Joseph: Prisoner (Part Two)

(Please read Genesis 40.)

     Dreams have always fascinated us and since they can have such a profound emotional impact, we have long sought to understand them.  The “Dream Bible” website is one example of our attempts to utilize our dreams.

“Welcome to The Dream Bible.  A free online A to Z dream dictionary dedicated to helping people understand the meaning of their dreams. Unlike other dream interpretation websites or books we extensively research dream symbols by interviewing people about the events occurring in their lives at the time of their dreams.  Inspired by the work of Gillian Holloway Ph.D, we are using a database of over 350,000 dream reports to create the world’s most practical dream dictionary based on the waking life experiences of regular people.      “We hope that our work will help you to gain insight into the hidden meanings of your dreams.  Please feel free to browse the site, post your dreams on the forum, or contact us with any of your requests.”

They list 4,851 “symbols” (specific dream interpretations) on their website.  As a example of what you can expect to find at the website, I’ve included the entry for “umbrella” below.  Have you ever dreamed about umbrellas?  If so, this one is for you!

“To dream of an umbrella represents emotional protection from disappointments or uncertainty you are experiencing. Casual feelings about disappoints effects others having no impact on you. Preparedness for troubling or sad moments. The ability to shield yourself from depression, pessimism, or being inundated by a negative situation. A reflection of how optimistic or prepared you feel when problems or delays arise. An umbrella may be a sign that you are trying to keep a positive attitude during an unpleasant situation.      “To dream of an umbrella that won’t open represents a lack of preparation for disappointment. Preparations not working as expected or not enough preparations. Having a hard time keeping optimistic or positive when problems arise.      “To dream of an umbrella that leaks represents an optimistic or enthusiastic attitude despite a persistent problem. Feeling that you level of preparedness was barely enough.

“Example: A man dreamed of seeing someone carrying an umbrella. In waking life he had been working very hard on his business to make it comply with potential future regulations when suddenly the regulations became mandatory. His felt that his responsible foresight made him very prepared for the difficulty of complying with the regulations while he watched his competition fail hard due to their lack of preparations.”

<Retrieved from on 8/29/15.>

Now that we’ve seen the amateur approach, let’s turn to Genesis 40 and see how a real “pro” interprets dreams.

Message: God does not always immediately reward our faithfulness.

  1. Joseph got two new “cellies.”

Let’s note two things to set up this portion of the story of Joseph:

– SOME TIME LATER (v. 1) – though the length of time is not specified, this phrase implies that Joseph’s imprisonment was not brief.

– THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD ASSIGNED THEM TO JOSEPH (4).  Ironically, this is Potiphar, the guy who put him there.  Maybe based on the warden’s recommendation (39:20b-23), Potiphar’s attitude toward Joseph changed; maybe his anger at being reportedly cuckolded cooled.  However we describe it, this is a vote of confidence for Joseph from a “hostile witness.”

One of Joseph’s new cellmates had been the CHIEF CUPBEARER.  He did more than carry the king’s goblet around.  He tasted all the king’s food and drink first to make sure it was not poisoned.  He was also in charge of Pharaoh’s vineyards.  The word for CUPBEARER is also translated as “butler” and shows that this position had a considerable range of responsibilities in providing care for the king.

In this very personal kind of service, the cupbearer often became a person of great influence.  For example, hundreds of years later, Nehemiah, the Jewish cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, enjoyed the favor of the king and had enough personal wealth to return to Jerusalem and oversee the restoration of the City of David.

Joseph’s other new cellmate was the CHIEF BAKER. The word BAKER is used in the Bible to refer to all kinds of cookery (see 1 Samuel 8:13; Hosea 7:4), so it’s possible this man had charge over all the eats in Pharaoh’s house.  This would be like a “head chef,” or “chief chef” in this case. Ancient Egyptian documents confirm that there were 38 kinds of cakes and 57 kinds of bread baked in Egypt, so this man had a lot of responsibility. Though the Bible does not confirm this, tradition says that the prophet Hosea was a BAKER as well.

They had both OFFENDED (v. 1) Pharaoh, and that’s the reason for their imprisonment.  The word OFFENDED has a lot stronger emotion in the original language – “enraged” would be a better translation.  But he couldn’t deal with them too harshly: their politically-connected families might make trouble.  We’re not told what the offense was, but we’ve all had that experience that when problems arise, it’s the middle-level managers who take the fall.  SOME TIME (v. 4) passed as they were prisoners under Joseph’s management.  Having this relationship with Joseph explains why they took news of their dreams to him.

