Studying Genesis 41

We are studying Genesis 41:14-57 (actually, more like 25-33, 37-40, and 50-52, but it’s easier to say it the other way!) for Sunday, September 13. This is the part of the story of Joseph where he becomes indispensable to Pharoah and the Egyptians by presenting the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams, which reveal the coming famine, and by providing a plan to survive the disaster. Here are a few notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Between last week’s story (Genesis 37) and this week’s, two different plot lines have developed.

One, told in Genesis 38, tells the story of Judah and Tamar, who after some events worthy of an R-rated movie become the parents of twins Perez and Zerah. Perez is the ancestor of David [see e.g. Ruth 4:18-22]. This is probably why this story needs to be inserted into the narrative. Despite its unflattering implications, or because of them, who can say?

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the story of Joseph continues in Genesis 39 and Genesis 40. Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. YHWH now appears explicitly in the text, and blesses everything Joseph does, which leads Potiphar to give Joseph tremendous authority for running the household. Unfortunately for Joseph, Potiphar’s wife importunes him for sexual favors; when he refuses her, she charges him with attempted rape, for which he is thrown in prison. [Providing a prestigious precedent for the long and cynical history of “false accusation” claims across the millennia. We might be wise to recall that Joseph in this story is exceptional in every way.]

[In fairness to Potiphar’s wife, traditionally named Zuleika, Joseph was unbearably attractive, as another traditional story attests, implying that any normal ancient Egyptian woman would have behaved the same way. Not that it’s necessarily our job to defend Potiphar’s wife.]

In prison, God continues to be with Joseph, who is put in charge of the administration of the prison, and later has the opportunity to interpret a pair of significant dreams for two of the prisoners (Genesis 40). The interpretations are, of course, correct, since Joseph is given them by God. One of the dreams is that of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, a key character in the plot; he is pardoned and restored to his courtly office, and the stage is set for the continuation of Joseph’s story in Genesis 41.

When Pharaoh has a pair of troubling dreams, about seven lovely fat cows who are devoured by seven ugly skinny cows, and seven plump ears of corn devoured by seven blighted ones, and when none of his magicians and wise men can interpret these dreams, the chief cupbearer is on hand to remember and recommend Joseph, the inspired interpreter. Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and that brings us to our text for Sunday.

As we know, the story will continue over the next two weeks. This part of the story isn’t in the lectionary, but the whole story of Joseph is a popular Sunday school and children’s Bible story, so the chances of having heard it already, more than once, in or around church, are high for those who have that background.
red line embellished

CLOSER READING: Chapter 41 as a whole seems to be divided into three episodes, with transitional verses, and a concluding epilogue. Episode one, verses 1-8 (with 8 a transitional verse) are Pharaoh’s dreams. Episode two, verses 9-14 (with 14 the transition) is the cupbearer’s announcement.

Verses 8 and 14 are parallels. In each case, Pharaoh calls for interpreters. In verse 8, the “magicians and wise men” fail – in a sense, they fall. In verse 14, Joseph takes their place: he rises (from dungeon to court), and undergoes a complete change of state (shaves; changes clothes).

Episode three is Pharaoh’s exchange with Joseph. Pharaoh states his purpose (v15), Joseph piously and properly attributes interpretation to God (v16). Pharaoh retells his dreams (vv17-24). We might notice that he elaborates a bit relative to vv1-7, in particular adding some of his personal response to the dreams (see v19, v21). Joseph responds with the meaning (vv25-32) AND a policy recommendation (vv33-36).

In effect, Joseph is outlining his own job description; the text doesn’t say this, but as a reader, it’s not hard to think it. Or, we could think of this as taking initiative and demonstrating wisdom. Or, as being generous and compassionate, since the plan will save life. Or, all of the above.

In v37, the plan is literally “good in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants.” In Judges, it’s ominous when people do what’s good in their eyes, but here, these people’s eyesight is good.

Once again, Joseph has a complete change of state, represented by receiving Pharaoh’s signet ring, a gold chain, and more new clothes, and is raised, to be “over all the land of Egypt.” [The spatial movement in this story matters.]

In v43, we don’t actually know what the command was that “they” cried out in front of Joseph’s chariot. “Bow the knee!” is probably as good as anything. Whatever it meant literally, it signified his importance and authority. He receives an Egyptian name (Zaphenath-paneah, the meaning of which is arguable), and an Egyptian wife, Asenath (the meaning of which is also arguable).

Verses 46-57 narrate the aftermath of this dramatic episode, as Joseph, now in his thirties, capably does his job and becomes a father (of Manasseh – “making to forget” – and Ephraim – something like “to be fruitful”), and sees the beginning of the predicted famine, which will lead to the unfolding of the rest of the story.

Arithmetic based on what we’re given in the text tells us that Joseph has lived 20 years in Egypt by the end of Genesis 41.
red line embellished

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: