Joseph, eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons, did not have an easy life.
You can read about it in the second half of Genesis, if you want. I’ve always found his story fascinating—OK, especially after seeing a high-school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when I was 14 … and most of the brothers were pretty hunky.
Joseph was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, spent years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and lived in a country foreign to him for most of his life.
Despite all of this, Joseph came to glory and power: because of his God-given gift of interpreting dreams, Joseph saved Egypt from being destroyed through famine. And during this famine, he was able to wholeheartedly forgive his brothers for their part in his pain.
I imagine the seven years of plenty in Egypt were pretty crazy for Joseph. Maybe some wondered if the famine would really come, as Joseph insisted on cramming the storehouses full of grain and goods. But he had Pharaoh’s backing … which in Egypt, meant he had it all. He married. And then he named his first son Manasseh.
Manasseh means “forgetting.” (It’s actually the same word used when Paul says “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead …” [Phil. 3:13].) In these years of plenty, of new marriage and Pharaoh’s adoration, Joseph was able to say he forgot his past. Not literally, of course, but after years of turmoil he could put it behind him and go on without resentment.
Joseph went on to have a second son, Ephraim. Ephraim’s name means “fruitful.” Born during the plenty years, Ephraim was certainly an appropriate designation for the boy.
Then came the years of famine.
Only because of Joseph’s God were the Egyptians spared from what might have been obliteration. Seven years is a long, LONG famine. Can you imagine? I am sure Joseph looked around at those people, many of whom he was likely friends with or related to, and sighed a giant sigh of relief. All those years of pain saved a nation.
The International Bible Lesson Commentary says, “He has seen the suffering that God has prevented through him, and he knows that this suffering that God has prevented through him far outweighs any suffering he has ever experienced.”
Even though Joseph claimed through his son’s name to have forgotten Israel, I think if his brothers had shown up during the years of plenty, Joseph might have thrown them out. He was too close to the pain. The brothers’ faces that laughed at him as they tossed him into a pit still taunted his dreams, maybe. Ironically, Manasseh is a Hebrew name, while Ephraim is a much more Egyptian moniker. In a way, he still held tightly to Canaan and his hurt while claiming to forget those years.
Through famine, Joseph truly knew God’s greatness and His plan for Joseph’s life.
How many of us can say the same? If you’ve been around here for awhile, you know we’ve had our own famine years recently, ending (sort of) with the foreclosure of our Nashville home. Nearly three years of pain regarding jobs, homes, and our finances. Begging God to let me understand why He wasn’t working.
Not working? Hardly.
I am who I am because of the famine years. I understand so much more what it means to rely on God and lean on His promises. We, like Paul, know how to live with little. I found that my biggest transformation was my disregard for our “stuff.” I could pick up and leave with just my husband and children and be content. I’d like to have our pictures, but there is no “stuff” I don’t think I could live without.
In no way do I feel healed yet from the pain of these years. But I think one day I’ll be able to thank God for them and mean it.
In Genesis 50, Jopeph’s brothers are still scared he might be resentful after their father has passed on. But Joseph tells them, “Even though you planned evil against me, God planned good to come out of it. This was to keep many people alive, as he is doing now” (v. 20, God’s Word Translation). Can I even hope that God might use me to keep someone alive, physically or spiritually, because of my struggle? What an honor that would be.
Have you had famine years in your life? What did you learn?