The Unnamed, III: Pharaoh’s Sommelier

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January 29, 2023

The Unnamed, III: Pharaoh’s Sommelier

Passage: Genesis 39–41

Iwon’t read the Scripture Lesson this morning because it’s too long. If I read it straight from the Bible, it would be almost twice as long as this whole sermon, so I’ll just tell you the story in my own words, then I’ll tell you what it means and why it’s God’s word for us today, and then we’ll be finished.

You already know the story because you’ve seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is not only brilliant but extremely faithful to the Biblical narrative.

There are four things you need to know about Joseph. He’s spoiled rotten. He’s way past confident and well on the way to cocky. He’s smarter than Elon Musk and just as irritating. And he’s dangerously handsome. All four of these qualities will get him into a pile of trouble before they make him the second most powerful potentate on the planet.

Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and Father Jacob never tried to hide his favoritism, including that amazing technicolor dreamcoat. So he’s spoiled rotten.

He’s smarter than his father and all eleven brothers and tells them so. When his brothers get tired of groveling in the dirt before this Alpha male, they sell him into slavery in Egypt.

But Joseph is like Jim Harbaugh before he got to Michigan: he wins wherever he goes. You know—University of San Diego, Stanford, the 49ers. Do what you like to Joseph and he will always come out top.

When he gets to Egypt, Joseph is supposed to be a slave but almost immediately ends up as the COO of the entire estate of a rich, important Egyptian named Potiphar.

Potiphar is one of the great characters in the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat play. I love the way the Bible puts it, and I quote, exactly: “Potiphar didn’t care about anything except the food that he ate” (Genesis 39:6). Which means, among other things, that Potiphar neglects his wife.

At Potiphar’s house, Joseph gets swindled, and Potiphar is convinced Joseph belongs in prison. I can’t really tell you why Joseph ends up in prison because the story’s too risqué; the Bible reads here like a racy paperback novel you pick up at Costco, but if you really want to know the story you can read Genesis 39.

So Joseph falls from the pinnacle of Egyptian society to the pits. He’s in jail, but even here he ends up on top. Remember Joseph is the Jim Harbaugh of ancient Egypt; he wins wherever he goes.

As soon as he gets there, the jailer puts him in charge of all the other prisoners, including Pharaoh’s baker and sommelier, who have messed up and fallen out of Pharaoh’s good graces.

Both guys have a troubling dream, and Joseph convinces them that he, Joseph, knows what those dreams mean. Joseph tells the baker that his dream is a nightmare. The baker is a goner. But the sommelier’s dream is a good one; he’ll soon be restored to his old job at Pharaoh’s lavish table.

Joseph asks the sommelier to be a reference for him when he gets back to Pharaoh’s palace.  “Put in a good word for me,” says Joseph to the sommelier. “Tell him I’m like a Stag’s Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, because I am.”

The sommelier readily agrees but then forgets about Joseph when he gets back to Pharaoh’s palace, and Joseph stays in prison for two more years.

Until Pharaoh has his own troubling dream, which instantly jogs the sommelier’s memory. They bring Joseph to the palace and he tells Pharaoh that his dream means that in Egypt there will be seven fat years followed by seven lean years; seven years of abundant harvest followed by seven years of famine.

And here’s Joseph’s coup de grâce: he convinces Pharaoh that the King needs a talented right hand to manage the harvest so that the seven fat years will get Egypt through the seven lean years. So—voilà!—Joseph ends up as Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture and rescues not only Egypt from hunger and death but also the rest of the world, including his own family back home in Palestine.

So that’s Joseph’s story. Here’s what it means. Joseph and Potiphar are the only characters in this story who get a name. Potiphar’s wife; the prison warden; the baker; the sommelier;  even Pharaoh himself are all unnamed, though if we’re right that Joseph lived about 1,800 years before Jesus, his name is probably Sesostris III.

But it’s that sommelier who stands out in my mind. That is to say, unnamed, unheralded comrades drift into and out of our lives momentarily, almost like ghosts, to put in a good word for us and launch us forward to the place and position we need to go. They might forget about us for two years, but at the last moment, or when the time is right, they swoop in to save the day, save our lives.

Sometimes there is a stealthy providence at work in our lives. That providence, or fate, or kismet, or divine happenstance, might be invisible, or clandestine, or disguised, but it slinks around in the corners of our lives vaulting us over obstacles and guiding us to where we need to be.

So I want you to think about and thank God for all the sommeliers in your life who have gotten you where you are. You might be in the C-Suite at Northern Trust, but you did not get there by yourself.

Someone wrote you a reference letter, or gave you a job, or taught you a skill, or corrected your mistake, or told you what you were supposed to do with your life, and that’s why you’re where you are. He slid inconspicuously into and out of your life in a nanosecond but made all the difference in the world in that nanosecond. You probably know his name, but maybe not.

Some of us have been reading Walter Isaacson’s latest book called Codebreaker, about Jennifer Doudna, the Cal Berkeley Chemistry Professor who developed the CRISPR gene editing technique. Dr. Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her human genome accomplishments.

When she was a young woman and a graduate student at Harvard, her professor Jack Szostak turned her on to the wonders of RNA. Thirty years later, when Dr. Doudna won the Nobel Prize, Dr. Szostak said, “The only thing better than winning the Nobel Prize is having your student win one.”[1]  Yes?

Because that’s how you change the world. Not just by DOING it, but by TEACHING it. Did you ever have a teacher who would rather YOU win the Nobel prize than himself? He was your sommelier.

In 1937, Theodor Geisel is walking down Madison Avenue in New York City carrying a book manuscript and the drawings that went with it. He’s just left the office of a book publisher who’d rejected his book. It’s the 27th straight time a publisher has rejected Mr. Geisel’s book. He’s ready to give up, on his way home to burn the manuscript and drawings.

On Madison Avenue, Mr. Geisel runs into an old classmate he hasn’t seen for twelve years since his days at Dartmouth. This classmate asks him what he’s carrying, and Mr. Geisel tells him it’s a book nobody will publish. “I’m going home to burn it,” he says. This old Dartmouth classmate says, “I publish books; come on up to my office.” And this classmate ends up buying the book.

Today, 85 years later, Dr. Suess sells 3.5 million books a year in the United States alone. Dr. Suess has been dead for 31 years. He’s sold over 600 million books. All because he runs into an old Dartmouth classmate. He was going home to burn it. He said, “If I’d been walking down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.”[2] Dr. Suess ran into his own sommelier.

I hope you have found yours, maybe multiple times. I hope a stealthy providence has been secretly scattering your days and years with benefactors who slip in and out of your life momentarily like ghosts, getting you to where you need to be.


[1]Walter Isaacson, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021), p. 472.

[2]Delanceyplace.com, April 17, 2015, from Brian Grazer’s book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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