Today, a court-appointed psychotherapist might say that Joseph, after a profusion of bad breaks, should he be released, was a good candidate for recidivism and for leading a life of crime.
But Joseph, although far from the family who other than himself, were the sole worshipers of the God of the Bible, lived in the certainty that God was with Him. He also had those dreams to latch onto from his youth that seemed to hint that God had a plan for his life.
So, Joseph held on to God while in prison. In fact, as the preceding chapter ends, we see that Joseph's abilities as a leader and administrator, which had previously caught the eye of his owner, Potiphar, are now being used in the prison. (Joseph is sort of like Tim Robbins' Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.)
The Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker, apparently guilty of some wrongdoing end up in prison too, where, one night, they both have dreams.
Gerhard von Rad points out that in those days, the interpretation of dreams was regarded as a science. But neither one of the Pharaoh's servants are apparently competent to discern their dreams' meanings, dream-interpretation being a specialized field, in any case. But both are disturbed by their dreams.
When Joseph learns what's bothering the two men, he assures them that the interpretation of dreams is something that comes as a gift (what the New Testament calls a charism) from God. This belief lay behind the emphatic rejection of astrology or other ancient superstitions by Israel.
Joseph rightly interprets the dreams of both men. Yet in spite of Joseph's pleading with him, when the cupbearer is released, he forgets all about Joseph or the young man's insistence that he is really not guilty of the crime for which he's imprisoned.
Later, the Pharaoh has two dreams. (By the way, this pairing of dreams is a pattern throughout the story about Joseph.) Both disturb him. Finally, the cupbearer remembers the wrong he's done Joseph by forgetting all about him and tells the Pharaoh of the young Hebrew who can interpret dreams.
What follows is rather remarkable. Although consigned to a position of abject subordination, a foreigner, a slave summoned to appear before the head of the greatest empire of its day, Joseph seems completely unruffled.
This is a model for any person of faith asked to "speak the truth to power": We should be as respectful of the powerful as we would be of any other human being, all of whom are created in the image of God. But we should remember, as Bob Dylan wrote many years ago, "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked." Someone, I can't recall who, has recently observed that they had known three different people who seemed to treat everyone they met, whether presidents or paupers, exactly the same way every time: Billy Graham, Johnny Cash, and Bono. Is it a coincidence that each of these admittedly imperfect men have also been people of faith in God ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ?
Joseph listens to the Pharaoh describe his dreams and, reliant on God to give him the right understanding, Joseph interprets their meaning. Egypt, he pronounces, is about to enjoy seven years of bumper crops. But there will follow seven years of famine.
Joseph could have fairly been expected to leave things at that. Instead, gifted not only as a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, but also as a leader and an administrator, he goes on to suggest the managerial implications of the dreams. The Pharaoh, Joseph says, needs to select somebody who will set aside 20% of the crops during the bumper years so that they will be available for sale to the hungry in the draught and famine years to follow.
Joseph's entire game plan so pleases the Pharaoh that he installs Joseph as his second-in-command. As von Rad notes:
The narrator describes Joseph's installation by describing ceremonies, customs, and laws that were actually practiced in Egypt. The office given to Joseph is that of grand vizier, i.e., the authorized representative of the king himself...Especially important was the handing over of the royal seal, which the vizier had to administer; with it he becomes the actual public executor of the royal decrees...Genesis 41:45-57
Charles Dickens's or Alexandre Dumas' fictional tales of improbable--and in some cases, to be dreaded--reunions between family members or one-time opponents have no more drama than that in the true story of Joseph and his brothers which is about to unfold.
Everything in Egypt is going as Joseph had foretold and his administrative remedy is proving to be a success. Egypt is doing okay under Joseph's wise guidance. Meanwhile, the famine has hit Canaan too...
[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: