the Marketplace - Case Study 1 – Joseph
majority of noteworthy people in the Bible worked in what we would
today call “the marketplace”. Very few of those who are
identified in the Scriptures as serving God did so as professional
prophets, priests or preachers. Some lived in momentous times and
were leaders of their people. Others upheld godly standards at times
of moral decay. Some won battles against seemingly impossible odds.
Others were misunderstood in the face of hostile market forces. All
of them faced the kinds of underlying issues that confront us today
and overcame great odds because God was with them and their hearts
were in the right place. Sometimes they stumbled.
How did they
manage to serve God in the face of unbelievers (or notional believers
at best)? They were just like us. The so-called “heroes”
of the Bible were ordinary people, who experienced ordinary human
emotions. So, how did they retain their integrity and focus while
fixing on God’s plan? What can we learn from their examples
and apply in our own lives?
The Bible tells
us that the things that happened to the people of God described in
its pages were recorded for our benefit, to teach and warn us (1
Corinthians 10:11). As Christians, it pays to take notice of such
lessons. The first case study we will look at is Joseph.
Background – a brief synopsis
of Joseph’s life
Joseph lived around 1700 BC,
coinciding with the rule of the early Hyksos kings in Lower Egypt and
a native Egyptian dynasty in Upper Egypt. The Hyksos were foreign
invaders, a mixture of Semitic and other races who came to power
through gradual infiltration, rather than military dominance.
Joseph was born to the Patriarch Jacob
He was his father's eleventh son (a younger brother was to follow,
some years later), and in his childhood emerged as something of a
“favorite” (much to his brothers’ chagrin). We are
told that, when he was a boy, he received an elegant coat of
different colours from his father, as a token of his special love.
This partiality on the part of Jacob started to set the scene for the
When he was around 17 years of age,
Joseph had two dreams that changed his life. In one, he dreamed that
his family’s sheaves of grain bowed to his sheaves. He also
dreamed that the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down before him,
indicating that some day his family members would bow before him
(Genesis 37:6-9). His announcements, perhaps spoken in haste and
with some naivety, provoked great jealousy on the part of his
brothers, who thought he had too high an opinion of himself. When
the opportunity presented, they trapped and sold him to Ishmaelite
businessmen who trafficked people to slavery in Egypt. To cover up
the offence, they placed blood on his coat to make their father
believe he had been killed by wild animals while minding the family’s
flock of sheep.
In Egypt, as a slave, with no rights
and no apparent future, Joseph coped well enough. He rose to a
position of influence in the household of his owner, a man named
Potiphar. However, he ultimately ended up in prison, with his feet
shackled and his neck in irons (Psalm 105:17), on false charges of
attempting to violate Potiphar’s wife. Things seemed to go
from bad to worse.
This is how it happened. He was
young. He was handsome (Genesis 39:6). His Master’s wife took
a fancy to him and made repeated attempts to seduce him. When he
rejected her advances, she became angry and fabricated allegations he
had tried to rape her. He was peremptorily cast into prison. There
was no such thing as trials for slaves. It is a wonder he was not
executed. Slandered and maligned, he lost his reputation, his
savings and the modicum of personal freedom he had enjoyed.
In jail his skills were recognized by
the warden, who put him in charge of day-to-day affairs relating to
the prison population under his jurisdiction. Cold comfort. Years
rolled by, he served faithfully, made friends and appeared to have
been a model prisoner, but he continued in detention. He interpreted
a few dreams for fellow-inmates, but it appeared to do him little
good, as he remained behind bars.
How he must have hated being there.
Hoping for breaks that did not eventuate, counting on his exemplary
behaviour and cooperation being noticed, so that he would be given a
reprieve, but no reprieve came. His feet were constantly bruised.
He was learning the hard way that he could rely on no one, humanly
speaking. There was no justice system and Pharaoh and his officials
were arbitrarily and incredibly cruel.
Finally (when the timing was right),
he was called out of his cell to interpret a series of disturbing
dreams experienced by Pharaoh. No one, not even the professional
seers, could discern their meaning. Those dreams initially promised
plenty and portended unprecedented famine to follow.
The whole episode made perfect sense
to Pharaoh, but alarmed him; he now faced the dilemma of dealing with
a national crisis. He needed a man he could trust, to save Egypt
from ruin. Enter Joseph, with a track record as an interpreter of
dreams. Suddenly everything fell into place. Pharaoh realized there
was only one person with the discernment and street smarts to save
Egypt; that person was Joseph.
