Joseph and the God who brings Famine

Zero to Hero in One Meeting

With Joseph being a slave in prison feeling abandoned by the cupbearer and perhaps by God Pharaoh wakes from a dream with a start. Carnivorous cows and grain eating grain. He knows it must mean something.

He calls all the wisemen and professional dream interpreters but he is not satisfied with any of their answers. Now the cupbearer remembers and Joseph is summoned and the bad news dream is interpreted and the interpretation embraced. Egypt will have seven fat years and seven lean years.

Joseph, always the one with the best management plan apparently recommends storage and disbursement so that the kingdom won’t crumble. Pharaoh I’m sure knows that hunger won’t touch him, but hungry people sometimes rebel when they have nothing left to lose. He signs on and Joseph goes from prison to Prime Minister in one meeting.

The Empire Has No Clothes

Pharaoh is worshiped, protected, indulged and supported because it is assumed his position with the gods secures Egypt’s power and prosperity. Pharaoh manages the gods. Pharaoh together with the gods produce the crops, field the armies and give them victory.

Pharaoh has a bad dream and his court is in an uproar. Our of the Nile, the god of Egypt’s stable food supply that provides the wealth and the power and the glory of empire comes seven healthy cows and seven sickly, carnivorous ones. The grain, the bounty of Egypt that would in Roman times feed the Mediterranean world, consumed itself. The natural order whose silent compliance we presume and whose rebellion we fear has pulled the Pharaoh’s chain.

All the king’s wisemen housed in elaborate stone temples replete with sacrifices cannot satisfy the king’s fear. He knows the dreams are a message and he hopes within the message will be a key for his salvation.

Joseph’s father Jacob, in the conflict with Shechem feared the people of the land. The people that Jacob feared were nothing in comparison with Egypt, the superpower, the enduring empire of the region that would assert itself again and again for thousands of years and which continues to draw the admiration of the world with its wealth and beauty and grandeur of its monuments. THIS empire is revealed to be NOTHING in the face of something as simple as the fear of seven lean years.

The God of Lean Years

This story is particular and dramatic in its assertions. The God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob holds the world in his hand. This God brings seven fat years to Egypt, and will bring seven lean years.

To our secular ears this sounds archaic. Agricultural fat and lean years we imagine are the product of weather patterns and other “natural” factors that are something between random and cyclical. There is no one to thank or to blame.

To our prosperity gospel ears this sounds sacrilegious. The devil brings famine God brings prosperity.  The devil brings recession, God brings economic growth.

In the story of Genesis God will bring a famine over “all the earth” just like God gave Adam and Eve dominion over “all the earth” and God covered “all the earth” with the waters of the great flood.

All of this is deeply troubling to us.

Why do we derive comfort from asserting that no one is to blame for drought? Why do we derive comfort blaming the devil for drought? Are we disturbed by the idea that there is a God who’s choosings always trump out own?

God’s Communication Strategy

This God who has revealed himself to Abraham’s family seems to maintain both a public persona and an Abrahamic family particular persona.

This God reveals the happy future of the imperial cupbearer to the cupbearer in a dream, and reveals the unhappy future of the imperial baker to the baker in a dream, but gives neither the ability to interpret it without Joseph, who is their minder in prison. The same is true for Pharaoh. God speaks to these pagans in their dreams and sends them out looking for his representative to help them make sense of them.

Joseph is not given the dreams. Why not? Certainly if God can give him the interpretation then God can also give him the raw material to interpret?

On a relational level the answer is obvious. The cupbearer, the baker and the Pharaoh would not pay any attention to Joseph nor the interpretation without first being gripped both by the content of the dream and the undeniable persuasion that the dream reveals the future of what they hold dear, mostly themselves.

If you combine the God ordained lean years with the God ordained dreams and the cultural and internally persuasive embrace that the dreams are important this all seems to be something dramatic, consequential and large that the mover in this story wishes to accomplish. God is going to create the threat and then orchestrate the rescue from the threat and in the process say something to his audience he wants his audience to get.

A Manipulative Rescue Scheme?

If we say that the purpose of the Joseph story is for God to arrange things to rescue the world, this might sound a bit strange since God seems also to be the source of its calamity. It would be like having a neighbor who at night came and slashed your tires so you couldn’t drive to work to make the money to feed your family but then miraculously showed up with a jack, a wrench and four new tires so that you could say he rescued you and your family from calamity and thus being worthy of your praise. It all sounds like some sort of con.

If there is a God and he has the power and the will to con us in this way I’m afraid we have very few options. We would be at the mercy of this God whether we liked it or not.

In all fairness, however, if there is no god and the materialist conception of the universe is true then given the fact that we will all die given enough time and anything and everything we’ve ever loved or found meaning in is destined for destruction, then we don’t have a lot at risk anyway.

If, however, there is a good God, who cares not only for Joseph and his troublesome brothers but also Pharaoh, his servants and the people of the lands of all the earth, and this whole business of fat and lean years and rescue through storage and distribution is part of that message, then it makes sense to try to figure out what it all is supposed to mean.

