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:

In my last post, I unpacked the art of influencing. The second major challenge of second chair leadership is to understand the nature of authority. This is key to leading when the vision or the decision is not yours.

In John 19, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate in the face of questions about where he came from, whether he is a king, whether he is the Son of God. Pilate finally asks in frustration, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (v10). Jesus shares a secret of authority in that moment, to that sole audience: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (v11). Authority comes from above—from the power you represent, the one who sent you, the one in whose name you act.

The Roman centurion in Luke 7 shows an astounding grasp of the principle that leadership is stewardship of the authority we have been given. Jesus himself marvels at the man’s faith, which flows from his understanding of the authority given to Jesus from above. He believes Jesus can simply speak the word, and his son will be healed. Why is he so certain? “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Lk 7:8). It follows that if Jesus is acting on behalf of the Creator, he has command of the very elements. Indeed, in the next chapter, even the wind and waves obey Jesus’ orders (Lk 8:25).

There are three primary challenges to a second-chair leader when it comes to authority.
1. When lines of authority are unclear. Confidence comes from clarity in direction and scope of authority. When either is unclear or confusing, a leader’s ability to lead is undermined. When there is daylight between the first- and second-chair leaders, followers can be disillusioned, or they can be emboldened to take advantage, playing one against the other.

2. When we disagree with our supervisor. It is inevitable that you, as a second-chair leader, will be asked to carry out a decision you don’t believe in or spoke out against. Even leading within a servant leadership model, where each has ample opportunity to be heard and to provide input toward a group decision, will lead to decisions that weren’t unanimous. So now you are committed to carrying out a decision that you once argued against. Your team may well make the same arguments you made. Is your job as a second-chair leader to toe the company line or confide in your team that you made the same objections?

Siding with your team against those in authority is not leadership. Leadership means carrying out a decision even if it’s not popular, even if you might agree with some of the criticism, even if you have your own doubts. The time to make your opinions, your arguments, your doubts clear is in the privacy of a meeting with your boss or leadership team. Once you leave that room, you move forward with one voice. The alternative erodes trust and undermines leadership authority.

3. When our authorities disagree. The confusion for believers is that we have a higher master than our immediate supervisor. Christ is our master, just as he is master over our direct reports and our supervisor (Eph 6:5-9). When our two sources of authority disagree, the choice over which authority we will obey is clear. When we’ve expressed our objection on biblical grounds, and our earthly supervisor disagrees, what then?

Think about Joseph again. He is a man under authority. First, he could clearly see God’s hand in his life—the successes, the tragedies and the waiting were all part of his preparation for this role. He knows God has sent him to this position (Gen 45:8), and he is a man who will not compromise his high morals (Gen 39:9). Yet he is clearly also under Pharaoh’s leadership. If he disagrees with Pharaoh, can he disobey? Besides loss of position, he may face exposure of his past, perhaps a return to prison, perhaps a loss of life. But Joseph could make a stand, or surely he could engineer an escape from the country. Most of us, even leaders, can quit if we’re faced with bad choices.

On the other hand, Joseph knows that the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled, and God hasn’t completed his mission. He can’t walk away. God has prepared him, led him to this point and filled him with his Spirit (Gen 41:38). So Joseph co-leads Egypt through this period of adversity as best he can, balancing the tensions to the point that today, we can’t see light between him and Pharaoh.

Ultimately, confidence comes from the knowledge that your supervisor will be held to account. The Lord himself raises up and removes authorities (Dan 2:21, Jn 19:11), holds leaders to account (Heb 13:17), and rewards faithful servants (Eph 6:6-8). We can only be responsible for ourselves and the way we respond to the situation we’re dealt. God will take care of the rest.


Joseph series:

My last two posts were largely about leading with integrity as a believer, with the subtext being that Joseph is a religious minority, an exile living within a foreign culture, where integrity might be defined or practiced differently. It’s easy to second guess some of his decisions, seeing the consequences: the currency collapsed, the people of Egypt enslaved, and the foundations for inequality laid.

Before we move on, then, it’s worthwhile reflecting again on second chair leadership. How many of these decisions were Joseph’s and how many were Pharaoh’s, governing through Joseph? After all, in modern day government, the power of a prime minister to set government policy can vary widely. Think of the difference between a prime minister in Russia and Turkey versus Britain and Canada. Which model is closest to Joseph’s context? Genesis 41:40-44 and 55 suggest a hands-off delegation approach that left decisions very much in Joseph’s hands—with Pharaoh ruling as Potiphar and the prison warden had done, paying “no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge” (Gen 39:23). If Pharaoh is as unengaged as it would appear, then Joseph has a lot to answer for.

But I recently read a different perspective from Walter Brueggemann in his essay, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.

Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything”…. Because Pharaoh, like Hitler after him, is afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, he must try to have them all. Because he is fearful, he is ruthless. Pharaoh hires Joseph to manage the monopoly. When the crops fail and the peasants run out of food, they come to Joseph. And on behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says, “What’s your collateral?” They give up their land for food, and then, the next year, they give up their cattle. By the third year of the famine they have no collateral but themselves.

As a second chair leader, Joseph may have had constant pressure from above—either in the form of an autocratic dictator or an occasional micromanager, swooping in from time to time to impose his will. Either style of leadership would relegate Joseph’s role to a position not far removed from slavery, albeit with a higher standard of living.

These are the challenges of second chair leadership. First, how do you lead upwards to help craft policy and strategy? Likewise, as a believer in a hostile or pagan setting, how do you help influence for good? And second, how do you lead when the vision or the decision is not yours? Let’s look at the first idea, using Joseph’s experience as a lens.

An influence for good
The crux of second chair leadership is to be loyal followers and co-leaders in the mission. Ultimately, all leaders have a responsibility to the organization, city, nation or supervisor they report under. Many centuries later, when God sends his people into exile in Babylon, he tells Jeremiah that he intends them to be loyal, even to make it their mission to help that nation succeed, “because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:7). This verse applies to those of us who operate as believers in places where our values are foreign, and we can have an influence. Our perspective changes when we understand that we have been sent. As we seek the good of the organization, business or state we work for, God may well bless those we work with because we are there, as he did with Potiphar for Joseph’s sake (Gen 39:5). Now, as Pharaoh prospers, Joseph clearly prospers, and God’s people then prosper.

But what about decisions that Joseph disagrees with? Does Joseph have sufficient standing to try to stem the tide and stand in Pharaoh’s way? Would that work? Joseph likely would find himself on the outside looking in. This is a very real challenge for many believers who work for autocratic leaders. As long as they agree with their boss, they can continue to have influence. But do they really have a voice when the moment they make a stand, they could very quickly become cut off and vilified? Where should they draw the line? Make a stand too early, and they lose all their influence. Make it too late, and after a series of compromises, they might not recognize themselves anymore.

Living as an exile is an art and sometimes a dance, and this point is not simply relevant to believers who work in a hostile marketplace. Pastors in Canada and leaders of Christian organizations must also learn when to speak out and when to live to see another fight. As Jesus warned the first domestic missionaries, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

The neck that turns the head
In the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the bride’s mother shares the secret of second chair leadership. In a culture where the man is clearly in charge, the bride-to-be despairs of changing her father’s mind. Her mother confides in her,

The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.

How does Joseph use his influence? The dynamics of Pharaoh’s relationship with Joseph are not overt. We are given two glimpses. First, we know that Joseph was selected because he had wisdom Pharaoh needed, and that discernment would be ongoing because he had the spirit of God in him (Gen 41:38-39).

