November 27th, 2017

Joseph named his son “Forget.” I wish he had called him “Remember.”

Genesis 41:41-57

Thanksgiving to Advent

It happened again this week. Another public figure plummeted from popularity to what will likely be shame and obscurity for the rest of his life. Born in Henderson, NC, Charlie Rose’s biography on the Internet still describes him as “elegant, handsome, fiercely intelligent, and inquisitive.” He still may be all of those things, but who’s ever going to want his face on TV again? He joins the likes of Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein — disgraced and humiliated in public opinion.

On the flip side, Donald Trump is only the latest suhrprise in America’s White House. Barack Obama was a minority first-term senator battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter had been a peanut farmer. Ronald Reagan was a divorced actor. John F. Kennedy was young and Catholic. On and on.
Stunning reversals are historically common among celebrities and politicians, and in sports as well. Last night both the Universities of Alabama and Miami lost their undefeated season at least in part because of overconfidence. By contrast, Clemson already lost weeks ago to Syracuse, which hasn’t won a game since. Clemson knew better than to look past its in-state rival, South Carolina.

Readers of the Bible should never be surprised at stunning reversals. From one end of the Bible to the other, the message is that God exalts the humble and humbles the exalted. The principle is stated in Samuel, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets, and in the New Testament from the words of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and James. Examples of the rise and fall of nations and individuals include Israel and its neighbors as well as the mighty empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, plus well-known Bible figures like Job, Moses, David, Esther, Herod, Peter, Judas, Mary, and even Jesus. Nobodies become heroes and saviors. Kings and heroes are disgraced or even executed.

Genesis 41 includes the first public story of reversal in the Bible. One reason it’s the first is because for the first time we have a biblical character interacting with a powerful empire. At the beginning of this chapter we have an incarcerated Hebrew slave – important to us because we know his family and know he’s critical to the primary story line of the Bible, but still an incarcerated Hebrew slave – and by the end of the chapter he’s catapulted to the top of the empire’s food chain (literally). On the other hand, we begin this chapter with the king of the empire confidently ruling over his prosperous realm. Through the course of the story, he is reduced to a puddle of anxiety over dreams he knows are true but cannot understand and his empire faces an unimaginable economic disaster.

By the end of the chapter, Pharaoh the wise and powerful king needs Joseph, the emancipated Hebrew slave, to run his entire operation so that Pharaoh and the nation can save themselves and the world from catastrophe. It’s a great lesson that ties together the Thanksgiving season, just passed, and the Advent season, just ahead.

Prisoner to vizier

“Genesis” means “beginning.” This book insists that before the beginning of anything, there was God. Genesis relates the beginning of time, of earth, of human, of love and marriage, and of sin. In the story of Noah, we find the beginning of promise. With Abraham, it’s the beginning of calling, then the beginning of belief, then the beginning of testing and provision. In Jacob’s story, we find the beginning of Israel, which means Wrestling with God, and that will be their story.
Joseph’s story is different than that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because Joseph’s story is not about Joseph. It’s about Jacob, his father. Without Joseph, God’s promises to populate Canaan with Jacob’s descendants cannot be fulfilled. Jacob’s family will die of famine in Canaan if there is no deliverer. So Joseph must become his father’s favorite son who elicits their jealous rage, he must be sold by them into slavery, he must land in Egypt where he serves the captain of Pharaoh’s elite army, he must be falsely accused by his master’s wife, he must land in jail where he meets two more of Pharaoh’s inner circle, and he must languish there in prison two years.

And he must experience a sudden reversal.

The precise time during which Joseph lived in Egypt is a matter of significant debate among scholars. I do not want to suggest that I have done original research on the subject. Here is one of the scenarios that fits both Bible and Egyptology.

The king of Egypt was also known as Pharaoh. “Pharaoh” originally meant “great house,” and was comparable to “The White House” in America. When we say “The White House” we mean not only the President but his residence and his closest governmental advisors. “White House” and “Pharaoh” are symbols of national power.
Sesostris III was the Pharaoh and lived in the Pharaoh during the time of Joseph. Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived more than a millennium later, related a legend about his military exploits into Asia. While he inherited a stronger central government from his predecessors, Sesostris also expanded the borders, built a new canal on the Nile River, and created an administrative system that outlasted him by at least a century. Joseph, Jacob’s son, may have been responsible for that system. Joseph may have been the first vizier (prime minister) in Egypt.

