Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 37 – Joseph

Genesis 40: Prisoners and their Dreams

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 30, 2006;  Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope that it has been a good week for you. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. I’m thankful that Christy and Lehoma were able to fill in for me while I was gone. Our family vacationed in Wisconsin. We enjoyed the water slides and other attractions at Wisconsin Dells, and then we relaxed in Door County, which has Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. Green Bay and Door County were first settled by the Moravians, by the way. Do ask my daughters about the goats on the roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish restaurant in Sister Bay. More impressive to me than goats on the roof, was the sunset over Sister Bay. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful.

Recap: Joseph the Slave                        I realize that some of you have been vacationing as well, and so you may have missed some of the lessons this month. We are studying the story of Joseph, who was the favorite son of Jacob. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his status in the family and angered by his arrogance. They seized him and sold him into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph was purchased by a wealthy man named Potiphar. He recognized that Joseph was intelligent, hardworking, and trustworthy, and he gave Joseph authority over all of his affairs. Slavery in the ancient world was different from the slavery that we had in the United States. Slaves were not considered sub-human, and it was not uncommon for slaves to attain higher status than free persons. We need to keep in mind when reading about Joseph that it would have been unimaginable for a slave in North Carolina to have the authority and dignity that Joseph was given under Potiphar.

            The message of the first part of the Joseph story is that a smart and moral person can turn even a tragedy like betrayal and enslavement into something worthwhile. Joseph was trusted because he was trustworthy. We see in the Joseph story, the meaning of stewardship in the Bible. Stewardship is a lifestyle of service and trustworthiness. God has entrusted us with property, abilities, and intelligence so that we will use these gifts wisely for the good of others rather than indulging ourselves. Joseph was the steward of Potiphar’s house, and he managed his master’s affairs well, but as Christy talked about last week, Joseph could manage his master’s wife.

Fortune:                        In the Middle Ages, writers used the image of the wheel of fortune to illustrate what Joseph experienced. Fortune spins the wheel, and the mighty are brought low while the low are lifted. Each time that Joseph rises, his fortune changes and he is brought low. He was stripped of his coat and sold into slavery, but prospered as a servant. He was falsely imprisoned, but prospered there as well. It appears that Joseph is a victim of fate, and we need to acknowledge the truth that we do not have full control over our destinies.

            All of you listening to this radio broadcast have privileges and benefits that you have not earned. All you did was have the wisdom and foresight to be born in America in the 20th century. Think how different your life would have been had you been born in Mongolia or Haiti or if you had been born before modern medicine. Some of you have privileges and blessings because you chose your parents wisely and were born into money and education rather than being born to drug addicts or parents with HIV. We like to take credit for our success in life, but what did we do to earn our status? What did the workers who were laid off when the textile mills closed do to merit their unemployment? The wheel of fortune seems to dictate our lives, and we could read the Joseph story this way. Joseph appears to be a victim of fate. His story cycles between highs and lows. Joseph could have become a blues singer, but when we look at the story closer, we realize that Joseph is not a puppet of fate, like Hamlet claimed to be. The Lord is with him, but Joseph is the actor in this drama. Joseph makes choices. He uses his opportunities and his gifts to make his world a better place. Despite the cycle of fortune, Joseph remains a steward.

Prison:            It was precisely because Joseph was a trustworthy and faithful steward that he was thrown into prison. The Joseph story is sobering and unsentimental. Sometimes, doing the right thing is costly. It would be nice if people were always rewarded for doing the right thing, but it does not work that way in this corrupt world of ours. Sometimes the world is unjust. Sometimes people hate you because you are good and honest and hardworking. If you don’t believe it, just read the papers. Think of the people have been pushed out of government offices for doing their jobs with integrity. Think of times when you were rejected by friends or co-workers because you would not do something immoral or indecent. The Bible acknowledges this. Joseph served his master with devotion and decency, but he was still thrown into prison.