Second, on one occasion we see how Joseph steers Pharaoh. Joseph has made his boss very wealthy without asking for much in return. So when his brothers come with their flocks, Pharaoh is pleased to offer the best of the land. That’s when Joseph suggests the land of Goshen, the prime grazing land where Pharaoh keeps his own livestock. And he advises his brothers to emphasize their experience with cattle as well as sheep, knowing that shepherds are abomination to the Egyptians (Gen 46:34-35).

Turning the head is an art with the potential to backfire, because it constantly flirts with manipulation. It reminds me of the humorous British TV show called, “Yes Minister,” which explores the ways members of the British civil service carefully drive the direction of the cabinet minister in the direction they want him to go, all the while saying, “Yes, Minister.”

A wise husband or a wise first chair leader will surround himself with smart and competent co-leaders and rely on them to not simply agree with him, but expect them to influence decisions. But too many leaders fail to do that. In my next post, I’ll examine the idea of leading under authority.


Joseph series:

In my last post we saw how Joseph began to fulfill his own promise as a leader. He also began to fulfill the promise that was made to him in chapter 37. Just as he had seen his sheaf of grain raised upright so many years before, Joseph has been promoted. He equits himself well in his first seven years, but they were the easy years, the times when leadership is a joy.

Then comes the famine. While individuals and nations quickly experience shortage, Egypt and Joseph himself have bread as a result of good planning.

There are a number of ways to view Joseph’s plan over the next seven years, and some economists are quite critical. It is informative to view his actions from a modern lens, but it is also perilous because we can only judge by the details the narrator provides us. So much of the data that impacted Joseph’s calculations has been lost to history. A full debrief simply isn’t possible. We’ll focus instead on the leadership aspects, acknowledging that leadership often involves making the best guess possible in the moment with the information, experience and guidance we have and then moving forward, whether it was the right decision or not. Historians and leadership students will have centuries to second-guess our decisions.

Let’s look at how Joseph leads in times of adversity.

1. He is a loyal servant to Pharaoh
Yes, Joseph uses the crisis to increase Pharaoh’s wealth beyond imagination and consolidate Pharaoh’s power. By Genesis 47:20-21, Pharaoh will own ALL of the land and the people of Egypt. Joseph allows the people to sell their land and enter into servitude (Theology of Work). He also takes the wealth of all surrounding countries (Gen 41:57) and likely leverages their dependency to Pharaoh’s advantage. This loyalty does not go unnoticed; he’s in Pharaoh’s debt when he finally calls in a favour.

2. He empowers the needy by requiring payment
Joseph uses an economic philosophy of empowerment, as seen in the way he treats the Egyptians. Dr. Leong Tien Fock puts it this way:

Instead of distributing the grain as “free handouts,” he made the people buy it. And when their money ran out, they had to give their livestock, and finally even themselves and their land, in exchange for grain…. What Joseph did was apply an economic principle implied in Old Testament laws, that is, free or unconditional handouts can do more harm than good (cf. Payne 1998). For instance, farmers were forbidden to harvest the corners of their field so that the needy could come and glean and thus support themselves (Leviticus 19:9-10). It was not a free handout as they had to work with their hands. What this means is that there must be room in an economy to empower the needy who are able-bodied to support themselves (cf. Carlson-Thies 1999: 474-76). Cases like one-off handouts to people who have just suffered a calamity are not the same as giving on-going handouts to people who can work.

3. He rearranges the fabric of society
Joseph intentionally holds the money back, keeping it from being re-circulated into the local economy. Some have criticized this move, saying it is nothing short of intentional, government-sponsored deflation in the midst of a natural calamity. Eventually the money collapses (Gen 47:14-15). Surely Joseph’s lessons in economics as he ran an estate didn’t prepare him for economics at this scale, and he doesn’t have the benefit of sophisticated study in the field that we do, or the long list of economic case studies available to economics students today. Does Joseph know what he is doing? Does he realize the full impact? As Carl Teichrib points out, Joseph ends up consolidating property under the state, and the citizens literally become slaves in their own country (Gen 47:20-21). Genesis 47:26 says Joseph creates lasting statutes in Egypt out of this time of scarcity.

