In the Depths of the Dungeon

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Based on Genesis Chapter 40

Although he was stuck in prison for who-knows-how-long, Joseph had not been abandoned. Given his helplessness and the uncertainty of his situation, Joseph was undoubtedly tempted to despair. However, God was there with him — with him and for him. God was somehow with Joseph the entire time; and God blessed Joseph with success and favor, even while he was in the pit of prison. The Book of Genesis repeatedly emphasizes the importance of God being with Joseph there. With God’s blessing on him even through the most difficult time of his life, Joseph won the respect of everyone around him. He even earned the complete and utter trust of the boss, the keeper of the prison, someone we would today call the warden.

Behind Bars

One morning while making the rounds and checking on the other inmates, Joseph noticed that something was wrong. Two of the inmates appeared quite upset. Of course, Joseph asked the two what was bothering them. They said that they had had disturbing dreams. He invited them to describe their dreams. It is important to the story to know that these two particular prisoners were not insignificant nobodies, but high royal officials who until recently had had immediate access to the Pharaoh himself.

Pharaoh’s personal cupbearer described his dream first. He had dreamt about three branches on a grape vine. The three branches somehow produced fully ripe grapes way, way, way faster than they normally and naturally would. In his dream, Pharaoh’s cupbearer then squished all the ripe grapes and brought the grape juice to Pharaoh.

Old-Fashioned Grape Press

Then Joseph interpreted the dream for the cupbearer. The three branches represented three days, Joseph explained. In just three days, the cupbearer would be released from prison, and would be elevated up to his former position. He would soon be released and get his old job back. Having interpreted the dream, Joseph requested that upon his release the cupbearer please mention the injustice of Joseph’s plight to the Pharaoh. But and however, once elevated back to his old position, the cupbearer’s mind was preoccupied on other things. He forgot all about Joseph the Dream Interpreter, for two long years.

Back to the second official’s interpreted dream, though. It was the royal baker’s turn. When he heard that Joseph gave the cupbearer an optimistic interpretation, the royal baker was eager to describe his dream. He had dreamt that he had three baskets of baked goods on top his head, from which the birds were eating. This time, when Joseph interpreted the dream for the royal baker, it was not good news — not at all. The three baskets represented three days. Like the cupbearer, the royal baker would be elevated in just three days. But unlike the cupbearer, the royal baker would not be elevated in a desirable way. In just three days, Pharaoh would elevate the baker’s head (and body) by hanging him and strangling him on a tree. Joseph’s final words to the royal baker were especially horrifying: “And the birds will eat the flesh from you.” Yikes. 

The Baker and the Birds

As it so happens, that third day was Pharaoh’s own birthday. Pharaoh was celebrated with a big birthday bash. And everything Joseph had predicted happened. Both the royal cupbearer and the royal baker were elevated on the occasion. The royal cupbearer was elevated out of prison back to his former position. But the royal baker was elevated out of prison to a noose. Joseph, however, had to wait in prison for another two years to be elevated, because the cupbearer forgot all about him. The royal cupbearer would only happen to remember Joseph later, when the Pharaoh himself had some perplexing dreams that needed interpretation.

Questions for Consideration

• How do you think did Joseph felt while he was unfairly imprisoned? What doubts probably went occasionally through his mind? What temptations might Joseph have struggled with? What do you think was hardest for Joseph during his time in prison?

• What hopes or dreams might have kept Joseph going while he was in prison?

• What does it mean when Genesis says that God was with Joseph? What might Joseph have experienced that made him aware of God being there with him? Is this point (about God being there for Joseph) meant to give us hope that God will be us when we go through difficult times?

• Why was God there for Joseph in a way that God might not have been for some of the other prisoners?

• Based on the backstory of Joseph’s boyhood, what keeps re-emerging and recurring as a curious (and yet nightly) phenomenon that repeatedly alters the course of his life? What might we, as readers, potentially conclude about this curious, nightly phenomenon? Might God use the same phenomenon in our lives today?

• Which talents or gifts did Joseph demonstrate while in prison?

• Were Joseph’s prison years good or bad for him? How do you think Joseph might have changed as a result of his prison years?

• Why is the word elevate important in this story? Who was elevated, and how? Who had to wait a while longer to be elevated?

• Looking ahead: What eventually got Joseph out of prison? Who gets credit for getting Joseph out of prison?

The Snatcher and His Favorite Son

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Wrestling for A Blessing

On the eve of a dread and potentially deadly family reunion with his hairy twin brother (his long-estranged, vowed-to-violent-vengeance twin brother Esau), Jacob the Snatcher arranged for himself to be all alone for what might possibly be his final night on earth. But his time of quiet solitude was not to be. Instead, a mysterious nighttime intruder arrived and upended Jacob’s plans. Jacob found himself in a desperate wrestling match with the mysterious, anonymous intruder. The two wrestled through the night. At daybreak, the mysterious, anonymous intruder finally asked Jacob to let go. But Jacob refused to let his mysterious opponent go — at least not without first receiving a blessing. In response to Jacob’s request (or demand) for a blessing, his very mysterious wrestling opponent inquired, “What is your name?” Jacob told him that his name is Jacob (which means snatcher). The anonymous intruder (who seems to have been none other than God himself) then gave Jacob a few lasting mementos from that nocturnal wrestling bout — an injured hip, and thus a hobbling limp for the rest of his life, and also another name — a new name and identity: Israel, which translated means “Struggles with God.” If you’re interested in reading this story for yourself, you can find it in Genesis 32:22-31.

