When we last left Joseph in Genesis chapter 40, he was still in prison for an alleged attempt to sexually assault the wife of a high ranking Egyptian official. During his time in prison, Joseph met up with two of the Egyptian king’s former officials- the king’s cupbearer and his chief baker. Those men had been thrown into prison because they had done something that made the king angry according to Genesis 40:2.
After they had all been imprisoned for some time, the cupbearer and chief baker woke up one morning and discovered that they each had a strange dream the night before. Although both men suspected that their dreams held a deeper meaning, they had no idea what it might be. This bothered them to the point where they each became visibly upset (Genesis 40:6).
Later on when Joseph found out why they were so distressed, he said to both men, “‘Isn’t God the only one who can tell what they mean? …Why don’t you tell me all about them'” (Genesis 40:8 GW). So the cupbearer and chief baker proceeded to tell Joseph the story of their dreams.
After hearing about these dreams, God provided Joseph with the hidden meaning behind them. Joseph told the cupbearer that his dream indicated that Pharaoh was going to give him his old job back within three days, and that’s what happened according to Genesis 40:21. He also told the chief baker, “In three days the king will release you—and have your head cut off! Then he will hang your body on a pole, and the birds will eat your flesh” (Geneis 40:19 GNB).
Sadly for the chief baker, that message also came to pass just as Joseph said it would. So Joseph was just as faithful in giving the bad news to the chief baker as he was in giving the good news to the cupbearer, even though his message to the chief baker must have been very difficult.
But before the cupbearer was released from prison, Joseph asked him to do something. He said, “…please remember me and do me a favor when things go well for you. Mention me to Pharaoh, so he might let me out of this place” (Genesis 40:14 NLT). Unfortunately, the cupbearer never acted on Joseph’s request and Genesis chapter 40 ends with the sad words of verse 23: “…the king’s personal servant completely forgot about Joseph (Genesis 40:23 CEV).
This is the situation that Joseph found himself in as we pick up his story again in Genesis chapter 41.
Genesis chapter 41 begins with these words: “When two full years had passed…” (Genesis 41:1a). This meant that was Joseph was left forgotten and alone in prison for years while the king’s cupbearer got to enjoy the freedom, honor, and respect that went along the restoration of his previous job.
So for two long years, day after day, month after month, year after year, Joseph lived out this boring, dull, monotonous existence. He was a foreigner, rejected by his family, and in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He had been left behind by someone who should have been willing to help him. There seemed to be no reason to think that his situation was ever going to change. In fact, there was a realistic likelihood that Joseph would have to spend the rest of his life in prison.
On the surface, it seemed as if nothing was happening for Joseph- but something was definitely going on behind the scenes. You see, something happened one night- and that “something” had to do with Pharaoh, the leader of the Egyptian nation at that time. But before we talk about his experience, let’s take a closer look at this Old Testament Egyptian king named Pharaoh.
According to one source, the term “Pharaoh” was used as the title for the kings of Egypt until 323 BC. In the Egyptian language, the word Pharaoh meant “great house” and it was used in a way that was somewhat similar to the way that we might use terms like, “your honor” or “your majesty” today. In addition to this title, these kings also had personal names like Amenhotep or Rameses.
This source goes on to say, “The Pharaoh was probably the most important person in Egyptian society. The Egyptians believed he was a god and the key to the nation’s relationship to the cosmic gods of the universe. While the Pharaoh ruled, he was the Son of Ra, the sun god, and the incarnation of the god Horus. He came from the gods with the divine responsibility to rule the land for them. His word was law, and he owned everything. Thus there were no law codes, because the king upheld order and justice and insured the stability of society.” (1)
So Pharaoh was the single most important person in the world’s most powerful nation at that time. And then he went to bed one night and had two dreams. We’ll take a look at those dreams next, but if we wanted to give a title to this upcoming part of Genesis chapter 41, we might call it, Attack Of The Killer Cows.
(1) Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (c)1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
So Pharaoh -the most important person in the world’s most powerful nation- went to sleep one night. For him, it probably seemed as if this was a night like any other night, except for one thing: on this night, Pharaoh had a very unusual dream…
“When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up” (Genesis 41:1-4).
