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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 37 - Joseph's Story: Rags to Riches (Genesis 41-45)

This lesson focuses upon the meteoric and miraculous rise of Joseph from a prisoner/slave to the second most powerful leader in Egypt.  As we study this, it must be remembered that there are two important facts to this whole story.  First, what Joseph accomplished was by divine guidance and not his own merit - Joseph humbled himself, and God exalted him.  Secondly, it encourages us and reminds us that whatever adversity we may be currently facing, it is only temporary - as Romans 8:28 reminds us, "all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose." I am pretty certain that St. Paul, as an educated man, probably had the story of Joseph in mind as he reflected upon his own situation in the Roman prison he sat in as he wrote those words, and this too serves to remind us that, as my late mentor Fr. Eusebius Stephanou often said, "Man's disappointments are God's appointments."  The person who yields his or herself to God becomes a pliable vessel that God can use for His glory, and the story of Joseph personifies that beautifully.

In Genesis 41:1-36, the story from last lesson picks up.  To recap a bit, Joseph was wrongly accused by Potiphar's oversexed, lonely wife of something he was not guilty of, and he ended up in prison where he won the trust of the jailer and subsequentially came into contact with a butler and a baker who had recently gotten on the wrong side of Pharaoh.  Both of these men had dreams that troubled them, and Joseph, who was gifted at dream interpretation, counsels them by explaining the meaning of what they dreamed.  The butler's dream was good news for him, but unfortunately not so much for the baker, who is later executed.  The butler is restored to his position, and despite Joseph's request to remember him to Pharaoh, the butler goes on about his business and forgets all about what had happened.  That is, until Pharaoh started having dreams that troubled him!  It is at this point the story picks up.

The Pharaoh has two troubling dreams about essentially the same thing, with the same imagery, and he is so perplexed over them that he is trying to find out by any means possible what they mean.  At this point, his butler has a brief moment of memory clarity, and said in essence, "Oh yeah, there was this guy in the jail who might be able to help you out, Your Highness."  Apparently, these dreams were so disturbing that Pharaoh in essence says, "What the heck, why not?   Bring this guy to me and we'll see what he can do."  So, Joseph is brought before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh tells him the dreams.  As Joseph is gifted in this area, he sees almost instantly what the dreams meant, and he interprets them to the detail, even without Pharaoh telling him what they were.


At this point, I want to interject some history into the conversation, because anyone who knows anything about ancient history would understand that a typical Pharaoh would not give the time of day to a foreign slave, especially one who was in prison.   However, this was not just any Pharaoh, but rather he was possibly a leader of an invading Semitic people called the Hyksos who occupied northern Egypt at around this time and established their own kingdom and dynasty.  Although this is a matter of debate among some Biblical scholars, I believe it is plausible that Joseph encountered a Hyksos Pharaoh just by the way events played out.  If so, it also substantiates that God was indeed in control of things and had Joseph in the right place and at the right time, as only a Pharaoh who could to some degree identify with a person like Joseph would take what he said seriously.  God controls the events of history as well, and although He does not order them arbitrarily or robotically, He works through human events to accomplish His purpose.  And, this was one of those events. 



Ancient depiction of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt.

The two dreams Pharaoh had entailed similar imagery - seven lean cows consuming seven fat cows, and seven bad ears of grain consuming seven full ears.   As Joseph interpreted the dream, he notes that there are a total of 14 items in each dream, and the numbers represent years.  For seven years, there would be abundant crops and good harvests, but then a seven-year famine would ensue that would consume the resources that the abundance created.  Joseph then counsels Pharaoh to prepare by appointing a sensible steward to manage the abundant resources while they had them, and in doing so the nation could be spared much of the ravages of the ensuing famine.  By this point, famines and dry spells had become a fact of life, as the primal conditions which existed before the Flood of Noah's day some centuries earlier were forever altered, as was the landscape.  We have seen in the example of Abraham, Joseph's great-grandfather, that bad famines had hit the region before, and like Abraham, people were forced to Egypt as a sort of refuge - this is odd in itself, as Egypt is essentially a desert region after the Flood, with the ever-expanding Sahara to the west encroaching upon the nation more each year.   Therefore, Joseph's counsel to the Pharaoh was prudent and possessed a wisdom beyond Joseph's young years, and this was something that got Pharaoh's attention as well.

