When we read the story of Joseph in Genesis, there are a lot of themes that can be seen in the story. After all, Joseph’s life gets 14 of the 50 chapters of Genesis. Joseph’s life is important because it introduces the Egyptians and major characters and sets up the Exodus. We see familial forgiveness as Joseph pardons his brothers. There is financial wisdom in Joseph’s life as he helps the Pharaoh set aside food for the years of famine. One interesting theme in Joseph’s life, though likely not the most important, is his vocation. In particular, Joseph’s response to being unjustly sent to prison provides a remarkable example for us as he responds to suffering by working.
I’ll leave you to read the backstory in Genesis 39:1-20. But by verses 21-23, Joseph has been sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit and he, due to God’s blessing, becomes a favorite of the prison warden. The warden put Joseph in charge of the daily activities of the other prisoners. The exemplary behavior in this instance is that Joseph actually took the job.
Set aside a contemporary Western notion of prison that is certainly unpleasant but still livable. Insert the image of a bleak containment facility run by people whose daily life would tend to get easier if the prisoners didn’t survive. Add in the fact that Joseph’s sentence was indefinite and what we find is a man who doesn’t have a particularly strong reason to do well at anything. There was no retirement plan or hope of advancement. Joseph had nothing to look forward to beyond more years in prison.
But Joseph had a calling. From the account that we have in Genesis, Joseph was a shrewd manager. In his first job in Egypt, Joseph made Potiphar’s house run so well that the master of the house only had to worry about what he was going to eat (Gen 39:6). The text clearly tells us that Joseph’s success was given to him by God (Gen 39:3), but before he was blessed with success, Joseph responded to his vocation.
It is critical to note that both with Potiphar’s house and prison, Joseph responded well to his vocation, even though bad circumstances brought him to Egypt and then took him to prison. In Joseph: Eleven Bible Studies on Genesis, German Bible commentator Claus Westermann notes, “That God is with a certain person does not signify that everything will therefore always go well, or that he or she will always be spared ruin and humiliation.” Joseph’s path was bumpy, but God was with him through it. The bumps were as much a part of God’s plan as the blessings.
In prison, when the warden gave Joseph the responsibility over the other prisoners, Joseph had a clear decision to make. He could take the opportunity and use his skills for the glory of God or he could waste away denying his calling and letting his skills go to waste. John Chrysostom notes in From Homilies on Genesis, “You notice how even when Joseph encountered troubles he had no sense of distress; instead the creative wisdom of God transformed all his distress. Just as a pearl reveals its peculiar beauty even if someone buries it in the mire, so too virtue, wherever you cast it, reveals its characteristic power, be it in servitude, in prison, in distress or in prosperity.”
The compelling example in this case is that Joseph chose to use the opportunity given him to implement his God-given skills even though the potential benefits were limited.
Much like the earlier chapter in Joseph’s time in Egypt, his efforts in prison were blessed by God. This time the prison warden was relieved of his concerns because he knew that Joseph had everything under control (Gen 39:23).
Later on, God blessed Joseph by allowing him to get out of prison (Gen 41:37-40), but we should remember that Joseph’s release didn’t come until he had been in prison for more than two whole years (Gen 41:1). Joseph followed his calling for years in prison without any real hope of improvement or promotion.
From Joseph’s example, we can learn four things about vocation:
God arranges the opportunities. The signs of God’s orchestration are apparent through the account of Joseph’s life. Joseph was sold to Potiphar who saw fit to put him in charge when it was apparent God was blessing Joseph (Gen 39:2-4). The Lord gave Joseph favor in the prison warden’s sight (Gen 39:21). The Lord sent a cupbearer to prison to meet Joseph, restored the man to his office, and caused him to remember Joseph at just the time Pharaoh needed him (Gen 41:9–13). Each one of these opportunities was orchestrated by God in a way that Joseph could not have foreseen.
Joseph responded well. Joseph could have responded in several different ways to the opportunities presented, but he chose to use his skills in a way that honored God despite the lack of immediate benefit. This is truly an amazing testimony about a man who could have given into despair, but who chose to make the most out a bleak situation.
God grants success. A careful read through Joseph’s life repeated instances where Joseph worked hard but God gave him success (eg., Gen 39:2, 3, 5, 21, 23). Hard work will not always result in success, but when it does we should thank God for granting the success. The temptation is to refer to God’s sovereignty when we fail, and pat ourselves on the back when we succeed.
Difficulties come even to those who do things right. Joseph was being blessed by God when he suffered the humiliation of being falsely accused and sent to prison (Gen 39:20). Ultimately success or failure does not reflect whether God is blessing our efforts. God’s ways our not our ways and sometimes make sense to us only in hindsight. In this case, God was helping Joseph to change careers to get him in the right place in salvation history.
Joseph’s response to vocational opportunity is unique. Our calling is not likely to be the same as Joseph’s. However, the principles that surround Joseph’s vocation are similar to our own. God will always be the one who provides opportunities. We must always respond well to those opportunities, considering our gifts and the possible outcomes. In the end, God will grant success or failure according to his plan.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Spence Spencer, a doctoral student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who works as the seminary’s coordinator for institutional research and faculty support, blogs at ethicsandculture.com, sometimes writes for Intersect Project at intersectproject.org. Intersect Project is a partnership between The Kern Family Foundation and Southeastern Seminary to examine questions relating to what it looks like for people to wisely engage the intersection of work, faith and culture in daily life).