Now in official favour, Joseph was
released and given responsibility for coordinating the country’s
food stores and ruling over most of the Kingdom’s other
affairs. He was only thirty years of age. He travelled with
Pharaoh, as his right-hand man; every door was opened; he was
honoured like no other, except the god-ruler. Even Potiphar and his
wife were subject to him. For those whose mantra is, “Don’t
get mad; get even”, this was the perfect opportunity for all
the wrongs against Joseph to be visited on his enemies. Except that
he chose not to do so.
As a young man, Joseph had boasted
about his dreams of others bowing to him; now, older and wiser, he
had come to realize that promotion and honour were not his to
engineer, but were the prerogative of God. Who was he to get even,
when he was as human and fickle as his neighbour? He was going to
have to continue to rely on God to do well; otherwise he could lose
When seven years of plenty gave way to
seven years of plenty and disaster faced Egypt and the surrounding
nations, the administration (led by Joseph) was ready to deal with
The famine was widespread. In due
time, Joseph's brothers came to Egypt looking for food. Initially
disguised his identity, he held one of his brothers hostage, and
demanded that the others bring their youngest brother Benjamin (whom
he had never met) to Egypt. When they returned Joseph removed the
mask, revealed his identity and brought his father Jacob to live in
Egypt, where he looked after them.
Some years later, Jacob finally died.
Joseph's brothers panicked. They (perhaps predictably) wondered if
he would hold a grudge against them; with Jacob gone there would be
nothing holding back Joseph’s vengeance. Events proved that
Joseph was above vengeance. "You intended to harm me, but God
intended it for good, to preserve many lives" (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph is remembered as the son and brother who saved the fledgling
people of Israel from perishing and refused to take his earlier
career disasters out on those responsible for his trials.
So much for Joseph "the dreamer”
as his brothers had labeled him. God blessed everything he set his
hand to, from his work as a slave of Potiphar, to his duty in the
court prison; and finally his work as Pharaoh’s chief
government minister in Egypt. He is one of the best examples in the
Bible of someone who served God as a faithful believer while
functioning in the marketplace.
The characteristics of Joseph
The story of
Joseph is often used as a type (a “shadow”) of the
suffering of Christ. Someone has estimated that there are more than
130 parallels between the lives of Joseph and Jesus, making Joseph a
kind of “Messianic patriarch”.
There is also
much in the story that shows us how to relate as God’s people,
in a marketplace of unbelievers. Let’s look at the story a bit
more closely. What was it that characterized Joseph? If we put
aside the obvious cultural and historical differences, how is his
story relevant to ours, thousands of years later?
passionately believed in God, in spite of everything that happened to
him. He trusted God’s faithfulness, surrendered to His plan
(albeit understanding it only incrementally) and knew that He was
sovereign in everything. Joseph knew that there was a “God”
side to life, a spiritual dimension, and that God could be trusted,
even if everyone else let him down.
enabled him to cope through years of misunderstanding (on the part of
his family), loss of his father for many years (he never saw his
mother again), betrayal and loss of liberty (engineered by his
brothers), false accusation (by Potiphar’s wife), deprivation
and neglect (in prison), the pressures of high office (as Prime
Minister of Egypt) and feelings of bitterness and desire for revenge
(against all those who hurt him).
Even when he was
in the midst of dark and personally chaotic circumstances, where
nothing made sense and where you and I might have felt furious and
sorry for ourselves, Joseph continued to trust God and believe He was
with him. I have no doubt Joseph often felt angry and hurt and
believed that God had somehow let him down. Where were the dreams
now? Every small door appeared to be “it”, but was then
slammed shut. He was a nobody, shut away, out of sight, forgotten
and in pain.
Joseph managed to address each of his trials in turn with a sense of
confidence that God was still in charge. The book of Hebrews tells
us that what made Joseph different from everyone else in his
generation was his trust in God (Hebrews 11:22), not a faith
inherited from his father or religious upbringing alone, but forged
in fire and trials that nearly cost him his life and sanity. When he
interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams (something no one else in the land
was able to do) he was careful to attribute his skills to God alone
(Genesis 41:16). Even Pharaoh came to realize the hand of God was
with Joseph (Genesis 41:39-40).
