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Joseph's Incredible Opportunity -- a study of Genesis 41

When opportunity knocks, would you be ready to answer?

Would you even be home?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 41

After years in prison, Joseph was given an impossible task by Pharaoh—but God had prepared him for it, and God used that opportunity to elevate Joseph to a place where he could quite literally save his family and the world. Are we faithful in the little things for God to give us that kind of opportunity?

Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit in him?” (41:37)

[Editor's note: this was once a printed newsletter for teachers. I am slowly putting older resources online for future reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Here I Come to Save the Day!

A lot of people in our world are interested in superheroes. I think we all like the idea that someone can show up and fix all of our problems with their miraculous powers. Ask your group if they have any favorite “save the day” scenes. In the first Superman movie, there’s the scene where Superman flies around the earth so fast that he makes the earth spin backwards(!!) which reverses time(!!!) so he can save Lois Lane. Gotta love superheroes.

The next part of this opening discussion would be “What sort of problems do we have in the world that we think we need a superhero to fix?” Really, this is asking about the problems we don’t believe a regular person can solve. That’s really what superheroes are all about—they can handle the problems that we ordinary people can’t. Of course, superheroes aren’t real. So, what can we do about those incredible, daunting problems your group just mentioned? Well, have them think about this: in our passage, (1) Joseph is languishing in a prison without a single person even thinking about him on the outside; (2) dreams need to be interpreted; (3) the known world is about to experience a seven-year famine. Those are some pretty extreme problems! And yet, God handles them through ordinary people.

Ordinary Heroes.

If your group isn’t into superheroes, then just go with regular heroes. Can they think of any incredible circumstances where a person did something extraordinary to save someone or solve an immense problem? I love the stories of a person lifting a car or diving into an icy lake or running into a burning building or talking down the desperate criminal. And what about the city manager who makes the right decision for their economic future, or the store owner who successfully navigates the changing economy, or the parent who balances family needs with job opportunities? Those are all amazing, lifechanging actions. The discussion would then follow part 2 of the idea above with added bonus of knowing that Joseph was an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.


This Week's Big Idea: Joseph's Egypt, a Timeline

You might remember a little about this from our study of Exodus: there’s a lot of debate over when the events of Genesis/Exodus happened (or if they happened at all, if you don’t believe the Bible). I argued for an “early date” for the Exodus, around 1446 BC, under the reign of Thutmose III (1458-1425), who led Egypt to their largest expanse. Similar disagreement occurs over the dates of Joseph—if he was really second in command in Egypt, wouldn’t there be confirmation of this in history? Great question. But remember: even Egyptologists can’t agree on the dates for most of these pharaohs, so I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over some of the details. Here’s high-level timeline of Egypt’s history of the era in question:

First Intermediate Period (2181-2050 BC), instability

Middle Kingdom (2050-1710 BC), reunification

The highpoint of Egypt’s strength during this era was under Senusret III (1878-1841 BC), who fielded Egypt’s largest army and navy. He also reformed the power structure by moving authority from regional governors to the central government. His son, Amenemhet III, ruled over the most prosperous era in Egypt’s early history, with permanent mining activity and ex-tensive land reclamation. At the end of his very long reign, a multi-year drought apparently sapped the confidence of the people, and multiple short-lived rulers lost much power.

Second Intermediate Period (1710-1550 BC), Hyksos era

There were some powerful, unrelated pharaohs during this period, but the time was marked by great instability and enough immigration from Asia (the Middle East) to result in foreigners (Hyksos) creating their own dynasty.

New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC), the exodus era

Now let’s put the Bible timeline in here. Abraham fled to Egypt around 2080 BC, during an era of instability, which is probably how he was able to leave without scandal. Joseph would have been sold to Potiphar ~1898 BC, and he will spend about 12 years as a slave and a prisoner before the events in our passage (so, ~1886 BC). Joseph spends 7 years gathering grains, and then another 7 years selling that grain to the people (that would be when Joseph’s brothers came), so by ~1872 BC Pharaoh would have had extreme power and Joseph would have been reunited with his family.

If these two timelines are even within a few years of correct, they actually work really well together. Josephs administrative changes would have resulted in unprecedented power for Pharaoh, just as Senusret III enjoyed during his reign. There were a number of severe famines during the latter half of the Middle Kingdom which (1) led many non-Egyptians to move to Egypt (just like Joseph’s family) and (2) ultimately led to the destabilization of the kingdom such that non-Egyptians could take over. However, Joseph and his family would not be considered part of this Hyksos invasion. Remember, he was the most unlikely of advisors (a “criminal”), and his family was ultimately welcomed by Pharaoh with open arms and given special privilege.

A number of scholars put Joseph’s death at 1805 BC and a full 200-250 years passing before a new king enslaved them (enough generations for the Hebrews to become exceeding numerous). Ahmose was the powerful man who established the New Kingdom, and those scholars assume that he enslaved the Hebrews, likely aligning them with the Hyksos and “forgetting” their loyalty to the pharaohs of old.

Aside: Why Are Dates So Controversial for Ancient Egypt?

If you do your own research on the dates for Joseph and the identity of this pharaoh, you’ll find that even between self-identified conservative Christian websites, there’s a pretty wide range of dates given for the same people and events. Why is that? I can find two main reasons.

  1. The Egyptians followed their own number system (which included dates), and so there is still debate among Egyptologists about the length of reigns, or the birthdates of key figures in the annals.

  2. The Egyptians were notorious for “rewriting” history when a new dynasty was established that was at odds with a former one. There are more than a few kings/queens who were completely stricken from official records that we only know about from outside sources—like the Old Testament and government records from places like Syria.

So, what do we do with this? I recommend this approach: notice historical connections (like Senusret being the pharaoh under which power was centralized in Egypt) but don’t live and die by them. I mention things like this as possibilities. That way, if it’s ever proven that the dates are different, my entire biblical interpretation isn’t crushed. I can see ways Joseph could have served all of the pharaohs of that era; it just so happens that the particular dates I’ve chosen happen to line up really well with an obvious connection. We may never have a universally agreed-on set of dates for ancient Egyptians.

Where We Are in Genesis

When we last left our intrepid hero, he was languishing in prison but had earned favor with the warden. After an unspecified length of time (likely multiple years), the king’s cupbearer and baker were thrown into prison for offending Pharaoh in some way. The warden assigned Joseph to take care of them. At one point, they had dreams which Joseph was able to interpret (the baker was executed and the cupbearer was restored). The cupbearer forgot about Joseph’s service when he was released, but this foreshadowed a time two years later when Pharaoh had a disturbing dream that no one could interpret. The cupbearer remembered Joseph and Pharaoh called for him. Just as a note, Joseph had spent 12 years as a slave and prisoner.


Part 1: A Problem (Genesis 41:15-21)

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said about you that you can hear a dream and interpret it.” “I am not able to,” Joseph answered Pharaoh. “It is God who will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” So Pharaoh said to Joseph: “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when seven well-fed, healthy-looking cows came up from the Nile and grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows—weak, very sickly, and thin—came up. I’ve never seen such sickly ones as these in all the land of Egypt. Then the thin, sickly cows ate the first seven well-fed cows. When they had devoured them, you could not tell that they had devoured them; their appearance was as bad as it had been before. Then I woke up.”

This obviously begs a lot of questions about dreams (I put a little about this below). Ask your group the last time they had a dream they thought predicted the future. That’s not uncommon, but it can usually be explained by the fact that dreams are difficult to remember clearly and they generally get remembered after a memory-trigger (i.e., selective memory or confirmation bias). However, Pharaoh’s dream doesn’t seem like ours. It was more like what I would call a “vision”. And so they drag Joseph out of prison and clean him up and throw him into the king’s presence and get right to work. It is absolutely critical that Joseph’s first words are “I can’t do it”. That must have gotten a huge reaction/gasp. But he immediately followed up with God’s ability. Realize how bold Joseph was being—essentially guaranteeing God’s answer. We’re told not to put God to the test, so why do you think it worked for Joseph? I believe that Joseph believed God would answer; he was not being bold or arrogant, just truthful. (But see the added layer of humility in a similar scenario in Daniel 3:17-18.)

Of course, don’t pass up the opportunity to help your group realize that every encounter we have with a lost person is a chance to point them to God, not draw attention to ourselves. That’s a habit we all need to be in.

