Joseph provides a worthwhile case study in the transformative effects of suffering. When sold into slavery at seventeen, Joseph was a callow young man who based his sense of security on the love of his father, whose favoritism actually put him in danger, but by the time he rises to the position of grand vizier over Egypt, he has become a much different person as he no longer has a naive view of the world and is quite shrewd, something that his brothers will later find out to their cost. As I happen to have assigned to me the teaching of precisely this period of Joseph’s life, I thought I would like to explore the ways in which Joseph’s character is refined and transformed by the process of suffering in the course of slavery and imprisonment in Egypt.
In Genesis 39:1-6 we have a short summary of Joseph’s early experience of slavery in Egypt: “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field. Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” We do not know how long this process took, but Joseph was sold into slavery and through his diligent effort he proved himself loyal to the interests of his master, who was lazy enough to trust his slave to take care of everything so that he could enjoy a life of ease and comfort.
Of course, it was at this point where Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him into committing adultery, correctly seeing the virile Joseph as an attractive partner given the laziness of Potiphar. And Joseph was, again, a man of integrity who refused to sin against God by sleeping with his master’s wife, pointing to the trust that his master had placed in him. It did Joseph little good, at least at the time. And here we see some of the essential problems that have always existed in systems of slavery. In a system of slavery, masters live by the sweat of the brows of others, a process that of necessity involves theft and exploitation. Often, slaves did not work hard because they had a firm interest in giving their master as little profit as possible, and systems of exploitative labor where those who worked did not receive the proper reward for that work have always been systems that were undermined by a lack of diligence and effort on the part of workers. On top of that, Joseph’s integrity and hard work likely alienated him from fellow slaves, who might have seen him as a show off and as master’s pet, similar to the ways that his brothers were envious of the favoritism his father showed him. And on top of that, the behavior of Joseph’s wife put Potiphar in a difficult position, in that the master likely did not fully believe his wife but for his own reasons of pride and ego had to act as if those rumors were true in order to discourage any other slave from taking up with his wife, and so Joseph was imprisoned for a crime he steadfastly refused to commit.
Genesis 39:21-23 shows us that God continued to be with Joseph even when he was in prison: “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing. The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” Here again we see this same pattern, where God has placed Joseph in adversity but where God is letting those around Joseph know that he is blessed whatever his circumstances. And we notice too that Joseph retains his integrity. He remains trustworthy and diligent, trusting that by behaving above board and decently and honorably that things will work out for him, as indeed they do. If his view is less naive, if he is aware that people are envious of those who are diligent as slaves or those who receive the favoritism of the father or master, he has not become cynical and corrupted by his experience. Instead, his integrity goes deeper as he maintains his character in the face of very dispiriting circumstances like slavery and unjust imprisonment.
It is at this point that two Egyptian servants of the Pharaoh are put into prison, as we read in Genesis 40:1-15: “It came to pass after these things that the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their lord, the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief butler and the chief baker. So he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison, the place where Joseph was confined. And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them; so they were in custody for a while. Then the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison, had a dream, both of them, each man’s dream in one night and each man’s dream with its own interpretation. And Joseph came in to them in the morning and looked at them, and saw that they were sad. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, “Why do you look so sad today?” And they said to him, “We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.” So Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.” Then the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “Behold, in my dream a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches; it was as though it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes. Then Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” And Joseph said to him, “This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days. Now within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your place, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand according to the former manner, when you were his butler. But remember me when it is well with you, and please show kindness to me; make mention of me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the dungeon.””
Here Joseph sees his ticket out of prison. So far in his life, Joseph’s main strategy for getting by has been to prove his loyalty to the person in charge, often through ways (like snitching and working hard) that alienated him from his peers. Here, though Joseph demonstrates that he has something to offer to his peers as well, and that is a confidence in the value of dreams and in God’s desire that the meanings of these visions should be made known. And so Joseph interprets first the dream of the butler, which is positive, and the dream of the baker, which is negative. He asks the butler to reminder him and to figure out a way to get him out of prison because he was put there unjustly. For the first time in his life, Joseph is seeking allies among his peers rather than alienating them. His offer to interpret their dreams also serves as a way to demonstrate his worth to those who might be made jealous by his conspicuous abilities. Unfortunately, the butler does not remember to show gratitude for his freedom gained as a result of Joseph’s interpretation and its coming to pass, as it is written in Genesis 40:20-23: “Now it came to pass on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. Then he restored the chief butler to his butlership again, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” There are a variety of reasons why the butler forgot Joseph for years, but Joseph was again forgotten in prison while life was going on outside the prison walls.
At this point, God intervenes with another dream that brings Joseph to the position of honor that had been set aside for him. In Genesis 41:1-16, we see Joseph finally out of prison and counseling the Pharaoh about a troubling vision: “Then it came to pass, at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh had a dream; and behold, he stood by the river. Suddenly there came up out of the river seven cows, fine looking and fat; and they fed in the meadow. Then behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the river, ugly and gaunt, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the river. And the ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven fine looking and fat cows. So Pharaoh awoke. He slept and dreamed a second time; and suddenly seven heads of grain came up on one stalk, plump and good. Then behold, seven thin heads, blighted by the east wind, sprang up after them. And the seven thin heads devoured the seven plump and full heads. So Pharaoh awoke, and indeed, it was a dream. Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them for Pharaoh. Then the chief butler spoke to Pharaoh, saying: “I remember my faults this day. When Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, both me and the chief baker, we each had a dream in one night, he and I. Each of us dreamed according to the interpretation of his own dream. Now there was a young Hebrew man with us there, a servant of the captain of the guard. And we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us; to each man he interpreted according to his own dream. And it came to pass, just as he interpreted for us, so it happened. He restored me to my office, and he hanged him.” Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him quickly out of the dungeon; and he shaved, changed his clothing, and came to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that you can understand a dream, to interpret it.” So Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.””
At this point, Joseph’s transformation is complete. The seventeen year old Joseph gloried in his brothers bowing down to him, a dream that even offended his father. By the time Joseph has come to the Pharaoh it is some thirteen years later, and Joseph has become a man who no longer glories in being bowed down to but one whose sufferings has transmuted his arrogance into humble service to God. When he gives advice on how the Pharaoh should respond to the dreams he had, it is already clear what will happen, as Genesis 41:33-41: ““Now therefore, let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, to collect one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that are coming, and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. Then that food shall be as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which shall be in the land of Egypt, that the land may not perish during the famine.” So the advice was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.””
What alchemy has happened to Joseph over this time? For one, we see that Joseph maintained his integrity throughout this time. From his adolescence to his adulthood, he maintained an interest in dreams and in the way that God communicates through them. That did not change. He maintained his interest in the well-being of others and in the importance of being trustworthy to those in charge–be it Jacob, Potiphar, the chief warden of the prison, or the Pharaoh. He served God through respecting those in authority over him, even when he was unjustly enslaved and imprisoned. That did not change either. What did change was his attitude towards his peers. As a teenager he had no problems snitching on his brothers to his father, nor does he appear to have been concerned about the lack of worth ethic of his fellow slaves, and he alienated his peers by being what people in my youth would call a brownnoser. By the time he is thirty years old and has come out of prison, he no longer wishes to use the favor of his master as a way of setting himself up above his peers. He no longer glories in their adoration, but his ambitions have been converted into serving God. The injustices and difficult experiences of slavery and imprisonment have made him a more humble servant of God whose abilities no longer excite in others the same sense of envy that they did before. And such an alchemy God will perform on us, if we let Him.