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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-23

The butler.
] “The cupbearer and overseer of the wine—making and storing and serving, an important officer of the king. (2 Kings 18:17.) He was now a state prisoner for an offence against Pharaoh.”—(Jacobus.) His baker. “This was another officer in trust of the king’s bread and of its making; and his post was one of high trust, because they who had charge of the food of the king might easily poison him.”—(Jacobus.)—

Genesis 40:4. The captain of the guard.] Potiphar. Charged Joseph with them. Not to watch over them, but to wait upon them as a servant. They continued a season in ward. Heb. Days. It is generally supposed that this represents about a year.—

Genesis 40:5. Each man according to the interpretation of his dream.] This expression is intended to show that the dreams were not empty and unmeaning, but suited to each man’s case and capable of a sound interpretation.—

Genesis 40:11. I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup.] “The imagery of the dream is not intended to intimate that Pharaoh drank only of the fresh juice of the grape. It only expresses by a natural figure the source of wine, and possibly the duty of the chief butler to understand and superintend the whole process of its formation.”—(Murphy.)—

Genesis 40:15. I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews.] “This phrase is no interpolation. Judea was probably known by this name in Egypt, which Abraham had visited from that land. It may also favour the presumption that the land was inhabited by Hebrews before Canaan took possession of it.”—(Jacobus.)—

Genesis 40:16. Three white baskets on mine head.] The figures on Egyptian monuments show that was the usual manner in which men carried baskets, while the women carried on the shoulders.—

Genesis 40:17. All manner of bake-meats for Pharaoh.] Heb. “All manner of food of Pharaoh, the work of a baker.” The term properly signifies “baked food” in general. The birds did eat them out of the baskets. “Even at this day in Egypt kites and hawks seize upon articles of food carried upon the head”—(Knobel.)—

Genesis 40:19. Lift up thine head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree.] He was to be beheaded, and his body hung up in disgrace. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 10:26; 2 Samuel 4:12.)—

Genesis 40:20. Lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker.] “In Exodus 30:12, and Numbers 1:49, this phrase is used in the sense of numbering, and, if so here, then it would mean that in recounting his officers, Pharaoh numbered these—took their poll.”—(Jacobus.) But some regard this phrase as elliptical, the full expression being to lift up the head out of prison, an appropriate one, as such places of confinement were usually under ground.



This chapter discovers signs that Joseph was destined to fill an important place in the history of the kingdom of God. This was now the time of his trial and preparation for his great calling as the ruler of the Egyptians, the deliverer of his nation. Some of the indications of his high destiny are these:—

I. The conviction of his innocence and integrity gains ground. Joseph was, at first, thrown into a dungeon and laid in irons. Now, this severe discipline is relaxed, and he is appointed to a kind of stewardship over the other prisoners. It is highly probable that, by this time, Potiphar was convinced of his innocence, though he detained him in custody for prudential reasons. Joseph was everywhere giving the impression of being a good and holy man. The character of Potiphar’s wife could not long be concealed; and as it became more and more known, the belief in Joseph’s innocence would gain ground.

II. He discovers signs of his true vocation.

1. As a saint of God. Mark how Joseph refers to God in every important crisis of his history. When Pharaoh’s two officers lamented that there was no interpreter of their dreams, he said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” He was always true to his religion. His unmurmuring patience, and calmness in the midst of overwhelming calamities declare what manner of man he is. They speak to us of one who drew from secret springs of consolation, and whose hope was in the Lord his God. Mark his temperateness and forbearance, his calmness and simplicity. He does not speak unkindly of his brethren, he does not even name them, but simply states that he was “stolen out of the land of the Hebrews,” and that he had “done nothing” that they should put him “into the dungeon.” (Genesis 40:15). Here was the faith and resignation of a saint, whose life was fit to be recorded in the pages of Revelation as an eminent and worthy example to all ages.