never lost his moral integrity. A slave, from another culture (one
regarded as inferior to the might and sophistication of Egypt), with
no legal rights, no family or friends, he came to be trusted with the
business affairs of his owner. We can only imagine the temptations
he faced to abuse the trust reposed in him. You and I will face many
temptations to compromise our integrity, whether in the area of
sexuality, finances, personal relationships and business and
professional ethics. Joseph dealt with moral temptation by believing
that yielding would not only have been a sin against his master, but
also against God (Genesis 39:9, cf Psalm 41:4; 51:4). It would have
been the easiest thing in the world to give in to the seduction of
Potiphar’s wife; had he pleased her the affair would have been
hushed up. Instead, he risked everything, and lost it all (or so it
seemed) because of his determination to remain accountable to God and
keep himself morally clean, when to do otherwise might have seemed a
pragmatic thing to do. What a test. What a price! Yet, if we lose
our integrity, we lose everything.
consciously sought God’s favour in his life and actions. He
lived as though God (not Potiphar) was his real Master. Throughout
my work life I have often asked God for His “favour” in
my business dealings. I have been blessed with many interesting and
rewarding opportunities in life; however I know my weaknesses and
human limitations. At times, I feel that I am nobody compared with
people with whom I deal. I continually need fresh and dynamic ideas
to undertake tasks for which I have not been trained. (Don’t
we all feel like that from time to time?) As a Christian I know God
makes up for what I lack.
favour and an awareness of the divine call on his life made Joseph
resilient and gave him strength to resist seemingly worthwhile
temptations that came his way. Imagine if he had “blown it”
by giving in to Potiphar’s wife, to feelings of resentment, to
the temptations to mishandle Potiphar’s finances or the power
he eventually exercised in Egypt.
Because of his
vision of God and his acknowledged reliance on God’s favour
Joseph held himself back from sin. The Bible says that, where people
have no such vision, they “cast off restraint” (Proverbs
29:18), because they feel there is no reason to be honest or morally
upright. If we are accountable to no one, there is no reason to
exercise restraint. Joseph became prosperous (Genesis 39:2), but he
did so through honesty and God’s advancement.
prayed for God’s wisdom. Coming from a rural family, with
limited skills, the underling of ten brothers and a father who lived
a nomadic lifestyle, compounded by life as a slave with a criminal
record, he rose unexpectedly from prison to high office in the space
of a single day (after some seventeen years of slavery or
imprisonment). While working for Potiphar undoubtedly drew out and
honed some management skills, these were minimal compared with the
task of preparing to guide an empire though a major climatic
more, the strategies he designed and implemented went against vast
entrenched vested interests. Powerful people were put off side by
his decisions; they came to hate him because he had been promoted
ahead of them and threatened their financial bottom lines by
appropriating much of their bumper harvests. During the years of
plenty, they would have tried to undermine his prediction of a severe
famine and sought to find fault in his policies. They would have
criticized his methods to Pharaoh, and sought to remove him from
office because their traditional power structures and ways of doing
things were being undermined by him. He needed supernatural wisdom
and the benefit of experience (working for Potiphar and the jail
warden were good learning experiences) to navigate the rough passage
of business and politics.
understood the difference between leadership and management, power
and authority, serving God and serving people. As a young man, he
was eager to do his father’s will, even when it meant going out
of his way (Genesis 37:12-17). He faithfully served the prison
warder, when given carte blanche to manage the jail, even though his
freedom was limited. He saw the underbelly of Egyptian society, but
didn’t get sucked into it or take on its values. He saw the
hard edges of power and politics in the greatest nation on earth,
without being captivated by it. He knew (but did not violate) the
limits of what Pharaoh had entrusted him to undertake, even when he
was given a blank cheque and a Prime Ministerial mandate over all of
Egypt except Pharaoh’s own decisions.
come because he was lucky, but because he listened to God and proved
himself as reliable to people in authority over him. God’s
wisdom enabled him to come up with innovative ways of doing things,
to operate cross-culturally, to understand people and to keep the big
picture in focus.
In times of
plenty Joseph taught the nation to be thrifty. During the long,
heard years of drought, he did not succumb to negativity and the
despair millions of others felt. He never lost His way. The Bible
says that, if we need wisdom, we should ask God, with a right
attitude, and we will be given it (James 1:5).
did not permit life’s reverses to make him bitter or resentful.
For many years, waiting for God to open up doors, he faced only
sorrow, anguish, discomfort and danger. Ultimately faced with an
opportunity to destroy those who had sold him into slavery, or sent
him to prison, he forgave them all. He was not stupid or naive. He
had been betrayed several times and had spent years away from family
and friends, in a foreign land and in prison, because of the actions
of others. However, he was determined not to adopt their standards.
