Genesis 41

Good things finally come to Joseph.  After thirteen years of faithfully serving God without ever seeming to catch a break, Joseph sees God intervene in a dramatic way and he exchanges his prison clothes for royal attire.  In one shocking day Joseph moves from prison to becoming possibly the second most powerful man on earth.  God has clearly been with Joseph ever since he left Canaan, but the rewards for his faithful service have been limited to increased responsibility in less-than-desirable circumstances.  Now, however, God blesses him in an almost unimaginable way and in the process fulfills the dreams He sent to Joseph years ago.  God’s leading in Joseph’s life has been mysterious and frustrating but in this story the reasons for the years of suffering become clear.  Joseph becomes an early example in the Bible of seeing God’s work better through the rearview mirror than through the windshield (or perhaps out the back of the chariot rather than over the head of the horse).

After Joseph interprets the cupbearer’s dream and the cupbearer re-assumes his office, Joseph remains in prison.  The hope of having the cupbearer put in a good word with Pharaoh and facilitate his release dies over time.  It becomes very apparent that the cupbearer forgets about Joseph as his own life is restored.

However, after two full years, God intervenes.  Pharaoh has a dream that no one in his court can interpret.  The dream actually is in two parts and in both parts there are groups of seven plump and healthy animals and plants that are swallowed up by seven thin and gaunt animals and plants.  The dream disturbs Pharaoh greatly – just as the dreams of the cupbearer and baker disturbed them – but no wise man or magician in his court can tell him the meaning.

At this point the cupbearer’s memory finally kicks in.  He tells Pharaoh about his own experience with dreams in prison.  Interestingly, he doesn’t go into any details (probably best not to rehash why he was in prison in the first place), but tells Pharaoh that he and the baker had dreams no one could understand except for a certain young Hebrew who interpreted them.  The interpretations came true exactly as the young man said.

It is interesting to consider why the cupbearer hasn’t said anything about Joseph before now.  Perhaps he did simply forget about him once his own life was restored.  The fact that he’s comfortable bringing him up now seems to support that explanation.  It could also be, though, that he didn’t want to rock the boat too much when he came back to court and so didn’t push things with Pharaoh.  Regardless of why he stayed quiet, the effect of his mentioning Joseph (as we’re about to see), means that Joseph’s request of him wasn’t in vain.  It’s obvious the cupbearer has influence with Pharaoh; if he’d remembered before now perhaps Joseph would’ve been set free.  With that in mind, it’s apparent that the cupbearer’s sudden memory – or courage – is all part of God’s timing.

Pharaoh immediately sends for Joseph.  That he doesn’t hesitate at all to bring up a foreign prisoner to see if he can interpret the dreams shows Pharaoh’s desperation.  He knows there’s a message in the dream and he’s willing to try any method to unlock it.

The men from Pharaoh come to Joseph in prison and immediately get him cleaned up and shaved.  They change his clothes and likely cut his hair (it’s possible they shave his head also).  They urgently get him into presentable condition for Pharaoh and hustle him off to the king.

Think about this from Joseph’s perspective.  He starts his day in prison just like all the days in all the years before.  Nothing different about today.  He wakes up in prison just as he has for several years and does the things he’s been doing forever.  He’s unjustly imprisoned in a foreign land where he doesn’t belong and there’s no sign that anything will ever change or that he’ll ever be set free.  Then out of the blue men from Pharaoh burst into prison and get him cleaned, dressed, shaved and in front of Pharaoh.  All without warning.

There is no way Joseph could’ve prepared for this.  There’s no way he could have anticipated anything like this happening.  But he’s about to handle his audience with Pharaoh perfectly.  And the key is this; while he couldn’t have specifically prepared for an opportunity like this, he’s faithfully served God for all thirteen years he’s been in Egypt.  While so many things went as wrong as they possibly could, he never stopped serving and believing.  And because of that he’s about to shine in front of Pharaoh.  His preparation for the biggest day of his life has been to walk with God.  And now that he walks from prison to see Pharaoh, he doesn’t walk alone.

