Joseph and the Refusal for Victimhood

This post is now available as part of a a free e-book. Be sure to subscribe for more notifications on upcoming e-books. The Book of Genesis is quickly turning into one of my favorite studies of the Scriptures, though I suppose each time I go through a book of God’s Word rather in-depth, each becomes my favorite. But this study has been illuminating on a number of levels, not the least of which is how familiar we can become with a book, only to miss some of the obvious connections and applications, or that we move so quickly we don’t take time to consider what God is doing and how He has worked in the lives of His people. Another point that I have discovered while progressing through this book of origins is just how extremely relevant and practical it is for us today.

Genesis provides for us a close examination of the God who creates, man as created in the image of God, sin, depravity, and redemption, just to name a few. Theologically, we gain insight into the character of God, the anthropology of man, hamartiology, covenant theology, typology, and the list goes on. These various doctrines and insights revolve around the internal structure of ten toledots, or origins/beginnings, which are often indicated by the phrase, “These are the generations of”. Within these toledots, the focus often centers on a main character, for example the creation of Adam and Eve (T1), Noah (T3), Terah (T6; Abraham), Isaac (T8), and Jacob (T10). In the 10th Toledot, which begins with, “These are the generations of Jacob,” the focus is not actually on Jacob at all, rather the narrative focus begins with Joseph, the first son of his favorite wife Rachel (Genesis 30:22-24) and intermixed we have the surprising ascent of Judah.

Joseph’s life is a familiar story to anyone who has read Genesis at any length. The narrative on his life extends from Genesis 37 to the end of the book in chapter 50. Fourteen chapters are devoted to this last toledot, which is interwoven with several interludes. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, blog posts on Joseph have been the most read here since the website started tracking these things in 2012: Perhaps for good reason, interest in Joseph surrounds his less than ideal life circumstances, from favored son to slave, betrayal by his brothers, and the great theme of suffering and glory all while from what on the surface appears to be the frowning providence of God, which in the end turns out to be a smile. To say the least, it is dramatic.

Until recently, there was one particular aspect of Joseph’s character, indeed a great theme of his life, that I had never really considered, but have now come to see how particularly important and relevant it is for us today. By observing the three main movements of Jospeh’s life and taking note of how he consistently responded in each case, we find overwhelming evidence that Joseph rejected the narrative of victimhood that so many in our day and age latch on to. If any figure of the Old Testament could have had grounds to play the victim, it is Joseph. In his rejection of it, indeed as in so many other aspects of his life, Joseph typifies our Lord Jesus Christ who was the only righteous suffering Servant.

In beginning our examination, first we have the familiar scene of Joseph, perhaps a little too proud and maybe fitting the stereotypical role of bratty younger brother and know-it-all teenager, being betrayed by his brothers and sold into Egyptian slavery via the Ishmaelites/Midianites. This event is captured for us in Genesis 37:25-28. After the significant interlude of Judah in Genesis 38 (compare chapter 43), we return again to Joseph and find an unexpected twist in the story, the first of many.
Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.

Genesis 39:1-6
The scene, for this first of our three movements in the life of Joseph, finds him arriving in Egypt via the Ishmaelites, who purchased him from his brothers, then sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. However, verses 2-4 inform us that despite what might otherwise seem like a disastrous turn of events, the Lord was actually with Joseph. As a result of God’s hand of providence and blessing Joseph succeeded in all that he did, so much so that it became obvious to his Egyptian master that the Lord was the direct cause of his success. There is a New Testament principle being exemplified here and it is found in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” This brings up our first observation concerning the character of Joseph in response to the betrayal of his brothers which resulted in his enslavement in Eqypt. In order for Joseph to be successful, to such extent that he was promoted as overseer of all that Potiphar had (except his food and his wife), essentially making him second in command in the household, Joseph had to refuse the victim narrative that runs rampant in our society today.

Consider this, would Joseph have had the right to say, “Woe is me, ” or “This isn’t fair,” or perhaps even to demand justice or declare that one day he would get vengeance on his brothers? By our modern standards the answer would have to be a resounding yes. Modern society would say he had every right to be disgruntled. He had been made a victim by his brothers, by the Ishmaelites, and potentially even by Potiphar himself. His slavery was not his own fault, at least not directly, yet we know that playing the victim was not Joseph’s response at all. How can we be so sure? Because why would a man with such an important role as captain of Pharaoh’s guard, essentially his minister of defense, entrust all that he had to an untrustworthy, less than hard-working, disgruntled man who had succumbed to victimology? It’s just highly unlikely.

