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Genesis 41 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
Genesis 41 Two years after the release of Pharaoh's cupbearer, Pharaoh has his two dreams which mark the turning point in Joseph's life. Up to this time Joseph had sunk to the deepest depth. Only in retrospect will Joseph have been able to see the marvel of God's guidance in his life. God had guided him by dreams. The epitaph "master dreamer" which his brothers had affixed to his person in a derogatory way, turned out to be God's batch of honor for him. As a young man, at the age of seventeen, he had two dreams; he explained two dreams to Pharaoh's imprisoned servants and finally he gave Pharaoh the meaning of his two dream. In his own dreams God showed him the plan for his life, the second set of dreams established his reputation and the third serious brought the fulfillment of God's plan for him.
Before we go into an investigation of the events we should try to take a peek behind the scene. The reason God led Joseph to Egypt was to save the nation of Israel from destruction. Joseph himself wraps it all up in his words to his brothers, who are afraid that Joseph might take revenge on them after the death of his father. He says in Ch. 50:20 "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." The question remains why the famine was necessary. The omniscient God revealed to Abraham that Israel would spend centuries in Egypt. In Gen 15:13-16 we read: "Then the LORD said to him, 'Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.'"
Joseph explains to Pharaoh that the coming famine is "an act of God." In Ch. 41:32 he says: "The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon." Does this mean that God is responsible for the seven-year drought that almost killed the whole Middle East? There must be some cosmic struggle between evil and good behind this all, of which we are kept in the dark. As in the struggle by Satan for the soul of Job, so the enemy must have appeared before God with the purpose to kill Jacob's family and to take millions of others with him. God must allowed him to carry out his scheme, but He prevented the ultimate disaster by the sending ahead of Joseph to Egypt. "God intended it for good." He is not the murderer of men.
We have to realize that there was more in Pharaoh's dreams than meets our Western eyes. The river Nile was the lifeline of the country of Egypt. Divine qualities were ascribed to it.
The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible says about the Nile: "The annual overflow is the famous feature of the Nile. Its occurrence in a rainless region was mysterious to the ancients (Herod. ii. 19-25). The region of Lake Victoria Nyanza is watered by rains which fall almost daily; the steady water supply gives the Nile it constant volume. The Blue Nile rises in the lofty highlands of Ethiopia and is a considerable mountain torrent. In the dry season this stream dwindles almost to nothing; in the rainy season it is a turbid mountain torrent, which rushes impetuously onward, laden with loose soil from the land which it drains. The Atbara is a freshet not unlike the Blue Nile. Egypt is flanked on each side by extensive barren deserts. If it were not for the annual overflow of the Nile, Egypt would be a part of this desert. It is the variation of the water supply from the Blue Nile and the Atbara which causes the overflow of the Nile. At the beginning of June the river begins slowly to swell; between the 15th and 20th of July the increase becomes very rapid. Toward the end of September the water ceases to rise and remains at the same height for 20 to 30 days. In October it rises again attaining its greatest height. It then decreases, and in January, February, and March the fields gradually dry off. In consequence of this inundation the soil is both softened and fertilized. During a good inundation the Nile reaches a height of 40 feet at the Assuan and of 23 to 27 at Cairo.
Occasionally inundation does not take place. A certain Amanemhet (Ameni) of Dyn. XII under Sesostris I says that he did not collect arrears of the fields due after short payments during unfruitful years. The inundation failed for 7 years in the time of Joseph (Ch. 41:54); and it failed likewise for 7 years in the reign of caliph el-Mustansir, the resulting famine reaching its height AD 1070. The ancient Egyptians kept records of the height of the inundation at different places in various years."
The original text does not mention the name of the river. The KJV translates: "He stood by the river." The Egyptian word "Yaro," or "Yero," meaning "Great River" is used exclusively in Scripture for the Nile, according to The Pulpit Commentary. It was the common name for the Nile. There was a sacred name, being "Hapi."
So we can understand that Pharaoh's dream about the Nile was wrought with more than common significance. The Nile was considered the country's supernatural lifeline and divine features were attributed to it. Pharaoh, having divine blood in his veins, had a special relationship with the river. Consequently the dream meant that a message was communicated between one god and another. How embarrassing it was that one of the gods did not understand what was said!
Seen in this light Joseph's introductory remark in vs. 16: "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires," takes on new significance.
