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:

God has a way of building character in a young leader with high potential. Often it takes wilderness years, tragedy or failure to break down a young leader and build into him the character needed for high responsibility. In fact, in Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender postulates that a young leader can’t really develop the humility and servant heart required for spiritual leadership if he doesn’t go through those experiences.

As we’ve seen in my previous posts, Joseph lacks the character he will need for huge responsibility, so God breaks him down by taking the bottom out twice over a thirteen-year period. First, he experiences his brothers’ betrayal. After spending time in “distress of soul” in a dry cistern (Gen 42:21), he endures the humiliation of being sold and resold. The resilient Joseph surfaces again, proving himself and gaining responsibility in the estate of the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph may well relish his independence and fresh start in Egypt, enjoying the luxurious setting and the distance from his dysfunctional family. But God isn’t finished shaping him; for doing the right thing in a time of temptation, he is thrown into prison.

At what point are his rough edges broken off? How does he struggle with bitterness, blame and lack of forgiveness? When does he recognize his motivations, blind spots and the ugliness of his pride? The Bible gives a few clues to his spiritual and emotional journey once he emerges on the other side. In naming his boys, Joseph offers a glimpse of his troubles and the perspective he gains with time: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51) and “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen 41:52). At two points when he’s testing his brothers’ character, he breaks down and weeps (Gen Gen 42:24 and 43:30). Is it simply his joy and relief at seeing his family and evidence of their repentance, or is he personally struggling with forgiveness?

Let’s dig deeper to see how God uses the tragedies, the successes and the prophecy to shape and prepare Joseph to function competently as prime minister of Egypt.

1. Joseph develops faith and integrity
This sheltered young shepherd must develop his own faith and self control in a dark world of loose morals, fleshly attractions, injustice and politics. The temptation to sexual sin is particularly poignant because it exposes roots of self pity, entitlement and bitterness. The scars of his family’s betrayal could have led Joseph to reject their faith and chart his own course. Instead, he taps deeper into his faith in God. Further, this incident of low-hanging temptation was practice for the day that Joseph would bear the responsibility of power and its accompanying ease of access to sin.

2. Joseph learns to be a witness
In this first test with Potiphar’s wife Joseph begins to learn to let his light shine so God receives glory (Matt 5:16). As he refuses to take the bait, he even goes out of his way to mention his faith (Gen 39:9). The fury of Potiphar’s wife—a woman who likely wasn’t used to refusals—may well mask conviction. When he eventually gets an audience with Pharaoh, Joseph uses the opportunity to point him to God (Gen 41:16). By that point, his witness has made a noticeable impression on Potiphar (Gen 39:3), the jailed cupbearer (Gen 41:9) and Pharaoh himself (Gen 41:38).

3. Joseph grows in God awareness
It is the hand of God that steers Joseph into not just any Egyptian household, but the captain of the guard. Not just any prison, but the royal prison. Acts 7:9-10 says God was with Joseph in Egypt “and rescued him from all his troubles.” Likewise, it is the hand of God that gives him success at every stage (Gen 39:2,3,21,23). Seeing God gives Joseph clarity of mind in his first moment of temptation; his sin would be betrayal.

4. Joseph learns to serve
Joseph begins his time in Egypt by attending Potiphar (Gen 39:4) and quickly works his way up to running the entire estate. In the royal prison, Joseph attends Pharaoh’s officials (Gen 40:4). So Joseph learns service before he gets leadership position. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions” (The Servant As Leader, p50). There are few ways to learn servanthood better than a period of slavery.

5. Joseph learns forgiveness
Dr. Leong Tien Fock says Joseph responded well to the twin tragedies of slavery and imprisonment.

In view of the powerful position he was going to hold, he needed to be put on the receiving end of injustice and suffer much so that he would do justice and love mercy when placed at the giving end of power. The fact that he prospered in both situations showed that he responded positively to the ordeal. If he had been unforgiving and bitter, his life story would have been different.

6. Joseph develops economic, administrative and political skills
Joseph rises in leadership wherever God places him, and as he does, he begins honing the skills that will serve him well in the years ahead. Rev. Bernard Bouissieres says, “Joseph was trained by God in the School of opposition. He became a better administrator in Potiphar’s house, a better manager in prison. He got training for the task ahead.” Likewise, he will certainly use the economics lessons he learns from managing the estate.

He also learns politics and influence. Early on he attracts the investment of a benefactor and potential mentor, and some remnant of that favour guides and guards Joseph throughout his darkest days. While Potiphar has to take action on his wife’s accusations, he maintains a personal interest in Joseph. First, he chooses not to kill Joseph and instead imprisons him with the king’s prisoners—in a facility he oversees. So Joseph continues to serve the captain of the guard (Gen 41:12) and receives special assignments from him (Gen 40:4). Potiphar seems to hold up well to the passages in Scripture urging slave holders to treat their slaves with equity and justice, without ever hinting that they should set them free. But it leads to a complex cultural arrangement that is simply a whitewashed form of perpetuated injustice. While the slave holder gives increasing responsibility and protection, he is unwilling to risk his reputation by releasing his slave. Joseph clearly gains from this arrangement, but I wonder how comfortable Potiphar will feel on the day of reckoning, when Pharaoh will set Joseph free.

No doubt Joseph picks up the written and unwritten rules by observing Potiphar’s household, and even more when he spends years with political prisoners who have fallen out of favour. He learns from what they did wrong, absorbs a lot of the politics and overhears innumerable secrets. Early evidence of his abilities can be seen when he attempts to leverage his interpretation of the baker’s dream to get a quid pro quo. It’s pretty brazen to ask for a shout-out to Pharaoh! But he also learns even more when the baker quickly forgets him; there’s not much leverage from prison.

7. Joseph is tested by the Word
Finally, he is simultaneously encouraged and tested by the prophecy about him. Rev. Bernard says, “How did the dream sustain him in the dark years of waiting? God’s promise to him gave him hope.”

However, Psalm 105:17-19 adds a layer of complexity to Joseph’s vision. When Joseph was sold as a slave,

his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord tested him.

In other words, until it came to pass, the prophecy that he would one day rule mocked him. Doubts likely set in, made even more acute by the two-year extension in prison. But Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “When God’s word finally came true, the ordeal had not only refined his character but also inspired in him the conviction that God had sent him to Egypt for a purpose. For when he revealed himself to his brothers he could comfort them saying, “it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8).”

When we say that Jesus is Lord and master, we submit to his will, his shaping, his timing. He is the potter, and we are the clay. My personal experience is that God’s methods of leadership development are not mine; they seem circuitous at best. However, the result of God’s process is far deeper, far more effective—and admittedly far more painful—than we would ever choose. But he will accomplish his purposes, and we may see that larger perspective with time.


Joseph series:

At Leadership Rising, we talked about a life of integrity, and I was reminded of a quote I heard from C.S. Lewis:

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life you are slowly turning this central thing into either a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.

In other words, if you cut corners in a small thing, next time you are faced with a choice, it will be a little easier to cut corners again. If you discipline yourself to choose the right choice on the little things, it will be easier to choose to do the right thing on the bigger decisions you face. Integrity is the word we use to describe the sum of a lot of good choices.