Pharaoh, in his detailed description of his dream, tells Joseph,
“I saw also in my dream, and behold, seven ears, full and good, came up on a single stalk; and lo, seven ears, withered, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears…” (Gen.41:22-24)
What’s peculiar about Pharaoh’s dreams is the fact that, both with the seven cows in the first dream, and then with the seven ears in the second, that which is rich and healthy is swallowed up by that which comes after. There is nothing left.
This is reminiscent of debt servicing. It can be extremely discouraging to find oneself in a position in which throwing a huge amount of money at a debt makes a nearly imperceptible dent in the overall principle. In extreme cases, the debt increases so rapidly that income cannot keep up with the interest. In such situations, bankruptcy is around the corner.
In the case of famine, when hunger exceeds the ability of the food source to meet the need, starvation and death are imminent.
The strategy of Joseph deals effectively with the problem that this dream presents. What can we learn from this story that speaks to our own faith journey?
The word withered in this verse has an interesting root in the Hebrew, “tzunema”, which comes from Aramaic, and means “rock” (Rashi).
In it’s usage in this verse in the Torah, it would be defined as hard or dry, like hard soil, hard as rock.
This same word is found in the Talmud in Bava Metzia. In the discussion in the Gemara where it is found, the “tzunema“, or rock, creates a barrier under the ground below a boundary fence which prevents the roots of a tree from spreading into a neighbor’s field.
“With what are we dealing here? We are dealing with a case where a hard rock (tzunema) interrupts between two fields, preventing the roots from passing through to the other field.” (Talmud, Bava Metzia 18a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
Note that the rock forms the point at which the roots “wither“, and the roots cannot establish themselves beyond it.
So the ears of grain in our verse above have become tzunema: rock. Their characteristic is hardness, and an inability to absorb moisture. This means that, just as in the dream, no matter how many nutrients, or how much water, is given to it, it cannot absorb any of it, and it remains dry and empty.
This hints at an extremely subtle but important spiritual truth. By combining the strategy of Joseph to mitigate the effects of the coming famine with the teachings of the Master, we will see something which might rescue our faith from shipwreck.
“Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matt.13:3-9)
This passage is usually understood as the response to the gospel, and this is the primary interpretation. But there is also something that is very important to see in it for those on the journey of faith.
There are going to be seasons in our life in which we will be in a “famine“; times in which we are so dry and hard that we cannot even absorb the spiritual nutrients that others bring to us.
During these times of spiritual dryness, our condition won’t improve no matter how much water is poured on us. Like the elements of Pharaoh’s dream, the times of leanness will be so severe, it will seem to us as though we’ve never even believed in God to begin with. Our hearts will be like tzunema; rock, and we will feel shallow, fragile. What this portion teaches us is that these seasons are going to come into our life no matter how spiritual we are. It’s a season.
It’s a season that can’t be avoided, but it can be prepared for. That is the second thing we learn in this portion; these seasons of dryness have the potential to kill us spiritually, if we don’t apply wisdom and prepare ourselves during times of growth.
If we are diligent to store up spiritual provision for ourselves during times of fruitfulness, we will have the ability to draw from the storehouse during the famine, and we will survive the hard times.
How do we “store up” provision for ourselves? We are commonly taught that God’s provision is like “manna”, and we only have what we need for that day. This is true of course, but the Master also teaches us to “store up” treasure for ourselves. This spiritual “treasure” is merit to us.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt.6:19-21)
Great. So what can we do to “capture” a portion of our spiritual abundance and store it for a future time of need?
By obedience. By diligent study. By performing mitzvot (obeying commandments). In short, by performing righteousness. Our righteous acts are a treasure. They bless others. They bless God. The scripture tells us that they credit righteousness for us on our behalf. And practically speaking, the discipline of serving others and obeying God builds up spiritual “muscles” and endurance, and will enable us to press on when times are hard.
“It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (Rev.19:8)
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph.2:10)
We will not experience this if we are “consumers” of our faith. If all we do is close our eyes and “soak up” the experience of spiritual abundance, as though we are sitting on the beach during vacation, we will be unpleasantly surprised when the leanness comes. When our faith experience is all about ourselves, we are doing fine…until we reach a place of famine. Then, the selfish, self-absorbed believer does not have the strength to survive. They will starve to death. It will be a crises. On the outside, others may not see it. But you will know it. You are drying up.
There is a sentiment within evangelicalism, particularly among the more charismatic elements of the movement, that falsely thinks that all one needs is the Spirit of God. If we “walk in the power of the Spirit”, the thinking goes, we will never experience a spiritual famine. But this just isn’t so. Our own personal experience in life should tell us otherwise.
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Jn.3:8)
Like the dream of Pharaoh, there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening. You can only prepare for it.
We do this by deliberately adding to our faith those things that will help us be strong.
“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge” (2 Pet.1:5).
Many people talk about working out and getting in shape. God wants you to be in shape. You know it’s His will for you. But you also know that the Holy Spirit is not going to get you in shape. The weights aren’t going to lift themselves. The stair-climber won’t climb by itself. You must put in the work. The effort. The sweat. The preparation. You can say no to the cheesecake. (I’ll have your slice. Thanks.)
But, the good part of this sobering message is that, when you have done so, and you have prepared, you will not only survive the famine yourself, you will shine a light for others also. And this an important aspect of the Kingdom of God.
Finally, the portion teaches us one final lesson that all of us should know:
The storehouse of provision is a picture of the Messianic Era that is yet to come.
Sometimes tzunema is a good thing, such as when we trust in the “rock” that is Messiah, and like our Talmud passage, in which the rock provides benefit for the property owners. But sometimes, tzunema is not a good thing, such as when our hearts have become hard and unable to receive the life-giving nourishment of God’s instruction and His Presence.
There is one who has gone before us who already knew that we would find ourselves far from home, exposed to the elements, without the provision needed to make it. There is a promise that we will not be forsaken.
“Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matt.14:16)
That’s right, the Master told his disciples that they were responsible to feed the flock. But how?
From where did the Master draw this food to feed the 5 thousand who were there? From the storehouse.