Scripture: Genesis 39:1-23
Over the last two weeks we’ve considered two biblical stories, looking for clues regarding how God “makes a way out of no way” in our lives and in our world. In the story of Noah and The Flood, we are challenged to “bow before God’s bow” – that is, to trust that God is at work in the world to save it, not destroy it. We are also challenged to respect the fact that God has chosen to work through highly imperfect people (like ourselves) to accomplish God’s will. When we cry out to God in times of need, therefore, we may be assured that God is willing to help us. Yet we are challenged by the fact that God will do it on God’s terms, not ours. Help may come in the form of people who make us uncomfortable – even people we might reject as “ungodly” or “unworthy” of our association. We may even be called to love our enemies! (Who originally asked us to do that?) We might not like the way God works, or think it’s fair, but it’s just “how God rolls.” And how God “makes a way out of no way.”
Last week, we found God “rolling” in just this way. God chose to bless all the families of the world through two people who are about as imperfect as they come: Abraham and Sarah. Over and over Abraham and Sarah second-guess God’s wisdom, attempting to “help” God accomplish the blessing in a safer, more efficient and dependable way. And each time they end up putting the whole promise in jeopardy.
Happily, it was not Abraham and Sarah’s perfection that God trusted. It was their love. Because they were head-over-heels in love with God, neither Abraham nor Sarah gave up when their mistakes increased their challenges. Instead, they became all the more determined to listen for the Spirit’s voice and trust the Spirit’s direction. Through the sheer number of times they earnestly sought to do God’s will, God was able to “make a way where there was no way” and bless the world. Literally all three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – were birthed through the blessing of Abraham and Sarah. God even blessed the world through Abraham and Sarah’s mistakes.
What Is Prosperity?
Turning to our present story – of Joseph – we’re going to pull the camera in for an even closer view of how blessing works in God’s Realm. Specifically, we’ll look at how faith and trust in God produces prosperity – prosperity on levels that could even be called “biblical.”
Now, when a preacher stands before a congregation promising that God can create greater prosperity in their lives, some perk up and pay attention, while others get this queasy feeling in their stomachs. The queasiness likely comes from seeing one too many televangelists or “prosperity gospel” preachers who insist that if they will just have faith in God – and give a little money to the preacher’s ministry – God will make them rich. (Really, seeing one of these preachers is seeing one too many!)
Needless to say, you’re not going to find any “get rich through faith” message here. I trust that you are all too industrious, hard-working, and conscientious to be attracted to that sloppy message. The people who fall for the televangelist’s ‘prosperity gospel’ are generally those who are too lazy to get off their couch and actually devote the time and sweat to create wealth through hard work. They want a McMansion and assume God is anxiously waiting to beam one down from the heavens, provide they have a little McFaith.
As with most beliefs whose origins arise from some other place than God, the message of the “prosperity gospel” preachers does contain an authentic grain of truth. Faith really does lead to prosperity. Only the “prosperity gospel” preacher’s idea of prosperity is very, very different than the Bible’s idea. One might even say the two are diametrically opposed to one another.
We’ll consider the Bible’s understanding of prosperity in a moment, but first what is yours? Before reading further, I invite you to take a minute simply to close your eyes and call to mind a person who you consider to be truly prosperous – prosperous in a way you admire and respect, perhaps even aspire to. What are the outward signs of prosperity in this person’s life? What are the inner strengths they exhibit?
Take a moment now.
The Bible’s Preeminent Example
The biblical figure of Joseph is one of the Old Testament’s preeminent examples of what it really means to prosper. Joseph’s story takes up a full thirteen of the last fourteen chapters in Genesis, giving us a clear idea of his importance. Over and over in these chapters we encounter the refrain “And Yahweh was with Joseph,” further underscoring his significance when it comes to the relationship between faith and prosperity.
Joseph was the eleventh son born to Jacob but the first of two sons born to Jacob’s first love, Rachel. Together, Jacob’s twelve sons will become the founders of Israel’s twelve tribes. But to Jacob, just one son is the apple of his eye: Joseph.
The first clue we have about what prosperity looks like in Joseph’s life is found in his name itself. The Hebrew word “Joseph” – yosēph – means “Yahweh adds/increases” yet it can also mean “Yahweh takes away.” These two meanings – “adding to” and “taking from” – suggest that prosperity as it is conceived in the Bible is different than we conceive it. To be sure, it has something to do with increasing, but it also has to do with diminishing. It has something to do with gain, but it also has something to do with loss.
