“I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)
Gnarled and longer than it had ever been, Joseph’s hair fell at his feet in clumps.
The attendant sent to prepare Joseph for his appearance before Pharaoh didn’t seem at all concerned about being careful. After all, Joseph was a convicted criminal. There were moments when Joseph was convinced his hair was simply being yanked out by the bony fist he glimpsed in the corner of his eye.
No matter. The task was soon done. He washed as best he could with the wet rag tossed at him, wiped stray itchy hairs from his face and shoulders. He was given a change of clothes and then escorted quickly from the prison. Joseph was being taken directly to Pharaoh. Not sure exactly why he had been called for, his memory of the cupbearer gave him hope.
Once the gestures of subservience and deference had been properly carried out, making clear who was who and what was what, the ruler got straight to the point. “I’ve had a dream. I can’t seem to forget it and no one who hears me tell about it has a clue as to what it means – but I’m told you interpret dreams. ”
The message was subtle but hard to miss: “You’re said to have a special gift. Use it for me.” This could go either way. Joseph could be the hero or, like that chief baker, Joseph could be hung out on a tree for the birds to eat. It’s one thing to speak truth to a fellow convict. It’s quite another to speak truth to power.
Not intimidated, Joseph was equally direct with Pharaoh. “I cannot do it.” That’s a risky way to answer the most powerful man in the land. But Joseph wasn’t refusing to use his gift. He was being bold about the fact that the gift wasn’t his to use at will. “I cannot do it, but God will give the answer.” In this moment power was redefined. Pharaoh was not the most powerful presence in the room. God was.
There is a particular strength of character that enables a person to live life before God while standing in the presence of Pharaoh.
Joseph did not despise or disrespect the power of the Pharaoh. He did however keep the Pharaoh in his place. The Pharaoh could not define who Joseph was. The Pharaoh could not dictate what Joseph would say. Only God could do that.
Our world makes claims on us, and many of these claims are attempts to define who we are and how we should live. It can be difficult to live life before God when you’re seated at the table with the firm’s partners. It can be difficult to live life before God when your paycheck and health insurance come from the company. It can be difficult to live life before God when you want to be married and you’re just beginning to discover a new and promising relationship.
Business partners and employers and a love interest are not wicked (at least not always). But they were never meant to define your life. They are to be kept in their place and not given a place reserved only for God. Those who live before God while standing before Pharaoh are those who, like Joseph, change the world.
What kinds of claims attempt to define you? How do you manage to live before God while standing before Pharaoh?
Almighty God, your claim upon me is what defines my life. But there is plenty of competition – some at work, some in my circle of friends. Give me strength to keep them in their place as I live each day for you. Amen.