2. As a prophet of God. As such, he interprets dreams, which are here to be considered as Divine revelations to men, of warning, reproof, and teaching. (Job 33:14-18.) His own experience had taught him how dreams came from God. It was Joseph’s office to reveal to these prisoners the meaning of what God had taught them in their dreams. The true prophet of God interprets the dreams of humanity for a better time. He gives the vague conceptions of sincere, though ill-informed seekers after truth, a form and certainty. He even interprets the groans and pains of creation’s agony. (Romans 8:19-23.)

3. As a kind and just ruler of men. Joseph was clearly a man who was destined to wield a commanding, and even a regal influence over others. He was fitted for this, doubtless, by his intellectual gifts and general characteristics, but more especially

(1) By his sympathy. “Wherefore look ye so sadly to-day?” he said to his fellow-prisoners whose dreams suggested the worst forebodings. (Genesis 40:6-7.) He himself had been in the school of affliction, and he had learned to be tender. Though he had griefs of his own to bear, he felt for others. He cannot be a true ruler of men who has not learned sympathy.

(2) By his uprightness. He was firm and faithful even when he had to tell unpleasant truths. (Genesis 40:18-19.) Such are the qualities required in a true ruler of men. (2 Samuel 23:3-4.)

III. He retains faith and hope in God in the midst of all his adversities. God was with him in the prison. Therefore he does not abandon himself to despair, but still trusts and hopes on. Though Joseph could not fortell his own deliverance, he has confidence that he shall yet be brought out of his house of bondage. (Genesis 40:14). He has confidence that God would, in some way, vindicate him. Pharaoh might have his dreams as well as his servants, and he might be glad to have such an interpreter as Joseph in his court. Or, God might reveal to him the innocence of this prisoner, who was merely the victim of a false accusation. Conscious of his own integrity Joseph, even in his most gloomy moments, never loses faith and hope in God. (Genesis 40:15).


Genesis 40:1-3. The place where Joseph was bound. Here was a “wheel within a wheel” (Ezekiel 1:0), a sweet providence; that these obnoxious officers should be sent to Joseph’s prison.—(Trapp.)

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 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 exaltations, and Israel’s redemption. “The Lord finds a thousand ways where reason sees not even one.”—(Lange.)

Genesis 40:4. As Joseph was his slave, and these were State prisoners, he appointed him to wait upon them. It is probable that Joseph’s character had been somewhat re-established with him during his residence in the prison.—(Murphy.)

The occurrences of the heathen world, the affairs of courts, their crimes, cabals, intrigues, are all under the divine control. Prisons, too, with their dark chambers, dungeons, sorrows, secrets, are under the control of God. At all times they have 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.—(Lange.)

Genesis 40:5-7. It appears from hence that Joseph was not a hard-hearted overseer: unlike many petty officers, whose overbearing conduct towards their inferiors is the most intolerable, he sympathises with the sorrowful, and makes free with them. The fear of God produces tenderness of heart and compassion towards men, especially to the poor and the afflicted.—(Fuller.)

Joseph had suffered like them, and therefore he understood their feelings. With the value of suffering we are familiar; but we do not often remember that suffering is absolutely necessary to capacitate us for sympathy. Would you be a Barnabas, a son of consolation? Brother men, you may; but then you must pay the cost, the education of the soul by suffering.—(Robertson.)

Genesis 40:8-11. Supernatural dreams seem usually to have left an impression upon the minds of their recipients amounting to a violent agitation. (Daniel 2:1.) So also the dream of Pilate’s wife. (Matthew 27:19). We see from this what access God has to the spirits of men, and how easily He can arm their imaginations against their own peace. He can at pleasure send a secret panic into our souls, and scare us as He did Job with dreams and visions, and even fill our days and nights with terror by presages and forebodings of uncertain evils.—(Bush.)

But what kind of interpreters did these men wish for? Such, no doubt, as Pharaoh on his having dreamed, called for, namely the magicians, and the wise men of Egypt; and because they had no hopes of obtaining them in their present situation, therefore were they sad. Here lies the force of Joseph’s question: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Which was a reproof to them for looking to their magicians instead of Him; hence also he offered himself as the servant of God to be their interpreter.—(Fuller.)

The servants of God may be bound in a prison; but the word of God is not bound. (2 Timothy 2:9.)

Divine words and warnings can only be interpreted by those who are taught of God.
Observe the characteristic nature of those dreams. In every case the dream betrayed the man. The butler dreamed of three great vine branches and ripe grapes, the baker of three baskets of baked meats, and Joseph, in one of his own dreams, dreamt of agriculture, the calling to which he had been accustomed. The application that we make of this is, that our spontaneous thoughts betray our character. The trivial man dreams of trivial things, but if the vision that is presented is to a man like St. Paul, he is lifted up to the third heaven, and hears unutterable things which it is not lawful to speak. The dream itself is evidence of a man of deep feeling and imagination, and of a life of spirituality. When Peter too dreamed of the sheet let down from heaven and was told to kill and eat, he says: “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” The answer speaks of a long life of obedience, for even in his dream he could not be induced to transgress the written law of God. In our hours of contemplation the soul is surrounded by its own creations, and if they be of a holy character, the man lives as in the presence of God and angels, but if, on the contrary, instead of imagination spiritualized and purified, the spirit is but sensualized, the man has then made for himself his own hell.—(Robertson).

Genesis 40:12-13. The general interpretation given by Joseph to the dream is quite obvious. He would naturally infer that the man was very desirous of being restored to his office, and he would be very apt to say that such was the drift of the dream; still it would have been a mere guess. Nothing short of Divine inspiration could have assured Joseph that the dream was to be realized. But there was another circumstance which left no room to doubt whether the interpretation was only a happy conjecture or a Divine discovery. The time was specified; the three branches were three days. What human sagacity could have divined that the branches of the vine had any reference to time? or, if they had, whether three days, or three months, or three years were meant. It was wisely ordered that one part of the dream should require a divinely inspired interpreter. It was God’s design to assure the butler that Joseph obtained his wisdom, not from man, but by revelation from above.—(Bush).

Joseph foresaw the time of the butler’s deliverance, but he knew not the time of his own. In good hope he was, that now he should have been delivered, upon the restoration of the butler, and his intercession for him; but he was fain to stay two years longer; “till the time that God’s word came: the word of the Lord tried him” (Psalms 105:19); by trying, as in a fire, his faith and patience in afflictions.—(Trapp).

Genesis 40:14. He very naturally throws in a request on behalf of himself. There is no symptom of impatience in this: but patience itself may consist with the use of all lawful means to obtain deliverance. The terms in which this request are made are modest, and exceedingly impressive. He might have asked for a place under the chief butler, or some other post of honour or profit: but he requests only to be delivered from this house. He might have reminded him how much he owed to his sympathetic and kind treatment; but he left these things to speak for themselves. In pleading the exalted station in which the chief butler was about to be reinstated, he gently intimates the obligations which people in prosperous circumstances are under, to think of the poor and afflicted; and Christians may still farther improve the principle, not to be unmindful of such cases in their approaches to the King of Kings. This plea may also direct us to make use of His name and interest, who is exalted at the right hand of the Majesty on high. It was on this principle that the dying thief presented his petition. Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom! A petition which the Lord of Glory did neither refuse nor forget: and still He liveth to make intercession for us.—(Fuller.)

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 for anything unfair of the butler. (1 Corinthians 7:21.)—(Lange.)

1. The principle of this request. It is this, that those who have themselves suffered are able to enter into the feelings of others who are called upon likewise to suffer. Men are prepared for the ministry of help and consolation by suffering.

2. Illustrations of this principle.

(1.) The children of Israel were required to show kindness to the stranger, because they understood the feelings of a stranger when they were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(2.) Joseph might assume that the butler knew the feelings of a prisoner, and that he would be ready to help his poor companion in bonds.

(3.) It was thus that the Son of Man was trained to be the Captain of our salvation. (Hebrews 2:10.)

Genesis 40:15. Hence he was of a superior class to that from which slaves were commonly taken.—(Jacobus.)

