Genesis 41: Joseph in Charge

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After recognizing Joseph’s wisdom and discernment, Pharaoh puts him in charge of his whole palace – everything except his throne. Then he expands his decree by putting Joseph “in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” This effectively makes him Chief of the Entire Land, another term for vizier. He immediately takes his signet ring from his finger and puts it on Joseph’s finger. This is followed by another change of clothes. These robes are made of fine linen; he completes the transformation by putting a gold chain around his neck.

These symbols comprise Joseph’s investiture as Grand Vizier of Egypt. The transfer of the signet ring is tantamount to Pharaoh giving Joseph sole authority to sign checks and documents in his name. The word for “fine linen” will be used by the Israelites later on to describe the cloth used in the Tabernacle and priestly vestments. It refers to exceptionally fine cloth. The gold chain represents the highest distinction Pharaoh can bestow on one of his officials. Throughout this entire ceremony, Joseph remains silent, but he is accepting and cooperative.

After this, Pharaoh has him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command. This is actually the first mention of a chariot in biblical history. People ran before him shouting, “Abrek!” Scholars are not certain what the Hebrew word means. Some translate it, “Make way!” Others suggest “Father of the King,” “bend your knee,” or simply “Attention!” The runners signify that the chariot ride is official business. This is the method by which Joseph is introduced to the people of the land. There is no hint of consternation or objection by any Egyptians. The people seem to be completely accepting of this new person. Joseph continues his silence.

Upon his return, Joseph is addressed by Pharaoh for the third time. He says, “…without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt.” These are such transformative words for Joseph. He has had a lot of experience with people lifting their hands against him. His brothers did it when they sold him to the Midianites. Potiphar’s wife lifted her eyes against him when she accused him of assaulting her. Now, no one will ever lift their hands, feet, eyes, or anything else against him, ever again.

Things are changing very quickly for Joseph. Time and time again in biblical texts, a new life is signified by a new name. So it is with Joseph. Pharaoh changes his name to Zaphenath-Paneah - a name that’s traditionally associated with dream interpretation. Yet scholars are convinced this Egyptian name could mean something like, “God speaks; he lives.” If it refers to God as the creator and sustainer of life, this fits well with his position as vizier and foreshadows events that are to come.

In addition, Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife – Asenath. Scholars think it means, “she who belongs to the goddess, Neith.” She is the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On, a high ranking priestly family from which pharaohs typically chose wives. If true, it is another indication of the many honors given to Joseph. “On” is also known as Heliopolis, located about seven miles outside of Cairo and the center of sun worship. This marriage, then, cements his stature within the elite Egyptian aristocracy. (Lastly, though the names are similar, there is no connection between Potiphar and Potiphera.) It remains to be seen what effect any of this has on Joseph because as of yet, his silence continues.

Joseph is apparently ready to assume his duties as he goes “throughout the land of Egypt.” He is thirty years old when he enters the service of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Joseph is seventeen when he is tending sheep with his brothers and brings his father a bad report about them. Presumably their decision to sell him happens rather quickly, so scholars presume he has been in Egypt for thirteen years. Those thirteen years have been marked by disappointments, hardships, and setbacks. But through all of it, God has been with him, and Joseph acknowledges that. Within thirteen years, his life experiences carry him from a pit in Canaan to the peak of the Egyptian world.

He travels throughout Egypt. His job is to familiarize himself with all aspects of Egypt’s agricultural resources. Joseph’s predictions are right on target. For seven years, they have blockbuster crops. The land produces plentifully. He collects “all the food produced in those seven years of abundance and stores it in the cities.” The idea is to store everything locally. Each community has its own grain storage facility. Eventually, though, they stop keeping track of it because the grain is “like the sand of the sea,” an oblique reference to God’s promises to Abraham – “Your descendants will be as numerous…as the sand on the seashore.” There is just too much of it to measure.

Notice the complete lack of any language suggesting financial remuneration for the grain. Nor is it likely that peasants voluntarily surrender it to the state storage units. By way of explanation, scholars assume the accumulated grain comprises the tax payments paid by the peasants to Egypt. It is another testament to Joseph’s shrewd business sense.

While the land is producing beyond measure and Joseph is working to collect and store up great quantities of food, his family is also producing. Asenath gives birth to two sons – Manasseh and Ephraim. These are both Hebrew names. Joseph calls his firstborn Manasseh, which means “one who causes to forget.” Presumably, this means that the birth of his son has given him reason to put the past behind him. His life has been filled with suffering, both in Canaan and Egypt. He has much to forget. He expands the thought: “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” Forgetting his father’s house is not the most commendable statement for a son to make. So some scholars argue that the statements comprise a hendiadys - two terms that intensify one meaning. They render it: “God has made me forget all the suffering in my father’s house.” With the birth of his son, he has another family and a new life; he can let go of all the past “hurts.”

He names the second son Ephraim, which means “fruitful or fertile.” He states, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” He recognizes that God has turned his affliction into blessing. It is not clear whether his “land of suffering” is a reference to Canaan or Egypt, but his thirteen years in Egypt have certainly been challenging. No doubt his fruitfulness refers to more than just having the two sons. His entire life has been transformed. He is ready to move forward. Pharaoh wants him to be a bona fide Egyptian. He is ready to do that.

If the chapter ended at this point, it would appear that Joseph has successfully transitioned from one life to another. Yet Joseph has predicted that the seven years of abundance will come to an end. And so they do.

The narrator highlights the severity of the famine with the sevenfold repetition of the word “famine” in the last few verses. The famine is in all the land. However, because of Joseph’s foresight and expertise, Egypt has food. All the other lands are suffering. Apparently people are unaware of Joseph’s activities during the years of plenty. When they begin to feel the effects of the famine, they come to Pharaoh crying for food. Pharaoh sends them all to Joseph and tells them to “do what he tells you.” Joseph opens the storehouses and begins to sell grain to the Egyptians, for the famine is severe and continues.

But this famine is not limited to Egypt. It spreads “over the whole country.” Egyptian annals do record the devastating effects of multi-year famines. The area is virtually rainless and dependent upon the flooding of the Nile. A whole series of irrigation waterways had been established to direct and control the flood waters of the Nile to provide the most benefit to the agricultural areas. But, when rainfall is diminished, the Nile doesn’t flood. The neighboring countries that are separate from the Nile’s effects are subject to the same devastating effects of low rainfall.

“And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.” Interestingly, there is never any suggestion of a water shortage. This entire story is focused only on the issue of food for the inhabitants. As the crisis deepens and lingers, word gets out that there is grain in Egypt. With people coming from everywhere to buy grain, we know it is just a matter of time before Jacob and his sons will also be affected.