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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-23


Joseph as interpreter of the dreams of his fellow-prisoners.

Genesis 40:1-23

1And it came to pass after these things that the butler of the king of Egypt, and his baker, had offended their lord the king of Egypt. 2And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers. 3And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound. 4And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them; and he served them; and they continued a season in ward. 5And they dreamed a dream, 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, which were bound in prison. 6And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. 7And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his lord’s house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly to day? 8And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you. 9And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me. 10And in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes: 11And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes, and pressed1 them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. 12And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days: 13Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place; and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler. 14But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me; and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house: 15For 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. 16When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph, I also was in my dream, and behold, I had three white baskets on my head; 17And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head. 18And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days: 19Yet within 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. 20And 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 of the chief baker among his servants. 21And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; 22But he hanged2 the chief baker; as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.


The contents of this chapter may be denoted, the silent preparation for the great turning in Joseph’s destiny. In itself considered, however, our narrative shows us how the religious capacity of suffering for the Lord’s sake develops itself, like a germ, in the people of God. Joseph’s spiritual life shines resplendent in his prison. There may be distinguished the following sections: 1. The imprisonment of the two court-officers, and Joseph’s charge over them (Genesis 40:1-4); 2. their dejectedness, and Joseph’s sympathy (Genesis 40:5-8); 3. the dream of the chief butler, and its interpretation (Genesis 40:9-15); 4. the dream of the chief baker, and its interpretation (Genesis 40:16-19); 5. the fulfilment of both dreams.


1.Genesis 40:1-4. The imprisonment of the two court-officers, and Joseph’s charge over them.—The chief of the butlers and the chief of the bakers.—According to Genesis 40:2 they are the chiefs in their respective departments of service. The oriental kings, as those of the Persians (Xenoph., Hellenica, viii. i. 38), had a multitude of butlers, bakers, and cooks. The office of chief butler was very honorable with the kings of Persia (Herod., iii. 34; Xenoph., Cyroped. i. 3, 8). It was once filled by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11; Nehemiah 2:1).—In the house of the captain of the guard—i. e., in the house of Potiphar. The house of the captain of the guard was connected with the state-prison, and denotes here the prison itself.—Charged Joseph with them.—Here Potiphar again mingles himself with Joseph’s fortune (and that by way of mitigating it) in the recognition of his talents. By this distinguished charge, he shows favor, at the same time, to Joseph and to his fallen colleagues.

2.Genesis 40:5-8. Their dejectedness and Joseph’s sympathy.—According to the interpretation.—Both had dreamed—each one a different dream—each one a significant dream, according to the anticipated occurrence upon which it was founded, and also according to its interpretation. Joseph’s conversation with the sad and dejected prisoners, proves his sagacity as well as his kindly sympathy. It shows, too, how misfortune equalizes rank, and makes the great dependent on the sympathy of those who are lower in position.—And there is no interpreter of it.—An expression showing that the interpretation of dreams was much in vogue, and that it was one of the wants of persons of rank to have their dreams interpreted.—Do not interpretations belong to God?—He admits that there are significant dreams, and that God could bestow on men the gift of interpretation when they are referred back to him. He rejects, indirectly, the heathen art of interpreting dreams, whilst, at the same time, giving them to understand that it was, perhaps, imparted to himself. First, however, he is to hear their dreams. Knobel is inexact when he speaks in general terms of “the ancient view concerning dreams.” Doubtless the field of revelation admits dreams as sent by God, but these coincide with dreams in general just as little as the prophetic mode of interpreting them coincided with that of the heathen, though, according to Egyptian views, all prophetic art comes from the gods (Herod, ii. 83), Knobel.