What Does this God Want?

This God seems to want something, and he seems to be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get it, lengths that include covering the world with water and drowning all but one family, and in this case smothering all the lands of the earth with lean years and forcing them to travel to Egypt to buy grain. To we comfortable, secure, pain-averse Westerners this all seems to be too much. We like our gods to be non-existent, benignly absent or perfectly attentive and indulgent of not only our physical needs but also our emotional needs. If we have a relationship with this god we wish him to be quite co-dependent and greatly fear our threats at turning from him or snubbing him or her.

The god of the book of Genesis seems to want something for us beyond our comfort, beyond our choices of keeping our heads (the imperial baker), beyond our desire for job and food security and beyond many of the agendas that grip us. If this God is good then the good this God is guiding us to must be a greater good than the agendas and mediated goods we focus on.

Going back to the beginning of the book it is something that addresses the rebellion of the man and the woman in the garden. It is something that addresses the violence and bloodshed of Noah’s generation before the flood. It is beyond the anxiety of Abraham and the insecurity of Jacob and vengeance of his sons.

It is something that he wants to whole world to share in. He wants kings to understand his plans and stewards to rejoice in liberation. The salvation that Joseph brings to the world in the seven lean years is akin to the feast Jesus sets before the 5000 from five lean loaves and two lean fish. Joseph uses his gift of management employing the bounty of the seven fat years while Jesus feeds us from his body and gives us drink from his blood.

What does this God want? This God wants the community with us that was lost in the garden, destroyed by our naked insecurity and our inability to endure his beauty, brilliance and glory.

What Do You Do With This Story? 

As it is this is a story in an ancient book. People will say different things about it.

A Skeptic might say “Believing in dreams is primitive. Stories about dreams coming true are fairy tales. No Pharaoh would elevate a prisoner on just one hearing of a not-that-difficult to interpret dream. Strange story, so what.”

Many in the church might approach the story as some sort of moral formula by which Joseph is rewarded for doing good things with wealth and power. “See, because Joseph didn’t sleep with Potipher’s wife and was loyal and truthful he was blessed by God and rewarded with this elevation to power and privilege.”

I’m not sure that’s why the story is told. I don’t see the Bible consistently pushing the idea that moral behavior or loyalty towards the right God will always be rewarded by circumstantial favor. Jesus was the best man who ever lived and he was beaten to death by his enemies and abandoned by his friends.

The problem with the churchy reading of the story is that the story isn’t primarily about Joseph, it is about God and God revealing his character and his mission to Joseph’s family (as we’ll see in subsequent chapters) and to the world. While Joseph appears to often be a moral and virtuous man in his family the emphasis in this story is always how this God changes us. We’ll see that later on when we turn our attention back to Judah.

Consistency in Character and Mission

Joseph isn’t around to rescue us from food shortages but the church through this story proclaims that the God of this story remains consistent in his character and mission today. It proclaims that in fact a greater Joseph has come displayed not only that this God moves us towards himself at even greater personal risk and cost than we see in this story and that the expanse of the mission of this God is no smaller than all his creation.

The end of chapter 41 is a symphony of “alls”

41:53 The seven years of abundance in the land of Egypt came to an end. 41:54 Then the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had predicted. There was famine in all the other lands, but throughout the land of Egypt there was food. 41:55 When all the land of Egypt experienced the famine, the people cried out to Pharaoh for food. Pharaoh said to all the people of Egypt, “Go to Joseph and do whatever he tells you.”
41:56 While the famine was over all the earth, Joseph opened the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians. The famine was severe throughout the land of Egypt. 41:57 People from every country came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain because the famine was severe throughout the earth.
Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Ge 41:53–57). Biblical Studies Press.
6:1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). 6:2 A large crowd was following him because they were observing the miraculous signs he was performing on the sick. 6:3 So Jesus went on up the mountainside and sat down there with his disciples. 6:4 (Now the Jewish feast of the Passover was near.) 6:5 Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?” 6:6 (Now Jesus said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.) 6:7 Philip replied, “Two hundred silver coins worth of bread would not be enough for them, for each one to get a little.” 6:8 One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 6:9 “Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?”
6:10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” (Now there was a lot of grass in that place.) So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed the bread to those who were seated. He then did the same with the fish, as much as they wanted. 6:12 When they were all satisfied, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather up the broken pieces that are left over, so that nothing is wasted.” 6:13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves left over by the people who had eaten.
6:14 Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 6:15 Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone.
Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Jn 6:1–15). Biblical Studies Press.

Pharaoh proclaims that the world must come to Joseph to have bread. God turns the God of Egypt who was intended to be the provider for his land through his relationship with the gods of the land into the herald for Joseph, his own ambassador. Pharaoh used Joseph to continue to secure his own kingship.

Jesus feeds the multitude directly with far less than Joseph was provided, but he refuses to become the kind of King that Pharaoh was. Jesus’ mission was in alignment with the mission of of the God of lean years in that Jesus himself would become lean so that he would bring the people to the God.

How will you hear this story?



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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