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4. Interpretation of the Prisoners’ Dreams by Joseph (40:1-23)

The things that transpire in this chapter are in preparation for Joseph’s deliverance. He was not forgotten and forsaken as he may at times have deemed himself to be. The experiences of this chapter lead directly to Joseph’s advancement.

1-4. And it came to pass after these things that the butler of the king of Egypt and the baker offended their master, the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry at his two eunuchs, at the chief of the butlers and at the chief of the bakers, and put them under guard in the house of the chief of the bodyguard, the prison, the place where Joseph was bound. And the chief of the bodyguard entrusted Joseph with them and he waited on them; and they were under guard for quite a while.

The chapter connects very directly with what was last narrated. After Joseph had advanced to the position of trust and responsibility where all things were directly under his responsibility, the two high officers of the court incurred the royal displeasure. When it is said that they "offended" their lord, the verb used, hate’u implies actual guilt on the part of each, for literally it means, "they sinned." This verb does not connect with the introductory verb "it came to pass" by the customary "and" (waw). For parallel instances see K. S. 370 b. The offending officials, who according to v. 2 are the chief of their class in each case, are here merely designated as "the butler" and "the baker." But already the article is practically equivalent to "the chief of." Where critics regard 2.1006this difference as indicative of two different authors, they are arguing on the assumption that an author would not care to alter expressions for variety’s sake.

2. These two officials are designated as "eunuchs" sarisaw, with long "a" —so-called qamets impurum. We have no means of determining whether in this case the men actually were eunuchs, or whether the term had come to signify merely a royal officer. In any case, we know both from secular parallels as well as from Scriptures (Neh; 1:11 —Nehemiah; and 2 Kings 18:17 —Rabshakeh, which Aramaic name means "chief of the cupbearers") that at least the butler’s office was one of the most influential, and presumably the baker’s also. Mashqeh is strictly a participle and means "giving to drink," so "cupbearer." Since such persons had to be trusty individuals not involved in the frequent court intrigues, it is not to be wondered at that other responsibilities were laid upon them and that they constituted a group with a chief (sar) over them. Since v. 1 said "they sinned," v. 2 very likely speaks of a justifiable anger on Pharaoh’s part. To impute their imprisonment to some drunken whim is quite unwarranted. Again, the Jewish supposition that these officials had shared in a plot to poison their lord is too harsh. Such a deed would have called for more than temporary imprisonment.

3. Here it appears for the first time that the superintendent of the prison must have been Potiphar, "the captain of the bodyguard," and that "the prison" (beth hassohar as in 39:20) was in some way connected with Potiphar’s palace. So we see that the "keeper of the prison" (39:21) was this same Potiphar. These prisoners of high station apparently received better treatment than the common run of prisoners. Of them it is said: they were "put under guard" —not just cast into prison—"guard," mishmar2.1007from shamar, "to guard." By a dispensation of divine providence these two prisoners come to the very prison which is "the place where Joseph was bound." Meqom is construct state before a relative clause. Some light is thrown on the expression "bound" in reference to Joseph if we compare Ps. 105:18. Apparently, Joseph lay bound for a time when he first came to this prison. Afterward the expression is used as a loose synonym for "confined."

4. Prisoners of such high rank are deserving of special attention. The captain of the bodyguard may have reckoned from the very outset with the possibility of the restoration of these important prisoners. For their sake as well as for his own "he entrusted Joseph with them." Paqadh here really means he "appointed" or "assigned" Joseph to be with them. Besides, Joseph "waited on them" —shareth for higher forms of service, not like ’abhadh, which covers the menial tasks of a slave. Though yamim means only "days," here it may well signify "for quite a while," for in some cases the expression even means "years." (G. K. 139 h).