There is difference of opinion among the learned men regarding the symbolic significance of the cows, coming up of the Nile. Adam Clarke thinks they are hippopotamus. Cows do not come out of a river, he says and the Nile is the habitat of the hippo. He may have a point, but not because of the impossibility of cows coming out of the river. Cows can do anything in dreams, even fly over the moon. The Pulpit Commentary says that, according to Plutarch and Clement of Alexandria, the ancient Egyptians regarded the heifer as a symbol of the earth, agriculture, and the nourishment derived therefrom. The problem with the opinions of Plutarch and Clement is that the were uttered about twenty five centuries after the period we study. How reliable their comments are is not clear.
The reason we question the significance of the cows is that there seems to have been an aversion against shepherding among the Egyptians of this period, according to the following verses: "They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians," (Ch. 43:32) and "You should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." (Ch. 46:34).
The period in which Joseph becomes viceroy of Egypt may have been the time when the Hyksos ruled Egypt. The Hyksos were Semites who had invaded Egypt and ruled the country for a period of about 175 years, according to the Westminster Bible Dictionary. They were called "the Shepherd Kings." The above quoted verses would show the hatred the average Egyptian had for their foreign rulers. It would also explain why Joseph, who was a Hebrew, was elevated to such a high position in Egypt. If all this is true, cows must have been foreign elements in the Egyptian culture, symbols of a hated oppression. The words in Ex. 1:8 "Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt," would indicate the end of the Hyksos period in the country.
Pharaoh dreamed about fat cows that were eaten by skinny ones and healthy ears of wheat that swallowed up by other ears of wheat that were withered. In either case the fat ones did the skinny ones no good. Pharaoh woke up highly disturbed by his dream. Vs. 7 says: "Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream." In our philosophy this would mean that it had "only" been a dream; that is, we would have attached no importance to it. But for the king it meant that the Nile wanted to communicate something to him and he could not hear what this divine stream was saying. Nobody else could, for that matter. Not even the people whose job it was to hear and understand supernatural messages.
Then the cupbearer remembers Joseph. It must have been painful and humiliating for him to bring up the subject of his imprisonment, but without this background information the reference to Joseph would not have made any sense. We do not read that Joseph's innocence was mentioned, but that could very well have been the case, because it would have been much more difficult to elevate a formal criminal to the position of ruler over Egypt, than a man who had suffered innocently. I am not trying to say that criminals do not make it to the top of governments. Far from me to make such a statement!
Joseph's condition changes overnight. One night in prison the next in the palace. He had patiently suffered for probably seventeen years and all of a sudden God is in a hurry.
Pharaoh is not used to waiting for people. Monarchs usually are not . So as soon is the desire to see Joseph is expressed by his majesty, Joseph us fetched, shaved, bathed and changed into decent clothing and, probably within the hour, he stands before Pharaoh. The outside light must have hurt his eyes and the splendor of the royal palace probably even more. For people who have not experienced ten years of privation, as Joseph did, it is hard to imagine what the transition must have done for him. He must have felt dizzy, but he probably had not time to digest all the impressions.
This does not mean that Joseph looses his head. His behavior before Pharaoh is appropriate and very impressive. Joseph has the kind of stuff kings are made off. Apart from his natural abilities, most of Joseph's behavior must be attributed to his fellowship with God. Centuries later the author of psalm 119 will say: "I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame." (Ps. 119:46) In the New Testament two illiterate fishermen show the same quality in standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin. In Acts 4:13 we read: "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus." It takes intimacy with God to keep us from being overawed by worldly power. In his book "Born Again" Chuck Colson describes his change of attitude toward the Oval Office. Before his conversion the thrill and awe of entering the center of power would grip him. After having been with Jesus he realized the relativity of human power. After having been before the throne of God, Joseph is not intimidated before the throne of Pharaoh.
Now Pharaoh was considered more than a human monarch. But in spite of the fact that divine power was ascribed to him, he was at loss as far as the meaning of what the gods were trying to tell him.
The initial exchange between Pharaoh and Joseph is interesting. We read in vs. 15 and 16 - "Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.' 'I cannot do it,' Joseph replied to Pharaoh, 'but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.'" Pharaoh admits his inability and seemingly Joseph denies that he has the gift of interpretation. It is true that Joseph's gift would have been worthless outside of his fellowship with God. But I believe that God had bestowed the gift upon him. There is, undoubtedly, a difference between the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the believers in the New Testament and the gifts to Old Testament saints, but in both dispensations God gave gifts to certain people He chose, gifts which others did not receive. It could be that Joseph did not understand this himself. Anyhow, even if his "I cannot do it" amounts to a denial, he is safe in attributing the power of interpretation to God.
