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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Genesis 40:0


Joseph Interprets a DreamThe Prisoners' DreamsJoseph, the Interpreter of DreamsJoseph Interprets the Prisoners' DreamsJoseph Interprets the Dreams of Pharaoh's Officials
Genesis 40:1-8Genesis 40:1-8Genesis 40:1-8Genesis 40:1-4Genesis 40:1-4
Genesis 40:5-7Genesis 40:5-8
Genesis 40:8a
Genesis 40:8b
Genesis 40:9-15Genesis 40:9-15Genesis 40:9-15Genesis 40:9-11Genesis 40:9-15
Genesis 40:12-15
Genesis 40:16-19Genesis 40:16-19Genesis 40:16-19Genesis 40:16-17Genesis 40:16-19
Genesis 40:18-19
Genesis 40:20-23Genesis 40:20-23Genesis 40:20-23Genesis 40:20-23Genesis 40:20-23

READING CYCLE THREE (see Guide to Good Bible Reading)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verses 1-8

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 40:1-8 1Then it came about after these things, the cupbearer and the baker for the king of Egypt offended their lord, the king of Egypt. 2Pharaoh was furious with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. 3So he put them in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, in the jail, the same place where Joseph was imprisoned. 4The captain of the bodyguard put Joseph in charge of them, and he took care of them; and they were in confinement for some time. 5Then the cupbearer and the baker for the king of Egypt, who were confined in jail, both had a dream the same night, each man with his own dream and each dream with its own interpretation. 6When Joseph came to them in the morning and observed them, behold, they were dejected. 7He asked Pharaoh's officials who were with him in confinement in his master's house, "Why are your faces so sad today?" 8Then they said to him, "We have had a dream and there is no one to interpret it." Then Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please."

Genesis 40:1 "the cupbearer" This word comes from the VERB "to drink" (BDB 1052). It is often translated "butler." The Aramaic translation of this word is "chief cupbearer." There are two other references to this office in the Bible: (l) in Nehemiah 1:11 (BDB 1052 I) and (2) the term "Rabshakeh" (BDB 913 II, cf. 2 Kings 18:17, 2 Kings 18:19, 2 Kings 18:26, 2 Kings 18:27, 2 Kings 18:28, 2 Kings 18:37; 2 Kings 19:4, 2 Kings 19:8; Isaiah 36:2, Isaiah 36:4, Isaiah 36:11, Isaiah 36:12, Isaiah 36:13, Isaiah 36:22; Isaiah 37:4, Isaiah 37:8). Apparently this was a very high court official and a very trusted person. He not only tasted and brought the king's food, but also gave personal counsel. He would have always been on guard for any plot to hurt or kill the king. He was a culinary bodyguard!

"the baker of the king of Egypt" The baker (BDB 66, KB 78, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE) was also a very important official and confidant in the ancient Oriental courts. This was particularly true in Egypt where we know of 38 kinds of cakes which were regularly baked as well as 57 kinds of breads. Some of the bread was dyed different colors and made of different kinds of grain and in different physical shapes to resemble some of the animals and characteristic objects of Egypt.

"offended their lord, the king of Egypt" How they offended is not stated. It could have involved (1) the quality of their food and/or drink or (2) their advice, or lack of it. The VERB "offended" (BDB 306, KB 305, Qal PERFECT) has a wide semantical field ("to miss a goal," "sin," "go wrong," cf. Genesis 39:9; Genesis 42:22; Genesis 43:9). Rashi (Jewish commentator of the Middle Ages) says that the offenses referred to were: (1) they found a fly in the king's wine and (2) they found a pebble in the king's bread. However, this is merely speculative interpretation or oral tradition.

Genesis 40:2 "Pharaoh was furious" This VERB (BDB 893, KB 1124, Qal IMPERFECT) is often used of

1. God's anger, Leviticus 10:6; Numbers 16:22; Deuteronomy 1:34; Deuteronomy 9:19

2. man's anger

a. Moses, Exodus 16:20; Leviticus 10:16; Numbers 31:14

b. the commanders of the Philistines, 1 Samuel 29:4

c. Naaman, 2 Kings 5:11

d. a man of God, 2 Kings 13:19

e. Ahasuerus, Esther 1:12

f. king's guards, Esther 2:21

It denotes an intense wrath that issues in action. It is a different word from Genesis 39:19, "his anger burned" (BDB 354, KB 351).

