Further Reflections on Joseph

joseph-potiphar
Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife

Reading through Genesis this past week in keeping with my Bible reading plan for 2016, I came across one of my favorite characters – Joseph.  I can  personally identify with him in a couple of different ways.

In July 1985 I was fired from my job as Youth Minister.  A short time later, I discovered that what Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed himself to them in Gen. 50:20 could apply to my own situation: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Joseph clearly understood the sovereignty of God; he acknowledged what Paul would later proclaim in Rom. 8:28 that God works all things out for His bigger purposes and for our ultimate good.  I eventually came to the same conclusion, knowing that God needed to take me out of my comfort zone by force and put me somewhere else that I needed to be to better glorify Him.  I reflected on this in an article I posted on my other blog last summer on the 30th anniversary of this event.

Another way that I seem to identify with Joseph is that God’s presence was with him in his work, under Potiphar, in prison, and working directly for Pharaoh.  As a result, God abundantly blessed his employers through Joseph’s work.  I have also experienced this sense of God’s presence and subsequent blessing to my employers throughout my nearly 30-year career with the Army, both while on active duty and as a Department of the Army civilian employee at Fort Leonard Wood.  This narrative is painted so clearly in Genesis 39.

Incidentally, last September I reflected on how the presence of God is demonstrated through the work of His people, what I like to call “Immanuel Labor”, in another article.  I would like to point out some more details in the Joseph narrative here.

The first thing we see in Gen. 39:2 is that “the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered”.  Let me pause for a moment.  In its literary context, remember the audience that Moses wrote for as he told this story.  The presence of God was an important theme for the Israelites to focus on as they were settling in the Promised Land.  God’s supernatural dwelling with and empowerment of Joseph as Potiphar’s employee had a divine purpose, to eventually bring the Israelites to Egypt so that they could be enslaved there for 400 years and be delivered by Moses.

Let us return to God’s presence with Joseph and how it relates to a theology of work.  Not only was Joseph blessed personally by the nearness of Yahweh, but Potiphar was blessed also because of Joseph’s work which reflected God’s presence (Gen. 39:5).  How did this happen?  Potiphar “saw that the Lord was with him (Joseph) and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did” (Gen. 39:3).  As a result, Joseph “found favor” in Potiphar’s eyes and he promoted him to a position of greater responsibility.  He “entrusted to his care everything he owned” (verse 4).  We  see that same concept in verse 6: “he left in Joseph’s care everything he had.” And also in verse 8, where Joseph articulates his conviction to refuse to sleep with Potiphar’s wife: “everything he owns he has entrusted to my care“. We see in the next verse that Joseph understood that he did not just work under Potiphar’s authority, but under the Lord’s.

When I saw that this word care was emphasized three times in this scene, it caused me to think about stewardship.  The clear application to me in my own work is that my employer has entrusted to me certain responsibilities so that he does not need to worry about them.  I have to take good care of a number of things on a routine basis so that the organization I work for can prosper.  When I faithfully and carefully carry out my duties, God blesses them through me because His presence is with me as it was with Joseph.  This position of great responsibility that I am privileged to have also requires me to work hard and to work with integrity.

I was pleased to see that Gen. 39 continued the same way it started.  Joseph is now in prison, under a different authority, but he has the same attitude towards his work.  We read in verse 21, “the Lord was with him . . . and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.”  The pattern continued with the warden putting Joseph in charge, being made responsible for all that went on (verse 22).  We see the same word “care” is used in the last verse as it was earlier, referring to Joseph’s sphere of stewardship and influence, “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care.”  Once again, we see the same result as before: “the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”  Another reminder that Moses needed to emphasize to the chosen people of Israel and that we still need now.

Let us not forget to mention what happened two years later, as Pharaoh needed Joseph to interpret his dreams. Since God was with Joseph, he was able to give Pharaoh a satisfactory answer and provide a way to survive the upcoming famine.  Pharaoh recognized that God’s Spirit enabled Joseph to do all this, and hired him on the spot as his second in command (41:38-40).

