So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.
“Did Joseph ultimately fail?” Al Erisman poses this question in his book The Accidental Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph (chapter 25). If, like me, you grew up in the church, faithfully attending Sunday School throughout your young life and believing that the Bible is God’s Word, then Al’s question can seem like heresy. How dare Al ask such a thing! Joseph is one of the great heroes of the Bible. Of course he didn’t fail! Or . . . did he?
Even the greatest heroes of the Bible, like Abraham, David, and Peter, are shown in Scripture to be fallible people, godly people who nevertheless made mistakes, sometimes terribly costly ones. The Bible shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly, inviting us to discern what is right and what is wrong in the lives of biblical characters.
Before I address the question of whether or not Joseph failed, I want to first speak to the issue of whether Bible-believing Christians can even consider such a question. My answer is a firm “Yes.” We can and, in fact, we should ask whether Joseph ultimately failed in his effort to get Egypt and surrounding nations through a seven-year famine. Those of us who uphold biblical authority believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. Through the Bible, God’s speaks to us authoritatively about matters of faith and practice. We receive biblical teaching as God’s instruction, communicated through human authors and human communities. But, this does not mean that everything the biblical figures did was right or praiseworthy. Even the greatest heroes of the Bible, like Abraham, David, and Peter, are shown in Scripture to be fallible people, godly people who nevertheless made mistakes, sometimes terribly costly ones. The Bible shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly, inviting us to discern what is right and what is wrong in the lives of biblical characters.
With one exception. We are not free to believe that Jesus made moral errors, that which we usually refer to as sin. Scripture and Christian tradition affirm that Jesus was tested in every way, just as we are, “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Now, this does not imply that Jesus did everything in life perfectly. We are not compelled to believe that Jesus never stumbled over an actual stone or mispronounced a word when he was learning to talk. Yet, Jesus, as fully God and fully human, as the sinless one, is in a unique category. We are always right to imitate Jesus’s actions. But, when it comes to other biblical characters, it is right to always discern the moral quality of their behavior. We should not, for example, imitate David’s actions with Bathsheba and Uriah, but rather should see them as utterly sinful.
In the case of Joseph, we’re not only asking a moral question, however. We are not only wondering if Joseph sinned in his exercise of leadership. We’re also asking if his efforts as vice-regent of Egypt ultimately failed to serve his interests, the interests of his people, and, in the end, God’s interests.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Do you find it odd to ask the question: Did Joseph ultimately fail? Does this seem unfair or even heretical?
Why would God show us the failures of the biblical heroes?
Gracious God, thank you for the gift of Scripture. Thank you for teaching us, not only through words of instructions, but also through the stories of your people. Thank you for letting us see them fully, not just as flannel board figures without depth. Thank you for how we can learn from their example, both when they do well and when they fall short. May our minds and hearts be fully and wisely attentive to your Word. Amen.