On Genesis, Part 50: Joseph, The First Prophet

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Genesis 40:1 - 41:13

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On Genesis, Part 50: Joseph, The First Prophet

As we have already seen in Genesis chapter 39 where we had discussed Joseph in Egypt, Sex, Lies and Prison, after an unspecified time as the steward of his master’s house in Egypt, Joseph was put in prison among the prisoners of the pharaoh, on account of his alleged attempt to violate the wife of Potiphar. Evidently Potiphar, an officer in the court of the pharaoh, had apparently had the authority to commit prisoners into the prison of the king. However Yahweh had blessed Joseph, and he became a steward of the prison, a sort of trustee, which is an inmate who is given certain responsibilities within a prison. Even today this is a popular phenomenon in modern jails and prisons, and it is often a significant aspect of their daily operations.

It is very likely that during this time, Joseph still had in mind the dreams which he had communicated to his brethren some years before. As it is recorded in Genesis chapter 37, “6 And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: 7 For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf.” Then he told them again, “9… Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me”, and his brothers despised him for those dreams, precipitating the events by which he had become a slave in Egypt.

While Isaac had told Jacob that he would inherit the promises to Abraham, and he did, Isaac seems to have only been telling Jacob a plain and inevitable truth, and Yahweh God had upheld his words, so that they were not actually a prophecy. But here Joseph shall explicitly attribute his own ability to interpret dreams to God Himself, and that sets him apart as the first prophet, or at least, the first prophet of the children of Israel, since there is the much earlier Enoch to consider.

Evidently, Yahweh God had used two Egyptian women in order to help execute His plan for the children of Israel in Egypt: an adulterous sinner, the wife of a court official, and a princess, the daughter of a pharaoh. It was the empathy expressed by the daughter of pharaoh which had preserved Moses, and had also led to the preparation of a young Moses for his future destiny as the earthly leader of the children of Israel in the time of the Exodus. Then while the wiles of an adulteress had caused the imprisonment of Joseph, imprisonment is often a circumstance which Yahweh uses to guard those for whom He has plans, or those whom He desires to shelter, even if they are prophets. In the case of Joseph, perhaps his imprisonment sheltered him from the immorality and idolatry of Egypt, or from some other phenomenon or event which may have hindered his destiny, such as the invasions of the Hyksos. Or what is more likely, is that perhaps his imprisonment is also an example for men, that they should be humble and seek to do well even in the worst of circumstances, and another remarkable aspect of the character of Joseph is the humility which he is portrayed as having exhibited while he was in prison.

An example of men who had apparently been preserved in prison is found in the accounts of another prophet, Jeremiah, whom the people of Jerusalem had wanted to slay on account of his prophecies against them, but who had also apparently had a few friends in the government. One place where this is evident is found at the end of Jeremiah chapter 26: “20 And there was also a man that prophesied in the name of the LORD, Urijah the son of Shemaiah of Kirjathjearim, who prophesied against this city and against this land according to all the words of Jeremiah: 21 And when Jehoiakim the king, with all his mighty men, and all the princes, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death: but when Urijah heard it, he was afraid, and fled, and went into Egypt; 22 And Jehoiakim the king sent men into Egypt, namely, Elnathan the son of Achbor, and certain men with him into Egypt. 23 And they fetched forth Urijah out of Egypt, and brought him unto Jehoiakim the king; who slew him with the sword, and cast his dead body into the graves of the common people. 24 Nevertheless the hand of Ahikam the son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah, that they should not give him into the hand of the people to put him to death.”

So Jeremiah survived as a free man up until the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar had begun, and then we read in chapter 32: “1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 For then the king of Babylon's army besieged Jerusalem: and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the prison, which was in the king of Judah's house.” The subsequent verses explain the reason, which was that Zedekiah had also disliked the substance of his prophecies. Perhaps a year or so later, in Jeremiah chapter 39, after the destruction of the city by the Babylonians, we read: “11 Now Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon gave charge concerning Jeremiah to Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, saying, 12 Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do unto him even as he shall say unto thee. 13 So Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard sent, and Nebushasban, Rabsaris, and Nergalsharezer, Rabmag, and all the king of Babylon's princes; 14 Even they sent, and took Jeremiah out of the court of the prison, and committed him unto Gedaliah the son of Ahikam the son of Shaphan, that he should carry him home: so he dwelt among the people.” Having been imprisoned for at least a year, and perhaps even longer, it is certain that Jeremiah was preserved in his imprisonment, as the people of Jerusalem, who were in dire straits during the siege, as it is described in the opening verses of 2 Kings chapter 25, certainly would have killed a prophet who was persistently bearing down on them with evil omens, which is how they had viewed his prohecies. Once the siege had begun, which was in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s rule, then Jeremiah, like all others, would not have been able to leave the city. So he was preserved, albeit unwittingly, when Zedekiah had him in imprisoned.

