Pharaoh’s Dreams: Joseph’s Move from Prison to Palace
Genesis 41. In this chapter we have the third pair of dreams in the life of Joseph; first the pair given to him when he was at home with his brothers, then the dreams of the butler and baker, and now a pair of dreams given to Pharaoh. Joseph being the only one who could give the interpretation of these dreams led to him being remembered by the butler, called for by Pharaoh, and within a short time exalted to Pharaoh’s right hand! The meaning of the dreams is typical of future events in this world, and Joseph is a type of Christ exalted in the Millennium.
Pharaoh’s Dreams (41:1-8)
1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed, and behold, he stood by the river. 2 And behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fine-looking and fat-fleshed, and they fed in the reed-grass. 3 And behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, bad-looking and lean-fleshed, and stood by the kine on the bank of the river. 4 And the kine that were bad-looking and lean-fleshed ate up the seven kine that were fine-looking and fat. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he slept and dreamed the second time; and behold, seven ears of corn grew up on one stalk, fat and good. 6 And behold, seven ears, thin and parched with the east wind, sprung up after them. 7 And the thin ears devoured the seven fat and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke; and behold, it was a dream. vv.1-7 It is noted in v.1 that Pharaoh dreamed “at the end of two full years”. How long those years would have seemed to Joseph, who had begged the butler to mention him to Pharaoh. Any hope Joseph had in the butler was surely lost. He had to wait two more years. God’s timetable is not our timetable. But perhaps these two years taught Joseph some valuable lessons, including full dependence on God. God gave Pharaoh two dreams that had the effect of troubling him. It is amazing that something as simple as a dream could be used to deliver Joseph from prison. In Pharaoh’s dreams, he stood by the river, which is of course the Nile River; the great source of Egypt’s fertility, wealth, and independence. In the first dream, he saw seven fat and well-nourished cattle coming up out of the water (a strange detail), which they were accustomed to drink. The seven fat cattle fed on the rich “reed-grass” that grows in the marshes of the Nile. These cattle were followed by seven thin and malnourished cattle, who came also out of the river, and ate the fat cattle! This detail, of cattle eating cattle, was very extraordinary. Pharaoh awoke, then slept again, and dreamed again. This time there was seven fat ears of corn devoured by seven skinny ears. The dreams were different in the objects employed, but otherwise very similar in pattern.
8 And it came to pass in the morning, that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the scribes of Egypt, and all the sages who were therein, and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none to interpret them to Pharaoh. v.8 The dreams were troubling to Pharaoh’s spirit, and he used all of his resources to ascertain the meaning of the dream. God saw fit that the dreams would be obscure enough that the scribes and sages were unable to make anything of them. This would result in Joseph being taken from prison! It is notable that the dreams in Joseph’s life became successively harder to interpret apart from God’s giving the interpretation. The dreams of the sheaves and stars needed no interpretation. The those of the butler and baker did, although still not too obscure. But the dreams of Pharaoh were totally obscure.
The Butler Remembers (41:9-13)
9 Then spoke the chief of the cup-bearers to Pharaoh, saying, I remember mine offences this day. 10 Pharaoh was wroth with his bondmen, and put me in custody into the captain of the life-guard’s house, me and the chief of the bakers. 11 And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each according to the interpretation of his dream. 12 And there was there with us a Hebrew youth, a bondman of the captain of the life-guard, to whom we told them, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each he interpreted according to his dream. 13 And it came to pass, just as he interpreted to us, so it came about: me has he restored to my office, and him he hanged. vv.9-13 Sadly, turning to God is the last resource of the world, when all magicians and wise men have failed to deliver them. It is nice to see that the butler was brought to repentance. He didn’t just say “I know a guy…”, but rather, he confessed his faults, telling the whole story first. The butler does not hide the memory of Pharaoh’s anger, nor does he refuse to risk Pharaoh’s anger again.
Joseph Gives the Interpretation (41:14-36)
14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph; and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon. And he shaved himself, and changed his clothes, and came in to Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, I have dreamt a dream, and there is none to interpret it. And I have heard say of thee, thou understandest a dream to interpret it. 16 And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace. vv.14-16 How things had changed for Joseph! “Until the time that his word came: the word of the LORD tried him. The king sent and loosed him; even the ruler of the people, and let him go free” (Psa. 105:19-20). Moments before, Joseph was in the dungeon. Now he stood before Pharaoh who was desperate for the answers that only Joseph could reveal. When God’s time comes, things can happen very quickly. Nevertheless he had time to make his appearance respectable for the presence of the king. Joseph was faithful in giving God the credit for interpreting dreams; “it is not in me”. The only One who could interpret the dream was the One who gave it. The same is true with the Spirit and Word of God. But Joseph was “a man in whom the Spirit of God is” (v.38), not of course permanently indwelling as in Christians.
