Friday, February 8
Genesis 39: In the story of Joseph the theme of Wisdom is explicit and pronounced (cf. 41:39; Psalms 104 :22). In the present chapter Potiphar’s wife serves as the very incarnation of Dame Folly, that quintessential adventuress trying to seduce the inexperienced young man (Proverbs 5:3–6, 20; 6:29–40; 7:5–6).
As Joseph learned to his considerable hurt, it was in reference to Potiphar’s wife and residence that the wise man was warned, “Make your way distant from her / And do not come near the doors of her house” (Proverbs 5:8).
The ongoing history of Joseph is staged in symbolic ways. For example, Joseph’s different changes of fortune are symbolized in his clothing. His famous and elaborate tunic, which focuses the hatred of his brothers in 37:3-4, is dipped in blood in 37:23–32, thus symbolizing Joseph’s alienation from his family. Then, in verses 12–18 of the present chapter, his ill-fated encounter with Potiphar’s wife is imaged in the loss of the cloak used as evidence to imprison him. His eventual release from prison will again involve a change of clothing in 41:14, and finally a whole new wardrobe symbolizes his new state in 41:42.
Another element of staging and cohesion in the story is introduced by Joseph’s two dreams in 37:5–10, in each of which his brothers bow down before him. This double prostration is prophetic, inasmuch the brothers bow before him on each of their trips to Egypt (42:6; 43:26; 44:14; 50:18), and Joseph specifically remembers the dreams on the first of these instances (42:9).
The Joseph narrative is one of the Bible’s first examples of a story happening in two places at once. The introduction of the Judah episode in chapter 38, right after Joseph’s departure for Egypt, serves to suggest a lengthy passage of time, but it also establishes what will become a mounting “geographical” tension between dual centers of activity, Canaan and Egypt. The journeys of the brothers to Egypt and their returns to Canaan will eventually provide the setting for the two conflicting aspirations of Joseph and Jacob, the former resolved to bring Benjamin to Egypt, and the latter determined to keep him in Canaan.
Saturday, February 9
More Dreams: The climax of the Joseph story will be his revelation of himself to his brothers. Everything in the story is arranged to set up that event. Thus, Joseph must go to jail. If he does not go to jail, he will not meet the king’s cupbearer. If he does not meet the king’s cupbearer, he will not come to the attention of Pharaoh. If he is not brought to the attention of Pharaoh, he will not encounter his brothers. And so on. The narrative is very carefully pieced together. Because the events themselves were integrally related.
Meanwhile, Joseph is in jail. Indeed, he is pretty much running the place after a while (39:23), when two other prisoners are brought in (verses 1–4). Already introduced to the reader as a man of dreams in chapter 37, Joseph now appears as an interpreter of dreams (vv. 4–8).
A royal cupbearer was a great deal more than a table servant. He was, rather, a high official of the court, normally ranking right after the royal family itself. Such men were obliged to be very careful, for they served autocratic masters and were perpetually in danger of offending them (cf. Nehemiah 1:11—2:6).
Somehow or other, this cupbearer had managed to offend Pharaoh. Thrown in jail, he had done a lot of brooding, and this brooding led to a dream about his fate (verses 9–11). Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, however, is rather encouraging (verses 12–13). The Hebrew in this passage says that the cupbearer’s head will be “lifted up.” In this instance, to “lift up the head” means to exalt, to restore to honor. Even as Joseph gives the cupbearer his interpretation of the dream, he senses that this gentleman may someday provide his own way out of prison (verses 14–15).
Encouraged by Joseph’s interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream, the royal baker decides to tell his own dream (verses 16–17). The images in each dream are related to the professions of the dreamers, pressed grapes and cup for the first man, baskets of bakery goods for the second. In each case, the number “three” is important. This second dream, nonetheless, introduces a disturbing note: Birds come and peck at the baked goods. This is alien element represents a common symbol of frustration in dreams.
Joseph sees right away that this is not a good sign (verses 18–19). In the Hebrew text, there is a rather grim play on words here, a feature not adequately conveyed in the Septuagint translation. “Lifting up the head” no longer implies restoration and exaltation as it did in the cupbearer’s dream. The baker’s head will be “lifted up,” rather, in the sense that he will be decapitated. Understandably, we observe that the baker neglects to thank Joseph for this interpretation of his dream!
The important point is that Joseph’s interpretations of the two dreams are prophetic (verses 20–23). The next chapter will tell us, however, that the cupbearer will not remember Joseph for another two years.
Sunday, February 10
Genesis 41: We now come to the third discussion of dreams in the Joseph story. Pharaoh has a dream. Indeed, it becomes something of a nightmare, causing Pharaoh to wake up, which is perhaps why he can recall the dream so vividly (vv. 1–4). Going back to sleep, he has another dream (verses 5–7).
It is interesting that the Greek historian, Herodotus (2.136), provides us with a story that parallels the present instance. It concerns the dream of an Ethiopian pharaoh named Shabaka, of the twenty-fifth dynasty (725–667). Egyptian literature itself is full of such dreams. In antiquity dreams were regarded as among the ways that gods revealed practical truths to kings and other leaders. We find another instance of it in the case of Solomon (1 Kings 3; 2 Chronicles 1).
Pharaoh’s two dreams have left him very upset, and at last the cupbearer remembers Joseph (vv. 8–13). After all, kings could become very upset if no one could be found to interpret their dreams (cf. Daniel 2:1–6). Evidently the cupbearer sensed danger, since Pharaoh’s dream had not yet an interpreter. The fear serves to jog his memory; he recalls how he himself had gotten out of jail two years earlier. At this point he apparently does not even recall Joseph’s name (verse 12).
Joseph is summoned (verses 14–16). We note that this is the third reference to a change in Joseph’s clothing.
Joseph has no doubt that this dream comes from God. God speaks to man in dreams (compare Job 33:15–18; Numbers 12:6). Pharaoh, then, tells his dreams (verses 17–24). We observe that these dreams are not predictions; they are a diagnosis and a warning. Thus, Joseph is able, not only to interpret the dreams, but to instruct Pharaoh what to do about them. His wisdom, in other words, is not just speculative, but practical (verses 25–32).
Pharaoh’s dreams have to do with the Nile River, the annual flooding of which is essential to Egyptian agriculture. The Nile’s failure to flood over a seven-year period would be catastrophic indeed. In fact, there is a stone inscription found near the first cataract of the Nile, on the island of Siheil, which indicates that a seven-year drought was not unthinkable.
Joseph does not even pause (verses 33–36). He immediately supplies the practical remedy for the problem, not even waiting for Pharaoh to question him. One has the impression that he has already worked out the details in his mind while he was giving Pharaoh the interpretation. There is no time to be lost (verse 32). The work will require centralized control. This is no work for a committee, and there is no leisure for a discussion. The only efficient course will require a strong, swift, executive hand (verse 33).
We have already seen Joseph as a take-charge kind of fellow, managing Potiphar’s estate as soon as he arrived, put in charge of the jail as soon as he became a prisoner, and so forth. Pharaoh knows that he has before him the right man for the job (verses 37–43), recognizing that this wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit (verses 38–39).
Joseph again changes clothes (v. 42) and starts a new life (verses 44–46), with new responsibilities (verses 47–49). His plans are successful (verses 53–57).
Joseph becomes the father of two Israelite tribes (verses 50–52). According to Origen and other ancient interpreters, he is now about thirty years old.
Monday, February 11
Back and Forth: As Joseph predicted, famine also hits the land of Canaan, at which point the Joseph story is tied back to its earlier period (verses 1–5). We learn right away that Jacob, having lost Joseph, has become excessively protective of his youngest son, Benjamin. This detail is inserted early in the narrative sequence, because it will become an important component in the development of the story.
These next few chapters will be sustained by a tension between Egypt and Canaan, between Joseph and Jacob, with Joseph trying to get Benjamin down into Egypt, while Jacob endeavors to keep him in Canaan.
