What do you mean God speaks?

S3E16: Who God forms you into in the pit (Joseph)

June 17, 2023 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 3 Episode 16
What do you mean God speaks?
S3E16: Who God forms you into in the pit (Joseph)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We are often faced with the question of ambiguity in our wrestling with God. That was the question Joseph faced alone in prison. What was God speaking to him? Had God ever really spoken to him? God spoke to him insights into dreams and wisdom to lead people. Yet, he was in prison, seemingly forsaken and forgotten by God.

However, God was doing something during those years, which would prepare him to be the kind of person he would need to be. For the dreams in his youth where his brothers were bowing before him were not about him ruling over them. It was about saving them, even when they had hated him and betrayed him. That was who God was forming him into in the pit--someone who would be able to do so. That is what God is speaking forth into the lives of those who follow the footsteps of Joseph.                   
 0:00   Question of ambiguity of God for Joseph           
 9:55   Who Joseph was becoming in the prison           
15:44 What God spoke through the Pharaoh's dream           
24:57 Joseph leads Egypt through the famine           
30:50 Joseph's brothers come to Egypt           
34:40 What God had really spoken to Joseph in his youth            

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In the eighth episode of this season, we raised a crucial point that it is not the absence of God that confronts us, but the ambiguity. Wrestling with our belief in God is not about trying to believe that there is ‘God’ where there seems to be nothing; there is something —namely, reality that is unfolding everything around us. What we wrestle with instead is whether this ‘something’ personally speaks with us, and for those of us who follow the journey of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is whether this ‘something’ is the voice that spoke into their lives and guided them, and is now likewise speaking into our own. And at times, that is what seems to be happening. But, at other times, it seems as if we were mistaken, or misled. It is this ambiguity that confronts us.

Joseph would have faced this ambiguity in the most difficult time of his life. Despised and betrayed by his brothers, falsely accused and condemned to prison, and forgotten by those he helped, was God speaking and guiding his life? If that was the case, why was he here? Yet, God did speak to his father. And God revealed to Joseph himself things that will unfold in the future, which then came true. So, in some ways, it seemed like God did speak to him; yet in others, it seemed like he was forsaken and forgotten, as if God had never spoken to him. This ambiguity confronted his life. Yet, during that period of painful ambiguity, something else was happening, something he would not understand until later. And it would turn out that that was what God was really speaking forth into his life. So, we’ll continue to explore his story in this episode of…

[ music / ]

… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our 16th episode of the third season, “Who God forms you into, in the pit—the Life of Joseph, part 2.”

[ / music ]

I sometimes wonder what it would’ve been like for Joseph as he languished in prison. To be specific, I wonder what he would’ve thought of God—what he would’ve thought of whatever it is that unfolds everything that happens, including what has happened in his life. I wonder what he would’ve thought of the stories he was likely told as a child, about how this ‘whatever it is’ that unfolds all things, personally spoke to his grandfather and his father, and guided their lives—and thus, became their ‘God’. After all, what unfolded in his life… was betrayal, slavery, and then prison. That’s what this ‘God’ who spoke with his fathers seemed to have unfolded in his life. 

But, in his youth, Joseph would’ve thought that God also spoke to him. Years ago, he had two dreams, which he likely understood as something he received from this ‘God’, just like how his father, Jacob, heard God speak to him in a dream he had long ago. What Joseph dreamed though, was his brothers—or rather, things that symbolized his brothers—bowing down to him. And when he told his brothers about his dreams, they conspired against him and sold him into slavery. Then, just as he “made the best” of his misfortune and managed to become the chief steward to his master, he was sexually harassed by his master’s wife, falsely accused of trying to rape her, and thrown into this prison. Now, all of this should’ve quite decidedly demonstrated for him that the dreams from his youth were not going to come true, which would’ve meant they were not from God. After all, here he was in prison, probably for the rest of his life.  

Yet, his relationship with God still endured; it was rooted in something that went deeper than a couple of dreams, and what was now happening in his own personal life. The very reason he even existed was because what God spoke to his great-grandfather, Abraham, came true in the seemingly impossible birth of his grandfather, Isaac. And Joseph was also there as a boy when his father, Jacob, became Israel after wrestling with God. He knew that all the promises that God spoke to his father in his dream had come true. It was just that Joseph’s own dreams did not come true. 

And for some strange reason, everything Joseph worked on, turned out well. This was partly because he was also highly intelligent and hard-working, bringing about the best possible result in his work; that, you could say, was how he engaged with all of reality around him—how he engaged with ‘God’ that unfolds everything in his life. But, it wasn’t just his own abilities and efforts; I suppose, nowadays, we may say that he had “luck” on his side. Which is to say, reality unfolded things that “came together” just at the right time and place on whatever he worked on. It was sort of like how it was for his father, Jacob, when the flocks of livestock would “just happen” to give birth to animals with just the right features that he needed at that time—like being speckled or striped (You can check episode 12 of this season for that story). So, this combination of competence and luck—namely, how he engaged with reality, and how reality unfolded things at the right time and place for him—is largely what the Genesis account describes with the phrase, “God was with Joseph.” This was how it was for his father, and his grandfather; in whatever they did, things turned out well, and it was one of the important signs that ‘God’ that spoke with them was guiding their lives.

The problem was: it seemed that “God was with Joseph,” only when he was working for other people. His work made his master prosperous, which was why he made Joseph his chief steward—before that thing with his wife. His work in the prison was regarded with favor by the prison warden, who gave him authority to manage other prisoners. But, when all was said and done, Joseph’s lot in life just became worse and worse; from the heir of a prosperous family, to a slave in Egypt; from a trusted slave of an Egyptian aristocrat, to a convict in the Pharaoh’s prison. So, just what was God saying to him through all of this? Or, was it that God had never really spoken to him at alll?

This question would’ve taken an even more perplexing turn when two prisoners from the Pharaoh came to his prison block. Both of them had a dream that disturbed them, and they did not know what they meant. Yet, when they told Joseph about their dreams, something, like an insight, came to him regarding how their dreams were revealing what was going to happen—and this experience probably felt just like how it was, years ago, when he had those two dreams that he once believed God had shown him. So, he told them what their dreams meant, and what was going to unfold in three days. One of them, the chief baker, would be executed, while the other, the chief cupbearer, would be restored to his old position. Then, in three days, things unfolded exactly as he said; what Joseph had said became true. And this was a sliver of hope for Joseph, because when he told the cupbearer that he would be restored, he also added, “When this really happens, please tell the Pharaoh that I’m in his prison, but I’ve done nothing wrong!” Yet, days went by after he heard the news of what happened: days, then weeks, then months. Genesis reports that the cupbearer forgot about Joseph, so that he languished in prison for two more years—and Genesis seems to specifically emphasize the exact length of this time: its wording is not simply “two years,” but “two whole years”. 

And I think, these two whole years were the hardest to bear for Joseph. That’s because what happened with the two prisoners would’ve demonstrated to Joseph that ‘whatever it is’ that unfolds everything, that also personally spoke to his father and his grandfather, does speak to him too; ‘God’ spoke to him, not with verbal words, but through an insight into dreams that revealed what was going to unfold. It also meant that reality unfolding favorably to his work in the past really was God guiding him. But if so, why was he still in prison? Why did things unfold in precisely the wrong way, with the cupbearer, just “happening to forget” Joseph, so that he remained in this prison? It would’ve meant that God guided Joseph in his work, but not in his bid for freedom; God personally spoke to him of things that will unfold—of what God is speaking forth—in the world around him, but God would not address his future, nor his continued misfortune. Why

It’d have been one thing if he was just some arrogant lunatic, with delusions about how God spoke to him with dreams. But, what had happened seemed to demonstrate that God really is speaking to him, yet things still kept unfolding in a way that kept him in prison. And this time, it wasn’t even due to some human malice—like his brothers who sold him, or his master’s wife who lied about him. The cupbearer just forgot about him. So, God that speaks forth all things, and speaks every truth, was speaking insight and knowledge into his mind. But, no one else would know! He was in prison, forgotten and alone. God empowered him with wisdom, yet locked him away, shackled with chains.