We learn in Genesis 41 that Pharaoh woke up one morning and remembered two troubling dreams. In one dream, he was standing by the Nile River, perhaps the most vital natural resource to Egypt. In his dream he saw seven healthy cows emerge out of the water to graze contentedly in the marsh next to the river. Then seven more cows came out of the water, but these were thin and ugly. Surprisingly, the seven thin cows attacked and gobbled up the seven fat cows. The second dream was similar, only this time it was about seven thin heads of grain that consumed seven fat heads.

The dreams distressed Pharaoh. The Hebrew word for “distressed” originally meant “struck.” As a morning person, I wake up most days energetic from the time my feet hit the floor. My wife Linda will often say, “I feel like a truck ran over me.” At least that morning, Pharaoh felt like a truck ran over him. Egyptians believed dreams had meaning for the future, especially if the king dreamed. He called in a team of magicians and wise men and asked them what the dream meant. They were stumped. They had no idea. This powerful ruler, agitated and annoyed, was brought to his emotional and spiritual knees.

At that moment his butler spoke up. “Oh my!” he exclaimed, “I must confess my sin and guilt. Two years ago you might recall, Pharaoh, that you had a birthday party. You had been angry with your chief baker and me because you had spent all night on the toilet and you figured one of us was to blame. So you sent us all to prison while you investigated who poisoned your food. When you found out it was the baker, you had him executed, but you restored me to my position. Remember that?”

“Go on,” Pharaoh answered. “What does this have to do with my dreams?”

“Three days earlier both the baker and I had had dreams. We didn’t know what they meant either, but there was a young Hebrew who had been imprisoned by the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us. It happened exactly like he said. The baker was executed, and here I am before you!”

“What are you waiting for?” asked Pharaoh. “Send for that young man.”

Joseph had been in prison where shaving cream and razors were in short supply. While a beard was the norm for Hebrew hillbillies, Egyptians – especially the nobility and those in Pharaoh’s court – saw trim hair and a shaven face as a symbol of self-discipline and authority. Facial hair ticked them off. Joseph made a quick trip to the prison barber, changed his clothes, and appeared before Pharaoh.

“I had a dream,” Pharaoh said to him, “and I’m told you can interpret dreams.”

“I can’t,” Joseph answered. That must have caused a hush in the hall. Then he continued. “But God will give you an answer.”

“Very well,” Pharaoh continued, relating the dreams of cows and wheat.

“Wow,” Joseph said to Pharaoh. “God told you what’s going to happen. You dreamed the same thing twice because God wanted you to know with absolute certainty what he’s going to do, and soon. (Joseph dreamed the same thing twice as a teenager, and of course the butler and baker had parallel dreams.) The seven fat cows and the seven fat grain heads indicate years of abundant harvest. The seven skinny cows and seven thin grain heads are seven years of famine that will be so bad people will forget how good it was during the seven good years.”

“I propose that Pharaoh appoints a vizier. You’ll need the right man – someone wise and experienced. He should take charge of Egyptian agriculture immediately, taxing the people twenty percent of their harvest. They won’t mind because their harvest will be so plentiful for seven years. You should store all that extra grain because you’re going to need it during the coming depression.”

“Good plan,” Pharaoh answered. Turning to his court he said, “Can anyone think of someone more qualified than this Hebrew who has the spirit of the gods?” Silence.

“Joseph, you are the man we’re looking for. You will be my vizier, in charge of everything and everyone except me. Get started on your plan.”

A new name

Pharaoh then arranges a rite of installation. Joseph gets Pharaoh’s ring, new clothes, and a gold chain. He also gets a new chariot, comparable to Air Force 2. The proud people of Egypt shout, “Hail!” as he rides through the streets. He’s the vizier.

He also gets a new name – an Egyptian name that means something like, “God lives and God speaks.” He is given a prize wife, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. He is exceedingly successful in his new role. The next decade develops exactly as he had said, with God’s direction.