Now when we read that these cows “came up out of the river”, it doesn’t mean that they were snorkeling, diving, or swimming around with their scuba gear in the Nile River. Remember that the nation of Egypt is located in an area of the world that gets very hot at certain times of the year. So in order to escape the heat and other things like annoying insects, animals often liked to get into a body of water (such as the Nile River) and then stay under the water where it was a whole lot cooler.
Besides the advantages of keeping cool, an animal in the Nile River also had the opportunity to eat some of the plants that grew along the riverbanks as well. So this is the image that Pharaoh saw in his dream, and it was something that would have been familiar to him or anyone else who lived in that area during that time.
The problem was that the next part of his dream was very bizarre: “Then seven other cows, all skin and bones, came up out of the river after them and stood by them on the bank of the Nile. The skinny cows ate the seven healthy cows…” (Genesis 41:3-4 MSG).
OK, so this wasn’t a dream any more- Pharaoh’s dream had now officially become a nightmare. Pharaoh’s nice, peaceful dream about normal, healthy cows enjoying a good meal and a refreshing bath had somehow turned into cannibalistic zombie cows that fed on the flesh of the living. These images were apparently so disturbing to Pharaoh that they woke him up out of a sound sleep.
Eventually, Pharaoh was able to get back to sleep but as we’ll see next, he went on to have another dream that was just as disturbing.
“(Pharaoh) fell asleep again and had a second dream: Seven heads of grain, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprouted — thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream” (Genesis 41:5-7).
The “east wind” mentioned above was a wind current that blew in from the desert and was capable of ruining the agricultural production of that area. The seven thin heads of grain that were affected by this wind then “swallowed up” (ESV), or “devoured” (KJV) the healthy grain. These visual images were eerily similar to the seven skeleton-like cows that devoured the seven healthy cows in Pharaoh’s first dream. And just as before, this dream was so disturbing to Pharaoh that it woke him up out of his sleep.
Now if you are like most people, the chances are probably good that you’ve also had a few bad dreams of your own during your life. In fact, there may have even been a few occasions when you awoke from a bad dream that seemed to be so real that you said, “I’m glad that was only a dream!” This probably describes the way Pharaoh felt because Genesis 41:7 tells us that following this second dream, “The king woke up and realized that he had been dreaming” (GNB).
Although Pharaoh was surely relieved to find that out he had only been dreaming, these images probably seemed more disturbing than anything he may have experienced during a typical bad dream. To understand why, it helps to remember that the Nile River, livestock, and agricultural production all represented important parts of the Egyptian economy in those days- and each played a major role in these dreams. And because these elements were so important to Pharaoh and his subjects, it meant that the thin, corpse-like cows, the scorching, destructive east wind, and famished, shrunken heads of grain were all things that were too important to ignore.
Just as the cupbearer and chief baker did before him, Pharaoh also had a feeling that these dreams held a deeper meaning. So he decided to look for some help in understanding what these dreams represented. The people he decided to go to first were the magicians and wise men of Egypt and we’ll check out what they had to say about the the meaning of these dreams next.
“In the morning his mind was troubled, so he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but no one could interpret them for him” (Genesis 41:8).
Some translations of this verse tell us that Pharaoh “sent and called for” for his advisors in seeking to interpret the meaning of these dreams. This indicates that Pharaoh did more than just casually mention the fact that he had two strange dreams the night before. Instead, he summoned his counselors to an official meaning to discuss the interpretation of these dreams.
Now the “magicians” mentioned above were not illusionists or the kind of magicians that you might see pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. These magicians were the men who were involved in occultic practices like astrology or divination. (1) The term “wise men” described a group of people who were known to be shrewd, crafty, and skillful. (2) Taken together, these men helped to make up Pharaoh’s official staff of advisors.
So Pharaoh gathered these specialists together and told them about the dreams he had experienced the night before. But,“When Pharaoh told them his dreams, not one of them could tell him what they meant” (NLT). Although Pharaoh’s counselors were supposed to be skilled in answering such questions, there was a specific reason why they couldn’t answer this one.
You see, we’ll find out later that these dreams were actually warning messages from God that were designed to help the king prepare for what was going to happen in the future. This bit of information helps to explain why Pharaoh’s entire group of advisors failed to interpret the meaning of these dreams- these fortune tellers and wise men were trying to understand and interpret a message from God without any knowledge or understanding of Him.