[ Short pendulum ]

Sometimes, there is no answer to our questions of ‘why’—at least, not the kind we want. Joseph was sold into slavery. Why? Because his brothers hated him, which was in turn due to his father’s favoritism toward him—and because he naively told them dreams he should’ve known would set them off. Joseph was in prison. Why? Because his master’s wife couldn’t have her way with him, and she had the status and the power to make him pay for that. The cupbearer forgot about Joseph. Why? Because people forget things; sudden imprisonment, impending execution, and then restoration to power, all in short order, tend to push things out of their mind. All of that is just what happens sometimes; all of that is part of our reality, part of God speaking, though none of that is in itself God personally speaking something to us—at least, most of the times.

However, there is something that God may personally be speaking to us, in the midst of those things. Remember what we have explored in the previous episodes. The life-story of the people in the Bible recounts not only how God spoke with them and unfolded what happened in their lives, but also what kind of people they became because of this. What God was speaking forth into Joseph’s life was a particular kind of person that God was forming in him during his time in prison. But, what kind of person?

A couple of millennia after his time, Jesus would teach his disciples, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Now, it seems that many of us in the English- speaking world imagine the “meek” in the Bible to mean weak and cowardly people. That is not quite what the word means. After all, Jesus is described as “meek”, but he was neither weak nor afraid. “Meekness” rather means a “gentleness” of spirit, a power that is tamed and kept in check. Or to put it differently, power, that is shackled.

And God granted Joseph power—power of knowledge, power of insight and wisdom, of pronouncing what God will unfold, thus of what will come to pass. It is a power that can bless, but also curse. So, I sometimes imagine myself in Joseph’s shoes. What would I want to do with that power, once I was free? Who would I bless? And more to the point, who would I curse? The woman who lied to put me in prison, or her husband who went along with it? My own brothers who sold me to slavery even as I pleaded with them for my life? But, Joseph was in prison. He has the power to pronounce blessing and curses. Yet, here, he cannot bless anyone. Nor can he curse anyone—not the man who forgot his debts to him, not the woman whose lies put him in prison, not his brothers who sold him into slavery. And it was God—God who spoke to him and granted him this power— that kept him shackled here in prison. 

So, Joseph would’ve then realized that it was not his brothers, nor his master’s wife, nor even his slavery and imprisonment that he was contending with; it was ‘God’. Like his father before him, Joseph had to wrestle with God. And I think those two whole years of wrestling with God formed in him a particular kind of person. In his past, knowledge that came with God speaking to him through dreams or insight, would’ve beckoned to him with images of power and status over other people. When he was the heir of his father’s household, the dreams God showed him meant that he would rule over his brothers. And when God spoke to him insight regarding the cupbearer’s dream, it enticed him with hope for freedom, and possibly vengeance. After all, his brothers should answer for what they’ve done; and his Egyptian masters should answer for they’ve done. Yet, as he wrestled with God that spoke to him, yet kept him in prison, he would’ve realized that it was God that would answer him. For he was sold into slavery in Egypt not merely because his brothers hated him; he was imprisoned not merely because of his master’s wife falsely accused him; God brought him here and kept him here. 

