Genesis 40: Joseph, the Baker, and the Cupbearer

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This chapter begins with Joseph still in prison. Nothing has been said about how much time has passed nor has anything been said about Potiphar’s wife - whether she experienced any repercussions for her accusations. Then again, this is not her story - it’s Joseph’s.

The next series of events begin with the notation that Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker do something that quite offends him. They end up in prison. Readers aren’t told why they’re there - only that they committed some offense against the king of Egypt. Obviously, if Pharaoh wants to throw someone into prison, there is no recourse for them either. Pharaoh has absolute power, and if he wants someone in prison, off to prison they go. In this case, his chief baker and chief cupbearer, two of his employees, are sent to prison. No one knows exactly how they offended the Pharaoh.

He put them in the custody of Potiphar, though he, too, quickly fades from the story and is only referenced by his title - captain of the guard. Potiphar assigns them to Joseph. Joseph is to serve them, just as he served Potiphar in the past. Indeed, the word is the same. Joseph is still in charge of the prisoners and has authority over them, and additionally, he is to watch over these two prisoners.

Now after they have been in custody for a while, each of the two men has a dream. It happened on the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. The next morning when Joseph comes to them, he sees that they are dejected. Being in prison is one thing, but these dreams leave them troubled and very concerned. Their morning countenance reflects that. So Joseph asks them what is wrong.

They tell him they have had dreams, but there is no one to interpret them. Dreams were thought to be messages from the divine, but what good is the message if there is no interpreter? Pharaoh had a whole contingency of professional dream interpreters. But these two men are in prison without access to any of them. And they know that’s who they need right now – a dream interpreter.

Joseph immediately replies that interpretations belong to God. God will interpret their dreams. In expressing such a conviction Joseph is declaring both his modesty and his belief in God. He means to reassure both the cupbearer and the baker that God is fully in control. One might rightly wonder what those two Egyptian employees know about Joseph’s God. But the text does not dwell on that. They are all operating under the assumption that whatever the dream, its interpretation will be realized in some moment in history. They just don’t know what that is, and they are troubled. Joseph asks them to tell him their dreams.

The cupbearer goes first. He says, “In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.” Everything in the dream happens very quickly. There is no time for the grapes to ferment; they go from buds to wine in an instant. The dream also dwells on threes. There are three branches; the grape buds, blossoms, and ripens; the word “cup” is repeated three times.

Right away Joseph knows what it means. There’s no indication that Joseph pauses to pray or asks for time; he intuitively knows what it means. The three branches represent three days. Within three days, Pharaoh will summon the cupbearer to the palace. “Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer.” The cupbearer will be restored to his job in Pharaoh’s court.

In return for his services and good news, Joseph asks that when this happens to him, the cupbearer should remember Joseph, show him a kindness, and mention him to Pharaoh. Apparently, Joseph cannot access Pharaoh directly. The cupbearer needs Joseph’s help; and Joseph needs his help as well. Yet, this is not a command, but a request. He just hopes that the cupbearer is elated enough to pay things forward. Joseph hopes that if he is able to do this, perhaps Pharaoh will let him out of prison.

It is doubtful that the cupbearer has any information concerning why Joseph is there in the first place. So Joseph states that he was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews and did nothing to deserve being in this pit – using the same word that was used in Canaan by his brothers. In so doing, Joseph reveals that he is an outsider. Perhaps the cupbearer has already garnered that information when Joseph states that Elohim will interpret his dream, which clearly isn’t the name for an Egyptian god. So he knows Joseph is a foreigner with no obligation to him as an Egyptian, and possesses powers that far exceed his own. Joseph helps him from the goodness of his heart and asks a small request in return. And in a final plea for help, Joseph states that he has “done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.” Lest the reader think it might have been a privileged prison, Joseph refers to it as a dungeon. Of course, the chief baker has been listening to all of this and is very excited. He cannot wait to tell Joseph his dream too. No doubt, he expects an equally satisfying resolution. He says, “I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.” The first ominous feature is that he can’t stop the birds from eating the bread because the basket is on his head.

As before, Joseph does not hesitate. Unfortunately, the outcome for the baker will be completely different. The three baskets also represent three days. In three days, he will, likewise, be summoned to Pharaoh’s court. Unlike the cupbearer, Pharaoh will lift up his head to be hanged. He will lose his head in Pharaoh’s court. Adding insult to injury, his body will be impaled on a pole and the birds will eat away at his flesh. There is no response from the baker following this interpretation. In both instances, Pharaoh will “lift up their heads.” One will be restored; the other will be hanged.

The narrator informs the reader that the time period of three days is highly significant because it will be Pharaoh’s birthday then. On that day, Pharaoh throws a great feast for all his servants and summons the chief cupbearer and chief baker just as Joseph has foretold. Accurate to a point, Pharaoh does exactly what Joseph has said he will do. The cupbearer is restored to his position and puts the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; the baker is hanged. It is easy to speculate about their offenses. Perhaps the baker’s offence was a more serious violation, but the text remains silent on their transgressions. This is not a story about their wrongdoings. The focus remains on Joseph.

Unfortunately, given the festivities and his sheer elation, the cupbearer forgets all about Joseph. It states that he did not remember… he forgot him. Either word would have sufficed to explain what happens, but by using two verbs together, it intensifies the forgetting. In that way, the writer underscores the cupbearer’s failing.

So once again, it seems that Joseph is having another setback. The list is getting long. By sharing his initial dreams with his brothers, he alienates them, and they throw him into a pit. By holding to his moral standards and refusing to lie with Potiphar’s wife, he is living in a dark and dingy prison. Despite helping another prisoner, he is forgotten. This, too, is a series of three. One can almost imagine Joseph waiting with bated breath while the days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Finally, he must come to terms with the realization that nothing is going to change.