Connections 08.16.2020: Powerful People

Genesis 45:1-15

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So said Lord Acton in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton. The English Catholic historian and the bishop were corresponding about how we should evaluate great figures of the past. Acton insisted that we should include their morality in our evaluations.

Acton went on to say, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

I don’t think I agree that “great [people] are always bad [people],” but I do think you can tell a lot about someone by how they use power when they attain it. And while I agree that an office can’t sanctify its holder, it does seem that officeholders can corrupt the office they hold.

Joseph had acquired a lot of power in Egypt. The pharaoh had put Joseph in charge of grain storage during seven years of abundant harvests and in charge of grain distribution during seven years of famine. By granting or withholding grain, he could decide who lived and who died. One can hardly have greater power.

Because of Joseph’s foresight, Egypt had surplus grain to sell to people from outside Egypt. People came from many places to buy Egyptian grain. One day, Joseph’s brothers showed up to purchase grain for their families back in Canaan.

Much of the story’s tension comes from readers’ uncertainty over what Joseph will do to these brothers of his who plotted to kill him and who sold him into slavery. Joseph had authority to deny them food. He could order them imprisoned. He could have them executed. He could have used his power to avenge himself for what they had done to him.

But he doesn’t. Oh, he puts them through their paces. He makes them squirm. As the narrator and central character in the recently departed and greatly missed Charlie Daniels’s 1973 song “Uneasy Rider” says, he “couldn’t resist the fun of chasing them all just once around the parking lot.”

Still, Joseph finally helps his brothers. He takes care of them and their families. He doesn’t use his power to exact revenge. He doesn’t use it to do harm to those who did harm to him. He uses his power to do good. He uses it to help people. He uses it to distribute resources to those who need them.

One reason Joseph uses his power for good is because of his understanding of how God works. Joseph realizes that God has worked in even the terrible things that happened to him to put him in a position of power. How could he not use his power to help people when helping people was the purpose of his being in power?

Sometimes we hear leaders who are professing Christians say that they believe it is God’s will that they run for office or that God has put them in a powerful political position. But what do they think God has put them there to do?

What are we to make of political leaders who say they are Christians but refuse to use their power to help people who are hurting and in need? What are we to make of those who seem intent on using their power to harm rather than to help people?

Discussion

  • The brothers were “dismayed” when they learned they were dealing with Joseph (v. 3). What other feelings do you imagine they experienced?
  • Joseph told his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve life” (v. 5). Do you think Joseph had that perspective from the beginning of his time in Egypt? Or did he more likely develop it over many years?
  • What can this story teach us about the ways God can work through even our most difficult experiences to fulfill God’s purposes?
  • How would you respond to Joseph’s statement to his brothers, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (v. 8)?
  • What do you think it takes for us to develop the kind of insight and perspective Joseph has?

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Connections Teaching Guide and Commentary. Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

*