Friday, 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 (verses 1-4). Going back to sleep, he has another dream (verses 5-7).

It is interesting that 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 25th 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 cup bearer remembers Joseph (verses 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).

These 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 years 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 years’ 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 gave 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 time 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 direction 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 (verse 42) and starts a new life (verses 44-46), with new responsibilities (verse 47-49). His plans are successful (verses 53-57).

Saturday, February 11

Genesis 42: The 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.

Without knowing who he is, the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph (verses 8-17), who recognizes 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 things 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 with them, Joseph ascertains that they are still trying to deal with their ancient sin.

Joseph is joking with them and apparently having some fun at it. 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. They finish their account by breaking the 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. He holds all the big cards.

Sunday, February 12

Genesis 43: Eventually the family again runs short of food, so Jacob asks his sons to return to Egypt to procure some more. 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 terrible successful, so this time Judah takes over the task (verses 3-5). (The literary dynamics of this narrative, by the way, are destroyed by the modern hypothesis that postulates two “sources” here, ascribing Chapter 42 to one source and Chapter 43 to another. It is utterly pointless and without merit to speculate on hypothetical “sources” that do not exist and perhaps never existed. This sort of historical speculation is not only dubious in its impulse; it also constitutes a distraction from the literary enjoyment of the account.) Judah gives 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, Hezechiah, 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. He 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 can speak to them in their own native tongue (verse 23). They never imagine that Joseph has understood everything they said before.

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 seems to know everything. He holds them in the palm of his hand, as it were.

Monday, 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 has them 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 is 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 had endeavored to rescue Joseph in Genesis 37, and the entire following chapter had been 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 Descendent 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).

Tuesday, February 14

Matthew 12:9-14L This story continues the theme of the Lord’s relationship to the Sabbath. Rabbinical theory permitted acts of healing on the Sabbath only in danger of death; otherwise such actions had to be postponed. In this text, and generally throughout the gospels, Jesus ignores this distinction. In the present instance His enemies are completely frustrated, because Jesus does not do anything with which they can accuse Him. He does not touch the afflicted man; He does not speak one word that could be interpreted as an act of healing. He simple tells the man to extend his impaired hand, and immediately the hand is healed! In their frustration the Lord’s enemies take the action to which most of the narrative has been building up to this point — they resolve that Jesus must die. That is to say, they resolve to do what Herod had failed to do in the second chapter of Matthew.

Genesis 45: 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. Then time has come, then, to bring everything out into the open. No further 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 which they had not even slightly suspected. Joseph must repeat who he is (verse 4), and for the first time he mentions a little 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 emotion 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, Genesis 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 with 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).

Wednesday, February 15

Genesis 46: The literary climax of the Joseph cycle has already occurred in the previous chapter. Now the story simply becomes a chronicle for a while. All that remains is for Jacob to die, thus finishing the narrative thread that had been relatively unattended for several chapters. This final part of Genesis chiefly prepares for Exodus.

Once again God reveals Himself to Jacob at Beersheba (verses 1-4), as He has done each time that Jacob moved, at Bethel (Genesis 28) and at Peniel (Genesis 32). God had also revealed Himself at Beersheba to Abraham (Genesis 21) and Isaac (Genesis 26). In that latter passage, as here in Genesis 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 a the series of migrations in Genesis, from Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from there to Padanaram, back down to Canaan, and now 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 of her handmaiden (verses 23-26). The number “70” 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 it as home.

Thursday, February 16

Genesis 47: One discerns three stories in this chapter: (1) the movement of Jacob’s family into Egypt (verses 1-11); (2) Joseph’s career as an Egyptian official (verses 12-26); and (3) Jacob’s burial request (verses 27-31).

The first story has two scenes. First there is a scene involving Joseph’s meeting Pharaoh with some of his brothers (verses 1-5), and then a scene with Pharaoh and Jacob (verses 5-11). (Since the two scenes are somewhat repetitious, it was inevitable that the textual reconstructionists would find two “sources” behind them.) In the first scene, care has been taken to relate the settlement of the family in Goshen to the earlier accounts of their nomadic life. The Egyptians, as the Sacred Text reminds us, were not fond of shepherds, an attitude reflecting the frequent strife between sedentary and nomadic peoples (a strife that goes back to Cain and Abel).

In the second story (verses 12-26) we see Joseph alter the entire economic and political structure of Egypt, not only saving the people in the time of famine, but greatly strengthening the throne of Pharaoh. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that what Joseph produced was a kind of servile welfare state, in which the government owned everything and taxes were high (20%). The people even thanked him for it. (This detail is probably meant to be humorous. The writer is making fun of a people who, after being reduced to abject penury, are grateful for being taxed 20%. One also observes that Joseph, who has married into a clergy family, makes a clergy exemption in the tax code.) Eventually this economic and political situation would come back to haunt the Israelites, who would resent being slaves in a slave state. It would appear that Joseph himself created the servile conditions that would lead eventually to the Exodus.

In the third story (verses 27-31) Jacob, making it clear that Egypt is not the family’s real home, arranges to be buried in the Promised Land (cf. Hebrews 11:21). The exact meaning of the text, with respect to Jacob’s gesture, has been unclear almost from the beginning. Originally it may have meant only that he nodded assent on his pillow.

Friday, February 17

Matthew 12: 31-37: Strictly speaking there is no “unforgivable” sin, because God’s mercy stands ready to forgive any sin of which repent. The whole business of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is, by definition, the sin of which men do not repent. It is total and inveterate blindness of heart, in which men can no longer discern the difference between light and darkness. Such appears to be the sin of which the Lord’s enemies are guilty in these texts where we find them plotting His death. For a pastoral perspective it may be said that those Christians who fear they may have committed such a sin should be take courage from the thought that their very fear is strong evidence that they have not done so. Those who are approaching the unforgiven sin are those who no longer even think about repentance and feel no need for it.

Genesis 48: Because of his special role in saving the family, Joseph receives something like the blessing of the firstborn — that is, a double portion; he become the father of two of Israel’s tribes. That meant that his descendents would settle twice the amount of the Promised Land as any of his brothers.

Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, became as it were the sons of Israel himself (verses 1-7). When Jacob is introduced to the two boys (verses 8-11), his poor eyesight reminds us of aging Isaac, of whose blindness Jacob had taken advantage. The irony is striking. In that earlier case too the larger blessing had been given to the younger son. What Isaac had done by mistake, however, Jacob will do on purpose (verses 12-15).

A Christian reader will take note of Jacob’s crossing of his hands in the act of blessing. It is noteworthy that at least one Christian reader of this text referred to this action as an act of “faith” (Hebrews 11:21, the only example of faith that this epistle ascribes to Jacob). In the blessing itself (verses 15-16), Jacob reaches back two generations in order to reach forward two generations.

Joseph, though he governs Egypt, is unable to govern his old father (verses 17-20). Jacob, let it be said, knew a thing or two about blessings: “I know, my son, I know.” Jacob has been reversing everything since the day he was born, right after tripping up his old brother as the latter emerged from the womb (25:22-23). Right to the end of his life he continues to take the side of the younger man. It is a trait of his personality.