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42. The Proper Use of Power (Genesis 42:1-38)

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Only those who know me best realize what a sweet and innocent child I was. There were exceptions, of course, but very few. It is one of those rare occasions that comes to my mind as we approach the reunion of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 42. Every summer my sister and I attended church camp. One summer camp was held in what was reputed to be a condemned orphanage (and I still believe it was). I was placed in a small room with a friend from my church, a very quiet and obedient fellow. One day it occurred to me that our room contained the electrical panel for the entire campground. As you can guess, the temptation was too great—for me at least. After darkness had fallen and everyone was dependent upon the lights, I threw the cutoff switch, disengaging the electrical power for the entire camp.

You can imagine the pandemonium this created. I still laugh as I think of it. It took a short time for everyone to fumble about for their suitcases, searching them until they located their flashlights. This was only the beginning, for there followed many pleasure-filled minutes watching the camp leaders walking about the camp, following wires and trying to find the source of the problem. Sooner or later, I knew, they had to come to me, for I was the only one who could solve their problem. I shall, however, spare you the details of what happened when they did, at last, arrive.

If we are honest about it, most of us dream of having the opportunity to be in complete control of things. How glorious and ego stroking it would be to have something happen that would bring the world groveling at our feet. Think of the pleasure such an experience could bring. Think of what you could do in a situation where you had absolute control.

Such was Joseph’s position in Genesis 42. The famine had created an international disaster. People from the surrounding nations heard that Egypt alone had provisions enough to survive the famine that had ravaged the Near Eastern world. And who should arrive to buy bread but Joseph’s brothers, who had thrown him into a pit to starve, while they ate their lunch, oblivious to his cries for help. Can you imagine the thoughts that would go through the mind of someone in Joseph’s position?

Until now, I have always considered the suffering and injustice of Joseph at the hands of his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and his master to be the greatest tests of his life, but I was wrong. What test could possibly be greater than the one which Joseph faced in Genesis 42? Here he was, faced by his brothers, absolutely destitute and defenseless, while Joseph had unlimited power. Without a doubt this was the greatest test of Joseph’s character. It is one thing to be tested when you are powerless to resist. It is quite another to be given the opportunity to get revenge when your enemies are mere putty in your hands.

While poverty, suffering, or injustice may be tests that come our way from time to time, I believe that we, like Joseph, are tested most by the power that is ours and the way that we use it. For this reason, we must take a hard look at what enabled Joseph to use the power at his disposal for the betterment of his brothers rather than as an opportunity to vent all the bitter feelings that could have been his.


While the famine was said to be world-wide (41:57), it was particularly intended to be the cause of Jacob’s family going down into Egypt where they would remain for more than 400 years:

And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

The events of chapter 42 are thus the occasion for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham:

Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, “Why are you staring at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt; go down there and buy some for us from that place, so that we may live and not die.” Then ten brothers of Joseph went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, “I am afraid that harm may befall him.” So the sons of Israel came to buy grain among those who were coming, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also. Now Joseph was the ruler over the land; he was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers come and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he disguised himself to them and spoke to them harshly. And he said to them, “Where have you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food” (Genesis 42:1-7).

The scene in Canaan is almost amusing. The brothers of Joseph stand in the presence of their father, deeply distressed by the fact that their food supply is nearly depleted, and there is no hope of replenishing it so long as the famine persists. Jacob, aware of the availability of grain in Egypt, prodded his sons into action with the rebuke, “Don’t just stand there, go down to Egypt and get some grain.”

Jacob’s partiality toward the sons of Rachel (which had nearly gotten Joseph killed) is still very obvious. While the other ten sons were sent to Egypt, Benjamin was kept near, under the watchful eye of his father (verse 4). It could not have been because Benjamin was too young, for he had to have been in his twenties by now.63 At the age of 17 Joseph had been sent a considerable distance from home to check on his brothers (37:2,12). Perhaps the circumstances of Joseph’s disappearance were too suspect for Jacob to take another chance by leaving Benjamin in the care of his other brothers.