5-8. And both of them dreamed a dream, each man his own dream in one night, each man a dream with its own particular meaning, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were lying bound in the prison house. As Joseph came to them in the morning be noticed that they were out of humour. So he asked these eunuchs of Pharaoh which were with him in ward in his master’s house: Why are your faces so gloomy today? And they said to him: A dream we have dreamed, and as for an interpreter—we cannot get one. And Joseph said to them: interpretations are God’s matter. Pray tell me about it.

To tell the truth, it is rather unusual that dreams should be so numerous at this point of the Genesis 2.1008narrative after the many earlier instances we have encountered; cf. 20:3; 21:12; 28:12; 31:11, 24; 37:5 ff. But to tell about dreams is not a peculiarity of style of one man, as E. Why should J and P not be ready to record a dream if they know of one? The simple solution of the artificial problem created by criticism is just this: Moses wrote of dreams as they had bearing upon his subject and, therefore, as they actually occurred. It pleased God in His providence to let dreams play a more important role in the history of His people at this time. Persons who stand on a lower spiritual level are the ones to whom revelation comes through dreams.

Yet there is a difference between dreams and dreams. Vilmar has this to say: "The dreams of this and the following chapter are not to be put on a par with the dreams of Abraham and Jacob, in which the Lord appeared to them. They are phenomena of the natural psyche, the nephesh chayyah, but yet not entirely natural. In a secondary sense they appear as manifestations of God. For God’s revelation has a great variety of stages (Heb. 1:1). They may, therefore, be conceived of about as follows: God arouses the natural soul to be able to discern things, which according to God’s purpose are about to transpire."

5. The first statement stresses the fact that these dreams have something in common: they both come on the same night; they both have a meaning. But it stresses also that both have a very distinct difference—"each man a dream with its own particular meaning." The Hebrew way of putting this is: "each man according to the interpretation of his dream." But pithron, "interpretation," must mean "significance." So we believe our rendering covers the thought in idiomatic English. Stating this now, the story indicates that God so adapted these dreams as 2.1009to give them this difference. It was not a matter of accident or something that developed in the sequel, namely that these dreams are actually indicative of the things to come. God or the devil may influence dreams, as may also a poor digestion; but in this case it was God. It is not a meaningless repetition here to recount that the ones who dreamed were "the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were lying bound in the prison house." This is repeated to show us that divine providence was reckoning with these details when it roused these dreams in the souls of these men.

6. Joseph takes note that the men are out of sorts or "out of humour." Zo’aphim refers to any state of perturbation, whether more or less severe. We hold that the term is stronger than "sad" yet not quite "excited" (erregt) K. C. For Joseph to notice this at once indicates his kindness in attending upon the men who have been allotted to him.

7. He asks these men "with him" (’itto), that is "under his care": "Why are your faces so gloomy (ra’im —’evil’) today?" The mode of putting the question betokens kindliness, interest, respect. He asks as one who may be told and will be of whatever service he can. The whole expression "with him in ward in his master’s house" recalls that his position really demanded of him to take note even of such a thing as their moods and feelings. They had been "entrusted" to Joseph (v. 4), and Joseph took all such commissions very seriously. Therein lay a large measure of the secret of his success. Had Joseph not inquired of them why they were so gloomy, the entire chain of events that followed might have been rendered impossible.

8. Their answer indicates what was uppermost in their thoughts. The Hebrew sentence order in the first two clauses throws the emphatic word forward, 2.1010thus: "A dream we have dreamed, and an interpreter—none" (cf. K. S. 339 h). ’Eyn before ’otho is still construct state (G. K. 152 o). The manner of statement of these high officials indicates that on general principles they believed in dreams and would, had they been at liberty, at once have resorted to some acknowledged interpreter. Being under restraint in this latter respect makes them "out of humour" and "gloomy." Joseph’s reply is a revelation of Joseph’s principles and convictions. The claim, "interpretations are God’s matter," would strike a responsive chord in the Egyptians’ heart, though they would take it in the sense of some particular god who dominated such activity. Joseph meant: Only the one true God can interpret what he has sent. In the Hebrew the affirmation is made strong by putting the obvious truth in the form of a question which expects an affirmative answer: "Is it not that to God (belong) interpretations?" Joseph well knows, that even though a dream may reveal something, yet no man can detect what it is unless God grant him insight (cf. Dan. 2:11, 28, 47). Yet he asks, somewhat eagerly: "Pray tell me about it," literally: "tell, pray, to me." More than interest or curiosity lies behind this request. Appearing in the connection in which it does, it strongly suggests that Joseph surmised that under the circumstances God would grant the favour of interpretation to him, and he asks with this in mind.

