Faith, Forgetting and Fruitfulness: Reflections on Genesis 41

Posted by on Jun 7, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

I was preaching on Genesis 41 yesterday. As I don’t expect you to be able to rattle off what that chapter is about, let me refresh your memory. Genesis 37 tells us that a 17 year old Joseph had a dream in which he saw his brothers bowing down to him. Offended by the arrogance of this dream, and by Joseph’s status as his father Jacob’s favourite son, his brothers have him sold into slavery in Egypt. Purchased By Potiphar, he impresses in his new status and is left in charge of Potiphar’s household. For a while things turn out not too badly for Joseph, but then Potiphar’s wife makes advances to him, and unsuccessfully tries to seduce him. Whilst Joseph is at this point usually portrayed as a young man with exemplary sexual restraint, we don’t really know. After all the passage does not tell us what Potiphar’s wife looked like. Perhaps she resembled the back of a bus and Joseph might well have looked at her and thought ‘you are so not a temptation.’ Whatever – she is offended by his disinterest and her wounded pride sees her accuse Joseph of attempted rape. He is thrown into jail.

By the time we get to Genesis 41, Joseph is 30 years of age. 13 years have past since he was sold into slavery, and they have been years of hardship and trial. But then one night, according to Gen 41:1 ‘Pharoah had a dream’.  I imagine if someone went up to Joseph that eventful morning and said, ‘Last night Pharoah had a dream’ he would have yawned a disinterested ‘am I supposed to care?’ But the reality was that as a result of that dream, Joseph’s fortunes are dramatically transformed. In less than 24 hours his status changes from unshaven and poorly dressed prisoner in a dungeon (Gen 41:14) to Primer Minister of Egypt. The rate of change is breathtaking.

While God is mentioned less often than one might imagine in the account, the activity of God in the background is obvious.

Take for example the inexplicable inability of the magicians of Egypt to offer any kind of interpretation for Pharaoh’s dreams. We have got so used to hearing that they couldn’t explain the dreams that we might fail to notice how strange their silence was. After all, interpreting dreams was standard fare for magicians in the ancient world. They did it day after day. Why their sudden silence when Pharaoh tells them his dream? It is not as though it was particularly unusual. This was an essentially farming community, and Pharaoh’s dreams were about cows and corn. You can hardly imagine a dream interpreter in the ancient world when hearing that a dream was about cows suddenly saying: ‘Cows – no sorry, I don’t do cows.’ So why could they not even hazard a guess at this seemingly straightforward dream? The answer is clear… God was making a way for Joseph. God was working behind the scenes. God had hit the start button, and things were now going to progress at a rapid rate.

You see it in other ways as well. Why is it that the cupbearer who had been in jail with Joseph just happens to be on duty the day that Pharaoh talks about his dream? Without him, Joseph’s name would never have come up. After all, it’s not what you know but who you know that matters, and for Joseph the key to freedom was that he knew a cupbearer who had once been a prisoner with him. Co-incidence. Nonsense… God incidence.

With the cupbearer singing Joseph’s praises as a dream interpreter, it is only a matter of minutes before Joseph is before Pharaoh and the meaning of the dream is made clear. It is also clear that someone will need to be in charge of the program called for by the dream (storing away the excess grain from the seven years of abundance so that it will be available during the seven years of famine). By Gen 41:41 Joseph is hearing the words ‘I hearby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’ From prisoner to prime minister in less than 24 hours. When God hits the ‘now’ button, the action quickly begins.

This is one of the key insights of Genesis 41. God is always at work. Sometimes behind the scenes, getting Joseph to meet a disgraced cupbearer in prison. At other times more subtly – confusing experienced dream interpreters so that they suddenly find themselves mute when faced with a pretty simple dream. At other times God’s work is really obvious, as when Joseph is given the dreams interpretation and promoted to the dizzy heights of Prime Minister of Egypt – no small honour, given that Egypt was the superpower of the day.

Significant though this insight from Genesis 41 is, there is yet more to be gleaned from the passage. Have you noticed Gen 41:50-52?

50 Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. 51 Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh[a] and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” 52 The second son he named Ephraim[b] and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

Names tell you so much. Child one, Joseph names Manasseh, which sounds like the Hebrew word for forget. It is poignant. ‘God has made me forget all my trouble’. There is something about having a child that forces you to look to the future rather than the past. For all that, Joseph does not say ‘I had a child and so realised it was time to let go of my bitterness and hurt from the past’. To the contrary, he attributes his change of heart to God: ‘God has made me forget all my trouble.’ And we often do need to ask God to help us to foget.

The reality is that in most lives there are times of hurt, disappointment, failure and broken dreams. Bitterness can so easily set in and hold us back from the future we should be moving towards. This passage quietly affirms that it is God who can help us to forget… God who can help us to move on. And there are times when we need to actively claim that promise and do just that.

The naming of the second son Ephraim is as significant. It means fruitful or doubly fruitful. Joseph again names God as the cause behind the scene… ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.’ God has made me fruitful… Note the realism in the passage. Joseph might have been the PM of Egypt, but Egypt was never his chosen land, to the contrary, it was the ‘land of my suffering’. This was the land of his exile, a place that never really felt like home. But in spite of struggle and suffering, God made him fruitful in the land of his suffering.

It would have been easy for Joseph to have turned his back on Egypt. If he had said, ‘I owe that land nothing. They used me as a slave, then threw me in prison of a false charge of attempted rape – they made my life a horror for 13 years’ – well, who could have blamed him. But God doesn’t allow us to become small, shallow people. And so instead Joseph is able to burst out in delight ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.’ And many of us are not in the place of our choosing. We might not have the job we want, and might find the people we have to mix with boorish and unsavoury – but God still calls us to be fruitful. One of the special things of being part of the family of God is that we are supposed to bless those with whom we come into contact. Jesus called this being the salt of the earth… Christians are people who are called to make a difference wherever they are sprinkled.

Why do we do this. Well it brings us back to the start. Because we are quietly confident that God is always in control. Sometimes God’s work is behind the scenes and not at all obvious. At other times the ‘start’ button gets pressed and action is rapid. But at all times God is in control, sometimes helping us to forget, and always helping us to be constructive and fruitful.

Nice chatting…

2 Comments

  1. I wonder if the narrative placement of the naming points hilariously to Joseph’s naivety concerning God’s overall plan. Joseph is expecting this to be a “happily ever after” story. Instead, we get a fantastically clever setup and plot movement into the next part of the account. What a great book. I love it.

    • Indeed, many twists and turns lie ahead. I agree – a fantastic and profound story.

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