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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This is the fourth in the series of narratives that make up the [~toledowth] of Jacob; and the central theme in all of them is the providence of God in His protection and guidance of the Holy Nation until the Messiah should at last arrive as the redeemer of all mankind. We may entitle this chapter:


Efforts of those preoccupied with finding evidence of divided sources in Genesis have no success with this chapter. One may find about as many illogical and unreasonable “divisions” as there are scholars advocating such things, all of them being apparently unaware that there are no prior documents! This record before us is all that has come down through the mists of centuries. And the traditional view that the great Lawgiver Moses, whatever “sources” he might have consulted or made use of, has delivered for us, through the inspiration of God, an accurate and trustworthy account of what happened is absolutely valid. The careful student should be especially wary of accepting the bizarre and outlandish “translations” of certain words, phrases, and clauses, because the fundamental purpose of most of such “emendations” and “corrections” of God’s Word is that of trying to aid some critic in splitting up what he conceives to be Biblical sources. Willis cited three examples of this type of tampering with the text, as exhibited in the New English Bible, all three of them in the last two chapters. An example is: “Tamar perfumed herself and sat where the road forks in two directions!” (Genesis 28:18). “Such a translation flies in the face of the context.”(F1) In this, and dozens of other places, the New English Bible translators were simply substituting what they imagined happened for what the Word of God says happened. On that particular verse, one wonders how the New English Bible translators knew so much about how harlots were supposed to smell. Why did they not also give us the name of the perfume?

Verses 1-3

“And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was wroth against his two officers, against the chief of the butlers, and the chief of the bakers. And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.”

This passage is not the melding of three different “documents,” each using a different designation for the offenders, i.e., butler, chief of the butlers, and officer (and similarly for the baker), but these various terms are for the sake of greater clarity and more information. “Butler” in this narrative means the chief of the butlers, the same being called also “an officer.” Note also that three different terms are used for the ruler of Egypt. He is called “King of Egypt,” “Pharaoh,” and “their lord.” Now, if we suppose that each of the six terms here cited belonged exclusively to one of those imaginary “documents” the scholars are always talking about, it results in no less than half a dozen “sources” for these three short verses! The refutation of such nonsense lies in the simple truth that it is a mark of all intelligent writing that various and synonymous terms are always visible; and it could hardly be otherwise here.

There have been many speculations about the manner of these men offending Pharaoh, ranging all the way from the allegation that they had plotted to poison him to some more trivial offense. From the Jewish writings, we have this:

“The chief baker was put into prison because a pebble had been found in the pastry he baked for Pharaoh, and he was guilty of a misdemeanor because he had neglected the sifting of the flour. A fly had happened to fall into the wine that the chief butler poured for Pharaoh, but that could not be construed as caused by any negligence on his part. Thus, the butler had not committed a punishable offense.”(F2)

The distorted value of judgments of that ancient society appear vividly in such a comment.

Now, if to the triple designations of the offenders, and of the king, we add the triple designations of the place where the offenders were incarcerated, namely, (1) the ward in the house of the captain of the guard; (2) the prison; and (3) the place where Joseph was kept, we thus find a total of no less than nine possible “sources,” according to the usual scholarly dictum to that effect. No wonder there is not any agreement anywhere on earth today as to what belongs to which “source” in Genesis. Even the New English Bible’s gratuitous rendition of (1) as The Round House is no help! All the scholars we have read confess that the exact meaning of some of these terms is either unknown or ambiguous, and therein may lie the reason why the sacred author (singular) used various words.

As it stands, the text rewards us richly. Potiphar was not only the captain of the guard, but his duties also included the administration of the special prison used for detaining the king’s prisoners. The keeper of the prison is not named, but the keeper was Potiphar’s deputy, and the compound or palace where this establishment lay also served as Potiphar’s residence.

This understanding of the passage clears up everything. Here is the explanation of how Potiphar was able to cast Joseph into prison without even an examining trial, and how things were said to be done by Potiphar, the captain of the guard, that were actually done by the deputy, who is nowhere named in the passage.

“The chief of the butlers” This office was also known as “the cupbearer,” a position held by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11) in the court of Persia. It was a highly-respected position because of the holder’s access to the presence of the king. “Rabshakeh (Aramaic for `chief of the cup-bearers’) was in the court of Assyria (2 Kings 18:17).”(F3)

“Offended, or gave offense, to their lord” Speiser tells us that, “Literally, the word means proved to be at fault,”(F4) Therefore, such a rendition as “sinned against” is inappropriate, especially in a secular context.

