From Victim to Victor: Joseph’s Secrets for Thriving in the Worst of Circumstances

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From Victim to Victor: Joseph’s Secrets for Thriving in the Worst of Circumstances

He was about ten years of age when he moved to a foreign country, leaving behind his relatives, friends, and the place he used to call home. Somewhere on the way to his new homeland, he had to witness his mother’s burial. When the family reached Canaan, Joseph was a motherless child trying to make sense of the comings and goings of life and of his new surroundings.

The seven years he spent in his new dwelling were filled with hatred from his half-brothers. Their evil deeds, which he would not be part of[1], Joseph brought to his father. But Jacob’s inflated love for Joseph only fueled his brothers’ envy and hate. They would not speak a peaceful word to him. As a result, family tension and bickering were a constant part of his adolescence.

A Victim of Circumstances

When asked to check on his brothers, he journeyed for over sixty miles until he found them in Dothan[2], only to be stripped of his beautiful coat and thrown into a pit in a foiled murder. Eventually, he was sold as a slave, for the typical price of twenty shekels[3], to Ishmaelite Bedouins en route to Egypt. Joseph, a leader chosen by God, became a slave to the descendants of Abraham’s very own slave, Hagar, whom both he and Sarah sent away for mocking the chosen Isaac.[4]

At seventeen, abruptly separated from his father, estranged from his family and homeland, Joseph found himself in Egypt as a slave in Potiphar’s house. Here another misfortune awaited him. Like his mother, Rachel, Joseph had a beautiful figure and face.[5] They are the only two people in all of the Old Testament “awarded this double accolade,”[6] so they must have had exceptional good looks. But those who possess beauty and purity are sometimes prey to those who don’t. Potiphar’s wife began casting longing eyes at him and daily sought to persuade him to sleep with her. Despite Joseph’s caution, in an opportune moment, Potiphar’s rejected and vengeful wife wove a false story accusing Joseph of rape. With devious manipulations, the shameless woman played the victim while accusing the true victims, for she accused Joseph of rape and blamed her husband for bringing him in. As a result, Joseph was sent to prison.

Joseph spent his late twenties in prison. There, behind bars, he lived his innocent early adulthood days, suffering the consequences of selfish and cruel people in positions of power. At some point, a glimmer of hope finally met Joseph’s story as the butler, whom Joseph had encouraged with the interpretation of his dream, was set free and restored to his court job, in close proximity to the highest power in Egypt. It seemed that Joseph’s long-awaited chance for justice and freedom was closer than ever!

But the official went on with his life and forgot about Joseph. His forgetfulness cost Joseph two more years of prison. Thus, he suffered “another injury, less malicious but hardly less disillusioning. The chief butler did not set out to do him any harm; he simply did nothing at all.”[7] Not only must this have felt like another injustice, but neglect is most often perceived as proof of insignificance. He was, after all, just a jailed foreign slave.

Motherless, envied, betrayed, separated from family, exiled, enslaved, unfairly accused, unjustly punished, forgotten: that was Joseph’s life from the age of 10 to 30. These experiences encompassed his adolescence, youth, and early adulthood.

One might expect little from someone plagued with such dire circumstances, a victim of all kinds of evil deeds. Joseph was brought lower and lower by his relatives, owners, and eventually even prisoners in his custody. Powerless, trapped in his brothers’ betraying arms, confined in a pit, captive in the hands of the Ishmaelites, restricted as a slave in Potiphar’s house, caged in prison, he had so little control over himself and the direction of his life. He seemed to be a captive to circumstances and a victim of fate. Even if he was ever freed, would he become the abused abuser?

In an incredible twist of events, after thirteen years of being enslaved by strangers and betrayed by those closest to him, Joseph ascended almost overnight to become the highest in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. At the opportune time, the butler remembered him as a trustworthy interpreter of dreams. Joseph warned the pharaoh that seven years of famine would follow seven of plenty and suggested a survival strategy that found favor with the entire royal court.

From that moment on it was as if the knot of his misfortunes was untangled and his entire life reversed toward normal. He was freed, elevated, and eventually reunited with his converted family. The boy once stripped of his colorful tunic and his freedom by hateful brothers, the young man once robbed of his garment and his liberty by Potiphar’s wife, stood before Egypt as a ruler dressed in the finest linen.

Secret 1: Stewardship

Before his slavery, Joseph dreamed two dreams. These God-given dreams set off the spiral of abuse that he received at the hands of others. It is ironic and sad that a gift from God can become a curse in the hands of ungodly people. Yet through the years of trials, it was these dreams and their Giver that Joseph held on to. And while waiting for his dreams to be fulfilled, Joseph neither sat idly nor succumbed to despair. Instead, he practiced stewardship.

Through his stewardship, Joseph played an active role in making his dreams come true, even though he likely didn’t know he was doing just that. In the end, his choice to put his talents to use in each hostile circumstance saved not only him, but the Egyptian nation and his father’s entire household as well. His story, from betrayal to restoration and beyond, is peppered with hints and examples of his good stewardship.