17 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, In my dream, behold, I stood on the bank of the river. 18 And behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fat-fleshed and of fine form, and they fed in the reed-grass. 19 And behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor, and very ill-formed, and lean-fleshed — such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness. 20 And the lean and bad kine ate up the seven first fat kine; 21 and they came into their belly, and it could not be known that they had come into their belly; and their look was bad, as at the beginning. And I awoke. 22 And I saw in my dream, and behold, seven ears came up on one stalk, full and good. 23 And behold, seven ears, withered, thin, parched with the east wind, sprung up after them; 24 and the thin ears devoured the seven good ears. And I told it to the scribes; but there was none to make it known to me. 25 And Joseph said to Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one. What God will do he has made known to Pharaoh. 26 The seven fine kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. 27 And the seven lean and bad kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears, parched with the east wind, will be seven years of famine. 28 This is the word which I have spoken to Pharaoh: what God is about to do he has let Pharaoh see. 29 Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout the land of Egypt. 30 And there will arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will waste away the land. 31 And the plenty will not be known afterwards in the land by reason of that famine; for it will be very grievous. 32 And as regards the double repetition of the dream to Pharaoh, it is that the thing is established by God, and God will hasten to do it. vv.17-32 After Pharaoh had repeated his dreams (or rather, dream) to Joseph, Joseph was able to interpret the dreams with the wisdom that comes from God. As with the butler’s “three branches” and baker’s “three baskets”, so Pharaoh’s “seven kine” and “seven ears” represented a period of time. In this case it was years; seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. We might wonder how a nation that had a mighty river to allow it independence from rainfall could experience seven years of famine. Perhaps the Nile itself would be effected, perhaps dried “by the east wind”? The years of famine were as necessary as the years of plenty, because it was the years of famine that would bring the sons of Israel down to Egypt to buy corn. So it is in the human experience: there is far more progress made spiritually in times of trial than in times of ease and plenty. The world little realizes that it is enjoying its seven years of plenty while it shares the benefits of Christianity, but there are seven years of tribulation coming soon.
33 And now let Pharaoh look himself out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh do this: let him appoint overseers over the land, and take the fifth part of the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty, 35 and let them gather all the food of these coming good years, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, for food in the cities, and keep it. 36 And let the food be as store for the land for the seven years of famine, which will be in the land of Egypt, that the land perish not through the famine. vv.33-36 The wisdom given to Joseph concerning what Pharaoh ought to do was as astonishing as the interpretation of the dreams. When a kingdom suffers economic hardship, generally it leads to unrest among the masses, and loss of control for the government. This Pharaoh, as one of the Hyksos shepherd-kings, perhaps didn’t have as solid of a grasp on power as he would like. Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh would not only save the lives of millions, but consolidate power in the hands of the government (see Genesis 47:13-26). This truly was the best course for Pharaoh to take, given the circumstances that he faced. Without this foreknowledge, the abundance gleaned in the years of plenty would be wasted rather than saved. So it is with the gospel, pictured by the years of plenty. It is for want of believing in the reality of coming judgment that these years of grace are squandered (2 Peter 3:4).1
Joseph Elevated to Power (41:37-57)
37 And the word was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his bondmen. 38 And Pharaoh said to his bondmen, Shall we find one as this, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? 39 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, Since God has made all this known to thee, there is none so discreet and wise as thou. 40 Thou shalt be over my house, and according to thy commandment shall all my people regulate themselves; only concerning the throne will I be greater than thou. 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt. 42 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in clothes of byssus, and put a gold chain on his neck. 43 And he caused him to ride in the second chariot that he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee! and he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, I am Pharaoh; and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt. 45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-paaneah [‘revealer of secrets’], and gave him as wife Asnath the daughter of Potipherah the priest in On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. vv.37-45 The degree to which Joseph was exalted is astonishing. The result of the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream is that Joseph is elevated to power. In a similar way, the result of the coming seven years of tribulation will be that God’s man, Christ Jesus, will be exalted over all the earth (Eph. 1:10). Joseph’s marriage to Asenath, completely unknown before this, typifies the relationship of a rejected Christ with the Church (a mystery hid in God), and brings before us the posterity which He acquired outside the promised land before taking up His relationship with His own earthly people again, which follows typically in the restoration of Joseph’s brothers. They cried before Joseph “Bow the knee”, and this is typical of Christ, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11), and in Romans 14:11 it is “every knee shall bow”. Christ is the man “discreet and wise” who will be set to reign over all the earth. The Lamb in Rev. 5 has seven horns (perfect power) and seven eyes (perfect discernment). We see this in Isaiah 11:2, where the “seven Spirits” of the Messiah are given. But what made Joseph a good ruler was that he ruled in the fear of God (2 Samuel 23:1-6). The name given to Joseph means in Coptic ‘revealer of secrets’. Yet Joseph would not be above one person: Pharaoh himself. This is a type of Christ, who has not yet taken His own throne, but sits at His Father’s right hand, waiting until His enemies are made His footstool.
