Joseph’s Rise to Power in Egypt: God Will Alter Empires to Bless the World
Chapters 39-41 form an obvious literary unit that shows Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt for the purpose of blessing the world. God will not only show Himself great in Canaan, He will show Himself great and powerful in Egypt and in blessing the world. This section of text sets the stage for Joseph’s family to come to Egypt. God will take them to Egypt to save the world.
The story of Joseph’s life is governed by a dream that became lens through which Joseph evaluated life and led him to a summary conclusion: You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive (50:20).
This story in Joseph’s life takes up from where we left off in 37:36 (c.f. 39:1). Joseph’s brothers rejected him and his dream. God thwarted their inclination to kill him. If his family couldn’t destroy him, what about the dynasty of Egypt? This text raises the question, “Can God accomplish His purpose of blessing in Egypt?” “How will the purpose of God fare on the stage of imperial power?” “How will the people of God fare in a world of imperial power?”
Ultimate hope does not reside in this world’s systems. Our salvation is not in the powers that be. God has ordained the powers that be, and He is free to change them at His will. Too often the powers that be perpetuate injustice in the world. The people of God must not give one inch. We don’t have to compromise because God rules. The civil rights movement did not arise from the state awakening to systemic oppression, the movement arose in the heart of a Baptist preacher living out the Christian faith.
This text shows us that believers can and should use their influence to restrain evil and promote good in the world. The text also shows us that our hope is to be in God not the state. The current election cycle should be proof enough. Both presidential nominees of the two major political parties have assured their listeners that a victory for their opponent is the end of America. Apparently, we’ve all been threatened with our demise.
We get rattled by the rhetoric. If we are going to escape the conspiracy of this present age, we must be directed by a vision of God’s ultimate aim in redemptive history—the exaltation of Himself in the redemption of sinners and the whole creation. The lure of this world’s system can be deceptive, alluring, and intoxicating, if not downright entertaining these days. Idolatry is tricky. The temptation is for us to place our hope in this world—medical advancement, political power, economic opportunity, the Cubs. Without exception you will find disillusionment and disappointment. How can we escape the lure of the empire?
1. We must be captured by a vision of God’s purpose that is more compelling than the paltry offerings of this world (ch 39).
Chapter 39 divides into 3 sections. Verses 1-6 show Joseph’s rise to power in Potiphar’s house. Verses 7-18 show Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife and the injustice he suffered at her hand. Verses 19-23 show Joseph’s rise to power in prison.
Joseph’s rise and fall in Potiphar’s house and his imprisonment and influence in prison are not outside of God’s control, but in all those things God is acting in covenant faithfulness to Joseph (39:21). Joseph’s life is guided by a dream, a God-given revelation of divine purpose. That dream became the interpretative lens through which Joseph viewed life, sustaining him in the face of injustice.
Potiphar’s wife operated from the assumption of absolute power. She had the mistaken idea that her power entitled her to use her position for herself and not for the sake of others. She presumed that Joseph was as scheming as her. Power to her became toxic and unbridled and completely unsatisfying. The writer exposed her base nature when he wrote, Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me (39:6b,7).
This is calculated, premeditated lust. To what end? Has she come to envy the life of a slave? Why would she make advances on Joseph? Why cast a lustful eye on him? This can’t end well. Even writers of fiction can’t make the affair end well. All of her pampering and power and wealth has not worked to satisfy but to reveal the emptiness of her soul. She has everything the empire offers, yet, she still has a need. So like all humans, she sought to define her need. She named it, “Joseph,” and she set out to trap him in her tangled web. Humans, as creatures, are in no position to define their needs. The Creator has defined us and our needs. To define your own needs is rebellion.
The text is the exact reversal of the typical encounter of a patriarch with a foreign ruler. Usually the patriarch’s wife (Sarah and Rebekah) are describe as beautiful and are taken into the harem of a foreign king. Now it is Joseph who is sought. What will Joseph do? To his credit he knows there is no future with God or Potiphar by committing adultery with Potiphar’s wife. If you define your needs as sexually deviant behavior, you have no good and certain future. This is the work of indwelling sin—human self-will naming needs and seeking to meet them, believing God is holding out on us what is good and helpful.
Joseph could have reasoned, “I am a slave, I have to preserve myself any way I can.” He could have acted as lustfully as Potiphar’s wife. He refused her advances day after day (39:8-9). Scorned by his refusal, she falsely accused him. As a result, Potiphar put Joseph in prison.
The chapter is framed by the refrain, “The LORD was with Joseph” (vv2,3, and 21,23). The covenant name for God, LORD, is used 7 times in this chapter and only one other place (49:18) in Book 10, the last 14 chapters of Genesis. The writer is showing us the covenant faithfulness of God in Joseph’s life (c.f. 39:21).
The frame of the text shows us what sustained Joseph (vv2,3,21,23). The LORD of the dream was with Him. The LORD was giving him success. The LORD was making the dream a reality. His success was not in the hands of Potiphar or Potiphar’s wife. He was captured by a vision more compelling than sexual gratification.
What sustained Joseph was not law (Sinai is still hundreds of years away) but the vision of a future much more gratifying than Potiphar’s wife, a future he saw in a dream and had begun to realize.
He was better off in prison with the LORD than in the arms of Potiphar’s wife. You will never be sustained by the command. You must have a compelling vision of the purpose of God in your life and the world. That is the only thing that will satisfy the heart. You must come to treasure God more than the world. Sin rises out of the treasure of your heart. The issue is not the command and the self-will. The issue is the treasure of your heart.
How do you escape the lure of this world’s systems? You must be captured by a vision of God’s purpose in history.
2. We must know that the future is in the hand of God (Ch 40).
Chapter 40 is bound by 2 dreams (vv1-8) and two fulfillments (vv20-23). Between are two interpretations of the dreams (vv9-15 and 16-19). At the beginning of the chapter, Joseph is in prison, and, at the end, he is forgotten in prison (40:23). This chapter prepares us for chapter 41. To do so, it teaches us that the future is in the hand of God.
The central claim of the narrative is that the interpretation of the dream belongs to God (40:8). Along with the interpretation, the future is in the hand of God. Joseph had 2 dreams, there are two dreams in this chapter, and Pharaoh will have two dreams. We learn the significance of the 2 dream sequence in 41:32: The doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.
Egyptians were known for their interpretation of dreams. They had dream books with sample dreams and interpretative keys. The dreams of Genesis—Joseph’s, Pharaoh’s, the chief cupbearer’s and chief baker’s—were beyond the scope of Egyptian expertise. They were divine communications about a future God would bring about that Egyptian power could not alter, and Egyptian wisdom could not cipher. The future is in the hand of God. Joseph must learn that, and he is in the best position to learn it, imprisoned unjustly.
In prison, Joseph is put in charge of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, the most trusted positions in Pharaoh’s court. These men had fallen out of favor, perhaps, for a plot against Pharaoh. Both have dreams. The cupbearer was eager share his dream. The baker shared his only when he heard the favorable interpretation of cupbearer’s dream (40:16). Three days after Joseph interpreted their dreams the cupbearer was restored, and the baker was hanged.
“On the third day” (40:20) marks a reversal. Typically the reversal is a reversal of likely death. This phrase indicated not only a reversal of the cupbearer’s likely future but of Joseph’s as well.
The dreams of the cupbearer and baker serve to set Joseph up as God’s man in the empire. Even in Egypt, the purpose of God in Joseph will move forward.
While Joseph would not be freed for another 2 years (41:1), the seeds for how God would move Joseph to the place of blessing the world are planted here. All dreams of this text serve the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream. Joseph must learn the fulfillment of the dream is in the hand of the God who gave the dream. We see his personal struggle in his plea to the cupbearer (40:14-15). “God remembering” is a powerful, redemptive theme in Genesis. The space between our need and God remembering is to teach us that the future is in the hand of God.
We get our dream and God’s dream confused. God is not interested in fulfilling your dream. Your dream must bow to His dream. He will bring His dream about when all the evidence declares the dream is dead. God’s dream is not for the fainthearted. Too many people abandon the purpose of God for the values of this world’s system—ease, the approval of men, position, prestige. We long for the world to remember us, to take note of us, to make much of us, to exalt us or simply not to harm us. When you are forgotten by everybody, considered inconsequential, marginalized, don’t despair. The world, the state, the individual, the sinner, opposes its own salvation. The dream of God blessing the nations is controversial. It calls on people to take sides.