  1. Joseph renewed his ministry as dream interpreter.

Whereas before, he had interpreted his own dreams, now Joseph interpreted the dreams of others.  Notice that these men do not seek Joseph out to interpret the dreams for them: he asked them why they were so down-hearted (vs. 6-8).  Joseph is careful to note that interpreting dreams is something that comes from God, not himself: “DO NOT ALL INTERPRETATIONS BELONG TO GOD?”  This is a considerably more humble attitude than he showed as a young man back in c. 37.

The divine origin of Joseph’s interpretations is born out in the fact that the meaning is not immediately obvious.  For example, the chief cupbearer’s dream is explained in vs. 12-13.  “THE THREE BRANCHES ARE THREE DAYS.” See how that’s not obvious?  I could have been three of anything.  The dream predicted the CUPBEARER would be restored to Pharaoh’s good graces.  He would be recalled from prison and restored to his place of service.

The chief baker hoped for similarly good news (vs. 18-19).  His expectation may’ve been based on the similarity of the numbers: “THE THREE BASKETS ARE THREE DAYS.”  The difference was that Pharaoh drank the cupbearer’s wine but he did NOT eat the baker’s bread.  Pharaoh’s anger burned more hotly against the baker and he was executed by cutting off his head and leaving his body hanging to be eaten by vultures.  You can imagine how the BAKER might be disappointed with this interpretation.

  1. Having your dreams come true isn’t always a good thing.

The occasion (v. 20) for Pharaoh’s reconsideration of these men and the significance of the three days in their dreams was Pharaoh’s birthday party three days after Joseph’s interpretations.  Pharaoh LIFTED UP [both their] HEADS during the feast, but with entirely different results.  No reason is given for the split decision: the will of Pharaoh needs no explanation or justification.

The chief cupbearer got the best part of this deal (v. 21).  HE RESTORED THE CHIEF CUPBEARER TO HIS POSITION, SO THAT HE ONCE AGAIN PUT THE CUP IN PHARAOH’S HAND.

The chief baker got the worst of the deal (v. 22), being put to death.  I wonder if this meant Pharaoh got no birthday cake!

Here is a further injustice Joseph suffered: his situation did not change. In vs. 14-15, Joseph made an extended plea with the CUPBEARER to REMEMBER him when he had regained Pharaoh’s trust and his ear.  The CUPBEARER would be in a good place to alleviate Joseph’s unjust imprisonment.  This did not take place immediately.  Ch. 40 ends with this note: THE CHIEF CUPBEARER, HOWEVER, DID NOT REMEMBER JOSEPH; HE FORGOT HIM.  (SPOILER ALERT: He will make up for this shortcoming in 41:9-13.)  No doubt this was human nature; we get excited about good fortune and forget how we came by it.

One reason this is important is to prove that Joseph did not misuse his divine gift of the interpretation of dreams for personal gain.  It was of no immediate benefit.  In fact, as we’ll see next week, Joseph would remain in prison for TWO MORE YEARS before the CUPBEARER would use his position to help Joseph!!

Another reason for this lapse is to teach us – along with Joseph – that good works do not always receive an immediate reward.  This is one of those situations where faith is required.  We exercise faith to remain steady in doing the good work to which God has called us and trust Him to reward as He wills, in His timing.  As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:9, LET US NOT BECOME WEARY IN DOING GOOD, FOR AT THE PROPER TIME WE WILL REAP A HARVEST IF WE DO NOT GIVE UP.

Why are we studying Joseph’s life in such detail? We do so because he was a man of particularly noble character.  Apart from some youthful boasting the fault for which can be laid partially on his father, Joseph is the patriarch with the most godly character.  He is also the one who rises to the greatest height of worldly achievement.  Joseph is the one man in Genesis of whom it is written, that God’s Spirit indwelled.

Pharaoh (41:38) said, “CAN WE FIND ANYONE LIKE THIS MAN, ON IN WHOM IS THE SPIRIT OF GOD?”  He answered his own question in the next verse; “SINCE GOD HAS MADE ALL THIS KNOWN TO YOU, THERE IS NO ONE SO DISCERNING AND WISE AS YOU.”  This is a secular witness agreeing with what was said twice in the previous chapter (39), that the LORD was with Joseph.

Hundreds of years later, God would raised up Daniel, a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams very much like Joseph.  God used both these men to prepare His people for the two most important points in their history.  He used Joseph to prepare them to become a nation in the first place.  He used Daniel to prepare them to become a nation again, after God’s people had been carried away in captivity.  In both cases, God’s people emerged from slavery to forge a new national identity.

God may not use you or I in such historical fashion, but the example of Joseph is one worth studying and following just the same.  We should desire to be filled with the Spirit and gifted for service as Joseph was.


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