Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 41:1-40
by Kory Plockmeyer
We all love a good rags-to-riches story.
The nobody-from-nowhere who makes it big. Folks like Steve Jobs, who, despite being a college dropout beat the odds and become world-famous. Stories like that of Tim Tebow, whose parents were told before he was born that he would most likely be born with severe disabilities but went on to lead the University of Florida to a national championship in football.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat filters the story of Joseph through this lens. The showstopping end of Act I gives encouragement to a despondent Joseph with 1960’s flair: “Go go go Joseph, you’ll make it someday!” When Pharaoh sets Joseph free, the newly appointed leader sings, “It only goes to show ya, anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!” One Christian high school’s version of Joseph, disappointed in this phrasing, replaced the final words with “if they only trust in God!”
This rags-to-riches mentality drives so much of Western mentality – what many would call the American dream. Anyone from anywhere can make it. The means by which we make it is open for interpretation. Lucky breaks and trust in God are just two of the myriad ways in which our world tries to fulfill this dream.
The story of Pharaoh’s dreams plays a central lynchpin in a number of narrative threads of the Joseph story. It is the turning point of the story, the bottom-to-top moment for a dreamer who’s down on his luck. It’s the means by which God’s providential plan is set into motion. This is the moment that begins to fulfill Joseph’s dreams that got him into trouble in the first place (Genesis 37:1-11). This moment (partially) redeems the cupbearer’s failing memory, bringing a conclusion to Joseph’s time in prison. This moment anticipates the years of hardship for the ancient near eastern world. This may even be one of the first examples in Scripture of God-given economical guidance for a national program.
The number of threads coming together in this one story make this difficult to preach. There is a moment in the movie National Treasure where Benjamin Gates, the character played by Nicolas Cage, realizes that different combinations of colored lenses result in seeing different parts of a picture. Reading this text makes me feel as though I am putting on those glasses – every time I switch lenses I see a different picture.
One set of lenses allows me to plumb the depths of Joseph’s misery as he waits two years for the cupbearer to remember his savior. Where there could be bitterness or anger in Joseph is instead poise and graciousness.
Another set of lenses reveals a providential God working the story toward its ultimate end, where Joseph can declare to his brothers, “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:5). In this light, God uses Joseph to provide for the physical needs of his family and the people of the ancient world.
Looking at this text another way, I’m caught by the syncretistic world of Pharaoh’s Egypt, where a difference in translation would suggest that Joseph is blessed with the spirit of the gods (v. 38). Here I am struck by the common grace of God, placing Joseph in a position of authority in the home of the most powerful man in the ancient world, even though that man is more concerned with vague notions of spirituality than with trust in the one true God.
Of course, this story is also about Pharaoh. Looking at this text with a different lens we see that most powerful man in the ancient world awakened with a troubled mind, left with no answers, unsure of where to turn, desperate for help. The man who is surrounded by the best resources and the brightest minds of his day is humbled and made dependent upon God and God’s servant Joseph.
Each of these helps provide texture and depth to the picture of Genesis 41.
This is why I like the rags-to-riches framework for this story.
Something inside of us clicks with this. Something inside of us cheers for Joseph’s success.
The rags-to-riches story resonates with the broad story of Scripture and the God who “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor” (1 Samuel 2:8).
Part of what makes this passage so preachable is that it connects with such a basic instinct in the Western world. The problem, of course, is that God turns the notion of the American dream on its head. In Scripture, the rags-to-riches story isn’t about the riches at all, but about the God who humbles and exalts (1 Samuel 2:7).
As Pharaoh’s dreams are not about cows and grain but about years of plenty and want, so too this is not the story of Pharaoh’s dreams and the man who interprets them but about the God who exalts the lowly.
Yet, we must be careful with this message. God’s version of the rags-to-riches story doesn’t like ours. Our version looks like pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, depending on ourselves and our resources. Our version of the rags-to-riches story looks a lot like Pharaoh’s world – when we find our way stymied on the climb to the top, we turn to the best resources at our disposal. We are tempted to see the central moment of celebration in this story as Joseph’s redemption from prison, his accession to the second-in-command.
God’s version of the rags-to-riches story, is about doing the completely unexpected. Giving a baby to a couple well beyond child-bearing years and telling them this child will be the means by which all nations on earth will be blessed.
Choosing the youngest, shortest, least-handsome, least-kingly-looking son to be the king of Israel, the one who would be a man after God’s own heart.
God’s version of the rags-to-riches story plays out throughout Scripture and the core of that story is not the hard work and diligence of its characters but the agency and grace of the God who calls them.
This is where the central message of the Gospel shines in the narrative of Joseph and Pharaoh’s dreams. God gives Joseph the words to speak, God exalts Joseph, God brings about the means of salvation for all the people of that time. In the meantime, Phraoh’s trust in himself and his own resources is laid bare, exposing the emptiness of the palace treasuries and worldly power.
When preaching the Joseph narrative, one is tempted to see Joseph as either a moral exemplum (run, don’t walk from temptation) or a wonderful story of God’s providence (God sent me ahead of you to save lives). What both of these miss, however, is the connections between the narrative of Joseph and the person of Jesus Christ. Other parts of Joseph’s story point ahead to Jesus in other ways, but here we see God using the one who was rejected, the man who was despised and afflicted to bring about salvation for the known world. It points us to the coming King who was born in a manger, who was “despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3), the King who is “worthy… because [he] was slain” (Revelation 5:9).
The rags-to-riches story of Joseph points forward to the King who declares that “the last shall be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Unlike the world’s rags-to-riches stories that privilege wealth, power, and prestige as the sine qua non of human existence, Jesus tells us that “whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). Unlike the world’s rags-to-riches stories that celebrate hard work, diligence, and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, Scripture weaves the story of God’s agency, God’s grace, God’s saving activity.
Pharaoh’s dreams invite us to turn away from ourselves, our resources, and our ability to save ourselves and to put our trust in the one who was despised and rejected.
As noted above, verse 38 raises the intriguing possibility that Pharaoh views Joseph as being full of the spirit of the gods, rather than the spirit of God. While this does not, of course, change the reality that the spirit of God, not gods, filled Joseph, it raises interesting questions about Pharaoh’s mindset and acceptance of Joseph into his position. In an increasingly pluralistic world, many in our congregations are asking difficult questions about what it means to be a person of faith while working for someone who does not believe the same way we do. This sentence may help clue us in to one way of looking at this contemporary conundrum.
The rags-to-riches motif is common in the world around us. Examples like Steve Jobs (college dropout) captivate us. Of course, the challenge with such stories is that they often do tell the narrative of this world – that of hard work and creative enterprise being the keys to success.
Another story that captivates me is the story of street artist Banksy selling genuine pieces of art on the streets of New York City for $60. The pieces were estimated to be worth over $30,000 each. Most people passed by the nondescript booth without giving a second glance to the person selling what appeared to be run-of-the-mill knockoffs. Those who bought the pieces had no idea the true value of what they were buying. This story reminds me of the surprising economy of God’s grace, where things (and people) are worth far more than they may appear.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.