How Did Joseph Get So Smart?

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Paul admonishes and exhorts the Corinthians about a great many things in his two epistles to them. Beginning his first letter is a lengthy discourse on the wisdom and power of God, contrasting them with man’s words and “the wisdom of this world.” As I read these passages this morning, I began thinking about Joseph, known for his perseverance in the face of injustice and captivity, but also for his great wisdom.

Thence came the question that is the title of this post.

Joseph was the youngest and favorite son of Jacob at the start of the Genesis narrative concerning him. They were a family of herdsmen, highly favored and prosperous as beneficiaries of Abraham’s covenant with God, but not of a scholarly or religious caste. Joseph was only seventeen years old when his jealous brothers sold him to Midianite merchants. They told their bereaved father Joseph had been mauled by a wild animal.

There began Joseph’s long sojourn in Egypt, serving in the home of one of Pharaoh’s captains. The text reads, “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered…and the LORD gave him success in everything he did…and the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph” (Gen 39:2-5). When Joseph was unjustly accused of sexual assault and imprisoned, even behind bars “the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor.” He was given responsibility for the running the entire prison…as one of the prisoners! This is not the normal way of things.

Joseph’s release from prison was founded upon his ability to interpret dreams by the power of God. Pharaoh needed a particular enablement, and Joseph was the man for the job. His accurate interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, and his proposal for guiding the nation through seven years of famine led to his promotion as Egypt’s second-in-command.

Why? What qualified Joseph to work for Potiphar, or serve as a prison administrator, or lead an entire nation?  He didn’t have degrees, or management experience, or a special pedigree. Yet Pharaoh declared there was no one “so discerning and wise” as Joseph, no one like him, “in whom is the spirit of God” (Gen 41:38-39). Ah, there it is.

So…back to Corinthians. Paul uses the word wisdom 16 times in just the first three chapters. After all that, one would have to be dense to miss his point. The wisdom of God is unavailable to those who deny God, but  it comes liberally to those who have his Spirit dwelling within them. It does not depend upon the world’s educational system—in fact, what the world calls wisdom is often contrary to God’s truth, and therefore foolish in the end. Paul wrote this extraordinary statement,

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,  so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor 1:26-31)

Joseph lived before Pentecost. The new birth by the Spirit was not yet available. But he learned at an early age, perhaps while tending sheep, that all wisdom and strength come from the LORD. He was instructed by the Holy Spirit at crucial times throughout his eventful life. This doesn’t discount the fruits of his trials and persecution. Like Jesus, he learned obedience through sufferings, and developed an intimate connection to his God.

When we display wisdom, when we get something right, we give credit to our God. We do not boast in our own wisdom. But the more we walk in his infinite wisdom, and endure life’s challenges in his strength, the wiser and stronger we become. Then we can be trusted to manage important matters in his kingdom

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