“The worst thing that can happen to a man is to succeed before he is ready.”
-D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Joseph was 17 and ridiculously handsome. It’s rare for the Bible to describe a person by their appearance. We have no idea what Adam and Eve looked like. We have no idea what Noah looked like. We know that Abraham’s wife Sarah was beautiful, but there’s no indication that Abe was a looker—he’s known for his faith, not his face. Fast forward to the New Testament and we have no idea what Jesus looked like. For all we know, he could have been on the wrong side of ugly. The prophet Isaiah says that he was nothing to look at.
So it’s interesting that the writer of Genesis takes the time to to describe Joseph as “handsome in form and appearance.” This means that he was well-built in addition to being good looking. Perhaps this line was added to explain why Potiphar’s wife was so hot for him? I don’t know. All I’m saying is that in a world that judges based upon appearance, good looks are an incredible advantage.
Take facial attractiveness for example. We seem to have evolved to prefer faces with good symmetry (i.e. the features on one side match the other side). One eye drooping slightly below the other and Bam!—you are less likely to attract a mate. One too many pimples and Bam!—you have less of a playing field when it comes to a spouse. I can imagine pre-historic man thinking, “If this off, what else could be wrong?”
Beautiful people tend to get first dates. The rest of us have to compensate with personality and clothing. All of this was indelibly impressed upon me when I was a freshman in high school. My best friend at the time was Alex Santiago. Alex was a slick dresser. At a time when most of the guys were wearing polo shirts, sports jerseys or Black Sabbath shirts, Alex came to school wearing dress slacks and a skinny back tie. It was cool and I started wearing dress slacks and skinny black ties too. One day, walking to our next class, we strolled past a group of pretty girls. As we sauntered by one of the girls said, “Boy, these guys are u-g-l-y, but they sure do dress nice!”
No longer sauntering, Alex and I exchanged a painful sideways glance and shuffled away. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I discovered how important looks were for getting a girl, especially the mean ones! I doubt they would have said that about Joseph. Joseph won the “looks” lottery. I’ll bet he never met a mirror that he didn’t like.
Speaking of dressing nice, Joseph also had an advantage in the wardrobe. His Dad loved him more than the rest of his brothers and made him a robe to prove it. In popular imagination, the rest of the boys got to wear drab looking clothes, but Joseph is given a coat of “many-colors.” We’ve let our imaginations run wild here. Think Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Was it really technicolor? Maybe, but the garment probably had more to do with status than stripes. Another way of translating “many-colored” is with “full-length robe.” If this is the best way to gloss the ancient Hebrew, it would indicate that Joseph is “management, not labor.” Whatever we make of Joseph’s coat, it was clear that he was more important to his Dad than his brothers, which naturally pissed them off. Joseph was ridiculously privileged. Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah and the other boys bristled under these conditions. But it was the full-length jacket that pushed them over the edge, “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.”
To make matters worse, Joseph tattled on the boys’ behavior to Dad. This scenario can play out in two ways. In one scenario, Jacob puts him up to spying on his brothers to see what kind of shenanigans they were up to; in another scenario Joseph takes it upon himself to bring a bad report about the brothers to further cement his position in management over labor.
Joseph was a dreamer. I’m not talking about day-dreams. He had actual dreams. In his first dream, Joseph and his brothers were out in the field tying up sheaves of grain. As they were binding, Joseph’s sheaf rose and stood erect and the brother’s sheaves bowed down to his.
Weird! First, they were shepherds. Binding sheaves of grain was the work of a farmer, not the work of guys who tended flocks. Secondly…
Cocky! He was the youngest and least experienced. That cocky son of a bitch! Who did he think he was?
So they hated him all the more.
But Joseph wasn’t done dreaming. In his second flight of fancy, Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing on the ground before him.
So, he got the brothers together and told them about his second dream. More than that, Joseph told his father about the dream as well. This was too much!
I might be too hard on Joseph. Perhaps it wasn’t arrogant swagger propelling him to rub his dreams in his brother’s faces. Early Jewish sources depict Joseph as the ideal young man: innocent, intelligent, and able to keep his zipper up. All of that is true, but the Biblical account offers us a more balanced approach. Joseph is not a one-dimensional, cardboard cut out. Yes, he was a good kid, but too much winning with too little character is disastrous.
The Hidden Hand
Joseph had everything going for him, but God knows that the worst thing that can happen to a man is for him too succeed before he’s ready. God had big plans for Joseph, but first He would have to strip away his status. Speaking of God, where is He?
God is never mentioned by name when we first meet Joseph. Thirty six verses in our English Bibles and not a single mention of God. No miracles. No parting of the sea. No direct revelation. What about Joseph’s dreams? Weren’t they from God? Yes, but we don’t really know that until later:
“And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground…. Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them…” (Genesis 42:6, 9).
