Joseph is 17 years old when he is sold into slavery and he is 30 when he becomes Prime Minister. His promotion was the unlikeliest of turnarounds for a man who was a slave at Potiphar’s house before being thrown into prison. Despite the challenges of this thirteen-year period, they do constitute what I am calling his ‘maturing years’. By that I mean these years were a time of great transformation for Joseph. God was working out His purposes, both for Joseph and for the world as they knew it. This was God’s appointed means to prepare Joseph for all that was to come.
I think these periods are common in our lives though they will take very different forms. God has plans for each of our lives but it seems they often involve having to learn the hard way! That has certainly been the case for me – some of the deepest lessons that God has taught me have arisen out of adversity and trials. Perspective is possible with hindsight, but it is a very different thing entirely when we are in the midst of such trials! What is shocking in the life of Joseph is the way that his troubles come at him relentlessly during this phase of his life.
Learning Integrity (Genesis 39:1-20)
One might expect that Joseph would feel quite bitter both towards his brothers for selling him into slavery, and towards God for allowing all this to happen. Yet we see no hint of this in the story. Instead we see Joseph giving himself wholeheartedly to the work to be done within Potiphar’s household. For that he is soon rewarded with the role of Household Manager. Things were starting to look up for Joseph, but when Potiphar’s wife took a shine to him, everything began to change. Her relentless pursuit of the handsome Joseph (39:6) was repeated day after day.
…Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.Genesis 39:6b-10
Joseph refuses with a resolute integrity that would be impressive for many a young man. It was certainly quite the contrast with the example of Judah in the previous chapter. For Joseph there was really no good option for Joseph here. If he gives into Potiphar’s wife’s demands, it will come back to bite him. If he refuses her demands he knows that she will be infuriated and may well seek a way to punish him for it. That of course is what happens as she sets a trap and has him throw into prison. Potiphar was chief of the guard and it would not have been a surprise if he had killed Joseph for his alleged attack. Indeed that was probably the expected punishment for such a crime. But perhaps there is some indication here that he didn’t entirely believe his wife because he shows Joseph mercy in merely sending him to prison.
Once again things are beginning to go wrong again for Joseph. Potiphar had putting everything in his house under Joseph’s charge and we are told that the blessing of God was upon all he had. Yet everything changed in an instant and Joseph could be forgiven for wondering where God was now. He was back to square 1: thrown into prison without hope and a long way from seeing the reality of the visions God had given to him some years earlier.
Learning Dependence (Genesis 39:21-41:13)
Immediately after this we again see a phrase which comes repeatedly in Joseph’s story: “But the Lord was with Joseph” (39:21a). We first saw this in Genesis 39:2 and it a very important phrase because it is the reason that things once again began to look up for Joseph. The text says God showed him “steadfast love and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (v21b).
The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.Genesis 39:23
It takes a great deal to pick yourself up after a second betrayal, but yet again Joseph is looking forward rather than to the present challenges of his situation. God honours his efforts and whatever he puts his hand to, God makes it succeed. In time, Joseph’s new responsibilities present him with a great opportunity when Pharaoh places his Cupbearer and Baker in prison. They are placed under Joseph’s care and when they experience some unsettling dreams, Joseph is right on cue to help interpret them. These interpretations come true: great news for the Cupbearer (who is restored to his previous role) but bad news for the Baker (who is hanged). Joseph asks the Cupbearer to remember him, but once again he is let down and forgotten. Two years pass until he is finally remembered, now it is Pharaoh’s turn to experience some unsettling dreams.
Learning Humility (Genesis 41:14-46)
Joseph is quickly brought before Pharaoh. First however, Joseph has the opportunity to shave and change his clothes as he prepares to meet the most powerful man alive. Joseph is more than willing to interpret the dreams but he is very eager to give God the glory. He says “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer” (v16). God gave Joseph the insight to reveal the dreams but he goes further than that. The dreams describe seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph gently and humbly counsels Pharaoh about what he should do to avert the coming crisis. He tells Pharaoh to appoint a wise and discerning man to rule over Egypt and store up enough grain during the good years in order to provide for them during the difficult years.
Though Joseph never volunteers himself for the role, Pharaoh has no doubt that Joseph was the best, and indeed only, man for the job. Remember that God has been preparing Joseph for this for some time, first giving him responsibility over Potiphar’s household and then over the prison. So Pharaoh makes Joseph his second in command over all Egypt. He puts his signet ring on his hand, dresses him in fine linen, puts a gold chain around his neck and had him ride in his second chariot. The turnaround in Joseph’s life was then complete and after all that he had been through, Joseph had risen to the very top as Prime Minister of Egypt.
Verse 46 tells us that Joseph was now 30 years old. He has come such a long way from the young man we met back in chapter 37. His youthful arrogance had been replaced with humility. His youthful enthusiasm had grown into a mature wisdom. These tough years were the making of the man who would go on to rescue the world. For most of us this past year has felt something of a write off, but like Joseph, who knows how significant this year will be in preparing us for whatever God has planned has for us in the future.
See more in the Life of Joseph Series