To walk with God you must be convinced your future is in the hands of God. We have all mapped out a future we would like to have. More than likely the future of our invention is a world of ease where we are insulated from the present distress. Often our relationship with God is based on that world. All is well if we see it on the horizon. Reality always intrudes on that world. We will live in disappointment with God and disillusionment with the things of God until God’s purpose becomes our purpose, His future the one we long for. You will never find satisfaction in your church, your marriage, your job, your leisure until God’s purpose is your purpose. God’s purpose for His own glory is the blessing of the nations. That translates even to the minutia of our lives. We often sing, “Have you not seen how your desires ere have been granted in what He ordaineth.” We must know that our future in the hand of God.
How do we escape the lure of the present age?
3. We must direct our lives, in whatever vocation we choose, to the establishment of God’s good purpose in the world (Ch 41).
Chapter 41 has 3 parts: In verses 1-8, Pharaoh has 2 dreams that shake the seat of power and exhaust the wisdom of the empire; in verses 9-45, Joseph’s rise to power shows the bankruptcy of the world’s wisdom and that blessing, life, and happiness are in the hands of God; verses 46-57 show the implementation of the wisdom of God that brings blessing to the world in ways unimaginable and far-reaching.
Verses 1-8 shows the utter bankruptcy of the state. Egypt takes us from the world of tribal chieftains in Canaan to the seat of global power. By the time of Joseph, Egypt is in its 12th dynasty. The Pyramids that awe us are the same ones that awed Joseph. The life, culture, and power of Egypt could not have been more different than Joseph’s upbringing.
God overturned the power of Egypt with two dreams! What does it take to topple a world power? God can do it with a dream. The purpose of God sets the course of history and establishes and overthrows world powers to move history to His desired end.
In these verses, we have the complete failure of the Egyptian worldview. The wisdom and ingenuity of the empire is refuted. The Egyptian way of knowing is overturned. The power of this age is rendered helpless before the inscrutable purpose of God. This overturning of power creates the opening for Joseph. Joseph appears on the scene just when the conventional wisdom of the state is called into question.
Verses 9-45 give us not only the interpretation of the dream but how life should be adjusted to it. In verse 9-32, the noteworthy thing about Joseph’s interpretation is it is consistently theocentric. The focus is turned Godward, to the One with Whom Pharaoh must ultimately deal (vv16,25,28,32). Joseph does not use the covenant name LORD as the narrator used 7 times in chapter 39. He uses the Name “God.” God is not in covenant with Egypt. He is, however, graciously showing His power to neutralize Egyptian power and wisdom.
The future of Egypt does not depend on Pharaoh. He does not get to decide. Joseph calmly announces to the Pharaoh that the future is out of his hands. The king is helpless in the face of God’s coming future. This is a premise of biblical faith: God is not bound by the conventions of human culture or power. He can work newness when and where He pleases. The narrative announces the free, sovereign God at work in the center of global power.
The “now” of verse 33 marks a shift in the narrative. Joseph is not only the interpreter of the dream, which unveils God’s future for the empire, he knows that life must be adjusted in light of the purpose of God (33-36). The fixed purpose of God is no occasion for human abdication. The firm purpose of God requires bold action. The intervention of God does not end human responsibility but sets the course of human activity. God’s purpose is not the end of human planning but the ground of it. Because God’s plan is above human planning does not mean that we should not plan, but rather, we must be responsive and faithful to God’s plan.
This is exactly why we roll out mission and vision constantly in the life of the church. In His Word, God has revealed His mission in history. In Scripture, God has progressively revealed His redemptive purpose. The writer of Hebrews expressed it this way:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV).
The Son of God, immediately before He sat down at the right hand of Majesty on high, commissioned His church to “disciple the nations.” That does mean we take the position that “if God wants to save the heathen, He can do it without our help.” If means that we adjust our lives, careers, location, giving, church, small group, prayers, etc., to that end.
We see in this text that the totality of our lives must be adjusted to God’s redemptive program in history.
Notice how Joseph used his position in the empire to bring about God’s good purpose. “Wisdom” and “discernment” became the sought after qualities of leadership in the empire (v39). In a new culture, with a new name, as the second most powerful man in the world, Joseph used that platform to further God’s purpose in the world (v45b).
How do you reconcile the purpose of God and the injustice Joseph suffered in his life? We see that worked out in Joseph’s life in verses 46-57. Out of suffering rejection and injustice from the age of 17-30, Joseph emerged as the means of God’s blessing for the world. What sustained Joseph, preserved his sanity, and shaped him as a man was seeing that his life was firmly rooted in God’s story. God’s sovereignty over Joseph’s history made him forgetful (v51) and fruitful (v52).