The ten brothers arrived in Egypt along with many others to buy grain from Joseph. Without realizing they were fulfilling the prophecy of Joseph’s two dreams years before (37:6-11), his brothers bowed low before him, expressing the respect due to one of such high office. How tempting for Joseph to ask them to bow just a little lower or perhaps to do so just one more time. How easy it would have been to bask in the honor and power which was now his. But all we are told is that Joseph recognized these men as his brothers, yet his identity was not known to them. More than twenty years, along with a clean-shaven face, Egyptian clothing, customs, and language, precluded any thought that this potentate might be their brother. He had, after all, been sold as a slave.

From verse 7 alone we might be inclined to think that Joseph was being harsh with his brothers out of a spirit of vengeance. Certainly this would be the normal reaction of anyone as mistreated as Joseph had been by his brothers. His severity, however, was a “disguise” (verse 7), an effort to keep his identity a secret. Character, someone has said, is what we are in the dark, and Joseph was keeping his brothers “in the dark” until their character could be determined.


The key to Joseph’s actions is found in the next two verses. Here we gain an appreciation for Joseph’s motives and methods in dealing with his brothers:

But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, “You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land” (Genesis 42:8-9).

Far more is meant by verse 9 than that Joseph merely remembered his dreams about his brothers and recognized their fulfillment in their bowing down to him. All this would have done would have been to puff up his pride. Joseph not only realized the fulfillment of his dreams but also the reason for them. He saw that God had a purpose for placing him in his position of power, and this purpose was for him to function as the family head, protecting and preserving his family. He had great power and prestige, but God had given these to him for a purpose much greater than merely to seek revenge. He saw that leadership involved power, but that it also brought upon him the weight of responsibility. At times the greatest need is not to be aware of the power at our disposal, but of the purpose for which this power has been given.

I need to digress for just a moment to show how our character affects our understanding and application of the Word of God. It has been observed by saints and sinners for centuries that “you can make the Bible say anything you want.” Like it or not, this is true. Think of what Joseph could have made of his dream. This was a message from God! If he had been dominated by bitterness and hatred, Joseph could have viewed his vision as a mandate from God to make life miserable for his brothers. Hadn’t God revealed to him that his brothers would bow down to him? He could have rubbed their proverbial noses in the dirt and given them a proof text for it, had he wished. It is alarmingly possible for us to justify sinful actions with biblical texts if we choose to, but this will always be at the expense of other clear passages which we have chosen to ignore.

And Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, “You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land.” Then they said to him, “No, my lord, but your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies.” Yet he said to them, “No, but you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land!” But they said, “Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (Genesis 42:9-13).

Joseph’s severity was feigned, not real. He needed to learn more information without his brothers realizing who he was or what he was attempting to accomplish. His harshness was intended to produce fear, for at this point in the lives of his brothers fear produced more facts than faith. In their fear they blurted out the things which Joseph yearned to know. Was his father alive? And how was Benjamin? Desperately trying to talk their way out of the charge that they were spies, they supplied him with facts they would never have given otherwise. Later Jacob would rebuke his sons for what they revealed (43:6). Disclosing the disappearance of one brother and the existence of another in Canaan provided Joseph with the opportunity to test his brothers in the area of their greatest failure.

And Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you, you are spies; by this you will be tested; by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here! Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” So he put them all together in prison for three days (Genesis 42:14-17).

Joseph narrowed the situation down to two options: either they had come as spies, in which case their story about a younger brother was a mere fabrication, or they were telling the truth. The matter could easily be settled by their producing the younger brother. All of the brothers would be detained except one, who could be dispatched to bring back the proof of their honesty. How cleverly Joseph handled this situation to bring about his desired ends without his brothers seeing his purpose in it all.

Joseph then placed all of the brothers in confinement. I cannot prove it, but my suspicion is that the prison was probably one that we know well—Potiphar’s prison. More significant is that Joseph put them in confinement together (verse 17). More than giving them comfort, as opposed to solitary confinement, it caused them to consider the meaning of what was taking place in their lives. This is more fully seen in their conversation recorded in later verses. Even if not bodily present with his brothers in prison,64 his heart must have been with them in their confinement. This was not punishment, but it was preparation, just as his confinement had been. It served to intensify their comprehension of the gravity of the situation.

