Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck;
And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.
And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnathpaaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt.
For as long as I have known about the story of Joseph I have always interpreted it as reaching the climax when Joseph made it to the palace to rule Egypt under Pharaoh. The idea is that Joseph suffers in prison and then God blesses Him with the reward by getting him out and making him rich and powerful. While it was definitely better to be in a palace than in prison I wonder if we misunderstand the meaning of the story when we celebrate his rise to power.
You will remember that Joseph did not arrive in Egypt under pleasant circumstances. His brothers had sold him into slavery and he later spends years languishing in prison for not succumbing to the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. He is away from the promised land and castaway from his family, the covenant community.
When Joseph does make it to the palace Pharaoh gives him immense power and wealth, two very dangerous things for a man who wants to serve the Lord. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Regarding power, even common sense tells us that too much power often goes to a person’s head and corrupts him.
Things get worse when Pharaoh gives Joseph a pagan name, Zaphnath-paaneah. This reminds us of a similar story in Daniel 1 where he and his friends are given Babylonian names as part of their re-education/brainwashing. If you study this phenomenon of naming people and things you will see that it is a sign of authority and Pharaoh is asserting his authority and trying to erase Joseph’s identity.
To make matters much worse Pharaoh then give Joseph a pagan wife who is the daughter of a pagan priest. One of the things that God warns of is not marrying with the Canaanites because it eventually leads to spiritual corruption as the people are pulled away towards foreign, pagan cultures. The story is looking pretty bleak at this point for our main character.
Joseph is thrown into a perilous situation where he is outside of the promised land, away from his family, living in a pagan kingdom, serving a pagan king who gives him a pagan name, and married to a pagan woman, with all the power and wealth anyone other than Pharaoh can have. This is a setup for failure but the story takes a turn for the better.
And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.
And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.
The amazing thing in these verses is that Joseph gave his sons Hebrew names. It is easy to miss but it is very significant because it shows he had not forgotten his identity. He has not forgotten that he was part of a covenant and a community that was based on the promise of God. He was living in Egypt but his heart was still in the promised land.
Far from being the high point of his career it was the land of his afflictions. He did not want to be there and there was no reason to want otherwise. If we put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes I think it becomes easier to see that serving Pharaoh in his palace under those circumstances is not worth it.
When we read the story from this perspective we see that the lesson is not to have ambitions for power and wealth. These are not the norms which God has given the church as a goal to desire. There is a huge price to pay for such ambitions and it is not worth it. We should hope and pray that we never find ourselves in a similar situation but nevertheless trust that God is with us no matter where we are. We should also pray that God teaches us to desire the things that advance the kingdom rather than our flesh’s satisfaction.
Jesus teaches us that he who is servant of all is greatest in the kingdom. I think He is telling us that our ambitions should be towards the advancement of our place in the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdoms of men. To become rich and powerful in this life requires us to do evil but to become great in the kingdom of God requires us to be righteous and pure. Trade in your worldly ambitions for Godly ambitions.