Friday, February 7, 2014

Joseph in Egypt and Confirming the Message

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I was reading in the Old Testament Student Manual Genesis –2 Samuel about Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretation of them in Genesis 41 and I ran across an interesting tidbit that really got me thinking.
“Many assume that the dreams of pharaoh were beyond the scope of Egypt’s wise men and yet, in some ways, it is remarkable that these magicians could not have come up with some kind of logical explanation using their own well-known symbolism.” (Old Testament Student Manual Genesis –2 Samuel 8-13, p96)
“Being troubled about this double dream, Pharaoh sent the next morning for all the scribes and wise men of Egypt, to have it interpreted….[The magicians were] men of the priestly caste, who occupied themselves with the sacred arts and sciences of the Egyptians, the hieroglyphic writings, astrology, the interpretation of dreams, the foretelling of events, magic, and conjuring, and who were regarded as the possessors of secret arts…and the wise men of the nation….the clue to the interpretation was to be found in the religious symbols of Egypt. For the cow was the symbol of Isis, the goddess of the all-sustaining earth, and in the hieroglyphics it represented the earth, agriculture, and food; and the Nile, by its overflowing, was the source of the fertility of the land.” (Keil and Delitzsch, as quoted by Old Testament Student Manual Genesis-2 Samuel, 8-13, p96)
God was speaking to Pharaoh (and his wise men) using the Egyptian language of symbolism, but neither he nor his wise men could understand it?  The whole point of the Lord using Egyptian symbols and experiences they were acquainted with was so they could understand.  And yet the text says they couldn’t.

So… what if they did understand the dreams but found them so disturbing that they didn’t know what to do and so preferred to pretend ignorance?

I think it likely that Pharaoh understood it, but found the message to be of such gravity that he felt he needed outside confirmation that it meant what he thought it meant before he took any action on it.   The Egyptian wise men, however, might have been hesitant to give their interpretation of the message because it carried some very bad news—seven years of famine after seven years of plenty.  It takes a lot of courage to deliver bad news to a king.  No doubt the wise men were afraid the interpretation would make the king angry and they would be in danger of demotion or execution.

It is here that the Pharaoh’s butler mentions the guy he met in prison who was really good at interpreting dreams – Joseph.  This man, the butler said, interpreted two different dreams correctly about what would happen and “me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged” (referring to himself and the baker). 

Pharaoh would be very interested to talk to Joseph because the two dreams and interpretations about the butler and the baker show that not only is Joseph skilled at interpreting dreams, but he is forthright about telling the meaning, even when the message is very bad news.  The Pharaoh especially needed that honesty.

There’s another consideration too. The wise men would be excited to have Joseph do the job of telling the bad news about famine because to them he is expendable.  He’s just a prisoner, for heaven’s sake!  If the Pharaoh doesn’t like the interpretation, he’ll just take it out on the prisoner and leave the wise men alone.  No one will care if the prisoner gets executed, right?  Win-win situation.

Something that is really cool about Joseph’s beginning introduction as Pharaoh asks him to interpret is Joseph says, “It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.”  We see Joseph doesn’t take credit for spiritual ability to interpret; he’s firm on the fact it comes from God.  Additionally he says, “God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.”  If Pharaoh already had an impression of the meaning of the dreams, he (and his wise men) would be very curious to see how news of famine might be an answer of peace from God.  And Joseph succeeds in showing how the dreams are a warning that give time for preparation before the trouble comes.  There is something they can do to make it through that famine.  That’s totally making lemonade out of lemons.

Another cool thing Joseph says just as he begins sharing the interpretation of the dreams is he says, “God hath showed Pharaoh what he is about to do.”  If Pharaoh already had an idea of what the dream meant, then Joseph’s words would imply that not only did Joseph know, but Joseph knew Pharaoh knew too and agreed that it really was from God as Pharaoh suspected.

I really like that Joseph doesn’t just deliver the bad news about famine, but he was all ready with a solution about what to do.  Possibly Pharaoh had an idea of the solution too but needed confirmation it was necessary to take all the trouble the kingdom would have to go through to organize this effort and carry it through all those years.  I think the Pharaoh was excited to find Joseph was so in favor of what needed to be done that he figured the best person to put in charge of the food gathering program would be him.  When you look at it pragmatically, no one does a better job than someone firmly convinced of the urgency and necessity of it.

Seen this way, the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams not only teaches about spiritual receptiveness, but also about courage to deliver messages honestly, even if it is bad news, and deliver solutions as well.

Now, I grant that I tend to speculate, so it may be that both Pharaoh and his wise men had no idea what the dreams meant.  It is possible they were believing enough to go from complete ignorance to agreement with Joseph’s interpretation.  But it seems more likely to me that they could accept what he said because they already had an inkling of the truth and he confirmed it.