a general, and a shepherd. Where did Moses come up with this list? Is he simply trying to clone himself? Certainly, the wilderness needed a guide and a shepherd. While the historian Josephus tells us Moses had been a general in Egypt, he never takes direct control in any of Israel’s battles. At the same time, Moses is likely looking ahead and considering the next phase for Israel: as it moves into the Promised Land, it will certainly require a military leader as well as a guide and shepherd.

In contrast, what was God’s requirement for leadership?

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him.” (v18)

This doesn’t mean that Joshua didn’t measure up to Moses’ requirements. But God wasn’t looking at the man’s resume; he was looking for evidence of His Spirit. Joshua showed evidence in his past, and it becomes his primary hallmark of leadership after his commissioning:

Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Let’s apply these ideas to ourselves. If you’re a candidate for a position, think for a minute about your successes. How many of them really happened because of your amazing ability? Or does your biography read more like Joseph’s? Potiphar… the prison warden… even Pharaoh himself didn’t need to pay attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, “because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” (Genesis 39:2-6; 39:21-23)

Are you self-aware enough to look at yourself with sober judgement and not take credit for God’s handiwork? Have you taken time to reflect and see God’s hand reaching into and through your life to bring about His purposes?

If you’re on a search committee or interviewing for a position, how do you include in your processes a test for evidence of the Spirit? If character is bad, if the Spirit is not evident, or the person hasn’t reflected on whether his/her success might have come from God, then to develop his leadership abilities is to enable him. In the future, you will see someone who abuses power, position and people.

In short, without God’s Spirit, all you get is competence. Is that all you want? Is that enough?

Leadership Study Guide for The Darkest Hour

Darkest-Hour-One-Sheet-600x888I may have to go back and update some of my previous posts on best leadership movies, because The Darkest Hour just bumped the others off the the top spot. It doesn’t require special ability to note leadership lessons in Churchill’s life, so not much is original here, but perhaps the questions in this blog post can be a tool to be intentional about drawing out some of those lessons. In the spirit of Invictus, my most popular post, I offer The Darkest Hour study guide. It’s designed for personal or group reflection after watching the movie.

We learn the most about Churchill from his wife, Clementine. Their interactions as a couple reveal the truth about Churchill as a man much more three-dimensional than the legend most have come to know. Consider these questions about the Churchills and then reflect on how they apply to you.

  • Consider the various scenes in which Clementine appears. How does she view him—realistically or with rose-colored glasses? What specific traits does she appreciate about him?
  • What does she appeal to in Winston to get him to do what others can’t?

The takeaway quote is this one: “These inner battles have actually trained you for this very moment. You are strong because you are imperfect, you are wise because you have doubts.”

  • How do your doubts, weaknesses and imperfections give your leadership strength?

Later the king asks, “Are you not afraid?” Churchill admits, “Most terribly.”

  • Do followers expect their leaders to be fearless, or is that an unattainable standard leaders expect of themselves?
  • In what ways does the “fearless leader” myth hold back potential leaders?
  • How much should a leader let on about his/her own doubts? What are the risks and benefits?

From biographies, we know that one of the first things Churchill does as Prime Minister is to get a realistic assessment of the state of the war. In the film, his War Room depicts the dire state of the British forces. And yet he portrays to the public something very different.

  • What steps does Churchill take to get brutally honest information for himself?
  • What is the challenge in communicating to the public the state of the war? Do you agree or disagree with his choice to lie to the public? Why?
  • What is the line between optimism and inspiration versus honesty? What might have happened had he done it differently?
  • Clementine makes an interesting point about truth: “The truth will have its time.” In the film, when is the time for truth? Are the people ready by then?

The early days of Churchill’s time in office are extremely fragile, requiring great courage.

  • What is his relationship with the king? How does that relationship change over time, and what factors account for the change?
  • Why does he surround himself with a War Cabinet of rivals? What power do Chamberlain and Halifax utilize against him?
  • How does Churchill find the leverage to break the opposition and gain the political ground to lead effectively?
  • What would courageous leadership look like in your context—with superiors, with rivals and colleagues, and with direct reports?

Churchill struggles with whether his leadership position requires him to consider all possibilities, including entering into negotiations.

  • When does focus and principled leadership become myopic and stubborn to the point of blindness? Is it an abdication of leadership to cave on the one point that got you into your position? Why do you think Churchill concludes, “Those who never change their mind never change anything”?
  • What is the difference between leading others with a clear vision and looking at the people around you, asking their opinions and seeking out the voice of the people? Is that simply following, or is that also a form of leadership?
  • Which factor/whose support most influences his decision to never surrender? The king’s or the people?
  • In what ways does Churchill manipulate the various voices to influence the War Cabinet?