Verse 4

“And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he ministered unto them: and they continued a season in ward.”

Aalders accurately understood this, pointing out that, “The prison in which the captain of the guard resided was the house of Potiphar.”(F5) In regard to the special arrangements that were made for taking care of the king’s prisoners of such high rank:

“The captain (Potiphar) probably made these arrangements himself, consulting with his deputy, the `keeper,’ with whom, by this time, Joseph had found considerable favor. This indicates that Potiphar’s anger against Joseph had cooled considerably.”(F6)

Verses 5-8

“And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream, in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were bound in the prison. And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and saw them, and, behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in ward in his master’s house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sad today? And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is none than can interpret it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell it me, I pray you.”

The mention of “the butler and the baker (Genesis 40:5)” was understood by Skinner to be a “contradiction” with the meaning that the king of Egypt “had only one servant of each class!”(F7) We cite it here merely to show what ridiculous conclusions result from that “multiple sources” fantasy which often engages critical scholars. In context, of course, “the butler” means the “chief of the butlers.” Even today, “Mr. Secretary,” as addressed to any of the President’s cabinet, cannot imply that the President has only “one secretary.”

The mention of dreams in this and the following chapters is, of course, alleged as proof that the narrative of dreams pertained exclusively to this or that “source,” and that therefore we are here dealing with a different imaginary document! As Leupold truly stated it, however, “Moses wrote of dreams as they had bearing upon his subject, and, therefore, as they actually occurred.”(F8)

Speaking of dreams, the Egyptians, especially, believed in the prophetic nature of dreams, and perhaps that is the reason that God used such a device again, and again, in his dealings with Egyptians. Leupold also commented that, “Persons who stand on a lower spiritual level were the ones to whom revelation came through dreams.”(F9)

“There is none that can interpret” These officials of Pharaoh’s court were dismayed that they, in prison, did not have access to their favorite interpreter of dreams, but Joseph promptly discounted the services of such professional interpreters, his words having the effect of saying that, “Such professionals were charlatans,”(F10) and that only GOD could interpret dreams. His subsequent actions showed that Joseph believed that God would reveal the meaning of the dreams to him, as certainly proved to be true.

Verse 9

“And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; and in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and its blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes: and Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; within yet three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head, and restore thee unto thine office: and thou shalt give Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.”

It has been widely supposed, that since the ancient Pharaohs drank only “wine,” then some kind of an anachronism was here committed by the author of Genesis, but as Dummelow pointed out:

“Among the inscriptions on the temple of Edfu is one in which the king is seen with a cup in his hand, and underneath are the words, “They press grapes into the water, and the king drinks.”(F11)

“Pharaoh will lift up thy head” Again we are face to face with an example of God’s use of the same words or expressions with multiple, or even opposite meanings, as in the case of “seed” in the promise of Abraham, which we have repeatedly cited. This expression to the butler meant his restoration to his former office, and for the baker (Genesis 40:19), it meant he would be executed, probably by hanging. There are many such examples of this usage of one term with multiple meanings in the Bible. As Kline expressed it: “Joseph used a key expression with opposite meanings to describe the cupbearer’s restoration, and secondly, to describe the decapitation (or hanging) of the baker.”(F12)

Some have supposed that, with the example before us, the interpretation of dreams may be attempted now; but, it is still true that “interpretations belong to God.” Despite some implications of the dream seeming to be rather obvious, the key element is absolutely inscrutable. The three branches … the three baskets — these could have signified three weeks, three years, three months, or nearly anything else. As a matter of fact, they represented three days.

Verse 14

“But have me in thy remembrance when it shall be well with thee, and show kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house: for indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.”

Joseph accurately discerned that this prospective contact with Pharaoh was providentially designed to trigger his release; and, the butler’s tardy remembrance of Joseph indeed led to that very thing, but the providence of God would again intervene before it actually occurred. Otherwise, Joseph might have concluded that his release was due in a critical measure to his own actions. However, as it actually occurred, the hand of God Himself was unmistakably apparent in it. We cannot find fault with Joseph for making such a request of the butler.