Pharaoh was quite impressed that Joseph was able to share this insight with him, and so much so that he basically said to Joseph, "I believe you are the man for the job."  So, Pharaoh essentially makes Joseph the prime minister of Egypt on the spot, and then seals the deal with a ceremony.  First, Pharaoh has Joseph clothed in the fine linen of the aristocracy, which was a custom that the Hyksos adopted as they did many things from their native Egyptian subjects. Pharaoh then confers upon Joseph his personal signet ring, which was a universal symbol of royal authority and in essence the Pharaoh was giving Joseph authority to act on his behalf.   He then confers a title upon Joseph, noted in Scripture as being Zaphenath-Paaneah ("the one who furnishes nourishment of life") which directly corresponds to Joseph's counsel.  He then gives Joseph a bride - a young lady named Asenath, who was the daughter it says of  Potipherah, the "priest of On."  There is some weird logic here, as in the first place the reader of this text may ask, why would God allow Joseph to marry the daughter of a pagan priest?  In looking at the context, On was the city where this priest lived and probably served a temple, and the name Potipherah means "priest of the sun," while On itself means "sun."  As the principle deity of the Egyptians (probably adopted to some degree by the Hyksos rulers) was Amun-Ra, this would make sense as Amun-Ra was a sun deity.  Therefore, Joseph was betrothed to the daughter of a priest of the sun-god, and again there is some ambiguity as to why God allowed it.  There is very little in the Biblical record about Asenath as Joseph's wife, and the only other mention of her is when she gives birth to their two sons later on.  However, in the Book of Jasher Chapter 49, in verse 37 there is a description given of her as being a beautiful virgin daughter of Potipherah, and it was by Pharaoh's decree that she be made the wife of Joseph, perhaps to give him the status and legitimacy he needed to carry out the duties of his office.  Therefore, perhaps God allowed Joseph to be integrated into the Egyptian social order through this marriage in order to carry out the plans He had for Joseph.  Genesis 41:46 notes Joseph was 30 years old when this all took place.

Conferring the authority of the signet upon Joseph

The new Prime Minister.

As Joseph settles down into his new life with his new bride, at some point she bears him two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Scripture seems to imply that these boys were twins, and they were born during the seven years of abundance Joseph had accurately predicted would happen.  The name Ephraim, who was the younger of the two boys, means "doubly fruitful," while the name Manasseh meant "one who causes forgetfulness."  Jasher 50:15 records that Joseph was 34 at the time of their birth, which again implies that the boys were twins.  The subsequent verses in Jasher also document that both sons had instilled in them by their father a love of God, and that he also made sure they were well-educated, and in Jasher 50:17 they even gained favor among the aristocracy for their character that Joseph instilled in them.  If this be the case, something else was happening here too which prefigures what Jesus would do later for humanity as the completion of God's plan of salvation - this essentially could invite the implication that Asenath, Joseph's wife, also came to worship the true God.  That in itself is an act of God Himself, in that the daughter of a pagan priest essentially attained a type of salvation as a result of the marriage to and influence of Joseph.  It also shows that even at the beginning, God's will was that all mankind would be able to have the opportunity of salvation, and this is also part of the Abrahamic Covenant that Joseph would also have been an heir to.  

In due season, the time of plenty ends and the famine arrives.  However, during the previous seven years Joseph had wisely made provision for this happening, and Egypt was prepared for it.  However, it appeared that the famine was not just confined to Egypt, but also extended to the surrounding region, as Jacob and his family began to feel the effects of it in Canaan.  Word has spread fast to the surrounding nations that a wise minister had managed Egypt's resources to create a surplus, and this would also prove fortuitous for the Egyptians too, as they not only had enough grain to feed themselves, but they could also profit from other nations who would be buying from Egypt, which is another aspect of Joseph's plan.  It also proves that Joseph was being used of God not only to save Egypt, but a wider circle of population.  Again, the disappointment of Joseph's mistreatment at the hand of his brothers was an evil God turned into good, and the appointed time of Joseph's arrival in Egypt was all orchestrated by God Himself.  And, as we see, it also impacted his own family hundreds of miles away.

