Genesis 40:1-41:45: The Purpose of Joseph’s Imprisonment
Topic: Default Passage: Genesis 40:1– 41:45
Genesis 40:1-41:45: The Purpose of Joseph’s Imprisonment
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Genesis, and today the next passage we come to is Genesis chapter 40 verse 1 through chapter 41 verse 45, so I’ll be reading a selection of verses from that passage. It says,
1 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 8 So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh. 9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.” 14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”…25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do…. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30 but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31 and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe…. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.” 37 This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we come to you with all kinds of needs this morning. But we believe that, by your Spirit and through your Word, you can minister to every need we have. So please do that and, above all, draw us into a deeper relationship with you. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
One thing we all have in common is that there are often aspects of our lives that aren’t what we want them to be. There are things we have to go through that aren’t what we’d ordinarily choose to go through if we were given an option. For example, just a few weeks ago, my family had to deal with about 6 or 7 different things breaking and needing to be repaired all within the span of about a week or two. It started with me noticing that the roof of our shed actually had a small hole in it, which resulted in me getting some shingles and replacing the whole roof. Then our refrigerator stopped working, so we had to replace that and live out of a cooler for several days. Then a toilet valve needed to be replaced, which brought to our attention that our main water shutoff valve for the whole house also needed to be replaced. Then we had to do some costly car repairs, then some van repairs. And I think there were one or two other things as well. And I’ll be honest: my attitude during that week or two wasn’t always the best. I really hadn’t planned on spending all that money and all that time on all those repairs. It was frustrating.
Yet, of course, these things I just mentioned are only minor irritations compared to some of the other things we face from time to time. We sometimes face things that are a lot more difficult such as the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, an unhappy marriage or even divorce, the loss of a job, a traumatic experience, heavy caregiving responsibilities for a sick or elderly family member, significant pressures and challenges at work, domestic abuse or violence, struggles with infertility or a miscarriage, parenting challenges, social isolation or loneliness, estrangement from friends or family members, financial hardships, struggles with depression or anxiety—and on and on we could go. There are all kinds of different things that we wouldn’t ordinarily choose to face but that we nevertheless find ourselves facing.
And it’s natural for us to wonder, “Why?” Like, is there any reason or purpose for these things? Now, if we’re operating according to a secular worldview, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the answer’s “no.” There’s no purpose at all for the trials we experience. There can’t be—because God doesn’t exist. So, all the suffering we experience is random and meaningless. And so we just have to try our best to think positive thoughts and make the most of whatever situation in which we find ourselves. That’s all someone with a secular worldview can really do.
Yet the Bible presents us with a much different picture of reality. It teaches us that our pain does have a purpose, even if we can’t always understand exactly what that purpose is. A sovereign God is orchestrating the events of our lives according to his perfect plan in order to accomplish glorious things. And one of the places where we see that truth illustrated most clearly is in the life of Joseph.
If you’ve attended here the past few weeks, you may recall how Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and wound up in the household of a powerful Egyptian official named Potiphar. Then, when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to rape her, Potiphar had him thrown into prison.
Yet here in Genesis 40-41, we see that God hasn’t left Joseph but is actually working behind the scenes in a spectacular way. We’re told in Genesis 40:1-4, 1 Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. 2 And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody.
These two men—the cupbearer and the baker—were highly trusted officials who had unique access to the king. And they both end up in prison with Joseph. The passage then records how both of them have dreams and how Joseph interprets their dreams for them. He predicts, based on their dreams, that the cupbearer will be restored to his office but that the baker will be executed. And that’s exactly what happens. We read in verses 21-23 that, 21 [Pharaoh] restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
So, even though Joseph had specifically asked the cupbearer to remember him after being restored to his position, the cupbearer forgets all about Joseph. He just leaves him languishing in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And that’s where Joseph stays for two additional years. And I think we could accurately say that this is rock bottom for Joseph. His life has spiraled further and further downward—from being sold into slavery by his brothers to being falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned to now being forgotten by someone who probably could have done something to help him. Joseph is now at his lowest low.