Alone with ‘God’ in his prison, everyone else would’ve faded from consideration: his brothers, his former master, his possible benefactor. What now faced him was ‘God’ that spoke to his father, that spoke to him, while keeping him shackled—That which unfolds everything in the world, ‘God’ that even now speaks personally with you and confronts you with every truth, about your thoughts, your life, your world and judges your actions, and the integrity your character whether you’re a king or a prisoner. And forgotten and left alone with this ‘God’, Joseph was stripped of every other question in his life—of his future, his status, or even his rights to vengeance—and was left with just this inescapable question: just what was this ‘God’ speaking forth here, and to him, now shorn of his status, grievances, or ambition?

So, after those years, when the doors to his prison cell opened, and he was summoned before the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, Joseph was a different man. He was someone who can answer that question without distortion or deceit, without being swayed by enticement of power, or even a want for rightful retribution. And Joseph needed to be such a person, for what was now going to unfold, in the world, and in his own life.

[ Pendulum ]

One night, the Pharaoh had a dream. And it was a disturbing dream. He was standing by the Nile River, and seven cows, sleek and healthy, came out of the river to graze by its banks. Then, seven other cows, gaunt and skeletal, emerged from the river and then proceeded to devour the healthy cows. The pharaoh was jolted awake. Then, probably after calming himself down, he fell asleep. Then, he had another dream. There was a stalk of grain before him, with seven plump, full heads growing out from it. Then, seven thin, shriveled heads sprouted after them, which snaked upward, and devoured the full, plump heads. The Pharaoh was jolted awake again, and called for all the wise men and magicians in his Court. Wait, why would he call for magicians? Well, in ancient times, “magicians” were those who sought knowledge of powers that people believed lay at the foundation of their world—powers they understood to be gods, or a sort of mystical force. They were seeking to wield these powers themselves—to wield the gods, so to speak; so they studied the movements of the sun, moon, and the stars, catalogued plants and animals, and inquired about the gods, so that they could catch a glimpse of this power. And one of the things they delved into were secrets of dreams, because they thought that some dreams could connect you to these powers. 

Remember episode twelve? Dreams that you cannot forget—the ones that remain with you and won’t let you go; dreams that seem to be telling you something—something specific and important; those are the dreams the people in the past knew you had to pay close attention. Those are the dreams that may be conveying to you some crucial truths. And the Pharaoh had not just one, but two such dreams, in a single night. 

The problem was: none of the magicians and the wise men could figure out what they meant. I mean, they probably could tell that the dreams were some sort of warning. Something bad was going to happen. And the number seven probably was important, since it kept repeating itself. But, what exactly were these dreams warning about? Is it some sort of plague? Will it kill the cows and the grain? Or, are there going to be some, skeletal zombie cows and zombie grain that will eat everyone alive? I mean, it could be many things. And they could take a guess, but do you want to make a guess and risk being wrong? Remember, you’re reporting this to the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and if your guess turns out to be wrong, there was that example of a certain baker two years ago, whose head got devoured by birds. And even if you can really figure out what the dreams mean, what could you do about it? Say, it’s about ravenous zombie cows. What are you going to do about zombie cows?

So, everyone sensed that these dreams were pointing to some terrible calamity. But, they didn’t know what that was, let alone what to do about it. And not knowing what disaster is bearing down on you can be the most terrifying thing of all. Now, the chief cupbearer of the Pharaoh was also in the meeting; remember that the cupbearer was usually the ruler’s close confidant. This tense situation reminded him of something: the dream he had two years ago, and the Hebrew prisoner he met back then, who he had forgotten all this time! So, he spoke up. “I feel terrible that I forgot about this until now! Back when the Pharaoh sent me and the chief baker into prison, we both had a dream. Then, this young Hebrew, who was a slave of the captain of the guards, listened to our dreams. He then told us that I will be restored to my position, and the baker would be executed. And you know what happened next.”

So, the Pharaoh hurriedly sent for Joseph. Joseph’s prison door opened, and he was taken outside, cleaned, shaved, given a change of clothes. Then, he was led to stand before the Pharaoh, who addressed him, “I had a dream, but no one could tell me what it means. But, I heard that you can.”

