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Joseph falsely accused and imprisoned
Genesis Chapter 39, verses 1-6
Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.
The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. 5From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. 6So he left in Joseph’s care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.
Now Joseph was well-built and handsome,
After the interlude that related some of the shameful goings-on in the family of Judah, Moses once again picks up the thread of the story of Joseph. It is this thread that the remaining dozen chapters of Genesis will follow. What happened to Joseph in Egypt is of the greatest importance for the family of Jacob, the family of the promise.
There was a lively slave trade in the ancient Mediterranean world, and Joseph had involuntarily been swept into it. In that world a slave was considered little more than a piece of property. In the Lord’s eyes, however, Joseph was vastly more. He was, first, a dearly loved child and, second, a valuable and chosen instrument through whom God was going to bless his people.
To bring that about, God arranged to have an official of the Egyptian royal guard purchase Joseph. Joseph’s age (17), his muscular build, and his good looks were what probably attracted Potiphar’s attention in the first place. But it didn’t take him long to realize what a bargain he had gotten at the slave market that day. His new slave was not only strong but intelligent. He had a good attitude; he was not bitter about his lot in life, giving his new master only sullen obedience. The Spirit of God had created in Joseph an attitude of resignation and a trust in the covenant God, although at the moment he was leading Joseph along a very perplexing and difficult path.
That same covenant God, the God of absolute constancy, prospered the work Joseph did in Potiphar’s household. What an assurance it must have been for that lonely teenager in a foreign land! The Lord’s hand of blessing became obvious as Potiphar gave Joseph one promotion after another.
Joseph was permitted to live in the master’s house, instead of in the slaves’ quarters. He became Potiphar’s personal attendant. Potiphar could only conclude that Joseph’s God (whoever he was) must have been smiling on him. Joseph received still another promotion when his master put him in charge of the entire household, including supervision of the other slaves. Finally, Potiphar made him manager of everything he owned.
There was only one detail of household management that Potiphar reserved for himself, and we’re not told exactly why. Potiphar seems to have been a religious man, who observed what the prescribed Egyptian ritual had to say about preparing and eating food. Potiphar preferred to supervise this himself, instead of leaving it up to his foreign slave.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see God’s hand in Joseph’s life even more clearly than Potiphar could. Not only was Joseph developing patience and growing in trust, but the years he spent as manager of a large household were God’s way of building and honing his administrative skills. God was soon to find good use for them.
Genesis Chapter 39, verses 7 through 10
and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”
But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.
It’s estimated that Joseph may have spent ten years in Potiphar’s household before he suffered another serious setback. Things had been going unusually well for him, and it seemed that a comfortable life in Potiphar’s service lay ahead. But that is not what the covenant God had in mind. The Lord had bigger and better plans for Joseph, and slowly these began to take shape—again in a way that was painful for Joseph.
His master’s wife began to express an unwholesome interest in the young slave, and the attraction she felt for him posed a much greater temptation for Joseph than the hatred of his brothers had. The more attractive and pleasing a temptation is, the harder it is to resist.
When the mistress of the household propositioned him, Joseph declined. In the first place, to accept her invitation would be to violate the trust his master had placed in him. But, even more important, to yield to her seduction would be to sin against God. The word translated sin means “to miss the mark.” As our Creator, God is also our Master, who has determined the way he wants his creatures to live. He sets the goals for life: we creatures do not. And the goal God has set for life is not “Fun, fun, fun!” The only legitimate goals for life are (1) God’s greater glory and (2) our neighbor’s welfare. To substitute physical gratification for God’s goals is to miss God’s mark, and Joseph was afraid to do that.
“How could I do such a wicked thing?” Joseph asked. He spoke from a double motivation. First, he stood in awe of God. God’s approval meant more to Joseph than a few moments of pleasure with another man’s wife. Joseph was actually afraid to do something that would displease God. And second, he loved God, the God who had chosen his family to be the cradle of the Savior. More than 30 centuries later, Martin Luther put into words the double motivation that led Joseph to refuse to go to bed with Potiphar’s wife: “We should fear and love God that we lead a pure and decent life in words and actions.”
Joseph’s high moral standards made him all the more desirable to the lady of the household. Day after day she invited him to have sex with her, and day after day he declined her invitations.
