Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Joseph: A Blessing to His People and to the Nations
by Nollie Malabuyo
Scripture Reading: Genesis 41
Congregation of Christ:
Forty years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a Baptist pastor told the whole nation that he had a dream. "I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed... that all men are created equal." Martin Luther King's dream stirred the country into ratifying the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
A year later, a man who had another dream was born in Houston, Texas. He went to the University of Texas in Austin, intending to become a doctor. In 1984, he bought $1,000 worth of computer parts from Radio Shack, and began selling computers out of his dorm room. Michael Dell never finished college, but today, his dream company is the largest computer seller in the country.
Four thousand years ago, the most powerful man of the known world had two dreams. His dreams were very unlike Martin Luther King's or Michael Dell's dreams. The Pharaoh of Egypt had two eerie, bizarre dreams—in his sleep—in one night. His dreams were not about Egyptian socio-politics, nor about acquiring more wealth. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs were considered divine, able to communicate with the gods. What were the gods trying to tell him with seven ugly, skinny cows devouring seven beautiful, fat cows? Isis, the Egyptian Queen of Gods, was sometimes represented as a cow. What was she trying to tell him? Were the gods trying to tell him something about his kingdom, which was also symbolized as a cow?
And what could be more troubling than seven blighted, thin ears of grain swallowing up seven healthy, fat ears of grain? Was the dream about Egypt's harvest of grain?
What did all of Egypt's magicians and wise men have to say about the dreams? After all, they had divination powers, esoteric knowledge, and occultic wisdom. They even had what we might call dream cookbooks: a catalog of dreams that people dream, and their different interpretations. Surely, they must have known that cows represent the goddess Isis or the Egyptian kingdom; and grain symbolizes agriculture. But they were not able to interpret these dreams to Pharaoh's satisfaction. Or maybe, they had some guesses, but they were not willing to tell Pharaoh about a coming disaster, fearing for their jobs or even their lives.
The magicians' failure to interpret Pharaoh's dreams opened the way for Joseph's elevation in Egypt. Indeed, God was sovereign over Joseph's life, both in his humiliation and exaltation. In God's eternal plan to redeem His people, Joseph became a blessing: firstly, to Egypt; and secondly, to his family and to the nations.
Joseph a Blessing to Egypt
Having had 13 years of cultural immersion in Egypt, Joseph put together the symbolism in Pharaoh's dreams. Perhaps he knew of the importance of the number seven in the ancient Near East. Perhaps he learned about ancient inscriptions, as early as eight centuries before him, telling of seven-year famines. But unlike Egypt's magicians and wise men, Joseph didn't fear Pharaoh's wrath if Pharaoh didn't like his interpretation. Repeatedly, our text also reminds us where his interpretation came from: v.16—"It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." v.25—"God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do." Joseph had confidence in an all-knowing, all-powerful God. So he told Pharaoh that the two dreams are the same, and the repetition meant that the dreams will certainly be fulfilled, and they will be fulfilled soon! And so Joseph boldly brought Pharaoh both the good news and the bad: seven years of abundant crops, followed by seven years of severe drought and famine.
Did you notice that Joseph affirmed that God would send, not just seven years of plenty, but also seven years of famine? Many people today believe that the loving God of the New Testament doesn't control sin, suffering and evil in the world. He only controls the good in this world. How can God send 3,000 innocent people to death on 9/11? How can God send Hurricane Isabel to destroy the property of thousands of good people?
No, dear people of God, the Scriptures reject these ideas of a watered-down God. God says in Isaiah 45:7, "I form light, and create darkness; I bring prosperity and create disaster. I, the Lord, does all these things." Not only is God sovereign over all things—He knows all things. How can God be all-knowing? Because, even before creation, He already wrote the book of human history from beginning to end: "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose" (Is. 46:9b, 10). If we say that God isn't sovereign over all things, how can we be assured that He will "work all things together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose"? How can we be sure that He can turn evil into good?
Surely, God used Pharaoh's dreams to accomplish His purpose in Joseph. He gave Joseph supernatural ability and wisdom to interpret dreams. Four centuries later, another Hebrew slave named Moses displayed God's power over His creation by sending natural calamities to Pharaoh's kingdom. Over a thousand years after Joseph, yet another Hebrew slave named Daniel stood boldly before King Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in his time. Like Joseph, Daniel showed the same supernatural wisdom in interpreting the Babylonian emperor's two dreams.
Two thousand years after Joseph, another Hebrew, Jesus Christ our Lord, showed both divine power and wisdom. He had control over wind and sea, and over sickness and death. Even his own death on the cross could not contain him. But he not only became our slave when he "became sin for us" on the cross. But also, in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." This was what Joseph had—wisdom and knowledge in Christ. Joseph was a prophet of God, declaring the word of God. But there is a prophet better than Moses, Joseph, and Daniel: Christ, the only True Prophet, whose words are true saving and sanctifying knowledge.