The point Joseph gets across to Pharaoh is that it was not the local deity, the Nile, who conveyed a message to the king, but Elohim, the God of heaven and earth, the One in Whose hands the Nile runs and to Whom all local gods have to bow. Pharaoh realizes that the message comes from a source, far superior to the one he was familiar with.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that God will give him the answer he desires. This reply is a masterpiece of diplomacy. Literally Joseph says to Pharaoh: "Elohim shall answer the peace of Pharaoh." The Dutch translates it with "God shall announce Pharaoh's well-being." [God zal Pharaoh's welzijn verkondigen. ] The LXX translates it with "God shall announce Pharaoh's salvation."
In vs. 17-24 Pharaoh retells basically the same dream that was already described to us in vs. 1-7. In vs. 19 Pharaoh gives his opinion on the scrawny cows, saying that Egypt really does have that kind of animal. He does not want to admit that such a recession would be possible in the country he rules. Also the fact that the eating of the fat cows by the scrawny ones did not really do them any good is added at this point. The second dream is retold without any comments or additions. The magicians, whose business it was to explain supernatural events, were at loss as to the meaning of the dreams. The reason for this is probably that the message does not come from the gods but from God. They are used to hear and interpret communications from their own source, but, not knowing Elohim, they cannot hear what He says.
The first point Joseph clarifies is that the message of both dreams is the same. God showed Pharaoh the same thing with two images. That is an important point. It adds emphasis to the message. There is no doubt about the reliability.
The second point is that a disaster is about to come upon Egypt and the whole Middle East: a devastating famine of seven years. But the famine is going to be preceded by a seven-year period of unusual abundance. Unless Pharaoh understands the purpose of the first seven years, the chances of surviving the famine would be very slim. That seems to be the essence of the message God sends Pharaoh.
Generally speaking people have little trouble accepting abundance. It is the meager years that bother us. Our philosophy of life is built upon the assumption that abundance is our due. Hardship in life means that we are dealt with unfairly. We have a right to a life of riches in which we have more than we can possibly consume. This is not only our philosophy of life it is part of our security. If we have more than we need it means that our future is secure and a secure future eliminates the need to put our trust in the Lord for what is ahead of us. Jesus blows away this reasoning in His parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21. The man in the story said to himself: "'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'" And Jesus adds: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." In times of need we tend to turn to God, but very rarely we know what to do with abundance. We may say that abundance is more harmful to us than shortage. The Scottish writer George MacDonald once said that he believed God could punish a person by making him rich!
Joseph shows an amazing spiritual insight in his interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams. He not only understands the meaning but also the purpose of the message.
In vs. 33-37 he adds a piece of personal advice. It seems somewhat preposterous for a slave, straight out of prison, to tell the government of the country what to do. I do not suppose that Joseph had enough time to connect Pharaoh's dreams with his own dreams when he was a boy of seventeen. It will have taken him a few days before the pieces fell in place. The fact that he is able, on the spur of the moment, to propose an excellent plan to save the country, shows the working of his brilliant mind. No wonder he rose to the top in every situation in which he was placed. We are not discounting divine inspiration, but God adds His wisdom to those who possess wisdom. It takes wisdom to realize we need it and to ask for it.
It is difficult to determine whether it was Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream, or his seven-year plan for the salvation of the country that propelled him to the top. It was probably the combination of the two, but the plan that laid out the budget for the economy for the next fourteen years must have played a major part in Pharaoh's decision to make Joseph his pri-minister.
I am trying to imagine how Joseph's proposal would have gone over in a democratic society. What would Joseph's chances have been if he had run on a ticket of a 20% tax? Even if the meager years would have come first, it would have been difficult. With the years of abundance coming first, it would have been impossible. There must have been more wisdom in Pharaoh's court than in our modern society.
Adam Clarke comments at this point: "As it is impossible that Joseph could have foreseen his own elevation, consequently he gave this advice without any reference to himself. The counsel, therefor, was either immediately inspired by God or was dictated by policy, prudence, and sound sense."
