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"Joseph, from Prison to Palace"

July 20, 2014 Genesis 41(38-52)


Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Power undirected by high purpose spells calamity..." Leo Tolstoy wrote: "In order to obtain and hold power a man must love it.Thus the effort to get it is not likely to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities of pride, craft, and cruelty."

Is it possible for a person to be in a position of power and not be corrupted? Can a person hold responsibility and resist the temptation to use it for unjust personal gain? Even the Bible alludes to this happening - Ecclesiastes 5:9 "The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields."

Recent news stories offer examples very readily. The Sunday Times alleges (See also here) officials at FIFA, the world soccer organization, were bribed by a wealthy businessman to secure the right for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup competition. (Now, really, who wants to play or watch soccer when it's 40 degrees Celsius?!)

Also related to FIFA, the BBC reports an international gang is suspected of having made money by acquiring and illegally selling on VIP tickets and hospitality packages; this supposedly happened at as many as four World Cups, earning about $90m per tournament. So the boss of a FIFA partner firm in the UK has surrendered to police.

A little closer to home, two former attorneys-general for the state of Utah are reported to have been arrested on bribery charges. They're are accused of accepting more than $50,000, as well as using personal property including a luxury jet and houseboat owned by a businessman in trouble with regulators. They also allegedly stayed at an expensive beach resort, and accepted meals, clothing and massages paid for by another man charged with fraud. Doesn't look good for someone who's supposed to be an attorney general!

Then right here in Canada - this week we found out the RCMP has charged suspended Senator Mike Duffy with bribery, frauds on the government and 29 other charges related to Senate expenses, the awarding of consultant contracts and the acceptance of a $90,000 payment by the prime minister's former chief of staff. While the case is before the courts (and we mustn't jump to conclusions), even the Prime Minister's spokesman stated: "Those who break the rules must suffer the consequences.The conduct described in the numerous charges against Mr. Duffy is disgraceful."

It seems to be one of the basic principles of the world that, should you succeed in attaining a powerful office, you're almost expected to "milk it for all it's worth". But in today's reading, we meet a young man who rises to the most powerful position in the country - yet approaches it very differently than as a plum to be plucked for himself. The story of Joseph suggests the only person worthy of being entrusted with great authority is, ironically, one who has learned to treat it as just that - a trust, not a "right". Someone graced to subordinate themselves to a still Higher Power.


Let's briefly recap the journey that has brought Joseph to this point. Yes he did have two marvelous dreams back in chapter 37(7,9): his brothers' sheaves bowed down to his sheaf of grain; and the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowed down to him. His brothers and even his father, whose favourite he was, thought it outrageous that they would ever bow down to him.

Soon after, Joseph was completely FORSAKEN. His brothers had had enough of their kid brother tattling on their misdeeds, and his conceited dreams. At first they were going to kill him, but instead they sold him into slavery. They completely forsook him, and rigged the evidence to make it look to his father as if he had been torn to pieces by a wild animal.

For a while as a slave in Egypt Joseph got along all right in the house of one of Pharaoh's officials, but then he was FRAMED. Potiphar's wife lustily invited him to bed, but when he kept on refusing, eventually she grabbed his cloak but he ran off. There were no witnesses so she made up a story about him trying to take advantage of her. Her husband believed her lie, and soon Joseph wasn't a slave but a prisoner. He'd been neatly framed.

Then in prison, he was FORGOTTEN. He helped two of Pharaoh's courtiers by interpreting their dreams. Genesis 41:10-13 summarizes the previous chapter, as recounted by one of the courtiers, Pharaoh's cupbearer: "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."

When Joseph realized the cupbearer would be elevated back into proximity to Pharaoh, he begged him in 40:14f, "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." You'd have thought the cupbearer would have been so happy to be sprung from prison that he'd have interceded in order to get Joseph released right away. But what happened? 40:23 "The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him." How about that! There's gratitude for you - left him there in prison to rot!

