The United Nations News Center Reports that in South Sudan the gap between what the country produces in cereal and what the country needs is 53% greater than in 2015. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have warned that civil war and lack of rain are aggravating the present food shortages.
The price of grain has risen to levels which are five times the level that it was last year. Given that income is already low, being able to purchase food is more and more difficult. Almost half of the country of 11.3 million people are ‘unsure where the next meal will come from’ and severe food insecurity has doubled among the population to 12 percent.
The ability to get produce to market has been damaged. Ad-hoc taxes and road blocks hamper the goods from arriving and the costs of the extortion are passed on to the consumer.
90% of South Sudan’s land is arable, however, at the time of independence in 2011 only 4.5% of that was cultivated. Even this low percentage has now decreased with the proliferation of fighting[i].
To put this report in context, if food prices in Chicago rose at the same rates as they are in Sudan, you could expect to pay more than $10 for a loaf of bread which cost $2 last year. To some people, $10 may not seem much, but once you add that increase to all your weekly groceries, cut-backs in what we consume would be inevitable. We may think that consuming less and losing weight sounds cute, but losing 30% of our bodyweight constitutes starvation. To lose 40% is often fatal. That is what is happening in countries like South Sudan, Namibia and North Korea.
It is no surprise that great anxiety comes when facing starvation. Anxiety is worry about the future. Food insecurity causes millions of people around the world to endure sleepless nights of worry. The FAO map of world hunger shows that nations like Namibia and North Korea have high populations who go to bed each night wondering when they will have their next meal. For them, life must be a nightmare.
Talking of nightmares, have you had any nightmares lately? Anxiety can lead to elevated heartrates and for the body to be set on alert. That might not seem so bad during the day, if we are facing some kind of danger, however anxiety is the enemy of sleep.
Sometimes dreams themselves can be a source of anxiety. My wife often wakes up claiming to have had a weird dream. Events in dreams are often weird. Common events in dreams can be that all of our teeth fall out, we fall from a great height, we are wearing less than we would desire, we are being pursued by an animal or mysterious person, we die, we take an exam, we find our spouse is cheating on us, we fly, and we even become pregnant. Because of these common symbols people think their dreams have a deeper meaning. Do these dreams have deep significance? Scientists disagree with each other. Some people publish that they know exactly what these common symbols mean. There are even dream dictionaries. What do you think?
Famine and dreams come together in the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh of Egypt found in Genesis 41. In ancient times, dreams were thought to hold great significance. Dreams have already played a large part in Joseph’s story, but we must remember that supernatural revelation through dreams and visions plays a large part in the whole story of Genesis so far. Abraham received visions, Jacob had significant dreams. The story of Pharaoh’s dreams is just one chapter in the larger story of Genesis. Genesis is a book in the anthology of books which we call the Bible. In Genesis 1-11 God laid out the case against mankind. Humanity ruined a perfectly good creation by choosing to live by its own corrupted standards and ways. Shame, guilt and death left God’s world polluted. God rebooted the story through Noah, but even then sin had its way. In Genesis 12 God promises Abraham that he will bring blessing to all the nations through his family. Although Abraham’s family makes terrible decisions, God still works through them. Although Joseph’s brothers have cast him aside, in chapter 41 of Genesis God’s plan will be revealed. ‘The mystery of Providence is about to be cleared up (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown).’
Most people attending church have heard the story of Pharaoh’s dreams before. In fact many people outside the church have seen a rock ’n’ roll Pharaoh singing about his
dreams in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolored Dream Coat. Before we read through the passage let’s recall the story and look at some of the details more closely.
In Genesis 41 we are first told that two years have passed in Egypt since the cupbearer and the baker have had their dreams. In that short detail we imagine the compounded frustration and isolation that Joseph must have had. We could reasonably conclude that he thinks his ability to interpret the cupbearer’s dream was of no significance. His faithfulness to God has not brought him the results for which he would have wished. However, in spite of no change in his circumstances we will see that he has remained faithful to the God of his fathers.
Pharaoh, the god-king, has a dream. The dream involves multiple symbols and they trouble the king. Pharaoh doesn’t just have priests that interpret dreams, Pharaoh is the most senior ranking priest in Egypt. As a god, he would expect to have the gift of interpretation. However, his dreams leave him troubled. The first of the two dreams involve cattle of some kind. Something that is hidden in the English text is the similarity in Hebrew between the words for Pharaoh and cattle. Some interpreters say that Pharaoh might have been concerned that the cattle represented him in some way. It is hard to tell whether Hebrew and ancient Egyptian are similar in this regard. We do know that both cattle and the Nile River have links with the gods Osiris and Isis. The Nile River was itself considered a god. Pharaoh would have been aware of connections with deity and would have taken the dream very seriously.
The well-fed cattle are beautiful to behold. In an agrarian society livestock’s beauty can often be thought of in terms of the meat on them. Whether the author is referring to water-buffalo or to regular cows cannot be known. Water-buffalo do wade in the shallows on the edge of the Nile and can appear to rise out of the water as they move slowly up toward the bank. It was a common sight to see healthy cattle grazing on the reeds and grasses by the Nile. To see the scrawny, bony cattle come up out of the Nile would have troubled the Pharaoh. To see them eat up the healthy cattle might possibly have looked quite horrific. In any case, the sight of the lean cows eating the fat cows startled Pharaoh awake.
When the king sleeps again he sees seven ears of cereal crop on one stalk. This uncommon occurrence is in contrast with the withered ears which would have probably been on individual stalks. The east wind which has withered them is a wind which comes across the Arabian Peninsula and is very dry. The combination of heat and lack of moisture destroys crops. These withered ears of grain now devour the healthy ears.
Pharaoh has a class of priest that he immediately calls to his aid. They would have been trained in interpretation by the books, like the Book of Dreams, stored in their religious libraries. Some commentators say that the magicians’ mistake is seeing the dreams as two separate dreams. The Hebrew has Pharaoh telling them his dream, singular, and has them being unable to interpret his dreams (plural). Most translators harmonize this distinction, but that might hide the original intent of the author. The Pharaoh is in now in a state of anxiety. The gods have spoken to him of the source of Egypt’s strength – The Nile. The gods may have spoken to him about his own future. The gods have used symbols that represent the mighty gods Osiris and Isis.
The Pharaoh’s consternation about his dreams seems to prick the conscience of the cupbearer. He references the ill-fated baker and himself and admits his belief that Joseph, a slave to the captain of the guard, has a God-given gift of translation. Also, the cupbearer says in the Hebrew that he remembers his own sin. His own shortcomings however, are being used by God in God’s own timings for his own purposes. Although none of us should choose to sin, God can even use our sin to bring about the best for us.
Joseph is fetched. The text literally says that Pharaoh’s servants ran. Then he is shaved and cleaned up. This is an important detail to the original audience because Egyptians and not Israelites would shave off their facial hair. It is possible that Joseph had his head shaved too. His change in appearance would be stark and explains why his own brothers wouldn’t recognize the clean-shaven Joseph.
Pharaoh thinks that Joseph is by trade some interpreter of dreams like his own shamans. However, Joseph from the outset makes sure that he presents himself as a conduit to the power and the revelation of God.
Little needs to be said about Pharaoh’s retelling of the dreams. The only marked difference from the earlier account is that the retelling by Pharaoh has slightly more detail and shows some anxiety. That Pharaoh was increasing in his anxiety might be indicated by Joseph’s assurance that God would give him a ‘shalom’ answer. Shalom, in this case, means an answer that prospers or an answer that brings calm.
Joseph receives an interpretation from God that harmonizes the two dream sequences. The source of Egypt’s agriculture and economy, The Nile, is going to produce bumper crops and healthy livestock for seven years. After these years have ended, a famine will come and sweep away the plenty. God has revealed the dream twice because repetition emphasizes the seriousness of God’s intent and that the events will happen soon.
Joseph goes beyond the mere interpretation, though. He is a natural administrator. He sees how an overseer will be needed to gather a fifth of people’s grain in the years of plenty so that the years of famine are covered. This means that the people will pay a hefty tax on their bounty and then the government will sell their own produce back to them. Sounds like Joseph is not a member of the Tea Party. Does Joseph’s advice mean that he is suggesting himself as administrator? The text does not make that clear, but Pharaoh’s reward to Joseph goes beyond anything Joseph could have imagined. He elevates him to the position of Grand Vizier. He receives the signet ring, a chariot and a group of runners who will clear the way for him. Joseph is now second only to Pharaoh. God’s redemptive plan is appearing.
The anxiety of the king is relieved and from a prophecy of peace and prosperity comes praise and position for Joseph. So we have one of the great reversals of fortune in literature. Through the provision of the interpretation of a dream peace comes to Egypt, Pharaoh and Joseph. God shows himself faithful to the promise he made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his offspring.
With these insights, now let’s read the first 40 verses of Genesis 41:
After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of corn, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.
Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offences today. When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”
Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”
Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.”
God brings shalom through Joseph to the anxious Pharaoh and promises shalom in time of famine.
Having seen how dreams aided Joseph, Pharaoh and Egypt, why do we not give them more credence today? Can you imagine American domestic policy revolving around Barak Obama’s dreams?
In an age when science was primitive and superstition was strong, there was a lot of acceptance of messages from dreams, visions, and direct experiences with deities. In some areas of the world people still consult a shaman when they feel anxiety or they ask a witch doctor to prescribe a course of action so they can find some peace.
Science gives us seismographs, satellite systems and longitudinal studies that let us know how the environment will behave. We can see changes in the data and we avert natural disasters. Even with our scientific know-how volcanoes still erupt, tsunamis destroy
coastlines, and earthquakes level cities. Does this mean that we still need God to cover the areas that science can not? This implies that for science we should be thankful to the ingenuity of mankind and for other insight we can pray to God. God is the God of our science and he is the God of the Bible. Science is part of his general revelation and the Bible is part of his special revelation. All truth, all warnings about potential catastrophe come from God. We have understood how to use some warnings well, others are still a mystery.
God knows the future and can foretell it. History does not unfold in random ways which are only chaos and disorder. Things may seem chaotic at times, but God has a plan. God has chosen a people to bring his love, goodness, and redemption to his world. The end of history is already written in the Bible in the book of Revelation. God wins. Reading the Bible and seeing the plans that God has brought to fruition throughout history can develop a confidence that stabilizes a fearful disposition. Having faith that God owns the future can calm our anxieties.
God brings shalom through his people to their own anxious hearts and to those who struggle in times of trial. God causes people to flourish in the face of adversity and to have a calm spirit which dissipates the stress in a dark world.
There is much going on in our world which causes anxiety and fear. On a global scale we can look at rogue nations and terror. I was talking to Larry from the Philippines who said that they look with fear at China and North Korea because of the conflict over rights regarding the seas. We know that both nations have nuclear capabilities and so do the United States and other powerhouses with influence in the region. Those who visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea have expressed how being there brought home how fragile the peace is that exists around South China Seas. Donald Kirk of Forbes writes:
Which presents the greatest concern – North Korea’s escalating threats of nuclear destruction or China’s steady build-up in the South China Sea?
North Korea appears to have gone beyond the realm of bluster in claiming to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a mid-range Rodong missile capable of reaching any target in South Korea and Japan. U.S. and South Korean analysts believe North Korea may have attained exactly that level of expertise – and that one reason for recent missile tests off the North’s east coast is to test the missiles for accuracy and reliability.[ii]
If the South China seas and the expansion of China and threats of North Korea seem remote, the terror threat around the world seems more like it could arrive without warning in any city in the USA. Peter Bergen of CNN was reflecting on the attacks on Brussels when he wrote:
… the numbers of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist investigations in the United States today are quite sobering. According to U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, who is responsible for all federal terrorist investigations in the country, there were 60 cases prosecuted in the U.S. in 2015. That is more terrorist cases than in any year since September 11, 2001.
Fears of these potential threats have prompted a number of the presidential candidates to weigh in with their ideas on how to prevent such attacks in the United States.[iii]
Not all our future threats are military. The 2014 movie Interstellar shows how a series of mysterious blights have made farming planet earth untenable. We will not be able to provide enough food for everyone. At the moment, in real life, we sit secure in the West. We know that the food provided in the world is enough to feed everyone and it is efficiently delivered to overfed people in Europe and North America. However, food can become scarce when supply lines are interrupted or a catastrophe occurs. Many people in America do find it hard to get enough food on the table for their whole family. In a September 2015 report the US Department of Agriculture gave the following report:
An estimated 14.0 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2014, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The change from 14.3 percent in 2013 was not statistically significant. The prevalence of very low food security was unchanged at 5.6 percent.[iv]
We should not presume that our best efforts can protect us from terrorist attacks and wars with other nations. We should not feel entitled to food and shelter by virtue of the country that we live in or the hard work that we put in to provide for our families. All that we have been provided in the past has been testimony to the grace of God. Because we have so little control over weather cycles, the decisions of rogues nations, the malice of terrorists, or the world’s economic engine we should be grateful that God has allowed us to live and often to flourish.
On a national level the future is not guaranteed. God is not obligated to America any more than he is obligated to Great Britain. The prayers of the faithful may move him to action, but he acts in his time in accordance with his purposes. He always acts justly. He always acts with righteousness. God is always good. However, he is not Father Christmas who
lavishes pointless presents around the foot of a tree which are unnecessary and become discarded or regifted by Spring.
On a personal level, anxieties rise to the fore because we are confused by life. When we are small we believe the world is predictable and operates in predictable ways. This soon proves to be untrue. We play by the rules, for the most part, and we expect results. We should be able to find a mate at the right time, we reason. Despite our best efforts things go south. We marry well and get our dream job, but then we find that we can’t have children. Sometimes we just watch the lives of people we love and respect unravel. A man gets divorced and it looks like his wife just lost her mind. A woman dies of an illness that left a family without a mother. When we see the arbitrary nature of misfortune, our response is to become filled with fear like Pharaoh.
What if the future were known? What if the future was certain? This is the gift that God gave to Pharaoh. However, the news that he received was not good. The news that we receive in the Bible about our future is not good either. We are told that the wages of sin is death. However, the verse that tells us that the wages of sin is death, also tells us that the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that our future arrives at one of two destinations. Either we are eternally reconciled with God through Jesus or we are eternally alienated from God because of our own sin. God even tells us how to prepare. He tells us that all who call on the name of Jesus will be saved. Stories of salvation in the Old Testament foreshadow the great story of salvation through Jesus. As Joseph brought bounty and blessing to the people of his age, living as Jesus has called us to live brings blessing to those around us. This may be a financial blessing, it should be a quality of life blessing, but it will most certainly be blessing in character and personal development. The greatest blessing, though, is the blessing of reconciliation with God himself.
God brings shalom through his people to their own anxious hearts and to those who struggle in times of trial.
Do you need God’s peace? Those around you certainly do. The anxiety of global terror can be lessened by accepting that to live is Christ and to die is gain. The global insecurities of unstable economies can be lessened by remembering that we are part of God’s global family who care for each other as we are cared for by him. Like Joseph, though, we must be envoys of what God will do with this earth. The last days will bring judgment upon all those who persist in rebellion against God. However, we need to promote reconciliation with God to those we meet, live with, or work with.
Regarding famine in the South Sudan the United Nations organizations are making recommendations:
The report makes a series of recommendations for immediate action to address hunger, strengthen domestic food production and reduce the food gap in 2016 and into next year.
Most urgent is the need for an immediate improvement of security across the country. In addition, agencies like WFP, FAO and partner organizations need sustained access and resources to provide targeted food and livelihood assistance to the very vulnerable households in areas with the highest levels of food insecurity, especially in parts of Greater Upper Nile and Eastern Equatoria.
Where appropriate, provision of livelihoods assistance – such as seeds or tools – that allow communities to produce their own food is required to withstand market disruptions. Improving people’s access to micronutrient- and protein-rich food could be achieved through the distribution of fishing kits and use of nutrition vouchers to be traded for locally sourced vegetables, fish and milk.
Other recommendations include: supporting the 2016 cropping season across all of South Sudan by ensuring access to agricultural and fisheries inputs; strengthening farmer and pastoral field schools; expanding veterinary campaigns aimed at keeping people’s livestock healthy; and, in conflict-affected areas, assisting in re-establishing livelihoods whenever possible by helping in land preparation and access to inputs.[v]
Like Joseph, is there some way that we could participate as a part of the solution to the problem? Could we see if International Justice Mission is involved? Through the missionaries that we support and the gospel we preach, can we be part of the process of bringing God’s shalom to Sudan or even to our own back yard?