There are a lot of other directions you could take in a film discussion, from exploring the shifting nature of Churchill’s reliance on his secretary… to assessing the tradeoffs that come with leadership… to evaluating Chamberlain’s leadership from the back row. If you come up with any other questions or topics of discussion, post them here so we can all benefit.

Our polarization was manipulated!

“We have lost our ability to listen to alternate points of view, to compromise and reconcile. As the edges of our debates are so sharp, we find it necessary to approach every discussion with weaponized arguments.” —Marc Emmer

How did we get to this point? As I wrote last month on my President’s blog, it’s at least partly attributable to a deliberate campaign:

The news for weeks has been filled with a series of revelations on the full extent of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operation to drive wedges into western issues. Russia operated a massive “fake news” effort that targeted the 2016 political election in the U.S. They made social media posts “that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service… they focused on race, religion, gun rights, and gay and transgender issues.” Russian third parties even went as far as paying coaches to offer self-defense classes for African Americans to increase the chance they would fight back against aggression. These coaches had no idea they were being manipulated by Russia.

We’ve been manipulated to hate each other! We’re standing here with fingers on the trigger only to discover that all of this tension we feel toward each other is the result of a carefully constructed plan! The person or group we thought hated us really doesn’t!

So now what do we do?

Let’s think tactically for a minute. When military commanders identify their opponent’s strategy, they try to work it for their advantage with an ambush. When intelligence officers identify their opponent’s strategy, they run counterintelligence operations and turn spies into double agents.

I’m not actually interested in how nations are responding to Russia’s strategy. I’m interested in how we respond as believers. As shocking as the scale of this operation is politically, it’s a familiar tactic to those of us in Christian ministry. Satan has been driving wedges for millennia against God’s purposes.

As I said in Driving Wedges,

As believers, exposing the strategy is the first step. But how do we wage an effective battle against a strategy to divide? Do we simply strengthen our defences and put up better firewalls against division? What would an offensive strategy look like? Would it mean trying to divide our opposition, responding in kind? Or could we intentionally pursue unity and collaboration?

The problem with seeking to respond in kind is that the ends don’t justify the means. God is just as concerned with how we wage war, and in our growth during the battle, as he is in the results. It’s the luxury he has in knowing he’s already won the war.

What tactics can we employ then?

First, redirect our anger. Turn it instead on the one who manipulated us and raised the stakes. No, it’s not actually Mr. Putin. Look behind him, because our battle is not with flesh and blood. We have a common enemy. It doesn’t mean we set aside our differences, but we make those differences secondary.

I was convicted a couple of weeks ago in Montreal when I heard a Catholic bishop point out that, when churches are in maintenance mode, they see each other as competitors. But when they are in mission mode, they see each other as collaborators. Division within the ranks of God’s kingdom is a luxury of peace and prosperity. When we’re united by a common enemy, we put our energy first into advancing the kingdom of God and putting the gates of Hell on their heels rather than promoting our own agenda or point of view. We can still pursue that while holding to our unique identity and beliefs.

Second, assume our positions are a whole lot closer than we’ve been led to believe. If we lay down our weapons and try to listen, seeking more light than heat, perhaps we will hear the heart behind the other side’s perspective. Remember the good advice that you can’t argue against someone until you understand the person’s argument well enough to articulate it yourself. Most of what North Americans believe about Muslims is simply not true. Most of what Republicans believe about Democrats is simply not true. One way to intentionally break those stereotypes is to broaden our media exposure to intentionally include the other perspective.

Earlier this year I found myself in a surreal situation. I was standing on a rooftop patio in a closed country, talking with a group of Muslim scholars interested in preserving indigenous languages in their country. So we had at least one area of common interest that brought us together. I wish I could have recorded the conversation when these Muslims began to rant against fellow countrymen doing violence in the name of Islam. Every time another attack takes place, they said, their job gets harder. People view them with more skepticism. Their country, their people and their religion are defamed. They yearn for peace in their country.

Third, learn to wage peace. The more time I spend in Canada, the more I appreciate some of the voices that have contributed to this country’s international reputation. One of those is the Anabaptist/Mennonite voice that has come out of the prairies. One author says their thinking has morphed over the past sixty years from quietism and passive nonresistance to activist peacemaking. It’s an art that defies the typical thinking that peace and unity are weak. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi showed us that nonviolent force can change the world.

One tool for waging peace is the third table. When two groups are so distant from each other that they can’t communicate, a third space is designed to allow for honest discussion around issues once each side steps away from their militarized zones. There’s no “home team advantage,” but a safe place to try on different lenses, listen well and find common ground.