Aside from the note about Joseph’s birth, Joseph’s story begins in the Bible at age 17 (Genesis 37). Because he is his father’s favorite, Joseph has been given a special garment (often remembered as a “coat of many colors,” though the meaning of the Hebrew is disputed and may only refer to a “coat with long sleeves.”) This alone would have made him the envy of his bothers, all of whom crave their father’s affirmation, but what really sets their heart against Joseph is a couple of Joseph’s dreams, one of which envisions his brothers (represented by sheaves of wheat) all bowing down to him, the other of which envisions his brothers, father, and mother (represented by sun, moon, and eleven stars) all bowing before Joseph – at which point even Jacob tells Joseph to shut the heck up.
Shortly thereafter, Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him. Seeing him approaching them in the sheep fields, they say, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (Gen 37:19-20)
What Joseph’s brothers can’t know is that if Joseph is killed, the covenant God had made with their great grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, would be put in jeopardy. Without Joseph in the picture, his brothers will almost certainly die of famine many years later. There will be no Twelve Tribes of Israel. Thus, the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah will be forfeited.
Happily for Joseph (and the rest of us!) one of his brothers (Reuben) persuades the rest to “simply” shred his garment and throw him naked into a pit. Teach him a lesson of sorts. But when Reuben leaves to attend to other matters, his brothers conspire to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt. To cover up their treachery, the brothers dip a piece of Joseph’s garment in goat’s blood and return it to their father, claiming Joseph had been devoured by wild animals.
Can you imagine being Joseph – how angry, betrayed, and dejected you’d feel? Going from Number One Son in a powerful family to being sold as a slave in a foreign land must have been devastating. If Joseph were like 99% of us, we would expect him to simply fade silently into the bowels of history as happened to so many Africans brought as slaves to the United States. If Joseph were remembered at all, we would remember only one side of his name: “Yahweh takes away.”
Yet the next thing we learn about Joseph in Genesis is that he did not simply fade away. He rose high – high in the household of one of Pharaoh’s high officials: Potiphar. Apparently, God “made a way out of no way” for Joseph the slave. We aren’t told how it happened. All we know is that Joseph becomes so powerful that he has the run of Potiphar’s entire house – and the eye of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph: “Yahweh adds/increases.”
Increases, but not for long. Falsely accused of attempted rape by Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is sent straight off to jail, without so much as a mock trial before a kangaroo court. Once again, can you imagine how Joseph would feel? This is the second time the world has stripped off his clothes (stripping away his identity) and thrown him in a hole. Lightning having struck twice, you’d think Joseph would simply give up on life. And God. Instead, the story tells us that Joseph made himself useful in prison – so useful that the chief officer in charge of this prison makes Joseph his warden. Then, two years later, Pharaoh has a dream that needs interpretation and someone Joseph helped in prison remembers him.
Brought before Pharaoh, Joseph accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream as predicting seven years of bumper crops, followed by seven years of hard famine. He advises Pharaoh to spend the next seven years stockpiling grain for the hard times to come. Pharaoh thinks this is an excellent idea and knows just the right man to lead the effort! Once again, Joseph rises above his tragic circumstances and thrives. As Pharaoh’s vizier, Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt and one of the richest.
Waxing and Waning
What does Joseph’s story have to do with prosperity? Those who follow a ‘prosperity gospel’ would point to Joseph’s faith being the reason he went from being thrown into a pit to becoming the head of Potiphar’s household, and from being thrown in jail to becoming Egypt’s second highest official. Certainly, Joseph’s faith played a vital role in his prosperity. But if prosperity means wealth and success, how do we account for the low points in Joseph’s life – lows which most of us would cower to experience? Did Joseph’s faith rise and fall, producing either success or calamity with it? Certainly, the Bible makes no reference to any wavering in Joseph’s faith. Something else must be going on.
I’m reminded of a poem by 19th Century poet, Christina Rossetti, called “The Half Moon Shows a Face of Plaintive Sweetness.” Rossetti also wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter,” incidentally, and “Love Came Down at Christmas,” both of which became cherished hymns of the church. Rossetti experienced brilliant successes as a poet, yet also experienced her share of difficulties, which included financial hardship, the decline and depression of her father, and her own bouts of illness, cancer, and depression. Yet, writing of the various phases of the moon, Rossetti offers us a metaphor for embracing life, and not just the brightest parts:
The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness
Ready and poised to wax or wane;
A fire of pale desire in incompleteness,
Tending to pleasure or to pain:-
Lo, while we gaze she rolleth on in fleetness
To perfect loss or perfect gain.
Half bitterness we know, we know half sweetness;
This world is all on wax, on wane:
When shall completeness round time’s incompleteness,
Fulfilling joy, fulfilling pain?-
Lo, while we ask, life rolleth on in fleetness
To finished loss or finished gain.
As Rossetti’s poem implies, you can’t really appreciate the moon without appreciating all its phases. Likewise, we can’t really appreciate our life or its significance – its “gravitational pull” – without embracing our own cycles of waxing and waning. If you can accept the fact that your life will constantly be waxing and waning, you don’t get so “phased” about the waning part. Like the weather in Nebraska – if the current weather conditions don’t fit your taste, just wait an hour and change will come!
Part of what Joseph’s story teaches the careful observer is that prosperity, as God envisions it for us, involves losing our fear of life’s phases. Just as the name Joseph can mean “Yahweh adds” or “Yahweh removes,” so the waxing and waning phases of our lives are meant to connect us more deeply to God and life’s fullness, whether those phases be wealth-related, or health-related, or vocation-related, or age-related.
Yet Joseph’s story teaches us more about prosperity than appreciation for life’s high and low points. After every dark period, Joseph seems to experience not only a brightening like the moon, but he comes back even brighter than before. So while Joseph lives both sides of his name (“Yahweh adds/increases” and “Yahweh takes away”), overall he keeps experiencing more of the adds/increases.” But how? Why?
My Sixteen Year Old Self
A number of years ago, a book was published, containing letters written by famous people. What set these letters apart from others is that the letters were all written in hindsight by famous people looking back in time and writing to their sixteen year old selves. The letters were incredible! One, written by actress Kathleen Turner, is representative of many:
Don’t you wish you could write a letter to your sixteen year old self, then go back in time to when you were sixteen, read it, and live your life forward with that information? I would imagine that if we could all do this, we would experience one significant difference in our lives above all others: Being aware in advance of the fact that we would live beyond the struggles we face, and even benefit from many of them, we would be in a far better position to allow our struggles to work for us rather than against us. Our “moon” would wax a little brighter after every waning.
Biblical Prosperity: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Of course, we can’t go back in time and live with the benefit of hindsight. But we can do something just as helpful, if not more so. We can do what Joseph did – something that allowed him to live into the true biblical meaning of prosperity.
Caveat: Nowhere does the Bible tell us that Joseph did what I’m about to tell you he did. I’m going on a hunch here. But it’s a hunch informed by a number of facts, chief among which is that Joseph had an influential father who did exactly what I’m claiming Joseph did.
Do you remember the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel beside a river? One night Jacob is approached by a divine being and wrestles with it all night. At dawn, Jacob finally gets the better of the angel and the angel demands to be released. Jacob refuses to do it until the angel gives him a blessing. The angel does. He touches Jacob’s thigh, which immediately sets Jacob’s hip out of place and causes him to limp – but Jacob limps straight into one of his life’s greatest blessings.
I believe this story was written not to tell us about something that Jacob did once, long ago. I think it tells us of a basic approach to life that Jacob (and later Joseph) maintained, which God desires us to maintain. That is: Don’t just struggle. Demand a blessing from your struggles. Don’t let the lessons those struggles teach you slip away until you receive a blessing.
The surest sign that you are following an authentic spiritual path is that you experience prosperity. Not “prosperity gospel” prosperity that only envisions riches and success, but biblical prosperity. Biblical prosperity means experiencing all of life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and demanding blessing from all of it. Biblical prosperity is about being able to look back and say, “While I never would have wished that x, y, or z happened to me, I would live my life all over again exactly as I received it in order to be in the place I find myself now.” Biblical prosperity is like the moon, waxing and waning, only growing larger and brighter each time the darkness sets in.
Every time Joseph experienced a devastating loss or a challenging struggle, he demanded a blessing from it. And like his father before him, Joseph would not let go until he received one. In the midst of his struggles, it was almost like Joseph was reading a letter he’d written to himself twenty years later saying, “You are about to have your world destroyed … but the lessons you have been given about love, loyalty, fairness, and determination will pay off.” Only Joseph didn’t have the benefit of a letter. What he had was trust in God – the God who could “make a way out of no way.”
This trust would pay off most extravagantly eight years after being appointed Pharaoh’s vizier. With famine hitting “biblical proportions” throughout the Levant, Joseph’s brothers were forced to make the difficult and dangerous journey to Egypt to purchase grain and save themselves and their families from starvation.
Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers, but they have no idea who he is. Knowing the history of their relationship, can you imagine Joseph doing anything but either sending his brothers away empty-handed, or ordering their execution on the spot?
Joseph does no such thing. While Joseph doesn’t let his brothers off easy, he ends up forgiving and blessing his brothers, saving them from starvation and ensuring that God’s covenant (along with its blessings) would be fulfilled.
“Do not be afraid!” Joseph tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Gen 50:18-20)
Biblical prosperity is fully embracing the waxing and waning of our fortunes and both demanding and trusting that, with every waning, the waxing will be even better and brighter than before.
 Thus, Genesis tells us that Joseph was named Joseph because when Rachel bore him she cried, “God has taken away (Heb ‘asaph) my reproach” (for having been barren), yet she also prayed in the same breath, “May Yahweh add to (Heb yosēph) me another son” (Gen 30:23-24).