Like the magicians and wise men who counseled Pharaoh, a person who doesn’t know God is sure to have trouble in understanding the things of God. This Scriptures explain the reason for this in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians…
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This describes the problem that Pharaoh’s advisors had in trying to interpret these dreams. These men couldn’t understand the message behind these dream because they didn’t know anything about the God who sent them.
But there was one man who came up with a way to answer the king’s question- and we’ll look at his solution next.
(1) OT:2748 chartom — a diviner, a magician, an astrologer; an engraver, a writer (only in a derivative sense of one who possessed occult knowledge) Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
(2) OT:2450 chakam — wise, a wise (man) a) skillful (in technical work) b) wise (in administration) c) shrewd, crafty, cunning, wily, subtle d) learned, shrewd (class of men) e) prudent f) wise (ethically and religiously) Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
So no one could interpret the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams- but a possible solution slowly began to emerge from the distant memories of one man…
“Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “Today I am reminded of my shortcomings. Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.
Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was hanged” (Genesis 41:9-13).
In saying, “Today I am reminded of my shortcomings…” the cupbearer was basically saying, “I made a big mistake. There is something that I should have told you a long time ago.” He then proceeded to tell Pharaoh the story of how Joseph was able to interpret the meaning of his dream and the dream of the chief baker during the time they were in prison.
Now you may be thinking, “it’s about time that this man showed his appreciation for Joseph. After all, he forgot about him for two years.” While that may be true, let’s think about this: if the cupbearer had been able to help Joseph get out of jail earlier, then what would Joseph have done? Well, he certainly couldn’t go back to his old job after the incident with Potiphar’s wife. And as a slave with a criminal record in a foreign country, Joseph probably didn’t have many other career options.
This means that if Joseph had been released from prison two years earlier, he probably would have tried leave the country and go back home again. But if that had happened, then he wouldn’t have been available to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. And as we’ll see, the lives of many thousands of people will soon depend on Joseph and his God-given gift of interpretation. But none of that that would have occurred if cupbearer had not forgotten Joseph for those two long years.
So Joseph was a forgotten man, and it must have been very difficult for him to sit and wait for God to help him. But God had a timetable and we’re about to see that He had something better in mind for Joseph than simply getting out of prison.
“So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:14).
Let’s imagine that you were in Joseph’s position. You’ve been in prison for well over two years. During this time you’ve never shaved, taken a shower, or washed your hair. You have been wearing the same clothes every day and can’t remember the last time you washed them. You haven’t experienced the fresh air and sunshine of the outside world in years- and there is no reason to expect that this day will be any different. It’s just another day in a bleak and dreary place. Another day of obscurity. Another day without freedom.
Then suddenly, two government officials show up in the prison. The word spreads quickly that these men are looking for one particular prisoner- and the prisoner they’re looking for you. They immediately pull you to your feet and say, “Come on- let’s go.” You move speedily from the prison depths and suddenly, you are once again in the outside world for the first time in years. It’s good to feel the warmth of the sun again but your eyes have become so accustomed to the prison darkness that the sunlight hurts your eyes.
When you’ve recovered enough to look around, you’re amazed to see how many things have changed since you’ve been away. You also become aware of the people who are staring at you as these government officials hustle you through the streets of the city in your dirty, smelly prison clothes.
You turn and ask one of your escorts to tell you where you are going. He replies with military precision: “We’re going to see Pharaoh.” Pharaoh? Pharaoh?!? Pharaoh is the king of Egypt- what would he want with me, you ask.
Once again, the answer is precise and direct: “He has a question for you.”
“Question? What question?” you say.
“You can ask him yourself” is the quick reply.
So in just a few short hours, Joseph had gone from an obscure prisoner to a man with an appointment to see the king. But there were certain matters to attend to before that could happen. You see, the Egyptians were a clean shaven people during that period of time. Therefore, it would have been very inappropriate for Joseph to appear before the king with a full beard and dirty prison clothes. That’s why he had to shave and get changed before this meeting with Pharaoh.
So after he was cleaned up, Joseph was taken to meet the most important person in the most powerful nation in the world.
“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'” (Genesis 41:15).
In business, there is an economic rule called the law of supply and demand. This law simply states that the price of a desired product or service goes up whenever that product or service is in short supply. In other words, when someone really wants something that can’t be found anywhere else, the price is usually very high.
