Joseph the Prime Minister
March 17, 2013 / No. 3663
Dear Radio Friends,
The life of the child of God in this world is one of constant challenge and temptation. The challenges of life are not simply the result of difficult external circumstances, but the challenges come because of indwelling sin. With Paul, we say in Romans 7:22-23, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” This is the struggle of the Christian life: an inward, spiritual struggle against sin.
Sometimes, when life is hard, we forget this. We think that if God would just change our circumstances, then all the struggles of life would be over. If God would just give me a job, all my stress would be gone. If God would just give us enough money to have a family vacation, then we would be content. If God would just give me a life partner, then I would be happy. If God would just take me out of my pit of suffering, then everything would be good.
And then, what we tend to do, is to look at the lives of others, and suppose to ourselves that they have everything. We look at someone with a position of leadership and think that life at the top would be nice. We look at someone with wealth, and think that life must be so easy for them. We look at someone who has a good job, and think he must be free of anxiety. We look at our married friends who seem so happy, and think that marriage is a bed of roses.
But beloved, if you are a Christian, if you are alert to the power of sin and temptation, it does not matter what the circumstances of your life may be, life will always be a struggle. Oh, there may be times in your life when it is more difficult to be content and to be thankful, but, on the flip side, a life of ease and prosperity, when all the desires of your heart are met, presents its own challenges and temptations.
In the past weeks we have been looking at Joseph’s difficult life, with its many challenges. He was hated by his family, forced into slavery, tempted to adultery, and imprisoned wrongfully. For 13 or 14 years he had a very rough life, and that presented many temptations. But God was with him, and with his eyes fixed on God, Joseph demonstrates an amazing perseverance through trial and temptation. In our last message, we looked at the story of Joseph’s exaltation. When Pharaoh has two dreams, the memory of the butler is jolted, and Joseph is called from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. The result is that Joseph is exalted to the high position of prime minister in Egypt.
We would make a mistake if we thought that suddenly Joseph’s life became one of ease, that his sudden promotion meant all his troubles were over. I say, that would be a mistake, because now, as leader in Egypt, Joseph is facing a temptation that is stronger and more severe than any to this point in his life. The temptation is that in his exalted position with fame, prosperity, and success, Joseph will be lifted up with pride and forget his identity as one of God’s children, and his need to depend on God for daily strength.
Being in a position of power and wealth is not easy. The earlier trials of Joseph’s life, his mistreatment, his poverty, his imprisonment, the monotony and waiting, were trials that most of us can, at least to a certain degree, identify with. We have experienced the grace of God that enables us to endure poverty and persecution, being despised and rejected because of our faith. But how many have risen to the top of society, and there remained completely faithful to the Lord? Oh, I am not saying that God would not give us the grace to do this, but I am saying this, that there is an extra measure of grace needed to respond to the temptations of wealth, power, fame, and responsibility.
Let us consider from Genesis 41:41-57 the changes and challenges that came to Joseph at 30 years of age, when he was still a relatively young man.
Notice first his position. Scholars of ancient civilizations tell us that at this time Egypt surpassed all other nations of the earth in wealth, education, influence, and military power. Egypt was the Babylon of its day. And Pharaoh says to Joseph, in Genesis 41:41, “See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.” All this was suddenly accessible to Joseph—limitless wealth, advanced learning, and world power.
Along with his position was Joseph’s authority. He does not just have access to all the resources of Egypt, but he has the right to use them as he sees fit. Pharaoh takes his ring from his hand and puts it on Joseph’s hand, and he says, “without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” The ring was a symbol of authority. It had an emblem on it that Pharaoh would sink into clay or wax as his signature on the bottom of a letter or his seal on an envelope. Now, in Pharaoh’s name, Joseph can do what he pleases in Egypt. He can direct all the citizens of this land to follow his command, and he has complete financial authority in the land.
Also, Joseph enjoys sudden fame and prominence. Already Joseph has been clean shaven, the way that an Egyptian ruler would be, and now he is clothed in fine white linen, the attire of an Egyptian king, a gold chain is put around his neck, he is placed in the second chariot of Egypt, and the people are commanded to bow the knee to him as he rides through the streets. Whenever a new leader comes into power, the newspapers are filled with reports. Joseph was suddenly a celebrity.
All these—position, power, and prominence—are temptations to self-serving pride. How will Joseph use them? Will he use his position for self-advancement? Will he use his power to get back at those who have mistreated him in the past? Will his prominence give him an inflated sense of self importance? These are the temptations he faces as prime minister. Life at the top is not so easy.
And then, notice what Pharaoh does to Joseph. Joseph comes out of prison a Hebrew slave, and Pharaoh does all he can to completely Egyptianize his new governor. This goes far beyond his shaved head and linen clothes. First, Pharaoh gives to him an Egyptian name, Zaph-nath-pa-an-eah, which likely means, “The God who speaks and lives”—an obvious reference to his dreams, which Joseph had interpreted. But, nevertheless, it is an Egyptian name.
And then, Pharaoh gives to him a wife, a woman whose name is Asenath, the daughter of a man named Potipherah. This is not the same Potiphar as Joseph had once served as slave, but rather this man is the priest of On, one of the cities of Egypt. This man was obviously a prominent religious figure in Egypt. His daughter’s name, Asenath, means “One who belongs to the godess, Nath.” When she was born, he dedicated her to this pagan deity.
We should notice here that Joseph did not ask for either of these things. He did not ask for an Egyptian name, and he did not ask for an Egyptian wife. Pharaoh imposed both of these things on Joseph. Why? Because he wanted Joseph to become completely Egyptian. Now maybe Pharaoh wanted that for Joseph’s sake, because he wanted Joseph to be accepted and respected as a foreigner who is now the governor, but regardless, this posed another immense temptation for Joseph, the temptation to succumb to what Pharaoh wanted, to lose his identity as a Hebrew, to forget his family and the promises of God, and to get caught up in the life and culture of Egypt. Maybe as a slave and prisoner, when he was a stranger in this land, he still needed his God, but did he need Him any more? That of course would be the tempting thought for Joseph. Why maintain his identity? Why not hide it and mix and move with much more ease among the Egyptian elite?
Then, further, think of all the responsibility that is put on Joseph now as ruler in Egypt, and the unique challenges of such responsibility. There will be a devastating seven-year famine, and Joseph is suddenly called on to save Egypt from the devastating effects of that famine. What interest does he have in this, and why should he be the one to carry the weight of it? With responsibility comes criticism and the possibility of failure. And there had to be opposition. Joseph went through all the land, imposing a 20% tax on the people, and collecting their payment in grains and non-perishable food. He built storehouses in each of the cities of Egypt, and stored up. There had to be skeptics. Why, in such prosperity, put away so much food? Whose idea was this anyway? And the temptation, of course, is to give in to such criticism, or to abandon your responsibilities. Why is it that we are sometimes tempted to run from responsibilities? To throw up our hands at our children and say, what is the use? To give up on our employees, or to become exasperated as leaders in the church? Often we want to think it is the children or the employees or the church members, but more often it is us. We do not like the criticism, the lack of appreciation, the difficulty of dealing with people.
Then too, notice the challenge of success. We read in verse 49 that “Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.” Things went very well for Joseph. According to plan. He exceeded expectations. And when the seven prosperous years ended, there was a “dearth in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.” And when the people came crying to Pharaoh for food he sent them to Joseph, and visitors came from all parts of the earth because they heard that there was bread in Egypt. This man, Joseph, deserves a medal for saving the world; or so he could have thought to himself.
These were the temptations that Joseph now faced. Pride, trust in self, success, and forgetting his God and his heritage. But, just as Joseph stands up against seduction from Potiphar’s wife, so now he stands up and is strong in the face of these temptations. He remains humble, he does not lose sight of the purpose of his position, that it is not for self-glorification, but for the saving alive of many people, and he remembers who he is. He remembers his heritage, and he remains committed to the God who was with him and sustained him all through his slavery and imprisonment. Joseph’s wisdom, we could say, exceeds the wisdom of Solomon, whose wealth and wives and position and power brought him down into serious sin.
What kept Joseph going was his faith in the God of his fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who had made promises concerning a Savior, and who had promised that through him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
We see this faith of Joseph in the naming of his two sons. Verse 50 tells us that during the seven prosperous years, before the famine came, God gave Joseph and his wife Asenath two sons, whom Joseph named Manasseh and Ephraim.
The first notable thing here is that these are Hebrew names. Even though Joseph is Egyptianized, and even though his wife is an Egyptian and a daughter of an Egyptian priest, Joseph gives to his boys these Hebrew names. That is a bold statement to aristocracy and to the people of Egypt. Joseph did not want to be assimilated into Egyptian culture. Joseph did not want to be Egyptianized. He wished to retain his identity as a Hebrew. He remembered his spiritual origins, that he belonged to the people of God, to Israel, to the people of the promise. Like Moses after him, he wished to be identified with the Hebrews, rather than enjoy the luxuries and pleasures of sin in Egypt. He saw a spiritual distinction, an antithesis, between himself and the Egyptians, between his God and the gods of the Egyptians. And at this point in history, Joseph believed in God, he had a faith in God, like none other on earth. When God looked down, the faith of Joseph stood out, like the godliness of Noah before him. It is significant that this happened right before the famine. Did anyone else really believe that the famine was coming? Joseph believed it with all his heart, because God had revealed it. His faith in God was strong.