And there’s an important principle here that we don’t want to miss: before God uses you in a great way, he first humbles you. Humility is a prerequisite to true greatness. And as impressive as Joseph’s moral character has been, we’ve seen that pride was probably an issue for him. If you remember back to chapter 37, Joseph had dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. And in light of the fact that his brothers were already jealous of him, since he was daddy’s favorite, the wise thing for Joseph to do would probably have been to keep those dreams to himself. Yet do you think Joseph was able to do that? Not at all. Instead, on two separate occasions, he went on and on about the dreams he had of his brothers bowing down to him. It seems that he just couldn’t help but share those details with them. So, Joseph seems to have had a bit of a pride problem. And that’s why God has to humble him here in chapter 40. God knew that before Joseph could handle greatness, he first had to learn humility. And the same is true of us today.
Then, crossing over into chapter 41, we read about two dreams that Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has in the same night. The first dream features seven gaunt and ugly cows eating seven well-fed and attractive cows. And that’s followed by a second dream, which features seven thin and blighted ears of grain swallowing up seven full and healthy ears of grain. After that, Pharaoh wakes up and is deeply troubled as he wonders what his dreams mean. And he can’t find anyone who knows how to interpret them. Eventually, though, the cupbearer remembers that Joseph is able to interpret dreams. So, the cupbearer tells Pharaoh about Joseph.
We then read in verses 14-15, 14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”
So, in the subsequent verses, Pharaoh describes his dreams to Joseph. And Joseph interprets them. He explains how the two dreams are referring to the same thing—namely, that there will be seven years of a rich and plentiful harvest throughout the land of Egypt that but that those seven years will be followed by seven years of severe famine.
Then, in verses 33-36, Joseph suggests a course of action. He says, 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
We then read in verses 37-44 that 37 This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” 42 Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. 43 And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44 Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”
And that’s how Joseph became what we might call the Prime Minister—or the second-in-command—of the entire land of Egypt. Understand that Egypt was the most powerful kingdom that had existed in the history of the world up to that point. And Joseph was now right there at the top of it, second only to Pharaoh himself. Who could have guessed that Joseph’s unjust imprisonment was not only something God was able to overcome but, in fact, the very thing God used to put Joseph where he wanted Joseph to be. So, we see that God had a marvelous purpose for Joseph’s imprisonment. That’s the main idea of these two chapters. God had a marvelous purpose for Joseph’s imprisonment.
God was working behind the scenes of Joseph’s circumstances the whole time, from Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery to the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife to the unjust imprisonment Joseph suffered. God was working in and through it all to form Joseph into the man he wanted Joseph to be and ultimately to make Joseph the Prime Minister of Egypt. What a spectacular display of the grand wisdom and power of God!
And just as God used the trials of Joseph’s life to accomplish his glorious purposes, he also uses the trials of our lives to accomplish his purposes as well. These purposes include a wide array of different things, many of which are greater and higher than we can comprehend. Yet one of the more fundamental purposes God has in our suffering is to form us and shape us into the people he wants to be. In fact, we can rest assured that whatever we go through is specifically designed by God to be exactly what we need. Each trial is tailor-made for us.
Kind of like a personalized fitness plan. You know, if you go to a personal trainer and ask them to help you get physically fit, they’re going to begin by doing a thorough assessment of you. Then, based on all of that information, they’ll design a fitness plan that’s specifically for you—something that’s appropriate for your current physical condition and that aligns with your goals. The whole process is customized around you. It’s all designed to be exactly what you need in order to help you become more physically fit.
And in a similar manner, God designs our circumstances to accomplish his purposes within us such as helping us develop godly character and teaching us to rely on his strength instead of our own and purging our hearts of everything that stands in the way of our conformity to Christ. God did that in Joseph’s life, and he does it in our lives. And because of God’s wisdom and sovereignty and goodness, we can be confident that not one bit of suffering we experience is ever wasted. There’s no such thing as senseless suffering or trials without purpose.
Let me read to you the words of a hymn we’ve sung several times at our church entitled “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow.” This hymn was written by John Newton, who, as some of you may know, also wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn in the English language. Newton writes,
I asked the Lord that I might grow In faith, and love, and every grace; Might more of His salvation know, And seek, more earnestly, His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray, And He, I trust, has answered prayer! But it has been in such a way, As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour, At once He’d answer my request; And by His love’s constraining pow’r, Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel The hidden evils of my heart; And let the angry pow’rs of hell Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed Intent to aggravate my woe; Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried, Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death? “Tis in this way,” the Lord replied, “I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ, From self, and pride, to set thee free; And break thy schemes of earthly joy, That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
So, Newton’s saying that he prayed for spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of the gospel and a greater desire for God. And in praying for these things, he hoped that God would answer his prayer in one glorious moment and simply impart these things to him. But that’s not what God did, is it? No, he says that God laid him low. God answered his prayer not in a glorious moment of spiritual ecstasy but by allowing suffering to come into John Newton’s life. That’s the way God works. God uses suffering to accomplish things within us that simply can’t be accomplished in any other way. And if we could only remember that and embrace that, I believe it would be an indescribable comfort to us in the midst of the difficult seasons we find ourselves going through.