4. He does not take advantage of the people’s powerlessness
“Was Joseph being tyrannical in thus “enslaving” the Egyptians?” asks Dr. Tien Fock. Certainly Pharaoh gives Joseph enormous latitude in dealing with the crisis.

To understand a narrative we are dependent on the narrator. In the first part of the narrative, he portrays Joseph as a God-fearing man. And he tells us that the Egyptians themselves asked to be “slaves of Pharaoh” (Genesis 47:19). Also, in Genesis 47:25 he tells us that they “do not regard Joseph as a tyrant but as a savior” (Waltke 2001: 591). In view of possible famines, this economic reform was actually beneficial to them, “for now their food supply was Pharaoh’s responsibility” (Wenham 1994: 449). (Tien Fock)

The evidence is that he does not change the tax rate. After buying all the people of Egypt, he keeps the tax rate at 20% (Gen 47:24). Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “the beneficial economic reform required a “corporate tax” of just 20%, which was low compared to the average of more than 33% in that part of the ancient world (Waltke 2001: 591).” Then Joseph provides the people with seed to sow on the land they now work as tenants or sharecroppers. The result is that he keeps many people alive (Gen 50:20).

As he does this, he provides for two distinct religious groups. First, the land of the priests remains their own, and Joseph administrates distribution of a fixed allowance. Second, he provides for his family (Gen 47:12, 50:21), setting apart the land of Goshen in the land of Rameses, the prime grazing land which Pharaoh describes as “the best of the land of Egypt” and “the fat of the land” (Gen 45:18). This is a great example of religious freedom; a God-follower in a political office fights to protect both the pagan religious figures and the Hebrew God-followers.

5. On the other hand, he creates clear advantages for Israel
While Egypt struggles, the people of Israel thrive. While all Egypt steadily moves into poverty and slavery, the Israelites have rising employment as they keep the royal livestock—which eventually includes all the herds of Egypt (Gen 47:6,18). Israel “acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number” (Gen 47:27). Here God begins to make them “into a great nation” (Gen 46:3).

However, there’s foreshadowing in this summary from the psalmist: “The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes” (Ps 105:24-25). In fostering such disparity, Joseph creates the foundation for the future oppression depicted in Exodus 1, when a new Pharaoh arises who fears the power of this nation living within his nation. God turned their hearts “to hate his people, to conspire against his servants.” (Ps 105:25).

To build a nation, or to build a leader, God uses both times of abundance and favour, and times of trial and oppression. The mix of hot and cold, good and bad, forge a character and an identity that God can use to accomplish his purposes. Joseph has emerged from his period of trial and thrives in his new period of influence. He wants to forget all his father’s house (Gen 41:51). But now they will all come spilling back into his life. They will provide the perfect contrast to see the work God has done in Joseph.


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:

In the early years of Genesis 37:2-18, a few things are established about Joseph—threads that will weave throughout his story. Some are strengths, and some weaknesses.

A. Pride
It’s clear that Joseph is a proud shepherd. As students of the Bible or history know, there would later come years where shepherds were the lowest of the low. In fact, that would be the case when Joseph arrives in Egypt. It shows that pride is not dependent on position or status or circumstances. A self-focused heart attitude can thrive anywhere. So he wears his coat everywhere and relishes in the dreams.

B. Low emotional intelligence
Joseph is low on emotional intelligence, with extremely poor impact awareness. The pair of dreams in his early days are for him; God is providing the hope, the promise, the anchor that will sustain him in those years when he will walk through the shadow of death (Rev Bernard Bouissieres). Whether his pride leads him to disregard the potential impact of sharing his dreams, or whether he is unaware that it prompts even his father to ridicule him, his loose lips in this moment seem to be the tipping point for his brothers. They hate him enough to consider killing him. Joseph doesn’t seem to sense the danger when his father sends him out to his brothers again. Is it naiveté or courage that allows him to walk into the seething trap that will alter the course of his life?