In this profession of innocence, notice his calmness and simplicity. There are no invectives against his brethren, or against Potiphar and his wife; he merely states that he was innocent. Calm assertion is generally a proof of innocence. When you hear men cursing and swearing, like Peter, in order to asseverate their innocence, you may feel assured that there is guilt. It has been well observed, that this calmness of speech in the Gospel history is an evidence of its truth. Had it been a fiction, how would the writer have enlarged on the injustice of the Jews, and the difference in the characters of the blessed Redeemer and Barabbas! whereas the Evangelist makes no comment, but simply and calmly states the fact—“Now Barabbas was a robber.”—(Robertson.)

Genesis 40:16-19. Observe in Joseph’s conduct the integrity of his truthfulness. It was a pleasant thing to tell the chief butler that he should be reinstated in his office; but it was not pleasant to tell the baker that after three days he should be hanged. Yet Joseph could not shrink; having once accepted the office of interpreter, he was obliged to fulfil it faithfully. This truthfulness was a matter of habit as well as of principle with Joseph. There are many men who would not tell a direct falsehood, and yet their ordinary habit is by no means strictly veracious. With no distinct intention of doing wrong, they embellish and exaggerate. Therefore, let us get the habit of accuracy; and when a thing is simply unpleasant, let us not say that it is dreadful. These are merely habits, but by degrees they break down the truth of the Christian character.—(Robertson.)

And Joseph answered, etc. It is probable he used some preface to this sad destiny he reads him; as Philo brings him in saying, I would thou hadst not dreamt such a dream: or as Daniel prefaced to Nebuchadnezzar; “My lord, the dream be to them that hate thee, and the interpretation to thine enemies.” (Daniel 4:19.) If ministers, God’s interpreters, must be mannerly in the form, yet in the matter of their message they must be resolute. Not only toothsome, but bitter truths must be told, however they be taken. (Galatians 1:10.)—(Trapp).

In Hebrew, “to lift up the head,” is a play upon words. It means to restore to honour and dignity, or to hang upon the gallows, or decapitation (taking off the head), or crucifixion (lifting up upon the cross).—(Lange.)

Genesis 40:20-22. If both these men’s dreams had portended pardon, the interpretation given by Joseph might have been considered merely as a lucky conjecture. It was reasonable to suppose that on the approaching festivity of the king’s birthday he would signalize his clemency by some act of grace to offenders; but who could have foreseen that he would make one of his servants to feel the severity of his displeasure on the happy day, whilst he pardoned the other; or that he would execute his displeasure by hanging his dead body on a tree, and exposing it as a prey to the fowls of heaven? Every circumstance tended to establish the credit of Joseph as a man that enjoyed intercourse with heaven. In like manner the perfect accomplishment of the various prophecies of the Scripture leaves us without excuse if we withhold our belief of its Divine inspiration.—(Bush.)

Genesis 40:23. The butler’s ingratitude.

1. It was blameworthy, though he had received no personal favour from Joseph. He knew that this young man was unjustly enslaved and imprisoned. It was an act of inhumanity to forget him.
2. It is recorded as an example of warning for all time. The name of this chief butler is condemned to perpetual dishonour; and, while the world lasts, will be held up as a warning to men not to be too confiding in the companions of their adversity when these are raised to positions where they can help them. High station often changes the manners, and makes men too proud to notice their humble friends and to remember the kindnesses they received from them in simpler days.
3. It reminds us that God will notice and visit all ingratitude. There is a Book of God which contains the record of every individual life. And when that Book is opened, confusion will cover the faces of all who have been guilty of ingratitude to God or man.

Alas, what a selfish creature is man! How strangely does prosperity intoxicate and drown the mind. How common it is for people in high life to forget the poor, even those to whom they have been under the greatest obligations. Well, be it so; Joseph’s God did not forget him: and we, amidst all the neglects of creatures, may take comfort in this—Jesus does not neglect us. Though exalted far above all principalities and powers, He is not elated with His glory, so as to forget His poor suffering people upon earth. Only let us be concerned not to forget Him. He who needs not our esteem, as we do His, hath yet in love condescended to ask us to do thus and thus in remembrance of Him!—(Fuller.)

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.—(Lange).

Our ingratitude towards the New Testament, Joseph, in forgetting all that He has done for us in our bondage, will fill us with confusion at the great day!—(Jacobus).

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 40". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/genesis-40.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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