The dream itself isn’t really the focus. It could have been anything about anything and it wouldn’t change the story. It was the device God used to bring Joseph into a position of prominence and reunite his family in the place that would one day be the defining identifier of God’s people (the Exodus). The details of the dream are interesting, though. At the bottom I hint at why the Nile was so important to the Egyptians; it was quite literally their source of life and security. Anything evil coming out of the Nile would have been utterly debilitating. In the case of Pharaoh, it would have been even more disturbing because the people believed that he was their lifeline to the gods. When natural disasters happened, they would blame him. (Many a dynasty was overthrown during a major drought.)

Now, the dream didn’t start bad. It started with seven healthy/attractive cows (this is the same word previously used to describe Joseph!). This might seem off the path, but ask your group what their favorite/most relaxing thing to see in nature is. My wife loves to watch cows grazing. It relaxes her to no end. Try to put your class into their “happy nature place”. You want them to feel great and relaxed. And then ask them what terrifies them more than anything in nature, and then put that into their scene. That’s essentially what happened to Pharaoh. He was doing great, and then things turned horrifying and shocking in a moment. The sickest, weakest cows he had ever seen appeared in his dream and ate the healthy cows! That’s disturbing on so many levels to someone like Pharaoh. First, sickly cows were a symbol of malnourishment or abuse. Neither of those were welcome in Egypt. Second, cows are herbivores. While there is the occasional report of a cow eating an animal, they just eat grains and corn (some ranchers force meats into their diet, but that’s somewhat controversial in the cattle industry). Seeing a cow eat another cow would be awful. Third, the sick, weak cows overpowered the strong, healthy cows. That just doesn’t make any sense. Finally, you couldn’t tell the sickly cows had eaten anything at all, let alone something twice their size. Just the stuff of nightmares. This would be why Pharaoh remembered it so clearly and why he wanted answers!

Now have your group put themselves in Joseph’s shoes. Would they be annoyed at this? They’ve been forgotten in prison for years, and now they’re a dream analyzer? Would they be tempted to bargain with Pharaoh ("I’ll answer if you pardon me")? Would they use the opportunity to gripe about their situation? Well, Joseph did not. What do you think that says about Joseph? What can we learn from it?


Aside: What Is A Dream?

Psychologists and biologists have been studying dreams for a long, long time. In fact, more than half of all Americans believe that their dreams reveal something buried in their subconscious. Many also believe that their dreams predict their day (further studies of this show that the belief is often connected with “selective memory” and “distorted memory”). If you’ve ever had a nightmare, you know that there is a potentially lasting physical effect of dreams. Sigmund Freud famously psychoanalyzed dreams to reveal a person’s deepest anxieties or obsessions (every dream was somehow about sexual tension, by the way). Now, dreams are often associated with the unconscious mind. We’ve studied the association between dreams, REM sleep, and brain activity; we can count the number and length of dreams people have. We know which parts of the brain are suppressed during dreams (like the prefrontal cortex, which why you don’t always know that you’re dreaming; or hormone producers, which is why you don’t seem to have bursts of energy in dreams).

With all of that said, here’s what I find very funny. Nobody actually knows what a dream is or where it comes from. About the most logical description I could find is it the mind processing the events in our “short-term memory” and moving them into “long-term memory” (not that anyone can effectively explain what those are either). I see a lot of space in there for God to work in dreams, and I see a lot of space in there for dreams just to be a God-ordained part of the sleep experience.

Bonus Aside: Cupbearers

Joseph eventually comes into the presence of Pharaoh because the chief cupbearer recommends him. A cupbearer was an extremely importance position in antiquity. This would be the person to serve drinks to the king and whoever was with him at table, always at beck and call. This means that the cupbearer would always be privy to whatever the king was talking about. Additionally, because it was apparently easier to poison drink than food (is it?), the cupbearer would be responsible for making sure that the king’s drinks were always secured. If the king was feeling particularly paranoid, he might even request the cupbearer to drink from his cup first. This is apparently the role the cupbearer in the Bible had.

Not every king actually had a cupbearer. Some records mention this as an honorary role given to a pretty girl or to a noble’s son/daughter. Sometimes, this role would be fulfilled by a group of people constantly rotating so that one person would not know all of the king’s secrets. In Nehemiah’s day, Artaxerxes’s cupbearer was apparently very wealthy, so this was likely a lucrative position (if you survived long).


Part 2: A Plan (Genesis 41:33-36)

“So now, let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this: Let him appoint overseers over the land and take a fifth of the harvest of the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. Let them gather all the excess food during these good years that are coming. Under Pharaoh’s authority, store the grain in the cities, so they may preserve it as food. The food will be a reserve for the land during the seven years of famine that will take place in the land of Egypt. Then the country will not be wiped out by the famine.”