9-11. And the chief of the butlers told his dream to Joseph and said to him: In my dream, see, a vine was before me; and on the vine were three tendrils; and as soon as it sprouted, blossoms had come upon it and its clusters had ripened out grapes. And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them out into 1.1011Pharaoh’s cup and gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.

The butler speaks first. This may have been due to the fact that he had no misgivings about his dream, much as it may have puzzled him. His account is very clear as it would be if the dream left a definite impression. But still it is a dream. If certain elements of the impossible are encountered, that will not surprise us: that is a usual feature in dreams. First, there was a vine standing directly before him. Three "tendrils," or "branches" (A. V.) are on this vine. This feature of the dream impressed the butler as an outstanding one. The season for sprouting is upon it, and the very process of sprouting takes place with visible progress before his very eyes. The quick succession of the ensuing steps in the process is indicated by unconnected perfects after khephoráchath —"as it was sprouting" (’alethah ="there had come up"; hibhshilû ="they had ripened out" —K. S. 119). Blossoms develop into grapes, which appear in complete clusters, which in turn are ripe almost on the spot. At this point the butler finds Pharaoh’s cup, no doubt a beautiful example of the goldsmith’s art, ready in his hand. While the grapes still hang on the vine, he takes them and presses them out into Pharaoh’s cup and then proceeds to hand the cup to Pharaoh, the final assumption being that with all these accelerated processes involved, by the time the cup was in Pharaoh’s hand its contents was the customary wine. The whole makes up a dream just as fantastic as those which every man has dreamed many a time.

Certainly, the deduction that the kings of ancient Egypt drank only fresh grape juice is exceedingly farfetched. Archaeological conclusions are not based on dreams as source material. The claim of some 2.1012that Moses slipped up on a matter of archaeological accuracy has since been dropped. The monuments of earlier days show various drinking utensils, men treading the wine press, men drinking wine to excess, even drunken women (Delitzsch). The Scriptural references, therefore, referring to Egyptian vine culture are very much in place (Ps. 78:47; 105:33; Num. 20:5). Hengstenberg has given the subject thoroughgoing treatment in Die Buecher Moses und Aegypten, in the first chapter.

12, 13. And Joseph said to him: This is the interpretation of it: the three tendrils stand for three days; yet three days and Pharaoh will lift up thy head and restore thee to thy position; and thou wilt hand Pharaoh’s cup to him, according to thy manner when formerly thou wast his butler.

Luther suggests that at this point, immediately upon hearing the butler’s dream, Joseph sought privacy and approached his God in prayer, as Christians are wont to do in all things in their daily life. We cannot think of Joseph as forgetting or overlooking prayer after what he had just said to the butler. God grants Joseph to discern the interpretation of the dream with perfect clearness. Therefore we see no wavering or uncertainty on Joseph’s part. He seizes upon the essential features of the dream that are now, after the interpretation of the dream, seen to stand out all the more clearly: three tendrils, the days; in three days restoration to former position and duties. Whatever parallel from heathen antiquity may be cited for tendrils signifying days, all such bear at best only an accidental similarity and never could have in any case made an authoritative interpretation possible: The expression, "lift up thy head," is idiomatic and takes its meaning from its connection. Here it must refer to putting an end to the butler’s gloom, when 2.1013he had hung his head. A parallel thought is found 4:6, 7. A parallel case 2 Kings 25:27.