Next, we have the second main movement in Joseph’s life which surrounds a very familiar narrative following on the heels of the one we just discussed. As Joseph ascended to a position of responsibility in the house of Potipher, he began to attract the eye of Potipher’s wife. The passage is below
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. Genesis 39:6-10
As we know, faced with repeated rejection, Potiphar’s wife increased her pursuit to the point of physically grabbing Joseph, which caused him to flee, leaving behind his garment. Potiphar’s wife then deceitfully uses this as an opportunity to falsely accuse Joseph of rape and frames him by using the garment that he left as evidence. As a result, we find Joseph once again in a position of humiliation and suffering as he is sent to prison. The details of his imprisonment serve to highlight the significance of our second movement in Joseph’s life
19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed. Genesis 39:19-23
In this passage of Scripture, we find the second instance of Joseph being mistreated, resulting again in imprisonment. Yet once again we read that the, “Lord was with Joseph,” showing him hesed and giving him favor in the sight of the prison guard. As a result, again Joseph ascends to second in command and again because of his attitude and likely work ethic, his gentile master is able to see the work of the Lord in Joseph’s life. This section concludes with, “whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” Here, again, in this second episode, Joseph rejected the opportunity to claim himself as a victim. Wrongly accused, wrongly imprisoned, how many of us would have screamed for justice, for equity and fairness, or at minimum would have resigned ourselves to such complacency and indifference that there would have been zero evidence that the Lord was with us, let alone to such an extent as to reflect God’s favor in the eyes of unbelievers.

Turning now to the third and final movement from Joseph, we find him restored once again to a position of prominence, second in command to Pharoah. After the Lord displayed yet again that He was with Joseph, this time through the interpretation of dreams, Joseph was given ruling authority over Egypt, particularly in the management of affairs to navigate the empire through the famine. Knowing that food was available in Egypt, Jacob sent his sons to buy from them. Upon seeing his traitorous brothers, Joseph once again comes face-to-face with the possibility of enacting vengeance for his victimhood. He has the opportunity to claim justice for himself. By now being in a position of power, he could’ve imprisoned his brothers or even demanded their death. However, again, now for the third time, he rejects the victim narrative that has become so commonplace in our day and age. (see Genesis 42-47)

As Joseph’s reunion with his brothers draws to a conclusion, we find him making a statement that reflects not victimhood, but the sovereignty of God ordering all events by His providential hand.
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And 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. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. Genesis 44:4-9 – Note the statements, “God sent,” “God sent,” “it was not you who sent me here but God,” and “God has made me lord….”
Joseph makes it clear that it was not through their deceitful and treacherous actions that he had endured being sold into slavery, thrown into jail, and now ascended to a position of power, but it was due to God’s providential hand ordering, using, and working through their actions. He put Joseph there for such a time as this. To focus solely on the actions of others is to neglect God’s sovereignty and power to ordain, command, and execute His will as He sees fit. Playing the victim is a clear rejection of how God works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)

In the final chapter of Genesis we find the classic statement from Joseph in response to his brother’s fears that he would in the end exact vengeance. After the death of their father Jacob, the brothers saw the opportunity for the favor of Joseph to be turned against them, but again we see Joseph rejecting the opportunity giving crystal clear recognition of God’s providence in his life.
15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. Genesis 50:15-21
Many of the societal and cultural issues in our day are caused directly by the ideology and narrative of victimhood. It’s literally everyone’s fault that we are in a particular situation, victims of circumstances. Rarely, if ever, when the victim card is played do we hear any mention of sin, either our own or the actions of others. Typically, this is because doing so would recognize that a holy God had been offended and that it is He alone who orders and directs the affairs of men and it is He alone to whom men must be accountable.

At the end of the day, blame-shifting is as old as humanity herself. We need only recall Adam and Eve in the Garden to note how shifting blame is a family trait, but it doesn’t have to be. In some cases, as with Joseph, our circumstances are indeed the result of the sins of others, while in other cases our circumstances may be the result of our own sins. Regardless, the only clear path to navigate through them, especially avoiding the temptation to play the victim is to look towards God and recognize His sovereign hand in our lives, even though in the past or still at present it may appear as though He has a frowning providence. Thanks be to God through Christ alone we are not victims of sin, rather in Christ He makes us victors! In Christ alone we can find freedom, freedom from victimhood, not blaming our circumstances on others, but freedom to see behind the appearance of a frowning providence and into the face of a loving God who is always with us and will never forsake us. In Christ we can find forgiveness, first vertically as we repent of our offenses towards God and are reconciled to Him. Then, horizontally, in the light of our own forgiveness we can offer forgiveness to others. The only way that Joseph was able to move forward in reconciliation with his brothers, avoiding victimhood and the temptation for vengeance, was to have a heart towards God and a clear recognition of the providential hand of God in his life. This, this is the only clear path for us today as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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