In addition, as we look at our main passage in Genesis 40-41, we see how God used Joseph’s imprisonment not only to accomplish certain things in Joseph’s heart but also ultimately as a means of placing Joseph into a very strategic position as Prime Minister of Egypt. And the reason this position was so strategic is because of the famine that was coming and the way that famine would affect not only Egypt but that entire region of the world, including Joseph’s family in the land of Canaan.
This becomes clear in Genesis 45:5-7, where Joseph says to his brothers who come to Egypt to buy food, 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.
So, Joseph understood that God had orchestrated the events of his life and made him Prime Minister of Egypt for the specific purpose of leading the Egyptians to store up grain during the years of plenty so that not only the Egyptians but also Joseph’s own family would have enough grain during the years of famine. Essentially, God was saving Joseph’s family from starvation. That’s the reason God brought Joseph to Egypt, allowed all of those difficult things to happen to Joseph, and ultimately placed Joseph in a position of such power and influence.
And that’s a great reminder for us that God has us where we are for a reason. He’s placed us where he’s placed us for a reason. He’s given us the influence he’s given us for a reason. So, think about where you are and the opportunities for influence you have. God’s placed you in a particular family, a particular circle of friends, a particular workplace, a particular neighborhood, and in other particular spheres of influence—and he’s done so for a reason. None of these placements is accidental. They’re all very deliberate. So, think about why God’s put you where you are. Think about the unique opportunities for spiritual influence and meaningful ministry you have. Are you taking advantage of those? Are you being a faithful steward of the opportunities for influence and ministry God’s given you?
You know, maybe you’re not a huge fan of your job. Well, think about why God might have you there. What coworkers seem to be open to friendship or in need of comfort and support or perhaps even open to an Evangelistic Bible Study? Or maybe you have some neighbors who get on your nerves sometimes. Well, think about why God’s put you in proximity to them and the opportunities you might have to invite them over for dinner and begin to build a friendship with them. None of our circumstances are accidental. Each one of them is orchestrated by a sovereign God for a specific purpose.
In addition, as we think about the story of Joseph and how God used Joseph in such a marvelous way, it shows us that God can use anyone. And not only is he able to use anyone, he also often chooses to use those who are rather unimpressive from a worldly perspective in order to make it clear that it’s by his power that things are accomplished. And Joseph was certainly no exception. Think about who Joseph was and where he came from. Joseph was basically a nobody—especially by Egyptian standards. The very fact that he was a Hebrew would ordinarily exclude him from any social prominence or political power at all. In fact, the second part of Genesis 43:32 states that “…Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.” That’s how despised Hebrews were. Yet God nevertheless chose to use Joseph in an extraordinary way and to accomplish marvelous things.
And God does the same with people today. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
I’m reminded of the way in which the nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon came to faith. Spurgeon, as some of you may know, is undoubtedly one of the most famous preachers of all time—perhaps even the most famous prior to the ministry of Billy Graham. So, he was a man whose spiritual impact was felt literally around the world. Yet I’ve always found it interesting how Spurgeon came to faith. He grew up in a Christian home but didn’t initially have much interest in religious things. He attended church not because he genuinely wanted to but simply because he thought it was the proper thing to do.
So, one Sunday, which happened to be New Year’s Day, when Spurgeon was 15 years old, he set out to attend the church he normally attended. However, because the winter weather was pretty severe that day, he decided that he didn’t feel like walking the rest of the way to that church. So, he instead ducked into a small storefront type of church—mainly because he desired to get out of the cold.
