As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.
The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Last week, we began to consider whether Joseph ultimately failed in the most important work of his life. In Friday’s devotion I made the case for Joseph’s success. Today I want to present the other side of this argument. Once again, I will quote from the friend of Al Erisman, found in Al’s book The Accidental Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph (chapter 25): “Joseph did not have a very good plan. Look at the end of the story. The net result was that the Egyptians were all slaves to the Pharaoh because they had to sell their animals, their land, and eventually themselves in order to keep from starving. And Jacob’s family all ended up in Egypt where they ultimately became slaves. How could you call this a good plan?”
If we think all of our decisions need to have crystal clear answers, if we are obsessed by the need to succeed in all we do, if we are fearful of both short and long-term failure, then we will be paralyzed as leaders. Our task is to do the very best we can with what God has given to us.
A look ahead to Exodus strengthens the argument of Al’s friend. Not only did the Israelites becomes slaves in Egypt, but also, in time, they were oppressed and harshly treated by Pharaoh and their Egyptian masters. We can trace the suffering of the Israelites back to Joseph’s efforts to feed his family back in Genesis.
Did Joseph fail? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this question. It all depends on how we think of failure and success. Short term, there’s no question that Joseph succeeded. He kept thousands upon thousands of people from starving to death, including his own family. He instituted policies that benefitted the Egyptians and the Israelites, even though they became slaves of Pharaoh. Given the culture of the time, it’s highly unlikely that anything other than slavery under Pharaoh would have saved the people. The Egyptian sovereign would have let the people die if they did not become slaves. Joseph did the best he could do under the circumstances. To accuse him of failure is to project onto Joseph choices and options that were not available to him. It’s projecting our culture, with its values and opportunities, onto a very different culture with a very different set of values and opportunities.
Yet, it is true that Joseph’s actions ultimately led, not just to enslavement, but also to the suffering of Israel. In tomorrow’s devotion I’d like us to consider the implications of this long-term result. For now, however, I want to think about the challenges we face as leaders in a fallen world, where our decisions often lead to mixed results, and where we struggle to discern what is best. I think, for example, of two Christians I know who run a manufacturing business in the Midwest. They are deeply committed to the flourishing of their local community. They love being able to provide excellent work, superior compensation, and ample benefits to their workers, who are also their neighbors. The success of their business helps their town flourish. Yet, increasingly, these disciples are challenged by the realities of the marketplace to consider outsourcing many of their jobs overseas, where they can have their products made for much less money. If they continue to rely only on relatively expensive local help, these leaders fear that their business might ultimately fail, which would be terrible for their community. Yet, it pains them to think of paying their employees less or even laying off their neighbors if they outsource jobs overseas. So, these disciples feel caught between a rock and a hard place, unsure of which way they should go.
If we think all of our decisions need to have crystal clear answers, if we are obsessed by the need to succeed in all we do, if we are fearful of both short and long-term failure, then we will be paralyzed as leaders. Our task is to do the very best we can with what God has given to us, knowing that we live and lead in what Jeff Van Duzer in Why Business Matters to God calls “the messy middle” — the time between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate consummation of all things. We just won’t get it all right in this age. Nevertheless, through creative and critical thinking, reflection, prayer, and wise counsel, we make the decisions that seem best to us. Our calling is to be faithful, to seek in all things to honor God and rely on him. We entrust the results, yes, even success and failure, to our gracious, sovereign God.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Can you think of situations in your work that are in some way like my Midwestern friends? Do you ever feel caught between a rock and a hard place in your leadership?
What difference does God make when you’re in a situation like this? Do you rely on God? How, tangibly speaking, does this happen?
Gracious God, I wish I could sit down with you and get your perspective on the question: Did Joseph ultimately fail? Given that this probably won’t be happening in a literal sense, I am thankful for the gifts you give to help us discern. Thank you for giving us the ability to reason. Thank you for Scripture and for your Spirit. Thank you for placing us in communities of mutual discernment, for giving us brothers and sisters in Christ to help us figure out what faithfulness means in practice.
Help me this day, Lord, to be wise and faithful in the decisions I make. May I work hard to make the best decisions I can make. And, at the same time, may I lean upon your grace, knowing that you are not bound by my mistakes, and that you can work through all things for good. Amen.