“I was stolen away” What a nit-picking picayune criticism is it that makes this “contradict” the fact of Joseph’s actually being “sold by his brothers? … If a great injustice was done to me by selling me into slavery (and that at the paltry sum of twenty pieces of silver!) I am fully justified in referring to that as stealing me, for that is what it amounts to; and anyone should be able to see that.”(F13)

“Out of the land of the Hebrews” This cannot be viewed as an anachronism. Although it is true that Canaan, or Palestine, did not actually become the “land of the Hebrews,” until centuries later, the promise to Abraham was already at this time centuries old, and the area was continuously claimed by the Hebrews dating from the times of Abraham. There is also the simple truth that Joseph himself was a Hebrew (Genesis 39:14), and that it was out of his homeland that he had been, in effect, stolen; and, therefore, no fault whatever can be alleged against this statement. In fact, there is marvelous thoughtfulness and restraint in Joseph’s words here, in that he concealed the dastardly crimes of his brothers against his person. Peake remarked: “Observe the unsuitable designation of Palestine here as the land of the Hebrews.”(F14) Such criticisms are apparently blind to the fact that Joseph did not mention “Palestine” or “Canaan” either, but merely his homeland, from which indeed he had been removed, and he spoke in exactly the same terminology that any Hebrew would have used of his homeland. Additionally, as Leupold stated, “Hebrews were all the inhabitants of Palestine, of whatever race.”(F15)

The further critical allegation, based on those fantastic “sources,” and placing Joseph, not as a prisoner, but as a slave, in Potiphar’s house, are frustrated by Joseph’s using in the same breath, “this house,” and the “dungeon” interchangeably (Genesis 40:15). Thus, Joseph was both slave and a prisoner of Potiphar.

Verse 16

“When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph, I also was in my dream, and, behold, three baskets of white bread were on my hand: and in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of baked food for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head. And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: the three baskets are three days; within yet three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.”

Of special interest is the opposite use of “lift up thy head” which we discussed under Genesis 40:13.

A great deal of uncertainty focuses upon the exact manner of the baker’s execution, some supposing that he was first beheaded, and then impaled. And others taking the position that he was simply hanged. Since either method would answer perfectly to the tenor of Joseph’s interpretation of the baker’s dream, it cannot be a very important question. “The verb for hang (as used here) may then refer to the mode of execution, and not merely to the exposure of a decapitated corpse … Hanging was not then unknown in Egypt.”(F16)

Dummelow commented that hanging is nowhere (else) mentioned in the Bible, except in the Book of Esther,(F17) but this might well be an additional instance.

Verse 20

“And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and the head of the chief baker among his servants. And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; but he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.”

Such events demonstrated conclusively the standing that Joseph had in the eyes of God. The events here related could hardly have been unknown to others in the prison. And later, when the butler “remembered,” there is no evidence that he was in any kind of private audience with the king, rather being in a public, or semi-public situation, where there would have been the most widespread publication of all the essentials of this event. What a new endowment of respect and appreciation must have accrued to Joseph as a result!

“But forgat him” This must have been a sore disappointment for Joseph. He would have to wait further upon the arm of Providence to deliver him. The butler’s conduct was probably deliberate. His fortuitous remembrance of Joseph came at a time when the butler might have thought to profit by it, indicating that his previous “forgetfulness” was probably due to the same self-seeking attitude. And what a sin it was against Joseph!

Now comes another injury (to Joseph), less malicious but hardly less disillusioning than the others. Here is a man he had befriended and helped. The chief butler did not set out to do him any harm; he simply did nothing at all. He just went off casually, and forgot. But to Joseph in prison, that was as hurtful as if it had been a deliberate wrong.(F18)

This must have been the period in Joseph’s life, “When the iron entered into his soul.” Such a statement is an alternate reading of Psalms 105:18, but it is a very expressive comment on Joseph’s experience. The full bitterness of life’s unjust and vicious blows made its full impact upon the heart of this noble man; but his faith did not fail. We feel somewhat apologetic for such frequent mention in this chapter of the false criticism current in today’s Biblical literature, but the doing so has been founded upon the conviction that to understand those criticisms is to destroy them. Leupold said that our attention to such criticisms affords a wonderful illustration of the “presumption, not the scholarship, of the critics.”(F19)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 40". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-40.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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