41. From the Pit to the Palace (Genesis 41:1-57)
The story is told of a man who was drafted into the armed forces. Wherever he went he would stoop to pick up any piece of paper which was on the ground. And every time he picked up a piece of paper, he would look at it, shake his head no, and then throw it away. It didn’t take long for his superiors to become aware of his actions and to determine to find the underlying cause. Finally, in desperation, they granted him a medical discharge. The soldier was summoned to the office of his superior officer and was handed the official form which granted his release. Looking carefully at it, he exclaimed, “This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for!”
Many of us are like that soldier in that we go through life waiting for the one big break that will turn our life around and that will give us riches and fame, prosperity and power. For some, that break is thought to come from Wall Street, and it will be written in the Dow Jones averages. For others, the lucky break is expected to come in Nashville, Hollywood, or Las Vegas. Most of us tend to think of our success as coming from some life-changing, momentous event.
It is very easy to misunderstand Genesis 41 by superimposing this false conception of success on the experience of Joseph when he was exalted to the second highest position in all of Egypt. We may look at the dreams of Pharaoh and the mention of Joseph by the cupbearer as the lucky break of Joseph’s life, which broke the chain of frustrating turns of events which had previously plagued him. Someone has even suggested that Joseph may well have been aware of Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong probably will.”55
Genesis 41 does not tell us the entire story, however. It merely provides us with a vantage point whereby we may look back upon past events and see their part in bringing Joseph to Pharaoh’s palace. We may also look ahead and see the reason why God brought Joseph to his position of power in the way He did. Joseph’s life story was no fairy tale. Moses did not tell us that after Joseph was promoted by Pharaoh he lived “happily ever after.” Joseph has been promoted for a definite purpose, and we dare not overlook this in the joy of seeing him taken out of the pit and placed in a position of power and prestige in Pharaoh’s palace.
Pharaoh’s Revelation and Joseph’s Release
Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And lo, from the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat; and they grazed in the marsh grass. Then, behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and gaunt, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump and good. Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Now it came about in the morning that his spirit was troubled, so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1-8).
Two full years had passed,56 and Joseph is still confined in Potiphar’s prison, forgotten by the cupbearer of the Pharaoh despite Joseph’s favorable interpretation and plea to be remembered after his predictions came to pass (40:14-15). God chose to work through means other than human instruments, and thus He spoke to Pharaoh in two dramatic dreams. Both dreams were very real and most disturbing. After each, Pharaoh was awakened (41:4,7). These dreams were remarkably Egyptian, for the cows came from out of the river Nile, and the grain was withered by a well-known and dreaded east wind.57 The sight of cows cooling themselves in the river and feeding on the lush marsh grass was typically Egyptian.
The dream was distressing to the Pharaoh because it was twice experienced in varying forms, interrupted by his being awakened. The meaning was a puzzle, for the seven lean cows remained lean and gaunt, even after consuming the fat cattle. The same was true with the grain. It was not normal for cows to eat cows or grain to consume grain, but surely the lean things should have been fattened by what they ate. Something had to be wrong, but what was it?
The king’s usual source of information, the magicians,58 were totally baffled, as was Pharaoh. They could not fathom the meaning of the dream. These men should not be confused with magicians of our own day. They did not wear tuxedos and pull rabbits out of hats. They were the wisest, best educated men of Pharaoh’s kingdom, schooled in the art of interpreting dreams. Lest we may be puzzled by the inability of these men to discern the meaning of these two dreams, at least in general terms, let us be reminded of the fact that the two dreams were a revelation from God, and the things of God can only be grasped through His Spirit (cf. I Corinthians 2:10-16).
The king’s frustration at having such impressive dreams and yet being unable to know their meaning was too similar to the experience of the cupbearer to be overlooked. Joseph was finally brought to the cupbearer’s mind, and Pharaoh was told of the unusual Hebrew slave with whom this official had “spent time.”
Then the chief cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh, saying, “I would make mention today of my own offenses. Pharaoh was furious with his servants, and he put me in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, both me and the chief baker. And we had a dream on the same night, he and I; each of us dreamed according to the interpretation of his own dream. Now a Hebrew youth was with us there, a servant of the captain of the bodyguard, and we related them to him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. To each one he interpreted according to his own dream. And it came about that just as he interpreted for us, so it happened; he restored me in my office, but he hanged him” (Genesis 41:9-13).