Now as we commence with Genesis chapter 40, we find that among Joseph’s fellow prisoners are two other court officials, who are identified as the chief of the butlers, and the chief of the bakers, and these would have an important, although passive, role in Joseph’s eventual release from prison, and his own elevation into a position of authority in Egypt. These men seem to have been imprisoned together, and perhaps that indicates that they were involved together in the same offense. So before we return to the Genesis narrative, perhaps it is fitting to explain that this predicament is not extraordinary. Conspiracies and coups againt men who are rulers have occurred ever since there have been rulers. One example of such conspiracies in ancient Egypt is found in what is called The Judicial Papyrus of Turin, which dates to the time of Rameses III who ruled Egypt in the early 12th century BC. From this papyrus, the following text, of which the beginning is missing, was published under the title Results of a Trial for Conspiracy in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament:

… they are the abomination of the land. I laid the charge upon: the Overseer of the Treasury Montu-em-tawi; the Overseer of the Treasury Paif-ru; the Standard-Bearer Kar; the Butler Pai-Bes; the Butler Qedendenen; the Butler Baal-mahar [a “Semitic”, or actually, an Akkadian name]; the Butler Pa-ir-sun; the Butler Thut-rekh-nefer; the Royal Herald Pen-Renenut; the Scribe May; the Scribe of the Archives Pa-Re-em-heb; and the Standard-Bearer of the Garrison Hori, saying: "As for the matters which the people — I do not know who —have said, go and examine them." And they went and examined them, and they caused to die by their own hands those whom they caused to die — [I] do not know [who — and they] inflicted punishment [upon the] others—[I] do not know [who] also. But [I] charged [them strictly], saying: "Be careful, guard against having punishment inflicted (upon) a [person] irregularly [by an official] who is not over him." So I said to them repeatedly. As for all that they have done, it is they who have done it. Let all that they have done come upon their (own) heads, whereas I am privileged and immune unto eternity, since I am among the righteous kings who are in the presence of Amon-Re, King of the Gods, and in the presence of Osiris, Ruler of Eternity. [1]

Where the pharaoh attests that “I do not know who”, the editors explain this as a renunciation of any guilt which may arise from an incorrect judgment by the officials who had been appointed to try the conspirators. These are the officials who were charged with examining and punishing the conspirators against the pharaoh, and in subsequent paragraphs, which we shall only present here in part, we find descriptions of the guilty:

The great enemy Pai-bak-kamen, who had been Chief of the Chamber. HE WAS BROUGHT IN because he had been in collusion with Tiye and the women of the harem. He had made common cause with them. He had begun to take their words outside to their mothers and their brothers who were there, saying: "Gather people and stir up enemies to make rebellion against their lord!"….

The great enemy Mesed-su-Re, who had been butler. HE WAS BROUGHT IN because he had been in collusion with Pai-bak-kamen, who had been Chief of the Chamber, and with the women, to gather enemies and to make rebellion against their lord.

The great enemy Pa-tjau-emdi-Amon, who had been Agent of the Harem in the Retinue. HE WAS BROUGHT IN because he had heard the words which the men had plotted with the women of the harem, without reporting them….

The wives of the men of the gate of the harem, who had joined the men who plotted the matters…

The great enemy Pa-iry, son of Rem, who had been Overseer of the Treasury. HE WAS BROUGHT IN because he had been in collusion with the great enemy Pen-Huy-bin. He had made common cause with him to stir up enemies and to make rebellion against their lord….

This Pen-Huy-bin is not mentioned here again, however a footnote by the editors states that “In another document Pen-Huy-bin was guilty of securing a magic scroll to be used for witchcraft against Ramses III.” Continuing for a few more paragraphs:

The great enemy Bin-em-Waset, who had been Troop Commander of Ethiopia. HE WAS BROUGHT IN because his sister, who was in the harem in the retinue, had written to him, saying: "Gather people, make enemies, and come back to make rebellion against your lord!"….

The great enemy Pai-is, who had been Commander of the Army; the great enemy Messui, who had been Scribe of the House of Life; the great enemy Pa-Re-kamenef, who had been Chief (Lector Priest); the great enemy Ii-roi, who had been Overseer of the Priests of Sekhmet; the great enemy Neb-djefa, who had been butler; and the great enemy Shad-mesdjer, who had been Scribe of the House of Life ….

Before the list is completed, where many other conspirators are mentioned, even some of those who were initially charged with the task of examining and punishing the conspirators were themselves found to have been guilty in the plot:

The great enemy Pai-Bes, who had been butler. This sentence was carried out on him: he was left, and he took his own life.

The great enemy May, who had been Scribe of the Archives….

The great enemy Hori, who had been Standard-Bearer of the Garrison.

With the mention of the guilt of Hori, the surviving portion of the papyrus comes to an end, so his fate will never be known. There are many more than these, and many of whom had not been named, but were only described as “Persons who had been in common with them...” Some, as punishment, were allowed to take their own lives, and others merely had their noses and ears cut off. But many others must have been executed, where we only read statements such as “The officials who examined him caused his sentence to overtake him” and “Their crimes seized them”, and the actual sentences are not further described. [2]

This may have been a lengthy digression, but it is certainly worthwhile to see corroboration in Egyptian literature for the circumstances in which we find Joseph here in Genesis. The officials found here in prison with Joseph were most likely not the first Egyptian court officers imprisoned by a pharaoh, and they were certainly not the last. This also lends insight into the fact that these officials would have been tried and examined similarly to those of the time of Ramesses III. So with this background, we shall commence with Genesis chapter 40:

1 And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt. 2 And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers.

These officials are not merely a butler and baker, but each of them are also the chief officers of their respective departments. In the court of Ramesses III which we described here from the legal document, we have seen that there were multiple butlers and scribes, and treasurers, for example.

Both the Hebrew word פרעה or perah or parah, as we would transliterate it, and the English word pharaoh, are said to be transliterations of an Egyptian phrase which means “great house” [3], whereas the bearers of the title were no different than kings or any other ruling tyrants. There were no bakers found mentioned in the conspiracy against Ramesses III, however imperial bakers in the ancient world were found in the courts of the Assyrians, where they are mentioned in inscriptions recording duties of the officers of the court of Esarhaddon, and in the courts of the Hittites, as they are mentioned explicitly in accounts found in tablets which have been titled Instructions for Palace Personnel to Insure the King's Purity and Instructions for Temple Officials and published in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament. [4] There is also evidence of imperial bakers in inscriptions and paintings found in the tomb of the 11th Dynasty Egyptian official Meketre and the 19th Dynasty queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II. [6]

3 And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.

Here it is evident that these officials may have been involved together in some plot or conspiracy, but not necessarily against the person of the pharaoh. While the Biblical account does not give us any details of their charges, or how the case against them was executed, we may justly perceive that they would have been tried much like those who had been tried and punished in the conspiracy against Ramesses III, although he ruled Egypt about 450 years after this time.

4 And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them: and they continued a season in ward.

These men had not merely offended the pharaoh, but rather, they must have been suspected of some crime against him. So we read in Brenton’s translation of verse 1 of this chapter in the Septuagint: “1 And it came to pass after these things, that the chief cupbearer of the king of Egypt and the chief baker trespassed against their lord the king of Egypt.” However here it also seems that the captain of the guard wanted to ensure the safety of these men, being government officials who were probably not yet investigated or examined, and therefore he entrusted them directly to Joseph.

The Hebrew word translated as season is יום or yowm (#3117), which is also frequently translated as day, but actually, by itself, only represents an indeterminate period of time. It could be a month, day, year, or even a lifetime or an age, depending on the context in which it is used. But here it is also plural in the Hebrew passage, so it seems to refer to some months or weeks, if not days. The Septuagint ends the verse to read “… and they were some days in the prison.”

The Hebrew word often translated as butler, as it is here and also as its Egyptian equivalent is often translated by archaeologists in inscriptions, is שקה or sheqah (# 8248) and it means “to quaff, i.e. (causative) to irrigate or furnish a potion to” according to Strong’s original Concordance. While Gesenius agrees with this, his primary definition is “to give to drink, to furnish drink”. [7] But apparently the office of cup-bearer in the ancient world had entailed greater duties, and cup-bearers often had great influence with the king. The prophet Nehemiah had served as a cup-bearer to the king of Persia, but he also spent twelve years as a governor in Judaea. [8]

