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 Is Called Before Pharaoh and Interprets His Dreams - He Is Made Vizier (Genesis 41:1-57)
‘And it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh dreamed, and behold he stood by the River Nile, and behold there came up out of the Nile seven cows, well-favoured and fat-fleshed, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold seven other cows came up after them out of the Nile, gaunt and thin and bony, and stood by the other cows on the brink of the Nile. And the gaunt, thin and bony cows ate up the seven well-favoured and fat-fleshed. So Pharaoh awoke.’
Pharaoh, the great king of Egypt, was looked on as a god by the people of Egypt. To them he was Horus, son of Osiris the sun god, and on his death would indeed become Osiris, as his successor became Horus. He was relatively unapproachable except by his high officials, and had despotic powers.
We do not know which Pharaoh this was. There are indications which suggest that he must have reigned before the Asiatic Hyksos, the ‘rulers of foreign lands’, took over the Lower part of Egypt including the Nile delta (c. 1720 BC), ruling there for well over a hundred years. We shall refer to these as we come to them in the narrative. Others, however, feel that the account is best explained by assuming that this Pharaoh was one of the Hyksos rulers, in which case the above comments will not apply. The Hyksos were not worshippers of Ra.
Pharaoh dreams a dream. First seven fat cows come out of the Nile and they eat the reed grass. Then seven thin and bony cows come out of the Nile and they eat the seven fat cows for there is no reed grass. Seven is the number of divine completeness. Such dreams were considered to portend good or evil and he would be somewhat disturbed and determined to discover the meaning of the dream. But before morning came he dreamed a second time.
“The River Nile.” This translates ye’or which is an Egyptian loan word for river and is almost always used, and rarely otherwise, when the River Nile is in mind. We have thus translated ‘the Nile’.
‘And he slept and dreamed a second time, and behold, seven ears of corn came up on one stalk, fat and good, and behold, seven ears sprung up after them, thin and blasted with the east wind, and the thin ears swallowed up the seven fat and full ears. And Pharaoh woke up and behold it was a dream.’
Pharaoh’s second dream is of the growth of good sevenfold corn and then of the growth of thin and wind-blasted corn, and as can happen in dreams the thin corn swallowed up the good corn. Pharaoh clearly found himself very involved in this dream for ‘then he woke up and behold, it was a dream.’
‘And it happened in the morning that his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all Egypt’s wise men, and Pharaoh told them his dream, but there was no one who could interpret them for Pharaoh.’
Pharaoh was very disturbed by his dream. So he sent for the specialists, the magicians (chartummim - a word borrowed from the Egyptian hry-tp) and wise men. The greatest magicians were the lector priests, learned men who had studied the sacred writings, rituals and spells taught in the House of Life, the temple schools where literature was composed, copied and taught. Thus the parallel between magicians and wise men is apposite. Dreams were considered so important in Egypt that they and their interpretations were gathered into manuals of dream interpretation.
But nothing in their learning or in the manuals could enable them to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. They were, of course, partly hindered by the fact that any unfavourable interpretation might well invoke the Pharaoh’s wrath. So Pharaoh went further and sought out the lesser magicians and wise men, but they too could not interpret the dream.
‘Then the chief cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh saying, “I do bring to mind my faults this day. Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, me and the chief baker. And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he, we dreamed each one a dream having its own interpretation, and there was with us there a young man, a Hebrew, slave to the captain of the guard, and we told him and he interpreted to us our dreams. To each man according to his dream he interpreted. And it happened that as he interpreted to us, so it was. I was restored to my office and he was hanged.’
Somewhat belatedly the chief cupbearer, as he witnesses all that goes on, remembers his own dream and the young man who had interpreted it. We notice that he knows and remembers something of Joseph’s background. Joseph had not been some background figure to him, an unknown slave, but someone of whom he was well aware, a relatively important person in his own right. For while the chief cupbearer was an extremely important man, prison is a great leveller. And he wants Pharaoh to know that this was not just some charlatan, but the servant of another man of importance in the royal court. To be a slave was not necessarily looked on as demeaning. Slaves held very important positions, and indeed all men were slaves to Pharaoh.
