And their father Jacob said to them, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
Today, we continue in the series, “When Leadership is Deeply Personal.” Last week, we examined the example of Joseph, who did allow his strong emotions to influence his decision-making in the wrong direction. But, we saw how, through the passage of time and the influence of Joseph’s faith, he corrected his course. In the first two devotions of this week we began to consider the case of Jacob, Joseph’s father. We saw how his strong leadership of his sons may well have contributed to Jacob’s frustration with their lack of leadership. In today’s devotion, we’ll see how Jacob focused so much on himself that he neglected the needs of those entrusted to his care.
By your grace, Lord, may my leadership be, not about me and my needs, but about those I am leading, those we are serving together, and the work to which you have called us.
Let me remind you of the context for Genesis 42:36-38. A terrible famine throughout the Mediterranean world brought Joseph to power in Egypt and threated his family in Canaan with starvation. So Jacob, Joseph’s father, sent ten of his sons, all but the youngest, Benjamin, to Egypt to buy grain. The one from whom they would buy this grain was none other than Joseph, the brother they had once sold into slavery. Joseph resolved to test his brothers, to learn more about their moral character. So, he imprisoned one brother (Simeon) and sent the rest back to Canaan to deliver the grain to their family and to fetch Benjamin.
When the brothers reported to their father all that had happened in Egypt, Jacob was distressed: “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” (42:36). Reuben promised to bring back Benjamin, even telling Jacob that he could kill two of Reuben’s sons if he failed at this task (42:37). But Jacob was not persuaded: “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol” (42:38).
Now, we can certainly understand Jacob’s feelings here. He had lost Joseph, believing him to be dead. Simeon was imprisoned in Egypt, and Jacob understandably feared that his life might be over too. The last thing Jacob wanted was for yet another son, in this case, Benjamin, to be lost. So he did not agree to the terms established by Joseph. Benjamin would not be going to Egypt.
It’s striking how, in this deeply personal leadership context, Jacob focused only on himself, his needs, and his feelings: “I am the one… All this has happened to me! …My son… If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” Even Benjamin’s death would not be, from Jacob’s perspective, a terrible thing for Benjamin. Rather, it would mean that Jacob would die in sorrow. In this moment of self-absorption, Jacob did not seem to care that Simeon would really be lost if Benjamin did not travel to Egypt. Nor did Jacob worry that his family would soon run out of food with Egyptian help. All that mattered to him at that time was himself. It was all about him.
It’s easy to point the finger of blame at Jacob. The deeply personal situation in which he found himself compromised the wisdom of his leadership, to be sure. Yet, as I think about my own experience as a leader, I can remember times when “my stuff got in the way.” I did not mean to be self-centered. But my emotions overwhelmed my better judgment. My fear of displeasing people, for example, led me not to tell one of my reports that his work was unacceptable. He needed to hear this, and he needed to hear it from me. But I chickened out because I wanted him to like me.
Once again, Genesis invites us to examine our own leadership, to think with God about times and ways when we have made leadership “all about us” rather than about those we serve and the mission we have taken on together. Perhaps the following questions will be helpful to you in this prayerful self-examination.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Can you think of a time (or times) when your personal needs and feelings influenced your leadership in a way that served your needs rather than the needs of those entrusted to your care and the mission of the organization?
Do you find that certain kinds of emotions have a tendency to make it hard for you to lead wisely? Why do these emotions have such power over you?
Would the people you lead see you as someone who is overly self-absorbed? Or would they see you as an other-focused servant leader?
Gracious God, thank you for allowing us to see the leadership of Jacob. His self-absorption in this passage shows us what not to do. Yet it also challenges us to look at ourselves honestly and courageously.
Lord, are there times when my leadership is more about me than others? Are there times when I lead more for my own benefit than for the benefit of the mission? Even now, Lord, am I letting my desires and fears twist my decisions in the wrong direction?
Help me, Lord, to see myself as you see me. May I honestly confess where I am leading more for my own gain than for the good of others and the work of your kingdom. By your grace, may my leadership be, not about me and my needs, but about those I am leading, those we are serving together, and the work to which you have called us. Amen.