So what does this have to do with Joseph and Pharaoh? Well, Pharaoh really wanted to know the meaning behind the dreams he had experienced the night before but none of his magicians or advisors could give him an answer. That meant that Pharaoh’s demand for an interpretation was high but the number of people who could supply him with what he wanted was zero.
But that was before Joseph came along.
You see, God had given Joseph the ability to perform a service that Pharaoh really wanted. Because of this, Joseph could have demanded all sorts of things in exchange for the information that Pharaoh was looking for. But even though Joseph could have negotiated a big price for his services, he decided to take a very different approach…
“‘I cannot do it,’ Joseph replied to Pharaoh, ‘but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires'” (Genesis 41:16).
When Pharaoh said, “I have been told that you can interpret dreams” (GNB), Joseph immediately moved to shut down that line of thinking by saying, “I can’t do it.” It seems that Pharaoh must have believed that Joseph was some kind of specialist in the business of dream interpretation. But Joseph quickly worked to focus his attention on God by saying, “It is beyond my power to do this… But God can tell you what it means and set you at ease” (NLT). So Pharaoh proceeded to speak with Joseph about the dreams he had experienced the night before (Genesis 41:17-24). He then ended up by saying, “I’ve told all this to the magicians but they can’t figure it out” (MSG).
So with that, everyone turned to Joseph to hear what he had to say. As incredible as it may sound, the same man who had been sitting in a dungeon just a short time earlier now had the fate of a nation and untold numbers of people resting upon his God-given ability to interpret the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams.
“Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.
The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream. The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine.
It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe'” (Genesis 41:25-31).
So Joseph told Pharaoh that each of his dreams were pointing to the same event- seven years of great crops and super abundance followed by seven years of drought and devastating famine.
But notice that Joseph also made sure to say, “God has told you what he is going to do” (GNB). In other words, Joseph made sure to let Pharaoh know that God had been gracious enough to give him some “inside information” about what was going to happen in the future. While the next seven years would produce great crops and plenty to eat, the following seven years would be so bad that everyone will forget how good things were in the first seven years.
And just how bad would this famine be? Well, when this passage says that “… the famine will ravage the land” the word used for “ravage” can be interpreted as, “to destroy, (or) to exterminate.” (1) So the meaning behind Joseph’s message was clear- this seven-year drought is going to wipe everything out.
“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” (Genesis 41:32).
This verse tells us that Joseph wanted to communicate two important things to Pharaoh through this message. First, Joseph wanted Pharaoh to clearly understand that these events were sure to happen by saying, “…he has definitely decided to do this” (CEV). Next, there was a strong sense of urgency about this situation as well: “God will do it soon.”
(1) OT 3615 kalah Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
Joseph didn’t provide Pharaoh with a long, boring response in answering his request to interpret the meaning of his dream. Instead, Joseph explained the complete meaning of Pharaoh’s dream in just nine sentences (Genesis 41:25-32). But we should notice that Joseph also made sure to mention God four times within those nine sentences as well.
Because of this, we can say that Joseph was not someone who wanted to take credit for giving Pharaoh the information that he was looking for. Instead, Joseph made sure to focus on God and give Him the recognition that He deserved in providing Pharaoh with the information he wanted.
But Joseph didn’t just deliver his message and then leave- he also followed up with a suggestion to help prepare for the future that was foretold by these dreams…
“‘And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.
They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine'” (Genesis 41:33-36).
So Joseph looked at the situation and gave Pharaoh a suggested plan of action based on the information that God provided. Joseph’s idea was to put a qualified person in charge of a plan to collect 20% of all the food that was harvested over the following seven years. The collected food would then be stored away for use later on. That would provide the country with enough food to survive until the famine was over.
The idea behind this recommendation to Pharaoh was simple: he could prepare for the future by planning for it in the present. If Pharaoh really believed that Joseph had the right interpretation regarding his dream, then he would be wise to start preparing for it right away. Of course, this idea is just as true today as it was in Joseph’s time- whatever someone believes about the future is sure to influence the way that he or she lives in the present.
This idea is not only limited to planning for the future and we’ll look at some examples to illustrate this concept next.
“So, Pharaoh needs to look for a wise and experienced man and put him in charge of the country. Then Pharaoh needs to appoint managers throughout the country of Egypt to organize it during the years of plenty.