Thus Joseph brought the bad news to Pharaoh. But he didn't leave Pharaoh in the dark, groping for answers to an impending disaster. He had a proposal: store up one-fifth of the harvest in granaries for the next seven years of plenty as a reserve for the seven years of famine. We know from archaeology and from ancient writings that Egypt built grain storage structures in every major city. We really cannot be certain if Joseph pioneered this idea. But how ironic that the Egyptians had to be burdened by a twenty percent tax to provide food for God's covenant people! We marvel at God's providence, because four centuries later, Moses and the Israelites plundered Egypt's gold, silver, and clothing before they fled Egypt. In a recent issue of World magazine, there's an amusing news item about an Egyptian lawyer. This lawyer is planning to sue the world's Jews for the plunder of Egypt. He says, "We're just investigating if a debt is owed." Did he ever read in Exodus that God caused the Egyptians to willingly give of their wealth to Israel?
Today, Christ is still plundering the house of Satan "the strongman," by releasing his captives from the slavery of sin. He's doing the plundering through us, when we proclaim the gospel of freedom from sin through faith in Christ.
So Pharaoh saw that Joseph was filled with wisdom from God's Spirit, Pharaoh installed Joseph as the prime minister of his kingdom. Overnight, this Hebrew slave became Egypt's second most powerful man! Joseph didn't boast about his wisdom and management skills. Pharaoh might have heard about Joseph's success in managing Potiphar's household and the king's prison. But Pharaoh's decision was God-directed. Because God does as He pleases with the mind of men and rulers: "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will" (Prov. 21:1).
Do you see how God directed this incredible but wonderful turn of events in Joseph's life? What was Joseph's secret to all his skills in diplomacy, management, and economics? Gen. 39:23 has the answer: "The Lord was with him... whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed." It was the Lord Himself who made him a successful, wise man. How blessed were the Egyptians with the presence of Joseph! God blessed them, in spite of their idolatry, because they became an instrument of God's plan for the salvation of His people.
Joseph a Blessing to His People and to the Nations
Thus, Joseph became prime minister of Egypt when he was a young 30-year-old man. And Pharaoh didn't regret his choice. For the next seven years, Joseph worked hard to implement his proposal, and rode Pharaoh's chariot to all the cities of Egypt storing grain. Because God sent abundant flooding of the Nile and ideal weather conditions, Joseph was able to store so much grain that he stopped measuring it. The language used for God's blessing on Joseph, grain "like the sand of the sea," reminds us of the blessing that God also gave to Joseph's ancestor Abraham: "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (Gen. 22:17).
At the end of the seven years of plenty, God sent a searing hot east wind into Egypt. The annual rainfall ceased, and the Nile flooding became a trickle. The result was devastating: parched crops, dead fish and animals, and impossible travel on the Nile. Egypt, "the gift of the Nile," became a desolate kingdom. For seven years, there was famine not only in Egypt, but also "over all the earth." In all the earth, including the Promised Land, there was widespread starvation and death. But in Egypt alone was life, because only they had bread. Soon, people from over all the earth flocked to Joseph for salvation from hunger and death. In later chapters, we read that Joseph's family eventually moved down to Egypt to survive the famine.
Thus, Joseph saved his family from certain death. So did Christ, the descendant of Joseph's brother Judah, save His people from sure destruction. The young Joseph who was given up for dead by his family—he was the one who saved them from death. The Eternal Christ who was given up for dead by His disciples—He was the one who saved them from sin and death. The sacred head of this Sovereign God was wounded for our transgressions on the cross, that we may inherit eternal life.
As He hung on the cross, Christ took the condemnation that we all deserve, and was numbered with transgressors. But the transgressors with whom Jesus was numbered were not only the two criminals who were crucified with Him. We too—His people, are also covenant-breakers, sinners who deserve God's wrath. Except that we, His people, have passed from death to life through faith in Christ. Only by God's mercy were the Egyptians saved from physical death. Today, only by God's mercy in Christ are we saved from eternal death.
Like Joseph, his father's beloved son, Christ became a slave for us. He came down from the riches of his Father's heavenly home to an earthly life of suffering, humiliation, and death. He too was sold for a few silver coins to die on the cross so that His people may not perish in the famine of God's wrath. "He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:8).
Like Joseph, who "opened all the storehouses" of grain to all the earth for their salvation, Jesus Christ opened the storehouse of "spiritual blessings in the heavenly places" to His people. As the nations flowed to Joseph for salvation through the bread of Egypt, so also "every nation, tribe, people, and language" will flow to the Bread of Life and Living Water for eternal salvation, and to glorify the Savior. Isaiah speaks of a coming age when the Gentile nations will come to Christ for spiritual bread: "The eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Isa. 52:10).
