Joseph's Life in Egypt
As events in Judah's life were occurring, Joseph was dealing with difficulties in his life in Egypt. Joseph was sold to an Egyptian named Potiphar. As we pointed out in the previous lesson, Potiphar was the officer in charge of executions. Interestingly, the word which is translated as officer or captain in English literally means "eunuch" in the Hebrew language. It was customary in many ancient countries to require prominent officials in the king's court to be castrated. It ensured a devotion to duty because only the most devoted servant would be willing to be castrated for the position. It also minimized the chance of a coup, since the person would be unable to establish a dynasty in their new position. This may be a reason for Potiphar's wife's roving eye, though it does not excuse her actions.
Joseph quickly showed aptitude for managing a household. God helped Joseph and made sure Potiphar noticed Joseph's work. Before long, Joseph was running Potiphar's household. It reached the point that Potiphar no longer monitored his concerns. Joseph handled everything better than Potiphar could do himself.
As a side note, notice the stress placed on the fact that Potiphar was an Egyptian (Genesis 39:1, 2, 5). Since Joseph is in Egypt, it should be taken for granted that an officer in Pharaoh's court would be an Egyptian, unless the events in this chapter occurred during the Hyksos dynasty. The Hyksos were a foreign nation which conquered Egypt for a period of time. If this occurred while Joseph was in Egypt, then most of the ruling class would not have been Egyptian. History also records that the Hyksos Pharaoh was a believer in one God.
The Scriptures noted that Joseph had grown to be a very handsome man. At this time, he probably was in his early twenties. Potiphar's wife took note of Joseph and decided to have fun with him in her bed. The offer must have been tempting to Joseph, but he flatly refused her advances. Given Joseph's brothers loose sexual standards -- particularly Reuben and Judah -- Joseph's resistance is noteworthy.
Joseph gave Potiphar's wife two reasons for rejecting her advances. First, Joseph's master trusted him. Adultery with his master's wife would betray that trust. Second, the sin would betray God and Joseph realized that his position was due to God's favor.
Potiphar's wife's offer did not happen just once. She constantly pursued Joseph. Joseph tried to ignored her and went to great lengths to make sure he was never alone with her. One day, Joseph entered the house, not knowing that no one else was in the house. Perhaps this was arranged by Potiphar's wife to force the situation. Potiphar's wife grabbed his garment and made her demand once again. Joseph realized the danger of his position and fled the house. Unfortunately, it was without his garment since Potiphar's wife had hold of it.
This was too much for Potiphar's wife. Her passion turned to rage. She cried out for the servants and accused Joseph of attempting to rape her. To further support her claim, she claimed it all came about because her husband had hired a foreigner a Hebrew. She repeated her story to her husband when he returned home. She blamed Potiphar for the attempted rape because he brought in a Hebrew slave.
Potiphar was furious, but he must have been suspicious. Egyptian law carried the death penalty for such matters, but Potiphar had Joseph tossed into jail. It seems, even in his anger, that Potiphar did not fully believe his wife. It also appears that Joseph did not attempt to defend himself against the charge (Isaiah 53:7, I Peter 2:19-23).
The jail Joseph was placed in was the same prison that Potiphar ran for Pharaoh (Genesis 40:3). Jails are never a pleasant place. Joseph spent his time there locked in leg irons (Psalms 105:16-22). As happened in Potiphar's house, the overseer of the jail soon made Joseph his right-hand man in the prison. It reached the point where the overseer did not have to concern himself with the operation of the prison; Joseph took care of everything.
During this time, Pharaoh's chief [eunuch] butler [cupbearer] and his baker were tossed into jail. Since both men were in charge of Pharaoh's food, many suppose that there was an attempt to poison Pharaoh. At some point during their time in jail, both men have dreams that deeply disturbed them. Noticing their distress, Joseph offered to interpret their dreams by asking God on their behalf.
God told Joseph that the butler's dream would mean he would be reinstated in his office in three days. The baker took hope from the interpretation of the butler's dream, but he soon learned that his dream meant he would be dead in three days. Joseph asked the butler to plead his case before Pharaoh when he was reinstated. Three days later, everything Joseph predicted came true, but the butler forgot about Joseph for two years.
Notice that through all of Joseph's troubles, God remained with him. Paul said in Romans 8:28 that all things, even the bad things we face, will be made to work for the good of God's children. Joseph's loyalty to God was tested by his troubles and Joseph passed the test. Even though everything appeared to go wrong for thirteen years, Joseph managed to hold on to his faith. However, also notice that Joseph was being trained during this time to run a nation by first running a household and then a prison.
Two years after the butler returned to his position, Pharaoh had two disturbing dreams. When he related them to his advisors, none of them were able to interpret the meaning of the dreams. It was then that the butler remembered Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams. He apologized to Pharaoh for not informing him earlier about such an unusual and possibly valuable man.
According to one ancient historian, Herodotus, the Egyptians were very particular about cleanliness. Beards were only allowed to grow when someone was in mourning. Before being presented to Pharaoh, Joseph was bathed, shaved and given clean garments.
When asked to interpret Pharaoh's dream, Joseph once again indicates that any interpretation must come from God and not himself (Psalm 119:46). The dreams meant there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of extreme drought. The fact that there were two different dreams with the same meaning indicated that God had firmly decided to do this and that it would happen in the near future.
Joseph suggests preparations be made for the famine by having a man appointed to save 20% of Egypt's produce during the years of plenty. A 20% tax rate was unusually high. Most countries, including Egypt generally collected 10%. Few people would save this much wealth on their own. Joseph was not suggesting himself for the job, but Pharaoh could not think of a better man for the position than a man whom God chose to reveal His purpose.
Pharaoh made Joseph second in command of Egypt, giving Joseph full power to implement his plan. Joseph was given an Egyptian name, Zaphnath-paaneah, which means "abundance of life." He was also given the daughter of a notable Egyptian priest as a wife. This marriage probably allowed Joseph to rule the people even though he was not an Egyptian.
By this time, Joseph has reached the age of 30. This was the time when men in the Bible were considered to be full adults. David became a king at the age of 30 (II Samuel 5:4), even though he was anointed to be king when he was a youth (I Samuel 16:11-13). Levites started serving God when they turned 30 (Numbers 4:46-47). Also, Jesus started his ministry when he turned 30 (Luke 3:23).
Joseph admirably fulfilled his duties. The wealth he collected was so great that the government was unable to keep precise records. Also, during this time Joseph had two sons. He named his first son Manasseh, which means "forgetting." It is thought that Joseph was still longing for his home in Canaan. His second son was named Ephraim, which means "doubly fruitful."
After the period of wealth came the time of famine. The people quickly ran out of supplies. People often think everything will continue as it currently does, so during the years of plenty, the people made no provisions for the bad times. Joseph did not simply give out the food he had collected; he sold it to the people. People tend to be careless with things they get for free. Since they had to buy their food, the people would be frugal with their allotments.
Joseph not only sold grain to the Egyptians, he also sold grain to the neighboring lands which were also affected by the drought. Even though Joseph collected only 1/5 of all the produce during the seven years of plenty, Joseph was able to sustain the people of Egypt and their neighbors for seven years. This is further indication that the seven years of plenty were truly abundant.