Genesis 41
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 41 (E (JP).) Joseph and Pharaoh’s Dreams

This is a continuation of ch. 40, and is mainly derived from E. In this section Joseph as the servant of God is not only rescued from the position of a slave, but exalted to be the first minister in Egypt. Pharaoh’s dreams offer the occasion for Joseph’s liberation. The incidents in the previous chapter, after a long disciplinary interval of waiting, are the cause of his being remembered by the chief butler. He is summoned into the presence of Pharaoh himself. His interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams is rewarded by a startling elevation into highest office1[57]

[57] “The points of resemblance between Daniel 2 and Genesis 40-41 are very striking. In both accounts we have a young Hebrew raised by the favour of a heathen king to great political prominence owing to his extraordinary God-given ability to interpret dreams. In both versions the heathen astrologers make the first attempt to solve the difficulty, which results in failure, whereupon the pious Israelite, being summoned to the royal presence, in both cases through the friendly intervention of a court official, triumphantly explains the mystery to the king’s satisfaction.” Encycl. Brit. edn. ii, art. “Daniel.”


The Compiler, in order to harmonize the accounts, introduces in Genesis 41:14 the mention of “the prison,” which is taken from J.

1–7.    Pharaoh’s dreams.

8–32.    Joseph as Interpreter.

33–36.    Joseph’s counsel.

37–46.    Joseph as Grand Vizier.

47–49.    The seven good years.

50–52.    Joseph’s sons.

53–57.    The years of famine.

And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.
1–7. Pharaoh’s Dreams

1. two full years] i.e. from the execution of the chief baker.

river] Heb. Yeor, i.e. the Nile, as always in the O.T., except Job 28:10; Isaiah 33:21; Daniel 12:5-6. The Heb. word reproduces the Egyptian. According to Egyptologists it stands for the Egyptian aur, “stream,” or aur-aa, “the great stream,” Assyr. ia’uru, “stream.”

And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow.
2. out of the river] The Nile is the source of the fertility and wealth of Egypt. The cows issuing from the Nile would be a symbol of fertility. The Egyptian goddess Hathor is represented with the head of a cow.

seven kine] The number “seven” is commonly employed for the purposes of symbolism. The god Osiris is represented in Egyptian drawings as an ox accompanied by seven cows.

reed-grass] The Heb. word aḥu transliterates the Egyptian aḥu, or iḥi. It is found also in Genesis 41:18; Job 8:11; Hosea 13:15. LXX ἄχει, which occurs also in Isaiah 19:7; Sir 40:16. Jerome, commenting on Isaiah 19:7, explains ἄχει as quicquid in palude virens nascitur. The word, derived from a root meaning “green,” is applied to the Nile reed-grass whose vivid green, under that bright sky, strikes every traveller in Egypt1[58]

[58]    “Pro junco papyrum transtulerunt LXX, de quo charta fit, addentes de suo Achi, viride, quod in Hebraeo non habetur. Cumque ab eruditis quaererem, quid hic sermo significaret, audivi ab Aegyptiis hoc nomine lingua eorum quicquid in palude virens nascitur appellari” (Comm. in Esai, § 291).

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.
4. did eat up] The fantastic side of the dream. Cf. Genesis 40:11; Genesis 40:17.

And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good.
5. a second time] Here, as in Genesis 37:9 and Genesis 40:16, the duplication of the dream seems to place its significance beyond dispute. The resemblance of the dreams is found in (1) the number “seven”; (2) in the good products being consumed by the bad. The first dream was concerned with the sacred animal of Egypt; the second with Egypt’s chief source of wealth.

rank] Heb. fat, i.e. rich and good.

And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them.
6. blasted with the east wind] The east wind in the O.T. is always a synonym for dryness, parching heat, and violence. Cf. Ezekiel 17:10; Ezekiel 19:12; Hosea 13:15; Jonah 4:8. In Egypt the S.E. wind is the dreaded khamsin, which brings the sandstorms in the spring, Ar. sirocco.

And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.
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.
8–32. Joseph as Interpreter

8. his spirit was troubled] Compare the effect of the dreams in Genesis 40:6; Daniel 2:1-3.

all the magicians] or, as R.V. marg., sacred scribes. The Heb. ḥartummim used in this chapter and Exodus 7-9 probably designates the priestly class, which was credited with the knowledge of all sacred mysteries, cf. Genesis 41:24; Exodus 7:11, &c. LXX renders by ἐξηγηταί = “interpreters,” Lat. conjectores. The rendering “magicians” represents “possessors of occult knowledge or magic.” The same Heb. word is used in Daniel 2:2, probably in imitation of this passage; but it does not occur elsewhere. Possibly the word is derived from a root meaning “to cut” or “engrave,” from which came ḥeret, “stylus” or “pen.” Cf. Tacitus, Hist. iv. 83, Ptolemaeus … sacerdotibus Aegyptiorum, quibus mos talia intellegere, nocturnos visus aperit.

Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day:
9. I do remember] R.V. marg., will make mention of, gives the right meaning of the Heb. LXX ἀναμιμνήσκω, Lat. confiteor.

my faults] Lit. “my sins” (cf. Genesis 40:1). He is not referring to his forgetfulness (Genesis 40:23), but to his offences against Pharaoh.

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:
And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream.
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.
12. servant to the captain of the guard] It will be remembered that, in the E story, Joseph is the slave of the captain, and not a fellow-prisoner of the chief butler.

And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged.
13. me he restored … and him he hanged] R.V. marg. I was restored … and he was hanged. Probably, the construction in the original is impersonal, i.e. “me they restored, and him they hanged.” In addressing Pharaoh, and in alluding to Pharaoh’s actions, this impersonal use of the 3rd pers. sing. is doubtless the language of etiquette.

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.
14. and they … dungeon] A clause probably introduced, like that in Genesis 40:15, in order to harmonize the E with the J version. In E, Joseph is a slave, not a prisoner: in J he is a prisoner, cf. Genesis 39:21-23.

shaved himself] The Egyptians paid extreme care to matters of cleanliness. They were very generally themselves clean shaven. LXX and Lat. render “they shaved him.”

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it: and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it.
And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.
16. It is not in me] Rather, “nay, far from it,” as in Genesis 14:24. Joseph, as in Genesis 40:8, disclaims any power in himself. God’s servant may be His propheta, or spokesman; but he is not as God, nor is he a magician.

an answer of peace] Joseph replies, with suitable courtesy, literally, “God will make answer with the peace of Pharaoh.” The answer of God will be the well-being of Pharaoh. “Peace,” i.e. “welfare,” as in Genesis 37:14, “whether it be well,” lit. “peace.”

LXX ἄνευ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἀποκριθήσεται τὸ σωτήριον, the meaning of which is doubtful: “without God there will be no answer of peace.” Lat. absque me Deus respondebit prospera Pharaoni. The Syriac makes a question of it, “Thinkest thou that apart from God one will answer?” on the lines of Balaam’s answer in Numbers 22:18; Numbers 22:38.

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, In my dream, behold, I stood upon the bank of the river:
And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fatfleshed and well favoured; and they fed in a meadow:
And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very ill favoured and leanfleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness:
And the lean and the ill favoured kine did eat up the first seven fat kine:
And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill favoured, as at the beginning. So I awoke.
And I saw in my dream, and, behold, seven ears came up in one stalk, full and good:
And, behold, seven ears, withered, thin, and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them:
23. withered] The Hebrew word occurs here only in O.T., and is omitted by LXX and Lat.

And the thin ears devoured the seven good ears: and I told this unto the magicians; but there was none that could declare it to me.
And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do.
25. is about to do] Lit. “is doing.” Lat. facturus est. Joseph’s interpretation of the two dreams is the same.

The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one.
And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine.
This is the thing which I have spoken unto Pharaoh: What God is about to do he sheweth unto Pharaoh.
Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt:
And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land;
And the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous.
And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.
32. doubled … twice] This is a literal rendering. The repetition of the dream shewed emphatically that the thing was “established,” i.e. made fixed and sure, by the decree of God. Cf. Psalm 93:2, “Thy throne is established”; Hosea 6:3, “sure as the morning.”

will shortly bring it to pass] Lit. “hasteneth to do it.” Hence there is urgent need to take measures in good time to meet the crisis which is bound to come.

Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
33–36. Joseph’s Counsel

33. let Pharaoh, &c.] Joseph leaves the office of interpreter, and takes upon himself to give political counsel to the king of Egypt.

Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.
34. Let Pharaoh do this] Joseph’s advice is (1) to appoint a “grain administrator,” praefectus rei frumentariae; (2) to appoint local officers, “over-seers,” LXX τοπάρχαι, for the various districts of Egypt; (3) to exact for the crown 20 per cent., “the fifth part,” of the grain of the country.

Some think an inconsistency is involved in the recommendation of one supreme officer (Genesis 41:33) and the recommendation of local overseers (Genesis 41:34). The two, however, are practically inseparable elements in a sound administrative scheme.

take up the fifth part of the land] Lit. “let him fifth the land,” i.e. secure for the crown one-fifth of the annual grain produce of Egypt during the seven years of fertility. In this passage from E, the imposition of a 20 per cent. duty is a special regulation proposed by Joseph to meet the exigencies of the impending famine. In Genesis 47:24, from J, it appears as a permanent Egyptian usage, owing its origin to the initiation of Joseph.

And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.
35. let them gather all the food] This is rhetorical, and need not be pressed as contradicting the exaction of the one-fifth in Genesis 41:34. But see Genesis 41:48.

lay up corn] i.e. store up the grain in the keeping of the king’s officers. The establishment of state granaries appears here for the first time in history.

under the hand of Pharaoh] The king’s authority is never to be relaxed. The measures proposed will enhance the monarchy.

And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.
36. for a store] i.e. a reserve. The Hebrew narrative is proud to attribute to Joseph the origination of the granaries, which formed part of the elaborate organization of the Egyptian kingdom, and must have profoundly impressed the simpler Israelite people.

And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants.
And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?
37–46. Joseph as Grand Vizier

38. such a one as this] Pharaoh and his servants are represented as discerning in Joseph the supreme gifts of one who combined the supernatural power of interpreting dreams with the practical wisdom and sagacity of a statesman.

in whom the spirit of God is] The same phrase is employed by Belshazzar when he addresses Daniel: Daniel 5:14, “I have heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee.” The presence and operation of the Spirit of God, in the O.T., account for those special manifestations which surpass the limits of ordinary human capacity, in wisdom or prowess. Cf. Exodus 31:3; Numbers 27:18; Jdg 3:10; Jdg 14:6.

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art:
39. Forasmuch as] Lit. “after that.”

Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou.
40. over my house] Pharaoh exalts the Hebrew slave at one step to become his Grand Vizier; cf. Psalm 105:21; 1Ma 2:53. Whether there was a vacancy in this office into which Joseph was promoted, or whether he displaced an existing official, the tradition does not record. “My house” seems to mean “my palace,” or “my court.” The elevation of a Syrian slave to such high rank is apparently not without example in the records of the Egyptian kings. See Appendix E on “Joseph as Vizier.” For the title of “governor of the palace,” cf. 1 Kings 4:6; Isaiah 22:15.

be ruled] The meaning is very doubtful; possibly, as R.V. marg., order themselves, or, do homage. Lit. (if the text be correct) “and upon thy mouth shall all my people kiss.” In illustration of this expression some have quoted Hosea 13:2; Proverbs 24:26. It is objected that “the kiss of homage” was not a kiss upon the mouth. Hence scholars have preferred a different rendering, “according to thy mouth,” i.e. “at thy command” (cf. Genesis 45:21), “shall my people order, or dispose, themselves.” So, probably, LXX ἐπὶ τῷ στόματί σου ὑπακούσεται, Lat. obediet. Perhaps, however, the text is corrupt.

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.
And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck;
42. signet ring] i.e. the official ring with which state documents would be sealed. The king thus symbolically transferred to Joseph absolute authority. Cf. 1Ma 6:15, “gave him his diadem and his robe and his signet ring.” See also the use of the king’s ring in Esther 3:10; Esther 3:12; Esther 8:2; Esther 8:8; Esther 8:10.

fine linen] Possibly, as R.V. marg., cotton. The Hebrew shêsh has been identified with the Egyptian schenti, meaning something woven. LXX and Lat. render it by an adjective meaning “made of byssus,” i.e. fine flax. This was probably the material worn by the royal and state officials. Possibly it was the same material as that in which the Egyptian mummies were wound.

a gold chain] Presumably Pharaoh invested Joseph with his own golden necklace, a sign of honour which the narrative delights to record.

The position to which Joseph is elevated is that of “Grand Vizier” or T’ate, as he was called in the Egyptian dialect.

And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.
43. the second chariot] It has been objected that horses and chariots first appear in Egyptian inscriptions in the 18th Dynasty (1580–1350 b.c.). But they were introduced into use in Egypt under the rule of the Hyksos (13th to 17th Dynasty). The Egyptian word for “chariot,” mrkbt, is borrowed from the Semitic. The “second” would be the next best to Pharaoh’s. Joseph might not ride in Pharaoh’s chariot.

Bow the knee] Heb. abrech. The meaning of the word has been much disputed. It was omitted by the LXX; but the meaning “bow the knee” appears in the Lat. ut genuflecterent, and in Aquila. Jerome prefers the extraordinary rendering “tender father”: ’âb being the Hebrew for “father,” rêkh for “tender” or “delicate,” he explains that it is thus signified, how in wisdom Joseph was the father of all, but in age a tender youth.

There seems, at present, to be no solution of the puzzle offered by the word Abrech. Spiegelberg suggests that it is the transliteration of the Egyptian ’b r-k, equivalent to “Attention!,” or the “O yes, O yes,” of the crier. The Egyptian abu-rek, “thy command is our desire,” i.e. “at thy service,” was conjectured by Lepage Renouf.