Joseph’s replied, “It is not me who will give you the answers. The answer that Pharaoh needs will come from God.” His reply here was that whatever answer the Pharaoh will reach, listening to him, will be God speaking to him, rather than his own knowledge or wisdom. With this, Joseph was distancing himself from the power God granted him.

Then, the Pharaoh told Joseph about his dreams: the seven healthy cows, devoured by seven skeletal cows; the seven full heads of grain, devoured by seven shriveled heads. He added how terrifyingly ugly they looked—how even after devouring the other cows, or the heads of grain, they were still skeletal, shriveled, and ugly.   

Just as before, thoughts came together in Joseph’s mind; images, symbols, and events, fit into place like a vast puzzle, forming an insight into what the dreams were conveying. These dreams were God speaking not only to the Pharaoh, but to Joseph personally, regarding the events God was now going to speak forth and unfold—regarding what the world was going to become and what it will go through in the coming years. 

“The two dreams mean the same thing,” Joseph began. “God has spoken to Pharaoh of what He is going to do. Seven cows are seven years; seven heads of grain are seven years. The seven healthy cows and seven full heads of grain, both mean seven years of plenty, of good harvest in all of Egypt. The seven skeletal cows, and seven shriveled heads of grain, mean that seven years of great famine will follow and consume the land. And these next seven years of famine will be so terrible that they will devour everything from the previous seven years, and the times of plenty will be forgotten because of the grief and suffering that will fall upon the land. And Pharaoh had two dreams, which meant the same thing, because God is firmly set on bringing this about; there’s nothing that can change what will happen.”

I imagine that a grave mood fell upon everyone in the Court then. The dreams were almost apocalyptic—the ancient equivalent of a worldwide climate catastrophe. But, Joseph also realized that God spoke to the Pharaoh, and to him, so that people could do something about what was going to happen, about what God was bringing about.

So, Joseph continued. “So, Pharaoh should find a wise and experienced person who will lead the following national project. Overseers will be appointed across the land, and they will collect one-fifth of all the food that Egypt will produce during the seven good years, and then stockpile them in the cities by the authority of the Pharaoh. So, when the seven years of famine falls upon the land, there will be enough food in reserve and this country will not be devastated by the famine.” 

Then the Pharaoh spoke to his officials, “Isn’t he the one we need? Can anyone of you find someone else who has the Spirit of God in him like this?” Then, he turned and said to Joseph, “You’re the one for this job, since God has shown you all of these things. You have the wisdom and knowledge needed for this, so you will take charge, and you will have authority to govern this entire country, answering only to me as your king.” 

When I first read this scene, I was struck with how Joseph seemed personally detached in his advice. I mean, shouldn’t this be a good opportunity to bring up what happened to him, or maybe suggest some reward? Now, I suppose it wasn’t the most appropriate time or place to bring up his grievances against his previous masters, or, beg, “Please don’t send me back to prison!” But, he could have been more proactive, while being subtle, like saying, “Let me take charge of this project, because I know how to protect your country from the coming famine.” Instead, Joseph simply tells the Pharaoh what his dreams mean, what God was going to unfold in the coming years, and the needed course of action regarding them, without mentioning himself at all

But, this fits with what he told the Pharaoh at the start, by saying, “You’ll not find the answers you need from me; it is ‘God’ that is speaking to you, and it is from God you’ll find your answers.” For Joseph, he was simply relaying what God was speaking to the Pharaoh through his dreams, and he left it up to the Pharaoh and his officials—and to God speaking to them—what they were going to do in response. 