5 And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison.

We do not know at this point how long Joseph had been bound in prison. It must have been at least a couple of years that he had served Potiphar, since he had become his steward, and we cannot imagine that he had gained such a degree of trust for at least some considerable amount of time after he had become his servant. Here it is evident that Joseph had already been in prison for some months or, more probably, for some years. But we only know from the accounts here that Joseph was seventeen years old when he went to Egypt (Genesis 37:2), and that now from the time when the butler here is freed from prison, it is at least two years (Genesis 41:1) before Joseph would stand before the pharaoh and interpret his dream, where he was about 30 years old (Genesis 41:46). So here we may imagine that Joseph was as old as twenty-eight years, and while he had probably already been imprisoned for some time, we cannot determine precisely how long a time that had been, however the total time of Joseph’s tenure with Potiphar and his time in prison was altogether about eleven years.

6 And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. 7 And he asked Pharaoh's officers that were with him in the ward of his lord's house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly to day?

The Hebrew word translated as sad here is זעף or zaph (# 2196), which Strong’s original Concordance defines as “to boil up. i.e. (figuratively) to be peevish or angry”. In the Septuagint, it was translated with a Greek word, ταράσσω, which means troubled or agitated.

Perhaps a person who was never in prison for any length of time may think that a prisoner should appear to be sad, troubled or angry on any and every given day. However men do have an ability to adjust to their circumstances and make the best of them, although encumbrances may be found in attachments to pleasure or worldly possessions or rewards. Now the men answer Joseph:

8 And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.

Here once again, as he had when he spoke to the wife of Potiphar and told her that he would not sin against God, Joseph displays something of a faith and knowledge of the God of his fathers which he must have gotten from his father Jacob, but of which there is no indication in the accounts of his early life here in Genesis. But when Joseph spoke of God to the Egyptians, it is also evident that they would have thought of their own idols, rather than of the God of Joseph’s fathers, of whom they certainly did not have knowledge.

Earlier in his life, Joseph himself had dreams, for which reason his brothers despised him and he ended up in Egypt. So now this statement also seems to indicate a belief that those dreams had come to him from God, so he is confident that he can interpret the dreams of these men as well. Therefore, if he interprets them correctly, although the earlier dreams have not yet been fulfilled, it is manifest that Joseph is the first prophet in Genesis, or at least, the first prophet whose prophetic gifts are made evident in Genesis. While Enoch was also evidently a prophet, that is not revealed explicitly to Christians until the writing of the epistle of Jude, and otherwise we only know of Enoch’s prophesies from sources which are rather obscure, and some of which are rather spurious in whole or in part.

9 And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; 10 And in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes: 11 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.

Over the years we have met many Christians who claim to be able to interpret dreams, but if they have any element of any interpretation wrong, they cannot justly claim that their presumed gift is from God. For my part, I would not venture to interpret a dream, because I would not want to venture any pretense of a claim to being a prophet. So in my opinion, it is better not to try to interpret a dream at all, than to be only partly correct on some occasions. In Jeremiah chapter 23 we read: “25 I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. 26 How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart.” Many of our dreams are simply products of our own emotions, whether they be fears or desires, and we should not accept them as portents, and any attempts to interpret them are mere folly.

Yet Joseph was confident that he could interpret this dream even before he had heard it, and while it may seem that the manner in which he interpreted it was obvious in its symbols, that is only because he has already interpreted it for us, we already know the outcome, and now it is described to us in hindsight. But perhaps one indication that these particular dreams were significant is found where both of the men were sad and they said “we have dreamed a dream”, although not necessarily the same dream, and that seems to imply that the dreams which they had concurrently were worthy of further attention. So now we have Joseph’s interpretation of the butler’s dream:

12 And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days: 13 Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh's cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.

To lift up one’s head seems to at least sometimes have been an idiom which describes the making of a decision or a selection, as the editors of an inscription from the time of the Babylonian king Nabonidus interpret a similar Chaldean phrase. So, in an inscription concerning the family of that king we read in part: “Sin, the king of the gods, chose me (lit.: lifted my head) and made my name famous in the world by adding many (lit.: long) days (and) years of (full) mental capacity (to the normal span of life) and (thus) kept me alive…” [9] But the phrase is also an idiom for taking an action of some sort, for example in an Egyptian text of religious significance dating to the 19th Dynasty, where we read in part: “Isis came with her skill, her speech having the breath of life, her utterances expelling pain, and her words reviving him whose throat was constricted. She said: ‘What is it, what is it, my divine father? What—a snake stabbed weakness into thee? One of thy children lifted up his head against thee? Then I shall cast it down with effective magic. I shall make it retreat at the sight of thy rays.’”

