Joseph: Leadership Development

Leadership involves three basic qualities: character, conviction, and competence (cf. Berkley 2008: 45). A person of character is one who would “do justice and love mercy.” Character is needed in every calling, but is particularly crucial to leadership. For people vested with power are prone to abuse it and hurt others and the cause they represent. Also, a true leader is one whom people follow willingly because they believe he can be trusted to “do justice and love mercy.”

Not many, however, would follow one who has no direction, no matter how trustworthy he is. A leader not only needs to know where he is going, he must also have the conviction that this is where he should be leading his people. A conviction is a deep-seated belief that enables one to weather the toughest storm. The deepest conviction is that which springs from faith in God. For unless one believes deeply that it is God who has called him to lead the people to where they are going, his “conviction” is not a belief that he would die for.

Needless to add, a leader also needs to know how to lead the people to where they should be going. He thus needs to have the relevant competence. Different types of leadership, such as leadership in the army as opposed to leadership in the university, require different sets of skills. Since competence is related to one's talents, one's calling in leadership is usually in line with one's innate abilities. And since these abilities still need to be honed through training and experience, leadership development covers this leadership quality as well.

The life of Joseph as recounted in Genesis 37-50 embodies leadership development. When Joseph was seventeen years old God revealed to him that he would one day be a ruler, which later turned out to be the Prime Minister (PM) of Egypt. But when he shared this with his family, even his father rebuked him for being so presumptuous. His older brothers, who were already jealous of him because of the blatant favoritism of their father towards him, hated him even more.

Joseph's becoming the PM of Egypt was part of God's plan to bring the whole family into a “foreign land” (see Genesis 15:13-14). For this plan to be accomplished, God had to do three things: prepare Joseph for the position; place him there; get the family to emigrate to Egypt. We will read the narrative with these interpretive keys in mind.

Because of their hatred towards Joseph, his older brothers sold him to some traders, and then lied to their father that he had been torn apart by a wild animal. The traders were on their way to Egypt and they sold Joseph as a slave to Potiphar, an important officer of Pharoah. But God was with Joseph and prospered him so much that he was ultimately promoted to become the CEO of Potiphar's estate. However, Joseph was falsely accused of attempted rape and imprisoned when he rejected the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife.

In prison, God was again with Joseph and he became the warden's assistant. It was here that he met Pharoah's chief cupbearer and chief baker, who were imprisoned because they had offended the monarch. Each of them had a divinely inspired dream, which Joseph was able to interpret. Just as Joseph's interpretations had predicted, within three days the baker was executed and the cupbearer restored to his position. Joseph had shared with the cupbearer that he was wrongly imprisoned and asked him to “remember me” when he got out. But he forgot about Joseph.

After two years, the cupbearer remembered Joseph when Pharoah had two dreams that his wisemen could not interpret. Joseph interpreted both the dreams as having the same message: there was going to be seven years of great plenty followed by seven years of severe famine. He then proposed to Pharoah to appoint a capable man to oversee the stockpiling of one-fifth of the produce in Egypt during the seven years of plenty. Pharoah was so impressed with Joseph that he appointed him PM to oversee such a massive project. The famine turned out to be not only severe but widespread; even his brothers in Canaan had to come to Egypt to buy food.

God worked in and through events and circumstances so that Joseph became the PM of Egypt. The term “providence” refers to what God does after He had completed His work of creation. It includes what He does to ensure that His purpose for humanity as well as His plans for specific individuals would be accomplished, as in the case of Joseph.

God works in three ways. Firstly, through ordinary events. There were two turning points in the life of Joseph without which he would not have become the PM of Egypt, namely, being sold as a slave and being put in prison. Both events were caused by human jealousy, so nothing extraordinary was involved. These events were followed by two extraordinary ones, namely, the two sets of divinely inspired dreams that Joseph interpreted, without which he would have remained in prison. God usually works through ordinary events, but occasionally He uses extraordinary means as well.

There was also a set of circumstances without which God's plan could not be accomplished. The traders happened to be going to Egypt and they happened to sell Joseph to Potiphar. The two servants of Pharoah happened to be imprisoned and the cupbearer happened to forget about Joseph. These circumstances are what we call “coincidences.” But when a series of coincidences line up in such a way that it accomplishes a pre-announced plan, they are not random coincidences. We call this the extraordinary-ordinary means of providence, as it has elements of both. As we shall see, this is taught more clearly in the book of Esther.

How then did God prepare Joseph to be the PM of Egypt? In terms of his character, it was refined through his ordeal of being sold as a slave by his own brothers and being imprisoned for having done the right thing. 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.

God revealed to Joseph in advance that he was going to be a ruler. Yet for the next thirteen years he was either a slave or a prisoner. Psalms 105:19 tells us that until what he told his family (he was going to be a ruler) came to pass, what God revealed to him (he was going to be a ruler) tested him. 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).

A Prime Minister needs not only political but also economic skills, especially in times of economic crises. Joseph developed economic and political competence as a slave in Potiphar's household. For to rise up from the bottom to be the CEO of Potiphar's estate he would have developed economic and political competence on his way up. His political skills were further honed in prison when he was put in charge of all the prisoners.

Hence being a slave and a prisoner not only refined his character but also enabled him to develop the conviction and competence needed to be the PM of Egypt. In other words, the painful journey that placed him in that powerful position was also needed to prepare him to function there (cf. Clinton 1988).

Joseph put his political skills to work in overseeing the stockpiling of grain throughout Egypt during the years of plenty. But his political skills were best seen in how he treated his brothers when they came to buy food during the famine. They could not recognize him. Though Joseph recognized them, he did not reveal who he was and instead spoke to them through an interpreter. He accused them of being spies and interrogated them. In the process they mentioned their youngest brother, the other son of his mother Rachel, who was at home with their father.

After detaining them for three days, Joseph withheld Simeon and let the rest go home with the grain they bought. He told them to bring their youngest brother on their next trip to prove their innocence. They knew how difficult this was going to be. For their father Jacob had lost Joseph (because of them!), and so would not risk losing Benjamin by letting him come along. So they had put themselves in this predicament. Not knowing that Joseph could understand them, they confessed to one another their guilt in selling Joseph; they considered their present distress a retribution for that wrong. Joseph turned away and wept.

For their next trip, Judah managed to persuade their father to let Benjamin go with them. It was not easy. Reuben, his oldest brother, had tried earlier but failed. Why did Judah succeed where Reuben failed? Partly it was because by then they had eaten all the grain they bought from Egypt, and partly because Jacob was convinced Judah could be trusted. Reuben had said to Jacob that if he did not bring Benjamin back, his father could kill his two sons. This shows he would rather risk losing two sons (even his own) than risk losing his own life. But losing two (favorite) sons was exactly his father's fears. Can Reuben then be trusted to ensure his father would not lose two sons?

Judah on the other hand said to his father that he would take the blame personally. In further contrast to Reuben, he understood Jacob's fears and realized his father could die of heartbreak if Benjamin did not come back. For in Genesis 38 we read that Judah himself had lost two sons and was very protective over his then youngest son. He had thus developed the conviction needed to convince Jacob that he would do everything he could to protect Benjamin.

When the brothers returned to Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph invited all of them to dinner at his home. There he demonstrated very blatant favoritism towards Benjamin. Just as his father had blatantly favored him resulting in his brothers selling him, Joseph was effectively “turning back the wheel of time to the original crime against himself, with the circumstances reproduced and the ten ranged against Benjamin” (Sternberg 1985: 303; cited in Matthews 2005: 792). But this time it did not bother them for they enjoyed their dinner as if nothing happened.

After dinner Joseph trapped Benjamin so that he could detain him. Judah, speaking with conviction, made an impassioned plea to take Benjamin’s place, saying that otherwise his father would die from losing another (favorite) son. Joseph could not hold back his tears and wept openly and revealed who he was.

Subsequently Joseph asked for his father to join him in Egypt as the famine would last five more years. With the blessings of God, Jacob brought his entire family to Egypt. Naturally he had appointed Judah to take the lead. Judah had natural leadership competence; he masterminded the selling of Joseph. Genesis 38, besides showing how Judah developed the conviction needed to persuade his father, also indicates a character transformation in Judah. For he readily admitted his wrong against his daughter-in-law Tamar when he discovered why she had deceived him. And he redeemed his wrong against Joseph in pleading to take Benjamin's place. Thus he became a worthy recipient of the honor that kingship would remain within the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:8-10).

It is easy to misunderstand Joseph in the way he “mistreated” his brothers. But the fact that he turned away and wept when he heard their confessions, and wept loudly when he revealed himself, and then told them not to be grieved for having sold him, showed that he had no ill intentions. And when he heard that they were again fearful of him after their father had died, he wept. He reassured them there was nothing to fear and added that, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Thus Joseph had already forgiven them. Why then the apparent mistreatment?

By not revealing himself too soon Joseph was able to observe their genuine responses. For “if Joseph had immediately disclosed himself to his brothers and they had professed their guilt and repentance for their wrong to him, would he really know if their repentance was genuine? Or, for that matter, would we?” (Mann 1988: 73). Genuine repentance results in a changed disposition and thus changed actions (Luke 3:7-14). The drama of “mistreatment” at his home was needed to test if they had indeed changed. 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).

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.” For reconciliation requires the betrayed party to be able to trust the guilty party once again. Joseph could choose to unilaterally forgive his brothers, and he did, but to be able to trust them again he needed to regain the confidence that they were worthy of his trust. This was not possible without seeing genuine repentance resulting in real change in them. In fact forgiveness is not experienced until there is reconciliation.

As for Joseph's economic skills, they were put to use in his proposal to stockpile food. Businessmen today, though aware of the business cycle of economic boom and bust, often fail to practice this principle. But Joseph’s economic skills are better seen from the way he treated the Egyptians during the famine. 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. When the famine was over Joseph gave them seed to sow on their (previous) land, but required them to present one-fifth of their produce to Pharoah. Was Joseph being tyrannical in thus “enslaving” the Egyptians?

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).

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 they 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. In any case, 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).

As in the case of character transformation, faith in God has a role in the process of leadership development. For inasmuch as God has a purpose for humanity (the Creation Mandate), and that each person has a part in it, faith in God results not only in character transformation but also in leadership development. For every human being has God-given abilities. When these are honed, a person of character and conviction can be a leader in his sphere of influence.

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