3.Genesis 40:9-15. The dream of the chief butler and its interpretation.—In my dream, behold a vine.—A lively description of a lively dream. The first picture is the vine, and the rapid development of its branches to the maturity of the grapes. On the vine in Egypt, see Knobel, p. 307. In the second picture, the chief butler beholds himself in the service of Pharaoh, preparing and presenting to him the juice of the grapes. “The vine was referred to Osiris, and was already well known in Egypt. See Psalms 78:47; Psalms 105:33; Numbers 20:5. The statement, Herod., ii. 77, is, therefore, to be taken with limitations. Nor is it true that in the time of Psammeticus fresh must only was drank, while fermented wine was prohibited. Knobel has shown that Plutarch, De Iside, vi. 6, says just the contrary. The people drank wine unrestrained; the kings, because they were priests, only so much as was allowed by the sacred books; but from the time of Psammeticus even this restriction was abolished. The old monuments show great variety of wine-utensils, wine-presses at work, topers tired of drinking, even intoxicated women.” Delitzsch. “Wine had been prohibited before the time of Mohammed (Sharastani, ii. p. 346). The grapes he allowed (Koran, xvi. 11, 69). They evaded his prohibition by pressing the grapes and drinking the juice of the berries (Schultz, Leitungen, v. p. 286). Such juice of grapes the Egyptian king drank also in Joseph’s time. He was a ruler of the Hyksos (?), who were an Arabian tribe.” Knobel. The same: The dream-interpreter Artemidorus classes the vine with plants that grow rapidly, and regards dreams concerning it as having a quick fulfilment. Joseph’s interpretation.—Three branches, three days.—Since Pharaoh’s birth-day was at hand, and was known, perhaps, as a day of pardon, this presentiment may, to some degree, have been affected by it.—Lift up thine head.—To replace, again, in prosperity and honor, especially to bring out of prison (2 Kings 25:27).—And show kindness, I pray thee, unto me.—Joseph is so sure of his interpretation that he employs the opportunity to plead for his own right and liberty.—I was stolen.—An expression of innocence. They took him away from his father, but how it was done, his feelings do not allow him to relate; enough that he came to Egypt neither as a criminal, nor as a slave, rightly sold. With the same caution he speaks about his imprisonment without exposing the house of Potiphar.

4.Genesis 40:16-19. The dream of the chief of the bakers, and its interpretation. The striking resemblance of his dream to the one previously interpreted, caused the baker to overlook its ominous difference; he, therefore, hopes also for a favorable interpretation. The interpreter, however, shows his discernment in recognizing the birds that did not eat the bakemeats out of the basket upon his head, as the main point. He differs also from the heathen interpreters in announcing the unfavorable meaning plainly and distinctly. Knobel: “In Egypt men were accustomed to carry on their heads, women upon their shoulders. In modern Egypt women bear burdens upon their heads.” “Even at this day in Egypt kites and hawks seize upon articles of food carried upon the head.” The criminal to be put to death was fastened to a stake, to increase thereby the severity of the punishment (Deuteronomy 21:22; Joshua 10:26; 2 Samuel 4:12). This custom was also prevalent among other nations, especially the Persians and Carthaginians.

5.Genesis 40:20-23. The fulfilment of both these dreams. The kings of antiquity were accustomed to celebrate their birth-days. “According to Herodotus, this was the only day on which the kings of the Persians anointed themselves, and gave presents to their subjects. In like manner the Hebrew kings, on joyous occasions, exercised mercy (1 Samuel 11:13).” Knobel. Joseph is forgotten by the butler, apparently for ever; God, however, has provided for his exaltation, not only through the destiny denoted in the dreams, but also by the clearing up of the truthfulness of the interpreter.


1. The manner in which the divine providence quietly and secretly makes the most insignificant things, apparently, the occasion and the cause of wonderful changes, appears very visible, in our narrative. It would appear simply fortuitous that Pharaoh should have thrown into prison his two officers on account, perhaps, of some very trifling offence; still more accidental would it appear that Joseph should have had charge of them, and that both should have had alarming dreams, and finally, how extraordinarily fortuitous that Joseph, on entering, should have observed their depression in their countenances! But all this apparent chance was made a prerequisite, in the course of God’s providence, for Joseph’s exaltation, and Israel’s redemption. “The Lord finds a thousand ways where reason sees not even one.”
2. The occurrences of the heathen world, the affairs of courts, their crimes, cabals, intrigues, are all under the divine control. A country in which the wisdom of the world seems to have emancipated itself from all regard to the government of a divine providence, is just the one whose administration shows the most failure, and most frequently experiences an ironical disappointment of its plans.
3. Prisons, too, with their dark chambers, dungeons, sorrows, secrets, are under the control of God. At all times have they enclosed not only criminals, but the innocent,—oftentimes the best and most pious of men. Christ says: I was in prison, and ye came unto me; and he speaks thus, not of faithful martyrs only; even among the guilty there is a spark of Christ’s kinsmanship,—i. e., belonging to him.