Nowhere does the cupbearer mention the injustice of Joseph’s imprisonment. The “offenses” of which he spoke (verse 9) do not seem to be related to his forgetting Joseph, but rather to his sins against Pharaoh for which he was cast into prison under Joseph’s custody. The substance of the cupbearer’s words to his master was that this young Hebrew slave was highly skilled in interpreting dreams.
No mention of his character or his religious faith was made. Joseph’s release and the matter of making right the wrongs committed against him were of no interest to the cupbearer, at least as far as his own words inform us.
Pharaoh’s Problem and Joseph’s Plan
Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon; and when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came to Pharaoh. 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.” So Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, “In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile; and behold, seven cows, fat and sleek came up out of the Nile; and they grazed in the marsh grass. And lo, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and gaunt, such as I had never seen for ugliness in all the land of Egypt; and the lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows. Yet when they had devoured them, it could not be detected that they had devoured them; for they were just as ugly as before. Then I awoke. I saw also in my dream, and behold, seven ears, full and good, came up on a single stalk; and lo, seven ears, withered, thin, and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them; and the thin ears swallowed the seven good ears. Then I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me” (Genesis 41:14-24).
Joseph was hurriedly brought out of Potiphar’s dungeon, but he did not face Pharaoh until he had shaved and changed his clothes. This was not just “cleaning up,” which surely was needed; it was a cultural concession. To the Hebrews, a beard was a mark of dignity (cf. II Samuel 10:4-5; Ezra 9:3), but for the Egyptian it was an offensive thing.59 Joseph took the time to shave himself so as not to unnecessarily offend the king of Egypt. When Joseph came before Pharaoh, the distressing dreams of the previous night were immediately brought up. Pharaoh had heard that Joseph could interpret them.
What an opportune moment for Joseph to capitalize upon! If Jacob had been in his son’s sandals, things would have gone very differently, I believe. He would likely have used the occasion to make a bargain with the king—his freedom for Pharaoh’s request. Jacob would have had a special on interpretations that week. At the very least he would have made certain that Pharaoh understood the injustice of his present circumstances. “You see, Pharaoh, I would really like to help you with your problem, but my mind is so troubled with my circumstances just now that I can’t think …”60
As much as Joseph desired to be released from his captivity, he never brought up the subject. His first concern was not with his own comfort, but with God’s glory. The ability to interpret dreams, which Pharaoh had credited to Joseph, was not his at all. Only God can interpret dreams, Joseph quickly corrected. The young Hebrew slave’s words not only clarified the source of his ability, but they also seemed to give Pharaoh hope that the outcome of Joseph’s ministry to him would bring him comfort in his distress (verse 16). With these words, Pharaoh eagerly repeated his dreams to Joseph, closing by confessing the inability of his most able counselors to give him any word of explanation (verse 24).
Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has told to Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same. And the seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind shall be seven years of famine. It is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will ravage the land. So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe. Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about. And now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it. And let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish during the famine” (Genesis 41:25-36).
Joseph skillfully interpreted the two dreams. His interpretation closely followed the two dreams in many particulars, a fact which could hardly have been unnoticed by Pharaoh and which added credibility to Joseph’s explanation. The two dreams, while different in some details, were one in their meaning (verse 25). Both dreams were given in order to indicate the certainty of what was to occur (verse 32). In each instance “seven” was the time involved—seven years. The fat cows and the plump heads of grain were indicative of the seven years of abundance which were to commence soon in Egypt. The seven gaunt cows and the seven scorched and withered heads of grain foretold the famine which was to follow the years of plenty. The bottom line was that Egypt was to have seven years of plenty followed by a famine so severe that all of the previous abundance would be consumed.
How easy it would have been to stop here. There was good news and bad news for Pharaoh—abundance followed by famine. But Joseph was more than a prophet; he was an administrator. Not only was he able to foretell “things to come,” but he was also competent to analyze the situation and determine the best course of action in order to minimize its detrimental effects. And so a decisive plan of action was proposed to Pharaoh along with the predictions that were given.
A capable administrator was required. He should be instructed to take command of the situation and to gather up a double portion of the bumper crops that would be produced by the land in the years of prosperity. Under him, men should be appointed to make collections and supervise the storage of the land’s produce. These surpluses should be brought into the cities for safe-keeping and later distribution. By these means the effects of the famine could be minimized.
I have become more convinced than ever, having gained a deeper appreciation for the character and humble spirit of Joseph, that it never entered into his mind that he should be the one appointed over this project. Self-interest had never been manifest in his character or conduct prior to this. He did not even mention his unjust imprisonment. Furthermore, who could ever have conceived of a Hebrew slave being elevated to the second highest office in the land? Regardless of the person in charge, the plan would have to be followed in order to deal with the famine which was predicted.
A Promotion by Pharaoh
Now the proposal seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his servants. Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen, and put the gold necklace around his neck. And he had him ride in his second chariot; and they proclaimed before him, “Bow the knee!” And he set him over all the land of Egypt. Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Though I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, as his wife. And Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt (Genesis 41:37-45).
While there was a certain amount of relief resulting from Joseph’s interpretation, the greatest comfort came from his proposed plan of action and the evidence of his competence to oversee the matter. Even the magicians unanimously concurred (But then, who among them would have dared to disagree!) that Joseph was the man for the job.
While Pharaoh’s statement gives testimony to his conviction that Joseph had divine enablement, I do not think that his understanding was such as to equip him to write a theology of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. I believe that Pharaoh was willing to grant Joseph’s assertion that God was with him and that he had spiritual enablement. He was thus willing to acknowledge that there was a god who, through a divine spirit, worked through Joseph. At this point his conception of Joseph’s religion was extremely elementary. More time with Joseph likely changed this.
The best that Joseph could have dared to hope for was a release from his imprisonment. How far beyond this was his elevation to a position of power and prestige! Tokens of his new authority were the signet ring, fine garments, a gold necklace, and the royal chariot, preceded by those who proclaimed the fame and position of Joseph (verses 42, 43). That chariot may not have been the Rolls Royce of Pharaoh’s fleet, but it was at least a Mercedes Benz. Just as Joseph was second only to Potiphar, now he was to answer only to Pharaoh (verses 40, 44).
Pharaoh took two other highly symbolic actions which helped to cement Joseph’s new position with the people of the land. First, Joseph was given an Egyptian name. There are numerous conjectures as to what this name meant.61 Frankly, I do not have the slightest idea what that name meant, nor do I care. An Egyptian name, whatever it meant, signified that in Pharaoh’s mind Joseph was not a “mere Hebrew” (which were despised by the people of Egypt (43:32, 46:34), but an Egyptian. Among the American Indians the counterpart to this would have been to make Joseph a blood-brother of the tribe.
This is further confirmed by the gift of an Egyptian wife, Asenath (verse 45). Many Christians are troubled by the fact that Joseph took a wife from among the Egyptians. Let me ask you a very practical question. Had you been Joseph, where would you have gone to find a godly wife? Would you have gone to Judah, who was willing to sleep with a Canaanite cult prostitute? Would you have gone to your brothers, who tried to kill you? Would you go to a man like Laban? Where could a man find a godly wife in those days?
God had not yet given any commandments regarding marriage, but what was later laid down in the law did not forbid a marriage such as that of Joseph:
When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands, and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
Only marriage to a Canaanite woman was forbidden by God:
But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 20:17-18).
We must, therefore, conclude that Joseph did not sin by taking this Egyptian woman to be his wife. The fact that she was the daughter of an Egyptian priest (verse 45) does not necessarily indicate otherwise. I doubt very much that Pharaoh would have given Joseph a wife who would have been an offense to him or a contradiction to his beliefs. I further doubt that Joseph would have taken her as his wife if she would have been a detriment to his spiritual life. The kind of man who could say “no” to Potiphar’s wife would surely have declined Potiphera’s daughter62 if she would hinder his faith.
A Program Implemented
The final section serves several purposes. First, it reveals the accuracy of Joseph’s interpretation. Second, it evidences the administrative astuteness of Joseph in handling the affairs of state in preparation for the famine to come. Finally, it reveals to us Joseph’s continued spiritual commitment to the God of his fathers.
Now Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went through all the land of Egypt. And during the seven years of plenty the land brought forth abundantly. So he gathered all the food of these seven years which occurred in the land of Egypt, and placed the food in the cities; he placed in every city the food from its own surrounding fields. Thus Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure. Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him. And Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” And he named the second Ephraim, “For,” he said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. So when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, you shall do.” When the famine was spread over all the face of the earth, then Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians; and the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. And the people of all the earth come to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth (Genesis 41:46-57).
Just as Joseph had indicated, the next seven years were marked by great abundance. The land produced in such quantity that the grain held in reserve for the future was beyond measure (verse 49). Joseph skillfully carried out the plan which he had proposed to Pharaoh, storing up a fifth of the grain in the cities for later use. At the end of the seven years of plenty, the famine hit Egypt with severity. The people came to Pharaoh requesting bread, and he sent them to Joseph, telling them to do whatever he said (verse 55). Joseph opened the storehouses and began to sell grain to the Egyptians and to those from other lands, some of whom would be his own brothers.
During the years of Egypt’s great prosperity Joseph was blessed with two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The names which they were given give us further indication of Joseph’s spiritual condition during these exhilirating years in Pharaoh’s palace. Manasseh, which means “making to forget” (margin, NASV), was Joseph’s expression of his gratitude toward God, Who had enabled him to forget “all my trouble and all my father’s household” (verse 51). I do not think that this should be understood in a negative way as though Joseph had no more interest or concern for them. Certainly God’s rich blessings had enabled him to blot out the painful memories of the past, especially the hurt and bitterness which could only harbor a grudge against his brothers and seek an opportunity to get revenge.
Nor should we get the impression that Joseph had no more longings to see his father or his brothers I understand Joseph to mean that he was not overwhelmed with a compulsion to return home out of loneliness, but he was content to remain in the land where God had brought him. Had he returned to his home in Canaan, he could not be the deliverer of his family as God had purposed, and the nation would not be strangers in this foreign land as God had indicated to Abraham many years before:
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. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions” (Genesis 15:13-14).
While I do not wish to offer a new translation, this paraphrase may help to express the meaning which I think Joseph was trying to convey in the naming of Manasseh: “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble with my father’s household.” The bitterness was gone. Joseph was able, even now, to see that while his brothers were wrong in their actions, God had meant it for good (cf. 50:20). With this attitude Joseph could exercise sufficient self-control to keep from revealing his identity too quickly, and thus bring his brothers to genuine repentance by a careful program of instruction unimpeded by feelings of anger and vengeance.
The name Ephraim, that is “fruitfulness” (margin, NASV), conveyed the assurance of Joseph that it was God who had given him prosperity and blessing in the land of his affliction. To Joseph, affliction and blessing were not contradictory, for God was able to turn sorrow into joy.
This episode in the life of Joseph brings us to a vantage point from which we may look backward and forward. Looking back, we must realize that Joseph’s elevation is not the result of one lucky break, but rather of a chain of painful but divinely purposed events. Had Joseph not said “no” to Potiphar’s wife and been unjustly cast into prison with the cupbearer, he could never have been recommended to the king. And had Joseph not been cruelly treated by his brothers and sold into slavery, he would never have been in Potiphar’s house. What a beautiful illustration of Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Looking ahead, we see that the story does not end with chapter 42, for while Joseph is the principal character of this section, he is not the sole object of God’s attention and activity. While there is a sense in which Joseph was blessed because of his faithfulness, there is the even broader perspective that Joseph’s promotion was not for his own prosperity as much as for his brothers’ preservation. Joseph’s position of power and prosperity enabled him to become the “savior” of his brethren. We must be humbled by the fact that while God cares for us as individuals, He often has a broader purpose for what He gives to us. Spiritual gifts, for example, are not given for our own benefit so much as for the upbuilding of others:
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (I Corinthians 12:7).
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (I Peter 4:10).
We need to be very careful about using Joseph as a model in the matter of suffering and glory. In the ultimate sense, Joseph does illustrate the truth that suffering comes before glory and, indeed, even prepares us for glory. The Christian life will be marked by suffering, as countless passages of Scripture inform us (for example, John 15:19; II Corinthians 1:3-5; Philippians 1:29; II Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 12:7-13; James 1:2-4; I Peter 4:12-19), but we know that we will enter into many of the joys of our salvation and the glory which is our Lord’s at His return (II Thessalonians 1:3-12; I Peter 1:3-12). Let us be very careful, however, that we do not view Joseph as a promise that all who are faithful in suffering will be brought to glory and prosperity in this life.