14, 15. Only thou wilt remember me by thyself when it goeth well with thee, and do thou, I pray, show kindness to me and do thou bring me to Pharaoh’s remembrance and do thou bring me forth from this house. For I was of a truth stolen from the land of the Hebrews; and here too I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.

Usually the translations give a different turn to the first words of v. 14 than the original allows for: they make the perfect a precative—an impossibility—"but think on me" (A. V.). Ki’im —"only." The perfect of zekhartáni is, indeed, used in a futuristic sense: "thou wilt remember." The thought then is: everything will again be with you as it formerly was, except that from time to time "thou wilt remember me by thyself." This will happen when he is alone by himself and his thoughts revert to these unpleasant prison years. Then, when it "goes well" with him, the contrast may serve as a reminder, and the butler will be in a position to "show kindness" to Joseph and to bring his case to Pharaoh’s attention. The perfects (’asíthi and hizkartáni) are converted and so become hortative or precative futures.

15. If a prisoner lays claims to liberation, he must offer some explanation for his right to be liberated. Joseph covers both the more remote past as well as the more recent. He came to Egypt, he says, having been "stolen from the land of the Hebrews." That should appeal to the butler: Joseph has done no wrong; wrong was done to him. That accounts for his presence as a Hebrew in the land of Egypt. The rest of his claim is that here in Egypt he has "done nothing that they should have put" him "into the dungeon" (here bor, i. e. "pit"). The 2.1014whole explanation bears the stamp of verity. It is not too brief or so vague as to lead to the supposition that something is being suppressed. It is not so lengthy as fictitious explanations are liable to become in an effort to achieve plausibility. It bears all the earmarks of truth. "Land of the Hebrews" —a fitting expression, not an anachronism, for "Hebrews were all the inhabitants of Palestine of whatever race, who spoke the Phoenician—Canaanite —Hebrew tongue" Bailey and Kent, History of the Hebrew Commonwealth, p. 414.

The critics stress the verb "stolen" at this point setting it over against "sold" (37:28). This is supposed to be a wry strong proof for the different tales of J and E. Procksch says: "One ought to see into the fact that stealing and selling are two different things." However, the case is quite simple. If a great injustice is done to me by selling me into slavery, I am justified in calling that: stealing me, for that is what it amounts to. One ought to be able to see into that fact also. The only possibility the critics would allow for is that Joseph tells exactly what transpired. Of course, the critics cannot tell what transpired. For them there are two unreconciled and unreconcilable accounts in this story—J’s and E’s. But apart from that, they fail to see Joseph’s charity, which refuses to incriminate his own brothers, guilty as they are. He merely says in a general way that a great injustice was done him. He may in view of the underhanded way in which the transaction was carried through by his brothers well say that he was stolen.

16, 17. When the chief of the bakers saw that he had interpreted something promising, he said to Joseph: I too had a dream, and in my dream there were three baskets of white baked goods upon my head; and in the top basket there was 2.1015some of every sort of Pharaoh’s food— handiwork of the baker—and birds were eating them out of the basket upon my head.

From one point of view the chief of the bakers could hardly be blamed for expecting a favourable interpretation of his own dream, for there surely was at least something of a striking similarity between his dream and that of the butler. Both had the man who dreamed busied with the things relating to his former office. Both had the element of three prominently figuring in them. Now the butler had heard "something promising" (Hebrew: tobh —"good"). The baker tries his luck, ’ani emphatic. He tells of the three baskets—no doubt one on top of the other—with chori in them. This is best taken as coming from the root chur, meaning "white" —here "white baked goods" —not "open-work." The top basket had a variety of "some of every sort of Pharaoh’s food—handiwork of the baker." From this top basket birds did eat. Now all this had nothing unusual about it, as was the case in the butler’s dream. For baskets were commonly carried on their head by men, though not exclusively by them, as Herodotus claimed. And birds are liable to be especially bold in a land where, as was the case in days of old, no beast or bird was molested. But one thing the baker failed to notice, which is really one of the outstanding things of the dream and which was really ominous: he was unable to drive the birds off; they ate unmolested.