4. How mightily misfortune takes away the distinction of rank. Joseph has not only the heart’s gift of sympathy for the unhappy, but also that open-hearted self-consciousness that fits him to associate with the great. Even when a child did he run before his mother in meeting Esau.

5. The night-life with its wakefulness, as with its dreams, enters into the web of the divine providence (see Book of Esther, Daniel, Matthew 2:0; Matthew 27:19; Acts 16:9; Psalms 132:4). Dreams are generally so unmeaning that they should never cause men to err in obedience to the faith, in duty, or in the exercise of a judicious understanding. Their most general significance, however, consists in their being a reflection of the feelings, remembrances, and anticipations of the day life, as also in the fact, that all perceptions of the body give themselves back in the mirror of the nightly consciousness, as imaged speech or picture. The spirit of God may, therefore, employ dreams as a medium of revelation. He can send dreams and bestow the gift of interpretation. But, in themselves, the most significant dreams of revelation never form ethical decisions, though they may be signs and monitors of the same. Their higher significance, however, is sealed by their great and world-historic consequences for the kingdom of God.

6. Joseph very definitely distinguished between his own and the heathen mode of interpreting dreams; and this he owes to his Israelitish consciousness as opposed to the heathen. The divine certainty of his interpretation is seen in the fact, that, notwithstanding the greatest similarity in both dreams, he immediately recognizes the point of dissimilarity, and dares to make the fearful announcement in the assurance that the issue of the affair would be in correspondence. The apparent severity of such frankness could not make him falter in the feeling of what was due to truth. To narrate how he may have sought to mitigate it, by expressions of sympathy, lay not within the scope of this narration.
7. The joyous feasts of the great are sources both of life and death.
8. A man in prosperity soon forgets the companions of his former misery, just as the chief butler forgot Joseph. God’s memory never fails, and it is, at the same time, the chief quickener of the memories of men. God keeps his own time. The ray of hope that shone for the prisoner at the release of the chief butler went out again for two years. When all hope seemed to have vanished, then divine help comes in wonderfully.


See Doct. and Eth. Joseph’s disciplinary trials. His preparation for his great calling of saviour and ruler: a. by sufferings; b. by works of his vocation!—Traces of God in the prison: 1. Divine light; 2. holy love; 3. divine monitions; 4. hope of deliverance.—God’s government in its great issues: 1. Of the smallest things; 2. of the proudest events; 3. of the most fallible judgments of men; 4. of the darkest prisons; 5. of the nightly life; 6. of hopes and fears in human need.

First Section. Genesis 40:1-4. Starke: Genesis 40:1. In what the offence consisted is not announced. The Rabbins, who pretend to know all things about which the Scriptures are silent, say that the butler had permitted a fly to drop into the king’s cup, and that a grain of sand was found in the bread of the baker. The conjecture of Rabbi Jonathan has more probability; he thinks that both had conspired to poison the king. Joseph was thirteen years in a state of humiliation, and the last three (?) in a prison. Schröder: Information concerning the Egyptian wine culture and representations of it upon the monuments (according to Champollion and others, p. 576),—also concerning the modes of baking, which was quite an advanced art among the Egyptians. The Egyptians had for their banquets many different kinds of pastry.—The offices of chief butler and chief baker were in high honor, and sometimes that of field-marshal was connected with them.—In the East the prisons are not public buildings erected for this sole purpose, but a part of the house in which the prison officer resided.

Second Section. Genesis 40:5-8. Starke: Cramer: There are different kinds of dreams: divine dreams (Genesis 28:12; Genesis 41:17; Daniel 2:28); diabolical dreams (Deuteronomy 13:2; Jeremiah 23:16; Jeremiah 27:9); natural dreams (Ecclesiastes 5:2). We must, therefore, distinguish between dreams, and not regard them all alike (Sir 34:7). The godless and the pious may get into the same troubles, and have similar sufferings; yet they cannot look upon them with the like dispositions and emotions. Schröder: They may have been dreams suggested by their official position. Both of them may have gone to sleep with the number three upon their minds because of the thought that Pharaoh was to celebrate his birth-day within three days. No wonder that their imagination overflowed from the abundance of their hearts; and who can tell how much their consciences were concerned in these dreams. The culture and the character of the Egyptians Was every way mystical, or rather symbolical; the less they are able to account for an occurrence the more divine it seemed. Night they considered as source of all things, and as a being to which they paid divine honors. The whole ancient history of this wonderful people has a nocturnal aspect about it. One might call it the land of dreams, of presentiments, enigmas. Joseph’s destiny in respect to this country begins in dreams, and is completed by them (Krummacher). It is not every one that can read the writing of the human countenance; this power is given to love only (Baumgarten). He preached in prison as Christ did (Richter).