Now Joseph asks a favor of the butler, which also further demonstrates an absolute confidence that his interpretation is true. There are many examples in Scripture where Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets had frequently exhibited that same confidence. So he asks him to remember him:

14 But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house: 15 For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.

Here Joseph denied any guilt in his own case, and while it seems that he was never tried for the charges against him, it may be that there is simply no mention of any trial. But it is more likely that there was no trial. In the judicial documents of ancient Egypt, such as the one from the conspiracy against the pharaoh Ramesses III which we have discussed here, there is no mention of prison sentences as punishments for crimes, as we know them today. Rather, it seems that the guilty were either executed, allowed to commit suicide, or their noses and ears were cut off, or they were made to suffer in some other way. They were not laid up in a clubhouse for criminals where they enjoyed entertainments and they were clothed and fed at the expense of the people. In any event, here in Genesis there is not another mention of Joseph’s guilt or innocence.

In this passage Joseph is also recorded as having said that “I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews”, although the land he was taken from was called Canaan at the time. Joseph was taken at Dothan, where he had met his brothers, and Dothan was only about 15 miles north of Shechem. So this may have been an anachronistic claim on the land by the later writer, Moses, who was confident that Canaan would become the land of the Hebrews, or perhaps it is a description of the smaller parcel in Dothan where Joseph, his brothers, and ostensibly also Jacob’s servants had pastured their sheep.

16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph, I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head: 17 And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head.

The baker “saw that the interpretation was good”, in reference to the dream of the butler, in the sense that it was agreeable, or pleasant, which is the meaning of the Hebrew word טוב or towb (# 2896). Therefore it is only natural that he had hoped for a similar interpretation of his own dream. In this case it does not matter whether the man was aware of his own guilt, as a criminal only cares about what others think of him in relation to his crimes. Now Joseph interprets the baker’s dream:

18 And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days: 19 Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.

The Egyptians did indeed hang men in such a manner as a form of punishment. From an inscription which recorded The Asiatic Campaigning of Amenhotep II, as it is also titled in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament, we read the following, in part: “His majesty returned in joy of heart to his father Amon, when he had slain with his own mace the seven princes who had been in the district of Takhshi, who had been put upside down at the prow of his majesty's falcon-boat, of which the name is ‘Aa-khepru-Re, the Establisher of the Two Lands.’ Then six men of these enemies were hanged on the face of the wall of Thebes, and the hands as well. Then the other foe was taken upstream to the land of Nubia and hanged to the wall of Napata, to show his majesty's victories forever and ever in all lands and all countries of the Negro land…” There a footnote informs us that “The hands of the enemy were cut off as recordable trophies.” [10] According to our source, Amenhotep II ruled Egypt from 1447-1421 BC, but according to more recent popular chronologies, from 1427-1401 or even 1427-1397 BC. As we have said recently here, the chronologies of the pharaohs can differ by at least as many as twenty years among archaeologists.

While here in this chapter of Genesis we were only informed that the butler and baker had “offended their lord the king of Egypt”, and in chapter 41 the butler is portrayed as having later told the pharaoh that “pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in ward in the captain of the guard's house, both me and the chief baker”, the capital punishment of the baker indicates that he was believed to have been guilty of a rather serious offense. Not even all of the men and women involved in the plot against Ramesses III had been executed for their participation in the conspiracy, so it is evident that capital punishment was only inflicted for the most serious of crimes.

So in three days, Joseph’s interpretations were vindicated, and his ability as the first prophet of record in the canonical Scripture is made manifest:

20 And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. 21 And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand: 22 But he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them.

The man occupying a position of butler, or cup-bearer, was by necessity a highly trusted individual, as he was close to the king and furnished his beverages, aside from any other tasks he may have been assigned. The fact that an imprisoned cup-bearer may be restored to his office indicates not only a lack of resentment on the part of the former prisoner, but also a lack of any expectation on the part of the pharaoh that there would be any resentment for the time which the butler had spent in prison. That same phenomenon is manifest once again later on, when Joseph is freed from prison.

Now in the final verse of the chapter, we are informed that the butler had quickly forgotten Joseph:

23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.