Unforgiveness and wrong attitudes harboured towards others can result
in spiritual paralysis. Joseph displayed a forgiving spirit. There
is no hint that he used high office to do anything other than bless
So, what does all this mean for us?
The account of
Joseph is a nice story with a happy ending, where the good guy gets
beaten up a little on the way but eventually wins out. It is the
stuff of great legends. However, if what Paul tells us in his first
letter to the Corinthian church remains true (that what happened to
Joseph contains lessons for today), what does it mean for us? Let’s
consider the implications.
You and I were
created by God for a purpose. You may not have God-inspired dreams
about your future, in the way Joseph did, but the presence of God is
just as real in your life as it was in his. It was not Joseph’s
brothers, but God, who sent him to Egypt and gave him wisdom and
favour with Pharaoh (Psalm 105:17, Acts 7:9-10). Nor was he sent
ahead just to teach him humility and expunge his teenage boastings
about being great (like one of my sons who sat at the dinner table
recently and told the family he had dreamed we were all bowing before
him). Joseph was sent to testify about God (Psalm 81:15). In spite
of every trial and reverse, he continued to honour God. That takes
You can know
that, whatever happens, God can use each and every event in the
context of unpacking His plan for your life. It was God who led
Joseph, who opened doors and gave him special favour, elevating him
to authority at the appointed time. Stephen explained that it was
God who “delivered
(Joseph) out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom
in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over
Egypt and all his house” (Acts 7:10).
Even when things
are not going well, when you are facing difficulties, you can trust
God and have confidence that this is where you are meant to be.
There have been times in my life, when things have not been going
well, when all I have been able to say has been, “God, I trust
you”. Ephesians 5:17 says that we need to wise and understand
what the will of God is. There’s nothing wrong with asking,
“God, what are you doing?” Working out His will involves
keeping our eyes on him, not our business connections, personality
type or family circumstances, not even what others think of us at any
that associates can turn into enemies in a moment of time and that
family and friends can be perfidious and make life unbearable. But
he also demonstrated that God will not fail to come through when His
time and purpose are involved. If He wants to something in and
through us, He will do it. (What He expects us to do is remain
faithful and trust Him.)
Joseph lived as
though his Master was God, not Potiphar or Pharaoh. If we believe
Father God has our lives in His hands, we should work as though
Christ, not the world around us, is our Master (Ephesians 6:9) and
that pleasing Him is more important than any other human commitment.
Even when we have clearly identified bosses, department heads or
authority structures, God is over all.
God’s will, and a sense of accountability to Him, gives us the
motivation and reason to hang onto moral integrity in the
marketplace, even when others do not share our scruples. Deeply
spiritual people experience the full range of temptations that others
do – tragically, some succumb to moral, financial or other
failure. Success and prosperity can corrupt and breed arrogance.
The Bible warns us to take heed, if we think we stand firm, so that
we do not fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).
If we know we
are in the centre of God’s will, we can feel fulfilled, instead
of surrendering to malaise. We can keep on track, even when others
are listless or negative (unlike Joseph, they may be physically free,
but languish in emotional and spiritual prisons). That negativity
can come from those closest to us, such as family, friends or work
mates. The message we hear from God is totally different:
“I have tested you in the
furnace of affliction. For my own sake, and for My own sake, I will
act” (Isaiah 48:10-11).
”Trust me in your times of
trouble and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory”
serving faithfully and doing their jobs can be misunderstood or
slandered, as was Joseph. (In some countries, they end up in jail,
or worse, just for being believers.) They can conclude that “life
isn’t fair” and feel justified being resentful. All the
more reason to remain dependant on God, so that the good things that
happen do not go to our heads and the bad things do not cast us into
a pit. We can know experientially that all things work together for
our good, because we love God (Romans 8:28). He will use our
experiences to teach us.
The story of
Joseph was located in the marketplace. He was a highly visible
figure in the nation of Egypt for many years. Our marketplaces are
very different from his; they can be an office, a classroom, a
factory, farm, family or a virtual community; however the underlying
issues are similar. The presence of God, the power of faith, moral
integrity and strength of character that were Joseph’s can be
ours. They need to be if we are to have any hope of succeeding.
It is not about
you, your struggles, education, position, wealth, influence or
disappointments, but about God. He is faithful, and He can make it