Did Joseph Ultimately Fail? Part 2

By Mark D. Roberts

March 10, 2016

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.

Genesis 47:20-21


Failure or Success?In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I asked the question: Did Joseph ultimately fail? To be more accurate, I borrowed that question from Al Erisman in his book The Accidental Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph (chapter 25). Yesterday, I considered whether Christians ought to ask such questions of biblical heroes, answering in the affirmative. Today, I want to begin to reflect on the question itself.

So, from one perspective Joseph succeeded wildly. From another, he failed ultimately. How are we to make sense of this apparent contradiction?


Here are some of the relevant facts. Egypt, as well as much of the Eastern Mediterranean, suffered through a terrible seven-year drought. Yet the Egyptians and many of their neighbors did not die from starvation because of a plan hatched by Joseph. During the seven years prior to the drought, Egypt stored vast amounts of grain so that there would be enough for the seven lean years. Joseph came up with this plan and oversaw the whole operation.

This telling of the story would seem to suggest that Joseph succeeded. Consider, for example, the judgment of the Theology of Work commentary on Exodus: “Happily, by applying his God-given skill and wisdom, Joseph successfully brought Egypt through the agricultural catastrophe. When the seven years of good harvests came, Joseph developed a stockpiling system to store the grain for use during the coming drought. When the seven years of drought arrived, ‘Joseph opened the storehouses’ and provided enough food to bring the nation through the famine. His wise strategy and effective implementation of the plan even allowed Egypt to supply grain to the rest of the world during the famine (Gen. 41:57).” Sounds like major success, doesn’t it?

But, in the beginning of his chapter, “Did Joseph Ultimately Fail,” Al Erisman quotes a friend who said, “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?” Now, Al’s friend adds some significant details to the story. Joseph’s plan did indeed end with Pharaoh owning all the animals, land, and even people of Egypt. Moreover, among those enslaved in Egypt was the family of Joseph and, in the end, their progeny, who suffered greatly at the hands of their master, Pharaoh (see, for example, Exodus 1:8-14).

So, from one perspective Joseph succeeded wildly. From another, he failed ultimately. How are we to make sense of this apparent contradiction?

In my next devotion, I’ll try to answer this question. For now, let me encourage you to reflect on it for yourself. Moreover, consider how this conundrum might speak to your own work life.


Can you think of times in your work life when it was hard to determine success or failure?

Can you think of times when an apparent success led to implications that weren’t quite so positive?

How does the example of Joseph speak to our understanding of our own work?


Gracious God, as we reflect on the story of Joseph, we are struck by how his leadership saved thousands upon thousands of lives. We rejoice in how you worked through him for the good of so many. Yet, at the same time, we see how Joseph’s plan led to the enslavement of many and the gross enrichment and empowerment of Pharaoh. How are we to make sense of this? How are we to think about Joseph and his work?

As we consider these questions, may you also teach us how to think about our own work? Give us new insight and wisdom, we pray. Amen.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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