And we see that also in the names he gives to his sons. The first, he calls Manasseh, which means “he who causes to forget.” And Joseph said, “For God hath made me to forget all my toil and all my father’s house.” By “forget” Joseph does not mean that the pain of 13 years and the memory of his family are erased from his mind. Rather, he means that he has a joy and a happiness in his life now that suppress those memories, and that even give purpose to those memories. The birth of a son brings much joy to Joseph. He is a married man, with one wife (in contrast to his father), and now he has a child. A family of his own. And he sees that God has led him through the years of pain and loneliness to bring him to this point. What a blessing and joy covenant children are. Psalm 127 calls them the heritage of the Lord, and Psalm 128 says that with them God fills our house with good.
The name of the second son is Ephraim, which means “twice fruitful.” And Joseph says, “For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” He celebrates not only the birth of two sons, but all the bounty that God has given him in Egypt. And Egypt is not his home; he calls it still “the land of my affliction.”
How humbly grateful Joseph is here, giving his boys names that remind him of what God has done for him. “God has made…, and God has given….” Joseph has experienced the goodness and graciousness of God to him. And because of this, Joseph does not abuse his power by getting back at Potiphar’s wife, the butler, or his brothers who had hurt him in the past. No, experiencing God’s grace, he cannot hold a grudge.
Another reason that Joseph does not forget his identity or his God is that Joseph is still looking forward to something else. His exaltation in Egypt and his settled family life are not the end for him. He believes God has a greater purpose. What of his dreams? What of his seeing his brothers and his family again? What of the promise of God to give the land of Canaan to Jacob and his sons? What of the promise to Abraham concerning the exile of his descendants in a strange land? What of the promise of the seed, the Messiah? Certainly, Joseph expects that God will fulfill his own dreams and that he will see his brothers and father here in Egypt, bowing before him. And so he waits. He has to wait some more. And he does that in faith too, believing that God will accomplish his own revelation in the dreams of his youth.
The story of Joseph, we have seen, is a story of God’s providence. God is working mysteriously, with a secret hand, behind all these events, to save His people, the entire family of Jacob. This is the church, and God will never let His church or people perish. He has chosen them in eternity, He has loved them with an unchanging eternal love, He has entrusted them to the care of His Son, He has given His Son as the sacrifice for their sins, and so, not one of them will perish. This is the purpose of God’s providence, all throughout history, and still today. He works everything, every detail, to bring His saints to glory. The history of Joseph is the history of the church.
But we see in it also the hand of God’s providence in the life of each of His children, individually. We have spoken, today, of the amazing godliness of Joseph amid all the temptations of Egypt? How was that possible. Certainly, it was because the Lord was with him in the palace, just as he had been with him in Potiphar’s house and in the prison. But also, and we should not miss this, God has specifically worked in the difficulties and trials of Joseph’s life, to prepare and equip him for his work as leader in Egypt. The preparation was not just administrative, God did not only prepare Joseph to be a good decision-maker and leader, but the preparation was primarily spiritual. Through the pain of 13 years, Joseph was prepared spiritually for the high position that came to him in Egypt. Why does not it go to his head? Why does not he abuse his power? Because he has learned along the way that the trials he faces, and the battles he fights, are spiritual. It goes deeper than circumstances. He needs God to guide him, not just in difficult times, but also in prosperity. It has been said, “Not every man can carry a full cup.” God has spiritually prepared Joseph to carry a full cup.
And God has a personalized curriculum for each of His children, just as He did for Joseph. Through hard circumstances God prepares us to avoid the pitfalls of pride. Through difficulties, God teaches us perseverance, so that we do not give up under difficult responsibility. Through poverty and need, God teaches us to acknowledge Him and to be thankful when prosperity comes our way. Long periods of affliction ought not discourage us. Bad memories ought not defeat us. And prosperity ought not separate us from communion with God.
Let us pray.
Lord we love Thy Word, and we have so much more revealed to us than Joseph had. He clung to just a few snippets of revelation, a couple dreams, and some promises that he heard by word of mouth from his father. That was all he had, and yet he believed it with all his heart, and because of that he persevered through so many troubles and temptations. Lord, give us a faith like that, so that we might be patient in adversity and thankful in prosperity. For Jesus’ sake we ask it, Amen.