Genesis 41
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.


(1) Pharaoh dreamed.—After two years spent in the prison, the time has now come for Joseph’s elevation to power; and it is to be noticed that this was not brought about by those arts by which men usually attain to greatness, such as statesmanship, or military skill; nor was it by accident, but according to the Biblical rule, by the direct intervention of Providence. Just as centuries afterwards, Daniel rose to high office at Babylon by God making known to him the dream of Nebuchadnezzar; so here, the transplantation of Israel into Egypt is brought about by the revelation to Joseph of “what was to be hereafter.”

The river.—Heb., Yeor, the Egyptian word for “great river.” It is the usual name in the Bible for the Nile, but is used for the Tigris in Daniel 12:5-6, and for any large river in Job 28:10. The Pharaoh in Those reign Joseph became governor of Egypt, is generally supposed to have been Apophis, the most famous of the shepherd kings. But Canon Cook, in his Essay, On the bearings of Egyptian History upon the Pentateuch, after carefully reviewing the whole subject, decides in favour of King Amenemha III., the greatest monarch of the noble twelfth dynasty, and the last king of all Egypt.

And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow.
(2) Kine.—The cow was regarded by the Egyptians as the symbol of the earth, and of agriculture; and naturally both the kine and the ears of wheat rose out of the river, because as no rain falls in Egypt, its fertility entirely depends upon the overflow of the Nile. The cows sacred to Isis were seven in number, and in a copy of the Ritual of the Dead, Mr. Malan (p. 192) found a picture of the seven sacred cows with the divine bull.

In a meadow.—Heb., in the marsh-grass. The word occurs only in this chapter and in Job 8:11, where it is translated flag. It is the name of the rank herbage which grows luxuriantly along the banks of the Nile; or, as some think, of one special kind of marsh-grass, called by botanists cyperus esculentus.

And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good.
(5) Seven ears . . . upon one stalk.—The wheat cultivated in Egypt is called triticum compositum, because it produces several ears upon the same stalk. The statement of Herodotus (ii. 36), that the Egyptians regarded it as disgraceful to feed upon wheat or barley, is disproved by the paintings in the temples, especially in the district of Thebes, which show that it was the main crop there, and its cultivation held in high honour. Maspero, Hist. Ancienne, p. 9, says, “In spite of Herodotus, the usual food of the people was wheat and other cereals, which the soil of Egypt produces in abundance.”

And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them.
(6) East wind.—In Palestine the prevalent winds are those which blow from the west or east, and the latter, coming across arid deserts, is injurious to vegetation. In Egypt the winds generally are from the north or south, but the south-east wind, called Chamsin, blowing from the deserts of Arabia, has even more disastrous effects upon plants than the east wind in Palestine, and from the small dust with which it is laden is baleful also to human life. As there are no words in Hebrew for any except the four principal winds, this south-eastern wind may be meant; or as kēdim, east wind, became the usual name of every wind that burned up vegetation, the term may be employed in a general sense.

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) Magicians.—The word used here probably means the “sacred scribes,” who were skilled in writing and reading hieroglyphics. But in ancient times the possession of real knowledge was generally accompanied by a claim to an occult and mysterious acquaintance with the secrets of the gods and of nature. And as the people regarded the knowledge which such scribes really possessed as more than human, the claim was easily maintained, or, rather, grew naturally out of the superstition of the multitude. So, too, the “wise men” were men educated and trained, but probably the profession of magic, of divination, and astrology was that which gained for them wealth and honour, and not the possession of whatever real science existed at that time in Egypt. We find, subsequently, even Joseph claiming the power of divination.

There was none that could interpret . . . —Probably many of the wise men made the attempt, but in such an imperfect manner as not to be able to satisfy Pharaoh’s mind, or allay the excitement of his spirit.

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) He shaved himself.—Herodotus (ii. 36) mentions that the Egyptians suffered their hair and beards to grow only when in mourning; whereas in Palestine the beard was regarded as a manly ornament. On Egyptian monuments only captives and men of low condition are represented with beards. In the prison, therefore, Joseph would leave his beard untrimmed, but when summoned into the king’s presence, he would shave it off. Abravanel notices that for each suffering of Joseph there was an exact recompense. It was for dreams that his brethren hated him, and by help of dreams he was exalted in Egypt. They stripped him of his many-coloured coat; the Egyptians clothed him in byssus. They cast him into a pit, and from the pit of the prison he was drawn forth by Pharaoh. They sold him into slavery; in Egypt he was made lord.

And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fatfleshed and well favoured; and they fed in a meadow:
(18) In a meadow.—Heb., in the marsh-grass, as in Genesis 41:2.

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:
(19) Poor and very ill-favoured and leanfleshed.—Pharaoh, in his recital, describes his dreams at greater length than is the case in the narrative (Genesis 41:2-7), and also mentions the impressions made upon his imagination by what he had seen, as, for instance, that he had never beheld such lean cattle, and that they were as wretched in look after eating up the fat kine as before. There is also a slight difference in his description of the kine. In Genesis 41:3 they are called “evil in appearance, and lean of flesh;” but the words here are “lean, and evil in shape, and thin of flesh.”

And, behold, seven ears, withered, thin, and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them:
(23) Withered.—This word occurs only in this place. Its meaning is stony, that is, the grains were shrivelled and hard like bits of grit.

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) Take up the fifth part of the land.—Heb., let him fifth the land, that is, exact a fifth part of the produce. It has been supposed that it had been usual in Egypt to pay to the king a tithe of the crop, and the doubling of the impost would not press very heavily on the people in these years of extraordinary abundance. As the reason of the enactment would be made known, it would also induce all careful people to store up a portion of their own superabundance for future need. Subsequently, a fifth of the produce was fixed by Joseph permanently as the king’s rent.

And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?
(38) In whom the Spirit of God is.—Joseph from the first declared that he neither claimed for himself, nor possessed any art of divination, but that “Elohim would answer (that which would be for) the peace of Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:16). And not only does Pharaoh now recognise the truth of Joseph’s words, but sees also in him the instrument by which Elohim had spoken. But besides the interpretation of the dreams, Joseph had given the king wise and prudent advice, and he justly felt that one so gifted by God, and so intelligent in counsel, was the person best fitted to carry Egypt through the years of trouble in store for her.

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.—The chief over the palace was in ancient times next in power to the sovereign, and under the Frankish kings the “major domi,” or mayor of the palace, first usurped the whole royal power, and finally Pepin, the son of Charles Martel, took the name of king as well as the reality.

According unto thy word shall all my people be ruled.—The general sense is easy, namely that all the people of Egypt should obey Joseph’s orders, but the translation of the phrase is difficult. The ordinary meaning of the verb is to kiss, and the translation would then be And on thy mouth shall all my people kiss, that is, they shall do thee homage (1Samuel 10:1; Psalm 2:12). The versions seem to have taken this sense, though they translate very loosely “shall obey thee;” or shall receive judgment at thy mouth;” or “shall be governed by thee.” As however in 1Chronicles 12:2; 2Chronicles 17:17; Psalm 78:9, the verb is used of bearing arms, Aben-Ezra translates “shall arm themselves,” and supposes that Joseph was made commander-in-chief. Others, again, form the verb used here from the same root as that which would give meshek in Genesis 15:2 the meaning of “running about,” and translate at thy mouth, that is, according to thy command, shall all my people busy themselves. The first is the most natural and probable rendering.

In the throne.—Heb., as to the throne, in all that concerns my royal rank, dignity, and rights.

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) His ring.—Heb., his signet ring. As decrees became law when stamped with the royal signet, it was naturally the symbol of authority; and so with us, at the formation of a ministry the great seal is formally delivered into the hands of the highest legal personage in the realm, who is thus invested with power.

Vestures of fine linen.—The word used here is Egyptian, shesh, and signifies a kind of flax from which linen of great fineness and whiteness was made. Much of the dress of the Levitical priests was to be made of this flax, called in Hebrew byssus (Exodus 39:28, &c.), In the East it is usual on all occasions of showing the royal favour, to give changes of raiment: but there is here the further signification, that as this fine white linen was the special dress of the king and the priests, the bestowal of it indicated Joseph’s admission into the ruling classes of Egypt. Probably, as he married a priest’s daughter, he was himself also previously enrolled among the ranks of the priesthood.

A gold chain.—This also appears upon the monuments as one of the royal insignia. Ancient necklaces of such exquisite workmanship have been discovered in Egypt, that patterns copied from them are common now at the chief jewellers.

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) In the second chariot.—The object of this procession was to display Joseph to the people as their new governor. The Pharaoh, probably, took the chief part in this parade, riding in the first chariot of state.

Bow the knee.—Heb., abrech. Canon Cook explains this as meaning rejoice, be happy. It is in the imperative singular, and is addressed by the people to Joseph; for it is said “they cried before him,” that is, the multitude, and not a herald. Naturally, therefore, it is in the singular, as the vivat rex of the Middle Ages, or vive le roi now. The similarity of sound with habrech, bow the knee, is a mere chance and as this word also is singular, it must be addressed to Joseph, and not to the people.

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) Zaphnath-paaneah.—This word also is Egyptian, and, fortunately, there is no Hebrew word of similar sound to suggest a false meaning. Canon Cook shows that it means “food of life,” or “food of the living.” The LXX. have Psonthom-phanek, which Jerome, on the authority of the Jews in Egypt, translates “saviour of the world.” By “the world,” would be meant the living, as in Canon Cook’s explanation, which, in the sense of “he who feeds the world,” or “the living,” is the best exposition yet given. There is no authority for the supposition that the name means “revealer of secrets.”