Not only did Joseph interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but he also gave Pharaoh a plan on what to do about it. That’s rather bold (Pharaoh had advisors for that, don’t you think?), but it worked. The plan itself made a lot of sense, and it made sense to Joseph that God would have revealed the dream to him for the purpose of helping Pharaoh at this time. Joseph’s plan involved increasing taxes (more or less, but the people would have been prosperous enough not to mind), building a massive storage infrastructure, creating a bureaucracy to monitor this food storage, and installing a military to protect the food when things got bad. And this in every city in Egypt. A monumental task!

Lots of different ways to go with this. I would focus on the importance of proper planning for the future. Yes, we trust God to provide, but when we’re warned to “save for a rainy day”, we should do it! How does this compare with the parable of the foolish rich man in Luke 12:61-21? That man was saving out of gluttony. Egypt would be saving out of necessity and self-preservation. Note how Joseph implied that the peoples not ready for this famine would be wiped out. There was nothing in this plan that was selfish; in fact, the great cost of the plan demanded great faith in God that they could trust this warning!


Part 3: A Place (Genesis 41:37-40)

The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants, and he said to them, “Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit in him?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you are. You will be over my house, and all my people will obey your commands. Only I, as king, will be greater than you.” Pharaoh also said to Joseph, “See, I am placing you over all the land of Egypt.”

Of course, watch out if you have a really good plan. They may just put you in charge of it! Today, we would consider this next step incredible; you don’t put a foreign criminal in charge of the country. But things were different then. Pharaoh had absolute power. And Joseph had a lifetime of credibility built up (don’t think that Pharaoh hadn’t talked to Potiphar or the prison warden or the cupbearer about him) doing the things that a chief administrator would do. Most importantly, Pharaoh respected the gods and believed that Joseph spoke for one of them (turns out to have been the only true God—”luckily” for Pharaoh). And so Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of this grand plan on the spot.

We may never find ourselves with quite the same opportunity as Joseph, but we can still take many lessons from him. First, note Joseph’s faithfulness, humility, and consistency throughout his adult life (his time in Egypt). He could have complained, fussed, revolted, our pouted, but he did not. And that treatment of each day is ultimately what put him in the place to be given this opportunity. We may have yet to come into our “big opportunity”, and that opportunity may be something as small as encouraging the next Billy Graham in a time of need. We just don’t know! But that’s the exciting part of following Jesus. We faithfully serve each and every day, making many little differences all along the way, and as we demonstrate our faithfulness, God gives us greater opportunity. My guess is that everyone in your group wants to make that big difference. Are they willing to be faithful and humble until that opportunity comes? Are they willing to trust God’s plan and timing? Do they already acknowledge that they are inadequate to any great task of themselves and need God’s supernatural help?

Ask your group how faithful they are being in the little things right now. Have class members list what those “little things” might be (I’m mainly thinking along the lines of representing Christ well, reaching out to lost friends, building up the next generation). What one thing will they commit themselves to more this week? What responsibility that they have slacked on will they take back up? Have them pray for God’s help and guidance in those decisions.


Closing Thoughts: The Nile River

Egyptian society was very different from Mesopotamia’s (Babylon, Assyria, etc.). Mesopotamia had warrior gods and human sacrifices and wars and power struggles. Egypt had dynasties that lasted centuries and a very “uplifting” religion. Why? Because Egypt was protected on all sides by desert and ocean, and they were predictably cared for by the Nile. The Nile, because it flooded every year very consistently, routinely replenished the soil and made irrigation relatively simple. Because it was so life-giving, people worshiped the Nile; because they oversaw years of plenty, people also worshiped their leaders. So the threat of an extended drought or famine or other cataclysm (like a locust swarm or plague) disrupted the heart of Egyptian society. The Nile needed to be fed by the annual rains. But if Pharaoh “knew” that a drought was coming and prepared the people for it, he could use such a disaster to reinforce his standing among the people (as indeed our pharaoh does in the passage). That’s why the droughts and famines that hit the later kings at the end of this “Middle Kingdom” resulted in their being deposed (the “god of the Nile” was rebelling against their rule). That’s why something like a seven-year famine was so catastrophic: the people of Egypt were used to plenty and consistency; they would have been lost.


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