67. Genesis 41

III. D. 4. continued

d) Joseph Becomes Master of Egypt (Genesis 41)

But the chief cupbearer forgot Joseph. The pharaoh during Joseph’s imprisonment was probably Senusret II (the Greeks called him Sesostris II). My theory is that Senusret II died shortly after restoring the cupbearer to his office; perhaps it was his death and the succession of the new pharaoh that drove Joseph from the memory of the cupbearer for two years. Another possibility is that the cupbearer and the baker were put in prison because Senusret II died. The cupbearer probably functioned like a taster to check for poison, though that is not known. It may be there was a conspiracy theory that led to their imprisonment, but that the cupbearer was cleared of suspicion. The dating in the Bible tends to tie down selected dates pretty securely and the events in between them have to be interpolated between the two ends. The latter half of Israel’s life floats a bit and I have dated it by the best fit between Joseph and his dreams and secular Egyptian events, and then working backward. There is considerable slack in my estimates of the dates, in other words.

We do know that the Middle Kingdom pharaohs competed for power with the other great lords and nobility of Egypt. These lords were known as nomarchs, and ruled over the provinces, which they called nomes. Early in the reign of Senusret III the power of the nomarchs was significantly broken and the pharaoh became absolute ruler over Egypt. Genesis 47:13-26 could be a description of how these nomarchs lost their power. Furthermore, Egypt was usually hostile to foreigners, but at this particular point in their history there were an unusual number of Asiatics (mostly Canaanite) in Egypt, and relations were relatively good with foreigners, except for the Nubians to the south. Historians disagree on the dating of ancient Egypt, but the ones I am following place the beginning of  Senusret III in 1878 b.c. It was about two years later, then, in 1876 b.c., that this Senusret began having bad dreams.

God’s timing seems a bit strange here. Why did He put the baker and cupbearer in the prison two years in advance of when they were needed? Was He playing mind games with Joseph, raising his hopes only to seem to let him down (say the cynics)? Didn’t He do the same thing with Abraham, promising him a son in his old age and then going to Palm Beach or somewhere for thirteen years? It seems to be becoming a pattern with God to make big promises, big plans, big announcements, and then disappear for a while just when we are most expecting something to come of those promises, plans, and announcements. The book of Genesis merely introduces this unappealing aspect of God’s personality; the rest of the Scripture verifies that it is indeed a habit with Him. It is as if time meant nothing to Him; or lots.

This is too much of a pattern with God to be a mere accident. His timing is so flawless, getting the right people together at the right place against all the odds, that to be habitually late with every single promise demands some thought. We all know people just like that, who are always late, and the appearance is that they just don’t care if other people have to wait for them. They are simply rude or else rather godlike. God is too deliberate about it for it to be coincidence. It must be either a calculated insult or else He has a different attitude toward timing than we do. It must be that God is always late in order to always arrive on time. He is always late because He loves time and He loves timing and He loves waiting for the right time. There is no more important spiritual duty, no more artistic duty in anyone’s life, than waiting for the right moment. Isn’t the pause the essence of all drama as well as all comedy? God simply has a better sense of the aesthetic moment than we do.

Our attention is definitely centered on the present moment. We want things when we want them: now. It is the most frequent trial some of us have to face: to be in line at the store or the bank, to be on hold, to wait at the doctor’s office, to have to pause the video while we wait for someone to get something from the fridge, to sit there while the computer gets itself unfrozen. But God delights in waiting; and He delights in making us wait as well. Waiting is where the action begins; waiting is where all of the preparation for action occurs. The person who can wait well is the person who is ready for action when the time comes. The person who cannot wait is never really ready for anything. It is one of spirituality’s most important lessons and if you aspire to become a truly and deeply spiritual person, you must learn how to wait. What Joseph did during those two years was what he had been doing all along. Day-by-day he practiced choosing to do a good job, choosing to do his best, choosing to hope that God would not leave him forever. He practiced so well that when Pharaoh had his dreams and grew troubled in spirit, Joseph was ready to do what he had to do without being destroyed by it.

One striking contrast in Joseph’s character before and after his thirteen years of slavery was his humility. He was very full of himself when he was young as the spoiled favorite of his father, but his years as a slave, as a prisoner, and then suddenly as the second in command of all Egypt, had proved to him who he really was and was not. In particular he had learned the difference between what he did and what God did, between what he had to do and what God alone had to do. In other words he was walking in the footsteps of the faith of his great-grandfather, he was letting God fulfill His own purposes in His own way without trying to do it for Him. This is no where more clear than when he stood before Pharaoh.