Now, you could argue that Joseph was just being reserved, keeping decorum before the Pharaoh, and that’s probably part of it. But, I really think there was more. The two years formed in Joseph a kind of calmness of mind that can consider and judge things without being swayed by his personal circumstances. And even if this is not made so clear in his conversation with the Pharaoh, it becomes clearer in the story that follows. First is something I noticed when I was told this story as a child, and it was: nothing happens to the woman who lied about him and sent him to prison. In fact, she’s never mentioned again. And when you’re five years old, raised in stories where good people are rewarded and bad people are punished, that’s quite ­off-putting. I vaguely remember my mother telling me, that’s not what was important, but I didn’t really get it then. But, even clearer case is what happens when Joseph met his brothers again.

But, I’m getting ahead of the story. That meeting would take nearly ten more years. 

[ Pendulum ]

Genesis reports that Joseph was thirty when the Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, appointed him as his head official, governing his entire country. Since he was sold into slavery by his brothers sometime after he turned seventeen, this would mean that Joseph was a slave and then a prisoner for more than a decade. 

The Genesis account also reports that the Pharaoh named him, “Zaphnath-Paaneah.” According to ancient Jewish tradition, this is a Hebrew translation of a name that meant something like, “The one to whom hidden things are revealed”. However, this name might not even be Hebrew at all; it may be Egyptian, though it would be in a dialect spoken long before the time Genesis was written. According to Egyptologists, at least a part of the name is recognizably Egyptian. One of their suggested translations is “The god speaks [and] he lives,” which would be quite fitting for this series. But, this has a couple of problems, grammatical and historical, so it’s still contentious. I bring this up though, to remind you that those who wrote the book of Genesis were likely drawing upon sources from long before their time. I suppose this again raises the question of historicity. There are speculations that the life-story of Joseph is set in the time of what is called the Hyksos period in Egypt, when western Semitic people from the Levant ruled the northern half of Egypt from their capital city at Avaris, in the Nile Delta. The Hyksos were not native Egyptians, but Semitic in ethnicity, so they would have been more open to appointing someone like Joseph to a high office. But, the details of the Hyksos reign are uncertain to scholars today, and again as we explored in the previous episodes of this season, Genesis accounts of Abraham’s family have not preserved the specific historical details that historians can use to connect the stories to history. There was that famine, but there were many famines throughout history of Egypt.    

Anyway, just as Joseph said, Egypt soon experienced an unusually bountiful harvest and time of prosperity. Joseph then set about his project he outlined to the Pharaoh. Egyptian officials began collecting one-fifth of all the grain the land had produced, and began stockpiling them. I think the farmers back then would’ve actually welcomed the move too, because it would’ve hauled away their unneeded surpluses they had trouble getting rid of—and even better, to store it for future contingencies. After all, everyone had too much grain, and that means you couldn’t sell it to other people, or trade it for something else, and there’s only so much you can store away, especially when there would be even more surplus of grain the next year. In fact, Genesis reports that during the seven years of plenty, even Joseph could not keep track of how much food was being collected and stored, because there was just so much of it.     

At this time Joseph also married a woman named Asenath, who was a daughter of an Egyptian priest named Potiphe’rah—and the name suggests that he was a priest of the Egyptian sun-god, Ra. Joseph and Asenath had two sons, and their names offers a glimpse into how Joseph felt about what had happened to him. He named the firstborn, Manasseh, which means, “Makes me forget,” saying that “God has made me forget my hardship and my father’s household.” He named the second son, “Ephraim,” meaning “fruitful,” saying that “God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” 

I bring this up because what happened to him really did hurt Joseph deeply. He didn’t somehow reach some mindset where being hated, and sold by his brothers, or being falsely accused and imprisoned, no longer affected him. They mattered; he was hurt and traumatized. Yet, what God unfolded in his life, how God guided him, enabled him to endure and then “forget” his pains, so that he could make something fruitful out of his life. These experiences hurt him, but the person God had formed into, would not be lost in their grip, nor would his thoughts or judgments be swayed by their memory. That was what he would need to be, in that fateful encounter with his brothers. 