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.
And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphnathpaaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt.
45. Zaphenath-paneah] An Egyptian name for which the meaning is given by some Egyptologists “God speaks, and He lives,” i.e. De-pnute-ef-ônch. A proper name of this form does not as yet however appear to have been found in the Egyptian inscriptions before the 20th Dynasty, i.e. the 13th century b.c. The LXX endeavoured to transliterate the name by Ψονθομφανήχ. The Vulg. renders salvator mundi; and Jerome records ab Egyptiis didicimus, quod in linguâ eorum resonet salvator mundi.

Josephus (Ant. ii. 91), Targum of Onkelos, and the Syriac rendered the name by “Revealer of Secrets”; and this was very generally accepted in Christian tradition, the derivation being assumed to be from the Hebrew root zâphan, “to conceal.”

Asenath] A proper name, meaning “Belonging to the goddess Neith.”

Poti-phera] As in Genesis 41:50 and Genesis 46:20. This is the same name, spelled fuller, as in Genesis 37:36 (see note), Genesis 39:1, meaning “the gift of the sun-god.” We may compare the Greek name Heliodorus.

priest of On] “On,” known in later times as Heliopolis, was situate about 7 miles N.E. of Cairo; and was the great centre of Egyptian Ra, or Sun, worship. The obelisk still standing at Heliopolis was there in Joseph’s time. By his marriage with Asenath, Joseph became connected with one of the principal Egyptian families. Potiphera, the priest of On, would have been a man of eminence; but should not be confounded with “the captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:36). Late Jewish tradition identified the two names; and asserted that Asenath had reported to her father her mother’s shameless conduct, whereupon he gave Asenath to Joseph as wife, in order that Joseph might be cleared of any shadow of blame. But this is mere romance.

And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt.
46. thirty years old] This verse probably contains the brief record of P; according to which Joseph had spent thirteen years in Egypt before his elevation, and was aged seventeen when he was brought into Egypt, Genesis 37:2. There elapsed seven years of plenty and two of the years of famine, before his brothers came down to Egypt (Genesis 45:11). Accordingly, Joseph must have been in Egypt over twenty years before they came. Benjamin had been born some time before Joseph disappeared (Genesis 35:18). Hence, so far from Benjamin being “a little one” (Genesis 44:20), he must have been well over twenty, when Joseph saw his brethren. The computation illustrates the impossibility of harmonizing discrepancies, if the existence of independent narratives, or parallel versions of tradition, be rejected. When the separate character of the P record is recognized, the difficulties disappear.

And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.
And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same.
47–49 (J, E). The seven Good Years

48. of the seven years] Probably we should add here, with LXX and Sam., “of plenty,” which seems to have dropped out of the Hebrew text.

laid up the food] On the state granaries of Egypt and the duties of the official who supervised them, the student is referred to Erman’s Life in Ancient Egypt (E.T.), p. 108. The chief “cities” of the districts, or νομοί, into which Egypt was divided, seem here to be referred to.

And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.
49. as the sand, of the sea] For this comparison cf. Genesis 22:17, Genesis 32:12.

And unto Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, which Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On bare unto him.
And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house.
50–52 (E). Joseph’s Sons

51. Manasseh] That is, Making to forget. There is to be no thought of return to his father’s house. The name makes us ask the question why Joseph, when supreme in Egypt, sent no message to his father, who was living in a region distant only a few days’ journey. That there were continual communications between Egypt and Canaan is conclusively shewn by the Tel-el-Amarna tablets, and by the subsequent events in the present narrative.

And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.
52. Ephraim] For the Hebrew word to be fruitful, cf. Genesis 28:3, Genesis 35:11, Genesis 48:4. There is a play on the resemblance in the sound of the name to the Hebrew root (prh) meaning “fruitfulness.” The same play on the two words is found in Hosea 13:15, “fruitful among his brethren,” referring to Ephraim.

made me fruitful] i.e. “hath given me sons.” But, as a title for the tribe of Ephraim, it is natural to connect it with the fertility of the territory which it occupied.

And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended.
And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.
53–57. The Years of Famine

54. all lands] Cf. Genesis 41:57. The famine is represented as afflicting not only Egypt, but all the neighbouring lands which constituted the known world of the Israelites. Cf. Genesis 43:1. For a similar hyperbole, cf. “all the world” (Luke 2:1; John 21:25); “a great famine over all the world” (Acts 11:28).

And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.
And the famine was over all the face of the earth: And Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt.
56. all the storehouses] The Hebrew text is in error: lit. “all that was in them.” The versions have supplied the right meaning. LXX πάντας τοὺς σιτοβολῶνας, Lat. universa horrea, i.e. “all the granaries.”

And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands.
57. all countries] Cf. Genesis 41:52, as we should say, “the whole world.” This verse prepares us for the crisis in the Joseph narrative recorded in the following chapter.

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