Joseph’s story in Genesis is gripping and dramatic. It has all the elements of a riveting soap opera or a page turning novel. The difference of course, is that it actually happened. It’s a true story, and that makes it eminently fascinating. Joseph is a hero worthy of the name. He successfully overcame more obstacles than most people would encounter in three lifetimes. He lived to see good triumph over evil, the real storybook ending we all want and love.
If Joseph had made different decisions at strategic junctures along the way I don’t think we would still hale him a Bible hero extraordinaire. If he had made different decisions he would have been just an ordinary Joe. So what was at the core of Joseph’s character guiding each decision and seeing him through such severe trials?
To me, one telltale verse says it all. It is the answer he gives his boss’s wife when Joseph explains why he won’t sleep with her even after her constant pestering. He says: “There is no one greater in this house than I, and he (Potiphar, his Egyptian master) has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?” – Genesis 39: 9.
Sin against God
Interesting. You would think he would say, “and sin against my master” because going to bed with another man’s wife, especially your boss’s wife, would be a great offense by itself. Joseph didn’t see it that way. He saw correctly that sin, all sin, is ultimately really against God. It is additionally interesting because anyone other than Joseph might not have cared about offending God. Where was God when his brothers threw him into a pit and then sold him off to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites? Where was God when he was sold as a slave in Egypt?
Joseph didn’t play the blame game with God, a common reaction; one I’ve certainly had a time or two. “Why did you allow such and such Lord? You are sovereign and you could have stopped it.” The fact that Joseph never saw it that way is pretty remarkable, and launched the success he wouldn’t see till very much later. Yes, Joseph knew up front that God is sovereign, and could have arranged his life in a different way. But He also knew that because God is sovereign, His vantage point is higher than his human creation. Joseph trusted that God’s vantage point is the right one, and would produce the best results. Even though he was in the dark now, Joseph trusted that God saw everything with perfect clarity.
It’s a good thing his character was set from the get-go because Joseph’s troubles didn’t end with Potiphar’s wife. She lied (and got away with it) by telling her husband that Joseph tried to rape her. Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison. There he languished until two officials of Pharaoh were also imprisoned, and sought Joseph to interpret an unusual dream they each had. Both the chief baker and the chief cupbearer recognized Joseph’s gift for interpretation, so Joseph pleaded, “Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house” – Genesis 40:14.
Waiting on vindication
Would this be his out? His vindication? Perhaps he watched everyday for a good long while for the prison door to open. Alas, no. Instead, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” – Genesis 40:23. Two more years passed before Pharaoh had dreams for which he needed interpretation, and the cupbearer remembered Joseph. Finally the prison door opened and Joseph stood before Pharaoh to tell him the meaning of his dreams.
A great seven-year famine was coming upon the earth, and a strategy to manage it was woven into the dreams. Joseph not only told Pharaoh the meaning of each dream, but what to do so that Egypt would survive. This is the beginning of the turnaround. Pharaoh knew a gifted administrator when he saw one. “So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you’” – Genesis 41:39-40.
That could have been enough for a great turnaround story for Joseph. At thirty years old he was now second in command in a vast kingdom. He did well. Pharaoh gave him a prominent wife and he had two sons. What he names the sons tells us that he didn’t expect more out of life. The first son was Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” – Genesis 41:51. The second son was Ephraim, “For, he said, God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” – Genesis 41:52.
Trust in the dark
Wait! Remember the Sovereign One with the clear vantage point? Remember the One who produces ultimate right results? Joseph was smart to trust God in the dark because the light was going to switch on in a much greater way than Joseph could have anticipated. Yet one more time Joseph would call upon the character he displayed in the beginning with Potiphar’s wife. God’s plan was to bring Joseph’s family back to him and to heal both sides of the deep wounds caused by his brother’s sins. AND God wanted to provide for the survival of his people Israel. He did it all at this juncture of history through Joseph.
When the famine forced Joseph’s brothers to seek help from Egypt Joseph came face to face with them. They didn’t recognize him, but he recognized them. When he revealed himself they were dismayed, and I’m sure their guilty hearts were terror filled. What was Joseph’s response? He said, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” – Genesis 45:5.
Joseph has often been admired for his ability to forgive, but I don’t think forgiveness was ever an issue for him. Why? Because his core character trusted God’s plans over his own limited vision. He made that decision early on. Then when he got to see how the plan finally unfolded he was overwhelmed with joy, not struggling with how to forgive. He tells his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God” – Genesis 45:7-8.
I admire Joseph greatly for a number of reasons, but none more than his vision in trusting God’s plan over his own. When events in life are confusing, or when evil seems to prevail it’s easy to complain, moan, and question or doubt God’s goodness. That’s because our thinking is from below while God’s is from above. The Lord reminds us of this in Isaiah 55:9, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Joseph knew this without being reminded. I’m glad his story is there to remind me too.