Diminished Demands

The outcome of Joseph’s dealings with his brothers was considerably less harsh than what was first threatened. He had first maintained that all of the brothers would be held captive while only one was to be sent for Benjamin (verse 16). But now he has reduced his demands considerably.

Now Joseph said to them on the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die.” And they did so. Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them. And he turned away from them and wept. But when he returned to them and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes (Genesis 42:18-24).

Those three days must have been miserable. They must have been filled with fear and foreboding. Would they ever return to their father? Would they ever regain their freedom? And, most delicate, who would be the one who was released to return to Canaan while the others remained captive? For them, Joseph’s experience, which took years, was condensed to days. Joseph’s words to them were like the sunrise dispelling the darkness. His words are filled with hope and encouragement, not fear and judgment. “Do this and live,” Joseph urged them (verse 18). Life, not death, joy, not misery, was what Joseph desired for his brothers. But certain changes had to occur before this could be their experience. The self-interest and cruelty which had caused them to sell him into slavery must be dealt with. That would not come easily or quickly, but it would come.

Joseph’s statement, “I, too, fear God” (verse 18) should have been the cause of much deliberation in the days and months to come. What could this “Egyptian” despot possibly have meant by these words? I understand this statement to be a technical expression reserved for use only by those who had a genuine faith in the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Abraham stood before Abimelech, trying to explain his deceit in passing off his wife as his sister, he said,

Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife (Genesis 20:11).

The expression “to fear God” was a technical one, I believe, equivalent to our contemporary expression “born again.” It was spoken by Joseph to inspire hope and to encourage contemplation of what was taking place. It was only after Joseph had given expression to his faith that his brothers began to recognize the hand of God in their lives through these events.

Another cause for encouragement was the significant decrease in the demands that were made upon these foreigners. While they were initially told that all must remain captive while one would be allowed to return home for Benjamin, now all but one may return to the land of Canaan. They are expected to take life-sustaining grain to their needy families and then to return with their youngest brother. The words “and they did so” (verse 20) seem to indicate that the ten agreed to the terms Joseph laid down and set out to do them, only to be resisted by their father upon their return (cf. verses 36-38).

It is at this point that the brothers began to talk among themselves, unaware that Joseph understood every word. All along he had used an interpreter, giving them the impression that this “Egyptian” could not speak their language. This kept them from even considering that they might know him, let alone that they might be related to him.

The relationship between their present predicament and their treatment of Joseph was too obvious to overlook. Each of them acknowledged that their difficulties were the result of their sin in regard to Joseph. They had pled for mercy and not received it, just as Joseph had cried for help from the pit and they had ignored him. Reuben then reminded them of his warnings and their resistance. Sin always has consequences, and they were beginning to realize how painful these can be.

The heart of Joseph is openly revealed in verse 24. Having overheard the spiritual soul-searching that went on among his brothers, Joseph could contain his emotions no longer. He had to leave their presence, lest by his tears they should discover his identity. Joseph’s actions were not those of a man who did not care for his brothers, but of one who cared so much that he resisted the urge to identify himself in order to promote their spiritual well-being.

It was Simeon who was chosen by Joseph to remain behind. Was there any particular reason for this choice? It seems so. In a marginal note, the editors of the Berkeley Version suggest,

With Reuben absent when Joseph was sold down to Egypt, Simeon was the responsible leader, being next to the oldest; hence his being retained. 65

This, in my opinion, is worthy of consideration.

Payment Returned

Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. And thus it was done for them. So they loaded their donkeys with their grain, and departed from there. And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money; and behold, it was in the mouth of his sack. Then he said to his brothers, “My money has been returned, and behold, it is even in my sack.” And their hearts sank, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:25-28).

It was time for his brothers to return home, for their families were soon to run out of grain. Orders were given to fill his brothers’ bags with grain and to return their payment, but to conceal it within their bags. Probably to ensure that they would not discover the money until it was too late to turn back, provisions were made to meet their needs on the journey home. I would imagine that smaller, separate sacks were provided with food for the men and perhaps their animals, so that the grain sacks with the money would not need to be opened until they arrived home.