Their job will be to collect all the food produced in the good years ahead and stockpile the grain under Pharaoh’s authority, storing it in the towns for food. This grain will be held back to be used later during the seven years of famine that are coming on Egypt. This way the country won’t be devastated by the famine” (Genesis 41:33-36 MSG).
Joseph strongly believed that a famine was coming for the nation of Egypt and that led him to advise the king to prepare accordingly. In other words, Joseph’s belief influenced his response and this same basic idea also holds true for people today. What someone believes will help determine what that person does. That’s because our beliefs are usually the deciding factor when it comes to making the choices that we face in many different areas of life.
To illustrate this idea, let’s take the example of someone who believes that this life is all that there is to our existence. This person believes that when someone dies, his or her existence ends and everyone just goes off into “nothingness.” Since our beliefs influence our actions, you can be sure that a person like this will tend to make life choices with those beliefs in mind even when he or she doesn’t consciously realize it.
For instance, a person with these beliefs may not have an issue with things like lying, cheating, stealing, or acting unethically. That’s because these beliefs may lead that person to conclude, “It doesn’t matter what we do now because we’re all going to die anyway.”
On the other hand, let’s look at the example of someone who believes in an afterlife and believes that everyone will eventually have to explain his or her actions to a totally perfect, just, and holy God. Like the person in our first example, this person will also make choices based on his or her core beliefs, even when he or she doesn’t consciously realize it. But this person is likely to make some very different choices than the person in our first illustration. That’s because what someone believes will help to determine what he or she does.
Joseph’s example reminds us that what we believe about the future will impact the way that we live in the present. Because of this, we should take time now to examine the things we believe because those beliefs will have a real impact on the choices we make each day.
So Joseph advised Pharaoh to put someone in charge of planning for the future foretold by his dreams. Now for some people, this might be viewed as an obvious hint that Joseph was promoting himself for this job. But remember that Joseph was just a foreign prisoner with no obvious ability to do a job that carried this much responsibility. Joseph was also not the kind of guy who was eager to promote himself. Because of these things, there’s little reason to think that Joseph was trying to land this job for himself when he suggested this idea to Pharaoh.
But as it turned out, Pharaoh liked what he heard…
“The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials” (Genesis 41:37).
Now we should remember that even though Pharaoh was a king, he still held a political office. And as a political office holder, Pharaoh had to be concerned with the usual things that politicians have to care about. You see, Pharaoh was certainly familiar with policies and political calculations and he must have been thinking about these things as Joseph explained the meaning of his dream.
One of the things that Pharaoh must have thought about was this:“If the people of Egypt get used to the prosperity of the first seven years of abundance, then what will happen when the following seven years of famine arrive? That might cause the people to suddenly turn against me. They may start to think that the gods are angry with me. If that happens, they might try to get rid of me or even try to kill me to appease the wrath of the gods.”
So for Pharaoh, this interpretation potentially meant a matter of life and death for him. But while Pharaoh saw that Joseph had come up with a good plan, he also said something else that was very important…
“So Pharaoh asked them, ‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?'” (Genesis 41:38).
Notice that Pharaoh didn’t say,“This man is a god,” or,“This man has the spirit of the gods within him.” Instead, Pharaoh said, “No one could possibly handle this better than Joseph, since the Spirit of God is with him” (Genesis 41:38 CEV). This represents the very first time that the Bible talks about the Spirit of God being with (or within) someone. This is a very significant statement, especially coming from someone who was a polytheist, or a person (like Pharaoh) who believed in the existence of many gods.
“Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you'” (Genesis 41:39).
This one sentence says a lot about the way that Joseph represented God to the king of Egypt. While Pharaoh saw that Joseph was a man of wisdom and intelligence, he also saw that God had provided Joseph with the ability to supply the answers he was looking for. Pharaoh also understood that Joseph had not taken the credit for himself, but had placed the honor and recognition for his ability where it really belonged- with God.
This confirms that Pharaoh truly understood Joseph’s underlying message: “I can’t (provide an interpretation of your dream), but God can give Pharaoh the answer that he needs” (Genesis 41:16 GW).
Pharaoh then went on to say this…
“‘You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt'” (Genesis 41:40-41).
If we wanted to rephrase Pharaoh’s response, we might understand his meaning to be this: “Since God has given you this advance information and you have this great plan, I’m just going to let you run everything.” This meant that Joseph would now be put in charge of the entire nation The only person with more power and authority than Joseph would be Pharaoh himself.