“I remember my faults this day.” A necessary humility before Pharaoh who must not be made to feel blameworthy. Whether he had really committed faults we do not know. He then continues in the third person for the same reason. He must not be thought of as accusing Pharaoh.
So Pharaoh learns of this young man who interprets dreams correctly.
‘Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the prison, and he shaved himself and changed his clothing and came in to Pharaoh’s presence.’
Egyptian custom demanded that a man be specially prepared before he was brought before Pharaoh. Access to Pharaoh was limited, and to approach him, for he was seen as a god, was both a unique privilege and a dangerous thing, and required ritual cleanness. It is constantly apparent that the writer takes the Egyptian background in his stride in all sorts of ways (as well as the Canaanite background, as we shall see later) strengthening the view that this is written by someone familiar with the events and their background.
‘And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream and there is no one who can interpret it. And I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”
Pharaoh acknowledges that here is a man who is somewhat different from his magicians and wise men. He does not need to consult books and dream manuals. He has the ability to interpret a dream immediately on hearing it.
“When you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Literally ‘you hear a dream to interpret it.’ This use of ‘hear’ corresponds to the Egyptian use of sedem - "to hear" meaning "to understand", a meaning which is most clearly shown by its use in the phrase "he hears the speech of Egypt", i.e. "understands the language". This use is found again in Genesis 42:23 where ‘heard’ means "understood" their language. So Pharaoh is saying ‘as you hear you understand’.
‘And Joseph answered Pharaoh saying, “It is not in me. God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” ’
Joseph firmly declares that the gift is not in him. It is God who can reveal the meaning of dreams, and it is He Who will gave Pharaoh an answer that will bring him peace of mind, that is, a true interpretation.
‘And Pharaoh spoke to Joseph saying, “In my dream, behold I stood on the bank of the Nile, and behold there came out of the Nile seven cows, fat-fleshed and well favoured, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very thin such as I never saw in the land of Egypt for scrawniness, and the thin and scrawny cows ate up the first fat cows. And when they had eaten them up it could not be known that they had eaten them, but they were still thin as at the beginning. So I awoke. And I saw in my dream and behold, seven ears came up on one stalk, full and good. And behold, seven ears, withered, thin and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them, and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears, and I told it to the magicians but there was not one who could explain it to me.”
Added features to the earlier description are both the vividness and the fact that once the thin cows had eaten the fat cows they did not look any fatter.
Pertinent to the dream are a number of factors. First and foremost, of course, was the fact that the Nile was basically responsible for the fact that Egypt suffered less from famine than other countries. As it swelled over its banks each year it produced fertile soil around it that was the breadbasket of Egypt and on which the cattle flourished. It was only rarely when the river failed that famine came to Egypt. Nevertheless long periods of famine at other times were known and written about there. Moreover the Nile was looked on as a god whose good or evil pleasure could reward or punish the people.
Secondly, there was a goddess Hathor who was worshipped in the form of a cow, and in the tomb of Nefretiri, the beautiful wife of Rameses II, seven cows are to be seen accompanied by the bull god as if they were marching in a solemn procession. In the Book of the Dead seven cows appear in an offering scene, and on the mural reliefs of the Temple of Hatshepsut in Dair-al-Bahri, are to be seen seven cows feeding in a meadow under trees. In another picture, the cow is seen looking out of a grove of papyrus reeds. She was often called ‘the mother of Pharaoh’. Thus the seven cows would probably bring to mind for the Egyptians Hathor, the cow goddess, who would also be seen as affecting the situation.
But the essence of the dream for practical purposes, and that was what mattered here, was as outlined by Joseph. For whatever reason the gods and goddesses of Egypt would fail them.
‘And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dream of Pharaoh is one. What God is about to do he has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years. The dream is one. And the seven thin and scrawny cows which came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind. They will be seven years of famine. That is the thing that I spoke to Pharaoh. What God is about to do he has shown to Pharaoh. Behold there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there will arise after them seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will consume the land. And the plenty will not be known in the land by reason of that famine which follows, for it will be very grievous. And in that the dream was doubled to Pharaoh twice it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it about.” ’
The first essence of Joseph’s words is that the great God is over all and brings the Nile and Hathor to His will. What He has established He will do. He is sovereign over all. But far from this leading to inaction it should lead to action. Because His ways are certain men can prepare for them.
The second is in the detail. First seven good, prosperous years when the corn will flourish and the cows grow fat, and then seven disastrous years when there will be no corn worth speaking of and the cattle will starve unless some form of provision is made.
The third is that the repetition of the dream in two forms proves that the thing is certain to happen.
“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this. And let him appoint overseers over the land and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine which shall be in the land of Egypt, that the land perish not through famine.”
As all are listening to his words Joseph now brings his organisational powers to work. Firstly Pharaoh should appoint one man to take over the whole operation. He will need to be discreet and wise because he will need to obtain people’s cooperation and will need to plan wisely.
Then he should appoint overseers throughout the land. The ‘him’ could be either Pharaoh or the appointed man, but it makes little difference as Joseph hardly expected Pharaoh himself to appoint the overseers directly. But he wants Pharaoh to feel that what is done is done by him.
Then these overseers should gather up all the corn produced in the land of Egypt and lay up a fifth part in silos for the coming bad years. They are to ‘take a fifth part’ to be put to one side. And they are to do this by gathering all the food of the good years and laying up part under Pharaoh’s control for food in the cities. This food will be a store against the seven years of famine.
“Lay up corn.” This is clearly to be understood in terms of what went before, the fifth part. (It is quite clear that under no circumstance would anyone suggest that all the food of the good years should be stored for the future as that would leave the Egyptians without food for the present). In Egypt the storing of grain in public silos by the government was quite customary, and such silos have been discovered, but what is required here is the same measure on a vast scale. One inscription from c 100 BC recalls a seven year famine in the reign of Zoser, a thousand years before the time of Joseph, and at another time one civic authority is quoted as saying, “when famine came for many years I gave grain to my town in each famine” This on a larger scale was what would now be required. Various other Egyptian writings speak of famines and at least two officials, proclaiming their good deeds on the walls of their tombs, tell of distributing food to the hungry ‘in each year of want’.
‘And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all his servants.’
Pharaoh consults with his high officials and they agree that the interpretation seems sound and that Joseph’s plan is good.
‘And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the spirit of God?’
Pharaoh has been impressed and accepts that the interpretation has come from ‘God’ (Joseph’s God) through Joseph. He recognises that the spirit of this God, Who is able to interpret when all others have failed, must be working through him. What better man then to take charge of operations.
‘And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Inasmuch as God has shown you all this there is none so discreet and wise as you. You shall be over my house and my people shall be ruled in accordance with your word. Only in the throne will I be greater than you.” ’
Egypt had many gods, and they were aware that there were gods of other nations. There is then no reason why Pharaoh should not acknowledge that this great God Who has revealed the significance of his dream has special powers which can help Joseph.
“You shall be over my house.” The office of ‘Lord of Pharaoh’s house’ was a recognised and very important one in Egypt. It represented wide authority and power for ‘Pharaoh’s house’ was the land and people of Egypt.
“My people shall be ruled according to your word (literally ‘mouth”).’ He would have absolute authority under Pharaoh. Whatever he decreed would be done. He would be Pharaoh’s mouth.
“According to your mouth.” The background to these words is clearly Egyptian. There "mouth" (ra) was used metaphorically for a representative of Pharaoh. The office of a "mouth" was so important that it was held by the highest State dignitaries. The titles “mouth” and "chief mouth" were used in relation to people such as chief superintendents and overseers of public works who acted as intermediaries between the Pharaoh and the Government officials. The concept of "mouth" or "chief mouth" involved a confidential and exalted position at court, ranking immediately after the king. They were mouths to a god.