Inadvertently, one of the brothers opened his large sack to feed his donkey and discovered his money returned. The brothers’ response was, in my estimation, a sign of positive growth. Evil men would have laughed at the stupidity of the servant who must have misplaced the payment and would have enjoyed having put one over on the Egyptians. Such an event would have been considered a stroke of good luck. Yet these men were distraught, for they saw that this was the hand of God, not fate, and that this might be discovered back in Pharaoh palace where their brother Simeon was being held prisoner. They knew that they had promised to return with Benjamin. If this missing money was made known to Joseph, things might not go so well for them on their next visit. It never seemed to occur to the other eight brothers that their money would be found in their sacks too (cf. verse 35).

Initially I thought that Joseph’s motive for returning their money was in order to test them—a test of their honesty. But why, then, would the smaller provision sacks have been prepared in order to keep the sacks with the money from being opened? Did he wish to see if they would make restitution on their next trip? Perhaps so, for they did sell him into bondage for money (37:25-28). Frankly, I do not think Joseph intended this as a test, though it proved to be so. I believe that he had no intention of selling anything to his brothers, but rather of supplying their needs freely. This would then be an illustration of the principle taught in Proverbs:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink (Proverbs 25:21).

Give, the proverb instructs us, not sell. For me, this is all the explanation needed for Joseph’s actions.

Jacob’s Sons Return and Report

When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, “The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly with us, and took us for spies of the country. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies. We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; one is no more, and the youngest is with our father today in the land of Canaan.’ And the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me and take grain for the famine of your households, and go. But bring your youngest brother to me that I may know that you are not spies, but honest men. I will give your brother to you, and you may trade in the land”’ (Genesis 42:29-34).

Upon their arrival the brothers had quite a story to tell. Jacob certainly insisted on an explanation for the absence of Simeon. Still, there is not the response of grief we might expect if one of his more beloved sons had been taken captive. A blow-by-blow account was given by the nine, ending with the bad news that Benjamin would have to be taken along on the next trip if they expected to see Simeon again or to purchase more grain (verse 34).

Apparently the sacks of grain were being unloaded and opened as the report was given to Jacob, for his response to the whole affair is delayed until the discovery of the money in the rest of the sacks which they brought back.

Now it came about as they were emptying their sacks, that behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed. And their father Jacob said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.” Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you.” But Jacob said, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow” (Genesis 42:35-38).

I find it interesting to compare the response of Joseph’s brothers to the discovery of the money in the one sack along the way (verses 27-28) with that of Jacob here. There the hand of God was seen. Here nothing is said of God, but only of bad luck and of personal disaster for Jacob.

In these chapters dealing with the life of Joseph, three different responses to adversity are seen. For Joseph, his suffering was ultimately from the hand of a loving heavenly Father, Who was near in his affliction (cf. 39:23, 21-23; 40:8; 41:16,51-52). For his brothers, their adversity was punishment from an angry God, Who was getting even with them for their sin (42:21-22, 28). For Jacob, it was no more than the fickle hand of fate or, worse yet, the stupidity of his sons, that made his life miserable (42:36-38). And yet in every instance affliction was the gentle and gracious hand of God, drawing His sons closer to Himself.

Jacob was in a far different spiritual state than his son Joseph. No wonder it fell to Joseph to function as head of the family so that a spiritual lesson would be learned and the faith of all would be strengthened. How self-centered Jacob’s words are. “Poor me!” That is the essence of them. He could not see the gentle hand of God in all of this, but it was there regardless. While affliction drew Joseph ever closer to God, Jacob had seemingly forgotten his faith.

A further indication of the breakdown in Jacob’s spiritual life was his reaction to the necessity of sending Benjamin to Egypt. Reuben sought to assure Jacob that things would work out all right. Jacob was not to be convinced. Indeed, he was not willing to even take a chance on losing Benjamin. In effect, this meant that Jacob was willing to sacrifice his son Simeon rather than run any risk of losing his favored son Benjamin. Partiality was still very much a part of Jacob’s nature.

No wonder Jacob’s sons were willing to sell Joseph into slavery to secure their own selfish interests. For their own gain, they were willing to let Joseph live out his life in Egypt as a slave. This is exactly the effect of Jacob’s decision here. Rather than run the slightest risk of losing his beloved Benjamin, Jacob would allow Simeon to spend the rest of his life in Pharaoh’s prison and give that Egyptian potentate (Joseph) the impression that his sons’ words were untrue. Joseph’s brothers were truly sons of their father.

