Genesis 41 – Pharaoh’s Dreams
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast August 6, 2006; Craig Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. I hope it was a good week for you. It was a busy one for me, in part because we discovered that our house is in need of a new roof. They are supposed to start the work tomorrow. I’ll let you know next week how it went. This has certainly lain heavily on our minds, but when you see film of buildings destroyed in Lebanon and forests burning in Israel, it is hard to be too worried about a leaky roof in a peaceful neighborhood. I have an official statement from the Moravian Church about the war to read to you.
“The Provincial Elders’ Conferences of the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church in North America, meeting jointly on July 28 and 29, 2006, call upon the congregations of our two provinces to observe an immediate, urgent and special season of prayer during the month of August, 2006 for peace in the Middle East. Pray for a time of calm and the cessation of the escalating violence. Pray for all those who are suffering. Pray for the local, national and international leaders who make decisions on the implementation of war to show restraint and a desire to work for justice. Pray for an end to hostilities that will both save lives and lead to a lasting and secure peace for the area. Pray for the leading of our Chief Elder, even the Prince of Peace, to make us instruments of His peace in all we do and say in this time of great concern and loss of human life.” I hope that you will set aside a few moments to lift these concerns to God.
Pharaoh: Today we are looking at Genesis 41, which concerns Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretation. Anyone in a position of leadership wants to have some idea of what is likely to happen in the near future. It is much easier to play cards if you know what the next cards are going to be. In our modern world, governments and businesses employ pollsters, researchers, economists, and spies who try to read the signs of the times and make predictions for the future. What will happen if we do nothing about North Korea? What will happen if we cut taxes and increase spending? What will happen if we change the formula of Coca Cola or if we invest in Vioxx? Good leaders want to make wise decisions that improve the future for the people they lead and they use all of the information at their disposal to make decisions that have the best chance of success. Wise leaders go to bed each night laden with their minds full of information, ideas, and decisions to be made. Good leaders have dreams and nightmares.
Such was the case with Pharaoh in Genesis 41. He had dreams that have become part of our cultural literacy. First he dreamed that seven fat cows came out of the Nile. Today it is insulting to call someone a fat cow, but in an agricultural world a fat cow is a very good thing, but Pharaoh’s dream turned into a nightmare. Seven thin cows appeared and ate the fat cows. In his second dream, he dreamed of stalks of grain. Seven plump and healthy stalks were swallowed up by seven withered stalks of grain.
You may have had worse nightmares in your life, but these were very bad dreams for Pharaoh. The greatest fear for people before modern times was famine. Ancient people lived in the shadow of hunger. Egypt was a powerful nation because the annual flooding of the Nile brought fruitfulness to the fields beside the Nile. Pharaoh was powerful because his people were well-fed. The priests of Egypt predicted the time of the flooding of the Nile and watched for signs of change in the river of life. It is no wonder that the king of Egypt would be disturbed by a dream involving starving cows and withered grain.
Joseph the Interpreter: The interpretation is easy for us because we already know the answer. It was harder for Pharaoh and his advisors to understand the significance of the dreams. When none of the official interpreters and soothsayers could give an interpretation that seemed right to Pharaoh, his cupbearer told him about a Hebrew slave he had met in prison. He told the king that Joseph no only had the gift of interpretation, but he was also honest in all things. Joseph would be truthful and brave enough to tell Pharaoh bad news as well as good news. That’s what a leader needs: intelligence, wisdom, and honesty in his advisors.
The cupbearer identified Joseph as a Hebrew. It is a curious thing in the Old Testament that the word Hebrew was used mainly by non-Israelites to describe the Israelites. The cupbearer was letting Pharaoh know that Joseph was a foreigner, but Pharaoh did not let racial or national prejudice stand in the way of good leadership. This is an important lesson for Americans today: truth is not the property of a single nation. National or personal pride should not keep us from learning from others. Pharaoh was wise enough to listen to a foreigner, someone outside of his inner circle of advisors.