At this point in our story, the source of Joseph’s dreams could just as easily have come from eating a bad kabob.
Joseph lives in the same universe that we do. He’s lives in a world where God’s hidden hand is sustaining and guiding absolutely everything, where not even a sparrow falls to the dirt without God’s say-so, but one in which he will go his whole life without seeing a miracle, the kind that makes your jaws drop and your knees buckle. Don’t get me wrong! I believe in miracles, I just believe that they’re less common than providence.
Providence is God hiding in plain sight. I say “hiding” because thirty-six verses and no mention of God by name. I say “hiding” because no miracles and no direct revelation. I say “plain sight” because God had already revealed Himself to Joseph through inspired stories, gracious promises and starry skies shouting wordless sermons about His greatness.
In a world without social media and SlingTV, all you had were camp fires, stories and starry skies. Joseph’s dreams were entertaining, at least to his dad, but they infuriated his brothers. They were jealous of Joseph and happy to take the flock to the greener pastures of Shechem. Shechem is a good distance from the family compound in the Valley of Hebron. I think that the brothers where happy to put a span of 50 miles between them and the cocky little dreamer, but Jacob wanted to know what the boys where up to, so he sent Joseph to check on them. Little did he know that he was sending his favorite son into danger.
50 miles a long journey without Uber. The writer doesn’t tell us about Joseph’s mode of transportation. Did he walk? Did he use a donkey or camel? What we do know is that he got lost and a man found him wondering around in the field:
“What are you looking for?”
“I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock.”
Jewish tradition thinks the unnamed man was an angel. Maybe, but it’s just as likely that God arranged for some dude to find Joseph and give him directions. In a day without Google Maps, any dude will do, but this meeting was a divine-appointment. As one writer says, “the Bible knows only of providence, not serendipity.”
“I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock.”
“I heard them say ‘Dothan’”.
Dothan! Dothan would add another 4-5 days onto Joseph’s journey, but remember, he’s a good kid, so he trudged on.
The image we have of Joseph is becoming clearer. He’s good looking, cocky, innocent and more than a little naive. When the brothers spotted him from a distance they plotted to kill him. I can imagine the sun shining off a bauble on that coat of his from a long way off…
“Here comes the dreamer!”
“Let’s kill him and toss his body into a pit!”
Whoa! I have two brothers, Sean and Aaron. We argued and wrestled around a bit, but the only real fight I had with a sibling was with Sean. Sean decided to run away from home. That was a bad decision. He also decided to take some of my stuff with him—that’s bad to worse. I found out where he was staying and we had words. Words escalated into a fist fight, but it was an unspoken rule—no hits to the face or the groin. It didn’t need to be spoken, because you don’t punch your flesh and blood in the balls! Like most fights, we wound up in a clench and on the ground. The fight was over. I held him down and got my stuff back.
Apparently these boys were playing with a different set of rules! It wasn’t just the ridiculous privilege that Joseph enjoyed, it was the dreams! So they conspired to murder, but Rueben, the eldest, intervened:
“Let’s not take his life. Shed no blood. Throw him into a pit, but do not lay hands on him.”
You should not think that Reuben is a good guy. Joseph’s dad had two wives and two concubines: Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. It was a sister-wives culture. Reuben slept with Bilhah and discredited himself in his father’s eyes, saving Joseph was his chance to get back into Dad’s good graces. Reuben was just jockeying for position.
They grabbed Joseph, stripped him of his jacket and threw him into a cistern. Now what?
Killing Joseph still made the best sense. How do you keep him from talking? You could threaten him, “Speak a word of this and we’ll kill you!”, but should Joseph spill the beans, Dad would take his word over theirs. “Let’s not take his life!” Reuben was as dumb as a box of rocks!
Once again, God is hiding in plain sight. First it was the unnamed man, now it’s a group of Ishmaelite traders that suddenly show up. Dothan just happened to be near a trading route. This too is divine intervention. Rueben is out, but Judah makes his move…
“What profit is it,” he said to his brothers, “for us to kill him and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”
This marks the ascension of Judah among the twelve tribes. Judah speaks and people listen. Judah speaks and Joseph is silenced. He is pulled up from the pit and sold for twenty, shiny shekels of silver—the going rate of a common slave. Joseph would fetch a good price on the slave blocks in Egypt, he was after all handsome and well-built.
The Ishmaelites bring Joseph down into Egypt and the brothers bring a bloody and torn jacket to their father.
“We found this; please examine it to see whether or not it is your son’s tunic or not.”