We do not know how much Pharaoh or any of the Egyptians at that time knew about Elohim. The name is used twice though in vs. 38 and 39. Pharaoh recognizes the Spirit of Elohim in Joseph. It does not seem that it was merely Joseph's introduction of the name in vs. 16 that accounts for this. If it is true that this Pharaoh was one of the Hyksos, a Shemite, he may have known more about Elohim than the average Egyptian. But the name of God may have been more generally known in Egypt, although not intimately, then is generally assumed. The Pulpit Commentary says here: "The Ruach Elohim, as understood by Pharaoh, meant the sagacity and intelligence of a deity." I would like to take issue with this statement. The primitive tribes of New Guinea knew much more about God, the Creator, (Ugamate in Ekagi) than any Westerner would have thought possible, so why would people who lived centuries closer to Noah, have
less of an understanding? However, knowing about Him and obeying Him is not the same. It is not now and it was not the case then.
The government of Egypt at that time was not a dictatorship. Pharaoh does not come through as an absolute monarch. Vs. 37 reads: "The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials." The translation "servants" in the KJV and RSV instead of "officials" may give the wrong impression that Pharaoh was surrounded by slaves. Joseph's elevation is based on the consensus of Pharaoh and his cabinet. Joseph's elevation may have taken longer than it sounds. Reading vs. 39-44 we would get the impression that it only took a few minutes to transform Joseph from an imprisoned slave into the Prime Minister of the country. The decision was probably made instantly, but we may assume that there was an official ceremony that took time of preparation. Obviously Joseph was not returned to prison after his audience with the king.
Joseph's star rose fast. Not only did he inspire confidence, but also he subsequent actions must have confirmed Pharaoh's impression. In the same way he had impressed Potiphar and the jailer. It seem logical, though, that Pharaoh's giving of the signet ring, the public presentation in making Joseph ride through Egypt in the royal chariot and the elevation to "second in command" were gradual developments instead of instant decisions. Joseph had to prove himself worthy of the calling. If all this honor was bestowed upon him hastily in one day it would not speak well of the Egyptian court.
The Pulpit Commentary says about "Zaphenath-Paneah," the name Pharaoh gave to Joseph, that it is an Egyptian word [surprise] and that some of the most respected interpretations are: "the Salvation of the Word," "Rescuer of the World," "the Prince of the Life of the World," "the Food of Life," or "the Food of the Living." Here also we may presume that Pharaoh bestowed this name on Joseph when it became evident that his proposed scheme worked.
Then Joseph gets married to Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. The name Asenath supposedly means "She who is of Neith," that is the Minerva of the Egyptians, according to The Pulpit Commentary . The only thing we can say about this is that Joseph married into a family of high class. We know nothing about the knowledge of Elohim among the Egyptians of Joseph's time. The fact that Pharaoh used the Name suggests general knowledge. So it should not be a foregone conclusion that Joseph married an idolater.
It is good to think back of the moment when Joseph was tempted to have an affair with Potiphar's wife. He refused, claiming that he considered this to be a sin against the Lord. God honored his restraint in leading him into the best marriage he could envision; married into the best of families, arranged for by Pharaoh himself.
Pharaoh had said to Joseph: "I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt." (vs. 44.) That is quite a mandate. It meant that Joseph could do as he pleased. The mandate implies that he was accountable to Pharaoh, but everybody else was accountable to him. Although the mandate was probably confined to the matter of the economy of the country in view of the coming famine, Joseph would have had enough power to get back at the people who harmed him. He had risen above Potiphar. It would have been easy to set the matter straight regarding Potiphar's wife. We do not read that he did any of this. Even in the encounter with his brother, about which we will read in the rest of the story, there is no hint of revenge, just a prudent investigation into their character before revealing his identity to them.
Joseph was a very young man for the high position he occupied. How easy it would have been for him to be corrupted by the power he possessed. I just finished reading Salisbury's book The New Emperors, the biography of Mao and Deng. The book exemplifies the dictum "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." We see nothing of this in the life of Joseph. Evidently the recognition that man is accountable to God is a sufficient safe guard against this corruption. Only fellowship with God can keep us from living a
delusion. And the corruption of power is nothing but a delusion.
