A good friend of mine from university now works as a political strategist in Washington. When I mentioned a prominent frontrunner for the presidency in 2016, he observed that this politician simply has too many advisors. The campaign hasn’t just employed the strategists it needs, but also others – simply to prevent them from working for competitors. The result is an echo chamber that seriously undermines this politician’s prospects.
It’s no secret that we’ve a propensity to flatter the powerful. Nor must we be political big shots to receive such pandering attention ourselves, as a quick flip through the cable news networks attests. Perhaps this helps explain why Joseph’s dream telling is at once powerful and so “unremarkable” (for want of a better word).
I’ll admit to skepticism about the sort of dream analysis psychologists like Carl Jung advocated and practiced. And as circumspect about dream interpretation as I may be, I can’t help but think these dreams are a bit obvious. I mean seven plump cows came up out of the Nile to be consumed by seven mangy ones shortly thereafter? The baker’s goods are devoured by birds and never reach the Pharaoh, while the cupbearer succeeds in delivering the cup to him?
In my opinion, Genesis 41 instructs us more in our human foibles than in the wondrousness of Joseph’s interpretations, true as they may be. For starters, we note that the baker only asks for an interpretation because he witnesses the cupbearer receiving an encouraging word. And think of the extraordinary contortions the many magicians and wise men must have performed to avoid interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams plainly!
While those experts were busy spinning the dreams to win favor for themselves, something made Joseph different. It’s not that he’s somehow more selfless of his own nature. After all, when he interprets the cupbearer’s dream he asks for a favor in return: for the cupbearer is to remember him and petition for his release. Yet the cupbearer neglects to do so. Maybe that experience guarded him against trusting in earthly powers when he came before Pharaoh. So Joseph, a prisoner with the most to gain from Pharaoh, interprets the dreams plainly, as the Lord would have it.
But Joseph doesn’t simply have cause to be skeptical of the powers of this world, he has reason to be assured of God’s sovereign power. Remember when Joseph’s brothers cast him into the dry cistern to die (Gen. 37:24)? Languishing there in the pit, no doubt bruised from the struggle against his murderous kin, Joseph was a living sign of suffering under sin, not only of his own sin – his own pride surely had a hand in this – but also the sins of his brothers.
Providentially, Midianite traders pass by; and Joseph is lifted from what was otherwise to be his grave and sold into slavery. What an experience to encourage him to trust in the Lord: being saved from certain death, even if it means being taken to a faraway land to be sold as a slave! Could it be that being saved in that situation – when all seemed lost – engendered his trust in God, the trust at the root of his power to interpret dreams rather than to “spin”?
And if that’s the case for Joseph, how much more is it the case for us? For we have not merely been saved from our own cisterns by the fortuitous passing of merchants, but by God’s undeniably intentional self-giving: incarnate and with arms spread wide on the cross, vanquishing sin in death and resurrection. Rest in the knowledge of this good news and you might well surprise yourself at how it interprets our world and (even when it seems no one else will) empowers you to speak the truth.