This passage provides some great insight towards a biblical theology of work.  When we abide in God’s presence, He blesses us, which in turn will bless those we work for, causing God to be glorified.  We are to be servants of our masters, working hard with integrity in everything we do so that the blessings that God wants done in our places of employment can be seen.  We can only do our jobs well if we allow God to work through us.

In closing, it appears that I neglected to indicate one more important insight from this passage.  In both of Joseph’s “occupations”, where it states repeatedly that God was with him, he was doing a secular job.  He was not a minister, priest, missionary, teaching in a seminary or Bible college, or in any kind of full-time religious work.  He was managing someone’s mundane, everyday business.  If God’s presence was with Joseph in such a powerful way in his secular job, this points out that as far as God is concerned, all work matters to Him.  He can use us wherever we happen to be, as long as we look to Him to sustain, empower, and use us as His representatives in the place of employment that He has sent us.

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The Intrinsic Value of Work

In this post, I am going to discuss the idea that work is intrinsically (by nature, fundamentally, or inherently) valuable.  Later, I will discuss the idea that work is instrumentally valuable, that is, it has purpose and benefits many.  I have to acknowledge that these two foundational concepts about a theology of work came directly from a life-changing book I read in 1989 entitled Your Work Matters to God, by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks.

First off, God is introduced to us in Gen.1:1 as a worker – He created the heavens and the earth. In the introduction to the Theology of Work Bible Commentary, we read “God worked to create us and created us to work” (vol. 1, p. 1).  In this creative process He did two things: He made something out of nothing and brought order out of chaos.  In Gen. 2:2-3, you see that the word “work” is used three times. What God created then, He continues to sustain now (see Ps. 104:10-31).

Secondly, in Gen. 1:26-28, we see that God made men and women in His image and calls them (and us) to be His co-workers over creation.  Verse 28 is referred to as the cultural or creation mandate.  It is both a command and a blessing for Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over every living creature.  The contributors of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary tell us that “God brought into being a flawless creation, an ideal platform, and then created humanity to continue the creation project” (vol. 1, p. 15).  Although God’s creation was good, it was incomplete.  He needed Adam and us to bring out its potential.  Humans are to care for the plants, to cut down the trees to make lumber, to dig rocks from the ground to make buildings and roads, and to extract minerals from them to make silicon chips for computers.

Timothy Keller, in his excellent book, Every Good Endeavor, adds to this discussion: “Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and ‘unfold’ creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development . . . He calls us now to labor as his representatives in a continuation and extension of that work of subduing“ (59).

Wittmer, in Becoming Worldly Saints, reminds us of God’s purposes: “God created Adam and Eve in his image, empowering them to expand the boundary of Eden until the entire world flourished under their loving care” (21) .

All work is valuable in and of itself, but only if it does not promote evil but produces shalom (peace, well-being, flourishing) in society.  All work that produces shalom is valuable, regardless of whether we get paid for it.  This means that the intrinsic value of the work of a mother, a college student, or a volunteer, is just as valuable as one who earns a wage or salary.

There is a lot more that can be said, but this is a good place to stop.  This idea is critical to a biblical understanding of work.

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This reflection has been adapted from notes to a presentation that I gave to three different audiences last spring.  Here is a link to a short video clip from a portion of this section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mq1gIjfG3aY.

My Personal Career Journey

Over the next several months in this space I will be alternating between sharing reflections focused on what I learned while pursuing a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary from 2012-2015, and presenting some thoughts specifically addressing a Theology of Work.  This post will be on my own work story, and comes from my introduction to a seminar I put together last year entitled “Immanuel Labor: God’s Presence in our Profession”.

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I want to share a few highlights of my varied and unique career path.  This has truly been a spiritual journey for me. I discovered a while ago that each of the three main chapters of my career path since I graduated from high school nearly 40 years ago begins with the letter “M”: math, ministry, and military. I did not plan it this way; that’s just the way it turned out.