Pharaoh was so concerned about these dreams that he was willing to listen to a prisoner. In our day, the stigma of incarceration is never removed, and it is hard for us to imagine the leader of a great nation asking a prisoner for advice. Of course, both the cupbearer and Pharaoh knew that sometimes innocent people are falsely imprisoned. The story of Joseph as recounted in the Quran shows Pharaoh investigating Joseph’s case and determining that he was indeed innocent before he released him from prison. Potiphar’s wife, according to the Quran, confirmed that Joseph was so truthful and faithful that he had resisted her.
Pharaoh told Joseph that he had consulted his magicians, but they could not make sense of it for him. This prefigures the contest between Moses and the Egyptian magicians in Exodus. Who is stronger, the God of the Israelites or the gods of the Egyptians? Joseph assured Pharaoh that the true interpreter of dreams is God, and that God will give a favorable answer. Favorable here means an answer that will make sense of the dream so that Pharaoh can quit brooding about it. It does not mean that the interpretation itself will be pleasant.
Interpretation: Pharaoh retold the dreams, adding all sorts of graphic detail. Joseph understands what the dreams mean, and Pharaoh immediately recognizes the truth of Joseph’s interpretation. Seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Seven in the Bible is often a symbolic number of completion or perfection. In other words, a time of perfect crops and prosperity will be followed by complete and total crop failure.
Joseph told Pharaoh that God had already decided this and nothing could change it. In other words, there was no point in calling for days of prayer or sitting in sackcloth repenting of sins. This was not the time for priests and magicians to intercede with the gods to change the future. The cycle was already in motion and could not be stopped by humans.
Joseph’s statement raises interesting theological issues about divine providence, but I think we’ll save those for a later lesson. It might make more sense in our time to understand this in terms of the laws of nature. Joseph told Pharaoh the simple truth that nature is not ultimately controlled by human beings. Mighty Pharaoh may have been worshiped like a god on earth, but he could not prevent the coming famine. There is a legend of a sheik who decided to fight a sandstorm with his mighty army. The army was swallowed by the desert.
This is a harsh lesson that we are still learning today. Humans can affect the weather, but we cannot control it. The signs of the times are around us, and there are many Josephs trying to tell the Pharaohs of our time that the earth is growing warmer and the climate is changing for the worse. The years of plenty are coming to an end, and the years of famine are on their way. The sun will scorch our crops and melt the polar caps. It may already be too late, but we can take inspiration from Joseph and do what we can while there is time.
Preparations: Joseph did more than interpret Pharaoh’s dream; he offered sound advice on what to do. It is remarkable how often people know what the future will bring, but still do not prepare for it. Most investors knew that the internet stocks were going to collapse in the 1990s, but they bought them anyway. That’s what Alan Greenspan called irrational exuberance. Pharaoh could have responded to Joseph’s dream with irrational exuberance, thinking of ways to spend the money he could make off of the surplus crops for the next seven years. But Pharaoh was wise enough to listen to a Hebrew slave. Joseph advised him to prepare for the years of famine by saving the surplus crop.
It is hard to convince people that they should not enjoy the fruits of their labor to the fullest. It is hard to make them see that a period of economic prosperity will not last; that borrowed money must be repaid. Joseph knew that most individuals would not prepare for the future famine on their own. The government would have to assist in order to make sure that things went well. A piece-meal, voluntary program would not be sufficient; therefore Joseph encouraged Pharaoh to use his power and authority to command that the surplus be preserved for the days of drought and hunger.
Over the years, I’ve heard people claim that the Bible supports the free enterprise system and lack of government involvement in the economic. Such people ignore the story of Joseph, which demonstrates the benefits of massive government intervention in the economy. If you have ever felt a need for biblical support for the social security system or even the Federal Reserve, you can find it here in chapter 41 of Genesis. My tongue is only partly in my cheek in saying this. The Joseph story cautions us against being dogmatic about government and economics. What is most important is good and wise management of resources, not the success or failure of an economic dogma. God wants people to have food, shelter, and a meaningful existence.
Joseph the Prime Minister Pharaoh saw the wisdom in Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams and his advice on how to deal with the crisis before it became a crisis. He appointed this Hebrew slave to the highest office in the land and gave him the symbols of his authority: a signet ring, new clothes, and a chain of office. Joseph rode in a chariot throughout the kingdom so the people could see that this new official had the authority to tax them. All of Egypt, except for Pharaoh, knelt before Joseph. Wouldn’t it be nice if we responded this way to people with intelligence and wisdom in America? Instead we call them geeks or wonks, and we appoint cronies to high office. We marginalize those who warn us of disaster and ridicule their research. Had Egypt responded to Joseph the way we are responding to our scientists and economists, the nation would have starved.
The Egyptian Joseph: Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name and a wife as well. She was the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On in the temple of Heliopolis, the city of the Sun God Ra. It is now a suburb of Cairo. Linguists say that Potiphera is actually the same name as Joseph’s owner in chapter 39, and it is possible that in the original story, Joseph married the daughter of his master. So, Joseph was rewarded for not having committed adultery with Potiphar’s wife by receiving the beautiful Ashena as his wife. And he became the vizier of Egypt. He continued to be a steward, just as he always had. Joseph did not seek his own glory, but labored for the good of the nation. Though he had an Egyptian name, he remained a servant of God and his fellow humans.
Modern researchers have been interested in the story of Joseph becoming vizier of Egypt and have sought for evidence of this in other sources. Unfortunately, Egyptian records do not mention any Hebrews who rose to prominence in the kingdom. They do mention people known as the Apiru who did so. There is no scholarly consensus on who the Apiru were, but they probably had ties to the Hebrews. Historians have also wondered if the Joseph story could have taken place during the time that the Hyksos ruled Egypt (around 1800 BC). They were foreigners who controlled the government, and it is plausible that someone like Joseph could have risen to prominence during that era, but there is no evidence to support this. When archaeologists discovered that one of the Pharaohs, Akhenaton, had tried to make Egypt monotheistic, there was hope that this might have been connected to Joseph. It was tempting to think that Akhenaton was had been influenced by Joseph and Asenath, but that theory has long been rejected.
Joseph’s Wife: All we have about Joseph is this story in Genesis and later legends based on it. It is a rich story, but the fact that Joseph’s wife was the daughter of a pagan priest really bothered later Jewish interpreters. There is a story about Joseph and Asenath, which is written in Syriac. According to that story, the pagan Asenath fell in love with Joseph, but he piously rejected her as an idol worshiper. With the help of angels, she was able to repent and become a worshiper of the LORD. Once she became a good Jewish girl, Joseph married her. That story became very popular in Islam as well as Judaism, but it goes far beyond the biblical text.
It is very surprising, and perhaps illuminating, that the Bible does not include any mention of Asenath’s conversion away from the worship of Ra. Genesis is not embarrassed by the fact that the patriarch Joseph’s Egyptian wife was the daughter of a pagan or that she was the matriarch of two of the most important tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh. Several times in Genesis, we have found a surprisingly open and positive attitude toward non-Israelites. There is no condemnation of the Egyptians.
Final Reflections What lessons can we take from this story about Joseph’s rise to power and authority? Certainly there is the obvious message that faithfulness is rewarded in the long run. Joseph was a slave, but he remained faithful to the LORD and served with integrity. Although the immediate result of his faithfulness was imprisonment, he was finally rewarded with a wife, status, and greater service. We should think of Jesus’ message that the servant who is faithful in small things will be trusted with great things.
The story of Joseph also teaches us that God gives us abilities that he expects us to use wisely. Joseph chose to use his gifts to serve others, and he was able to save Egypt. On a theological level, we should note that there are no miracles in the Joseph story. God is at work in this story behind the scenes. History is moving in the direction that God wants, but humans are the actors in the drama. We should not be so bigoted and arrogant that we think that God is not working through the gifts and abilities of others.
I think that one of the most important messages in the Joseph story for us today is that God used Joseph to save the Egyptians from famine even though they were pagan. God did not demand that the Egyptians convert to Judaism before he helped them, a fact that churches should remember in their own mission work. Many churches refuse to help those who are suffering unless they are willing to convert to Christianity or Islam.
I think it is also important to recognize that Joseph the Hebrew did all that he could to save the people who had enslaved and imprisoned him. We live in a time when people believe that the best way to be secure is to kill their enemies and intimidate their neighbors. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike can learn from the Scriptures that Joseph the Hebrew saved Egypt with God’s help. As we shall see next week, in saving the Egyptians, Joseph unwittingly became the savior of his own people.