Eventually seven years of plenty came to an end, and the year after was very different from before. Weather was bad; there were droughts. Crops struggled to grow, and often outright died. People began realizing that this year was an utter disaster, and they had no choice but to just hope that next year would be better; but, there just weren’t enough food for them to last until next year. As more and more people began searching for food elsewhere, the price of food skyrocketed, beyond what most people could afford, and they turned to their government for help. Joseph then opened the storehouses he had set up, and began distributing the food that was collected. 

But, it seemed it was not just Egypt that was affected by the famine.” Around this time period, there was an extensive trade network throughout the Near-East and the eastern Mediterranean sea, which would include northeastern Africa, including today’s Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya, as well as the Levant and the Near-East, including today’s Israel, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and others, and across the sea, the islands of Crete and Cyprus, and mainland Greece. This was the known, civilized world—which Genesis usually phrases with the words, “the whole world”. And it seems the famine affected these lands, or at least the land of the Levant, neighboring Egypt, so that people there were coming to Egypt to buy food and alleviate their shortage.

And among them were the sons of Israel, Joseph’s brothers. 

[ Pendulum ]

Joseph had now spent around twenty years in Egypt, first as a slave, then as a prisoner, and now as a highest-ranking official and governor of the land. God had spoken to him insights into dreams, knowledge of things that will unfold, and wisdom regarding what to do. And what God spoke to Joseph had come true, and it enabled him to guide Egypt through the famine. Yet, there was one thing that would’ve remained unresolved for him even after all these years: the two dreams he had in his youth, the first time God spoke to him—or so he once thought. It was these dreams, the dreams where his brothers bowed down to him, which was at the start of everything that befell him here in Egypt, what instigated his brothers to turn on him and sell him into slavery. 

During the famine, Joseph took on the position of the governor of the land, overseeing the distribution and sales of stored grain in Egypt. And it seems this position often had him deal with foreigners who came to buy food from Egypt. Then, one day, a group of semi-nomadic traders arrived from the Levant—specifically from the region of Canaan, which was directly under Egypt’s sphere of influence at that time. They were in desperate need to trade for food, so they presented themselves before Joseph, who was in charge of this trade, and they bowed deeply before him, prostrating their heads to the ground, hoping to win his favor. 

But, Joseph addressed them coldly. “How do I know you aren’t spies, here to scout out any weaknesses in our defenses?” 

This was a fair question. The vast stockpile of grain Egypt had stored for the famine under Joseph’s direction had spared the country from the worst of the famine, but it also made it a very tempting target for those who needed food—or those who wanted to profit from that need. Of course, Egypt was very powerful, and few would dare attack it, but desperate times called for desperate measures, and people were desperate for food. Nomadic tribes at the border could very well be planning for a raid.

The traders from Canaan frantically denied this. They weren’t from those raiding tribes. All of them were sons of a single man, who headed a peaceful and prosperous family, living in Canaan, and they were here just to buy food from Egypt. “A likely cover story,” Joseph retorted; you would expect spies to come up with something like that to avoid suspicion. Joseph then began to interrogate them closely, trying to find holes in their claims. Who was their father? Is he still alive? Are all of his sons here, or are there more? Can they corroborate their story? Taken off balance, they answered him as best as they could. Their father was still alive, even though he was now very old. There were twelve brothers in all, and ten of them were here in Egypt to buy food; one of them was “no longer with them,” and the youngest was staying with their father. The youngest always stays with his father.

Joseph was unconvinced. “I still think you are spies. But, I fear God’s judgment if I were to harm innocent people. So, here’s what I’m going to do. I will sell you the food that you need this time. But, you will have to prove your story to me next time you’re here. Bring me your youngest brother you mentioned, the one who always stays with your father. And just in case, I’m going to keep one of you imprisoned here, until you do so.”

Terrified, they agreed to his demands. And as one of them was led away, the others began to talk to each other in their own language. “This… this must be because of what we did to our brother that time. We all saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, as he was being dragged away, and we ignored him. And now, the same thing is happening to us!” Then, the one who seemed the oldest among them said angrily, “Didn’t I tell you not to harm the boy back then? Now, we’re being punished for what we’ve done!”

But, Joseph understood their language; it was his mother tongue after all. And while they were busy arguing among themselves, he turned from them so they could not see his face, and wept. Because these ten men were his older brothers who had sold him into slavery twenty years ago. They didn’t recognize him now, dressed as an Egyptian aristocrat. But, he recognized them.    

[ Genesis Music ]

Genesis reports that when Joseph met his brothers again, he “remembered the dreams he had about them.” When he saw his brothers bowing down to him, believing him to be a high-ranking Egyptian official, Joseph finally understood what God had been speaking to him in the two dreams he had so many years ago. It was about this very moment, here in Egypt, when they bowed before him with their heads to the ground, just so that they could buy food—food to save their family. This was what God was going to unfold, and what his dreams had showed.

His older brothers, and quite likely even Joseph himself, assumed that his dreams were about Joseph ruling over them as the next head of the household—that it would come to pass due to their father’s favoritism toward him. But, the dreams were about Joseph saving them from the famine, and it came to pass through their hatred and betrayal. 

So, God had indeed spoken to Joseph, not just in Egypt, but from the very first time. Everyone had long since believed that what God showed him were proven false. But, what God spoke had come true; everything unfolded just as God spoke to him, even when no one believed it, and when even Joseph had forgotten it. And it was never about Joseph having power over his brothers; it was never about him ruling over them. It was about Joseph saving his brothers, and their family, and not only them, but many, many people in Egypt and across the known world. 

And the years in prison where he wrestled with God alone had formed Joseph into the kind of person who could do so. Joseph would lead the country through the famine, and be in charge of providing food for the world that would desperately needed it—a world that would bow before him because of it. But, that would grant him enormous power— power over desperate people, over even those who had hated him and wronged him. People like his brothers. He could starve them with but a gesture of his hands. But, now Joseph knew it was God that led him down the path, to slavery in Egypt, to prison, and there a meeting with the cupbearer, then wrestling along with God, until an audience with the Pharaoh, all so that he now wielded this power. Through it all, God had raised Joseph into someone who would refuse to be swayed by this power. Someone who would hear God speak to him to save everyone, including those who hated him. 

But, all this had come to pass through Joseph’s own personal anguish and suffering. Even after all these years, the memory of it made him weep with tears. During the years in prison, God formed Joseph into the kind of person who could save Egypt and save his brothers. But, did everything have to unfold this way? From their hatred and betrayal, through his anguish and suffering? Could things not have been different? That would be the question confronting Joseph, and now his brothers in their reunion. 

[ Genesis music ]

In the meanwhile, Joseph had to know one other thing. He did not seek vengeance on his brothers; but he also was no longer naïve like he was when he was young, foolishly unaware of how people could turn on each other, or lie to get what they want. That was why he interrogated his brothers. He knew they weren’t spies. But, he also knew they were capable of betraying or killing their family—after all, that is what they did to him. What if they harmed their father to seize their inheritance, or more likely, harmed his younger brother Benjamin? Now that Joseph was gone, their father’s love would be concentrated on the last remaining son of the woman he loved the most. Joseph needed to know he was safe. He needed to know whether his brothers changed. 

[ ending music ]

And so, please join us next episode, as we conclude the story of Joseph, which will explore how Genesis portrays what it means for God to speak and interacts with us, in the midst of our deepest wrongs and profoundest failures. 

And please support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others, and by rating it on your apple podcast platform. You can also support this series at buymeacoffee.com. 

Question of ambiguity of God for Joseph
Who Joseph was becoming in the prison
What God spoke through the Pharaoh's dream
Joseph leads Egypt through the famine
Joseph's brothers come to Egypt
What God had really spoken to Joseph in his youth