C. Mentoring
The favour Joseph enjoys from his father gives him a unique gift: special access to a patriarch. In a sense, he has a mentor who takes a liking to him. What does he learn from his father by working so closely with him? Jacob had proved to be a very effective shepherd during his 14 years serving Laban (Gen 28-31). He worked adversarial conditions to his own ends, building the roots of the flock his sons now shepherd. Jacob was gifted in leadership and strategy—the dark side of which is manipulation. As a young man, Jacob lived up to his name: a deceiver who showed entrepreneurial giftings. But after a twenty-year period of character building under his uncle Laban, he was a changed man. In Genesis 33-35, he wrestled with God and was given a new name, then pursued reconciliation with his brother and came to hate deception (Dr. Leong Tien Fock). Jacob is therefore a deep well for Joseph to draw on if he takes advantage of these years.

D. Leadership gifts
So let me address the question I raised in my previous post. Is Joseph already holding a leadership position at age seventeen? The pivotal question is the significance of the special tunic Jacob bestows on his son. Why would his father give Joseph such a flagrantly visible sign of favour, and why would Joseph wear it everywhere? The answer I heard in Sunday School is that it is a gift showing favouritism, accompanied of course with the simplistic moral that favouritism is bad. But there are far more layers to this tunic. Most translations call it a “coat of many colours,” but the footnote in my Bible hints at other meanings of the phrase. In The Living Torah, Aryeh Kaplan explains the Hebrew can be translated to say the robe was either colourful, embroidered, striped, contained pictures, abnormally long or made of fine material. King David’s daughter would wear something similar in 2 Samuel 13:18-19. In other words, it is a royal robe. Did Jacob intend it as a sign of favour or a depiction of assumptions that Joseph would assume leadership of the family? It may well be the first prophecy in chapter 37.

Some commentaries read leadership into other areas of this passage. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary says Genesis 37:2 implies leadership: “Joseph being seventeen years old was a shepherd over the flock”. Rabbi Moshe Reiss says the Hebrew text mixes up the word order: literally, “he was shepherding his brothers with the flock.” In While Shepherds Watch their Flocks, Gary Laniak points out that there are multiple levels of shepherding. The larger the flocks, the more hierarchy is required. An overshepherd focuses on managing a flock while others provide more individualized care for smaller groups of sheep. The overshepherd watches for trends in food supply, health and birthing, makes decisions about selling animals, negotiates access to grazing land and obtains veterinary care. He may not be with the sheep all the time, but insists on spending time among the sheep in order to know what they need (Laniak, pp 231-235).

So let’s play it out. What does it mean if Joseph at seventeen was an overshepherd? It changes everything about the story. Now it makes sense why Joseph visits the sheep while pasturing them instead of being there all the time, as his brothers are. It adds a darker tone to the hatred developing between step brothers. It changes the nature of the bad report Joseph brings to his father. It provides the foundation for Joseph’s near-fatal errand in Dothan; he is following through on his responsibilities to lead. And it explains why Jacob feels the need to set Joseph apart with a unique tunic.

In the tunic, Jacob seems to be giving his son a title. But as John Maxwell is fond of saying, a title only borrows a bit of time to prove your leadership. As a potential leader, Joseph has no followers in this first act. The only one who puts any thought into Joseph is his father, who begins to mull over what the dreams might mean. For Joseph’s brothers, his would-be followers, the robe becomes a focus of their anger, and they send a multi-layered message to their father by dipping it in blood.

So Joseph has the raw materials for leadership, but his character and skills are lacking. God has a plan for him, and the next thirteen years will be painful as he’s tested, trained and prepared to fulfill his promise.

Take a moment to think back to your early days. What promise of leadership would others have seen in you? Did you get any special opportunities or have a mentor who paid special attention to you? What mistakes did you make? Today, would you entrust your earlier self with leadership?