Perhaps my point can best be illustrated by a contrast between the lives of Joseph, who lived out these events, and Moses, who recorded them for us. Joseph began in the land of Canaan and ended up in the land of Egypt with the nation Israel under his care. Moses began in the land of Egypt and ended up in the land of Canaan with the nation Israel under his care. Joseph began his life as a shepherd in the pastures of his father and was exalted to the palace of Pharaoh. Moses was taken as an infant into the palace of the Pharaoh, but later he became a shepherd among the flocks of his father-in-law.
Do you see how very differently God used these two men to accomplish His purposes? While it was necessary, in the purposes of God, to elevate Joseph from the pasture to the palace in order to save the seventy people of God (46:27), it was necessary for Moses to step down from the palace in order to lead the people of God out of bondage:
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen (Hebrews 11:24-27).
God’s purposes are not achieved through only one method or pattern for all men. He raises some up, giving them power and prosperity, while He humbles others. We have no right to demand that God treat us just as He did Joseph, for He may choose to deal with us as He did Moses. Or, more likely, He may deal with us is some way that is entirely different from the way he directed either Joseph or Moses. Joseph, then, is no guarantee that faithful obedience will always lead to position, prosperity, and power in this life. One need only recall the life of Job to correct such shallow thinking.
Now I have a very important word for those who sloppily have made an arbitrary and unbiblical distinction between the “secular” and the “spiritual,” or between “full-time” Christians and the “laity.” Do you notice that God has brought about the deliverance of His people not through Judah, from whom Messiah would come, and not through Levi, through whom the priestly class would originate, but through Joseph, a paper shuffler, a desk jockey, an administrator?
As spiritual as he was, I can well imagine that many in our own day would have approached Joseph with words similar to these: “Joseph, as spiritual as you are, you should consider attending seminary and going into full-time ministry.” How could a secular ministry ever be fulfilling to a man as spiritual as Joseph? God did not raise up a preacher nor a priest, but an administrator to deliver His people from extinction. Let us beware of categorizing occupations in such a way as to make some more spiritual than others. Everyone is a full-time minister in the Scriptures, but some are called to labor in one sphere while others are called to another. Spirituality is totally independent of one’s occupation. One’s job is a matter of both gift and calling, not of spirituality.
In this same line, Joseph was not promoted by Pharaoh (in human terms) because he was spiritual, but because he was skillful and knowledgeable. Pharaoh recognized Joseph to be a man who had divine enablement, but he could have cared less who his “god” was. He was only concerned with finding a man who could do the job which needed to be done. Many Christians think that God is obligated to bless or that His people are bound to patronize people simply because they are Christians. During our recent elections it was sometimes implied that we should vote for a person solely on the basis of a profession of faith. When I go to a surgeon, I will go to the one who is the best, regardless of whether he (or she) is a pagan, an atheist, or a devout Christian. God is not restricted to working only through saints, you know. Many of us who are Christians are not very good at what we do, either because we are lazy, or we think that God is obliged to bless us only because we give testimony to our faith. Joseph’s testimony would have had little impact if he had proven to be wrong or had failed miserably to administrate the collection of grain. Let us enhance our testimony by doing well what we do. As the writer of the proverb puts it:
Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men (Proverbs 22:29).
While I believe that God elevated Joseph because he trusted in God and obeyed, I am just as confident that Pharaoh elevated him because he was diligent and skillful in what he did. Piety without proficiency is folly. We praise God in our work as well as in our words. One without the other is useless.
Joseph’s life is a commentary on the principle that: “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16:10).
Joseph did nothing different in Pharaoh’s palace than he did in Potiphar’s penthouse or in his prison. In every instance Joseph exercised his God-given ability to administrate. While the features of each job may have differed, the functions were the same. Joseph, I am certain, did well in the palace because he had done his work diligently and faithfully wherever he had been previously.
How often we are like the unfaithful steward who had only one talent and who hid it because he thought it was too insignificant to bother with. How much more others had to offer, he rationalized. But his master called him wicked and lazy (Matthew 25:26). Only those who are faithful with present opportunities and duties have any basis for expectation of greater responsibilities and privileges. Our primary duty is not to dream of what the future may hold, but to do what the present provides us. He is a fool whose “eyes are on the ends of the earth” (Proverbs 17:24), always waiting for his ship to come in, for that one lucky break, but doing nothing in the present.
The biblical principle which we must practice is rather this: “Commit your works to the Lord, And your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3).
It is not wrong to have biblical goals, but it is foolish to devote our energies to future and glorious dreams when present duties are being neglected. It is not wrong to have “high hopes” as the song says it, but it is foolish to keep “butting the dam” when our head is only getting bloodier and bloodier. God has given us a work to do now; let us be faithful in doing that. And let us remember that the things which God has in store for us are even greater than our minds can conceive (I Corinthians 2:9). Our highest dreams may fall far short of that which God has in store for those who do the little things of the present well and leave the future to Him.
Finally, a word about adversity. I think we can all see how God used adversity to prepare Joseph for the promotion and power he receives in chapter 41. But have you noticed that it was national disaster which provided the occasion for this promotion? Pharaoh would never have promoted Joseph unless he knew that there were trying days ahead and difficulties which were beyond him and his wisest advisors. That is when the Josephs are needed, in adversity.
Some of us, as Christians, would do well in the matter of prophecy. We are great prophets of doom. We love to stand up and proclaim to the world that the world is going to Hell on a bobsled. And we stop just at this point, with only the bad news. Joseph did not stop here; he had a message of hope, a message which provided a solution for the problems of that day.
The ultimate solution to the problems of mankind is a spiritual one. The crises of our lives are, at bottom, a result of sin. And the solution to the problem of sin is one that only God, through the death of His Son on the cross of Calvary, has the answer to. Let us be faithful to offer men hope and not just despair. It is in man’s darkest hours that the message of the gospel is most desperately needed and when godly men and women are turned to.
But let us not stop with this, as fundamental and primary as it is. We live in days of tremendous difficulty. It takes little wisdom or ability to confirm the fact that things are bad, but it takes the wisdom which only God gives to offer solutions to the practical problems of hunger and injustice, of energy and ecology. Let us, like Joseph, speak to these issues too, with wisdom and skill, and by this add credibility to the faith which we proclaim.
56 It is not possible to determine, with any degree of certainty, whether this two years begins with the imprisonment of Joseph or with the release of the cupbearer. The value of such a fact would only be to enable us to determine the chronology of Joseph’s life more precisely.
57 “The essentially Egyptian character of this section, and indeed of the entire narrative of Joseph, is worthy of constant notice, for it provides us with one of the watermarks of the Pentateuch enabling us to perceive its historical character and its truthfulness to life. It is not too much to say that at no period after the time of Moses could anything so true to Egyptian life have been written out of Egypt by a member of the community of Israel.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1946), p. 389.
58 “Magicians is another Egyptian-based word, hartummim: it appears to be part of a composite title for those who were expert in ritual books of priest-craft and magic. They appear in Exodus 7:11 where spells were needed; here they would be consulting the considerable literature on dreams . . .” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), pp. 194-195.
59 “The bath and the shave are designed to make Joseph ritually and socially acceptable to Pharaoh. (None of the Egyptians wore beards. Beards shown on the monuments are ceremonial and even Queen Hatshepsut wore an imitation one, as is to be seen on the representations left to her after Thutmosis III had her images defaced or removed.) Change of clothing was necessary to suit Joseph’s status as a wise counselor.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 288.
60 I confess, I may be getting carried away with Jacob’s traits; however, he surely was a schemer and a “wheeler-dealer.” In chapter 43 he will rebuke his sons for telling the truth to Joseph (verse 6). At least this is the way I would have handled the situation with Pharaoh.
61 “The practice of giving foreigners on Egyptian name is very well attested, but no agreement exists on the meaning of Zaphenath-paneah. Egyptian-based interpretations have been offered as diverse as ‘God has spoken and he lives’ (G. Steindortf), ‘He who knows things’ (J. Vergote), and ‘(Joseph), who is called Ip’ ankh’ (K. A. Kitchen).” Kidner, Genesis, p. 197.