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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Butler.—Heb., one who gives to drink, cupbearer. As we learn in Genesis 40:11 that it was grapewine which he gave the king to drink, this chapter has been the main dependence of the new critics for their proof that the Book of Genesis was not written by Moses. For Herod. (i. 77) says, “The Egyptians make use of wine prepared from barley, because there are no vineyards in their country.” As Herodotus was thirteen centuries later than the time of Joseph, they argue not only that the vine could not have been introduced into Egypt at so early a date, but that the records of Joseph’s life could not have been put together by anyone acquainted with Egypt, in spite of their exact knowledge in all other respects of Egyptian customs. But when we turn to Herodotus himself, we find the most complete refutation of the previous statement. For, in Book ii. 37, speaking of the liberal treatment of the priests, he says, that they had an allowance of “grape-wine.” Again, in Genesis 39:0, he tells us that it was the custom to pour wine on a victim about to be sacrificed. To one used to the extensive vineyards of Greece and Asia Minor, the comparative scarcity of the vine, and the use of another ordinary drink in its place, would be striking; but that he was guilty of gross exaggeration in his statement is proved by evidence far more trustworthy than his own writings. For, on the tombs at Beni-hassan, which are anterior to the time of Joseph, on those at Thebes, and on the Pyramids, are representations of vines grown in every way, except that usual in Italy, festooned on trees; there is every process of the vintage, grapes in baskets, men trampling them in vats, various forms of presses for squeezing out the juice, jars for storing it, and various processes, even of the fermentation, noticed. Numerous engravings of the sculptures and paintings on these ancient monuments may be seen in Wilkinson’s Egypt; and most abundant evidence of the culture of the vine in ancient Egypt has been collected, and an account of the vines grown there given in Malan’s Philosophy or Truth, pp. 31-39. It neither is nor ever was a great wine-producing country, but the vine existed from one end of the country to the other, as it does at this day.

Baker.—Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, ii. 38, 39, gives proof from the monuments, that they had carried the art of making confectionery to very great perfection.

Verses 3-4

(3, 4) In the house of the captain of the guard.—That is, of Potiphar. As he is said to have charged Joseph with the care of these two high officials, he must, ere this, have become aware of his innocence. But as the wife in ancient times in Egypt was endowed with all the husband’s property, and was a formidable person, as we learn from many of the records now being translated and published, Potiphar may not have wished to offend her.

He served them.—Used only of light service. (See Note on Genesis 39:4.)

Verse 8

(8) There is no interpreter.—In Egypt it was the business of men trained for the purpose, called in Genesis 41:8, magicians and wise men, to interpret dreams, and to such the butler and baker could have no access from their prison. But Joseph denies that art and training can really avail, and claims that the interpretation belongs to God.

Verse 11

(11) And pressed them.—Plutarch, Is. et Osir. § 6, says that before the time of Psammetichus the Egyptians did not drink wine, nor make libations of it to the gods. This statement has been abundantly disproved, and probably arose from the writer supposing that the custom of, possibly, one district was the universal rule. Nevertheless, the king’s drink here does not seem to have been fermented wine, but a sort of sherbet made of fresh grape-juice and water. It is a pleasant beverage, still much used in the East, but sometimes the grape juice is left till fermentation has just begun when it acquires a pleasant briskness, and is less cloying.

Into Pharaoh’s hand.—Heb., I placed the cup upon Pharaoh’s palm. The word is used in Genesis 32:25 of the hollow of Jacob’s thigh (see Note there). Here it means the hollow produced by bending the fingers inwards. Now the Hebrews always spoke of placing the cup in a person’s hand (Ezekiel 23:31, and see Psalms 75:8; Jeremiah 51:7); and even here Joseph, though probably speaking the Egyptian language, nevertheless used the Hebrew idiom, saying, thou wilt give Pharaoh’s cup into his hand. It is the Egyptian cup-bearer, who, using the idiom of his own country, speaks of placing the cup upon Pharaoh’s palm, the reason being that Egyptian cups had no stems, but were flat bowls or saucers, held in the very way which the cup-bearer describes.

Verse 15

(15) I was stolen.—Joseph here speaks only generally, as his purpose was to arouse the sympathy of the Egyptian by making him know that he was free born, and reduced to slavery by fraud. It would have done harm rather than good to have said that his sale was owing to family feuds; and, moreover, noble-minded men do not willingly reveal that which is to the discredit of their relatives.

Land of the Hebrews.—Jacob and his race had settled possessions in Canaan at Hebron, Shechem, Beer-sheba, &c. The term Hebrew, moreover, was an old one; for in the ancient record of the invasion of Palestine by Chedorlaomer, we saw that Abram was described as “the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). But Joseph did not mean that the land of Canaan belonged to them, but that he was stolen from the settlements of these “immigrants,” and from the land wherein they sojourned.

Verses 16-17

(16, 17) Three white baskets.—Rashi explains the phrase of baskets of wicker-work, but most commentators agree in rendering it “baskets of white bread.” The “bakemeats” were all preparations of pastry and confectionery, as throughout the Bible meat does not mean flesh, but food. (Comp. Luke 24:41; John 21:5.)

On my head.—The Egyptian men carried Burdens on their heads; the women on their shoulders (Herod. ii. 35).

Bakemeats.—Heb., All sorts of work for Pharaoh the work of a baker.

Verse 19

(19) Shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee.—In Genesis 40:13 the lifting up of the butler’s head meant his elevation to his former rank. Here there is the significant addition “from off thee,” implying that he would be beheaded, and his body publicly exposed to ignominy.

Verse 20

(20) He lifted up the head.—From its use in this verse some have supposed that the phrase must mean “to put them on their trial,” or “take account of them” (whence the margin reckon). More probably the words are used to point out the exact fulfilment of Joseph’s interpretation of their dreams.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 40". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-40.html. 1905.
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