            That is where we find Joseph in this week’s lesson. Joseph’s prison was not as nice as the one that Martha Steward did time in, but it was probably not as bad as some of the prisons in the United States today. He was in the royal prison, but for all he knew Joseph was going to spend the rest of his life in jail. This was a worse form of slavery than he had known under Potiphar, and Joseph could have responded with bitterness and hatred. He could have given up on life, cursed God, and died. But he knew that even in prison, the Lord was with him. He still had gifts and opportunities for service. He was still intelligent, hard-working, and trustworthy, and he chose to use his gifts wisely even while he was in prison. The warden learned that he could trust Joseph, and so Joseph was given authority even within the prison.

            I am reminded of the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The hero, Andy, was falsely imprisoned for life, but he used his skills as an accountant to make himself useful to the guards and the warden. He was eventually able to improve the lives of his fellow inmates. There is a wonderful scene where he and some other inmates have been putting down a new tar roof on a hot day. Andy negotiated with the guards so that the workmen each got a cold drink because a working man desires a tall cold beverage at the end of the day. It makes him feel like a man rather than animal, Andy said. I think of Joseph when I watch that scene. I picture prisoners and guards alike looking at Joseph with gratitude and respect because he was a good steward of his gifts and took care of the people around him. He knew that they were men, not animals.

            The message we should take from this story of Joseph in prison is that integrity is always important. One of the survivors of the Holocaust wrote that he learned that people can take everything from you, even your clothes, your family, and your life, but they cannot take away your integrity and decency. You have to give those things away. Joseph did not give away his integrity or his faith. He remained a steward of what God had given him. I’ll be reading from chapter 40 of Genesis.

Purpose of the Dream stories:            This chapter focuses on dreams, and as I said in a previous lesson, the Joseph saga is unusual in that dreams play such a major role. At no time does God appear to Joseph, nor is he a prophet in the usual sense of the word. Instead we have six major dreams. Joseph has two that his family interprets for him. In prison, he interprets two dreams for fellow prisoners, and then in next week’s lesson, he interprets two dreams of Pharaoh’s. It is easy to get so distracted by questions about whether dreams predict the future today that we miss much of the significance of the Joseph story.

            The dreams here are primarily a way to teach important lessons about how we can live our lives with faithfulness, compassion, and hope even in the darkest times. One reason the story-teller included this story of Joseph interpreting the dreams in prison is to set up the much more important story of when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. Several things are established in this chapter. First of all is that Joseph did have the gift of accurate interpretation of dreams. Second is that God worked with Joseph and through Joseph for a greater purpose. Third is that Joseph was a compassionate steward who chose to work for the common good and betterment of others. Fourth is that Joseph seized opportunities when they arose and was not merely a victim of fate. And finally, Joseph remained honest and trustworthy even when giving unpleasant news. The reason Pharaoh could trust Joseph was because Joseph was correct about the good news and the bad news. He was not merely trying to please people; he was devoted to the truth. The Joseph saga was used by the sages of Israel to teach people how to be good government servants. I think it continues to offer us a much needed model of public service for our time.

Cupbearer and Baker:            Let’s look closer at today’s reading. Two of the king’s most important servants were in jail with Joseph. The cupbearer and the baker were not mere slaves; they were royal officials. We should think of them more as the President’s chief of staff and head of the Secret Service than as his cook and waiter. They were among the few people in Egypt who could approach the king and speak with him confidentially. One of their most important duties was to make sure that Pharaoh was not poisoned by his enemies. Even though he was a son of one of the gods and the most feared man in the world, it was not unheard of for one of the Pharaohs to be murdered by disgruntled office seekers or political rivals.

            We aren’t told what happened, but for some reason these two men were thrown into the royal prison. Most likely, there was evidence that someone had indeed tried to kill the king and suspicion fell on these two servants. They were persons of authority and respect, and so they were given special treatment in prison. The captain of the guard wisely placed them in the care of the trustworthy Joseph. The text indicates that they were in prison for a long time. We can presume that during that time Pharaoh was investigating the allegations against them. No doubt the prisoners had been receiving word about the investigation from their friends in the court and in the prison. Like all prisoners they were concerned about their fate. Each day they wondered if the truth would come out. One of them looked forward to vindication; the other feared that evidence would convict him. But both men had come to trust Joseph over time because he was trustworthy.

