Seaborn Hall, 2/01/20
We start in the middle of Joseph’s story with Joseph’s interpretations of the cup bearer’s and chief baker’s dreams. We will reiterate the dreams and Joseph’s interpretations first. Then we will compare the interpretations with each other and then with the actual fulfillments and attempt to glean further insights.
We have highlighted the relevant portions of both passages.
Joseph’s interpretations here are a great example of the importance of dream and life context.
The cup bearer’s dream, Genesis 40:9-15
Genesis 40:9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “In my dream, behold, there was a vine in front of me; 10 and on the vine were three branches. And as it was budding, its blossoms came out, and its clusters produced ripe grapes. 11 “Now Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; so I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.” 12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; 13 within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh’s cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house. 15 “For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.”
The Chief Baker’s dream, Genesis 40:16-19
Genesis 40:16 When the chief baker saw that he had interpreted favorably, he said to Joseph, “I also saw in my dream, and behold, there were three baskets of white bread on my head; 17 and in the top basket there were some of all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, and the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.” 18 Then Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days; 19 within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and will hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat your flesh off you.”
Joseph’s Dream Interpretation: Cup bearer and baker
It was common knowledge in that day and age that a vine was symbolic for grapes and grapes for wine. In the same way, bread was a common staple for the populace and a daily item a baker would make. Both symbols are easily understood for the vocations of the parties involved – one the cup bearer, the other the baker.
Note the common translation of two very different symbols. For the cupbearer Joseph interprets ‘three branches’ as three days. For the baker, ‘three baskets’ as three days. What is going on here?
Joseph is interpreting according to dream context and life context. The dream context tells him that there is a finality to each dream: the cupbearer places a cup in Pharaoh’s hand; the baker has food eaten from the top of his head. The grapes are ‘ripe’; the basket has all sorts of baked food. These are all symbols with a certain kind of ‘closure’ or finality. They mark an end to something.
Joseph also interprets the life context. Branch is related to the vine and the grape, both living; baskets are misplaced on the baker’s head, not in front of Pharaoh. In this way, three, the common symbol between the two dreams, clearly stands for a ‘finality’ as in days remaining before a change or transition in their status arrives.
Why is it days, and not weeks or months or years? Again, we have to look to the dream context. There is an immediacy to each of the dreams. In the first the flowers are ‘budding’ and the grapes are ‘ripe’; in the second the food is ‘baked’ and the birds are already eating the food out of the basket. Baked food last days, not weeks, before it becomes spoiled. Immediacy in the interpretation was warranted. Additionally, we look at life context. The baking of bread in ancient Egypt was a daily activity. This may have also communicated to Joseph that three baskets would be symbolic for three days baking. There was also nothing in the context to indicate a longer time frame.
Note also how Joseph interprets some of the dream symbols figuratively and some of them as literal. The ‘three baskets’ are three remaining days for the baker, but ‘birds’ can be literal for birds eating the flesh off of him – but also symbolic for death.
This is true in almost all metaphorical, parabolic, or allegorical figures. Some symbols will stand for symbols and others are literal and will stand for themselves – or occasionally have multiple levels of meaning, literal and symbolic. This always adds to the complexity and difficulty of interpretation. Knowing the difference will always be governed by…context.
Joseph’s Dream Interpretation: The Baker
Why is the bread ‘white?’ Bread in Ancient Egypt meant wealth and life. It was a staple of the Egyptian diet served with every meal, but it could also be a means of payment or a part of payments for services. Since the baskets on the baker’s head were filled with ‘life’ but the top basket was being eaten by birds, the interpretation of the baker’s death must have been fairly obvious to Joseph. The baker’s life was being ‘eaten out’ from him.
Bread was also an offering to the gods in Ancient Egypt. It is possible that Joseph interpreted the motif set-up in the dream – the 3 baskets set on the baker’s head, the birds eating out of them – as an ‘offering’ where the baskets of food were the offering and the birds were symbolic of the gods. Additionally, since bread was a payment for many things in Egyptian society, it may have been unusual for bread to be stacked in baskets on the baker’s head rather than presented before him.
Last, conical white bread – similar to pita bread – was typically used in offerings to the gods. The type of bread in the baker’s dream may have been a clear sign to Joseph that the baker was to be a ‘sacrificial offering.’
Also note the timing relative to the dreams is very short. The fulfillment of the dreams happens within a matter of days. Yet, Joseph asks for himself to be remembered and he is apparently forgotten. The timing of Joseph’s own dreams (covered in our next installment) is not yet fulfilled and the fulfillment of them will be very long by comparison – between thirteen and twenty-two years.
This illustrates another difficulty in interpreting dreams and applying them to your life.
Sometimes dream fulfillment will be rather quick and the dream will speak to some existing situation in your life. At other times, a dream may point to the distant future and not have a fulfillment for many, many years.
Dream Interpretation vs. Dream Fulfillment: Genesis 40:20-23
Genesis 40:20 Thus it came about on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his office, and he put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; 22 but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
Here we learn that the third day from the dreams was Pharaoh’s ‘birthday’, a fact which would have been widely known. According to one source, it may have been that this day was not his birthday, but a day celebrating a prince’s birth, or the anniversary of the Pharaoh’s ascension to the throne.
If the ‘birthday’ was the later it would have been customary to forgive a debt, and possibly execute someone as part of the ‘celebration.’ It would have also involved all sorts of ‘baked food’, a fact that would have helped Joseph understand the timing of the dreams. This is also part of the life context and may have been another piece of information Joseph used to determine that the dream fulfillment was going to be more immediate.
As to our dream interpretations, we always need to be sensitive to what the Holy Spirit is saying because it can be easy to project our own wants or desires on to an interpretation and timing. Joseph did not.
Note that in the fulfillment the text seems to indicate that Joseph had correctly interpreted that the chief baker would be ‘hanged.’ According to Genesis 40:19, Joseph had said, “within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and will hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat your flesh off you.”
How did Joseph know that the baker would be hanged? According to some sources ‘hanging’ was not a mode of execution in the times. The primary modes of execution were impalement, drowning, burning alive, and beheading. These were only for severe offense, such as treason. It may have been that the chief baker was accused of treason of some kind and beheaded and the dream depicts the aftermath of this type of execution.
The Hebrew word for ‘hang,’ talah, in Genesis 40:22 can also be translated ‘suspend.’ It is possible that the chief baker was executed some other way – like a beheading – and then his body was ‘suspended’ or displayed for all to see. In this way, the birds would have had opportunity to feed on him as the dream suggests.
The reader may wonder, if there was so much detail inherent in Joseph’s interpretations of the cupbearer’s and baker’s dreams, why didn’t the writer of Genesis clue us into all of it? It is because the purpose of the writer was not to teach the reader about dream interpretation but to recount the hand of God in Joseph’s – and primarily in Abraham’s and the nation of Israel’s – formation and life. As we have noted previously, many of the tenets of dream interpretation were already present, known and taken for granted in Ancient Near East (ANE) life.
Joseph did not merely reach up and grab an interpretation out of the sky when interpreting dreams. Neither did God strike him with lightning and ‘magically’ impart the Interpretation to him. Yet, God did ‘give’ the interpretation. In this case, it was ‘given’ through taught and imparted skill and understanding that took place over a life time and to some degree was implicit and appreciated within the time and culture.
In the next installment, we will retrace Joseph’s early life and see how from the very beginning God was preparing him to understand and interpret dreams and to rule at the right hand of the most powerful figure of his time. From this position, Joseph was to become a savior of the ancient world and fulfill God’s purpose of building one small family into one of the earth’s greatest nations, a nation from which the ultimate Savior of the world would rise.