Genesis 41:46-52 (The Message)
Joseph was thirty years old when he went to work for Pharaoh the king of Egypt. As soon as Joseph left Pharaoh’s presence, he began his work in Egypt. During the next seven years of plenty the land produced bumper crops. Joseph gathered up the food of the seven good years in Egypt and stored the food in cities. In each city he stockpiled surplus from the surrounding fields. Joseph collected so much grain– it was like the sand of the ocean!– that he finally quit keeping track. Joseph had two sons born to him before the years of famine came. Asenath, daughter of Potiphera the priest of On, was their mother. Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh (Forget), saying, “God made me forget all my hardships and my parental home.” He named his second son Ephraim (Double Prosperity), saying, “God has prospered me in the land of my sorrow.”
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. In a matter of minutes Joseph had gone from being the favorite, spoiled son to a slave bound for Egypt. Then from a trusted slave to a forgotten prisoner in a dingy jail. Now he had been taken from that jail right into the Pharaoh’s palace! He had been put in charge of the entire country of Egypt. In place of that colorful robe that his older brothers had so cruelly stolen from him, Joseph had been given the finest Egyptian clothes and jewelry. He had a chariot and driver at his disposal, and a signet ring symbolizing his power. Pharaoh presented him with a beautiful wife named Asenath.
Then Pharaoh even gives him a new name: “Zaphenath-paneah.” Can you imagine meeting with a new boss and being informed that you were being issued business cards with a completely different name. You would no longer be Bob or Jane or Hedy or Chuck, but Zaphenath-paneah. (You might not even be certain how to pronounce your new moniker!) No matter that you’ve carried that old name for your entire life. No matter that you may actually be attached to those syllables from your childhood. No matter that your parents thoughtfully chose that name for you at your birth. No discussion. The new name is yours.
We hear no word of objection or refusal from Joseph. He doesn’t even balk at this radical change of identity. In fact, he really seems to embrace it all. In today’s reading, we’re told that “as soon as Joseph left Pharaoh’s presence, he began his work in Egypt.” Joseph was eager to get started on his new life, and he dug right into the work. Who could blame him? Except for those first formative years in his father’s house, his life has been extremely difficult: betrayed by people who should have protected him, forced into slavery, falsely accused, cruelly imprisoned. A new chapter was beginning, and Joseph couldn’t wait to get started.
But it’s interesting… when Joseph and Asenath’s first son arrived, Joseph named him Manasseh, from the Hebrew word nāshâ, which means to forget. Joseph had accepted a new name and a new life in Egypt. But if “God made me forget all my hardships and my parental home,” as claimed in 41:50, why did he not choose a traditional Egyptian name for his firstborn son? Why did he instead choose a name that has Hebrew roots? His second son arrived, and was given the name Ephraim, which stems from the Hebrew word pārâ, meaning to be fruitful. It is still strongly reminiscent of a past Joseph claimed to have left behind: “God has prospered me in the land of my sorrow” (41:52).
The truth is, we are shaped by our past. Our experiences form how we think, how we react, how we feel. Our past can inform the choices we make in the present. But we are not limited by our past. There is no part of our lives that God cannot use for something good. Our positive experiences, God can use to comfort us in difficult times or to urge us on a healthy path. Our negative experiences, God can use to give us compassion, empathy, and wisdom. God specializes in taking the broken and damaged, and transforming it into something healing and redemptive! God will do this over and over again throughout scripture. Joseph’s impossible situation will be resolved into something powerful. The Israelites’ bondage in Egypt will demonstrate God’s love as they are freed and guided. The cross– a horrific device of torture and death– will be changed into a symbol of hope and redemption. The prejudice and violence of Saul will be miraculously altered into the wisdom and healing of Paul.
That transformation continues in our world today. We take part in this continuous re-shaping of our lives by allowing God in, and by making the conscious decision to open ourselves up to God’s guidance and love.
How easy or hard is it for you to trust in God’s care for you?