December 09, 2006

Genesis 41-42: Rags to Riches

Today's reading is Genesis 41-42 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Pharaoh's dreams and Joseph's interpretations of them; Joseph's rise to second-in-command of Egypt; the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine; and Jacob's other sons going down to Egypt and dealing with Joseph for the first time.

I'd like to talk today about Joseph's meteoric rise to power. The first thing we must note is how massive a change it was: Joseph had been in prison for two more years after the butler was restored to his former position (Gen. 41:1). Though he was well-liked within the prison and given some measure of responsibility, he was still a prisoner. And yet, with one command from Pharaoh, he suddenly found himself second-in-command of an entire country. (Gen. 41:39-41) And not just any country, but Egypt: one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the region. One day, prison. Next day, luxury. That sort of thing doesn't often happen anymore. Although, I suppose it could be argued that it didn't happen much then, either.

It is important to remember that, despite the rapid change in fortunes, the decree was a long time in coming. Joseph had been in prison for an unspecified time before the arrival of the king's butler and baker. (Gen. 39-40) After the release of the butler and the execution of the baker, it was another two years before Joseph was given his chance to interpret Pharaoh's dream. Finally, there was no guarantee that Joseph would be the one Pharaoh appointed to oversee the collection of grain during the good years. Joseph merely says that Pharaoh should appoint someone (Gen. 41:33-36). It is Pharaoh who decides this someone should be the dream-interpreter, Joseph. (Gen. 41:37-41) Joseph was ready, but his moment of ascent took a long time to arrive.

Did I mention that Joseph was just thirty years old when he was granted this power? (Gen. 41:46)

How, then, is the second-in-command of all Egypt treated? The text tells us that Joseph received new linen clothes and a golden chain of office (Gen. 41:42) and the "second chariot" of Pharaoh (41:43). He was granted a procession in front of the people of Egypt, so they would know him and cheer him (41:43). He was also granted protection by Pharaoh that no one would attack him in all Egypt (41:44).

Furthermore, Pharaoh gave him a new, Egyptian name, Zaphnathpaaneah (41:45). Pharaoh chose him a wife, the daughter of one of his priests (41:46), by whom he had two sons (41:50-52). In other words, by the end of this, Joseph was completely assimilated into the Egyptian culture, at least by outward appearances.

As the comics say, "with great power comes great responsibility." However, to all intents and purposes, Pharaoh's trust in Joseph was not misplaced. He actually did a very good job at preparing for the seven years of famine. When other countries were in the midst of severe famine, Egypt had fully-stocked granaries. People from other lands came from afar to partake in Egypt's good fortune (or good planning). Among the petitioners were ten of Joseph's brothers, all but Benjamin, his only full brother (the rest had different mothers). This leads us to the second part of today's readings.

In Chapter 42, Joseph begins to show his family stripes. Just as his brothers, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Joseph shows his capacity for deceit. With his new name and trappings of power, none of his brothers recognized their long-lost sibling, though Joseph recognized them (Gen. 42:7, 9). They all believed he was an Egyptian governor, from Egypt. Joseph felt no need to correct their misconception. Instead of the brotherly love we might expect from siblings estranged for twenty years (Joseph is 17 when they sell him to slavery, Gen. 37:2), Joseph decides to toy with his brothers and make them feel truly sorry for what they did to him.

He begins by accusing his brothers, claiming that they were spies. No matter how much the brothers denied the accusations, Joseph remained resolute. (Gen. 42:9-14) He tells them the only way to clear their names is to have their youngest brother come down to Egypt. He then proceeds to throw them all in prison for three days. (Gen. 42:17)

After three days, Joseph appears to have a change of heart. He informs the brothers that they may take back food to their starving families, but one of them must stay behind to ensure that Benjamin come to Egypt and clear their names. (Gen. 42:18-20) The brothers are full of remorse, sure that they are being punished for their former treatment of Joseph, whom they believe to be dead. Through all this, Joseph is listening to their lamentations. But, again the successful deceiver, none of the brothers realize it, because Joseph had been using an interpreter to speak to them. At length, the brothers agree that Simeon will remain behind, and Joseph binds him before their eyes. Then the rest depart.

But Joseph is not finished toying with his brothers yet. In each sack of food, they find the money they used to buy the food. (Gen. 42:35) Instead of being pleased at their windfall, the brothers are afraid. After all, they've just been accused of spying against Egypt. Could this be another ruse? Should they tell the governor that they had regained the money they used to pay him? Would that make him even angrier? Would he accuse them of theft, as well as spying? (Indeed, Joseph does exactly this later, in Gen. 44, with his brother Benjamin.)

What do we learn about Joseph through these episodes? First, he has clearly settled into his power. He has no fear of reprisal from Pharaoh, or anyone else, at the way he treats these Hebrew brothers. He also has clearly picked up his family's penchant for deception: throughout their conversations, his brothers never recognized him. Finally, he shows that he has a vengeful streak in him. We can probably forgive him his anger at his brothers. After all, they nearly killed him and sold him into slavery, and he spent years in prison indirectly because of them. But Joseph plays a particular game with them, taking out his vengeance in a particularly cruel way, by making his brothers face what they did to him all those years ago.

In short, Joseph rose from pauper to prince in a day, and fully intended to take advantage of his position. Perhaps his story is not so different from one we'd read in the tabloids today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you notice the J vs E bits (JEPD)?

Joseph's brothers sell him to passing strangers, vs. they throw him down a well and passing strangers find him.

Midianites vs. Ishmaelites.

Gaol vs. service with Potiphar.

Tricking his brothers TWICE.