In a world where injustice, betrayal, and treachery seem to run rampant, there is wisdom and hope to be gleaned from a story recorded in the earliest centuries of human history.
In ancient times, Jacob appointed his son Joseph to become the family leader by giving him a “coat of many colors” for which the record says his brothers “hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him” (KJV Genesis 37:4). Joseph also had a spiritual gift of having and interpreting dreams which verified his leadership position and caused his brothers to hate him even more.
One fateful day, the brothers were out tending the flocks in a distant place and Jacob sent Joseph out to check on them. As he approached his brothers, they saw him coming,
And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams. (KJV Genesis 37:18-20)
One of the brothers said that they shouldn’t actually kill Joseph, so they threw him in a pit instead. A caravan came by on its way to Egypt. Some of the brothers got him out of the pit, tied him up, gagged him, and sold him as a slave to the caravan. Then some of the brothers took his coat, ripped it up, and put goat’s blood on it. They took it back to their father, Jacob, and said that a wild beast had killed Joseph and the bloody coat was all they could find. Jacob tore his own clothes, went into mourning, and refused to be comforted. Jacob mourned for many years over his son, Joseph, thinking he was dead.
Meanwhile, the transient caravan went to Egypt, and Joseph was sold as a slave to an influential man named Potiphar. Even as a slave, Joseph prospered:
And his master [Potiphar], saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. (KJV Genesis 39:3-4)
As near as we can tell, Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold as a slave. We assume that he was Potiphar’s slave for a few years before he was promoted to the overseer of Potiphar’s house and all that he had. He probably served in that position for several more years. Eventually, Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph. The Bible does not tell us her name, but the apocryphal Book of Jasher says that her name was Zelica. What happened—and didn’t happen—between Joseph and Zelica is one of the most famous stories of all time:
And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, lie with me. But he refused, and said … how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?… And she caught him by his garment, saying, lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out. And it came to pass … that she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying … he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice…” (KJV Genesis 39:6-20)
When Potiphar heard the words of his wife he was angry and had Joseph thrown in prison. Seemingly because of his integrity in refusing his boss’s wife, Joseph lost his job and got thrown in jail for a long time.
So in short, in spite of consistently trying to do the right thing, Joseph was condemned to be a slave for years and was then thrown in prison, both of which were extremely undeserved and unfair. Joseph was innocent of wrongdoing and still, he suffered.
We don’t know how long Joseph was a slave or how long he was in prison, but we know that he got out of prison when he was thirty years old and he was about seventeen years old when he went to Egypt. That means that Joseph spent about thirteen years either as a slave or a prisoner. If you were Joseph, do you think you might have been feeling frustration and bitterness? Despite his circumstances, he kept doing what he had always done: Trusted God, worked hard, and hoped for better things. Eventually, this worked out well for him for the record says:
But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the LORD was with him, and that which he did, the LORD made it to prosper. (KJV Genesis 39:21-23)
While Joseph was in prison, his attitude and behavior were outstanding. He was so helpful and trustworthy that he was promoted to be the prison overseer. Because of his faithfulness and this promotion, he was able to help and bless the other prisoners who shared the filth around him.
Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, had two of his personal servants cast into prison because he suspected them of being involved in a plot to kill him. After they were cast into prison, they both had separate but vivid dreams. Since Joseph had a spiritual gift to interpret dreams, he offered to help them. To briefly summarize, Joseph told the chief butler that his dream meant that he would be released from prison and restored to his former position. Joseph asked him to talk with Pharaoh about getting him out of prison, too. Then Joseph told the chief baker that his dream meant that he would be executed. What Joseph told each man happened within three days.
Two years later, Pharaoh had a bothersome dream which upset him. None of his wise men could give him a satisfactory interpretation. The chief butler, who had been released from prison as Joseph foretold, remembered that Joseph could interpret dreams and told Pharaoh about him. Pharaoh commanded that Joseph be cleaned up and brought to him. Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and give him wise counsel related to a coming famine. Pharaoh was so impressed that he released Joseph from prison and appointed him to be his advisor and second in command of all Egypt.
Joseph saved thousands of lives in Egypt and beyond by preparing the country for the impending famine. Subsequently, through a series of dramatic events, he forgave his brothers and arranged for his whole family to come to Egypt.
What did Joseph do and how can we do likewise? Joseph managed to turn every experience, even bad ones, into something good. It’s been said that,
This ability to turn everything into something good [is a divine] characteristic. [God] always seems able to do this. Everything, no matter how dire, becomes a victory to the Lord. Joseph, although a slave and wholly undeserving of this fate, nevertheless remained faithful to the Lord and continued to live the commandments and made something very good of his degrading circumstances. People like this cannot be defeated, because they will not give up. (Hartman Rector Jr., “Live Above the Law to Be Free,” Ensign, January 1973.)
When cruel, unfair, or heartrending things occur in our lives, it’s tempting to take on vengeful intentions and think things like, “People have hurt me and I’m going to hurt them back.” But that is faulty thinking. If Joseph had acted that way, he may as well have been devoured by the fictitious beast his brothers made up to disguise their crime against him. He would likely have wallowed in self-pity, lived an uncelebrated life, and died an ignominious death. But he didn’t. Joseph is one of the most remembered and honored men of all time—because he simply kept on moving in a positive direction.
The story of Joseph inspires us to remember that no matter how bad our circumstances are, anyone can be the kind of person who chooses to persist in working, hoping, helping, and inspiring others to do the same—even if others have been cruel, unfair, or treacherous.
If you want to be happy and help others to be happy, you can do it in spite of difficult circumstances. You can do it the way Joseph did. You can endure and escape your personal prisons, no matter what they are. You can come out on top. And maybe even help a few—or a few thousand—others to escape their onerous situations.
Gene Van Shaar has spent a lifetime studying and teaching a wide range of religious and secular topics. He is a master teacher whose lessons and stories have generated both laughter and tears. As a defender of freedom, he has fostered independence by encouraging students and readers to embrace correct principles and resist coercion. Like Thomas Jefferson, he has “sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He has written many articles and books including Pillars of Truth and Freedom, My Life and Lessons, The Freedom Saving Series, and The Scriptural Insight Archive.