Seaborn Hall, 10/25/19, updated 10/27/19
In the book of Genesis of the Old Testament, Joseph the son of Jacob has a dream that seems to signify his exaltation over his father and brothers, an unusual phenomenon in the extremely patriarchal Ancient Near East (ANE) culture. In Genesis 39 – 42, we are told of how he tells his brothers, and when they become jealous, they sell him into slavery in Egypt.
Once there he is eventually brought before the Pharaoh to interpret his dreams and he tells Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Gen. 41:16 NAS95). What does he mean by this statement?
Dream Interpretation: Does God ‘Zap’ Us With An Interpretation?
On the surface the statement looks obvious. A literal interpretation of it would suggest that God is the only one that provides interpretations for dreams. We don’t disagree with this assumption.
However, note that the statement says nothing about process or about how this takes place. As with many statements throughout the Bible this is because certain understandings about the context and the culture are ‘assumed.’ To understand what is assumed you must examine the historical and literary context. God does not ‘zap’ us with an interpretation.
Dream Interpretation: History And Context
Earlier in the story Pharaoh’s officials, his cupbearer and baker, both had dreams. They did not know the interpretation, and Joseph, seeing their confusion, offered to interpret. He tells them: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please.” (Gen. 40:8 NAS95). Notice the way they respond to Joseph in the passage.
Joseph asked Pharaoh’s officials who were with him in confinement in his master’s house, “Why are your faces so sad today?” Then they said to him, “We have had a dream and there is no one to interpret it.” Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please.” (Gen. 40:7-8 NAS95)
One might first ask, if interpretations belong only to God why is Joseph needed at all? Pharaoh’s servants were sad because they were used to being in Pharaoh’s court where there were plenty of ‘wise’ men who were skilled at dream interpretation. Not so in prison.
‘We have a dream and there is no one to interpret it.’ In the court, but also throughout the ANE society, there was a body of people skilled at interpreting dreams. We see that there is training for this in Daniel 1-3. These ‘wise men’ were skilled at interpreting dreams and signs in the heavens and other phenomena. Through their wisdom, knowledge seeped into society and culture in general so that even among families like Jacob’s – who had also experienced dreams and supernatural phenomena over the course of his life – there was some general understanding about how to interpret dreams.
Dream Interpretation: Wisdom
The whole area of Dream Interpretation in the Ancient Near East was built on the concept of wisdom. Wisdom began with knowledge, or the Hebrew, ya-da.
Does anyone remember the show Jerry Seinfeld? Kramer and the other characters would go around saying ‘Ya-da, ya-da, ya-da,’ a catch-all for something like ‘and on and on and on’ when they were listening to someone or telling a story about someone. The word literally means ‘I know.’ Wisdom began with knowing and knowing begins with information of some kind – the knowledge can be revelatory, at times, but ‘ya-da’ is primarily ‘learned’ information, ‘learned’ from study, research, vocal transmission, or experience.
The second concept that wisdom was built on was understanding. Understanding resulted from the initial applications of learned or revelatory knowledge. The third concept of wisdom was wisdom itself. Wisdom came from the application of knowledge and understanding in the practical affairs of life over long periods of time – half a life or a whole life. Wisdom was then passed down through the generations.
Dream Interpretation: What Does ‘Belong to God’ Mean?
When Joseph says ‘Do not interpretations belong to God?’, he has this whole milieu of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in the background of his thinking, acting, and statements. He is not saying that God sends down the interpretation like a bolt of lightning and it hits someone. Nor in this context is he (likely) saying that God sends an angel to provide the interpretation (Daniel’s experience – though we can’t rule this out from the text, either. It could be background the writer chooses not to share because it doesn’t fit his theme and purpose).
Joseph is, most likely, looking back to his own dreams (Gen. 37:5f) that he told to his brothers and mistakenly interpreted as his immediate exaltation to rule over them. Eleven years of failure and imprisonment have resulted in wisdom – built on understanding and knowledge. He can now see as God sees. God did not ‘zap’ Joseph with an interpretation. Any interpretive ‘revelation’ came built on years of training and experience, success, and failure after failure after failure.
Yes, ‘God gives the interpretation’ – but in this instance it comes from the humility that years of failure have inculcated in his character and vision. He now understands how it is that God works and he can see his own tapestry unfolding. But, even for Joseph it takes two more years from his interpretation for the cupbearer and baker for God’s plan to be put into visible and clear effect.
Dream Interpretation: Preparation And Timing
Thirteen years from his brothers throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery Joseph is called before the Pharaoh of Egypt to interpret his dreams. It will be approximately nine more years before he sees his father and brothers and forgives them and reunites with them. This is twenty-two years total for Joseph to see the fulfillment of the dreams that he initially had and told to his father and brothers.
We get some idea of the hardship and pain that prepared Joseph for his calling in the names of his two sons: ‘bitterness’ and ‘fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ These are the meanings behind his chosen names for Manasseh and Ephraim.
None of this is to deny the supernatural or to suggest that there wasn’t anything else happening behind the text of Genesis. The writer does not tell the whole story, only what he wants us to see as important. Joseph was prepared for his calling in a unique way that involved rejection and betrayal, pain, isolation, hardship, and sacrifice.
When Joseph finally reunites with his family in victory his weeping and cries are so great they are heard throughout his house by the Egyptians and word even reaches Pharaoh. This is evidence of real and enduring pain in Joseph’s heart. In spite of what God did in his life and the success and favor he was given the pain on the inside of him was real for all of those years.
Building a template of pain, endurance, and sacrifice into Joseph’s life was a necessary ingredient for proper interpretation. The other necessary ingredient was the ANE fabric of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom already present to interpret dreams.
Because of Joseph’s preparation and pain, he had the wisdom to know that interpretations don’t just come by unpacking the riddle – they come as you let the Spirit of God speak into a context hammered out by education, training, and the pain and humility that life experiences bring. God ‘gives’ us interpretations of dreams – but He does not ‘zap’ us with them out of nothing.
In the future, we will look at the details of Joseph’s dreams and dream interpretation template in more detail. For now, it is enough to know that God-given dream interpretations come by the revelatory action of the Holy Spirit speaking into a God-prepared context.