Unlocking potential: Joseph and lockdown

Prison d’Aix, in Provence, built by Ledoux (1862) from Gazette Des Beaux-Arts, a French art review. Rawpixel. Public domain CCO.

A meditation with Joseph. Genesis chapters 39-41.

A long time ago, when Joseph was a boy, he’d had dreams of far off things- the stars in the heavens above; the moon and the sun- they had been all in a dance, bowing down and doing crazy things. He’d had other dreams, and probably talked too much about them. This had got him into trouble. Cross words and bullying. They were not the first family to allow petty jealousies to grow into harshness and hatred between brothers. One day, they’d nearly killed him. But instead, he became merchandise for a foreign slave market. Joseph was bound and led for many steps across the desert to the distant land of Egypt. While he had been stripped of the coat his father had gifted to him, his father’s God had gone with him into his permanent exile.

Joseph had watched other slaves taken away to who-knows-what miserable fates at the market, but his new master was different to the other buyers. Potiphar’s household was no place of luxury for this young foreigner, but his master seemed disposed to trust Joseph beyond the common expectation of enslaved servants. Joseph could continue to grow up, to embrace the work set him, and gave of more and more of his best. Under Joseph’s care, things went well in Potiphar’s house- from good to very good. Joseph remembered the tales of his father, recounting God’s blessing of his ancestors in years gone by. Though far from home, and violently disowned by his brothers, it seemed that the Presence of Yahweh was not so far from Joseph, even here in Egypt.

Things had been going so well. Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, was no longer the steward of his own household or manager of his fields, because Joseph had proved admirably capable as overseer and charge hand of everything he had. His master discerned divine blessing on Joseph. But Potiphar’s wife did not have the same disciplined eye as her husband- she looked at Joseph and saw different things that she liked, so she reached out to take them. Joseph’s character had been amply tested in many ways already, and he had discovered the wonder of partnership with God in his life. His job description no longer encapsulated who he was- in this household he was even known as Joseph the Hebrew– the ‘man of God’! Such was the truth in Mrs Potiphar’s false testimony to her husband when he returned: “The Hebrew servant came to abuse me.” She did not mention that Joseph had repeatedly reasoned with her as the wife under God of his master, her husband.

Joseph’s diary is sparse on detail at this point. He had mastered the situation in the only way possible- he had run, and once again had been parted from his coat, which became a false sign- just as before. Potiphar was angry. He found his Hebrew servant, in whom he had placed all his trust, and threw him into jail.

Eleni Afiontzi. Free image from Unsplash.

Joseph already knew what it was to be shackled. He had been frogmarched along the dusty road south to Egypt as a boy, suffering chaffing from ropes and blisters on his feet before entering Potiphar’s household and finding unexpected liberty in his service. Joseph had been able to forget the brothers who had sold him into slavery to divert their rage from murder. He had developed a new integrity before Potiphar, but what good had it done him? It was no use hoping for a trial- there were no honest witnesses, so there could be no vindication, no justice. God was not speaking up on his behalf. The might of the Egyptian state was now thrown around him. Joseph’s life was in complete and utter lockdown.

Why me? What did I do to deserve all this?

Terry Waite. Envoy to the Middle East for the Archbishop of Canterbury, captured and imprisoned  in Beirut from 1987 for five years. 1

“At least I am still alive.” But for how long? How long would his master’s patience last? What was he waiting for? What am I waiting for? Am I awaiting execution, or am I simply being left to rot? Unanswerable questions, and interminable hours and days in which not to answer them. What time is it? What day is it today? Joseph could not be in control of his circumstances, but he could determine his response. But stop. Note this: Joseph was not, in fact, alone at all. No sooner was Joseph locked down in the main prison, we are told that God was with him [Gen 39:21] and that Joseph knew His steadfast love. At various times in history, captors who have taken many prisoners have sometimes put selected ones in charge of the rest, delegating to them the dirty work, watching on as the tortured masses squabble and bicker behind their bars. But no such inhumanity results here. Right here in this institution of merciless state punishment, Joseph and his God are seen to be working in partnership. Once again, the keeper of the prison promotes Joseph to the same freedom of influence as his earlier master had done. “Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it.” [Gen 39:22] Did the Governor give Joseph all the keys, that he could open cells at will? Whatever the details, at least within the walls, this prison was as an open field to the man of God.

Then two new inmates arrive, with news from the outside world. The ruler of the nation, the mighty Pharaoh, has sent down two members of his court- those who serve at his personal table. After all, for the rich elites, their food and wine are really all they care about, and you’d better not cross them. It may cost you your life. And so it would prove for the baker.

What does this have to do with Joseph? These two prisoners speak to their new ‘master’ and in one word, Joseph is put to the test. Dream. ‘I’ve had a dream.’ ‘And so have I,’ adds the other. The very thing which started Joseph down the road which led to this very prison. Two dreams. Joseph has been set free within the confines of the Egyptian state prison, but what is happening in his heart? What does he say in there, in the darkness, in the night? Despite betrayal and shackles, enslavement and false witness, something stronger than prison bars has been forged in this man’s heart. Despite being confined in the prison, he has determined to live in freedom, and so God’s word is not chained in his life either. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” he tells them both. [Gen 40:8] It may seem miraculous, but Joseph can speak from his heart to both men without bitterness. “Only remember me, when it is well with you,” quietly pleads Joseph, for I have suffered injustice upon injustice.

If you are bitter, it will eat you up and do you much more damage that the people who have hurt you. 

Terry Waite
Empty jail. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Rawpixel Free image CCO.

