This is a long chapter and it may be best to summarise some parts of the story and then read shorter sections at key points in the narrative.
The story resumes two years after the previous chapter had ended, and Joseph is still in prison. Though God had given him the correct interpretation of a dream that one of Pharaoh’s officials had dreamed while in prison beside him, that official had forgotten about Joseph once he had received his freedom and Joseph had been left to languish.
Now the Pharaoh himself was distressed by a couple of dreams that he had dreamed, and he was unable to find anybody in Egypt who could give him the interpretation. It was at this point that the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph and he was summoned to appear before Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s dreams were similar in content. In the first one, seven fat cows emerged from the Nile and fed on the grass, only to be followed by seven thin cows that ate the fat ones. In the second dream, seven plump ears of corn were eaten by seven thin ears of corn. When Pharaoh woke up he was troubled by the dreams and wanted answers, so he called for all the magicians and wise men in Egypt, but none of them could interpret the dreams. Dreams were held in high esteem in Egypt, but this failure serves to undermine their approach to them. It is not that dreams cannot convey revelation (we have seen already in the Joseph story that they can) but rather that true spiritual revelation cannot come through magicians or so-called wise men but only from God. Pharaoh was searching for answers that can only come from God, and this is exactly what Joseph acknowledged to him before sharing the interpretation (see verse 16).
When Joseph was finally remembered, his long season of suffering and decline was finished. He was now at the moment that the direction of his life turned, and it does not come about through force. Rather the seeds of Joseph’s faithfulness two years earlier finally reap some rewards for him and he is instructed to clean up and come before Pharaoh. Joseph is just as faithful in this position of favour as he is in his sufferings.
One danger that can beset Christians when they gain wealth, power or influence that they did not previously have is that they can lean into the trappings of their settings and downplay the importance of their faith. Joseph did not do this and showed the same willingness to serve and bless and to honour God in his prosperity ad he did in his adversity.
Faithful Before Pharaoh
Just like in the prison, Joseph used his gift of dream interpretation to explain what the dreams meant. This time it was a prediction of a seven-year famine to follow seven-years of plenty. The fact that there were two dreams was simply a confirmation of what God was saying.
Joseph did not stop there. Having already provided the interpretation for Pharaoh, he went on to suggest an economic plan for dealing with the coming famine, namely implementing a redistributive tax of 20% on all food produced in the years of plenty to store up as a means of welfare for those in need during the years of famine. During his time in Potiphar’s household and the prison, Joseph had proved himself to be an effective administrator and he knew that he could use that in the famine situation. Even though he had not been asked, Joseph was bold enough to use his gifts and abilities in a setting of influence, and found favour in doing so, just as he had in other settings.
Pharaoh recognised Joseph as a man speaking by the Spirit of God (v38) – quite a recognition for a foreign king! He then promoted Joseph to manage the affairs of the nation during the famine, effectively making him Prime Minister and second in power only to Pharaoh himself. He signified this by giving Joseph a signet, a chain, a robe of state (it is interesting to see the prominent way in which robes feature in the turning points in Joseph’s story) and a chariot, and commanded all to bow before him.
Joseph was confident in the Lord to interpret the dream and also give his opinion on economic policy. Sometimes, particularly before those with power and authority, it can be tempting to shrink back and not bring a contribution, even when we have something to offer. The Spirit enabled Joseph to make a suggestion and through it, Joseph was given the authority to use his gifts for a much greater impact and see many lives saved through it.
Stepping Into Influence
Once given influence, Joseph had to navigate carefully the challenge of being ‘in the world but not of the world.’ He was operating in an Egyptian context and was expected to follow along with Egyptian culture. He was renamed with an Egyptian name and given an Egyptian wife, the daughter of a priest of an Egyptian god. Nevertheless when his sons were born, their very names made clear were Joseph’s loyalties lie, with their names Manasseh (meaning ‘God has made me forget my hardship and all my father’s house) and Ephraim (meaning ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction) .
Joseph’s new position gave him an opportunity to do good. It is not wrong for a Christian to gain influence, though care should be taken to guard the heart and use that influence well. In this case Joseph was able to be a blessing to the poor, providing food for many who would have otherwise have starved, and in fact to multiply this blessing to the nations, as we are told that all the Earth came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph.
From our perspective, we may question the exact place where the dividing line between participating in culture and staying true to the faith was set in Joseph’s life. The New Testament has lots to add on what may and may not be appropriate applications of this, and it should be acknowledged that there are lots of grey areas in between and much of the application is contextual and situational. Nevertheless, the example we see here is of a man faithfully stewarding his position of cultural influence and attempting to do so in a way that honours the Lord and creates space to make a great impact for good.
How Does It Point to Jesus?
Just like Joseph, Jesus was raised up to a place of authority after his sufferings. Pharaoh instructed every Egyptian to bow before Joseph, but it is at the name of Jesus that every knee will bow. Just like Joseph, Jesus does not use his authority for his own sake but rather to bring salvation to many.