Envy, Hatred, & Gross Injustice

Years later, as a hobbling, limping older man, Jacob (aka Israel) resided in the Promised Land with his large family. He had twelve sons and one daughter. Of all his children, Jacob’s favorites were the two sons of his late, especially cherished wife Rachel. She had tragically died during the birth of their second son, Benjamin. 

As you might be aware, family favoritism can be a very destructive dynamic. And given all the trouble that paternal favoritism had caused between himself and his twin brother Esau, you might think that Jacob the Snatcher would have learned his lesson, and would have known better than to play favorites with his own children — but sorry, no, not so. Jacob played favorites with his children, too. Jacob’s clear favorite was Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn son. 

Whether he realized it or not, Jacob’s favoritism was entirely obvious to all twelve of his sons. As mentioned previously, Jacob had a total of thirteen children by multiple mothers. When young Joseph turned seventeen, Jacob gave his most favorite son a gift, a coat or a robe, a coat of many colors. This special, distinctive garment of honor provoked the envy and hatred of Joseph’s older brothers.

Had Joseph been somewhat older and wiser, he might have noticed his brothers’ growing resentment and sullen envy. But Joseph was not older and wiser. He was younger and more naïve. Indeed, Joseph was naïve enough to blab, blab, blab indiscreetly. He even casually recounted two nighttime dreams to his resentful older brothers. The symbolism in his two dreams was very easily decipherable. And an obvious, quite insulting message was altogether apparent to his brothers. In both of his dreams, all of his brothers (and even his parents) symbolically bowed low, low, low before him. Consequently, the obvious, demeaning, infuriating interpretation of Joseph’s dream provoked even more resentment. His older brothers’ hatred festered. They all loathed Daddy’s favorite son, their half-brother Joseph.

Then one day, a rather perfect opportunity for taking revenge presented itself. Joseph had been sent to go check up on them as they tended their herds. Old man Jacob had told Joseph to go observe his brothers, and then return and let him know if they were doing their jobs or not. When Joseph came along to check up on them, his brothers saw him and said, “Here comes that dreamer!” And they eagerly seized upon a perfect chance to do him harm. First they ripped off his despised coat/robe of many colors. Then they threw their obnoxious little half-brother into a nearby pit. After that, they convened an impromptu field committee to decide the precious brat’s fate. Joseph’s life appeared to hang in the balance. 

The immediate question was, how much more harm would they do? Some of his brothers wanted to be done with Joseph and his vain dreams, once and for all. They meant to kill him. But their oldest brother, Rueben, who seems to have had a bit of a conscience, convinced them not to kill Joseph. Instead, Rueben suggested they should merely sell him as a slave. Coincidentally and conveniently, a caravan of Midianites happened to be passing near by. So his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him as a slave to the Midianite traders for twenty shekels of silver. As they did so, they ignored Joseph’s many pleas for compassion. 

To cover up what they had done to their younger brother, the ten of them dipped Joseph’s coat/robe of many colors in a goat’s blood. They brought the bloody robe to their father Jacob and said, “Father, we found this out in the field. Is this not Joseph’s robe?” Jacob recognized it as the robe he gave to Joseph. He concluded from the blood that Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal. His heart was broken. Not only had he lost his cherished wife, Rachel, now he had also lost his favorite son, Rachel’s firstborn. He wept and could not be consoled.

Meanwhile, the Midianite traders brought Joseph down to Egypt, where they sold him to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. But although he was far from his home and had to toil as a slave, God was there with Joseph. And God made Joseph successful in everything he did. Potiphar was so pleased with Joseph’s work that he put him in charge of his entire household.

But then something bad happened. Joseph suffered yet another personal setback. Potiphar’s wife took an illicit romantic interest in Joseph. Joseph was young and handsome. She could not help but notice. Sometimes Potiphar’s wife was home alone with Joseph. She suggested that Joseph spend more time with her, somewhat closer. Joseph emphatically said no, to do so would be a big violation of his boss’ trust, and it would be wrong in God’s eyes, too. But she was very, very determined to have her way. On one occasion, when they were alone together, she reached out and grabbed ahold of his clothing. Joseph quickly turned and ran away, leaving some of his clothing dangling there in her hand. Potiphar’s wife then realized that she needed a quick alibi, so she flipped the narrative. She framed Joseph. She accused Joseph of a crime. She said Joseph had tried to do something inappropriate to her, not the other way around. Potiphar believed his wife’s story-spin, and had Joseph arrested and put in prison. 

But even inside of that prison, something ~somewhat~ good happened. Genesis says that the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love, even there. The Lord gave Joseph favor in the sight of the warden, the keeper of the prison. As before and as always, Joseph stood out from everyone around him. Joseph was a model prison inmate. Eventually, the warden trusted Joseph so much that he let Joseph do his job for him. Nonetheless, Joseph was still in prison. In spite of his criminal record, Joseph knew he was actually an innocent man. He hoped to someday regain his freedom.      

In a future episode, we will learn what happened to Joseph, the model prison inmate, who has been attacked by his envious older brothers, sold into slavery, and then framed by his owner’s wife.