A spoiled little brat tattletales on his brothers, and they hate him for it. Anyone could have seen that coming in Genesis 37. Of course, the response of Joseph’s brothers is rather severe: they try to kill him, only belatedly settling for selling him into slavery. Poisoned family relationships in the ultimate dysfunctional environment. As Rich Mullins once wrote, “Jacob’s got two women and a whole house full of kids, and he schemed his way back to the promised land. He finds it’s one thing to win them; it’s another thing to keep them content, and he knows that he is only just one man….” Family life is a disaster: guilty brothers with a hidden secret, a devastated father, and an enslaved brother.
But then something surprising happens in Genesis 39-41: in slavery in Egypt Joseph grows up well. Maturity is an amazing thing, especially maturity won through suffering. And decades later, Joseph is summoned to the palace of Pharaoh to interpret the Pharaoh’s nightmares. It’s funny when and how you get your break… And before you know it, Jacob’s vocational calling has become clear – this life of suffering was to prepare him to work to save millions:
Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.”
(Genesis 41:25–40, ESV)
Later Joseph is explicit in saying that this was not an accidental choice of profession but instead God’s specific call on his life: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:8, ESV) And we cannot miss the fact: God called Joseph to be a bureaucrat. Not a priest, not a religious worker, but a man of faith working for the common good – in government. The people of God were blessed, and so were the pagans.
This is God’s calling on most Christians – to work in the broader world, maybe through business, maybe through government, maybe in education, maybe in the not-for-profit world. And for the fruit of that effort to bless believer and unbeliever alike – the blessing of serving the common good. And just as with Joseph, that can be God’s clear call. How does his story help us understand our own callings and vocations? This week “Missio on Joseph” explores the implications of this narrative for our vocational lives.
The Rev. Dr. William Fullilove is the Assistant Pastor of Community at McLean Presbyterian Church and Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary New York. He serves as the Editor of Missio.