A friend recently pointed out that I’m good at creating third spaces. When people present a binary decision, I often don’t buy the thinking, but instead seek another way. Perhaps it’s my upbringing as a third culture kid who moved from Ontario to the Deep South when he was eight. In my first year, I tried holding to my culture—at one point refusing to sing the U.S. national anthem. Then I tried assimilation, changing my clothes and dropping the unique way I pronounced certain words. Eventually I came to appreciate my neutrality and unique cross-border perspective. Perhaps it’s the fact I was born in Canada, which has a a multi-party political system, a propensity for apology, and a strength in active peacemaking around the world. Perhaps it’s my resilience and strategic mindset that finds a way when seemingly forced into a choice between two undesirable options. Perhaps it’s my experience in an interdenominational, intergenerational organization that values language and culture. Many of my edges have been broken off over the past twenty years.

Conclusion
I’m growing in my conviction that we’ve been manipulated, and we urgently need to craft a response. Believers need to take the lead, because we have tools the rest of the world desperately needs.

Believers, we need to realize we are at war. It’s Satan’s most effective strategy to convince us we aren’t. As we do that, our response needs to meet the Matthew 10:16 standard: shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves. The problem is that the world knows Christians as naive. Luke 16:8 points out, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Falling for peacetime thinking is perhaps chief evidence of our naiveté.

Being a Christian is not about denial—being nice and ignoring offence. Being a Christian is not about pretending someone didn’t mean to hurt you. Rather, it’s about being realistic about the hurt we’ve experienced, the world’s hatred of us and Satan’s hell-bent hunger to destroy us, and then intentionally choosing a counterintuitive weapon against those tactics. Turn the other cheek when antagonists expect retaliation. Show kindness to enemies when there’s no reason you should. Forgive the person who doesn’t deserve it.

Leaders, we have an important role here, challenging lazy thinking and crafting responses appropriate to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics. Our followers, our organizations, our churches and our countries are depending on us and looking to our lead. We need to assist them in fighting Satan’s strategies appropriately. For more, see my series on Wartime Leadership.

 

 

Joseph: Returning to roots

When Joseph’s first son is born, he names him with honesty: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51). Whether Joseph is referring to a recovery from homesickness or from bitterness, it’s easier to just forget his family and the betrayal he endured. But God isn’t willing to let it go; he intends to bring it all back again as his family re-enters the picture. God does this to bring Joseph to full healing and complete the good work in him. He also does it to fulfill the dream he had given him so many years before; his family must bow before him.

Returning to our roots is the true test of change. Joseph never returns to Canaan while his father is alive, but his family comes to him. When we head home for the holidays, or go to a class reunion or spend time around old friends, it creates all kinds of tensions in us. Those who know us well today may start seeing different behaviours and mannerisms that they don’t recognize. But it’s also true that those who knew us well before may not recognize the person we have become. Clearly Joseph is a different man today than the boy his brothers knew. How will he handle those tensions?

I won’t spend a lot of time examining the details of Genesis 42-45 because I want to keep the focus on Joseph’s development and leadership. But there are some things worth noting.

The tests
Joseph needs to know some things about his brothers, so he engineers a series of tests—somewhat like an extreme behavioral interview.

  • First, Joseph tests for honesty (Gen 42:16) and discovers that the brothers are not completely honest with him—or themselves—that one brother “is no more.” It seems to have become a shorthand way of referring to him that dodges personal responsibility. His test produces a brutally honest discussion among the men (42:21-23) that’s marked by guilt and blame.
  • Second, Joseph reproduces his own imprisonment—the entire group for three days and then Simeon for months. Twenty years later, Joseph is the first thing on their minds when they re-emerge (Gen 42:21). The fact that they would attribute current misfortune to their actions against Joseph is a testament to the remarkable staying power of guilt.
  • Third, Joseph tests their integrity by returning their money (Gen 42:25) and hiding his cup in their sacks (44:1-2). They respond with a sense of self-centred victimization (42:28).
  • Fourth, Joseph overwhelms them with kindness (Gen 43:16-25), which produces fear.
  • Finally, Joseph singles out their younger brother—first with special favor (Gen 43:34) and then an opportunity to blame and abandon Benjamin (44:9-17) as they had Joseph. Rather than responding to a chosen younger brother with envy, the ten brothers now respond with fierce protection.

Dr. Leong Tien Fock says the hoops he makes his brothers jump through have a purpose.

The accusations, tricks and torment could be interpreted as payback, but each move has a purpose; Joseph carefully exposes his brothers’ motivations, challenges their memories, and tests their character. Joseph used his political skills to test his brothers and the authenticity of their repentance and sorrow. He created conditions to draw out character and sacrifice, prompted confession and reproduced the favouritism before he revealed himself. “For ‘only by recreating something of the original situation—the brothers again in control of the life and death of a son of Rachel—can Yosef be sure that they have changed’ (Fox 1983: 202; cited in Waltke 2001: 566).”

These tests eventually reveal the weight of guilt carried by the brothers, the deep conviction of Reuben and the transformation in Judah’s character. It’s their response to favouritism that moves the needle for Joseph. He can hold back no longer, and he reveals himself.

