August 21, 2016

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe




Topic #C: JOSEPH BECOMES GOVERNOR OF EGYPT. Gen. 39:1-41:57.                                                                                                                                                       


Lesson IV.C.5: Pharaoh Has a Dream and Joseph Is Remembered. (Gen. 41:1-14)






The man whose authority was exceeded only by the king of Egypt had the title of grand vizier.  That was the position for which God, through 12 long years of suffering and silence, had been preparing Joseph.  Truly God’s schools are not like ours.  To prepare a man for such a position we would send him to Princeton; God sent Joseph to prison.  Joseph had passed some stiff tests, but he graduated at last with flying colors, having won honors in every difficult trial that had come his way.  And now, the moment had come when he was to be pulled from prison, hastily shaved, made presentable, thrust before Pharaoh, and then promoted to the lofty post of grand vizier of Egypt.  All in the space of an hour!  Little did Joseph dream that morning as he took the keys of the cells and began his daily, tedious rounds, that the sufferings were over and the glories were to begin.  The years of adversities were finished; the years of advancement had come.


The name of the Pharaoh of the Joseph story is unknown.  Elements of the story have suggested to some a setting in either the “Hyksos” (1750-1550 b.c.) or the “Amarna” Age (14th century b.c.), when large numbers of Semites were either settled in Egypt or mentioned in Egyptian sources as serving in government positions.  Biblical chronological information, however, suggests to some an earlier time in the Middle Kingdom 12th Dynasty (1963-1786 b.c.).  Without specific historical references in the story it is impossible to associate the narrative with a particular reigning king.



Genesis 41:1-14 (KJV)


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

But “At the end of two full years”—It is not certain whether these years are reckoned from the beginning of Joseph’s imprisonment, or from the events described in the preceding chapter—most likely the latter; what a long time for Joseph to experience the sickness of hope deferred!

And now God made His move.  He began with neither Baker nor Butler but with the king.  The King’s dreams were what started it.  There were two of them.  First he fell asleep and dreamed about cattle (41:2-4), then he fell to sleep again and dreamed about corn (41:5-7).

In the ancient Near East, dreams were generally assumed to be communications from the gods.  Some were quite simple and straightforward (see Jacob’s dream at Bethel, 28:10-22), but in cases where the king or [3]Pharaoh was involved special emphasis was sometimes added through the experience of a double dream.  Thus here Pharaoh has two visions that warn of the coming famine in Egypt. 


And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured [2]kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow.

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.

And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.

In his first dream he saw seven fat, flourishing cows emerge from the life-giving waters of the Nile.  It is generally known that the fertility of Egypt depends entirely upon the amount of water which overflows the banks when the Nile is at its highest.  Without that river the land would be a desert, the rainfall being extremely slight.

Cows like to stand half-submerged in the Nile among its reeds taking refuge from the heat and the flies.  Pharaoh looked on the scene with approval.  That is how cows ought to look!  He would have to appoint a new grand vizier soon to look into the condition of his cattle throughout the land.  Then, suddenly, to Pharaoh’s horror, from the same river emerged seven more cows.  But what mangy, bony, starved, ill-kept cows those were!  May he never live to see their like!  The dream had turned into a nightmare.  But worse, the lean and hungry cows, made fierce by famine, turned upon their sleek and shining kin and devoured them, hoof and hide, before the pharaoh’s astonished gaze. Later on Joseph will reveal that theseven well favored kinecoming up out of the Nile signified an abundant overflow for seven years and consequentlya time of plentyfor Egypt, but theill favored”ones meant just the reverse.

In ancient [6]Semitic thought, the number seven (41:2, 3, 4) had special significance, which probably had its roots in the seven days of creation. 


And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good.

And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them.

And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.

He awoke in horror, stared about him, and fell asleep again, only to dream the same thing all over again.  He saw the golden fields of corn.  He examined the nearest stand, seven delightful, magnificent, golden, prize-winning ears tossing proudly in the [5]breeze beneath a smiling sun.  But then up sprang seven blotched and blighted ears, spindly, nightmarish ears.  Those turned upon their flourishing neighbors and devoured them stock and stem.  Pharaoh awoke in fresh horror, convinced now that the dreams were a sign.  But what could they mean?

The word “corn” is the British term for grain, such as wheat or barley, not the American corn.


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.

The “magicians” that Pharaoh sends for shouldn’t be confused with contemporary magicians, who wear tuxedos and pull rabbits out of hats.  These were the wise, educated men of Pharaoh’s kingdom. The Hebrew term from which we get our word “magicians” is related to the word for stylus, a writing instrument.  Thus, the magicians were associated with writing and knowledge.  The wise men were either minor dignitaries of pagan religions as here, or observers and interpreters of life.  Egypt, as well as the Mesopotamian and Hittite kingdoms, developed guilds of magicians whose task was to interpret signs and dreams and to concoct remedies for various types of medical problems through magical means.  These specialists used exorcism to frighten away demons and gods and incantations and curses to transmit evil into someone or some place (see Jeremiah 19:10-13).  They were schooled in the sacred arts and sciences of the Egyptians.  They were the literary cast of Egypt, writing the hieroglyphics, or sacred writings, and learned in the interpretation of dreams and astrology.  They attended at the Court of the Pharaohs and their duty was to guide every act of the king’s life, and to interpret the will of the gods as shown in visions, omens, or signs in the heavens.  They did not pretend to speak by direct inspiration in giving their interpretations, but confined themselves to consulting the holy books and to performing magical rites (see Exodus 7:11).  Yet they are unable to help Pharaoh.  Dreams such as Pharaoh’s were thought to possess secret messages concerning future events and it was important that they be decoded.

There the wise men stood in their distinctive robes, embroidered with mystical signs, the scholars, the sages, men with knowledge of and experience in the interpretation of dreams.  They listened intently as Pharaoh told his tail.

It was the turn of the god [1[Thot to speak to his priests so that they might make known to Pharaoh the meaning of his dreams.  Thot was the god of all magical arts.  It was Thot who knew the mystic names of all the other gods, what it was that made the other gods afraid, and with what mystic rights they could be subdued.  Thot could give his worshippers power to dominate Osiris, Anubis, or Set.  He was the god of inspiration.  With the incantations and prayers taught by Thot, one god could be frightened by the terror of another.  The magicians of Egypt, therefore, turned to their magical tricks to conjure from Thot the secret of the pharaoh’s dreams.  But they were up against the true God now, a God who could not be coerced, cajoled, or cowed.  Pharaoh was himself an initiate (a person who is being or has been initiated into an organization, tradition, or lore.) into the mysteries, watched anxiously as his ministers went through their consultations and incantations.  His spirits fell as with embarrassment and bewilderment they confessed themselves defeated.  “O King,” they cried, with the ritual formula of the Pharonic court (those considered members of Pharaoh’s court, and living in splendor.), “O King! Life!  Prosperity!  Health!  We confess ourselves baffled.  Thot gives no answer.  The Pharaoh must seek elsewhere for the meaning of his dreams.”

Thus, in the providential ways of God, the ground was prepared for the coming of Joseph.  Pharaoh’s distress must have been evident to all.  His dreams!  Who could interpret his dreams?  The combined expertise of a full council of Pharaoh’s adviser’s and dream experts, all of whom had been summoned into his presence, failed to provide an interpretation of the king’s disturbing dreams.  Without knowing it, they had just set the stage for Joseph’s entrance on the scene of Egyptian history. 


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

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.

While all of these magicians and wise men were called in and Pharaoh was telling them his dream, the chief butler was there listening.  After all, his position required that he stand before Pharaoh and get him anything that he wanted.  When none of the wise men could give Pharaoh an interpretation, the butler spoke up and told Pharaoh about how Joseph accurately interpreted his dream as well as the Baker’s dream when they were in prison together.  It doesn’t appear that this man, the Butler, was impressed much with a sense of the indiscretion he had committed against Joseph; he never thought of God, to whose goodness he was indebted for the prophetic announcement of his release, and in acknowledging his former fault against the king; he was practicing the courtly art of pleasing his master.

It is very unusual in Egypt for the Pharaoh to be in need of an interpreter of his dreams.  Since the Pharaoh was considered divine, the gods would communicate with him through dreams, and the meaning was typically understandable to him.

What an exhibit we have here of the perfect tactics of God.  First He awakened in Pharaoh a tremendous sense of the supernatural, of impending doom, of coming disaster, all tuned up to a fine pitch by the failure of his magicians.  Furthermore, He awakened in Pharaoh dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the “experts,” the magicians, and made him receptive to whatever Joseph might have to say.  By the time those preliminaries were over, the stage was fully set for the entrance of Joseph.  The atmosphere was right for him to have an effect on the thinking of everyone before him, both pharaoh and the court.  And it was all done so smoothly and naturally.  What is more natural than a dream?  God works behind the scenes and, in seemingly ordinary ways, works out his sovereign will.


14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh.

Joseph was summoned from prison when the cupbearer remembered that Joseph was gifted in interpreting dreams.  As a way of making himself more presentable to the Pharaoh, Joseph shaved and changed into his best clothes.  This may have involved shaving the head (Numbers 6:9) as well as the face (Jeremiah 41:5). ([4]Egyptian men not only “shaved” their face, but their entire body.) He would have thereby changed his appearance to look more like an Egyptian.  Yet when Joseph stood before Pharaoh freshly shaved and wearing clean clothes, he declared that the interpretation was with God alone (40:8).  After Pharaoh described both dreams, Joseph reiterated this conviction as he explained that God was making known to Pharaoh what He was about to do (41:25-27).

It was God’s incomparable will to elevate Joseph to a position of great power in the world.  He had shown that will to Joseph many years before in those boyhood dreams.  The long years of discipline and development had been designed to prepare Joseph for the high post now to be his—grand vizier.  Everything happened in God’s time, the fittest time.  If the chief butler had been able to get Joseph released from prison, it is probable he would have gone back to the land of the Hebrews.  Then he would have neither been blessed himself, nor become a blessing to his family, as he was afterwards.

In this chapter we can certainly see the hand of God in Joseph’s life.




End Notes:

[1] Thoth (or Thot) was one of the deities of the Egyptian pantheon. In art, he was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or a baboon, animals sacred to him. His feminine counterpart was Seshat, and his wife was Ma'at. Thoth's chief temple was located in the city of Khmun, later called Hermopolis Magna during the Greco-Roman era. Thoth played many vital and prominent roles in Egyptian mythology, such as maintaining the universe, and being one of the two deities (the other being Ma'at) who stood on either side of Ra's boat. In the later history of ancient Egypt, Thoth became heavily associated with the arbitration of godly disputes, the arts of magic, the system of writing, the development of science, and the judgment of the dead.

[2] Kine are cows.

[3]Pharaoh, from an Egyptian word “Phre,” signifying the “sun,” was the unofficial title of the Kings of that country.

[4] The Egyptians were the only oriental nation that liked a smooth chin.  Only the pharaoh wore a beard, and even that was an artificial one.  All slaves and foreigners who were reduced to that condition, were obliged, on their arrival in that country, to conform to the cleanliness habits of the natives, by shaving their beards and heads, the latter of which were covered with a small solid cap.  Thus prepared, Joseph was conducted to the palace, where the king seemed to have been anxiously waiting his arrival.

[5] The breeze, or east wind, as it is called in verse 6 actually refers to the parching Southeast wind that blows in from the desert in late spring or early fall (see Exodus 10: 23) which often withers vegetation.

[6] Semitic ‎(obsolete)

  1. Of or pertaining to a subdivision of Afro-Asiatic Semitic languagesAmharicArabicAramaicSyriacAkkadianHebrewMalteseTigrignaPhoenician etc.
  2. Of or pertaining to the Semites; of or pertaining to one or more Semitic peoples. 
    1. (biblical) Of or pertaining to the descendants of Shem, the eldest of three sons of Noah.
    2. (in particular) Of or pertaining to the IsraeliJewish, or Hebrew people.
    3. Of or pertaining to any of the religions which originated among the Semites; Abrahamic.  



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