46 And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from Pharaoh, and passed through the whole land of Egypt. 47 And in the seven years of plenty the land brought forth by handfuls. 48 And he gathered up all the food of the seven years that was in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities; the food of the fields of the city, which were round about it, he laid up in it. 49 And Joseph laid up corn as sand of the sea exceeding much, until they left off numbering; for it was without number. 50 And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asnath the daughter of Potipherah the priest in On bore to him. 51 And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh — For God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. 52 And the name of the second he called Ephraim — For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction. vv.46-52 It is noted that Joseph was thirty years old when he was brought before Pharaoh and elevated to power. We know he was seventeen when he was sold into slavery (Gen. 37:2), which means he was a slave for thirteen years. He lived to one-hundred and ten years (Gen. 50:26), which means he lived a full seventy years in liberty. It is noted that Joseph gathered the excess food of Egypt, and we can compare this to Christ as Lord of the harvest. Joseph named his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and the meaning of their names is given as marking snapshots of Joseph’s state of soul during this period. By the time the first son was born, the experience was such that he had forgotten not only his suffering as a slave, but also the insults of his father’s house. By the time the second son is born, the expression is not merely non-negative, but positive; “God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction”. There is a typical significance of these names. The forgetting comes first, then the fruitfulness. In a sense, the Lord forgot Israel after they ultimately rejected Him. His natural relationship with Israel (“my father’s house”) was set aside. But then, the Lord received an abundance of fruit in the very land of His affliction, which is a type of the Church brought into blessing during the time of Israel’s being set aside. As an application of this, there is a certain sense in which the satisfaction brought to the Lord in seeing “the fruit of the travail of his soul” (Isa. 53:11) will cause the memory of the cross to dim by reason of the joy before His soul. Just as the seven years which Jacob served for Rachel seemed to him but a few days for the love that he had for her (Gen. 29:20), at the marriage supper of the Lamb, it is the Church that will cause Christ to “forget all his toil”. What a day that will be! But we should never forget it, and thus He has asked us, “This do in remembrance of me”.
53 And the seven years of plenty that were in the land of Egypt were ended; 54 and the seven years of the dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said. And there was dearth in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. 55 And all the land of Egypt suffered from the dearth. And the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, Go to Joseph: what he says to you, that do. 56 And the famine was on all the earth. And Joseph opened every place in which there was provision, and sold grain to the Egyptians; and the famine was grievous in the land of Egypt. 57 And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph, to buy grain, because the famine was grievous on the whole earth. vv.53-57 We find next that Joseph becomes not only the provider for Egypt, but also the provider for “the whole earth”. The words “Go to Joseph” show that he alone was the sustainer of life during those years. So too, the earth will one day learn that God’s man, the glorified Son of man, is the sustainer of life for the whole world, pictured by the river of life in Ezekiel 47. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Famines in the Word of God. In the Old Testament God allowed several great famines to touch the land of Canaan, and these were allowed for different reasons. A famine naturally follows a time of drought, when food and water are scarce. When there is plenty of resources, the world continues on its course without turning to God. Similarly, there is a tendency for Christians to grow more independent from God. But when famine arises, we are forced to turn to the Lord, and address the matters that concern His interests. In one case, famine was used to bring Joseph's brothers to repentance, in another case, famine was used to cause David to deal with a serious matter from the past. In the New Testament, we read of a famine that God allowed to make the prodigal son feel his wretched condition, and bring about repentance. We have Abraham's famine (Genesis 12:10), Isaac's famine (Genesis 26:1), Joseph's famine (Genesis 41:27), Naomi's famine (Ruth 1:1), David's famine (2 Sam. 21:1), Ahab's famine (1 Kings 17:1), Elisha's famine (2 Kings 4:38), Zedekiah's famine (2 Kings 25:3), the Prodigal's famine (Luke 15:14), the Assembly's famine (Acts 11:28).
- The abundance was not to be wasted in a luxurious and injurious waste; the famine was to be alleviated by a wise policy so as to consolidate the king’s authority and power and means, instead of breeding discontent and despair and revolution. Joseph had the place of honour and administrative wisdom, after his long endurance of shame and grief at home and abroad; his father to be permanently comforted, and filled with joy overflowing after his life of trial and change beyond his fathers; and his brethren to be rebuked and humbled before his grace and glory, with verification of those dreams in his youth which then only increased their base envy and aggravated their hatred of his purity and love. – Kelly, William. Joseph.