Jacob could not live without Benjamin, he protested. There was no way that he would ever give him up (verse 38). And yet this was precisely the way God had determined to save Jacob and all his family. Just as Abraham expressed his faith by showing his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (22:1-19), Jacob must be willing to give up his son Benjamin. The very thing Jacob thought would destroy him was to be the means of his salvation. But this is dealt with in the next chapters. How blind we are to the workings of God, especially when we are going our own way.


In order to understand how Joseph was able to handle his position of power and use it in a way which honored God and blessed his family, we must understand some biblical principles of power. Let me attempt to spell these out.

(1) Power, like money, is not evil, but a stewardship. If the power we hold is legitimate power, then it is power that is given by God. From the beginning of the creation, power was given to man by God:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26; emphasis added).

In Genesis 9:5-7, governmental authority was given to man, and this power is reaffirmed in the New Testament:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God (Romans 13:1).

When Pilate sought to evoke a response from Jesus by impressing Him with the authority he had, Jesus quickly put this power in proper perspective. It was delegated power, given by God:

Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; …” (John 19:11).

Joseph was well aware that the power he had was given by God. We can see this, for example, when Pharaoh told Joseph that he was aware of his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph was quick to clarify that this power was not his, but God’s:

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph then answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:15-16).

The first step toward pride and misuse of power is to forget the source from which our power has come and to overlook the responsibility it brings upon us as stewards:

For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (I Corinthians 4:7).

(2) Power is not to be sought for self-gain, but used to serve others. Money is only evil when it is sought for its own sake:

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang (I Timothy 6:9-10).

The same is true of power. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel charged Israel’s leaders with having lost sight of the purpose for their power. They began to use it to serve their own ends:

Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them”’” (Ezekiel 34:1-4).

The same evil use of power was evident when our Lord walked upon the earth. He sternly rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their arrogance and pride as leaders:

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:1-12).

No wonder the disciples were continually inclined to think in terms of rank and to strive after preeminence and power (Mark 9:34, 10:35-45; Luke 9:33, 22:24). Greatness cannot be measured in terms of power, but in terms of service. This is why our Lord said of Himself:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

Is it any surprise that the basic issue between Jesus and the religious establishment was that of authority (cf. Matthew 21:23)? Here was where the great difference was to be seen in their ministries. Jesus used His power to serve others while they sought it to serve their own ends.

As Joseph recalled his dreams, he must have realized that his power was God-given, not to satisfy selfish desires, but to save the nation Israel from physical famine and from spiritual decadence. Therefore he gave grain freely to his brothers rather than to make them “eat crow” to get it. Power in the hands of a servant is a blessed thing, but power in the hands of a tyrant is a curse.

(3) Power is obtained and exercised in various ways. This is not a principle that is particularly evident in our passage, but it is one that enables us to see the application of the principles underlying Joseph’s use of power to our own day and time. You and I will likely never be elevated to the second highest office in our land. Because power comes in a variety of forms, whatever kind of power we have must be seen in the light of the biblical principles pertaining to power. Let me suggest several types of power which are all about us in our time and culture.

Positional Power. The first form of power is that which comes with office. A sergeant in the army has authority66 over a private simply because of his position. An employer has authority over an employee (some might challenge this nowadays). A manager or supervisor has authority over those under him or her. A parent has certain authority over his child, and so on.

Positional power is not to be confused with personal character or with intrinsic worth. A man who is a rotten person may be a sergeant. Such power is not the product of one’s personal qualities but of one’s position. A father may be a good one or a bad one, and so with any position. The power which should be granted with any position may be used wickedly, righteously, or not at all, depending upon the one in that position. Joseph had positional power by virtue of his political office of second in command, accountable only to Pharaoh. As Pharaoh expressed it, “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, you shall do” (41:55).