Jacob was shattered. The boys stayed silent and let their Dad finish the fiction, “A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”
One of the things that I love about this story are the little ironies at work. The word for “examine” that the boys use when handing over the bloody coat is “recognize.” Once, when Jacob was a different man, he tricked his blind, old father into giving him the blessing in place of his brother Esau. The writer tells us that old man Isaac could not “recognize” Jacob. Nobody gets away with anything. The boys ask their dad to “recognize” the jacket of Joseph, which he does to his agony. Later, it will be Joseph who “recognizes” the brothers who sold him into slavery, but for now the story ends with the gloomy grief of old man Jacob. The writer says that Jacob tore his clothes and put rough, sackcloth on his loins. Grief literally had him by the balls.
It would twist for 22 years.
All of his sons and daughters rose up to comfort him, especially the low-down-dirty liars.
Some Implications for Winning in Life:
Choose to believe that God is at work in and through unfairness
What happened to Joseph was unfair. That’s life. You give ten of your best years to a company and they give you a pink slip. It’s unfair. You eat right and work out three times a week and still get cancer. It’s unfair. You graduated college a year ago, but you’re still slinging espresso at a Starbucks. No one told you that a degree in psychology was worthless without a PHD. Life is unfair.
You can’t control economic downturns, pink-slips and cancers, but you can control how you respond to downturns, pink-slips and sickness. Joseph refused to play the victim card. There’s no record of him ranting against God. Instead, as we shall see, he chose to draw near to God in his difficulties. You and I have that same choice. We can sink into despair or we can draw near to God, believing that He’s at work in today’s setbacks to prepare us for tomorrow’s success.
It’s a choice that requires faith. You try it! Say it out loud…
I choose to believe that God is at work in my unemployment.
I choose to believe that God is work in my illness.
I choose to believe that God is at work in my __________________ (your turn).
Repeat as often as necessary!
Choose to believe that God’s plans are way better than yours
Old man Jacob had plans for Joseph, but they died on a blood stained jacket. Rueben had plans to get back in Dad’s favor, but Judah took the lead. God had a plan, and it was bigger and better than any of them could imagine. God was going to use one man’s unjust suffering to save the world. This is no overstatement. No Joseph in Egypt—no nation of Israel. No Israel—no Jesus Christ.
You have plans for your life. Good! You have plans for your business. Good, but if your plans are not aligned with God’s plans, your plans are too small. You’ll reach your goals and discover that they’re not enough to justify your existence.
God had a plan for Joseph and He has a plan for you too (it’s probably bigger than you ever imagined). So, how do you find out God’s plan for your life? The best thing that you can do to discover God’s hidden plan is to make sure that your life is aligned to His revealed plan for success. The good news for us is that God has already revealed a good deal about how to win in life:
- Want to discover God’s plans for winning in your sex life? Read Proverbs 5:15-19.
- Want to discover God’s plans for winning in marriage? Read Matthew 19:4-6 and Ephesians 5:22-33.
- Want to discover God’s plans for winning in finances? Read Proverbs 22:7 and James 4:13-15.
No joke! God’s plans for winning in life are out in the open. Pick up the Bible. Read it. Obey what you read. If you don’t where to begin, get yourself a spiritual coach. Success begins with simple trust and humble obedience.
No one is good but God
Many people read the story of Joseph as a “Be-This-Guy” morality tale, but that’s an adventure in missing the point. No one is good but God. This isn’t a story about a man with ideal character, it’s a story about the lengths God will go through to rescue broken people.
Joseph’s family is as dysfunctional as they come. Old man Jacob was a changed man (his “come-to-Jesus-moment” happened years earlier), but the unpaid bills of favoritism came due. Joseph’s brothers were poisoned by envy. Theologian Cornelius Plantiga reminds us that, “What an envier wants is not, first of all, what another has; what an envier wants is for another not to have it.” The envious character of the brothers put the big promise that God made to Joseph’s family at risk. Young Joseph was simply the cleanest, dirty shirt in the basket.
I suppose we tend the read the story as a morality tale because most of us hold to some version of the “good-people-go-to-heaven” theory. Maybe you’ve heard this before. Be a good person and if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, then you get to go to Paradise. But if no one is good but God (and no less an authority than Jesus affirmed this), then no one will get to heaven based upon their merits.
The sooner we let go of this “good-people-go-to-heaven” idea the better! Ideas have consequences. People who believe in it can’t afford to admit their badness, lest they disqualify themselves from Paradise. As a result they miss out on the grace of God. God only helps the broken.
It’s actually much more freeing to admit that you’re a moral screw up. The sooner you confess moral bankruptcy, the less you’ll seek your identity in rock star achievements and success. This in turn will free you up to take bigger risks, because your sense of self-worth is no longer tethered to winning and losing. People who tether their identity to winning die a thousand deaths when they lose. People who bind their identity and self-worth to God are free to fail-forward in life. Think about it.
Next: Man Down!