“Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:33).
As the largest empire in Joseph’s day, Egypt was truly the world’s superpower, respected for its knowledge, prestige, and strength. It was inconceivable that Egyptian hegemony could be threatened, and, not surprisingly, the pharaoh was seen as a god.
However, there was (and is) one greater than the pharaoh and his empire — the Lord God Almighty. His wisdom and might alone could solve the problems facing the land of the Nile. None of the court sages were able to interpret the pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41:8), but Joseph explained the meaning of the vision because he relied on God’s wisdom (vv. 14–32). Coupled with this, the famine illustrates the Lord’s sovereignty. Yahweh could bring mighty Egypt to its knees, and their “savior,” the pharaoh, was powerless to stop Him.
Yet the Lord’s purpose in this was not to destroy the Egyptians, but to reveal Himself as savior. Joseph prescribes wise actions so that Egypt will not perish. Rescue was possible for the pharaoh and his people if they listened to God’s word through Joseph (vv. 33–36). Salvation remains available to all today if they repent and believe.
Joseph’s prescriptions help us understand the purpose of prophecy. When prophets spoke, they did so not primarily to reveal the future but to motivate responsible activity. Joseph was not a fatalist, and he did not end his speech to the pharaoh saying, “This famine is coming, and we cannot stop it. Let us hope things do not get too bad.”
Biblical Christianity is not a fatalistic religion like Islam, which teaches that man’s decisions have no real impact on God’s plan. Of course, Scripture says the Lord ordains all things. But it also tells us many details are hidden from us (Deut. 29:29); thus, what to us seems set in stone is often subject to change (Jer. 18:1–11). Certainly, God knows the future, but He usually hides the future from us. Instead, He warns of judgment and offers blessing to motivate human choices that joyously do His will and bring glory to Him. John Calvin says Genesis 41:33 shows how true prophecy eschews fatalism. God gives prophecies that “would form men to piety, would lead them to repentance, and would excite them to prayer when oppressed with fear.”
Some Reformed Christians easily fall prey to fatalistic thinking. We might think that since Jesus said the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7), it is useless to try to help them. Or, maybe we think that we can give up crucifying our flesh because we have struggled with a particular sin for decades, and no end to the fight seems forthcoming. God’s declarations in Scripture must move us to worship, repent, pray, and be holy. Otherwise, we do not believe His Word.
Passages for Further Study
- Ex. 32:7–14
- Isa. 38
- Jer. 34
- Heb. 3:1–4:13
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