Put yourself in Joseph's shoes - Joseph's prison clothes - at this point. How would you feel? You've been a slave for about 10 years, sold out by your very own brothers, your own flesh and blood. Then you were harassed and falsely accused by your employer. Then you helped a fellow prisoner in good faith, with the expectation he would act swiftly once he was freed to obtain justice for you, show that you were innocent, clear your name, and get you released. Instead, he forgot you completely and left you there, incarcerated. What emotions and sentiments rise inside you? A little bitter, perhaps? A bit resentful? A LOT resentful? After all, you have every reason to be, on account of all the wrongs done to you. Would you be plotting your revenge against your brothers? "I'll show them who's boss!" Would you make plans to get back at that twisted cow Mrs Potiphar? Would you be working out in the weight room, pumping iron so that if you ever got close again to that ungrateful cupbearer, you could tear him limb from limb for completely forgetting you? Proverbs 24:29 warns, "Do not say, 'I'll do to him as he has done to me; I'll pay that man back for what he did.'" But it's so natural to WANT to, almost like a knee-jerk reaction. Much harder to do as Paul teaches in Romans 12:19, "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."

We want to see 'justice' done - especially when it's for 'just us'!


But somehow, Joseph doesn't stew in that soup. He goes on being a servant leader, the "born manager" God made him to be; 38:22 tells us he had been put in charge by the warden of all those held in the prison, and "he was made responsible for all that was done there." Was God shaping Joseph's character by the two-year wait? Why the hold-up?

All we know is that the time did come for Joseph's emergence on the scene. At various places in Scripture, God used dreams to communicate with pagan rulers in power. Abimelech at the time of Abraham in Genesis 20; King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon in Daniel 2&4; the three Magi in Matthew 2; Pilate's wife in Matthew 27: 19 - remember at Jesus' trial, "While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: 'Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.'"

In Genesis 41, God gives Pharaoh two separate dreams: 7 fat sleek cows coming up out of the Nile then being eaten by 7 skinny cows; and 7 healthy plumb heads of wheat being swallowed up by 7 skinny, withered heads. Pharaoh is troubled by the dreams, and asks his magicians and wise men to interpret, but they can't. Suddenly something clicks for the cupbearer, a light goes on in the back of his head, and he remembers the Hebrew slave who so accurately interpreted his dream in prison. He begins in a repentant tone, "Today I am reminded of my shortcomings" - and proceeds to recommend Joseph for the task of interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

Just the kind of resource Pharaoh's looking for! Joseph is quickly brought from the dungeon, shaved, and has his clothes changed. Pharaoh introduces the subject, 41:15 "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."

Here comes Joseph's chance to shine - to parade his considerable skills, show off his gifting so as to impress this man on the throne who might be persuaded to finally spring him from jail! But note carefully how Joseph presents himself. Is it self-promoting, or self-deprecating? WHO's he determined to make "look good"? V16 ""I cannot do it," Joseph replied to Pharaoh, "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires."" Huh? What's his emphasis? "Not I, BUT GOD..." He shines the spotlight not on himself, but on God alone. "I can't, but GOD CAN..." His confidence is not in his own abilities, but totally on what God's about to make happen. He gives God the credit, the glory, the honour; through the dozen or so years he's learned "It's not about me." He is what the beatitudes of Jesus would call "spiritually poor", meek, he knows his need of God.

Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul exhibited a similar dependence on God, giving God glory rather than bragging about his own ability. 1Cor 15:10 "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect.No, I worked harder than all of them [other apostles] - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me." Or as he put it in 2Cor 3:5, "Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God." Joseph had been learning through all those years to walk step by step with God.

And in vv25-32, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams - 7 years of great abundance to be followed by 7 years of famine. "God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do," Joseph says (v25). God shows His trusting servant Joseph the true meaning that escaped all Egypt's wise men and magicians. Psalm 25:14 "The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them." As Paul keeps asking for believers in the church at Ephesus, "May [God] give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." (Eph 1:17) God is entirely able to communicate what He wants to His people!

Joseph's humility shows through in another place. This "born manager" immediately suggests a plan by which to maximize the benefits of the years of abundance, and mitigate the effects of the subsequent lean years. V33 "And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt." He also suggests appointment of commissioners to store up 1/5 of the harvest near each city as reserves, essentially a sort of "income stabilization" plan.

But did you notice how he phrased it? "Let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man..." No suggestion of himself, no promoting his own capability. As far as Joseph's concerned, it could be anybody, he's not vying for the position. He's learned to be humble, to have a servant attitude. Pharaoh responds to his advisors, "Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?" They detected in Joseph Someone Greater at work.