“Only in the throne will I be greater than you.” This office can only be that of Vizier, the highest office in the land. He alone held such authority and power as the representative of the king himself. Without his permission no one could approach Pharaoh and all officials were responsible to him.
Others have seen him as the Superintendent of the Granaries, another high Egyptian post. In fact it is probable that he combines the two positions.
‘And Pharaoh said, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” And Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck, and he made him to ride in the second chariot that he had, and they cried before him “Look out” (’avrek), and he set him over all the land of Egypt.’
This is the appointment ceremony. It may have taken place immediately or it may have taken place later. The fact that the signet ring is being worn by Pharaoh may indicate that the office of Vizier was at present vacant, for the Vizier would need to have the signet ring so that he could seal his decrees as from Pharaoh. Now Joseph has that authority.
The arraying with fine linen and the conferring of a golden chain are also typical of Egyptian appointments to office. The whole scene is clearly based on intimate knowledge of Egyptian ceremonies.
“And he made him ride in the second chariot that he had.” The chariot as a general weapon of warfare was, along with the general use of horses, introduced by the Hyksos, and this has caused some to see this as indication that this was during their rule. But the impression given is that the chariot was a rare thing here, ‘the second chariot that he had’, and a sign of great importance, which would not be so under the Hyksos. Given the amount of trade with other nations possession of a few ceremonial chariots must be seen as a real possibility. Certainly there is limited evidence that horses were known in Egypt before the Hyksos for remains of horses just before the Hyksos period have been discovered near Wadi Halfa.
“And they cried before him “ ”avrek ”. This is probably an Egyptian loan word. Its meaning is uncertain. It could mean ‘look out’ (Egyptian) or possibly ‘to your knees’ (Hebrew). The former seems more likely.
“And he set him over all the land of Egypt.” This may be emphasising that he is set over both Upper and Lower Egypt, for Egypt was split into two parts symbolised in the twofold crown of the Pharaoh. The Hebrew for Egypt is ‘mizraim’ and this has been argued to be a plural stressing the duality of Egypt. But its meaning is disputed. If so it cannot be under the Hyksos for they only ruled over Lower Egypt.
Genesis 41:44-45 a
‘And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh and without you no man will lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt.” And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah, and he gave him to wife Asenath, daughter of the priest of On.’
“I am Pharaoh.” Stressing the total authority of the one who has appointed Joseph. The succeeding words stress in turn Joseph’s total power and authority. All in Egypt are responsible to him. This can really only mean that he is the Grand Vizier.
“Pharaoh called Joseph”s name Zaphenath-paneah.’ Joseph is to be thoroughly Egyptianised. The giving of the new name signifies his new status and situation. Interestingly the name Zaphenath-paneah has actually been discovered on an inscription of later date designating the priestly leader of the Sed festival, although not relating to Joseph. It could mean ‘he who is called ’Ip‘ankh’, the latter being a common name in Egypt. Other possible alternatives have been offered such as ‘head of the sacred college’, ‘revealer of secrets’ or ‘sustainer of life’, but none have received general acceptance.
“Asenath, daughter of the priest of On.” The name Asenath is good Egyptian. It possibly means ‘she belongs to (the goddess) Neit’ or ‘she belongs to father’. Her position as daughter of the priest of On (or Heliopolis), a leading priest (possibly even the high priest) of the sun god Re, would enhance Joseph’s status and reputation. But he would have no choice in the matter. It was by the order of Pharaoh. His later statement that he was appointed ‘father to Pharaoh’ (Genesis 45:8) (equivalent of ‘father to the gods’) demonstrates that he was also given priestly rank.
The writer was quite clear as to the hierarchic significance of such a union, and of the high position occupied by the priests of On (Egyptian ’Iwnw). To the Egyptians On was a holy city par excellence. It was the great centre of the most powerful of cosmic gods, namely of Re and Atum, and was occupied by a numerically large and important body of priests who were known for their wealth. The marriage of Joseph to the daughter of the priest of On, therefore, signified the reception of the foreigner into the highest priestly caste. His elevation to the rank of "father", too, meant that he was included among the most eminent sacerdotal dignitaries of ancient Egypt. How far he had actually to participate in the worship we do not know but he would undoubtedly be present at the great ceremonies. But, like Naaman later, he worshipped Yahweh while he stood in the house of Re (2 Kings 5:18).