One further aspect of this event which we may discuss is the apparent lack of a language barrier. It seems that many Europeans today, and throughout history, have also been bilingual, something which most English-speaking Americans are not. In the ancient world, it also seems that many people were bilingual, and there is never even a mention here of any communications barriers between Joseph and any of these Egyptians. As we have explained earlier in our Genesis commentaries, Akkadian was the lingua franca of the old world until about the 8th century BC, so it is not clear whether Joseph had learned Egyptian, which is more plausible, or if the Egyptians could speak Akkadian, which is somewhat plausible, at least for these government officials. But it seems that view is less plausible, because assessments of Akkadian documents found in Egypt or known to have been produced by Egyptians show that the knowledge and use of the Akkadian language even by Egyptian scribes was not always proficient and bore peculiarities. [11]

This concludes our commentary on Genesis chapter 40, however we shall proceed with chapter 41:

1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.

As we have already explained, Joseph had been sold into Egypt when he was only about seventeen years old. He stands before pharaoh at the end of this chapter of Genesis when he is thirty years old. So he was about twenty-eight years old when he had interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker, and he had already been in Egypt for eleven years. We cannot determine how many of those eleven years he had spent in prison, but it was very likely much longer than the two years we may account for here. When Joseph is thirty, the year is approximately 1675 BC.

Now, describing this pharaoh’s dream:

2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow. 3 And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. 4 And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.

But he must have fallen asleep again, and a second dream is quite similar:

5 And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. 6 And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. 7 And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.

After Joseph, the prophet Daniel was an interpreter of dreams, and other interpreters of dreams were found earlier in Israel, as there is an example of such in the accounts of Gideon in Judges chapter 7. But like Joseph, the prophet Daniel also credited his interpretations of dreams to Yahweh his God, as it is recorded in Daniel chapter 2: “27 Daniel answered in the presence of the king, and said, The secret which the king hath demanded cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers, shew unto the king; 28 But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Thy dream, and the visions of thy head upon thy bed, are these; 29 As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass. 30 But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart.” Therefore, as it was in Daniel, the Pharaoh could not get an interpretation of his dream from his own wise men:

8 And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.

This pharaoh was not quite so demanding as Nebuchadnezzar had been in the time of Daniel, and evidently he did not make any unreasonable demands, while Nebuchadnezzar had demanded an interpretation without even explaining his dream: “3 And the king said unto them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit was troubled to know the dream. 4 Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation. 5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill. 6 But if ye shew the dream, and the interpretation thereof, ye shall receive of me gifts and rewards and great honour: therefore shew me the dream, and the interpretation thereof.” After this, the Chaldaeans kept insisting that the king first tell them his dream, and the king kept insisting that he could not, but that they would die if nobody revealed it to him, and that situation continued until Daniel was able to reveal both the dream and its interpretation. Neither is it evident here that the pharaoh threatened his magicians when they could not interpret the dream.

So now the butler finally remembers Joseph, and perhaps this was a better and more opportune time than it would have been two years prior, since the timing of these events certainly seems to have been orchestrated by Yahweh God Himself, and therefore the butler could not have remembered Joseph any sooner even if he had so desired:

9 Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day:

Whatever the butler may have done, here in his admission of fault he absolves the pharaoh of any unfair judgement, which seems to be an assurance of his fidelity. So now he explains his experience in the prison:

10 Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in ward in the captain of the guard's house, both me and the chief baker: 11 And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream. 12 And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew, servant 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 did interpret. 13 And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged.

Of course, all such things are from Yahweh, and Yahweh had spoken to many men through dreams and visions in Scripture, dreams and visions which must seem so real that a man must somehow know, and if he is a righteous man, must know unmistakably, that they are from God. Joseph certainly was the first of those men recorded in Scripture, the first prophet whose works are recorded in Genesis, and the first prophet in Israel.

Yahweh willing, we shall continue our commentary on Genesis chapter 41 in the near future.


1 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament 3rd edition, James Pritchard, editor, 1969, Harvard University Press, pp. 214-216.

2 ibid.

3 pharaoh, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/pharaoh, accessed March 14th, 2024.

4 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament, p. 293.

5 ibid., p. 207.

6 Bread of Life: A History of Bread in Egypt, Explore Luxor, https://exploreluxor.org/bread-of-life-a-history-of-bread-in-egypt/, accessed March 14th, 2024.

7 Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, translated by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Baker Books, 1979, p. 847.

8 Nehemiah 1:11, 5:13.

9 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament, p. 286.

10 ibid., p. 248.

11 Akkadian from Egypt, eScholarship Open Access Publications from the University of California, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8588g9qw, accessed March 15th, 2024.

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