When the other brothers come into Egypt (verses 6–7), Joseph starts his game, which begins with a bit of fun at their expense. As we have seen, this kind of thing runs in the family: Abraham had deceived Pharaoh by claiming to be Sarah’s brother. Isaac had deceived Abimelech by pretending to be Rebecca’s brother. Jacob deceived Isaac by pretending to be Esau. Leah pretended to be Rachel, thereby deceiving Jacob. The Bible obviously revels in these deceptions. Indeed, our eternal salvation itself will involve a massive act of deception, in which the Wisdom of God deceives Satan (1 Corinthians 2:6–8).
Without recognizing who he is, the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph (verses 8–17), who discerns in their act the fulfillment of dreams he had shared with them two decades earlier.
Even while deceiving his brothers, Joseph manages to catch up on the news back home. He learns that Jacob and Benjamin are still alive. He plays his big card when they mention Benjamin; on the pretense of checking out their story, he insists that Benjamin be brought down to Egypt. He then throws them all into jail for three days to think about it.
What Joseph is trying to learn is whether or not his brothers have really changed. Are they still the same villains who tried to get rid of him years before, or have they altered in their minds and hearts? He puts the pressure on them. He must find out. He finally shows them a bit of mercy (verses 18–26).
In these encounters of Joseph with his brothers, there are two features to bear in mind: First, Joseph understands everything they are saying among themselves, but the brothers, imagining that they are dealing with an Egyptian, do not know this. From their conversations, Joseph ascertains that they are still trying to deal with their ancient sin.
Joseph is joking at their expense. At the same time, however, he is hard hit by his own feelings as he sees what is happening to his brothers. Overcome with emotion, he must retire from the scene in order to weep.
Second, unlike his brothers, Joseph is aware how long the famine will last. He knows, therefore, that they will be back eventually. In order to guarantee it, he seizes Simeon, the second oldest. Joseph has just learned that the oldest, Reuben, had tried to save him at the time of his abduction; Reuben is spared.
Joseph puts a new twist on the game (verses 27–28). His return of their money may seem like generosity on his part, but his brothers are terrified by it. It may appear, they fear, that they have run off without paying for their food, and this governor of Egypt is obviously no man to mess with. How could they ever explain how they had neglected to pay? We observe that Joseph does everything he can to keep his brothers off-balance. Within three chapters he will reduce them to quivering bundles of insecurity. Whatever arrogance or unrepentance or hardness of heart is still in them will be completely gone before Joseph is finished.
When the nine brothers arrive home (verses 29–34), the whole story is told again, as a literary sort of “instant replay.” This allows the reader to savor the irony of their situation. The brothers finish their account by breaking the really distressing news that Benjamin must accompany them on the next trip. This is too much for old Jacob (verses 35–38), and now everybody is off-balance. Very protective of Benjamin, Jacob almost seems resigned to the loss of Simeon.
At this point, Reuben loses his mind, as it were, offering up Jacob’s two grandsons. Joseph has certainly succeeded in throwing the whole family into a spin. Meanwhile, no matter what Jacob says, Joseph is quite certain that they will be back. After all, he knows just how long the famine will last; they don’t. He holds all the good cards.
Tuesday, February 12
Benjamin in Egypt: Eventually the family again runs short of food, so Jacob asks his sons to return to Egypt to procure some. The old man appears to be in a state of denial, giving the order as though there were no complications involved (verses 1–2). It will be up to one of the older sons to remind him that things will not be so easy.
In the previous chapter it was Reuben who served as spokesman for the brothers, both to Joseph and to Jacob. As we saw, he had not been terribly successful, so this time Judah takes over the task (verses 3–5), giving Jacob an ultimatum: Either risk Benjamin or the whole family will starve.
In response, Jacob goes from denial to blame (verse 6). His line of argument is, of course, futile. The point of no return was long ago reached. Jacob is dealing with a situation that no longer exists. Like many older people whose memories of the past are far more pleasant than the realities of the present, Jacob resists being reminded of the facts.
The problem is that he is the one who must make the decision. His sons are powerless to do anything apart from his authority. They too, once again accused, become defensive (verse 7). Joseph had outwitted them; how could they have known? We readers understand, of course, but none of the participants up in Canaan have a clue.