When Joseph comes before Pharaoh, Pharaoh tells him he’s been summoned because he knows how to interpret dreams.  Pharaoh tells Joseph he’s had a dream no one can understand so his hope is that Joseph can explain it.  Joseph responds to Pharaoh the same way he responded to the cupbearer and the baker two years before – “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (by favorable he doesn’t mean the interpretation will be positive and rosy; he means it will be accurate – Pharaoh will get the understanding he craves).

Joseph goes out of his way to make it clear that he’s not the one who will interpret the dream.  God gave the dream so God will interpret it.  It is not for Joseph to claim the power – it’s all of God.  By saying this Joseph not only gives the glory to God, he also puts the responsibility on God too.  This isn’t about Joseph so the pressure isn’t on Joseph.  “But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak.  For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (Matt 10:19-20).

Pharaoh recounts the dream to Joseph.  He adds a few details to the first telling.  The ugly and gaunt cows are now “…poor and very ugly and gaunt such as I had never seen for ugliness in all the land of Egypt.”  He also mentions that after the lean cows ate the fat cows they didn’t change at all – it could not be detected that they had devoured them.  He adds that the seven bad ears of corn were withered along with being thin and scorched by the east wind.  Pharaoh does what most of us do – he embellishes the story with each telling.  And he naturally embellishes the corn and cattle that do the consuming.  They are scarier in the second telling.

Just as he did when he heard the dreams of the baker and cupbearer, Joseph doesn’t hesitate at all to give an interpretation.  He doesn’t pray or go away to think.  God gives him the meaning instantly and he answers Pharaoh as soon as Pharaoh is done talking.

He tells the Pharaoh the dreams are one and the same.  Egypt is about to experience seven years of incredible abundance followed by seven years of incredible famine.  The famine will be so great that people will forget about the seven abundant years.  The fact that the dream is repeated is God’s way of making Pharaoh know it’s definitely going to happen and it’s going to happen soon.  {Interesting aside: Joseph’s dreams about the sheaves of grain bowing down to his sheaf and the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him (37:5-11) were also repeated; but they occurred 13 years ago and are only now being fulfilled.  Apparently dreams that repeat don’t always mean their fulfillment is imminent.}

After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream he continues to talk.  In doing so he goes way beyond what Pharaoh requested.  Pharaoh simply wanted the meaning to his dream.  But Joseph – amazingly – feels it’s OK to advise Pharaoh as to what he should do in light of that meaning.  Joseph tells Pharaoh what to do as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.  He’s a prisoner – accused of sexually assaulting the wife of the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard – and a foreigner who’s never been in front of Pharaoh in his life.  But that doesn’t stop him from instructing Pharaoh as if he’s been the king’s confidant for years.

He tells Pharaoh that he should appoint a man discerning and wise who will be over all the land.  Let that man appoint overseers who will help him tax the land for a fifth of all the produce during the seven years of plenty.  Then they must store up that produce in all the cities of Egypt so that when the famine comes there will be grain enough for all.  Use the seven years of abundance to store up food for the seven years of famine.

Just as God gave Joseph the interpretation of the dream, so He clearly gives Joseph the advice to Pharaoh – and the courage to say it.  God speaks through Joseph in just the right way and at just the right time.  It’s interesting to consider Joseph’s words here in light of what he’s been doing for the last thirteen years.  Remember what he was to Potiphar and what he’s been to the chief jailer?  Their main lieutenant.  The man they depended on for everything.  Joseph ran all aspects of Potiphar’s house and now runs the prison.  In that role he likely had to advise both men continually.  And so he’s accustomed to giving wise counsel through God’s leading and wisdom.  So his time in prison and as a slave have prepared him for this opportunity – he advises Pharaoh because that’s what God’s enabled him to do for the last thirteen years.

Here’s where the story takes a shocking turn (if you were reading this for the first time).  Pharaoh likes what Joseph says.  Interestingly, he doesn’t comment at all on Joseph’s interpretation of the dream or ask any questions.  Instead, he says to all of his servants and presumably others in the room, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?”  He instantly recognizes the same thing Potiphar and the chief jailer did – God is with Joseph.  He goes on to tell Joseph that HE is the man Pharaoh will appoint as the one responsible for preparing the country for the seven years of famine.  He will instantly become the number two man in all the land.  Only Pharaoh himself will outrank him.

Pharaoh takes off his signet ring – his sign of authority – and gives it to Joseph.  He then has Joseph clothed in fine linen and puts a gold necklace around his neck.  Then he has Joseph ride in a royal chariot and sends a runner ahead of him crying out, “Bow the knee!”  In case Joseph still doesn’t understand, Pharaoh says to him, “Though I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”  To cap off the transformation, Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name and gives him the daughter of a priest as his wife (likely a very prestigious union).

Pharaoh’s reaction is so stunning and so extraordinary that it’s easy to see God’s hand in it.  Pharaoh just gave his kingdom to a young man he knew nothing about just a few hours ago.  A man he just brought up out of prison.  A man who’s only 30 years old and a foreigner.  A man Pharaoh still knows nothing about other than that he correctly interpreted the cupbearer’s dream and just gave a very plausible explanation to his dream.  And then gave some good advice.  Yet He essentially says, “Here you go – you’re now in charge of the whole land and in charge of making sure all of Egypt doesn’t perish in the famine you predicted.”  The only way this happens is if God stirs Pharaoh’s heart and mind.  The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes (Prov 21:1).

[One thought fun to consider at this point in the story – who in all of Egypt might be a little nervous after hearing the news that Joseph is now second only to Pharaoh?  Might Mrs. Potiphar be less than excited about this development?  Probably not a good day in the Potiphar household.]

Joseph leaves Pharaoh’s presence and immediately begins his responsibilities.  The next seven years are exactly as he predicted.  The abundance is overwhelming.  They levy the 20% tax on all the land’s produce and the amount of grain they store up is more than they can count.  The abundance of the land is beyond measure.

During these seven years of abundance, Joseph’s wife bears two sons.  Joseph names his firstborn Manasseh, which means “making to forget.”  He says, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”  The name of his oldest son signifies that God has blessed him to the point that the suffering of the prior 13 years – including his brothers’ betrayal – is forgotten.  Joseph knows that God put him where he had to be in order to elevate him to where he is now.  If the brothers didn’t sell him into slavery; if Potiphar didn’t buy him; if Potiphar’s wife didn’t falsely accuse him; if the cupbearer didn’t forget him; then he isn’t now the second-in-command in all of Egypt and the land wouldn’t be prepared for the famine.  God’s blessings have made him understand and forget his suffering.  It was all worth it.

His second son he names Ephraim, which means “fruitfulness.”  He names him this to signify that God has made him fruitful in the land of my affliction.

When the famine comes the people quickly run out of food.  They come to Pharaoh to complain and he sends them to Joseph, showing his complete confidence in him.  “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, you shall do.”  Joseph opens the storehouses and sells grain not only to the Egyptians, but to all the earth (probably the known world around Egypt).  His plan works perfectly.  No one can grow food because of the famine, but the grain stored up is enough to feed not only Egypt but all the people around the country.  {Interesting that the people had to pay a 20% tax on their produce in the good times, but now have to buy it back during the hard times – just shows that The Man has been holding everyone down for millennia.}

Two Lessons from Genesis 41

  • Though His ways are often incredibly hard to understand and it sometimes seems like He’s deserted us, God is always working in our lives for our ultimate best (‘best’ meaning usefulness in the kingdom and conformance to the Son). The suffering that Joseph went through was inexplicable when he went through it, but it all makes sense now.  We can’t know or expect to understand all that God does – but we can know that’s He’s in charge and that He’s working.  He never leaves us alone and He never leaves our lives on autopilot.  He’s always with us and He’s always superintending the circumstances and events of our lives.  That they make no sense to us is not a sign that God’s out of control or absent or uncaring.
  • It’s OK if we mostly see God working after the fact.  That we see God more clearly through the rear-view mirror than through the windshield is not a bad thing or a sign that we’re spiritually dull.  It’s how Joseph saw Him too.  Sometimes we pray for leading and then step out and hope God’s controlling our steps.  That we don’t always feel or see Him leading us is OK as long as we walk in faith and obedience.  Our responsibility is to trust and obey, not always perceive exactly what He wants us to do or where He wants us to do it.  We obey and walk in faith.  And we sometimes look back and see He led us the whole way.

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