Situational Power. While positional power is the formal mechanism for allocating power, circumstances also have a way of putting power into our hands, for a time at least. For example, suppose that you are a used car salesperson and someone comes into your lot to look at cars. They find a particular car they like but think the price is too high. They tell you they will think it over and get into their car to drive off. Just as their engine starts, clattering and banging begins under the hood, followed by billows of smoke, one last gasp, and silence. That salesperson now has situational power.

Joseph had situational power as well as positional power. He was second in command to Pharaoh, but his brothers were not under his authority for they lived in Canaan. Once the famine came and Jacob was desperate to purchase grain to keep his family alive, circumstances were such that his sons were forced to come to Joseph and to be subject to his whims. They had no other alternative.

Many of us fail to appreciate the power that comes to us from time to time because of particular situations that give us the upper hand. We may think of these times as opportunities, and we may view our power as “clout” and our manipulations as shrewd. In reality we may be using situational power to gain the advantage over our fellows. I find it interesting to consider the Old Testament Law in the light of this kind of power. God seemed to make it extremely difficult for a Jew to take advantage of his brother just because he was in dire straits (and thus disadvantaged). Money could not be loaned to him at interest (Exodus 22:25-27), and the poor were to be generously loaned what they needed (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). At the end of seven years all debts were to be canceled (Deuteronomy 15:1-2), and slaves were to be released (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). In the fiftieth year all property purchased from a fellow-Israelite had to be returned to its original owner (Leviticus 25:8-17).

It must be said that a distinction is drawn between Israel’s conduct toward a fellow-Israelite and their conduct toward a non-Israelite. Interest could be charged of non-Israelites for example (Deuteronomy 23:19-20). But never was undue advantage to be taken of anyone, even of foreigners (Exodus 22:21; 23:9,12; Leviticus 19:10). Situational power is never to be viewed as an opportunity to gain an advantage over a brother.

Expert power. Somewhat more pragmatic is the matter of expert power. Normally, though not always, expert power is based upon performance. Few people ask a mechanic where he received his training, or a doctor for that matter. What they really want to know is whether or not that person knows what he is doing.

Joseph provides us with as good an example of this kind of power as can be found. Pharaoh did not really care about Joseph’s past, his prison record, or his nationality. What mattered to him, in his time of need, was whether or not he could interpret his dreams. Beyond his ability to do this, Joseph demonstrated his ability to administrate by proposing a plan of action to deal with the seven years of famine. Joseph’s positional power was granted because of his expert power. Pharaoh was right to place Joseph in a position of power because he had the ability to fulfill the requirements of the job.

Expert power can be easily abused. A “scientist,” in our day of “sciencism,” is regarded as being an expert, when this may not be the case. Some scientists tell us that the world did not begin as the creative product of an infinite God. They need not be right just because they are scientists, even if they are speaking of matters in their own field of study. Einstein, I am told, was wrong in a number of his scientific theories, but people assumed him to be an expert in every area of scientific investigation. Worse yet, Einstein began to make speculations in other areas, such as theology, where he had little knowledge or expertise.

Those of us who have had the luxury of a seminary education are automatically elevated to the level of a religious “expert,” while this need not be the case. The mere mention of a Hebrew or Greek word, or the employment of an unfamiliar theological term can silence the objection of a godly and mature saint who is intimidated by such apparent expertise. Education can greatly sharpen an open and inquisitive mind, but it can also provide ammunition for a narrow mind which seeks only further confirmation of previously conceived prejudices and opinions.

Especially beware of those times when we who stand behind the pulpit begin to speak authoritatively of things concerning which we have little or no expertise. It is a very tempting thing to use the power of the pulpit and the appearance of an open Bible to substantiate our prejudices and theories. Let us not attempt to misuse the power of our expertise by attempting to add force to our opinions on things about which we are ill informed.

Psychological power. There are various forms of psychological power available to most of us. For example, when I taught school I sometimes found it necessary to paddle students. In particularly serious situations I would take the student(s) to the principal’s office and sit them on the floor. Everyone who entered would look down at them and, either verbally or by body language, ask why they were there. In addition to this, I could place the paddle on the desk where they could fix their attention on its every feature (such as the air holes, for added “umpfh”). By the time the paddling time came around, the greatest impact had already been made.