Judah puts his foot down. Enough of this guilt, denial, and blame (verses 8–10)! In his executive action, we perceive the attitude and skills of the kings to whom Judah will become the father: David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Joseph of Nazareth. Judah obliges Jacob to give in (verses 11–14), and the latter makes very practical suggestions about taking gifts to the Egyptian official and returning the money. Judah also assumes responsibility for Benjamin. Finally, he prays, not really knowing what he is praying for (though the reader knows), and not knowing that his prayer has already been answered.
The brothers return to Egypt (verses 15–17). In their prior trip, Joseph had been rough with them. Now he is kind. What can it mean? So long receptive of bad news and not expecting anything different, the brothers are disposed to put an evil interpretation on the circumstances (verses 18–22). The author of the passage is obviously relishing this description of their mounting anxiety. The brothers have wandered into the “big leagues,” as it were. Faced with the grandeur of the Egyptian court, they fairly come undone. This “man” in Egypt is by far the most powerful person with whom they have ever dealt.
They take their case to the head-steward who is able to speak to them in their own native tongue (verse 23). They never imagine that Joseph has understood everything they have said hitherto.
Once again, when the brothers meet Joseph, the prophecy in the ancient dream is fulfilled (verses 24–26). Two dreams, two fulfillments. The reader begins to wonder how long Joseph can sustain this ongoing farce (verses 27–30). He controls himself, however, for he still has one big test in mind, a final test. For a second time, nonetheless, Joseph is overcome with emotion.
During the meal, Joseph goes from this pathos to some more light kidding (verses 31–34), placing his brothers at the table according to their ages, a fact that causes them some more consternation. Could this be an accident? This “man” in Egypt is most uncanny and mysterious. He holds them in the palm of his hand, as it were.
Ash Wednesday, February 13
Genesis 44: We come now to the final test. As we saw in the two previous chapters, Joseph is hard put to control his emotions. He longs to reveal himself to his brothers. He must control himself, however, because there is a practical task to be accomplished. Being a practical man, Joseph listens to his head more than his heart and prepares the final test (verses 1–6).
After the departure of his brothers, he causes them to be pursued (verses 6–13). The brothers plead their innocence. With great confidence they offer the life of the guilty party if there be such a one among them. This is exactly what Jacob had said to Laban when the latter had complained about the theft of his household god (31:32). Once again the process goes by the oldest to the youngest, a procedure that permits the gradual build-up of suspense, reaching the climax of the scene in the discovery of the cup in Benjamin’s sack.
The brothers at this point are struck silent. There is not a word, not an excuse, not a protestation. They now return to the city in silence, each man dealing privately with his own desperation. According to the terms of the steward, all of them may return safely home except Benjamin, but then they must face their father without Benjamin. Joseph has them exactly where he wants them. The trapdoor is closed. The brothers have run out of options. Now Joseph will learn what they are made of.
Joseph bears down on his brothers in inexorable, unbearable terms (verses 14–17). At this point the author no longer speaks of “the brothers,” but of “Judah and his brothers,” a significant detail that serves to introduce Judah’s lengthy speech that forms the second half of this chapter. We saw earlier that Judah has become the spokesman for the sons of Israel, their natural leader. It was he who endeavored to rescue Joseph in chapter 37, and the entire following chapter was devoted to him. He emerges now as the leader, who will become the father of Israel’s kings.
As he begins his discourse (verses 18–24), Judah stresses Jacob’s special fondness for Benjamin. The reader notices that something has changed. Back when Joseph had been the favorite son, the rest of the brothers had been jealous. Now, however, they are not jealous of Benjamin. Now they are concerned with the welfare of their father, not their own.
Judah continues (verses 25–29), emphasizing how the old man would be distressed by the loss of his youngest son. He especially sets in parallel the earlier loss of Joseph and the now potential loss of Benjamin. This is the key. This is what Joseph must learn from his brothers: Will they treat Benjamin as they had, many years before, treated him? Will they permit Benjamin to become a slave, as they had, many years before, sold him into slavery? Will that great betrayal be repeated?
Judah himself perceives that this is exactly his own moral situation. Will he repeat the former offense to their father? After all, the idea of selling Joseph into slavery had been Judah’s idea (37:25–27).