About ten years ago, I completed a 360 review as part of a leadership development course, and I decided to include two people who had worked with me in my days as a first-time supervisor. Over the years, they have both been enthusiastic supporters of my leadership, one as a mentor/supervisor and one as a direct report. When I saw the results of the 360 review—lightly edited to protect anonymity—I was surprised to note that their comments stood out. The feedback from these two trusted colleagues were outliers; no one else agreed with their assessments. These comments were simply untrue of me today. I was overwhelmed by the sense that, in spite of the obvious mistakes they had observed, they were consistently such strong advocates for me. Their support was entirely based on potential! While I had worked with them, I had the raw materials, but a long way to go in developing my leadership. This is the Joseph of Genesis 37.


Joseph series:

First chair leaders can only be successful if they have competent, trustworthy leaders behind and around them. I’ve been studying some of the excellent examples in Scripture. Over the next year, I’ll be posting about some of them. In many of these role models, there’s the added layer of a righteous leader influencing a pagan culture for good. That’s a message that’s relevant to our twenty-first century culture where Christians are learning to live in exile.

I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament character Joseph. There’s something that captures my imagination about the way he uses his one chance to get out of prison, to not only interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but to audaciously suggest a solution. Pharaoh is so impressed that he promotes him to prime minister over all Egypt. I’m impressed at his groundedness to recognize God’s hand in his successes and his being sent before the family to preserve them. Joseph never led from the first chair but never seemed to aspire for more. He was therefore even more trustworthy, never threatening the leader he supported.

I’m going to break the story of Joseph into four acts: the raw material, the development years, the fulfillment of promise and then returning to roots. But first, let me share some thoughts as an overview, many of them influenced by a blog series by Rev. Bernard Bouissieres. Joseph was always #2:

  • At age 17, he serves as a shepherd under his father. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary suggests that leadership is implied in the text. If so, Joseph has a leadership role over his brothers, reporting to his father. We’ll explore that a bit further in my next post.
  • He becomes an administrator stewarding the estate of an Egyptian official.
  • He manages the royal prison as a prisoner himself.
  • He ascends to the role of prime minister and loyally serves Pharaoh.

But let’s dig deeper. Two incidents show Joseph’s “I am second” attitude. First, the act of interpreting dreams. As Rev. Bernard says, “The ministry of interpretation places one in a second role position; it is exercised for the benefit of another. You are always in second position.” Drawing from his own experience as a language interpreter, he says, “People were not interested in me. They were interested in the main speaker. I was just a voice.”

He draws some conclusions about Joseph that have broader application:

The dream is not yours, it belongs to someone else. God has called others to something special and you help them sort it out. Counselors are second position type ministries. They function for others, not themselves. It is a very tiring, demanding type of ministry. But God and people need good interpreters, counsellors. Preachers, teachers should always function in a second role spirit; as ministers, they are preaching God’s Word not their ideas. (http://revbernardministries.com/joseph_bible_study_4)

That description certainly fits Joseph, who goes out of his way to give God the glory. (Gen 41:15-16)

When Joseph’s father re-enters the picture, Joseph submits to him again. He takes the mantle of leadership of the family, but always under his father. This is never more apparent than in the final days of his father’s life when Joseph gives his two sons to Jacob and then receives the second best blessing (behind Judah).

Rev. Bernard adds some great thoughts about first and second chair leadership, using Peter and Andrew as examples. How do I know if I am an “Andrew” in his right place in a second position role? How do I know if I should take a step back and be an “Andrew” rather than a “Peter”? I encourage you to use the excellent self test for second chair leadership he offers at the end of his post.

As we’ll see, being #2 is a critical role. It’s not second best, as the realm of leadership shouldn’t be about competition. Instead, it’s about skill fit and experience, about attitude and character, about using influence for good. The lessons are entirely relevant, whether you’re a first chair leader, a longtime second chair leader or someone who feels God stirring you to lead.


Joseph series: