Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 40 (E.) Joseph interprets the Dreams of Pharaoh’s Officers
The contents of this chapter are from E. Joseph’s master (cf. Genesis 37:36) is the officer in whose house is the prison; and he commits to the charge of Joseph, his slave, the two court-officials whose dreams Joseph correctly interprets.
The section leads up to the dénouement in ch. 41. The details are skilfully drawn. The scene is pronounced by Egyptologists to be faithful to the conditions of Egyptian life in the 14th century b.c.
Though the narrative is from E, the Compiler endeavours to harmonize the account with that of J by inserting words in Genesis 40:3; Genesis 40:5; Genesis 40:15.
1–8. The two officers in prison.
9–19. The interpretation of their dreams.
20–23. Their fulfilment.
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.1–8. The two Officers in Prison
1. after these things] A vague definition of time: see Genesis 15:1, Genesis 22:1, Genesis 39:7.
the butler] In Genesis 40:2; Genesis 40:20 he is called “the chief butler.” The word is rendered in Nehemiah 1:11, “cupbearer,” an officer who looked after the king’s cellar.
his baker] In Genesis 40:2; Genesis 40:22 he is called “the chief baker,” an officer who looked after the king’s bakehouse. These officials filled high positions at the Egyptian court. Cf. Genesis 37:36.
offended] Lit. “sinned”; so LXX ἥμαρτον, Lat. peccarent.
And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers.2. his … officers] Lit. “his eunuchs”; see note on Genesis 37:36.
And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.3. in ward] Cf. Genesis 40:4; Genesis 40:7. An old English expression; cf. Shakespeare, 2 Hen. VI, v. i.:
“I know, ere they will have me go to ward,
They’ll pawn their swords for my enfranchisement.”
He committed them for safe keeping, while the enquiry into the charges against them went on.
captain of the guard] See note on Genesis 37:36.
the prison] = “the round house,” as in Genesis 39:20. This clause seems to have been introduced, in order to harmonize the tradition of Joseph’s position in the house of the “captain of the guard” with the account of his imprisonment in Genesis 39:20-23.
According to E, Pharaoh placed his two officials in confinement, but not in the prison, in the keeping of the “captain of the guard.”
And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them: and they continued a season in ward.4. charged Joseph with them] i.e. put them under the care of Joseph, who is to be in attendance on them, not as a fellow-prisoner, but as a servant in his master’s house. Compare the words of “the chief butler” in Genesis 41:12 (also from E), “there was with us there a young man, an Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard.” This is different from the idea given in Genesis 39:22, where he is a prisoner, and appointed by the “keeper of the prison” to look after the other prisoners.
a season] Lit. “days.”
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.
And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad.6. sad] Gloomy and depressed, the word rendered “worse liking” in Daniel 1:10. There was a general belief in dreams, as a means of conveying supernatural information. In the case of these two officers, their anxiety as to their fate added to the desire to learn the meaning of the strange dreams which had so deeply impressed them. The coincidence in time and the general resemblance between the two dreams could not be accidental.
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?7. look ye so sadly] Lit. “are your faces bad,” cf. Nehemiah 2:2.
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.8. none that can interpret it] The Egyptians regarded the interpretation of dreams as a science requiring special study; or as a department of magic needing special initiation. Had the two officials been at liberty, they would have each repaired to their special soothsayer or dream-interpreter for an explanation of the dream that had so greatly disturbed them.
belong to God] Joseph claims that the interpretation of dreams is neither science nor magic. The man, to whom God reveals His secrets, alone can interpret them. He himself does not pretend to interpret. But, possibly, God may make use of His servant to make known His mind, cf. Genesis 41:16; Genesis 41:38-39 and Daniel 2:19; Daniel 2:28; Daniel 2:47.
And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me;
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:9–19. The Interpretation of their Dreams
10. it was as though it budded] Another rendering is “and as it budded, its blossoms shot forth.” But the rendering in the text is grammatically to be preferred. The dream combines, as it were, in a moment the successive stages, by which the vine first budded and blossomed, then brought forth grapes, the grapes ripened, and their juice was transformed into wine. Things will happen in a dream which do not admit of a scientific explanation.
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.11. pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup] The cupbearer did not squeeze grapes into his master’s cup in order to make wine. He squeezed, and at once the cup was full of wine. This is one of the fancies occurring in a dream. Dream-land is true to experience, and yet possesses, here and there, odd fantastic features. It is a feature in this dream that all the difficulties are successfully overcome; the chief butler, at the end of it, holds Pharaoh’s cup.
And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days:
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.13. lift up thine head] i.e. “will lift it up with favour,” as in 2 Kings 25:27; Jeremiah 52:31. The “countenance,” which is sad, or in trouble, hangs down and needs to be lifted up: see note on Genesis 4:6-7. As the phrase is also used of “the chief baker” in an unfavourable sense (Genesis 40:19-20), it might conceivably be employed for the official notice of release to a prisoner, either for pardon or for punishment. But this is not probable; see note on Genesis 40:19.
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:14. But have me, &c.] Joseph claims no reward for his interpretation beyond that of an act of kindness.
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.15. stolen away] i.e. “kidnapped”: see Genesis 37:28. According to E Joseph was not sold by his brethren, but stolen by the Midianites.
the land of the Hebrews] For the use of the word “Hebrew,” cf. Genesis 14:13, Genesis 39:14 and Genesis 41:12. It was the designation in use by foreigners for “the dwellers in Palestine.” In Joseph’s mouth the phrase is an anachronism, even if it means the whole region in which the Hebrew races of Israel, Ishmael, Moab, Ammon, and Edom, were establishing themselves. Whether “the Hebrews” are to be identified with the Ḥabiri of the Tel-el-Amarna tablets, is a disputed question. But “the land of the Hebrews” is not a Hebrew phrase that would naturally be used of Canaan before it had been conquered and occupied by the tribes of Israel. See Appendix D, ii., iii. on the Ḥabiri and the ‘Apuriu.
and here also … the dungeon] This clause is very probably introduced by the Compiler in order to harmonize the present chapter with the account of Joseph’s position in Genesis 39:20-23. LXX εἰς τὸν λάκκον τοῦτον, Lat. in lacum.
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:16. I also] The chief baker is encouraged to relate his dream. There are certain conspicuous similarities in the two dreams: (1) each man is discharging his own special office; (2) the number “3” is a feature in both.
of white bread] LXX τρία κανᾶ χονδριτῶν, Lat. tria canistra farinae. Instead of “white bread,” some scholars prefer the rendering “baskets of open wicker-work,” viz. “baskets shewing their contents” (so Rashi). Symmachus, βαϊνά = “baskets of palm-branches.”
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.17. bakemeats] LXX ἔργον σιτοποιοῦ, Lat. cibos qui fiunt arte pistoria: as we say, “all kinds of confectionery.” The bakemeats are only in the top basket. If the birds took them, he had nothing in the other baskets to bring to Pharaoh’s table.
the birds] The birds, darting down upon the food and carrying it off, doubtless seemed of evil augury; cf. the appearance of the birds in Genesis 15:11. It was like a nightmare! The baker found himself powerless to frighten the birds away. The great kites in Egypt, the bird scavengers of the land, are always wheeling in the air, ready to pounce down upon choice morsels, if they see the slightest chance of carrying them off.
And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days:
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.19. lift up thy head from off thee] Joseph, by a use of the same phrase as in Genesis 40:13, introduces the sudden unfavourable interpretation: “from off thee” shews that it means here “decapitation,” not (see note on Genesis 40:13) “he will release thee from imprisonment, in order to be executed.” For the word-play, which uses the same word in two senses, cf. Genesis 27:39.
hang thee on a tree] The decapitated corpse of the malefactor would be impaled, and allowed to hang exposed to public view, and to become the prey of wild animals and obscene birds. This picture was terrible to the Egyptian mind, which attached great value to preservation of the body as the ultimate medium of the soul’s (= ḳa) existence. For “hanging,” see Joshua 10:26; 2 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 21:9-10.
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.20–23. The Fulfilment
20. Pharaoh’s birthday] Cf. Matthew 14:6; Mark 6:21. Proclamations of amnesty on royal birthdays have been universal. They can be illustrated from the royal proclamations preserved in Egyptian inscriptions.
The title “Pharaoh” (= Egypt. Pr‘ô, “Great House”) is constantly used without a personal surname before the 22nd Dynasty (945–745 b.c.).
And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand:
But he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them.
Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.23. forgat him] These words are an artistic conclusion to this interesting section. The chief butler’s forgetfulness, in the enjoyment of his own good fortune, (1) is sadly natural; (2) increases our sympathy with Joseph; (3) heightens the expectation of the reader as to the manner of his deliverance.