Judah makes his final appeal, offering himself in slavery in place of
his youngest brother (verses 30–34). Judah will be the “substitute.” Like his distant Descendant centuries later, he will make the atonement in the place of his brother. He will take upon himself his brother’s offense, becoming the sacrificial victim to redeem the rest of the family. And he will do these things, like his distant Descendant many centuries later, out of love for his father. This is Judah’s ultimate and compelling plea before the Throne: “The world must know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).
Thursday, February 14
Joseph Revealed: The tension has been mounting for several chapters, as Joseph has—step by step—put to the test the spiritual state of his brothers. He has now utterly reduced them, forcing them to face their guilt and to assume responsibility for their plight. They are completely hopeless and limp before him.
At the same time, Joseph has been obliged to place very tight, unnatural restraints on his own emotions, and now the latter have mounted to flood stage behind the restraining wall of his will. The time has come, then, to bring everything out into the open. No good will be served by further delay. Joseph speaks (verses 1–3).
The brothers are not able to come to grips with the situation. This powerful stranger has suddenly started speaking to them in their own language. The veil is removed. If the brothers were vulnerable and despairing in the previous chapter, now things have become infinitely worse. They are now faced with a reality that they had not even slightly suspected. Joseph must repeat who he is (verse 4), and for the first time he mentions a certain incident that happened in Dothan many years before.
This reference can hardly provide comfort for the bewildered brothers, and Joseph must attempt to lessen their stark terror and anxiety (verse 5), for God’s providence works even in sin (Philemon 15). God commands us always to meet evil with good, and God Himself models that commandment. Anyone can bring good from good. Divine activity is chiefly manifest in bringing good out of evil. Joseph must repeat the lesson to be learned (verses 6–8).
Joseph alternates between practical concerns (verses 9–13, 21–24) and more emotional outbursts stirred by the moment (verses 14–15). If the brothers actually said anything at this point, it was probably incoherent.
They become extremely passive and obedient. As long as they are in Egypt, chapter 45 will record not a single word from them. The entire impression from this chapter will be bewilderment to the point of stupefaction.
Joseph’s single question to them has to do simply with his father. Like Judah in the previous chapter, Joseph’s concern is for his father. This is entirely proper, because Jacob, on learning what had transpired, is overwhelmed with emotion (verses 25–28). Some news is just too good to believe (compare Luke 24:37–38; Mark 16:9–13).
Friday, February 15
Jacob in Egypt: While God’s direction of events in the Joseph saga consists in the providential oversight of all human activity, we also note a special emphasis on the divine management, as it were, of man’s sinful activity. This story is a fine illustration of God’s ability to bring good from evil. So the wise and forgiving Joseph can announce to his sinful brothers, “Now therefore, do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to save life” (45:5; also verse 7), and later, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (50:20).
The literary climax of the Joseph cycle has already occurred in the previous chapter. Now, for a while, the story simply becomes a chronicle. All that remains is for Jacob and Joseph to die, thus finishing the narrative thread that had been relatively unattended for several chapters. This final part of Genesis chiefly prepares for Exodus.
God reveals Himself to Jacob at Beersheba (verses 1–4), as He has done each time Jacob moved, at Bethel (ch. 28) and at Peniel (ch. 32). God had likewise revealed Himself at Beersheba to Abraham (ch. 21) and Isaac (ch. 26). In that latter passage, as here in chapter 46, the message had to do with the great number of the promised posterity. Jacob now goes down into Egypt with few people, but they will be greatly multiplied over time. This is the latest in the series of migrations in Genesis: from Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from there to Mesopotamia, back down to Canaan, and finally to Egypt (verses 5–7).
There ensues a long list of those who went down into Egypt, their names preserved because these are the families who will form the company of the Exodus. These are, in short, the “first families” of the race. The list commences with the children of Leah (verses 8–15), of which Levi’s sons are of special importance, for theirs will be the genealogy of Israel’s priesthood, including Moses and Aaron (verses 11–12). The sons of Leah’s handmaiden are listed next (verses 16–18), followed by Rachel’s children (verses 19–22) and those of her handmaiden (vv. 23–26). The number “seventy” is a round number (cf. Acts 7:9–11).
Joseph is at last reunited to his father (verses 28–30). The children of Israel were never to become sedentary in Egypt (verses 31–34). They would never regard the place as home.