Compassionate Steward            Joseph noticed that these men who were in his care were depressed, and he chose to help them. In teaching this lesson through the years, I have found that people often overlook the significance of Joseph’s simple question. “Why are you so sad?” On the surface, it is a ridiculous question. Why would someone who has served in one of the highest offices in the land, who had wealth, prestige, and servants, be sad in prison? Can you imagine someone like former Sheriff Hege asking such a question of the prisoners in charge? It could be a cruel question, but Joseph wasn’t mocking these men.

            They were in his care, and it was his job to make their imprisonment as humane as possible. He cared about them and noticed they were distressed. More important, he chose to intervene. He sought to help them without even knowing what the problem was. We can find many instances in the Old Testament when the fate of the world was ruled by the compassion of a slave like Joseph. Even though he was in prison, he chose to care about others. In return, they trusted Joseph. They shared their dreams, their fears, and their hopes with this man. They looked to him to interpret their disturbing dreams.

Interpreting Dreams:            Joseph told the men that the interpretation of dreams belongs to God, not humans. It appears that the wisdom that Joseph gained in slavery was humility and the knowledge that people cannot force the future to match their goals. The interpretation of dreams belongs to God because only God truly knows the future. This is a very profound statement, but it is a bit confusing here since Joseph immediately gave an interpretation of the dreams. He didn’t ask God about them. Unlike the Egyptian magicians and priests, he did not go into any elaborate rituals to contact God with smoke and incense. He didn’t go into a mystic trance like the oracle of Delphi. He didn’t even cut open a bird to read the entrails like the Romans did. In the story, Joseph simply listened to the men and thought about what they said. Presumably, he already knew that God had given him the gift of interpretation, but we haven’t seen that in the story so far. He was the dreamer, not the interpreter earlier in the story. So, this conversation between Joseph and the prisoners is a bit odd.

            I do not think it is impious to assume that Joseph had access to information about his prisoners and their fate that they did not have. Dreams make more sense when we know what is happening in the waking world. It is probably best to assume that Joseph’s statement that interpretation belongs to God is consistent with the rest of the story we are studying. God plays a major role in the Joseph saga but always behind the scenes. We are told that God was with Joseph even when he was a victim of injustice, and we will see that at the end of the story, God was working through the twists and turns of human decisions and even crime to bring about a good result for the people of Egypt and Israel. Even with dreams, humans can only give their best guess at what will happen in the future. Only God knows for sure what our dreams mean. What we see in this story is that Joseph used his God-given talents to give his best answer to the riddle of the prisoners’ dreams.

Good News and Bad News            As you heard in the reading, the cupbearer dreamed that his grapes ripened and he turned them into wine and brought them to his master. In other words, he dreamed that he was serving Pharaoh as he had in the past, and Joseph reassured him that this will be true. In three days, his head will be lifted up and will been found innocent of the charges. Pharaoh will trust him again. This is a message that we like to give to someone who is sad. Chin up! Things are going to turn out okay for you. If this was the only dream that Joseph interpreted, we could dismiss it as platitudes given to a depressed man or to curry favor. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him when he was freed.

            But there was another dream.  The baker hoped that Joseph would give him a similar interpretation about his dream in which he offered his baked goods to Pharaoh. But he dreamed that birds came and ate the bread he carried. Joseph told the baker that Pharaoh would raise his head up, but he will do so with a rope. The birds will feast on the man’s flesh. This is a grim interpretation, but it fit the facts. It is likely that if one man was exonerated, the other would be convicted. Joseph knew the situation. More important, the baker knew it as well. Someone had committed a crime, and someone would pay the penalty. Guilt can play a powerful role in dreams, and we can assume that the baker knew that he was guilty.

Telling the Truth:            Joseph could have offered the baker a few days of peace and hope by lying to him. Believe me, this is a strong temptation in counseling. Let me make you feel better by telling you what you want to hear rather than the truth. This is a strong temptation at work, too. Only tell the boss encouraging news, never bad news. Hide the newspapers from the president and give him only the facts that agree with him. Joseph could have been that kind of person; a yes-man or a toady. But he wasn’t. He had integrity even in prison. He told the baker the harsh truth that he would soon be hanged for his crimes. And he was.  As for Joseph, he was forgotten and left behind in prison for two long years. Next week, we’ll discuss Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s solutions.

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