“Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah” Genesis 41:45a


We left Joseph last week once again in the bor (pit, dungeon), as the cupbearer, having been freed, forgets him. The interpretation of dreams has not always been advantageous for Joseph as he finds himself, quite literally, in the dark on several occasions. 

Dreams and darkness are central motifs in the Joseph narrative. Not only are Joseph’s interpretations important but so too is his ability to deliver that message. As we learn, there are times when he delivers his message with great skill, discerning what others need, and there are others when he fails to recognise the needs of those around him and darkness descends. 

In this week’s sidrah Pharaoh, faced with the failure of his court magicians to interpret his dreams, calls for Joseph after the cupbearer remembers him. Joseph, rushed up from the dungeon, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, adding that there is some urgent civic planning to be done. 

In doing so he reveals a stark truth hidden to Pharaoh and his court; they have failed to plan for hard times. Pharaoh’s dreams are not simply about him but are clues to the fate awaiting all of Egypt. A destiny that Joseph offers to alleviate. Pharaoh appoints him as vizier and gives him a new name, Zaphenath-paneah, translated by Onkelos as “revealer of hidden things”.

What does it mean to reveal something hidden? Joseph does not try to diminish the impending threat or suggest it is anything other than serious. Having spent time in the dark, he understands peril. He knows that action needs to be taken and that support sometimes comes in the unlikeliest of guises — for all involved. 

Pharaoh’s willingness to listen to what is revealed is linked to Joseph’s willingness to be courageous. There is no guarantee that Pharaoh will respond positively to what Joseph is telling him (remember what happened to the poor baker!). Joseph can hear and balance the needs of Pharaoh as an individual and the needs of Egypt as a nation, understanding both were linked; and Pharaoh is able to look beyond his own immediate confusion to see the needs and distress of others. 

Both men offer a way forward for the other. Pharaoh offers Joseph his freedom and a chance to shape the future, and Joseph offers Pharaoh a chance to build a robust nation. Both look beyond the dark to where a chink of light enters, because perhaps it is only from a place of darkness that we can make out the dim, but growing revelation of light as it glimmers in the shadows.

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