Spurgeon writes, “When I could go no further [in the wintry weather], I turned down a court and came to a little Primitive Methodist church. The preacher who was [supposed] to have conducted the service never got there because he was held up by the weather, and quickly one of the [church] officers had to be brought forward to conduct the service with the congregation of perhaps fifteen people. The man was really stupid. [Spurgeon’s words, not mine.] His text was, ‘Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ And he just kept repeating it because he had nothing else to say.” However, something about Spurgeon caught the preacher’s eye, and he said, “Young man, you look very miserable. And miserable in life and miserable in death you will be if you don’t obey my text.” He then shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus! Look, look, look!” “I looked,” writes Spurgeon, “and then and there the cloud was gone and the darkness rolled away and that moment I saw the Son”—spelled “s. o. n.” as a reference to Jesus.
So, the great preacher Charles Spurgeon—often referred to as the “Prince of Preachers”—came to faith through what must have been one of the most basic sermons of all time delivered by one of the most unimpressive preachers of all time. Remember that the sermon consisted of a single verse of Scripture repeated over and over again by a preacher Spurgeon describes as “stupid.” I don’t think Spurgeon was trying to be condescending in using that word but was simply describing in a very literal way, according to conventional nineteenth century vocabulary, how limited the man’s intelligence seemed to be. Yet God used that simple man in a remarkable way.
And, friends, God uses us as well. Maybe you’re tempted to think that you’re too ordinary to do anything of much spiritual significance. Maybe you don’t possess an obvious teaching gift or any of the other kinds of gifts that often get the spotlight. Or maybe you haven’t accumulated a whole lot of Bible knowledge yet. You’ve never been to seminary or had any formal training and therefore feel inadequate in that area. It doesn’t matter. God used Joseph in our main passage, he used the unnamed preacher Charles Spurgeon heard as a 15-year-old boy, and he can use you as well.
In fact, in light of what we read in 1 Corinthians 1, it would seem that the more ordinary you are, the more likely it is that God will use you in a significant way. Listen, as long as you have a sound grasp of the gospel, having a heart that’s on fire for God is way more important than having any of the things people would often consider to be impressive about a person. I believe in seminary, but having a heart that’s on fire for God is more important than a seminary education, it’s more important than charisma, it’s more important than a brilliant intellect. A man or woman who might seem ordinary on the outside but who’s consumed with passion for God has way more potential to make an impact for the gospel than the person who has a bunch of impressive things on their resume but who lacks that burning desire to see God glorified. So, don’t doubt that God can use you—and that he will use you if you’ll devote yourself wholeheartedly to him and his purposes for your life.
Yet, as we think about how God used Joseph in such a wonderful way in the book of Genesis, our examination of Joseph wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t also consider the One Joseph was intended to foreshadow. And that, of course, is Jesus. Like Joseph, Jesus is described in Scripture as the uniquely loved Son of his Father. Yet, just as God allowed Joseph to be severely tested and tempted in Potiphar’s house by the wife of Potiphar, God also allowed Jesus to be tested and tempted in the desert by Satan himself. In addition, just as Joseph’s jealous brothers had previously betrayed him by selling him into slavery, Jesus also was betrayed by one of his closest associates, Judas Iscariot, into the hands of the Jewish religious leaders.
Then, after being unjustly arrested, Jesus was accused by false witnesses of crimes he didn’t commit—again, much like Joseph. This led to Jesus being crucified on a Roman cross—arguably one of the most cruel and agonizing forms of execution that’s ever been devised. Yet, through it all, God was working to save his people. Just as God used Joseph to save his family from starvation, God used Jesus to save his people from their sins. You see, when Jesus died on the cross, he was dying in our place and to pay for our sins. The judgment and wrath our sins deserved was poured out on Jesus so it wouldn’t have to be poured out on us. Then, after that, Jesus was resurrected from the dead and was exalted to the right hand of the Father, just as Joseph was brought out of his imprisonment was exalted to his position as second-in-command of Egypt. Then, later in his life, Joseph would forgive his brothers for their sin against him, just as Jesus forgives us of our sins whenever we put our trust in him.
So, we’ve seen in Genesis 40-41 how God had a marvelous purpose for Joseph’s imprisonment and for every other aspect of Joseph’s life. God was using all of the things Joseph went through in order to accomplish something glorious. Yet, as all of these parallels I’ve just listed make clear, the whole story of Joseph is ultimately intended to direct our attention to something exponentially more glorious that God accomplished through Jesus—namely rescuing us from our sins.