Exactly as Joseph interprets, when the two men are summoned to Pharaoh’s birthday party, the baker is executed, and the cupbearer is restored to Pharaoh’s service. We are told that he put the cup into his very hand, exactly as Joseph told him he would. Yet at that very moment, in the very action in which he should have remembered, the cupbearer forgot Joseph, and made no petition on his behalf. [Gen 40:23]

Mr. Henri Giffard’s Captive Steam Balloon by the artist Albert Tissandier (1839-1906). Original from Library of Congress. Rawpixel. Free image CCO.

The nineteenth century was an extraordinary time in the history of science and technological innovation. From 1803, steam engines were lifted from their fixed moorings by the coal pits and placed onto a wheeled chassis- the steam locomotive was born! To start with, they had to be preceded by man walking with a warning flag, while Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at the new London University, informed his readers in 1824 that ‘Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.’2 By 1830, Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ was pulling passengers at 36 mph! In an extraordinary feat of imagination, the French engineer Henri Giffard3 dreamed of sending a steam engine up into the sky, to thus drive a balloon to carry passengers too. Getting off the ground would require a great supply of the highly flammable gas hydrogen, while the only known motive force was a steam engine. Yet sparks from steam trains regularly start line side fires, so Giffard not only tailored the design of a 3HP steam engine, which stores steam in a cylinder ready for precisely timed use, but also an injector which mixes the hot waste gases from the fire with water before diverting it harmlessly downwards, after driving the balloon or ‘dirigible’ by means of propeller and rudder.

Imagine, if you will, the courage and stupidity required to commence such an adventure. Having manufactured enough of the explosive gas to fill the cigar shaped balloon, of sufficient dimensions to lift both engine and persons from the ground to a significant height, you then need to moor the great gas bag in a shelter to protect it from gusts of wind, while then preparing the fire in the engine. Once accumulating a sufficient head of steam, you then persuade your excited passengers aboard, and having done so, attempt some amateurish assessment of the prevailing wind. On the 24 September 1852, Giffard gave the command to release the multitude of guy ropes that tied down his 180 kg airship and steam engine. It rose into the air and steadily made its maiden voyage some 27km from Paris to Élancourt, successfully steering this way and that on its journey, though not proving powerful enough to make the return trip against the wind. Nevertheless, this was a notable triumph! Giffard had harnessed and released the powers of hydrogen, steam, wind and gravity and prevailed, liberating his briefly captive passengers safe and sound after their spectacular adventure.

What was happening in Joseph’s mind and heart while languishing in the jail? Is languishing the right word? How did he occupy his mind? What was the nature of his fellowship with his God? One of the intriguing details of Giffard’s story is that he invented and designed his steam control-injector without any experimentation before its final manufacture. He had worked out exactly and fully what to do in his head. Terry Waite discovered gratitude for having been a choirboy as a child, as he had memorised large portions of the Psalms for the cycle of sung church services. He was almost completely deprived of books, only being given one and a couple of scraps of paper to write on during his long isolation in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, he was prepared to keep both mind and heart alive and active- he drafted the poetry that he was later able to commit to the printed page. Like Joseph, Terry had to decide what sort of life he would lead inside his prison, even a life with his God. Would he nurture resentment towards his captors who held mock executions? Would he surrender to cycles of imagination of revenge and fantasies of escape? Despite gnawing hunger, would he exercise each muscle against every pain, or would he allow his physical being to seep away in a slow day-by-day decline?

If one can understand why people behave as they do then often the road to forgiveness is opened.  Not only is forgiveness essential for the health of Society, it is also vital for our personal well-being.  Bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul.  It does more harm to those that hold it than to those whom it is held against.

Terry Waite

Joseph knew that his God could see him– the brief stay of Pharaoh’s two officials had been further proof of that. But what was he waiting for? We might wait for disease to reduce us, the decay of our minds, or death by someone’s hand. ‘You should try meditation or ‘mindfulness!’ These activities may be of some value- but will they really sustain hope? Those dreams are of no use to him now, we might think. But it turns out that Joseph is waiting for someone else’s dreams. Having primed and placed the cupbearer for exactly the right moment, in God’s good time, Pharaoh becomes the involuntary recipient of the third pair of dreams that will finally bring release for Joseph from his confinements. It turns out that God is not only interested in justice for Joseph. He has bigger purposes for this Hebrew on whom his steadfast love rests.

Sometimes the wheels of justice grind slowly. 

Terry Waite.

Joseph’s God, the God of the Hebrews, the Sovereign God- this One God is the God of history– God over Everything. At this time, two years after the restoration of the cupbearer and two years after the judgement of the baker, now is the time that God’s dreams come to Pharaoh, and the lack of imagination and insight of Pharaoh’s courtiers, managers and magicians is exposed. Only now does the cupbearer remember his faults. There are footsteps heard on the floor of the jail, and the door is flung open. It is now time to release the nurtured human resources of this man in whom is an accumulated store of the Spirit of God. Up you come, man of God.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

John 3:8 The same Greek word means both wind and spirit


1.You can read more about Terry Waite here https://www.networknorwich.co.uk/Articles/499380/Network_Norwich_and_Norfolk/People/Faith_and_creativity_gave_hope_to_hostage.aspx

2. Quoted from ‘The steam engine fully explained and illustrated’, in ‘The Early Pioneers of Steam: The Inspiration Behind George Stephenson.’ Stuart Hylton 2019 The History Press.

3. https://www.britannica.com/technology/airship#ref265869

(c) Stephen Thompson 2020

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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