Like many people in the region, Jacob had gotten word that Egypt was offering surplus grain for sale to surrounding nations and his family needed to replenish their supply.  So, he sends his sons (with the exception of Benjamin, who was yet too young) to Egypt to buy grain.  They have no idea that their brother Joseph was used by God to make all this possible, and upon their arrival Joseph recognizes them but they fail to recognize him.  If you recall when Joseph was younger in the previous lesson, he had a series of dreams of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, as well as a bunch of wheat bundles bowing to his bundle, and this was a major bone of contention for his brothers, which is why out of jealousy they sold him down the river.  Now, however, those dreams were beginning to come to pass, as now the brothers were compelled to show Joseph honor by bowing before him and respecting his authority.  Joseph decides to have a little fun with this, since his brothers don't recognize him, and he pretends to accuse them of being spies and has them tossed into jail.  After staying in jail three days, they are released on the condition that one of them has to stay behind and that they have to bring Benjamin back with them.  Simeon volunteers to stay, and Joseph sees the other brothers off with the grain they came for.  In 42:26-38, the brothers begin their journey home, but as they are traveling, they discover that their money is in the sack of grain, and they are mortified over it.  As they inspect the other sacks, more of their money is found, and this creates a panic that haunts them as they return home.  They tell their father what has happened, and he too is concerned and chastises his sons.  In the parallel account in Jasher 51, it gives a somewhat different account of Simeon's incarceration - although Simeon did volunteer, he did so with great conflict as it also seems that he was also left there by a consensus of the other brothers.   Although Simeon's name means "one who obeys," it appears he only did so with great struggle according to the account in Jasher.  Apparently Simeon put up a fight when Joseph's men tried to apprehend him, as he is said in this account to be a man who was very strong and able to resist.   However at some point Joseph's son Manasseh, who is now of age, has had enough of this nonsense from his uncle (whom he did not realize as such at this point), and he essentially whacks him on the back of the head and knocks him cold, and he is able to be apprehended.  After that happens, Joseph then fills their grain sacks and sends them on their way, and it is Levi who discovers in his sack the returned money, and the brothers almost immediately view it as a sign of God's judgment against them for what they did to Joseph some years earlier.  Although a somewhat different account, Jasher correlates with Genesis and also provides more detail to the story.

Any case, the brothers return home, and of course Jacob is concerned that Simeon is not with them, so Judah takes it upon himself to tell his father what happened.  Jacob is not in the least happy, and when Judah tells him what Joseph's stipulations are, Jacob initially refuses.  But, after a certain amount of time, they need to replenish their grain supply, and have to make another trip.  Judah reminds Jacob of the stipulation of this visit, and offers to personally look after Benjamin while there. After some deliberation, Jacob grudgingly relents, and Benjamin is allowed to go with them.

When the brothers arrive, Joseph instructs his deputies to bring them to his house, and considering the money incident on the last trip, the brothers are mortified and confess to Joseph what happened.  Joseph, of course, had planted the money in their bags himself, and he assures them that there is nothing to worry about and all is forgiven.  At this point too he also releases Simeon.  At the sight of his youngest (and full) brother Benjamin, Joseph is overcome with emotion and has to excuse himself so his brothers won't see him express it.  And, he also formulates another plan.  

The brothers are invited to have dinner with Joseph at his house, and while there Joseph has his personal goblet concealed in Benjamin's bags.  He then loads them up with a lot of food and sends them on their way.  When they leave, he has one of his stewards to track them down, and they are to be searched.  Upon doing this search, the missing goblet is found and Joseph, feigning indignation, demands that the one who stole the cup become his personal servant.  Knowing it was Benjamin's belongings where the cup was found, and the devastation their father would feel if anything happened to Benjamin, Judah throws himself on the chopping-block.  In this, we see yet another Christological type - Jesus, who would come through Judah's lineage, also offered Himself in our place, but not as a substitute.  As God Incarnate, the love Jesus has for humanity far exceeds the sinfulness of humanity, and is more than just a substitution - it is propitiation (an exercise of love on behalf of an offending party to appease the wrath of the offended).  Judah embodies a propitiation for his younger brother that our "older brother," Jesus, would do for us as part of the divine economy of the central kerygma of the salvation legacy.  This selfless act on Judah's behalf is also driven by love - a love of his father, as well as a voluntary act of love for his younger brother Benjamin.  This is an important gem to unearth in this story.

All of this finally becomes too much for Joseph, and in Genesis 45 he finally reveals to his brothers who he really is.  It is left to the design of the imagination as to what the initial action of his brothers would have been, as it definitely would have gotten a response from them.  But, the end result was a joyous reunion between Joseph and his enstranged brothers, and the past was left behind.  This is what salvation - and particularly Calvary - does for us;  although we may see God as wrathful and we know we deserve the most severe of judgments, then Jesus reveals Himself and offers Himself in joyful and loving fulness so that we might also be reconciled with Him.  Again, this is a central aspect of the kerygmatic core of the legacy of salvation, and an important lesson for us.  After this revelation and reunion of Joseph with his brothers, Joseph then tells Pharaoh, and being that he and Pharaoh also share a closeness (one gets the impression reading this that Pharaoh not only trusted Joseph with his life, but that he also considered Joseph a friend too) Pharaoh tells Joseph to welcome his family to Egypt to live out the famine, and now the family has the full endorsement of the Pharaoh himself.  

Jacob, upon the return of his sons and the news that Joseph was alive and in the position of authority, is of course initially confused - it is a lot for an old man to take in finding out a son given up for dead is not only alive, but is prospering!   However, once it all sinks in, Jacob is overjoyed and agrees to go to Egypt, if even only temporarily.  The next lesson, which will also conclude this series, will get into more detail regarding their arrival and settling in Egypt.