But while this must have seemed like a great idea to Pharaoh, there was definitely one person in Egypt who couldn’t have been happy about this decision. That person was Mrs. Potiphar.
Now you remember Mrs. Potiphar, don’t you? The person who falsely accused Joseph of sexual assault? The person who ruined Joseph’s reputation? The person who was responsible for having Joseph unjustly imprisoned for years?
How do you think Mrs. Potiphar reacted when she heard the news that Joseph was now the second most powerful man in the country? Is it possible that she may have thought, “This is Joseph’s chance to get back at me- I’d better get out of here fast!” But the Scriptures never suggest that Joseph tried to hurt Mrs. Potiphar or take revenge on her for what she had done. Perhaps Joseph knew something that God would later inspire another Biblical author to write…
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord'” (Romans 12:19).
“Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, ‘Make way!’
Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt'” (Genesis 41:42-44).
These verses tell us that Pharaoh gave Joseph some important items to support his new authority. First, we’re told that Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring, a ring that carried Pharaoh’s personal identifying mark. In a sense, the king’s signet ring was something like an ancient version of a credit card and it provided Joseph with the ability to make any financial transaction that might be necessary.
We’re also told that Pharaoh gave Joseph a new wardrobe made of fine linen. The robe that Joseph was given was called a khelaat and it was only worn by those with positions of authority and honor. Then Pharaoh put a gold chain around Joseph’s neck. This told everyone that Joseph was now a high-ranking government official. In fact, Pharaoh even provided Joseph with his own government-sponsored transportation because this passage tells us that Pharaoh“…gave him the second royal chariot to ride in…” (Genesis 41:43 GNB).
Of course, its possible for someone to read these verses and say,“Do you really expect me to believe that Joseph suddenly went from being imprisoned in a dungeon to a position as the second most powerful man in the nation- and all because he interpreted the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream?” Well, the short answer to that question is yes.
Here’s why: Joseph’s promotion wasn’t based on who he was or where he came from- it was based on Pharaoh’s recognition of the God who was the driving force behind Joseph’s ability to interpret the meaning of his dream. We saw this when Pharaoh said to Joseph, “‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you'” (Genesis 41:39 emphasis added).
Joseph was given this position because he was the best qualified person to do the job- and he received this qualification because God had given him His Spirit and had made him both wise and discerning. That’s why it didn’t matter who Joseph was or where he came from- God was the One who was behind him and Pharaoh knew it.
When Pharaoh realized that God gave Joseph the ability to help him prepare for the future foretold by his dream, he responded by saying, “I now appoint you governor over all Egypt” (Genesis 41:41 GNB). However, there were a few social and political realities that had to be addressed before Joseph could start his new job…
“Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:45).
It seems that Pharaoh was concerned that his subjects might not want to accept an outsider like Joseph in a position of authority like this. So to smooth things over with the people, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name: Zaphenath-Paneah. We’re not entirely sure what the name Zaphenath-Paneah means, but some scholar-types seem to believe that it means something like,“the man to whom secrets are revealed,” or “savior of the land.” This new name would help Pharaoh represent Joseph as a immigrant who had become a legal citizen of Egypt.
Next, Pharaoh provided Joseph with a wife from a level of society that was appropriate for a high-ranking government official. Her name was Asenath, and she was the daughter of a man named Potiphera. The name Potiphera means “he whom Ra has given.” Ra (or Re, as he was also known) was a “sun god” who was worshipped in Egypt at that time. You might also recognize Potiphar’s name as a similar variation.
Knowing this, it may seem wrong for Joseph to accept someone like Asenath as a marriage partner. After all, her father was a priest in a false religion and she apparently didn’t know anything about Joseph or God, for that matter. With these things in mind, it looks like this relationship would be a bad idea from the start.
One possible way to understand the reasoning behind Joseph and Asenath’s relationship is to look at a passage in the Old Testament that talks about marrying people from different nations. That passage is Deuteronomy 21:10-13 and it says this…
“When the LORD your God gives you victory in battle and you take prisoners, you may see among them a beautiful woman that you like and want to marry. Take her to your home, where she will shave her head, cut her fingernails, and change her clothes. She is to stay in your home and mourn for her parents for a month; after that, you may marry her.”
We’ll talk more about what this rule meant for Joseph next.