Genesis 40:3 "So he put them in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard" This title, "captain of the bodyguard," refers to Potiphar (cf. Genesis 37:36; Genesis 39:1). Potiphar's chief jailor (BDB 978) put Joseph in charge of the prison. It is obvious that these two prisoners would be politically touchy because it was quite possible that they might be restored and they could be powerful enemies at court.

"imprisoned" The term "imprisoned" is literally "bound" (BDB 63, KB 75). Joseph was probably bound in fetters (cf. Psalms 105:18) for a period of time and although God was with him, this was a hard, cruel life. We are not certain how long he remained in jail-some commentators say as long as 10 years (i.e., "some time" of Genesis 40:4).

Genesis 40:4 "the captain of the bodyguard put Joseph in charge of them" This man would want these high officials treated well and Joseph seemed to be the perfect person for the job.

One wonders if the person called "the captain of the bodyguard" refers to

1. Potiphar, Genesis 37:36; Genesis 39:1

2. the chief jailor, Genesis 39:21-23

It may be that it was a special prison under Potiphar's control, but he delegated responsibility to "a chief jailor" who delegated it to Joseph.

Genesis 40:5 This verse sets the literary stage for Joseph's second giftedness to become obvious (i.e., dream interpretation). YHWH often reveals Himself (or the Angel of the Lord) to His people in visions, but to non-Abrahamic peoples, He often used dreams (cf. Genesis 20:3; Genesis 31:24; Genesis 41:1; Daniel 2:0).

Genesis 40:6-7 "When Joseph came to them in the morning and observed them, behold, they were dejected" It is obvious here that Joseph was not bound at this time of his imprisonment and also that he really did care about these men and was concerned about their physical, as well as emotional ("dejected," BDB 277 II, KB 277, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE), condition.

Genesis 40:8 Again, Joseph reveals his basic view of life (i.e., that God is in control of all things, including dreams (cf. Genesis 41:16, Genesis 41:25, Genesis 41:28; Daniel 2:27-28, Daniel 2:45). We know from his own life that dreams were a very important way of God speaking to him as a young child (cf. Genesis 37:0), even though it caused him rejection by his family.

The VERB "tell" (lit. "recount," BDB 707, KB 765, Piel IMPERATIVE) also opens the next verse ("told," Piel IMPERFECT, cf. Genesis 37:10).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 40:9-15 9So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, "In my dream, behold, there was a vine in front of me; 10and on the vine were three branches. And as it was budding, its blossoms came out, and its clusters produced ripe grapes. 11Now Pharaoh's cup was in my hand; so I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I put the cup into Pharaoh's hand." 12Then Joseph said to him, "This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; 13within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh's cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer. 14Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house. 15For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon."

Genesis 40:9 "there was a vine in front of me" Many commentators have asserted that this was an historical dream because fermented wine was not used in Egypt. However, it seems that the ancient historian, Heroditus, has been somewhat misunderstood in this connection. It is true that fermented wine was not a common drink in Egypt, but it was used among the priestly and royal classes. So, it would have been a unique symbol for a kingly drink (see Manners and Customs of the Bible by James M. Freeman, p. 45).

Genesis 40:11 "squeezed" This VERB (BDB 965, KB 1315, Qal IMPERFECT) surprisingly is found only here in the OT.

Genesis 40:13 The cupbearer will be restored to royal confidence and service.

The word translated "your former custom" is literally "judgment" (BDB 1048), but used in a rare non-theological sense. Usually it is translated "judgment" or "justice." See Special Topic: Judge, Judgment, Justice.

Genesis 40:14-15 For Joseph's service and kindness, he asks a favor from the cupbearer. He explains the injustice of his situation and asks Pharaoh for a remedy. Joseph should not be held as Pharaoh's prisoner since he was a captured slave.