What power Joseph had over his brothers in this area! This was a foreign land, and these Hebrew shepherds could neither speak the language (cf. 42:23), nor were they well thought of by the Egyptians (cf. 43:32; 46:34). They were men from the country, and this was the big city (cf. 41:35). The pomp and circumstance of their surroundings as well as the feigned austerity and harshness of Joseph were just about enough to unnerve these brothers (cf. 43:18). In addition to their fear, Joseph could easily have played upon their guilt, which was not concealed from him (cf. 42:21-22). These men were like putty in the hands of one as shrewd as Joseph. Such power could have been easily corrupted.

Today psychological power is a very common phenomenon. Many men have great power because of their physical prowess, booming voices, and aggressive, assertive personalities (these people make great salesmen). People usually step back and let them control the situation rather than run the risk of confrontation or opposition. Saul had this awesome kind of demeanor, I think (cf. I Samuel 9:1-2). Incidentally, so did Goliath (I Samuel 17:1-12), as well as the Nephilim (Numbers 13:32-33). Women who are striking in appearance also have tremendous psychological power.

Those of us who are neither physically awesome nor attractive still have some opportunities to exercise psychological power, however. Women have the uncanny ability to “turn on the tears,” thereby disarming many of us of the opposite sex. Men who have violent tempers have the ability to control things simply by virtue of everyone’s desire not to trigger an explosion that will scald everyone unfortunate enough to be around at the time of a temper tantrum.

There is a variant of psychological power which is especially effective in religious circles. I have labeled this Christian clout “pious power.” Pious power takes advantage of the impression of greater spirituality by preying upon the insecurity or inferiority feelings of those who feel less spiritual. By the employment of pious expressions, spiritual jargon, or even tear-filled eyes, those we wish to manipulate are inclined to feel unspiritual, immature, or uncommitted if they do not do what we suggest. This may be done either by an aggressive and assertive Moses-like leader, or by a meek and humble appearing “saint.” Who, for example, can turn down a request to teach a Sunday School class by one who tells us that they have prayed about it for months, often in the early morning hours, and God has told them we are the one to perform this sacred task? That is pious power.

Reward and punishment power. While other forms of power have been identified and discussed in the secular arena,67 I wish only to mention one further form of secular power. It is the power that comes from our ability to give or withhold desirable rewards and the power that can execute or stay judgment.

A parent most obviously has this kind of power. Husbands can sulk or refuse to talk to their wives, and the wives have subtle ways of punishing their husbands. Preachers from behind the safety (sanctity?) of the pulpit may praise the efforts of certain “cooperative” individuals, or they may “ask for prayer” for those who are resistant to their plans and programs. Joseph, too, had great reward and punishment power over his brothers. He could imprison them as traitors, or he could bestow an abundance of blessings upon them (cf. 45:10-11,16-20).

Spiritual power. All of the previous types of power can be used to the glory of God, but they are, in reality, a secular type of power. In contrast to these we must make mention of what I shall refer to as spiritual power.

Spiritual power does not originate from within man, but it comes from God, Who is the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This power is available to every believer.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves (II Corinthians 4:7).

So David blessed the LORD in the sight of all the assembly; and David said, “Blessed art Thou, O LORD God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Thine, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Thine is the dominion, O LORD, and Thou dost exalt Thyself as head over all. Both riches and honor come from Thee, and Thou dost rule over all, and in Thy hand is power and might; and it lies in Thy hand to make great, and to strengthen everyone” (I Chronicles 29:10-12).

… and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might (Ephesians 1:19).

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Spiritual power is inconsistent with human devices and manipulative techniques.

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (I Corinthians 2:1-5).

Spiritual power is manifested through the Spirit of God.

“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Spiritual power is not given to those who are humanly capable and confident, but to those who are weak and dependent upon Him for enablement.

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isaiah 53:2-3).

For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ, we are weak but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things even until now (I Corinthians 4:7-13).

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (II Corinthians 12:9-10).

He gives strength to the weary, And to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary (Isaiah 40:29-31).

Spiritual power is the divine enablement to save, to keep, to sanctify, to serve, and to rise from the dead when our Lord comes again.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).

… who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (I Peter 1:5).

… seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (II Peter 1:3).

And Jesus come up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Romans 8:11).

Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power (I Corinthians 6:14).

(4) Spiritual results are the product of spiritual power, not of political power. The great temptation for Joseph was to employ his political power in order to get even with his brothers for the evil they had done to him. While Joseph did employ his secular power to benefit his brethren, it was, in my opinion, his spiritual power which had the greatest results.

Did you notice that while Joseph’s feigned harshness produced fear, it was his graciousness that resulted in spiritual awareness and the beginnings of repentance? The gruff accusations of Joseph did produce the facts he sought about his father and brother (42:8-13), but it was grace that caused his brothers to consider their circumstances as coming from the hand of God. It was only after Joseph released his brothers from prison and relaxed his demands and offered hope and life by assuring them that he, too, feared God (42:18) that they began to consider God’s hand in their dilemma (42:21-22). And it was after they realized that their money was given back to them in the grain sack that they said, “What is this that God has done to us?” (42:28).

How clear this all becomes in the light of the teaching of the apostle Paul in the book of Romans:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the LORD. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).

That is what Joseph’s dealings with his brothers are all about. He was in a position to employ secular power to vent all of his feelings of anger and bitterness but, instead, he used the spiritual power of God, manifested in serving and setting the interests of others first. That began a process of restoration in his brothers.

The selfless spirit of Joseph is a remarkable contrast to the self-seeking spirit of Jacob and his ten sons. Joseph could never expect to see his brothers restored by the exercise of secular power, motivated by selfish desire. There is a law of physics which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Human power, motivated by carnal motives, brings about similar reactions. Spiritual power, exercised from godly motives, brings about spiritual ends. Like produces like.

What kind of power do you employ, my friend? And how do you exercise that power that is in your hand? Fathers, do you employ mere physical superiority to bring about only compliance from your children? Or do you use spiritual power to bring about spiritual submission? Do we frustrate our children by a misuse of our power? Do we discourage and embitter our wives by using the authority God has given us in our marriage only to serve our own interests rather than to enrich and enhance our mate? The question which Joseph poses to every Christian is this: How do we exercise the power which is at our disposal? Do we use it to serve others or to seek our own selfish ends?

Perhaps we have resorted to secular, worldly power to achieve our goals, even godly goals, simply because we are more accustomed to it. I fear that much that we attempt to accomplish for God is done through merely secular means. Many of our churches could probably be taken over by unbelieving executives and administrators, and we might not even know the difference. Mere religious forms are no guarantee of spiritual power:

… holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power … (II Timothy 3:5).

May God enable us to employ spiritual power through spiritual means for His glory and our good.

63 Joseph was born at the end of Jacob’s 14 years of service to Laban, and at the time Jacob asked to be released (30:25). We know also that Jacob served Laban another 6 years before leaving to return to the land of Canaan (cf. 31:38). Adding to these 6 years several more spent dallying in Succoth and Shechem (33:18-34:31), we conclude that Benjamin must have been ten or more years younger than Joseph. Joseph was 30 when he entered into Pharaoh’s court (41:46) and the seven years of plenty had passed, with the famine under way. That would make Joseph around 39 and Benjamin no older than 29. Since Benjamin was alive when Joseph was sold into slavery at the age of 17 (37:2), and he was now 22 years older, Benjamin would have to be at least 22 and not older than 29. In other words, he was not a child.

64 The appearance is that Joseph sent the ten brothers to be confined for three days, during which he is not said to have visited them. It would seem that what occurs in verses 18-23 is that Joseph summoned his brothers to him from the jail and spoke to them from his quarters. If this is so, that which is overheard is not spoken in the jail, but in Joseph’s headquarters.

65 The Berkeley Version in Modern English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, Fifth Edition, 1962), p. 44, fn. f.

66 Technically, there is a difference between power and authority. Authority refers to the right one has to command, while power refers to the ability. In many instances there are two chains-of-command, a formal one and an informal one. This is the result of giving authority to people who lack the power to carry out their task. As a result, some one with power (legitimate or otherwise) arises who gets the job done, but outside the system.

67 For a more thorough treatment of the various types of power, handled from a secular point of view, see Joseph L. Massie and John Douglas, Managing: A Contemporary Introduction (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 337 ff.

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