“(Pharaoh) also gave (Joseph) a wife, whose name was Asenath. She was the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On” (Genesis 41:45 NLT).
The laws in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that talk about marrying people from different nations (Deuteronomy 21:10-13) didn’t come into effect until long after Joseph’s time. However, they do illustrate a principle that we can apply to Joseph’s relationship with Asenath.
You see, just because Asenath’s father was a priest in a pagan religion didn’t necessarily mean that she was a follower of that belief as well. In other words, it would be wrong to automatically assume that Asenath held the same religious beliefs as her father Potiphera. In fact, it may have been just the opposite.
For example, it doesn’t seem likely that Pharaoh would set Joseph up in a relationship with someone who was opposed to his beliefs. It also seems doubtful that Joseph would have accepted Asenath if she had been someone was likely to damage his relationship with God. After all, if Joseph could say “no” to someone like Mrs. Potiphar, then he certainly could have done the same thing with Asenath if he wanted to.
But if Asenath was someone who was willing to separate from her family’s pagan religious beliefs and start a new life with Joseph in the way that Deuteronomy 21:10-13 implies, then it’s easier to understand why Pharaoh selected her as a marriage partner for Joseph- and it would also explain why Joseph accepted her.
“Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and traveled throughout Egypt” (Genesis 41:46).
So Joseph was just 30 years old when he became the second in command for the entire nation of Egypt. But remember that Joseph had been in Egypt since he was 17 years old and that meant that he hadn’t seen his family for 13 years. This is something important to keep in mind for later.
Anyway, Joseph took up his new position and got right to work. We know this because verse 46 tells us that, “…Joseph went out over the land of Egypt” (ESV). This scouting mission probably included things like checking out the nation’s agricultural production, picking out storage areas, setting up local collection and storage managers, and making sure that everyone was prepared for what was coming.
So even though seven years sounds like a long time, Joseph knew that there was a lot of work to be done and there was no time to waste.
“During the seven years of abundance the land produced plentifully. Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities.
In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it. Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure” (Genesis 41:47-49).
So just as God had revealed to Joseph, the nation’s agricultural production increased tremendously in the seven years following Pharaoh’s dream. And there was Joseph- collecting, storing, and keeping records of how much food was on hand until he just couldn’t count anymore.
Now before we continue, it’s important to remember the chain of events that led up to this point: First, God told Joseph what He was going to do. Joseph then accepted it and acted on what God had said. So unlike those who claim to believe in God but are unwilling to act on that belief, Joseph’s internal belief in God led to some important external actions- and those actions will eventually be responsible for saving untold numbers of people from certain death.
“Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, ‘It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.’ The second son he named Ephraim and said, ‘It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering'” (Genesis 41:50-52).
Joseph’s firstborn son was named Manasseh, a name that means, “making to forget.” The idea behind Manasseh’s name is that his birth helped Joseph forget all the pain and the sorrow he had experienced throughout the previous years. Joseph then had another son named Ephraim. Ephraim’s name meant “fruitfulness” and his name recognized the great blessings that God had provided for Joseph and his family.
Although it may not be obvious to anyone reading these verses today, it’s interesting to note that Manasseh and Ephraim were not the kind of names that someone was likely to find in Egyptian society during that time. That’s because Manasseh and Ephraim were Hebrew names, not Egyptian names. While it may have been unusual to find a high ranking government official with children whose names didn’t fit that culture, there is a reason to explain why Joseph chose those names- and we’ll look at that reason next.
“Joseph named his firstborn son Manasseh [He Helps Me Forget], because God helped him forget all his troubles and all about his father’s family. He named the second son Ephraim [Blessed Twice With Children], because God gave him children in the land where he had suffered” (Genesis 41:51-52 GW).
It’s not uncommon to find Hollywood movie stars with children who have strange or unusual sounding names today. Its likely that this was something that was also familiar to Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh because in the Egyptian culture of that time, their Hebrew names meant that they were the children with funny sounding names.
So why would Joseph give his children names that were sure to make them sound strange and different to others? Well, Ephraim and Manasseh didn’t get their names because Joseph wanted their identity to sound cute, funny, or different. Their names were designed to serve as a witness to God’s provision in Joseph’s life.
For example, Manasseh’s name helped remind everyone that God had been faithful to make his father forget all the wrong things that had been done to him. Ephraim’s name demonstrated that his father recognized the great blessings that God had given to him while he was in Egypt.