Genesis Chapter 39, verses 11 through 18
One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.
When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
The time came when Potiphar’s wife refused to take no for an answer. When she grabbed Joseph by the cloak and commanded, “Come to bed with me!” he had no choice but to run out of the house, leaving his cloak, the outer robe that hung over the shoulders, in her hand. Joseph may have lost his cloak, but he retained a good conscience. Later chapters of this narrative will document the fact that the Savior is very well able, should he so choose, to compensate us for what we give up in loyalty to him. A few years later, the ruler of Egypt clothed Joseph in robes of fine linen (Chapter 41, verse 42).
With the same passion with which she had sought to seduce Joseph, Potiphar’s wife now sought revenge against him. With his cloak in her hands as circumstantial evidence, she accused him before the members of her household and before her husband of having tried to attack her.
Genesis Chapter 39, verses 19-23
When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.
But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.
Potiphar was angry when he heard his wife’s charges against Joseph, and we’re not told specifically why he was angry. There is reason to think Potiphar may have suspected her of not telling the truth, and now it was going to cost him a competent and conscientious business manager. In the ancient world, for a slave to make sexual advances toward his master’s wife would almost surely have earned him the death penalty. Joseph, however, got off with a prison sentence.
Potiphar could not publicly humiliate his wife by ignoring her charges; imprisoning the accused slave may have been his way of helping her to save face. At the time Joseph was led off to prison, he was probably too upset to notice, but he was not assigned a cell on death row to await execution, and he was not left to rot in a dungeon. He was imprisoned where the king’s prisoners were confined apparently those accused of political crimes. This seemingly minor detail would later play a major role in getting Joseph out of prison and into a position of authority second only to the king.
God’s loyal love followed Joseph into the prison, which soon became apparent. God granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden, who may very well have been tipped off by Potiphar to put Joseph’s outstanding gifts to use in the prison. Joseph was actually put in charge of all the prisoners. Instead of being sentenced to solitary confinement, Joseph had access to all the prisoners—two of whom were, in God’s plan, to be his ticket to freedom.
Since we know how this story comes out, we can see more clearly than Joseph could the strong and steady love of God that was guiding Joseph through these stormy years of his life. Perhaps that is a Bible truth chapter 39 can teach us, especially when our lives, like Joseph’s, take unexpected and unpleasant turns and detours. To remain faithful under temptation, to remain trusting under crushing personal tragedy, we must be convinced that the Savior has a good plan for us and that he’s committed to carrying it out. The closing chapters of Genesis—as well as the story of Calvary assure us that he has a good plan, and that he is committed to carrying it out.
Joseph, interpreter of dreams
Genesis Chapter 40, verses 1-8
Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them.
After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.
When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why are your faces so sad today?”
“We both had dreams,” they answered, “but there is no one to interpret them.”
Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”
In the course of time, two new prisoners were placed in Joseph’s charge—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt. Since ancient kings lived in constant danger of assassination, it became common practice for the king to select two of his most trusted servants to make sure that nobody in the palace kitchen poisoned his food or drink. Now because of some sort of offense real or imagined these two court officials fell from favor and were imprisoned by the king. The captain of the guard (according to Chapter 39, verse 1, that would be Potiphar, Joseph’s former master) perhaps remembered the distinguished service Joseph had rendered him and then assigned him to supervise the two prominent prisoners.
One morning when Joseph made his prison rounds, he noticed that the two special prisoners were disturbed about something. When he inquired, he learned that both had had dreams the previous night. Both were convinced God was telling them something by means of the dreams, but they didn’t know what. Ancient kings commonly had wise men whose job it was to interpret the royal dreams and to advise the king accordingly, but such help was not available to prisoners.
“Since God sent the dreams,” Joseph told them, “only he can give the interpretation.” When he then added, “Tell me your dreams,” we see that Joseph was allowing for the possibility that God, who alone knew the meaning of the dreams he had sent, might enable Joseph to give the interpretation.
Genesis Chapter 40, verses 9-15
So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, “In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.”
12“This is what it means,” Joseph said to him. “The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
The cupbearer told his dream first. In front of him was a vine with three branches, which budded and blossomed and produced grapes. He squeezed the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and offered it to the king. Joseph interpreted the dream to say this: “In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head.” The sacred writer uses the identical Hebrew expression three times (verses 13, 19, 20) in a play on words, a pun. When Joseph told the cupbearer that Pharaoh would lift up his head, he meant that the king would lift him up from disgrace and elevate him to his former position.