He refused to take credit for his ability to interpret dreams and “gave all the glory to God”. This, of course, is only what we owe to God; it is only the plain fact of the matter, but it is not so easy to remember in the excitement of the moment. Too often praise is thinly veiled boasting. The line that separates praise from bragging is all too easy to cross. The account of Joseph, however, portrays him as genuinely humble. He put God forward from the beginning, before he had either failed or succeeded, before he heard Pharaoh’s dream. He had done nothing yet, but he wanted Pharaoh to know that whatever happened, it would only happen because of God. He could have said, “Yes, God has gifted me with the ability to interpret” or “God has appointed me to help you out here, O Pharaoh”; either statement would have been literally true, but they would both have been false because the focus of both sentences would have been praise for himself disguised as praise for God. Instead Joseph told the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”: “It is not in me. God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”

There would have been a theological barrier between Joseph and Pharaoh. Joseph would no doubt have been speaking to Pharaoh in the Egyptian language and he was apparently using the generic word for God, but what he meant by the word and what Pharaoh meant by the word would have been quite different. Pharaoh would have seen himself as a descendant of the great god Amon, the sun god, whereas Joseph would have been thinking of the God who had been appearing to his family for several generations. In Egypt this was the time when the cult of Osiris was reaching its full importance in Egyptian religious life, and this Senusret was one of its major devotees. This cult taught that all people – at least all Egyptians – and not just the Pharaoh and his family, had a “spiritual force”, what they called a ba. It taught that all Egyptians, and not just the Pharaoh and his family, had some future expectation of a good after-life.

Pharaoh would have experienced some spiritual dissonance as he spoke to Joseph. After all, if Pharaoh were a close relation to Amon, then why did Amon use some foreigner to speak to him rather than directly or through an Egyptian magician or wise man? Further, while Pharaoh may have been liberal (for an Egyptian) toward foreigners, slaves and criminals were another matter. Why then, Pharaoh might ask, was Amon giving the interpretation to such a foreigner as this slave/criminal? Clearly Pharaoh would only have consulted with Joseph if he were forced to. His spirit was troubled, distressed, driven to distraction over the dreams and he could find no help or relief in Egypt. It was desperation that sent him to Joseph.

But the theological barrier only worked in one direction: Joseph had no problem. His increasing understanding of God Most High was not put off balance by the Egyptian religion, sophisticated as it was. For one thing, they needed him, their gods seemed to need his God. Nor did Joseph feel the need, as a modern Christian probably would have in his place, to correct Pharaoh’s understanding of God; indeed, Joseph had even at this point almost no understanding of how his God and the other gods were connected. He did not have theological maturity; he was simply connected to the God of his fathers and could let the details sort themselves out.

And Joseph was entirely ready.  No doubt he wanted to get out of prison, but there was no hint of desperation in him. He had been humbled, he had been taught how to wait, and he does not seem to have thought this might be his ticket out. His answers to Pharaoh would have been palatable, not at all designed to challenge his spiritual beliefs. His demeanor would also have struck Pharaoh favorably and made it easier for him to see this foreigner as exceptional. The Egyptian religion was filled with elements that were irrational and even inconsistent with each other – magic and superstitions and rituals that did not have to make literal sense. The Egyptian religion was deeply (one might say terminally) metaphorical. If Amon chose to speak to a foreigner, then that would just be one more odd thing to add into the mix. It was difficult to swallow, but not as hard in the Egyptian religion as it would have been in a more rationalistic religion like our modern western ones.

Joseph’s manner, while humble, was also authoritative. He was not guessing what the dreams meant. He was not interpreting the dreams like a person might who was decoding some language of specialized symbols. He knew what the dreams meant; how he knew is a matter for fruitless argument. Joseph had no doubt that he saw the meaning of the dreams in a complete way and so when he spoke to Pharaoh it was with a plain-spokeness that would have been utterly convincing. It must have blown them away in a superstitious time and place to encounter such simple certainty. Magicians and wise men of every age know to hedge every prediction they make for their own safety. They must protect their reputations and their lives with vagueness. Joseph had no such need. And his certainty was such that he could follow up the interpretation with a concrete proposal for a strategy to meet the crisis in an intelligent manner. Joseph was clearly the man of the hour and Senusret was no fool.

Joseph’s interpretation of the dream raises certain questions, however. It is interesting that the interpretation ascribed both the years of plenty and the years of famine directly to God’s will, but gives no hint of any reason for them. Why did God think that a severe famine, a severe famine over a large chunk of the world, was so necessary at that particular time? It was not as a punishment for evil, like the Flood had been, since He warned them and sought to protect the people from the effects of the famine. Was it just a means of getting Israel to move to Egypt? Surely an easier and less damaging way could have been devised if all He really wanted was to get Israel moved. Or was God simply caught in the flow of cause and effect with little choice in the matter, a Creator who had lost control over His domain? That would be a pathetic image for the Scripture to present, considering how it emphasizes His power everywhere else.

