Did Joseph Ultimately Fail? Part 3

By Mark D. Roberts

March 11, 2016

Then Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you; sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.”

Genesis 47:23-24


Image of a man in a city, made abstract like a painting's brushstrokes.In yesterday’s devotion, we began to wrestle with the question of whether or not Joseph failed in his main mission in life. On the one hand, his foresight and leadership saved thousands if not millions of lives from starvation. On the other hand, in the process of saving the Egyptians and his own family, Joseph made all of these people slaves of Pharaoh. Because of Joseph’s actions, Pharaoh ended up owning all the animals, land, and people of Egypt. Hundreds of years later, the Israelites would be oppressed as slaves in Egypt as a distant result of the outworking of Joseph’s plan. So, did he succeed? Or did he fail?

With God’s help, we seek to do the best we can do as leaders, seeking to honor God with our decisions, even when right and wrong are elusive, trusting God for our success or failure.


There is a strong case to be made for Joseph’s success in his feeding plan. I expect that if we were to ask those who benefitted from it directly — the Egyptians and others who purchased grain — they would say Joseph hit a home run. (Well, actually, they would not say that since baseball didn’t exist.) For example, in Genesis 47:19, the Egyptians came before Joseph and said, “Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh.” Joseph responded favorably to their request, buying their land and, indeed, the Egyptians themselves. They replied, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (47:25).

Notice that Joseph did not impose slavery on the Egyptians. He did as they requested. Now, from our point of view, we might criticize Joseph’s response. Surely there must have been another way, we object. But, in fact, there probably was no other way, given the culture of ancient Egypt. Commentators point out that, even before the people sold themselves and their land to Pharaoh, he was already the de facto owner of everything in Egypt, including its people. What Joseph did simply made this official. In reality, Pharaoh didn’t gain anything he did not already have in principle.

Moreover, we should pay attention to the terms Joseph established for the Egyptians and their work as slaves. He established the rule that they give one-fifth of their harvests to Pharaoh, keeping four-fifths for themselves. This arrangement was more generous than the norm of the ancient Near East. It was, of course, radically more humane than slavery in the American context or throughout the world today.

So, one could fairly argue that Joseph did not impose slavery on the Egyptians. They chose it and he concurred because it was the best option available. Plus, he established the financial terms of their slavery so as to benefit them. They regarded Joseph’s actions as positive, acknowledging that he saved their lives (47:25).

I don’t mean to minimize the offense of slavery. Human beings should not own other human beings. But, given the culture in which Joseph lived, and given the challenges he faced, it’s fair to say that he made the best out of a difficult situation, both in saving the lives of the people and ensuring a relatively prosperous future for them, in spite of their slavery.

As we consider the implications of this story for our own lives and leadership, we may not have faced life and death situations like that of Joseph. But we do often find ourselves needing to make decisions in which right and wrong are not clearly delineated. We may, for example, want to pay our employees a better wage but fear that our business will fail if we do. All of us exercise leadership in a particular cultural context that shapes and limits our options. With God’s help, we seek to do the best we can do as we seek to honor God with our decisions, trusting him for our success or failure.


Can you think of a time in your leadership when you had to make a decision when right and wrong were all mixed up?

What helps you to make wise decisions when they are complicated and unclear?

How can you feel good about your leadership when you acknowledge that some of your decisions will have negative implications?


Gracious God, thank you for putting Joseph in a place to save the lives of so many people. Thank you for empowering him to see that, going ahead, they would have the chance to benefit from their own work, in addition to benefiting Pharaoh.

Yet, Lord, we chafe at the idea that Joseph participated in a sinful system in which the one in power could use his advantage to enslave people. We sense in Joseph’s success the unjust reality of a fallen world.

The story of Joseph reminds us that we too live in a fallen world, that our leadership is exercised in systems and structures that are malformed by sin. We find ourselves in situations where right and wrong and not clearly delineated, or where they are all mixed up. We ask for wisdom, Lord, to make the best choices in these situations.

We also yearn for the day when you will make right all that is wrong with our world, when your kingdom comes in all fullness. In the meanwhile, help us Lord to be faithful to you, to be guided by you in every decision we make. 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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