Asenath.—Án Egyptian word signifying the “favourite of Neith,” the Egyptian Minerva.

Potipherah.—See Note on Genesis 39:1.

On.—This is also an Egyptian word, signifying the sun, whence in Hebrew the name of this city was Bethshemesh, house of the sun; in Greek, Heliopolis; and in Latin, Oppidum Solls. It was famous for its temple of Ra, the sun, destroyed at an early period by the Persians, but still remarkable for its ruins, among which is an obelisk covered with hieroglyphics of extreme antiquity. Several of the obelisks now at Rome were brought by the emperor Caligula from this spot. It is situated about six miles north-east of Cairo.

A difficulty has been felt by some in a Hebrew shepherd being thus described as marrying the daughter of a priest of the sun; and also that Joseph, a worshipper of the One God, should ally himself with an idolater. But the elevation of a slave to high rank is not an uncommon occurrence in the East, especially as he might be of as good birth and education as his owner, slaves being obtained either by kidnapping, or by war. And a slave so raised to power, would not be likely to oppose his benefactor, nor would even a high priest refuse a daughter to the king’s favourite, especially if, as appears to have been the case, he had first been raised to the priesthood. Joseph too, would rightly regard the whole matter as providential, and though he might not know for what exact purpose, as regards his race, he was thus exalted, there was noble work for him to do in saving Egypt from perishing by famine. The narrative throughout represents him as remaining true to the religion of his family (Genesis 41:51-52; Genesis 42:18; Genesis 43:29; Genesis 45:5; Genesis 45:7-9; Genesis 48:9; Genesis 1:19-20; Genesis 1:24), but probably, on public occasions he would be required to attend at the religious solemnities of the Egyptian gods. We must remember, however, that their worship had not degenerated as yet into the miserable idolatry of later times, and that the Egyptian creed contained much primæval truth, though in a corrupted form. Pharaoh himself, in Genesis 41:38-39, speaks as one that acknowledged a supreme God, and Joseph throughout freely used to him the name of Elohim. As for Asenath, no doubt Joseph would teach her higher views of the Deity, and make her acquainted with the religious hopes and destinies of the Abrahamic race.

The possibility, however, of a foreigner attaining to high rank in Egypt, is demonstrated by the story of Saneha, translated in Records of the Past, vol. vi., pp. 131-150. It belongs to the reign of Amenemha I., a king of the twelfth dynasty, and represents Saneha as entering Egypt in the dress of a herbseller, but in time he marries there the eldest daughter of a local king, has a large landed estate given him, “which abounded in wines more than in water,” and, finally, is sent for by King Amenemha, and raised to such high rank, as to be clad in “garments of kingly attire,” and on his going to the royal palace “the king’s children attend him, proceeding even unto the great gates.” This curious evidence, which is even a little older than the time of Joseph, proves that there is nothing unusual or improbable in his exaltation.

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.
(48) All the food.—Probably besides the fifth paid as tax to the king, and out of which all the current expenses of the realm would have to be provided, Joseph bought corn largely during these years when it was at its cheapest.

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.
(51) Manasseh.—That is, causing to forget. Joseph has been blamed for forgetting “his father’s house,” but the phrase means that now that he was married and had a child, he ceased to suffer from home sickness, and became contented with his lot. He pined no longer for the open downs of Canaan as he had done in the prison; but his love for his father was as warm as ever.

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.—That is, fruitfulness. The dual ending probably intensifies the meaning.

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.
(54) The dearth.—As the Nile at this early period was not assisted and regulated in its overflow by dams and canals, famines were much more common in Egypt than when subsequently the kings had done so much to provide against this danger. As, too, this dearth was “in all lands,” in Arabia, Palestine, Ethiopia, &c., there was evidently a long period of excessive drought. Still Egypt is always liable to famine, and Bar Hebræus (Chronicon, p. 260) gives terrible details of the sufferings of Egypt in the year of the Hej’ra 462, when so great was the loss of life, that whereas in the city of Tanis (Zoan) 300,000 men paid poll-tax in the previous year, there remained in it less than a hundred souls at the end of the dearth.

One argument adduced by Canon Cook, Excursus on the Bearings of Egyptian History on the Pentateuch, p. 451, for placing the descent of the Israelites into Egypt in the reign of Amenemha III., is that it was this monarch who “first established a complete system of dykes, canals, locks, and reservoirs, by which the inundations of the Nile were henceforth regulated.” The artificial lake of Moeris was also made by his orders, and other works of extraordinary vastness. Now not only would such works be suggested by a dearth of unusually long continuance, but the measures taken by Joseph during the seven years of famine would place the whole resources of the country at the Pharaoh’s disposal.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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