Third Section. Genesis 40:9-15. Starke: Genesis 40:14. The Jews charge that Joseph in this request demanded pay for his interpretation, and allege that, on this account, he had to remain in prison two years longer. There is, however, no ground for such an imputation; but though he had the assurance of the divine presence, and that God would deliver him from the prison, he had, nevertheless, a natural longing for liberty. Besides, he did not ask anything unfair of the butler (1 Corinthians 7:21).—Cramer: Ordinary means are from God, and he who despises them tempts God.—The same: We may assert our innocency, and seek deliverance, yet still we must not, on that account, speak ill of those who have injured us ( Matthew 5:44).

Schröder: The dream of the chief butler, no doubt, leans upon the business of his life and office, but, on the other hand, it also has the imaginative impression of “the poet concealed within every man,” as Schubert calls it.—Calwer Handbuch: Genesis 40:15. A mild judgment upon the act of his brethren, whom he would not unnecessarily reproach.

Fourth Section. Genesis 40:16-19. Starke: Bibl. Wirt.: Whenever the word of God is to be expounded, it should be done in the way the Holy Spirit presents it, and according to the word itself, no matter whether the hearers are disturbed, alarmed, or comforted.—Schröder: (Calvin:) Many desire the word of God because they promise themselves simply enjoyment in the hearing of it.—Calwer Handbuch: In Hebrew, “to lift up the head,” is a play upon words. It means to restore to honor and dignity, or to hang upon the gallows, or decapitation (taking off the head), or crucifixion (lifting up upon the cross).

Fifth Section. Genesis 40:20-23. Starke: Bibl. Wirt: Godless men in adversity, when they receive help from the pious, make the fairest of promises, but when prosperity returns they forget them all. Be not, therefore, too confiding. High station changes the manners, and usually makes men arrogant.—Lange: How easily is a favor forgotten, and how seductive the courtier life!—Schröder: These are times when men, through the prestige of birth, or by money, or human favor, may reach the summit of honor and wealth, without any previous schooling of adversity; still such men are not truly great, whatever may be the greatness of their title and their revenues. They are not the instruments that God employs in the accomplishment of his great purposes. Thus to Joseph, who was to become Lord of Egypt, the house and prison of Potiphar, in both of which he bore rule on a lesser scale, were to be his preparatory school. The wisdom he was to exercise in greater things begins here to show itself in miniature. Such a heart-purifying discipline is needed by all who would see God, and who would be clothed with authority for the world’s benefit. Without this there is no truly righteous administration. It never comes from passsionate overhastiness, sensual sloth, needless fear, selfish purposes, or unreasoning obstinacy. On the contrary, Joseph was purified, in prison, by the word of God; so was Moses in Midian, David in exile, Daniel in Babylon. Thus became they fit instruments in the hand of God (Roos). Therefore is it that the pious Joseph was crucified, dead, and buried, and descended into hell. Now comes the Lord to deliver him, honor him, make him great (Luther).—Heim (Bible Studies): It was Joseph’s single ray of hope in the prison—that which lighted him to freedom—that he could commend himself to the intercession of the chief butler. When this went out, according to every probable view, there seemed nothing else for him than to pine away his whole life in prison; and yet the fulfilment of the dreams of the court officers might have strengthened him in the hope of the fulfilment of his own dreams in his native home.


[1][Genesis 40:11.—וָאֶשְׂחַט. I pressed. The word occurs only here, yet its meaning is sufficiently obvious from the context, and from the cognate Chaldaic סהט. It is onomatopic, representing the emission of the juice. It is allied to שחת with its sense of waste and destruction. LXX., ἐξέθλιψα; Vulg., expressi.—T. L.]

[2][Genesis 40:22.—תָּלָה. It does not here denote suspension from, like hanging from a gallows. The preposition עַל is opposed to that, and shows that it denotes crucifixion.—T. L.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 40". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/genesis-40.html. 1857-84.
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