Divine Providence and the Life of Joseph

Photo credit: Lawrence OP

Genesis 37, 39-50

One of my favorite people in the Bible is Joseph. I guess you could say he is one of my heroes of the faith. I have studied his life off and on throughout my journey of faith in Christ, but over the past 3-4 years, his life has been a providential reminder to me that life isn’t always the smiley-faced, white-picket-fence existence we hope for.  

When we think of God’s providential hand, it’s usually when we receive that job offer or a bonus or when something really cool happens. But little would we ever say things like, “Thank God that I got cancer” or “By God’s providence, I lost my job and all that I own”. We don’t ever think about verses in Scripture like Ecclesiastes 7:14:

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

I believe this verse sums up the doctrine of divine providence, although there are many other verses that expose God’s sovereignty and providence in the affairs of our life.

Joseph’s life was anything but peachy. We catch up with Joseph in Genesis 37 where he dreams about his brothers being subservient to him (who would like to be subservient to his or her little brother?!). His brothers plot to kill him, and if not for his brother, Reuben, speaking out to spare his life, he surely would have been dead. Instead, Joseph is sold into Egyptian slavery and made to look like he was killed by a wild animal. Joseph’s apparent death broke the heart of his father, Jacob.

Naturally, a first-time reader might hope for retribution for Joseph, for God to respond with what we may see as “justice.” Living in slavery to a pagan government isn’t exactly the kind of providence we want in American Christianity, but this line of events in the life of Joseph is marked dramatically by God’s loving hand. When we read the full narrative of Scripture, we begin to see God as He truly is.

After the brief but horrific interlude of Tamar’s rape in Genesis 38, chapter 39 picks up with Joseph working in the house of the chief officer, Potiphar. Joseph enjoys success in the home to such a degree that Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his house and gives him access to everything in his possession--except for his wife. When the wife enters the picture, she pursues Joseph day and night trying to seduce him. He responds with integrity by explaining that he will not sin against God and Potiphar by giving in to her wickedness.  In her final advance, she rips Joseph’s robe in desperation, and he flees the house. Potiphar’s wife is so enraged that she cries rape and has Joseph imprisoned for something he did not do. All the evidence was there: he fled, she had his robe.  What more did she need to prove her case?

So not only is Joseph sold into slavery by his own brothers, but he is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Where is God in all of this? Throughout the rest of Genesis, we see that he is the one divinely and intimately weaving this story together!

As the story continues, Joseph is given the opportunity to interpret a series of dreams for Pharaoh which leads to Pharaoh installing Joseph as governor over all of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh himself. Joseph perseveres through prosperous times and adverse times, but even so, he is not the hero here. God is the one who was weaving this all to work together for good.

In the midst of our adversity, questioning God can lead to some dangerous thoughts that hurt the heart of God. We may assume that God is not as good as He says He is, making Him out to be a liar.  We may also stop trusting Him because we believe that He has failed us or because His actions have not lined up with our flawed understanding of Him. A.W. Tozer correctly said, “If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as he is.”1

Joseph understands this thought in chapter 50, when his brothers repent and apologize to him.  Joseph says, “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.”

Wow! Sobering words from this man of integrity. He recognized God’s sovereignty in the affairs of his life and the providence in which He worked them out. God had many purposes for Joseph’s adversity, to follow through a plan that He had been weaving together since before the foundation of the world. Many Egyptians were saved from a severe famine because of Joseph’s adversity. That’s the main physical purpose we see here in Scripture. But if you read more deeply, there is a greater agenda than just the salvation of many people from starvation.

God built Joseph into a man who would persevere under the weight of persecution and a man who would be a great model for holiness, but Joseph is not the hero of the story. God is! We spend time exalting Joseph, which isn’t necessarily bad, but we should be exalting the true hero: God, The Most High. Our Great Provider. Just as He did with Joseph, God still works all things together for our good, for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

We can trust God, no matter the circumstances. God is good, no matter how bad life may be. When trials come, count them all joy! These inward trials produce Christlikeness (James 1:2-4). God’s purpose in our sufferings is two-fold: for His own glory and for us to be conformed into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29)

Here are some good resources that I recommend for deeper study on issues of sovereignty, dependence, and suffering to help encourage and challenge you:

1. The Bible.  Read the Word of God fully.

2. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller

3. The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer

4. Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story by Ken Tada.  This is the autobiography of Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada. Joni was turned into a quadriplegic in a car accident in 1967.

5. Joseph by Voddie Baucham Jr.


1A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperOne 1961), viii.