The reunion is also a test
At first, the brothers are speechless and dismayed (Gen 45:3). Joseph suggests they are distressed or angry with themselves (45:5), but he’s never been all that great at emotional intelligence. It is Benjamin, his blood brother, who recognizes him and embraces him, breaking the ice for the others. When Joseph kisses them and weeps over them, their hearts finally open to him (45:15). As God tested Joseph and forced him to deal with his bitterness, now he does the same for the brothers.

As Fretheim (1994: 630) puts it, ‘the brothers need to pass through an ordeal in order to bring their memories and guilt to the surface, where it can be dealt with adequately, before reconciliation can truly take place, and hence safeguard the future of the family.’” (Tien Fock)

But the brothers have reason for skepticism themselves. They once saw firsthand Joseph’s pride and unskilled attempts at leading with few followers. Now imbued with power, he has real capacity for abuse. Just as he was gauging their character from behind his Egyptian disguise, they are now no doubt watching him. They don’t have the benefit of constructing a behavioral interview, but they can closely observe his character over time. No doubt they watch how he interacts with Pharaoh (Gen 46:31-47:12). They watch how he manages the crisis and responds to the desperate Egyptians (47:13-26). Clearly they still have suspicions by chapter 50 when their father passes away. They reason that perhaps Joseph has been restraining himself, putting on an act for his father while he lived.

Returning to second place
Joseph clearly provides for his brothers and saves their lives (Gen 50:20). He takes the role of leader in the family for a period of time, giving orders to his brothers and bringing back his father. But Rev. Bernard Bouissieres points out that, “When his father shows up again in his life, Joseph treats him as number one and submits to him.” While his father submits in accordance with Joseph’s dream, Jacob is clearly the patriarch, and Joseph is no longer in charge. In fact, Jacob commandeers Joseph’s boys as his own, and they will replace Joseph in the twelve tribes from this day on. Of course, this act of adoption has another meaning: it officially installs Joseph—firstborn son of Jacob’s favourite wife—as his legal firstborn (1 Chr 5:1-2). Joseph gets the double portion of the inheritance and the place of honour.

But in this clan, being firstborn never implies primary leadership. Joseph soon slides into the second chair again. There is no doubt that Judah is leading the clan at this point. Rev. Bernard notes that when it comes time for their father to bestow blessings, Judah receives the prime blessing (Gen 49:8-12) while Joseph receives second-best (49:22-26).

These two half brothers are an interesting contrast. A showdown of sorts takes place in Genesis 44:18-34, when Judah gives an emotional plea to his yet-to-be-revealed brother. While Joseph holds political power, Judah’s integrity, vulnerability and unselfish sacrifice gives him immense personal authority. In laying down his life for his brother, he wins over his father, earns the respect of his brothers and foreshadows the Messiah who will descend from his bloodline. Joseph blinks first.

Why does Judah emerge as leader of the nation of Israel instead of Joseph? While Judah went into self-imposed exile and repented of his sins in chapter 38, I don’t think Joseph ever repents of his own culpability in stoking his brothers’ jealousy. Joseph’s tone in Genesis 50 strikes me as mildly paternal and self righteous. The result is that Judah becomes spiritual leader of the clan and gets the spiritual blessing while Joseph earns lingering mistrust.

Concluding well
As the account of Joseph ends, he leaves his brothers with God’s vision of the future. “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place” (Gen 50:25). The nation’s sojourn in Egypt will be temporary, and God will lead them to their own land.

Upon his death, Joseph is honored both in Egypt and Israel for his leadership and character. The Egyptians embalm him and entomb him as a hero. 400 years later, Israel remembers their promise to him. Exodus 13:19 tells how, even in Moses’ rush to leave the land of Israel’s captivity, he demands the bones of Joseph. Remarkably, the Israelites carry his sarcophagus with them for 40 years and eventually bury him in Jacob’s land in Shechem (Josh 24:32).

Shaped by his circuitous and painful path to leadership, Joseph’s character was radically challenged and reworked so God could use him for his purposes. One of those purposes is foreboding; he uses this man who has seen the dark side of favouritism so many times to create those conditions at a national level and lay the foundation for Exodus 1. As Bob Deffinbaugh says, “the prosperity of Israel at this time paved the way for her future persecution.” Psalm 105:24-25 looks back on this time of disparity and notes that it is God’s intent:

The Lord made his people very fruitful;
he made them too numerous for their foes,
whose hearts he turned to hate his people,
to conspire against his servants.

This nation-within-a-nation will become a threat once a new Pharaoh takes the throne, “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (Ex 1:8).

Throughout his life, Joseph bore the mantle of second chair leadership well, and we can learn much from his example. But his greatest lesson to us might be the fact that he was a vessel available to help accomplish God’s purposes. After all, every Christian leader should be a follower first.


Joseph series: