Promises. We’ve all made them, but how well do we keep them? Do we even remember the promises we make long enough to follow through?
That issue has been percolating in the back of my mind for several weeks, thanks to a nameless cupbearer in the Bible.
He’s found in the book of Genesis, buried deep in the story of Joseph — a man whose drama-filled life included everything from family favoritism and abandonment to political maneuvering, accusations of sexual misconduct, and national famine. It’s also a story of God working through every situation in Joseph’s life — good and bad — to all make sense in the end.
In Genesis chapter 39, the wife of Potiphar — one of Pharaoh’s top officials and captain of the guard — accuses Joseph of taking advantage of her. The truth is that Potiphar’s wife makes advances toward Joseph and is enraged when he won’t play along. Potiphar believes his wife and throws Joseph in prison.
It’s a story I’ve heard since childhood, one that often is told to emphasize the point that God is always with us and that His plan is always in motion, even when we don’t see it and no matter how terrible our circumstances might be.
But the last time I read this part Joseph’s story, a piece of it stood out to me in a new way.
Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker are also thrown in prison during Joseph’s time there (Genesis 40). They both have strange dreams one night and can’t figure out the meaning. Joseph reminds them that interpretations belong to God as ask what they dreamed.
Joseph says the cupbearer’s dream of a budding vine that becomes wine in Pharaoh’s cup means that he will be restored to his position in Pharaoh’s household in three days. He says that the baker’s dream of birds eating bread from baskets on top of his head means that he will die in three days
When Joseph’s interpretations of the dreams come true, he asks that the cupbearer remember him when he returns to Pharaoh’s service, that he plead Joseph’s innocence and ask Pharoah to free Joseph from prison.
Of course, the cupbearer promises to do as Joseph asks. And then he promptly forgets.
The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him. (Genesis 40:23 NIV)
The cupbearer goes right back to his earlier job serving Pharaoh and doesn’t think of Joseph until two years later when Pharaoh himself has a troubling dream that he wants to understand. Pharaoh sends for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt, but none can interpret the dream.
That’s when the cupbearer remembers Joseph.
Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “Today I am reminded of my shortcomings. Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was impaled.” (Genesis 41:9-13)
Pharoah brings Joseph to him. Joseph interprets the dream, which leads to Pharoah releasing Joseph from prison and Joseph becoming Pharoah’s righthand man.
There are many lessons we can learn through Joseph’s story about relationships and patience and trusting God. But, as I said, the cupbearer is the person whose role struck me in a new way the last time I read the story.
People knew that Joseph was wrongly accused and shouldn’t be in prison. They knew he was a good man and that Pharoah’s wife was the one making sexual advances, not the other way around (because Joseph wasn’t the first man she tried to sway). They knew he shouldn’t be in prison.
The cupbearer forgot all of this when he was released from prison. He was thrilled to be free, thrilled to be alive and restored to his previous position.
Two years went by before Pharoah’s distress at not being able to interpret a dream triggered the cupbearer’s memory of Joseph. And his promise to speak well on Joseph’s behalf.
How often do I do the same thing?
How often am I caught up in my own life, in my own “things,” and forget about the people around me? Forget about the promises I’ve made to them?
If I’m honest, I have to say it happens more often than I’d like. And probably more often than I realize.
So where do we go from here? I’ve been asking God to help me remember the promises I’ve made and to do better with following through on them. But I’m not just talking about the times I forget to pick up shampoo at the store.
I’m talking about when I say I’ll read some extra chapters for someone in my critique group, but then let their email get buried in my in-box. Or say I’ll pray for someone and their situation but don’t take it to God as often or as fervently as I could. Or, like the cupbearer, say I’ll speak or do something on someone’s behalf and give it little thought once the moment passes.
Yes, the cupbearer fulfills his promise to Joseph in the end, and everything works out according to God’s plan. But a two-year lag time before remembering that promise seems much less than ideal in our minds. I wonder if he felt guilty once he realized how much time had passed.
I don’t know the answer for the cupbearer, but I know the answer for me: yes. Big, fat, resounding yes.
I do feel bad when I realize I haven’t kept my word as I should have. That’s good as long as it helps motivate me to do better next time. It’s bad if I keep beating myself up over my shortcomings and never move forward.
It can be hard to draw the line between the two extremes, but I’m trying. Asking God to keep reminding me of the promises I’ve made can help, but I’m sure there are other ways to help me follow through. What tactics have you found that help in these situations? Leave a comment below and we can all grow together.