Genesis 40:15 Something of Joseph's thoughts about his betrayal by his brothers is expressed in "kidnapped" (lit. "to be stolen away"). This is intensified in the text by the use of the INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and the PERFECT VERB of the same root (BDB 170, KB 198).

"from the land of the Hebrews" This could be

1. a later editor/scribe adding this comment

2. used in the sense of the land where the Patriarchs lived (if this is true, then Hebrew has been redefined and used in a very limited sense)

"dungeon" This word (BDB 92) is the same word used for the dry cistern (cf. Genesis 37:24) his brothers threw him into in Canaan. He has just traded one pit for another!

The term is used for a prison in Exodus 12:29; Jeremiah 37:16, and here.

Verses 16-19

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 40:16-19 16When the chief baker saw that he had interpreted favorably, he said to Joseph, "I also saw in my dream, and behold, there were three baskets of white bread on my head; 17and in the top basket there were some of all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, and the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head." 18Then Joseph answered and said, "This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days; 19within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and will hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat your flesh off you."

Genesis 40:16 "I also saw in my dream, and behold, there were three baskets of white bread on my head" The Hebrew term for "white bread" (BDB 301 I) is a very rare term which comes from an Aramaic and Arabic root which means "white" (NIDOTTE, vol. 2, p. 54). It could refer to a white wicker basket where birds could eat the bread from both the top and the sides (cf. Genesis 40:17).

It is interesting to note that in Canaan women carried heavy loads on their heads, but in Egypt only the men carried heavy loads on their heads, while the women carried them on their shoulders. This shows the unique historicity of this account.

Genesis 40:17 "all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh" This is quite accurate historically as we have learned from certain Egyptian documents that there were 38 kinds of cakes and 57 kinds of bread known in Egypt (see note at Genesis 40:1).

Genesis 40:19 "Pharaoh will lift up your head from you" It is obvious from Genesis 40:13-19 that there is a radical reinterpretation of this phrase "lift up your head" (BDB 669, KB 724, Qal IMPERFECT). In Genesis 40:13 it simply means to "lift up one's head so as to do them good" (cf. Numbers 6:26). It is an idiom for "release" (cf. 2 Kings 25:27). In Genesis 40:19 it means to "lift up one's head so as to cut it off" (BDB 671, 3,b).

It is also obvious that Genesis 40:19 does not refer to hanging because it is difficult to hang one whose head has been cut off! This hanging apparently meant to hang or to impale one publicly after he was already dead (cf. Joshua 8:29; 1 Samuel 31:9-10; 2 Samuel 4:12). This seems to be the general intent of this public impaling as can be ascertained from Deuteronomy 21:23. The fact that the man's body would be eaten by birds would be especially horrendous to an Egyptian who place so much emphasis on embalming after death to preserve the body.

One wonders if there is a connection between

1. "prison" (lit. "round") of Genesis 39:20-23; Genesis 40:3, Genesis 40:5

2. "dungeon" (lit. "pit") of Genesis 40:15

3. "lift up"

Could the prison have been a large round hole in the earth?

Verses 20-23

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 40:20-23 20Thus it came about on the third day, which was 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. 21He restored the chief cupbearer to his office, and he put the cup into Pharaoh's hand; 22but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

Genesis 40:20-23 This is the fulfillment of Joseph's interpretation and the failure of the chief cupbearer to remember (BDB 269, KB 269, Qal PERFECT). Again, nobody but YHWH can help Joseph. God is his only resource!

Again, the VERB "lift up" is used in opposite ways (with some ambiguity, cf. Genesis 40:20).


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. Why did Potiphar promote Joseph?

2. How is Joseph contrasted in this chapter with Judah in the previous chapter?

3. Did Joseph recognize that he was in prison for a purpose?

4. Does God always speak through dreams or just through certain dreams? Is the ability to interpret dreams a common spiritual gift or a limited, OT experience?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Genesis 40". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/genesis-40.html. 2021.
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