When I was growing up, I liked the story of Joseph because he followed God and became the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. In my stories, I liked to see people rise from nothing to greatness because if it could happen to them, maybe it could happen to me. So if Joseph followed God and rose to be the second in command of all of Egypt (first if you consider that Pharaoh did whatever Joseph suggested), if I followed God things might similarly happen to me and I would gain some measure of success in life.
I doubt that as a child I would have been able to explain it all that well, and I would probably be a bit sheepish if I was pressed into saying that. But in my own way, I viewed the story of Joseph as proof that if I followed God just as he had, I could possibly gain some measure of earthly success or even greatness. And I think subconsciously I justified it even further by pointing to Joseph’s dreams of power as a child of all his family bowing down to him. “See,” I said to myself, “He followed God and God gave him the desire of his heart.”
I was partially right but very wrong in my understanding of these passages. On the one hand, it is very hard not to credit God for Joseph’s meteoric rise to power. Earlier in the chapter Joseph credits God as the source of his interpretation and later, as Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he says, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” In this passage he names his children, Ephraim and Manasseh, names that credit God for his success in this foreign land. And Joseph certainly followed God in the way he acted; Potiphar’s wife is perhaps the prime example of this where Joseph literally fled from the temptation facing him. Reading this passage it is impossible for me not to, alongside Joseph, credit God for Joseph’s success.
But it’s impossible for me not to also see that I completely missed the point as a child. The point of Joseph’s story and this passage in particular is not the answer to Joseph’s childhood dream of greatness. After two years in prison that was probably the least of his concerns. I do think that this passage alongside the rest of Joseph’s story is about how the people of God should carry themselves in exile and more broadly speaking how we should approach our work.
Joseph’s entire time as a prisoner in Egypt he pursues his work wholeheartedly, and does it well. In Potiphar’s house, despite the circumstances which brought him there, he managed the house well. Then in prison, again despite the circumstances which brought him there, he was again given responsibility and he again does it to the best of his ability. Just as his eventual rise to power is credited to the Lord, so too these areas of authority, although less glamorous, are also credited as being the work of the Lord. Joseph seems to be gifted in his ability to wield authority wisely and fairly and as God gives him tasks to do in areas he did not choose to be in, he pursues those callings to the utmost despite his captivity in Egypt.
This story speaks directly to me then in every time of my life, but not in the way that I might have secretly hoped when I was young. Joseph did not ask to be in Egypt, he did not deserve to be in prison. He did not want the jobs that he found himself in and yet he worked hard at them and God used him in the lives of those he was around. It is very likely that in my life I will only end up in jobs that I choose to engage in, even if they are not my first choice.
Even now I’m in an internship that I chose to do, in a field that I was interested in learning more about, but my instinct is not always to work hard at it. I can daydream thinking of my dream job that would serve me, or I can simply do the work required of me without any thought of how I can do my work excellently. And even though I reject the idea that following God will lead to earthly success and glory, still in the back of my mind a voice whispers that if I really follow God well I’ll end up doing something great here on earth.
But the message of this passage is that of faithfully pursuing the tasks God has given me in the area that he has placed me in. Joseph is fulfilling Jeremiah’s letter to the people of Israel in exile centuries before the nation of Israel would even form under Saul. He seeks the welfare of the people of Egypt. To jump outside the passage again, even when Joseph is in prison and does not want to be there – he asks the butler to remember him to Pharaoh because he wants to get out – he continues to work faithfully. So throughout this year in all of my work, whether or not I am looking for future possibilities – my calling is to faithfully work at the job that the Lord has placed before me in the place he has set me in. Knowing that wherever I end up, I am not there for my glory, but because God wants me to be there to work for his good.