All these changes are unlikely to have taken place under the Hyksos. They would have no reason to give him an Egyptian name, and they supported the worship of Amun, not Re, seeking to destroy the power of the priests and undermine the worship of the sun god. They would not thus tie someone they wished to honour to such connections.
Genesis 41:45 b
‘And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.’
Having been appointed for such a vital task it was necessary for him to make himself acquainted with the situation throughout Egypt. Large silos would have to be built in many cities and arrangements made for the appointment of the overseers who would control the collection of all the produce and arrange for the storage of the one fifth and the distribution of the remainder.
‘And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went throughout all the length of Egypt.’
Joseph had thus been in servitude and then in prison for about twelve years (Genesis 37:2). The thirty years may be a round number signifying that he had come to a point of completeness and was of full age for the task facing him (three intensified), but is probably approximately correct.
“Went out from the presence of Pharaoh.” He not only left Pharaoh but carried with him his authority.
“Went throughout all the land of Egypt.” This repetition of verse Genesis 41:45 b is typical of ancient literature which loved repetition for the sake of the hearers.
‘And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls, and he gathered up all the food of the seven years which was in the land of Egypt and laid up the food in the cities, the food of the field which was round about every city laid he up in the same. And Joseph laid up corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering for it was without number.’
What he had dreamed began to happen. There were seven years when the corn flourished, and he began to lay up food in each city from round about that city, and of this one fifth would be stored away permanently to prepare for the seven bad years to come. And so flourishing was the harvest that after a time they began to stop keeping records because there was too much to record.
‘And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, which Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh, for he said, “God has made me forget all my labour and all my father’s house.” And the name of the second he called Ephraim, “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” ’
Not only was the land fruitful, but Joseph and his wife were fruitful as well, and they had two sons ‘before the year of famine came’.
“Potiphera”, a similar name to Potiphar. They were probably two renderings of the same not uncommon Egyptian name.
“Manasseh.” This means ‘making to forget’. This was because the joy of having a firstborn son, added to the privileged position he now enjoyed, enabled him to forget what had gone before.
“All my father”s house.’ He has also been able to forget the treatment at the hands of his brothers. But this does not mean that he totally forgot his home for, as we discover later, he had fond memories of his father and of Benjamin.
“Ephraim.” From the root ‘to be fruitful’. This demonstrated his joy in the fruitfulness of the land and in his own fruitfulness.
‘And the seven years of plenty that were in Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come in the way that Joseph had said, and there was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. And when all the land of Egypt was becoming hungry the people cried to Pharaoh for bread and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. Do what he says to you.” And the famine was over the face of the whole earth, and Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, and the famine was severe in the land of Egypt, and all countries came to Egypt, to Joseph, to buy corn because the famine was severe in all the earth.’
As predicted seven years of plenty passed and the particularly severe famine eventually came, and it was clearly very widespread. But everything was ready. The storehouses were opened and the people were able to buy corn to meet their needs, and many in the surrounding area, hearing there was corn in Egypt, came too to buy corn.
“There was famine in all lands.” ‘The famine was over the face of the whole earth’. ‘All countries came to Egypt to buy corn.’ ‘The famine was severe in all the earth.’ Notice the stress on ‘all’. As far as their knowledge reached there was severe famine. But these universal sayings are not to be taken literally. They speak of the world from Egypt’s point of view. As far as Egypt was cognisant there was extended famine, and people and requests for corn seemed to come from everywhere. This was the meaning of the words to the Egyptians who did not have a concept of the whole earth as we know it. But Canaan, which was close by and which was totally dependent on rain, would suffer grievously.
“Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians.” That is, through orders to his officials throughout the land (probably sealed by Joseph, his vizier).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 41". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
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