To the good news, Joseph added this plea: “When you’re released from prison, remember the one who brought you this good news. Please mention me to Pharaoh.” To strengthen his plea, Joseph recalled that on two occasions he’d been the victim of injustice. Without mentioning either his brothers or Potiphar’s wife by name, he emphasized that he had done nothing to deserve being torn forcibly from his homeland and later being thrown into prison.
Genesis Chapter 40, verses 16-19
When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, “I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”
“This is what it means,” Joseph said. “The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh.”
The favorable interpretation Joseph had given the chief cupbearer encouraged the chief baker to share the details of his dream. He sensed that the two dreams were so similar that he dared to hope for an identical happy outcome. He was going to be disappointed.
In his dream the royal baker saw himself carrying three baskets of baked goods for Pharaoh on his head, but birds were eating the contents of the topmost basket. The significant way the dream ended sealed the baker’s doom.
Joseph interpreted, “Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you.” Here the same expression is used as in verse 13, but in a drastically different sense. In three days the baker would be a dead man. He would be beheaded and his body hanged from a tree, where vultures would attack it. It took courage for Joseph to inform so prominent a prisoner of so terrible a doom awaiting him in so short a time, but Joseph was only announcing the truth God had revealed to him.
Genesis Chapter 40, verses 20-23
Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.
The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Three days later there was a celebration in honor of Pharaoh’s birthday. What happened at that celebration proved the correctness of Joseph’s interpretation. It appears that the royal birthday was an occasion that the king might celebrate by declaring amnesty for certain political prisoners.
Apparently the chief cupbearer’s offense was considered pardonable, the chief baker’s not. After he was released from prison, however, the cupbearer didn’t bother to remember Joseph’s plea. After all, what was a Hebrew slave in prison compared to an official of the royal court?
Joseph must have been down in the mouth when days and months passed and he heard nothing from the royal cupbearer. This thought must have passed through his mind: “There went my last hope of gaining my freedom.”
Joseph could not have understood that God was behind the cupbearer’s forgetfulness. If that man had put in a good word for Joseph and the king had pardoned him, he would have left prison a free man and returned to everyday life in Egypt as an unknown. He might even have returned to his home in Canaan. But when Joseph left prison—and he was going to—God wanted him to
take up a new and special career that would benefit God’s people directly and would help to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Meeting the chief cupbearer marked the turning point in Joseph’s career. At that moment his humiliation had reached its lowest point. From here on, everything would be looking up for him, although he was not aware of it. “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”
Joseph’s dramatic rise to power
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 1-7
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.
He 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.
Another two years passed for Joseph in prison, perhaps the dreariest years of his life. He had now spent 13 years in Egypt. That’s a good share of one’s lifetime, and since Joseph realized he’d been forgotten by the royal cupbearer, he must have wondered if he would ever be a free man again. Now, however, God’s hour had arrived. When Joseph’s deliverance came, it came suddenly and unexpectedly.
Once again God spoke by means of a dream, this time to Pharaoh. The locale of the dream was not unusual. Pharaoh himself was standing at the Nile, the river that brings life to a country that is 95 percent desert. But the action of the dream was most unusual. Seven sleek and fat cows came up out of the river and grazed along the shore. Then in his dream, Pharaoh saw seven other cows, scrawny and ugly, also come up out of the river. But instead of grazing along the shore, they ate up the fat ones.
The king knew that cows are herbivores, not carnivores. And after the scrawny cows had eaten the fat ones, they remained just as scrawny as they had been. The dream was so unusual, so disturbing, that it interrupted Pharaoh’s sleep.
When he managed to fall asleep again, he had a second dream, similar to the first but even stranger. Seven goodsized ears of grain grew on a single stalk. After them seven thin heads of grain sprouted and swallowed up the goodsized heads. Heads of grain eating other heads of grain how odd! And as with the first dream, the good ones came first, only to be destroyed by the bad ones. Again, the dream was so vivid and its message so foreboding that it disturbed the king’s sleep.
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 8-13
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.
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.”
The following morning the king was still bothered by what he had dreamed. He believed that the gods sometimes spoke to people in dreams; were his gods trying to tell him something here? Furthermore, both dreams ended on a note of tragedy.
Why should healthy cows have been swallowed up by scrawny ones, and healthy heads of grain by thin ones? Were these dreams bad news for the land of Egypt? Pharaoh had to find out. The dreams surely seemed to point to trouble ahead for the flocks and crops of Egypt, the very lifeblood of its existence as a nation.
The king assembled his wise men and his experts in magic, the most learned men in all Egypt, and asked them what his dreams meant. These men were a high rank of priests who specialized in determining the will of the gods and relaying this to men. But the experts stood speechless before their king. They could read their magic formulas for arriving at interpretations, and they could go through the rituals of their priestcraft, but they were completely out of touch with the sovereign Lord of nations, who had spoken to Pharaoh in the dream.
It was then that Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer spoke up. He recalled that in prison he and the chief baker had met a young Hebrew who had interpreted their dreams. Although their dreams had been similar, each had a different ending. The Hebrew had interpreted both dreams, and events had unfolded exactly as he had predicted.
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 14-24
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.
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.”
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, fat and sleek, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows came up—scrawny and very ugly and lean. I had never seen such ugly cows in all the land of Egypt. The lean, ugly cows ate up the seven fat cows that came up first. But even after they ate them, no one could tell that they had done so; they looked just as ugly as before. Then I woke up.
“In my dreams I also saw seven heads of grain, full and good, growing on a single stalk. After them seven other heads sprouted—withered and thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven good heads. I told this to the magicians, but none could explain it to me.”
Joseph was immediately summoned to appear before Pharaoh. From the moment the conversation between king and prisoner began, one senses that the balance of power shifted. In his own nation, the king may have been regarded as a god, but he was clearly not in charge of the situation here. He had been on the receiving end of a dream that bothered him.
And neither were his priestly advisers and magicians in control of the situation. For all of their pious mumbling and posturing, they were unable to tell their king what he needed to know.
Who was in charge of the scene in the royal palace? Listen in on the conversation: “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.”
The sovereign Lord of nations was sending a message to a heathen king.
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 25-32
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. 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.
The king had reviewed the details of this double dream, and now it was Joseph’s turn. God had given him a beautiful opportunity to witness the truth to a man who didn’t know it. Because Pharoah’s own gods and his country’s wisest men had been of no help to him, the king was receptive to what Joseph had to say, and Joseph made the most of his opportunity.
Joseph had just come from prison to the palace, and the subject of the first two sentences he spoke was God. “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” The Hebrew word for God here has the definite article attached to it; this usually emphasizes “the one true God.”
“The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. The one true God, sovereign Lord of the nations, has sent you a message about what he’s going to do in your country. Seven years of great abundance are coming, but seven years of famine will follow. Just as in your dreams in which the lean and ugly devoured the healthy and strong, so the seven years of famine will swallow up the supplies of grain stored up during the years of abundance.
“The matter has been firmly decided by God [the one true God] and God will do it soon.” Here is further testimony that God was in control, regulating the flooding of the Nile, controlling Egypt’s agriculture to serve his purposes. For God to have spoken to Pharaoh in dreams twice indicated that the full set of 14 years would begin soon.
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 33-40
“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.”
The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?”
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 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.”
Joseph did not stop with merely interpreting the king’s dream; he added advice for the king. He listed some steps Pharaoh could take immediately to prepare for the famine, now only seven years away. The same Spirit of God who had given Joseph the key to unlock the mystery of Pharaoh’s dreams suggested a method for meeting the emergency confronting Egypt.
“Since we’re now in the first of the abundant crop years, you’d be well advised to find the right man and put him in charge of Egypt’s food supply. Take 20 percent of each farmer’s harvest in each of the next seven years and put it in storage, so that there will be adequate supplies to supplement the poor harvests in the seven bad years that are coming.” A 20 percent tax was surely not a heavy tax in prosperous years. Joseph had calculated that this would accumulate a food reserve adequate to see Egypt and its neighbors through the years of food shortage.
The king was mightily impressed by Joseph’s words. His interpretation of the two dreams was logical and clear, and his suggestions for immediate action seemed realistic. Even more, the king realized that the words of Joseph were not just common sense; they were supernatural wisdom.