During the seven years of plenty the Egyptians reorganize the government under Joseph with departments of labor, agriculture, and treasury. They store up so much surplus grain they stop taking inventory. Joseph and his wife have two children, and Joseph gives them symbolic names – one positive and one negative. The first name, “Manasseh,” sounds like the Hebrew word for “forget.” Joseph says, “God has helped me forget my trouble and the family that rejected me.” The second boy’s name is “Ephraim,” which means “double prosperity.” Joseph said, “God has turned my suffering into twice the prosperity.”

Then follow the seven years of famine, and not only in Egypt. Emergency and desperation spread across the entire Middle East. Had it not been for the vizier of Egypt – his God-given foresight and wise stewardship – death would have ruled the Levant. Instead, the whole world is coming to Joseph for food.

I’m concerned about Joseph at this point in the story. Remember what Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What’s going to happen to Joseph’s soul? He’s done well through adversity. What will happen in prosperity? The story is “to be continued” next week.

What to remember

This part of Joseph’s story calls on us to reflect on our own moments of prosperity. How should we think and what should we do when power or privilege or opportunity shifts in our direction? We learn our lessons not only from Joseph but from Pharaoh and even from the butler.

I think we should remember. When he had catapulted to the top, Joseph named his first child “Manasseh,” which means “Forget.” I wish he had named him Zachariah – which means “God remembers.” Remembering is so important at the top.

What do we need to remember?

First, remember the past. The butler re-entered his cozy life and forgot Joseph. He’s right. It’s a sin to forget where you came from. When Joseph names his oldest son “Forget,” he says, “God has helped me forget my past and even my family.” That tells me that something has happened to Joseph’s soul – something that’s not good.

In Pharaoh’s court, Joseph had given credit to God and Pharaoh had noticed. But when Joseph married and had a child – at least a year or more later, perhaps the power has gone to Joseph’s head. Don’t you find it odd that across almost a full decade – seven years of abundance and at least two years of famine – Joseph, the vizier of Egypt, never says, “I wonder what’s happening with my family. I need to go check on them.” Or at least he could have sent someone.

It’s not spiritually wise to avoid your painful past when you’re on top. It doesn’t feel like you need to deal with it, but it may be the most important thing to deal with. The past may well come back to haunt you, but even if no one uncovers it, that past still affects you.

Second, remember the peril. Being on top creates a sense of invincibility – that I have nothing more to learn and I must be doing everything right. The danger is that the very things that contributed to your rise – your integrity, your hard work, your perseverance, your compassion – begin to fade.

All those things had come into play in Joseph’s rise. To be sure, God was the one that had placed him in this position, but Joseph was in a perilous position as time passed from the moment where he was promoted. Like Pharaoh, like Charlie Rose, like Assyria and Rome, like Alabama and Miami, you have to remember that being on top is fragile and tentative.

Third, remember the power. Joseph’s new name means “God lives and God speaks.” At that point in his life, Joseph has credited God for what only God can do. He is where he is because of who God is and what God has done. We’ll see whether that continues as the story continues. It’s so easy as time goes on and we feel more and more secure in our prosperity to convince ourselves that we are responsible for our own success.

Finally, remember the poor. I love that Joseph and Pharaoh prepare for the years of famine, but not just to save their inner circle. Their intent is not only to provide for Egypt, but for neighbors as well. Times of preparation and prosperity are not just for ourselves.
I’m always puzzled by those who believe an economic collapse is imminent, and the response is to make sure “me and mine” are taken care of. I suppose I somewhat understand that from the American spirit, but not from a Christian mindset. Even Pharaoh and his secular empire knows we use times of prosperity to prepare provision for those who haven’t prepared.

The cover story in the most recent edition of Christianity Today magazine is titled, “The Gift of Cash,” with the subtitle in the form of a question, “Is it more blessed to give money to the poor, no strings attached?” For decades (at least), the argument has been that we need to protect the poor from their own misuse of money. Philanthropists are now learning that it’s not only cheaper to distribute cash, but more effective to also give the poor control over the resources we provide to them.

However we do it, the fundamental Christian value is that we do with our prosperity what Jesus did. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich for your sakes he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Amen.

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