This meant that whenever someone asked one of Joseph’s sons to explain the meaning of his unusual name, he had an opportunity to talk about God’s blessing and faithfulness towards his father. So even though Joseph lived in a culture that didn’t recognize God, he made sure that his sons had names that testified of God’s blessing and faithfulness to him, and would continue to do so long after his death.
“The seven years of abundance in Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in all the other lands, but in the whole land of Egypt there was food” (Genesis 41:53-54).
These verses tell us that this famine wasn’t only limited to the nation of Egypt- it also had an effect on all the other nations in that surrounding area of the world as well. This potentially meant that there were tens of thousands of people (or maybe even hundreds of thousands of people) in other countries who were affected by this famine too. But as bad as this situation was, things weren’t totally hopeless for these other nations. That’s because the leadership of one nation listened to God’s message, took it seriously, and decided to act on the information that was received from Him.
“When all Egypt began to feel the famine, the people cried to Pharaoh for food. Then Pharaoh told all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.’ When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world” (Genesis 41:55-57 ).
Given the severity of this famine, there was a real possibility that many people from Egypt and the surrounding nations could have died as a result. But they didn’t, because one man -Joseph- was determined to honor God with his life. His example tells us that we shouldn’t underestimate the impact we can have on others by living a God-honoring life.
For instance, you may feel as if you’re not having much of an impact for God in your school or neighborhood. But how do you know that your friends haven’t benefited from your Godly influence? How do you know that God hasn’t protected them because you made sure to pray for them? Joseph was a man who honored God with his life and God used him to bless and protect the lives of many others- and He might do the same through you.
Charles Spurgeon was a well known teacher who lived in the 1800’s. He once expressed this idea by saying this…
“If (people) will not hear you speak, they cannot prevent your praying. Do they jest at your exhortations? They cannot disturb you at your prayers. Are they far away so that you cannot reach them? Your prayers can reach them. Have they declared that they will never listen to you again, nor see your face? Never mind, God has a voice which they must hear. Speak to Him, and He will make them feel. Though they now treat you despitefully, rendering evil for your good, follow them with your prayers.” (1)
So who will pray for the people at your school or job if not you? When your co-workers, classmates, or teammates need help and have nowhere else to turn, where will they go? Well, the answer is that they will turn to you because you, as a Christian, have a “hotline” to God through prayer. In a similar way, God gave Joseph an opportunity to be His representative and save the lives of many people- and He just may be willing to do the same thing through you.
(1) Metropolitan Pulpit, vol. 18, pp. 263–264
“Extreme hunger came to all the land of Egypt, and the people cried out to Pharaoh for food. Pharaoh told all Egypt, ‘Go to Joseph and do whatever he tells you'” (Genesis 41:55 HCSB).
The magicians and wise men of Egypt didn’t know God- but Joseph did. The magicians and wise men of Egypt couldn’t help Pharaoh find God- but Joseph could. The magicians and wise men of Egypt were unable to help Pharaoh get the answers he needed from God- but Joseph was able. And like Joseph, we should also seek to be the kind of people that our friends, family members, classmates, teammates, and co-workers turn to when they have spiritual questions.
For the average person living in Egypt at that time, it may have seemed as if Joseph “came out of nowhere” to become the second most powerful government official in the nation. He may have looked like someone who suddenly became an overnight success or a person who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or perhaps Joseph was viewed as someone who was simply lucky enough to score an important, high paying government job. But those who knew Joseph knew better.
You see, Joseph’s dedication was displayed in his willingness to learn and adapt to a culture that was completely different from the one that he had known before. His character was demonstrated in his refusal to do something that he knew was wrong. His endurance was built in the depths of a jail cell where he was unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. And when he was called upon for help, Joseph made sure to focus everyone’s attention on the God who could provide the answers they needed.
As a result, Joseph rose to the second ranked position in the government of the world’s most powerful nation. But Joseph didn’t ascend to this position just so he could enjoy the power and privileges that an important person gets to receive. Instead, God will continue to use Joseph to save the lives of untold numbers of people- including one particular family with 11 brothers who are about to return to the story of Joseph’s life in the next chapter.
So Joseph’s success came as a result of God’s blessing on his life. But Joseph’s success would not be only for his own benefit- it would also be for the benefit of the entire nation of Egypt and the surrounding nations as well.