Did Joseph Ultimately Fail? Part 5

By Mark D. Roberts

March 15, 2016

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.


Genesis 47:21; Exodus 1:13-14


A young plant growing among barbed wire.For several days we have been working together on the question: Did Joseph ultimately fail? We know that his plan and execution of this plan kept thousands of people alive through years of famine. But, his plan also led to the enslavement of these thousands to Pharaoh. Included among the slaves were Joseph’s own family, from whom came the multitudes of Israel who, centuries later, suffered greatly as slaves in Egypt. Thus, we might conclude that Joseph did ultimately fail, though the short-term results of his efforts were successful.

If we really believe God is working in all things for good, this will give us freedom from obsessing about our success or failure. We’ll break free from our culture’s need to idolize the winners and criticize the losers.


From an ethical perspective, I find this judgment to be unfairly judgmental. Our decisions and actions have long-term consequences that we cannot anticipate and for which we cannot be held morally or practically responsible. Would it be fair to discredit Einstein’s work because of the dangers associated with North Korea becoming a nuclear power? If Einstein was successful, then so was Joseph.

Moreover, from a biblical perspective, we have to wonder if Joseph’s “failure” was really a failure at all? Yes, his actions led to the enslavement and oppression of Israel. That’s obviously not good. But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, the enslavement and oppression of Israel brought about the deliverance of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Without Joseph’s “failure,” there would have been no Exodus.

Furthermore, the Exodus was not only a wonderful work of God in and of itself, but also a prototype of a yet more wonderful work, the deliverance of humanity from sin through the Cross of Christ. Jesus used the memorialization of the Exodus, captured in the Passover ritual, to convey the deep meaning of his death. He would become the Passover lamb, whose shed blood would mean salvation for humanity.

So, if we’re going to hold Joseph responsible for the unintended consequences of enslavement in Egypt, shouldn’t we also give him credit for setting up the Exodus, the most important event in Israel’s history? And shouldn’t Joseph also get credit for the Passover, the means by which Jesus interpreted his saving death?

This kind of argument begins to feel rather silly to me. Plus, it can miss what seems most important of all. No matter how we answer the question of Joseph’s success or failure, the fact is that God used his efforts for good, both the immediate good of saving masses of people from starvation as well as the much later good of the Exodus and, symbolically, the Cross. If we really believe God is working in all things for good (Rom 8:28), this will give us freedom from obsessing about our success or failure. We’ll break free from our culture’s need to idolize the winners and criticize the losers. Yes, we’ll seek to honor God in all we do. Faithfulness will be our goal, our passion. But we’ll trust that, in the end, God can use all of our actions for his purposes. As Joseph himself once said to his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:7-8).


If God is indeed able to work in all things for good, then why do we ever bother to try and do what’s right?

Can you think of times in your life when God redeemed your mistakes for his gracious and good purposes?

How might your work life be different if you sought to be truly faithful as a steward of all that God has entrusted to you, without worrying about whether or not you would be successful?


Gracious God, thank you for the fact that you can work in all things for good. Now, I definitely want to be an active partner in your good work. But, knowing that you can work through and redeem my “failures” gives me freedom from fear, from inaction, and from self-condemnation.

O Lord, help me to be a faithful steward of all that you’ve entrusted to me. Guide my decisions. Give me your wisdom. May my decisions honor you, both in their substance and in the process by which I make them. Yet, when I fail, and I will fail, may I rely on your grace, not taking it for granted, but feeling confident that you will be working for your good in and through me.

All praise be to you, gracious God, our Savior and Redeemer. 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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