The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26)
In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.
Joseph Comes In Contact With Important Court Officials And Interprets Their Dreams (Genesis 40:1-23).
‘And it happened after these things that the cup-bearer of the king of Egypt, and his baker, offended their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry against his two officers, against the head of the cupbearers and the head of the bakers.’
We note here the old title ‘the king of Egypt’ and the new title ‘Pharaoh’, the latter probably an updating by Moses. We do not know how the two ‘officers’ (saris as with Potiphar) offended but it may be that something made Pharaoh ill and the blame fell equally on the two responsible for his food and drink. Later investigation may then have vindicated the butler and put the blame on the baker.
“The head of the cup-bearers.” The word ‘masqeh’ (EV ‘butler’) corresponds approximately to the Egyptian wdpw (which has a wider meaning), and is the exact equivalent of the later wb’ (c1600 BC onwards). It means cupbearer. The king’s cupbearer had an extremely important and high ranking position. It was he who handed the cup to the king after tasting it to check for poison, and he was thus the only one who could slip something into the drink after it had been tested. He was therefore a highly trusted officer. In 13th century BC one such was actually called wb’ dp irp - ‘the cupbearer who tastes the wine’.
“The head of the bakers.” Bakers are well known in Egypt but there is no exact equivalent to ‘head of the bakers’ as far as we know. However there would clearly be someone who was in charge of the bakers at the various palaces. He too would be responsible to guard against the king being poisoned. He may be the equivalent of ‘the Royal Table Scribe’ - ss wdhw nsw.
‘And he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound. And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them and he served them. And they continued for a time in custody.’
Such important prisoners were treated with special dignity, and the captain of the guard (note not the keeper of the prison) put them in Joseph’s special charge. He took a personal interest in the care of these important men for he knew their influence and that they may well be released and be in a position to do him good or harm.
He ‘served them’. Joseph took his charge seriously and made sure they were well looked after, often attending to their needs himself. The fact that he is entrusted with this task by the captain of the guard may point to the fact that the latter had had second thoughts about his previous guilt. Alternately he may have recognised the special qualities of Joseph and accepted that he had simply forgotten himself for a moment with regard to his wife. After all nothing had actually happened to her and by this time tempers had cooled. Or he may even have forgotten who Joseph was and relied on the recommendation of the keeper of the prison.
“In the house of the captain of the guard.” Not his private house but the prison over which he had responsibility. This may well have been located near his house, which would be grand and in its own grounds, probably more like a small palace.
‘And they dreamed a dream, both of them, each man his dream, in one night, each man a dream with its own interpretation, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt who were bound in prison.’
The scene is now set. Both officers have dreams on the same night, dreams which, we are informed, were significant for they had their own meaning. It would appear that they both discussed them in the morning and were deeply troubled by them, for they both knew that such dreams could be a portent of something serious and could have an important meaning. The interpretation of dreams was a ‘science’. Men studied and learned the techniques for interpreting them and much had been written on the subject. But because they were in prison they could not consult them.
‘And Joseph came in to them in the morning and saw them, and behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why are you looking so sad today?” ’
When Joseph saw them it was clear to him that something was wrong. And he recognised that it was his responsibility to cheer them up. So he asked them what it was.
We note in the narrative the constant reminders that all this was taking place in prison. These accounts would be read out and it was necessary to keep in the hearer’s mind the solemnity of the situation. It may also be that the writer is trying to bring home to us emphatically what Joseph’s position was.
Genesis 40:8 a
‘And they said to him, “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it.” ’
Their reply demonstrates the confidence they had built up in Joseph. They felt he was important enough and friendly enough to discuss the matter with (you do not tell such important things to just anyone). Thus they explained that they had had dreams which appeared to be important but that they had no means of obtaining their interpretation. They were no doubt filled with a sense of foreboding. Such portents were often a warning.
Genesis 40:8 b
‘And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me please.’
To speak of Yahweh would have been meaningless to the men. Thus Joseph speaks of God. Let them tell him the dreams and the implication is that his God will help him to interpret them.
‘And the head cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “In my dream, behold, a vine was in front of me, and in the vine were three branches, and it was as though it budded and its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters 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.”
Thus in his dream the cupbearer saw a vine which magically budded and came to full fruitfulness in a short time from which he was able to fill Pharaoh’s cup (the wine magically fermenting) and give it to Pharaoh. The cupbearer probably went into more detail when speaking to Joseph but the writer is summarising the essential parts.
‘And Joseph said, “This is the interpretation of it. The three branches are three days. Within yet three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you will give Pharaoh’s cup into his hand in the same way as when you were his cupbearer. But remember me when it is well with you, and show me kindness and mention me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that warrants them putting me into prison.”
Joseph gives the king’s cupbearer good news. He is to be restored to favour in three days time. And this gives Joseph himself hope. He knows how influential this great man is and he asks him to act to secure his relief. His suggestion that Pharaoh may be approached on the matter is possibly naive, but he may well have been right that the Chief Cupbearer himself was influential enough to be able to do it.
“Will lift up your head.” This simply means that he will be brought out of prison to face Pharaoh (the head of the chief baker is also lifted up (Genesis 40:20). Then he is to be restored to his duties again.
“For I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews.” It is somewhat naive to suggest that Joseph should have given a full explanation. It would certainly not help his case to suggest that his brothers had actually chosen to sell him, for that would imply some kind of guilt, and his statement was factually correct. He had not been sold legitimately, but dishonestly. His statement said all that needed to be said, and gave the right indication of innocence and misfortune.
“From the land of the Hebrews.” As we saw on Genesis 39:17 Joseph was seen in Egypt as ‘a Habiru’, for he came from no identified people In the Amarna letters (two hundred years or so later) the king of Jerusalem refers to ‘the Habiru’ as enemies of his and of Pharaoh, clearly expecting Pharaoh to understand. Others in the same letters refer to the SA.GAZ who are the equivalent (see article, "Hebrews"). In both cases the idea they are trying to express is of a wild, unidentified people. Thus Canaan, being made up of a multiplicity of tribes and city states, was looked on in Egypt as a land full of many unidentified and lawless people, and was thus thought of as ‘the land of the Habiru’. There is no reason to doubt that his also applied earlier. Besides Potiphar may well have said to them that Joseph was ‘a Hebrew’. Thus Joseph uses the phrase they will understand.
“Here also I have done nothing --”. He adds to the plea that he is imprisoned unjustly.
So Joseph, having given this powerful man good news, hopes that it may contribute to his being freed.
‘When the head baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Joseph, “I also was in my dream and behold three baskets of white bread were on my head, and in the top basket there were all manner of baked foods for Pharaoh, and the birds ate them out of the basket on my head.” ’
Again we have a summary of the dream. At such times men tend to be verbose. But the central point was that bread and food meant for Pharaoh was eaten by birds.
‘And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation. The three baskets are three days. Within yet three days will Pharaoh lift off your head from you and will hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat your flesh from off you.” ’
Will Pharaoh lift off your head.’ There is a play on words here contrasting this lifting off of the head with the lifting up of the head of the cupbearer. ‘And will hang you on a tree and the birds will eat your flesh.’ The death described is probably an indication that the baker is to be seen as guilty of a heinous crime (compare Deuteronomy 21:22 for a similar death).
In interpreting the dreams Joseph was probably well aware that in three days time it was Pharaoh’s birthday. Thus with God’s guidance he recognised the significance of the threes. The remainder of the dreams he was able to work out fairly easily, and the writer certainly intends us to recognise that again he enjoyed the guidance of God (verse 8). The answers may seem obvious once explained but it is not something on which Joseph could afford to be wrong.
‘And it happened on the third day, being Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants, and he restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing again and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.’
It was commonplace for prisoners to be released on the birthday of some great monarch. It was thus a time of much hope for many prisoners. But Joseph was in prison for a private ‘crime’ and may thus have been unknown to those who decided such things. However, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker were taken from the prison and brought before the king. The one was fully restored, suggesting either that his innocence had been proved or that his offence had been a minor one, but the chief baker was hung, possibly after being decapitated. ‘Hung’ may be a shortened form to cover the whole of what Joseph had forecast.
“His servants.” These would be the highest officials in the land who were ‘the slaves of Pharaoh’.
Joseph probably lived in hope for some time but eventually his hopes died. He was not to know that God yet had a purpose in it. It would be another two years before anything further happened, and meanwhile he went on with his life in prison without much hope of release. The darkest hour often comes before the dawn.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 40". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany