Leadership: Joseph and Character

He began by leading sheep (Gen 37:2). From here he was “graduated” to being the overseer in the estate of the king’s captain (Gen 39); then to the care of a prison full of criminals; to leading Pharaoh’s department of Agriculture; to leading the nation; and finally, to leading the nation of Israel into a place of refuge.

Yet each stage of advancement was marked by a test, with each test possibly growing in its severity. Each step became dependent on the spiritual response of the previous test. Ultimately, each test blended together to make Joseph the man he was, to develop the character which is among the most reminiscent of the Lord Jesus.

The Test of Malice

Hostility, hatred, envy, harsh words of criticism – these and other forms of malice were aimed at Joseph as the archers began “shooting at him” in his father’s house. His crime? Faithfulness to divine revelation and divine truth. Never stoop to the level of modern Bible storytellers who claim that Joseph was a spoiled child, pampered by his father. No! Joseph was faithful with the truth which God had given him. It resulted in the ill treatment received, culminating in his being sold as a slave.

How would Joseph respond? Bitterness and longings for revenge never gained a foothold in his thinking. We are not informed as to whether the strong conviction which marked him in later years – “God sent me before you” – began while in the pit or as he took that first camel ride down into Egypt. But the treatment he received from his brothers did not deter him in his faithfulness to God.

The Test of Morals

Promotion came quickly in Potiphar’s house. Character cannot be hid. The astute leader of men, Potiphar, soon recognized leadership potential in Joseph. Responsibility was placed into his hands and prosperity for Potiphar soon ensued.

The enemy, however, was not idle. Alone, rejected by his family, possessed of all the vigor and passions of youth, and with no human eye upon him, Joseph was a prime target for the machinations of Satan and a wicked woman. What could be more appealing than for an important woman to flatter him with her attentions? Character, however, is what a man is when no other eye than God’s is upon him. Joseph passed the morals test.

The Test of Misjudgment

Cast into prison, misjudged and falsely accused, new temptations faced Joseph. Anger at his master for his biased judgment, resentment at a wicked woman for her evil, a sense of frustration with God that each display of faithfulness only led to increasing problems – these and a host of other offspring-sentiments might well have buried him in an Egyptian prison. His feet and neck were manacled (Ps 105:18). The “iron entered into his soul” but only made it softer and more sensitive to God. Joseph knew the presence of God and enjoyed the mercy of God and the favor of the keeper of the prison.

The Test of the Menial

Those who have tasted responsibility and prestige find imposed subjection bitter and difficult to endure. Joseph, however, placed in responsibility in the prison house, was content to “serve” his fellow prisoners. His service meant meeting the needs of others. Not the type of position that impresses on your CV but the one which the hand of God had given him to do. He does it well, he does it consistently (n.b. continued a season Gen 40:4), and does it with sensitivity to the needs of the men he serves. He noted their downcast moods and inquired. The rest is well known. He was learning an invaluable lesson for leadership: to serve amidst all circumstances with the needs of others before him.

The Test of Materialism

The dreams of the prisoners resulted in a rags-to-riches story, with Joseph as its leading character. He was catapulted in the space of one day from the prison house to the palace. The prison garb was exchanged for the vesture of fine linen (first mention, incidentally, in our Bible); the iron chain about his neck was exchanged for a gold chain. Suffering gave way to honor and glory. The days of testing were past. Or were they?

Many believers have found the test of prosperity far greater to spiritual life than the test of poverty. Joseph now was ruler of all Pharaoh’s house. Wealth and abundance are his. But prosperity does not move him from honoring God and testifying of him before kings and others (Gen 41:25, 51, 52). There was no attempt to enrich himself at the expense of Pharaoh. Everything was brought into Pharaoh’s treasury (Gen 47:14, 20, 23). He was a faithful steward in what was another man’s. He was not a lover of silver (Titus 1:7).

The Test of Motive

Famine drove his once-hateful brothers to the granaries of Egypt. The confrontation between Joseph and his brothers brought into sharp relief the ultimate motive which must control every leader among God’s people. Self must be lost sight of and the one pressing priority is: “What is for the spiritual good of those whom I lead?” While Joseph had forgiven them in his heart, he could not merely “forget” the past. Vengeance as well was not in his agenda. They had sinned against him; but they had also sinned and grievously wounded a father’s heart. For their spiritual good, they needed to recognize their sin and to be brought to repentance. Joseph skillfully and wisely began his work with them, working with God to awaken their consciences and bring them to repentance.

When faced with the choice of his own self-vindication and the spiritual welfare of others, he did not even hesitate a nano-second. The choice was obvious and he displayed the heart of a God-trained leader as he, in the spirit of the One he prefigured, “esteemed others better” than himself (Phil 2:3).