Joseph is promoted to become Pharaoh's second-in-command, authorized with Pharaoh's very own signet ring to act on his behalf as Pharaoh's agent, a gold chain, his own special chariot, people bowing before him wherever he went throughout the whole land of Egypt. Pharaoh even gives him a wife, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. But it is in the naming of Joseph's sons that we see him putting in perspective the suffering and hardship he's been through. Is there some lingering resentment at his brothers, his former boss, that forgetful cupbearer?

V51 "Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh [f.Hebrew 'forget'] and said, 'It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household."" God did it - redeemed all that trouble, helped Joseph overcome it, forget it. How many years? He was 30 when he came to power (41:46), and 17 when he was sold by his brothers (37:2). Allow 2 years and a bit in prison, that makes 10-11 years as a slave - total 13 years! That's a long time to be sidelined - mistreated, couped up, held against your will. Many years of menial household duty followed by a couple of years in a dungeon - how many of you would want to give up your freedom willingly to accept that? Yet God helped Joseph to forget all that trouble, to not have his attitude permanently soured.

Note also v52, "The second son he named Ephraim (f.Hebrew 'twice fruitful') and said, 'It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.'" The suffering is acknowledged - but so is the fruitfulness that overcomes any sense of hardship.

God can redeem whatever hardship you're going through, whatever problems or hurdles you're facing. In fact He may be using those very issues to sculpt your character, your abilities, your spiritual posture. In retrospect, Joseph saw God's hand and purpose at work through the challenges. He explains to his brothers in 45:5ff, "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance...So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt."

Joseph was right at home in God's sovereign grip. As Hannah sang in 1Samuel 2:7f, "The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour." Joseph had experienced that in his own life.


Power needn't corrupt, if one keeps a humble attitude, recognizing that God is always more powerful than we could ever become. We're always accountable to Him. Even if riches and earthly goods multiply, only He can provide real meaning and satisfaction in life.

One man who's been very successful in worldly terms is Aurelia Barreto, founder and CEO of NOTW clothing store chain. He started out as a self-taught mechanical engineer in 1979, founding a vending machine business. In 1987 he founded Dogloo, making insulated igloo-dome-shaped dog shelters. Ten years later he sold the company for $20 million. He had it made! But a Wall Street Journal article notes, the day after selling Dogloo, Barreto found "himself unable to get out of bed. He was paralyzed...by the thought of not having anything to do.He was already living what he then considered a full life: buying a $150,000 sports car in cash, always traveling first class, vacationing in locales such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates...and meeting the famous and powerful.Three months into his retirement, while vacationing with his wife and two kids in New Zealand, Mr. Barreto says his depression only escalated."People said, 'You've crossed the finish line'...Everything was perfect, and I was suicidal.""

Here's Barreto's own testimony on his company's website...

"Not Of This World (NOTW) came from the verse Colossians 2:8. 'See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.' This verse is special to me because after a rough start in life, I became good at the things of this world (the traditions & basic principles of this world, rather than Christ) only to realize this was not enough. I had attained all the material things of this world, yet I was growing emptier and losing all hope for life. At different points in my life I actually contemplated committing suicide...I loved my family and prayed every night, but was empty inside. By God's grace, my friend...shared the gospel with me and led me to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ on March 18, 1998. He told me that Jesus was crucified and then rose from the grave as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who believe in Him...That day, I realized I could not work my way into heaven, and that I was far from perfect. Right there in His office, I repented of my sins and asked Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Saviour! I had nothing to offer God, but all God wanted from me was my heart. Yes, He just wanted me, just like He wants you! My life began to change and I started experiencing the peace I had never known before! My hope was now in God, and not on the things of this world...I began praying that God would use the gifts and talents He had given me to help others; and by God's grace the first C28 store (short for Colossians 2:8, now re-named NOTW) was opened...Over the years, many people have visited our NOTW store to pray or ask for prayer from our customer service reps...Since our inception in 2001, over 18,000 people have prayed to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior!...We want people to know there is a better alternative to the things of this world; we want to point them to Jesus. We want to help people realize that with Jesus all things are possible, and that God will never leave them. God is good and He is for you!"

To me, Mr Barreto's attitude reflects Joseph's: "Not me, but God..." The focus is on making the business serve Kingdom purposes. "I used to think I knew everything about business," he says. "But God has forced me to depend only on him. This company will do well if it's God's will." Let's pray.