Further, the repeating of the dream was to show that the decision to send the years of abundance followed by the years of famine was a non-negotiable decision. This implies that sending the dream in only one form would have left some room for haggling about the details and perhaps, by making some appropriate sacrifice or penance, avoiding the whole scenario. This is an important point. When God sends a prophetic warning about some disaster or other, He apparently does not always mean it absolutely, like Fate or Calvinistic Predestination. Other gods of the ancient world were both more vague and more whimsical and flexible in their intentions, more open to discussion. Joseph’s interpretation suggests that sometimes God Most High is open to discussion and sometimes He isn’t, that He may sometimes reveal plans that are open to negotiation.

It is just as well that no one asked God to give a reason for the famine since none was ever given. There are too many variables in history for us to think that the sequence of abundance and famine in Egypt was simply unnecessary and merely a dramatic way to get the children of Israel into Egypt, God showing off. True, Joseph’s role in managing the resources of Egypt would have gotten his family off to a good start with the Egyptians, but there must have been a greater significance to the events than that, especially since they would just end up as slaves in any case. There are too many details we don’t know to guess God’s purposes here, but one thing is clear from a purely theological perspective: when God meddles directly with history, He is revealing something. And pointedly, He was not just engaged in revelation to the Covenant-of-Revelation people. This was revelation on some level to the Egyptians as well. This was revelation on some level to everyone who ended up hungry and had to run to Egypt for food.

Note that Joseph apparently did not take any action against Potiphar, but more especially he did not try to get even with Potiphar’s wife. Potiphar seems to have been a reasonably good master to Joseph and who could blame him for believing his wife? But Joseph could reasonably have held a grudge against the woman who had framed him and humiliated him. It may be that he restrained himself from revenge against her because any action against her would have hurt Potiphar as well. Or maybe his restraint was just a matter of wisdom, recognizing that the reach of even a powerful foreigner in Egypt was not that long. But I am inclined to give Joseph the benefit of the doubt here. I don’t think he wanted revenge anymore; the pain of being falsely accused and imprisoned had been greatly soothed. The real pain he still bore was the memory of being sold into slavery to begin with. So he could forget Potiphar’s wife; his success would be punishment enough for her as she wondered what he might do. Revenge never helps heal the pain anyway.

Naturally Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah, which seems to have meant something like, “God speaks, he lives”. It is interesting that Joseph’s wife was Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (On was another name for the city Heliopolis, a center for the worship of Amon). Pharaoh might naturally have thought of marrying him to a priestly family since he spoke for God; he may have even been trying to resolve a bit of the theological conflict he felt by trying to absorb Joseph into their system. The Egyptian religion was particularly good at absorbing new ideas, like a pool can absorb a rock thrown at it and be entirely unchanged. The conflict in religion, the conflict between Joseph’s deepening understanding of God Most High and the Egyptian spirituality was not very visible; it would have been difficult to put into words in the Egyptian language, and God did not push the question. The conflict did not seem to cause Joseph much worry, and did not seem to contaminate his family life. The incipient conflict in theology would be a battle that could be fought later, literally. In the meantime though, Joseph’s faith was not diluted by the Egyptian influence, and God did not seem worried that it would be.

Assuming that Pharaoh’s dream was fulfilled immediately, then the years of plenty would have lasted between 1876 and 1870 b.c. so that the famine lasted between 1869 and 1863 b.c. During the seven years of plenty Joseph became the father of two sons, Manasseh and then Ephraim. For comparison of chronology, Joseph’s two sons were being born at roughly the same time that Judah’s two oldest sons were being executed.

A famine in Egypt would normally be caused by a failure of the Nile to flood, which would be cause by a drought through a large portion of east Africa. For this reason, famines in Egypt were rare. Such an wide-spread drought over Africa would have no particular effect on the surrounding nations. Hence this famine went far beyond the failure of the Nile; it was a disaster over the Middle East and half of Africa, and perhaps over an even larger portion of the world. We don’t have evidence to confirm such a famine, even in the Egyptian records, and I will discuss why that might be when I get to Exodus. Whether the famine was felt in areas remote from Egypt or not, that stage of civilization was very vulnerable to starvation: the food supply averaged out to just enough year by year. Seven years of famine was potentially a civilization-destroying famine.

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