Vs. 46-49 tell us that Joseph carried out his proposed plan for storing up reserves by travelling personally throughout Egypt. He must have discovered early in life that the only way to do a thing well is to do it yourself. It would have been impossible, though, to carry out the plan without delegating authority to local people. He must have been able to convince the people that the seven years of abundance were not meant for their personal enrichment. Knowing human nature this must have taken a lot of convincing. But he succeeded in organizing centers of surplus storage of grain, which later could be turned into centers of distribution.
Another thing that proves Joseph's superior intelligence is the fact that he did away with statistics! The fact that I share his negative feelings toward statistics does not necessarily mean that I share his intelligence. I am not arguing against any kind of record keeping. We should keep ourselves informed about what we are doing. But there comes a point where the keeping of statistics is useless and contrary to the grain of God's economy. A British statesman (I believe it was Baldwin) once said that there were white lies, fat lies (he actually used an expletive I will not repeat as a Christian) and statistics!
During these seven years of feverish activity and abundance two sons were born in Joseph's family: Manasseh and Ephraim. The name Manasseh means "forgetting." The word comes from the Hebrew verb "Nashah" - to forget. We should not take this forgetting in the usual meaning of the word, as a slip of the mind. Forgetting hear stands for a blessed function of the mind. The memory of his suffering, the longing for his father's house had been a haunting memory. For years Joseph had been homesick in the literal sense of the word. God healed him of this memory. Forgetting has nothing to do with not remembering; it means here that the memory no longer hurt.
A book could be written about the psychological significance of this sentence. Joseph had had a difficult and painful youth. There was the, more or less unhealthy, love his father bestowed upon him. He had been a victim of his father's favoritism. He had suffered the hatred and abuse of his brothers. Their rough handling of him and their intention to kill him were probably the least of his suffering. Their utter rejection of him must have hurt him more than anything else. Joseph had never known genuine love and acceptance by those who were important to him. His obvious effort to please people is an indication of this. Now he has become an adult. He is married and has a son. He had known all his life that God had accepted him, but that realization had not been enough to heal all his wounds. Now this healing comes in his life. It is the healing of maturity.
The second son is called Ephraim: "Double fruitfulness." Even if Joseph had remained single and childless we could hardly have said that his life was not fulfilling. But Ephraim becomes the quintessence of fulfillment for him in the land of his suffering. The abundance of Egypt is mirrored in the fruitfulness of Joseph's marriage. He is doubly blessed in Egypt, the land of his suffering. This epitaph of Egypt as "the land of my suffering" is another expression full of meaning. It makes Egypt an image of the world in
which we live. We do not belong to this world anymore than Joseph belonged in Egypt. Jesus says in John 17:16 "They are not of the world, even as I am not of it." But God put us here for a purpose. He sent Jesus into this world to save it; He sent Joseph to Egypt to save people and He sends us into the world for the same purpose. But being in the world means suffering. The world recognizes us as foreign elements. If we identify with the Lord we will be ostracizes and persecuted. Jesus says that this should be an encouragement for us. In Mat 5:10-12 He says: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." And in John 16:33 "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
Studying these chapters we have to keep in mind that the famine Joseph prepared for is an image of the real famine. The most revealing words about the meaning of food come from Moses. In Deuteronomy, we read: "He [God] humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD."[ 1 ] Jesus quotes these words to Satan during the temptation He was subjected to in the desert. And He picks up the subject even more relevantly in John's Gospel, where He says: "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."[ 2 ] The real hunger of man is in his soul. So is the real satisfaction.
Against this background we read: "There was famine in all the other lands, but in the whole land of Egypt there was food. (Vs. 54)
Egypt is a picture of this world. There are two kinds of famine in this world, of which a lack of food for the stomach is the least. When people are starving the giving of an abundance of food all at once can be fatal. The human stomach has forgotten how to digest and when it is called upon to function normally it refuses. The spiritual condition of man is worse. We are cut off from the source of living water and living bread from birth. We are born with a spirit that cannot function properly. We have to be reborn by the Spirit of God even to develop a normal appetite for spiritual food. Because of the immensity of this problem the need is generally not even recognized. Most people in first world countries are much worse off than those living in the third world. There is more hunger on the real level in North America than in Africa.
I am not saying, of course, that we should not attend to people physical needs. The Salvation Army's approach of soup first and then the Gospel is probably the best. But we have to realize that when Jesus says: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36) that this covers the whole realm of affluence. The eternal lostness of overweight people is not any less than of the starving ones.
So Joseph is an image of the One who is the Bread of Life, in that he was the only one who could keep people from dying.
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