When Joseph traveled through all the land, the Egyptians were commanded, "Bow the knee!" So also, when the whole world sees Jesus coming back in the clouds of heaven, "every knee [shall] bow..., and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." As the people of God, are we opening the storehouse of heaven's salvation and wisdom to others around us, by bringing the gospel to them? Even as the apostle Paul was commanded by Christ, we are also commanded to be "a light for the Gentiles, that [we] may bring salvation to the ends of the earth" (Acts 13:47).
All the nations came to Egypt to buy grain. Instead of starvation, prosperity came to Egyptians by way of profits from the grain sold to their neighbors. But the nations were also saved from the famine. This procession of nations to Joseph is a mere shadow of a much more glorious future gathering of nations. In eternity, "the kings of the earth will bring their glory into [the city of God]" (Rev. 21:24). In the heavenly city that Joseph's ancestor Abraham looked forward to, there will be the Tree of Life, whose leaves are "for the healing of nations." As the nations went to Joseph for physical healing, so also will all the nations go to Christ, the Tree of Life, for spiritual healing. At that time, God's covenant with Abraham to "bless all the families of the earth" through him, will be fully consummated.
With all this power over the nations, Joseph didn't boast, except in God. As the only God-fearing man in Egypt, Joseph wasn't a closet believer. He openly declared to Pharaoh that it was God who will do what he already ordained. Even in the naming of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph acknowledged God's preservation and blessing on him, in spite of all the humiliation and suffering inflicted on him. He knew that God is in control of human history, and He will even use wickedness to fulfill His good purposes. In the end, God exalted him, and thus, he became a blessing to all those around him, even to idolatrous, pagan nations.
So also our Lord Jesus Christ, after obediently leaving the riches of heaven, also suffered and was humiliated in His earthly life. He suffered the agony of God's wrath, even death, as a sacrifice for the sins of His idolatrous people. But He looked forward to the exaltation that His Father would bestow on Him for His perfect obedience to His will. Therefore, Christ is the better Joseph: a better Prophet, Priest, and King. Because, in spite of his faithfulness to God, Joseph was also like us—a sinner who needed Jesus to save him from sin. God uses sinners like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – and us! – to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
Nevertheless, Joseph was exalted because Pharaoh saw that Joseph had the Spirit of God. This is not to say that all believers who suffer will be exalted in this world like Joseph. But our witness to the world counts right now, and forever.
Beloved people of God, when others see our behavior, and listen to our words at home, in school and in the workplace, may they all agree, "The Spirit of God must be with you!" When visitors worship at our church, may they also worship God, and declare, "God is really among you!" (1 Cor. 14:25) The world is watching us. They take note of our ungodly behavior in order to point an accusing finger on God and on us. Many in the world despise Christianity after seeing all the sexual misconduct, financial scandals, and circus-like antics of TV evangelists. May we fear Paul's warning to the Roman believers: "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." And again, the apostle Peter encourages us: "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation" (1Pet. 2:12).
May we, like Joseph, be a blessing to those around us, as salt and light to the world, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. May we, as a church, not only focus on our own community, but also "declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all peoples!" (Psa. 96:3)
Finally, when the Egyptians looked for grain to eat, they were told, "Go to Joseph!" But Jesus calls His people to "come to me, all who labor, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mat. 11:28). Jesus urges those who labor and are heavy laden with sin to come to Him—Him who lifted the burden of sin from His people. Today, God implores us: "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near" (Isa. 55:6). And those who sincerely call upon Christ will never be cast out. God will release you from the condemnation of His wrath. And a glorious, eternal life awaits you.
Beloved friends in Christ, the story of Joseph is not just a "happy-ever-after" story, nor a story about how to be a successful leader, not even how to amass great wealth and power. Rather, it is a story about a man's faithfulness to God, thereby becoming a blessing to all those around him. But much more than that, it is a story about God's sovereign guidance of the affairs of men and kings, and of His power over his created world. It is a story about how God can turn evil into good to accomplish his plan of salvation for His people. It is a story about God's single purpose for His broken creation: to restore it to its original "very-good"-ness by redeeming His people from sin and death, through the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Nollie F. Malabuyo is the ordained Associate Pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Concord, California. In 2008, he was sent as a missionary-pastor to the Philippines. He received his Bachelorís degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City in 1973, and Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary in California (Escondido) in 2005.
- Currid, John D. Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001.
- Walton, John H. and Matthews, Victor H. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1997.
- Westermann, Claus. Genesis 37-50: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.