At Potiphar’s house, he got busy being prosperous under God’s blessing. When he had an opportunity for an affair with his master’s wife, he refused it. Joseph took his work responsibilities too seriously to have time for risky games. As someone wisely wrote, “Work which enlists a man’s energies and gives him contented self-expression is always a safeguard against sensuality. It is those who lunge about in uselessness, the ‘play boys,’ who have nothing to do with imagination but let the doors to it swing open in the easiest way, that are like ramshackle houses into which every disreputable guest can find an entrance.”[8]

Of course, Joseph could have reasoned a way to justify his sin. He could have seen Potiphar’s wife as needy or neglected. He could have considered possible advantages to meeting her desires. After all, he might have gained his freedom, or he could have simply wanted to have fun. Excuses for defeat are plentiful and easy to find. But aside from being a good steward of his work responsibilities, Joseph was a good steward of his body, his needs, and his actions. Instead of saying “How could I not do it?” Joseph said “How could I do it?”[9] He knew that even when no one else knew, his responsibility to God was paramount.

In prison, he again got busy being productive, so much so that the prison’s keeper committed everything to Joseph. Yet even while working hard, Joseph was not too busy to ask about how those he served were doing. In this way he was also a good steward of his relationships. When the baker and butler were saddened after dreams they’d had, Joseph stepped in. He “came in to them in the morning and looked at them, and saw that they were sad. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, ‘Why do you look so sad today?’” (Gen. 40:6-7, NKJV).

This passage records four actions of Joseph: he came, he looked, he saw, and he asked. You can refuse to come to those you serve, or you can come but not look. One might even look but not see, or see and yet never ask. But in going about his business, Joseph never neglected the emotional state of people in his proximity and care.

Joseph had suffered much abuse and injustice. Yet if he “had spent his time and energy nursing his grievances … he would not have had the clear-eyed and controlled perception to recognize the new possibilities that God put in his way.”[10] The victim’s victory over depression and despair was found in being fruitful through good stewardship. In all unfavorable circumstances, Joseph found favor in the eyes of each one of his masters: Potiphar, the prison’s overseer, and eventually Pharaoh and his entire court. Joseph’s stewardship is what allowed God to fulfill his destiny. It turned the land of exile into a land of fruitfulness, the land of despair into a land of hope, and the land of death into a land of life.

By all appearances, Joseph had every right to turn sour. Yet he wasn’t “reactive, resentful, disillusioned, cynic, angry, revengeful, defiant, corrupted, or rebellious.”[11] Although abused by those in positions of power over him, he served and showed genuine interest for those under his power. Later, when he gained much more power, he did not misuse it as others had. Instead, the same attitude of service followed him. He clothed, nourished, and gave a home to his brothers who had once stripped him of his coat, sat down to eat while he cried in the pit, and alienated him from his homeland. Joseph was able to feel genuine concern for others because even when abused by humans in power, he knew that above them, he was under the custody of the highest Power in the universe. The Archmaster, who was with him constantly and blessed everything he did, was his ultimate example.

Secret 2: Peace

What threatens our good stewardship is not always external peril. Often—if not always—some internal conflict is what leads us away from our responsibilities and hinders us from developing our gifts. Joseph was a captive by external circumstances. But in all of his captivity, the power of God working within him was stronger than the circumstances.

The power of the captive was his free conscience. Inside, he was freer than all who abused and accused him. For thirteen years, Joseph’s brothers experienced remorse and recrimination more enslaving than Joseph’s slavery in Egypt.[12] When Joseph tested his brothers, “the outward disaster cracked the[ir] inward repression.”[13] Joseph, on the other hand, could thrive in the worst of external circumstances because he had God’s inner peace.

In the power of that peace, the captive was free to be a good steward in adversity. He was faithful on the way to Dothan, faithfully fulfilled his responsibilities at Potiphar’s house, and expressed his concern for the prisoners, one by one. He was also a faithful steward in his management of Egypt’s resources, one day, month, and year at a time.

The Steward’s Blessing

The chosen are not chosen in order to lie in a bed of roses; they are chosen because they can walk on a path of thorns and remain faithful. Along the way, the chosen often suffer injustice, neglect, lies, punishment, but “the land of affliction is often the fruitful land—fruitful in patience, faith, courage, fortitude, victory.”[14] Being open to develop your gifts; being willing to live at your best even when betrayed, lied to, forgotten, and neglected; being willing to thrive even in the worst of circumstances will allow God to take you through a journey of transformation.

When the loving God is our ultimate example, through years and years of abuse, we can eventually accept our wounds as balm for the healing of even our fiercest enemies. When we are willing to grow through pain, when we choose to focus on what is in our control and let God make our life flourish, we discover that we are not the victim, but the victor. Our openness to receive the blessing of God’s guidance, example, and support will turn us into a blessing for others.

Sometimes the sun comes out not after the rain, but in the midst of a storm. That’s when the most beautiful rainbows are born.

______

Notes:

[1] Philip W. Comfort, gen. ed. Tyndale Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, GenesisExodus (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Publishing House, 2008), 207.

[2] John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 664.

[3] Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1994), 356.

[4] Comfort, 211.

[5] Wenham, 374.

[6] Ibid.

[7] George Arthur Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: 1980), 772.

[8] Buttrick, 766.

[9] Buttrick, 764.

[10] Buttrick, 800.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Walton, 678.

[13] Buttrick, 798.

[14] Buttrick, 781.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.