“I’ve already found the man you say I should look for. You shall be in charge.” Is it unrealistic to think that an absolute monarch like Pharaoh would elevate a slave and a foreign slave, at that to the number two position in the kingdom? Pharaoh’s own words answer the question: “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?”
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 41-45
So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” 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.” 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.
Joseph was now permitted to enjoy not only the title but also the fringe benefits of high office: fine linen robes, a gold chain about his neck, and even the king’s signet ring authorizing him to give orders in the king’s name. Since this unknown foreigner was going to be instituting some sweeping
changes in the Egyptian economy, the king thought it best to introduce him formally, by means of a parade through the streets of the capital.
Pharaoh took one more step to ensure that the people of Egypt would cooperate with Joseph willingly. He gave Joseph a new identity as an Egyptian. No longer would he be referred to as “that Hebrew slave” (Chapter 39, verse 17). Joseph got an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife, daughter of the priest of On. Since the city of On, more familiar to us as Heliopolis, was the center of the worship of the sun god Re, Joseph’s father-in-law may very well have been the high priest. We’re told that pharaohs also chose their wives from this family. So in addition to having a prominent position in Egypt, Joseph had status as well. He was regarded as the equal of the priests, the highest class of Egyptian society.
Some have wondered whether this might have posed a conflict of interest for Joseph. It is not stated, and we need not assume, that because Joseph was given rank equal to that of priests that he had to take par t in the worship of the sun god. The duties Pharaoh assigned to him were political and economic, not religious.
Genesis Chapter 41, verses 46-57
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. 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.
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.”
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. 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.
At this significant point in the narrative, Moses helps us to put Joseph’s life in a time frame. “Joseph was 30 years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh.” Since we learned earlier that he was 17 years old when his brothers sold him (Chapter 37, verse 2), we realize he had already spent 13 years of his life away from his home and family. And knowing the number of good and bad crop years, we can use this base number of 30 to calculate Joseph’s age when he was reunited with his brothers (Chapter 45, verse 6).
But for now he had work to do. He made a tour throughout the land of Egypt to inspect existing grain storage facilities and to plan the new ones that would be needed. Under his supervision, huge quantities of grain were stored up during the years of plenty. Storage sites were located in the cities, perhaps to simplify distribution of food to the populace during the drought years that lay ahead.
Before moving on to a description of those years, Moses gives us some information about Joseph’s family. God blessed Joseph and his wife with two sons, and Joseph chose impressive names for them. The firstborn was Manasseh (“he caused me to forget”). Instead of letting bitterness against his brothers or Potiphar’s wife simmer in his heart, Joseph let God erase the pain of those hurts. He concentrated on the fact that God had released him from slavery and from prison and equipped him to serve his Lord in a unique way.
The other son was named Ephraim (“double fruitfulness”). The name reflects Joseph’s joy over this second gift of God. Joseph didn’t know it at the time, but because his father, Jacob, was going to give him the right of the firstborn, both of his sons would be heads of tribes in the future nation of Israel.
Joseph occupied a position of power and privilege in an ancient nation that was a world power, but he did not consider Egypt his home. We learn this from a remark he made when naming Ephraim: “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Egypt was very obviously the place God wanted Joseph to be at that time, and he was content to live there. But his heart was in Canaan. That was the land of promise, and Joseph had not forgotten.
Now the good years, the years of abundant crops, were over, and the years of crop shortages and famine began. When the people of Egypt appealed to their king for help, he directed them to Joseph. Joseph realized that the nation’s grain reserves from the years of plenty had to be guarded carefully if the nation was to survive seven years of famine, and so he did not simply give grain back to the people who had originally grown it. Instead he sold it to them, as he did to the people of other nations who came to Egypt to buy food. This was the means God used to bring about the migration of Jacob’s family to Egypt.
Chapter 41 is a busy chapter, long and crowded with detail. But we dare not let the mass of detail divert our attention from a blessed truth. Our Savior holds the destiny of all people in his hands. He so directs their courses that even the doings of the ungodly, though they may not realize it, must contribute to God’s glory and to the welfare of his family of believers. God had overruled the evil designs of Joseph’s brothers, and now he controlled even the destiny of the nation of Egypt in order to serve his good plans for his chosen people.