Zaphenath’s test

Word spread throughout the land. Egypt had grain for sale. When the news reached Israel, he gathered his sons and said, “What are you all waiting for? Go to Egypt and buy us grain, so we don’t die out here!”

Israel’s ten oldest sons packed their camels and left for Egypt, joining the travelers in Canaan who sought relief from the famine. Benjamin didn’t go with them, because Israel was afraid that he might get hurt. Benjamin was his only living reminder of Rachel, the wife he loved.

Of course, Joseph, now called Zaphenath, governed the entire land, and he was the distributor of grain to everyone. When his brothers came and knelt before the great viceroy, they bowed with their faces to the ground.

Zaphenath recognized them instantly, but he treated them as strangers. “Where are you from?” he asked gruffly through his interpreter.

“We come from Canaan to purchase food from your stores,” Reuben answered for his fellow travelers. It was clear they didn’t recognize their brother at all.

Zaphenath remembered the dream he had as a boy, and how one day he knew that eleven brothers would bow before him. Among Israel’s sons, Zaphenath counted only ten. Where’s Benjamin? he asked himself.

“You’re spies,” he said. “You’ve come to see where our gates weak.”

Judah answered, “Lord, your servants have only come to buy enough grain to feed our family. We all share the same father, a man of God. We wouldn’t lie to you.”

“No, you’re spies, I’m sure of it,” he said as he stood from his royal seat. “Guards, remove these—”

“No, lord, we’re your servants!” Reuben pleaded. “We come from Canaan. Our youngest son is with our father and our other brother is dead.”

“Ah, a test, then!” Zaphenath shouted. “This will be how you prove yourselves: One of you shall go back home, collect your youngest brother, and bring him to me. The rest of you will wait in prison for their return. If you don’t come back with your brother, as surely as Pharaoh lives, you’re spies. And you don’t want to know what I do to spies.”

The brothers agreed to the test as if they had a choice, and the captain of the guard escorted them to the prison until the great lord of Egypt considered which brother to release.

Inspiration: Genesis 42

Pharaoh’s dreams

A couple of years passed, and Pharaoh had a dream. He was standing on the bank of the Nile when suddenly seven of the most well-fed cows came up out of the water and started munching on the reeds. Then, seven more cows, wretched and famished, came up for air and swallowed up the pretty cows. Pharaoh woke up and turned over in his bed.

Falling asleep again, he dreamed of seven fat ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Then, seven wind-blasted and small ears sprouted up and choked out the quality shoots. Pharaoh woke up again, troubled by all he’d seen in the night.

He recounted these disturbing images to every Egyptian magician in the vicinity, but no one knew how to interpret them. Then he called for every “wise man” and seer in the district. Again, he told them his dreams, but no one offered an answer to their meaning.

Then the chief cupbearer spoke up. “How could I be so stupid?” he asked, giving his forehead a sound palm slap. “When the baker and I went to prison, we both had dreams during the same night. A young Hebrew, he interpreted our dreams correctly, for he foretold of my vindication and the baker’s demise.

“You’re right to ask the question,” Pharaoh said. “How could you be so stupid?” Then he turned to a servant guarding the hall entrance. “Bring me the Hebrew at once!”

Joseph shaved his head, changed his clothes, and presented himself low to the ground before the ruler of all Egypt.

“I’m told you’re an interpreter of dreams,” he said to the thirty-year-old prisoner.

Joseph lifted his head and answered, “I don’t interpret them, but God will give the answers you seek.”

“Whatever,” Pharaoh said, skeptical of the Hebrew holy roller. “Look, I was standing by the Nile, and seven fat cows came up to feed on the grass. Then seven skinny cows came after them and swallowed up the fat cows. The seven skinny cows were still skinny. In my second dream, I saw seven fat ears of grain on one stalk. Then, seven withered ears came up and choked out the healthy ones. The magi were unable to give me an answer. What say you?”

“Is that all?” Joseph asked.

“Indeed.”

“They’re both the same dream,” Joseph said. “God has revealed to you what He’s about to do.”

Pharaoh wasn’t any closer to divining the meaning of his dreams. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what God has so clearly revealed to me.”

“Lord,” Joseph continued, “The seven fat cows and the seven fat ears are seven years of harvest. The seven skinny cows and the seven thin ears are seven years of famine. Like I said, God has given you the meaning of your dream.”

“Indulge me,” Pharaoh said, impatiently. “Are you giving me the weather forecast for the next fourteen years?”

“Precisely, Lord,” Joseph said, standing to his feet. “And as sure as the god of Egypt has dreamed it, it will come to pass.”

Pharaoh scratched his goatee. “Anything else?”

Joseph bowed. “If it pleases my Lord, let Pharaoh put an expert in charge of agriculture. Elect district managers to collect one-fifth of the land’s produce for the next seven years. Store up grain reserves in every city, under your authority, of course. When the famine comes, you’ll be a hero.”

By the time Joseph finished what he had to say, his face was perceptibly radiant. The guards approached to escort him from Pharaoh’s presence.

“Wait,” Pharaoh said. “Is there any other like him? This man hosts the spirit of God Himself.”

Inspiration: Genesis 41

Lofty dreams

Seventeen-year-old Joseph daily shepherded his father’s flocks with his brothers. While his brothers tended flocks in a brute and callous way, Joseph treated each animal with tenderness and compassion. One day, he went to his father and complained that his brothers were treating the herds with cruelty and neglect.

Now, Israel favored Joseph over his other sons, having fathered him in later years with the wife that he loved, and lavished him with expensive gifts. One was a long cloak with sleeves of multicolored layers. Joseph, oblivious to the overt inequality of favor he received from his father, enjoyed parading around in his robe like a proud peacock. Joseph’s brothers hated Joseph for this, and they never missed an opportunity to speak cruelly to him.

One night, Joseph woke up from a dream, and partly out of spite, he shared it with his brothers. “We were all tying up parcels of grain in the field,” he recounted, “when my parcel stood upright, and your parcels gathered around mine and bowed low to the ground.”

The brothers were indignant. Reuben, the oldest, said, “You think you’re going to rule over us?” The others laughed, but their hearts brooded with anger toward Joseph.

Being young, foolish, and increasingly braggadocious, Joseph shared another dream. In the presence of his father and brothers, he said, “I also dreamed the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to me.”

Israel balked. “Watch your tongue, boy,” he rebuked, “You think your dead mother, your brothers, and I are going to bow down to you?”

The contents of the boy’s dream reverberated in Israel’s mind, and the brothers stewed quietly as their wrath intensified.

Inspiration: Genesis 37

Hidden idols

After giving a three-day head start, a servant broke the news to Laban that Jacob and his caravan had gone. Laban enlisted some of his close family members to help him give chase. After seven days, they caught up with them in the hills of Gilead.

The night before he was to confront Jacob, God visited Laban in a dream.

“Don’t speak good or evil to Jacob,” God said.

In the morning, Laban caught up with Jacob and his camp and said, “Why’d you steal my daughters as if they were spoils of war? Why’d you sneak away behind my back? I would have thrown you a ‘going away’ party with music and dancing. You didn’t even let me say goodbye to my daughters and sons. I came to take back what is mine and teach you a lesson, but the God of Isaac told me not to speak good or evil to you. Why’d you leave like that?”

“I was afraid,” Jacob answered. “I thought you’d keep your daughters from me, using violence if necessary.”

“That’s understandable,” Laban said. “But regardless of how badly you’re ready to go home, why’d you steal my gods?”

Jacob scratched his head. “You’re mistaken. If anyone stole anything of yours, then I’ll have them put to death.”

Jacob took a couple of steps back and raised his voice so that the entire camp could hear. “Given all these witnesses, show me what I have that belongs to you.”

Laban began a search through Jacob’s camp. He went first into Leah’s tent, turning over pillows and blankets, rummaging through baskets and satchels. Finding nothing, he searched the shelters of the maids and other servants.

“Excuse me,” Laban said, as he entered Rachel’s tent.

Rachel was sitting on the saddle where the stolen idols were hidden. Laban searched the tent from top to bottom but to no avail.

Rachel said, “Forgive me for not getting up, Father. It’s that time of the month.”

Laban waved her off, distracted by the task at hand. When he exited Rachel’s tent, he was confronted by an impatient Jacob.

“Tell me what I’ve done wrong,” Jacob scolded Laban. “Give me some justification for coming out here to give me more trouble. You’ve searched my camp and have come up empty.”

Laban stood speechless before Jacob, who wasn’t finished with his tirade.

“For twenty years I have served you. Your flocks and herds never miscarried. I’ve never eaten your rams. Whenever one of your animals was torn to shreds by a wild creature, I took the loss from my stock. I slaved through heat and cold and sleepless nights for twenty long years, fourteen years for your daughters and six years for your livestock, and at every turn, you changed the condition of payment. If God hadn’t been with me, I’d have lost everything by now. So if I were you, I’d take last night’s divine rebuke to heart!”

Inspiration: Genesis 31