Math:

  • Earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from CSU, 1980
  • Taught math (public Jr./Sr. high school), 1980-1982
  • Taught math & science (Christian Jr./Sr. high school), 1984-1985

Ministry:

  • Felt called to the ministry, 1978
  • Youth ministry Intern, 1980-1982
  • Attended Western Seminary, 1982-1985
  • Part-Time Youth Pastor, 1983-1985

Military:

  • Active Duty Army: Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Specialist, 1986-2006
  • Civilian Contractor: Lessons Learned Integration Analyst, 2006-2008
  • Department of the Army Civilian: Operations Officer, 2008 – present

There is not much I want to say about math. I was good at it, and I had a great math teacher my senior year in high school that inspired me. More importantly, I wanted to do something to help people. My dad was a successful businessman, and I knew that I did not feel led to go in that direction.  However, I did not stay in this field very long.

I draw your attention to my short ministry career. I sensed a call by God in 1978, served in my home church as a junior high youth ministry intern, attended seminary and served in youth ministry from 1982-1985, and then saw this significant chapter come to an abrupt end.

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After returning from Basic Training

Notice the picture above. That is my daughter (whose first name also begins with the letter M). She was a year old when I joined the Army.  She gave birth to our first grandchild in April of last year.  When she was a few months old, my youth ministry position was terminated.  I worked a couple of jobs after that, but none of them met our needs long-term. So, I dropped out of seminary in December 1985 in order to take care of my family , joined the Army in February 1986, and served on active duty for over 20 years.  In 2006, I retired from the Army . Since 2008, I have worked at Fort Leonard Wood as a Department of the Army civilian.

For a couple of years after I joined the military, I felt a lot of guilt. I felt called by God to serve Him. I did all I could to pursue becoming a youth minister, but due to my financial circumstances, the door was shut in my face. I had to find a “secular” job. I felt I was a second-class Christian.

Then in 1989, while serving my first unaccompanied tour in Korea, I read a life-changing book “Your Work Matters to God”, by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks. The authors tore apart the myth of “sacred” vs. “secular”, and clearly explained the intrinsic and instrumental value of everyday work which I will discuss later. I began to see how God could use me wherever I was. I have been teaching the principles found in that book over the last 25 years.

The main point of sharing my career journey is to demonstrate the faithfulness of God. He has been with me and my family every step of the way. He will do the same for each of you.

Detailed Description of Genesis 17

Here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in October 2012 (with some edits) for my Hermeneutics (Bible Interpretation) class during my very first semester of seminary.  I have included my introduction and the second half of a detailed analysis on the Abraham narrative in Genesis chapters 12-25, which is so critical to our understanding of God’s dealings with His people.

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Abraham, the first Patriarch of the Israelites, is one of the most significant characters in the Bible.  God’s covenant with Abraham, which is foundational to all the others, and his promise to make him a great nation, are specifically mentioned over 140 times (according to Bible Gateway.com; ) beyond the epic narrative contained in Genesis 11:26 – 25:11.  It is seen in Moses’ deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt (Exodus 2:24), Joshua’s leading the 12 tribes of Israel to renew the covenant at Shechem (Joshua 24:2-3), King David’s psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness over many generations (Psalm 105:8-9), and the mouths of the prophets (Isaiah 51:2; Micah 7:20.)  Abraham is also referenced in the Gospels (Matthew 1:1-2; John 8:31-59), Stephen’s speech in Acts (7:2-16), Paul’s writings on justification by faith in Romans (4:1-3) and Galatians (3:6-18), the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:8-12, 17-19), and the book of James (2:21-23).  This story is not unlike some unique design element highlighted in home decorating T.V. shows that seems to “tie it all together”, as they often like to say.  A clear understanding of the Abraham narrative is absolutely essential to our Christian faith.

The location of this chapter is the very center of the Abraham narrative. The structure of the epic story spans from the “promise of an heir to the birth of an heir.”  This chapter finds itself in the middle of the “long, uncertain season before fulfillment, where faith in the promise wrestles with loss of confidence in the promise.”[1]

At the beginning of chapter 17, Abram is reported to be 99 years old; at the end of the chapter, his age is mentioned again.  His age functions as a framework to this critical chapter in the narrative.[2]  This is a literary stylistic device known as an inclusio (or inclusion).[3]

The words of the Lord “increase your numbers” (NIV) in verse 2, and the term “be fruitful” (NIV) in verse 6 remind us of identical words given to Adam (Gen. 1:28) and Noah (Gen. 9:1).  This shows that the Lord’s covenant with Abraham is his way to bless all people.[4]

The bulk of chapter 17 falls into three distinct sections (3-8, 9-14, 15-16), each beginning with “and God said” (NIV).  Each one focuses on one key member of the covenant – the Lord, Abram, and Sarai.  They all contain a specific sign in that portion: a change of name for Abram, the ritual of circumcision for all males in his household, then a name change for Sarai as well.[5]

In verses 6-8, the Lord promises three things: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful,” it will be an “everlasting covenant,” and he will give him “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.” (NASB)  The words used contrast starkly with his current status.  “In all three of these promises of fruitfulness, covenant, and land, the present circumstances of barren exile is countered; and in each, present circumstance is countered with a powerful modifier, ‘exceedingly, everlasting, everlasting.’  God’s word overrides present circumstance.”[6]

Circumcision is “the surgical removal of the foreskin of the male sex organ.”[7]  The custom of circumcision was not something that belonged to God’s people alone at this time, but including it as a spiritual requirement made it unique.[8]  “Circumcision was widely practiced in the ancient world, including the Egyptian and Canaanite cultures.  But among these people the rite was performed at the beginning of puberty, or about 12 years of age, for hygienic reasons or as a sort if initiation ceremony into manhood.  In contrast, the Hebrew people performed circumcision on infants.”[9]  Brueggemann points out that the sign of this covenant had to be “concrete, intentional, and in some way costly.”  He continues, “The most striking dimension of this sacramental institution is that the ‘born’ and the ‘bought’ are both included.”[10]

This next observation is fascinating, and highlights the placement of and significance of this event at this very spot in the narrative. There is an obvious connection that I had not noticed before between the foreskin that was to be cut off and the propagation of the species.  The sin nature (from Adam’s fall in Gen. 3) that will always be in opposition to God’s purposes is passed down genetically by divine design from the seed of the father to the mother through this same organ that is to be circumcised.[11]  The conception of Isaac, which had been anticipated for many years and which took place shortly after the announcement by the three heavenly visitors in 18:10, only takes place after Abraham circumcised himself at the end of chapter 17.

Finally, there is a literary device in verse 14 that may be a figure of speech known as local or finite irony [12] or possibly word play.  It was specified that any “uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people” (17:14; NIV).  I imagine that amale hearers would have understood the meaning of this statement right away, motivating them to obey. If their anatomical members were not “cut off” in a physical sense, then they themselves as members of a covenant community would be “cut off” in a spiritual and social sense.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Genesis 17:1-22,” Interpretation 45 (1991): 55.

[2] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 25.

[3] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 27.

[4] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 26.

[5] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 26.

[6] Brueggemann, “Genesis 17:1-22,” Interpretation, 57.

[7] Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 278.

[8] Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 10.

[9] Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 278.

[10] Brueggemann, “Genesis 17:1-22,” Interpretation, 57.

[11] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 33.

[12] D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., Cracking Old Testament Codes (B&H Publishing Group, 1995), 80.

Bibliography

Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition) (2 vols: Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).

Walter Brueggemann, “Genesis 17:1-22,” Interpretation 45 (1991): 55-59.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961).

Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., Cracking Old Testament Codes (B&H Publishing Group, 1995).

Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995).