Genesis 41: Pharaoh's Dreams

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Joseph remains in prison. Two full years have gone by since Pharaoh summoned the chief baker and the cupbearer back to his court. There is no way of knowing whether word ever got back to Joseph regarding the outcome. Perhaps it was completely unnecessary. He was confident in his interpretations of their dreams. Nonetheless, his hopes that the cupbearer will remember him to Pharaoh do not come to pass. Presumably, he continues his work - being in charge of the prisoners.

Then one night, Pharaoh has a dream. In his dream, he is “standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh wakes up.”

Apparently, he is able to go back to sleep, for he has a second dream. This time he dreams that seven heads of grain, healthy and good, are growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprout - thin and scorched by the east wind. The “east wind” comes across the desert and historically is hot enough to wither most plant life. There are actually two types: one can last for many days; the other is quick but very violent. The result is usually the same. In his dream, the thin heads of grain swallow up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh wakes up again. He recognizes that it has been a dream, but he feels it is ominous.

In the morning, he cannot shake it off. His mind is very troubled. He sends for all the dream interpreters – paid interpreters who are noted for their wisdom and wizardry. After telling them about his dreams, he waits for their interpretation. And he waits. And he waits some more. Apparently, no one has a good interpretation, or more likely, they don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Their silence is deafening. It is during this long, silent interval that the chief cupbearer finally remembers Joseph.

He says to Pharaoh: “Today I am reminded of my shortcomings.” He wants to reassure Pharaoh that this is an unintentional omission. So he continues: “Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was impaled.”

In telling his story, he is careful to reword some of the details. For starters, he wisely does not suggest any injustice on the part of Pharaoh. He makes it seem as though he and the baker volunteer their dreams for Joseph’s interpretation, forgetting the part that they are so despondent, Joseph has to ask what is wrong with them. Nor does he tell Pharaoh that they have no clue what their dreams mean. He implies that what Joseph was able to do for them, he will also do for Pharaoh. In the original account, however, Joseph makes it clear that he has no innate skills, rather all interpretative skills come through God. It is unknown whether Pharaoh would have been as decisive if he had known the interpretation was dependent on a foreign God.

As it is, Pharaoh wastes no time in sending for Joseph, who is summoned from the dungeon. He is shaved and given new clothes. For the most part Egyptians abhor facial hair (though there is one portrait of a ruler with a moustache). Israelites have no such proclivities. Indeed, later traditions will limit the cutting of one’s beard. We know Joseph has been in that dungeon for at least two years; he needs to be presentable for his audience with Pharaoh. That confirms a lot about conditions inside the dungeon.

It’s been two full years following his encounter with the chief cupbearer before he is finally called. One can only imagine how he must be feeling. He has had to wait two full years before he gets an opportunity to stand before Pharaoh. And as it turns out, this is not an appeal hearing; Pharaoh has had a dream.

Pharaoh wants to tell him the dream that no one has been able to interpret. He has been told that when Joseph “hears a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph tells him straight up that he can’t do that – only God can interpret dreams. It’s unlikely that too many people would ever say no to Pharaoh - just as a matter of policy. Yet, Joseph immediately says, “It’s not me, it’s God.” But he assures Pharaoh that God will give him “the answer Pharaoh desires.” It’s very forthright of him, and that seems to satisfy Pharaoh.

Without additional fanfare, Pharaoh shares the dream. In his retelling, he emphasizes the negative aspects of it. The second set of cows are now “very ugly, scrawny and lean.” He adds that he has never seen such ugly cows. And worse, after they ate up the seven fat cows, they looked the same – just as ugly and scrawny! Likewise, the seven other heads of grain are “withered, thin, and scorched.” Perhaps this indicates that Pharaoh is becoming increasingly worried about the dream. He also repeats that none of his magicians can explain it to him.

Joseph doesn’t hesitate either, nor does he take a moment to commune with God. There is no pause for silent prayer, no equivocation. Joseph is confident, certain. He blurts right out that “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he intends to do.” The dreams are the same. Though sequential, they reveal the same event. The number “seven” represents seven years. The fat cows and plump heads of grain represent seven years of plenty – fertility and abundant harvests. Likewise, the ugly cows and scrawny heads of grain represent seven years of famine.

Following these details, Joseph takes a moment to editorialize on what this means for Pharaoh and Egypt. When that famine hits, it will be so severe that the seven years of plenty will be completely forgotten. It will “ravage the land.” He continues to emphasize the severity of the famine. He says that Pharaoh was given the two examples of cows and stalks to emphasize the seriousness and the certainty of the situation. “The matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.”

The text does not describe Pharaoh’s reaction, but he must have been showing some affirming interest, because Joseph continues right on. Unsolicited, he advises Pharaoh to “look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt.” This person will be intelligent and wise, someone who can oversee the stockpiling of grain during the years of plenty. One fifth of each harvest will be taken during the years of abundance. This “commissioner” will collect all the food of the good years and store up the grain to be used during the years of famine. The food “will be held in reserve for the country…so the country may not be ruined by the famine.”

Pharaoh likes the idea. But where to find the person who has God’s spirit in him? “God’s spirit” -- isn’t that an interesting comment from someone who thinks he is divine? This is probably not a reference to Israel’s God, but Pharaoh sees something in Joseph that makes him talk about the spirit of God. There is something about Joseph that is very Christlike, and people are noticing that. He has skills; he has insight. Pharaoh is recognizing that in him. And it’s not likely that this is normal behavior for Pharaoh.

He doesn’t even question what Joseph has said. He doesn’t ask, “Who are you to talk to me like that?” Joseph’s interpretation and advice is so compelling, so authoritative, that Pharaoh’s immediate response is to wonder out loud where he might be able to find that person. He does not quibble over the interpretation. Perhaps his musing is rhetorical. He might already know what he intends to do, and his officials are probably in agreement because they remain silent. If any of them are disappointed, they are wise enough not to enter the conversation.

Since Pharaoh knows that God has made all this known to Joseph, he offers him the job. “There is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders.” The phrase is literally, “on your mouth shall all my people kiss.” The idea, however, embodies more than homage; it includes obedience. “Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.” He is willing to put everything into Joseph’s hands with the exception of the throne. For his part, it is Joseph’s turn to remain silent. Perhaps he is dumbstruck.

For those that have been keeping track, this is now the third time Joseph has been put in charge of “everything.” First, it is in Potiphar’s house, then in the prison house, now it’s Pharaoh’s house. In one solemn decree, Pharaoh has basically given Joseph the kingdom. This is quite a change. Pharaoh has put Joseph in charge of all the land. He doesn’t have Pharaoh’s title, but he has all the authority.