18, 19. And Joseph answered and said: This is its interpretation: Three baskets stand for three days; yet three days and Pharaoh will lift up thy head from off thee, and hang thee on a tree, and birds shall devour thy flesh from off thee.

God enables Joseph to discern the distinctive feature of this dream and to interpret very definitely 2.1016and correctly. Three days are signified by the three baskets. But now a very radical difference: "lifting up the head" (nasa’ ro’sh) must have an entirely different meaning because it is followed by "from thee." That must mean decapitation, a common form of capital punishment in Egypt. This is to be followed by hanging on a "tree", or "wood," ’ets, a less common mode of punishment. Then will the birds of prey be able to eat his flesh from off him. Whether this interpretation, which reads rather like a sentence than like an interpretation, was offered with all possible sympathy, or spoken bluntly and harshly we cannot know. If the baker had been a wicked fellow, the latter is the more likely. But judging by Joseph’s kindliness, we are rather inclined to favour the view which holds, that he broke the unwelcome news as kindly as he knew how. The writer says nothing on this score so as not to detract from major issues.

20-23. And it came to pass on the third day, Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a banquet for his courtiers, and he lifted up the head of the chief of the butlers and the head of the chief of the bakers amongst his courtiers; namely, he restored the chief of the butlers to his butlership, so that he again placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief of the bakers he hanged, as Joseph had interpreted for them. But the chief of the butlers did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

As usual, an important step in the narrative is introduced by wayhi, "and it came to pass:" The significant "third day" happened to be "Pharaoh’s birthday," yom hullédheth, the latter form being infinitive Hophal (G. K, 69 w) and is used as an attribute: "day of his being born" (K. S. 227 b), the sign of the direct object being retained before the noun Pharaoh though construed with a passive verb (K. S. 109). Royal birthdays were celebrated by "banquets" 2.1017(mishteh —a "drinking") and by amnesties, if the king was so minded. Both are common features of antiquity for royal birthdays at least for the Ptolemaic period according to the Rosetta stone. The ones invited are the "courtiers," strictly ’abhadhaw, "his servants." The play of words on "lifted up the head" is maintained, and the difference in the use of the phrase is at once adjusted. The one is restored to his "butlership," mashqeh, literally "drink" but by metonomy here the office. The fuller description of his reinstatement shows him again placing the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. The other courtier is hanged. Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams stands justified. Only the immediate sequel is disappointing: the butler did not "remember," he "forgot." This cannot have been an accidental forgetting. The thought of his promise must have kept recurring, but it was put off either for a more convenient season or because the butler just was not a man of his word. This surely was a culpable forgetting.

Nothing indicates that Joseph’s fate came as a punishment for his having presumed to interpret these dreams. We find no trace of presumption in what Joseph did. Joseph just was not yet fully tested in God’s crucible. For the great elevation impending a very thoroughgoing preparation was essential.

A sample of critical analysis of the chapter may be appended more as an illustration of presumption than as proof of scholarship. Procksch arrives at the following conclusions, accepted with many differences of opinion by critics as a whole; he ascribes to J 1, 3a, 5 (5b), 6, 14b, 15b; and to E: 2, 3, 4, 5a, 7:9, 10-12, 14a, 15a, 16-23. Consequently, E gets the lion’s share. We have showed the idle grounds for this division in some major cases in our exposition.


Several Scripture passages could be used as the key for the approach to this chapter. If one prefers to develop more fully the mysterious providence of God, then one would operate with the Scripture truth embodied in the words of the hymn,

"God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform."

Very similar would be the approach that builds on the word, "We walk by faith, not by sight." But Joseph at the same time fulfils the requirement that his Lord makes of him by proving himself one who "is faithful in that which is least" by humbling himself to perform lowly service for those committed to his care. It might also be quite proper to approach the chapter from the angle of Warranted and Unwarranted Use of Dreams.

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