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Deeper Commentary

Gen 40:1 It happened after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord, the king of Egypt- "After these words" (Heb.) could refer to the words of Potiphar's wife. We are led to suspect that the butler and baker were somehow also her victims, and this would confirm the experience of identity between Joseph and these two men.  The obvious accusation against the butler and baker was that they had tried to poison the king. Most likely they hadn't, but the paranoia which goes along with absolute power led the king to suspect this. Stalin was similar, falsely accusing his butlers and cooks and often having them murdered. So they would have had an immediate bond with Joseph, who was likewise totally innocent. The force of "here also" in :15 may mean that Joseph "also", like the butler and baker, was imprisoned under false accusation. The death of one and release of the other was arranged to remind Joseph of what could have happened to him, and yet of the possibility too of his total rehabilitation. Commonality of experience is a bond we too can use in relationship building and sharing God's word. There seems a parallel between their sin against "their lord" and Joseph's apparent sin against his "lord" Potiphar. He is consistently called Joseph's "lord" throughout Gen. 39.

But the Hebrew for "offended" can as well mean "sinned against"; the LXX reads "sinned". The butler later comments: "I remember my sins today" (Gen. 41:9- an intensive plural for 'my great sin'). Maybe he was reflecting that his real sin was the sin of omission in forgetting Joseph and being ungrateful- which is our sin, so very often. To be unmindful of the affliction of Joseph is seen as the epitomy of the sin of materialistic, self satisfied members of God's family: "who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the best oils; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (Am. 6:6). Perhaps they were in prison for real offences; and one was saved by grace, and the other rightly condemned. The type is of the Lord's suffering together with two such thieves, on the cross. It would have made Joseph realize what grace means, in this case- for he would have seen a guilty man saved by grace, and even then be ungrateful for it. And this was really the story of his father's life.

Gen 40:2 Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker- Perhaps these two, one saved and one condemned, point forward to the two criminals with whom the Lord was crucified. Again the similarity with Joseph continues, as he was in the same prison because of his "lord's" anger (Gen. 39:19). It was this commonality of experience which enabled Joseph to reach out to those men, and this is the same basis for our appeal.

Gen 40:3 He put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound- Here we learn that the prison where Joseph was kept was only a temporary holding place for prisoners before trial. Joseph by grace was kept there for some years. Even when it seemed all was against him, as with us, there was another dimension of his life in which he was kept alive by grace alone.

Ps. 105:18 says that Joseph's feet were hurt with iron fetters, but presumably this was only initially; so we should read this as "where Joseph had been bound". He was able to relate to how they were on the basis that he too had been through it when he was first incarcerated. At this time he was actively running the prison and not "bound" (:6).

Gen 40:4 The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he took care of them. They stayed in prison many days"Assigned" is s.w. Gen. 39:4, where in Potiphar's house Joseph was given the charge or oversight of everything. See note there. He served them [Heb.] in that they were senior officials and were in custody awaiting trial, and therefore had the right to be served. The ancient world didn't practice long prison sentences; rather was the death sentence carried out, and people remained in prison relatively short periods or whilst awaiting trial. Joseph's extended stay in prison therefore points to something unusual- the captain of the guard maybe preserved him, or Potiphar was against the death penalty, as he disbelieved his wife, but felt he had to keep Joseph there. In all this there was Divine providence. "Many days" perhaps invites comparison with Joseph's belief that double Divine dreams were definitely answered, and were answered "soon", as he says to Pharaoh. On one hand, his time in prison was "years of days" (Gen. 41:1 Heb.); the butler and baker were "many days" in the holding prison, as it felt to them. But Joseph's perspective was that God's word is answered quickly. Indeed, as Ps. 105 notes, his trust in God's word was tested. And faith really is all about our perception of time, and how far we are able to adopt the Divine perspective on it.

Gen 40:5 They both dreamed a dream, each man his dream, in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt-  "Each man according to the interpretation of his dream" is hard to understand. It could be intended to mean "and the interpretation of those dreams came true to each of the men", but that is not quite what the text says. The LXX simply omits the phrase. The GNB repoints the Hebrew to offer "and the dreams had different meanings", but that appears to be stating what is surely axiomatic; although it may be preparing us for the contrast with Gen. 41:25 when the two dreams of Pharaoh had the same one interpretation. The two men assumed their dreams were saying the same thing (see on :8). Joseph likewise had had a double dream in his youth. He must have wondered whether each dream had a different meaning, or whether they were saying one and the same thing. And these recurrences of double dreams would have reminded him of his own double dreams, lest he forget them. For there in prison, the temptation would have been to shrug them off as bizarre and obviously irrelevant to his life.

Each of the three dreams in the Joseph story is a double dream (Joseph's dreams, the dreams of butler and baker, Pharaoah's dreams). When Joseph tells Pharaoh that double dreams mean they definitely come true, he said this, therefore, in faith- that his own dreams would come true. That faith is contrasted with both his father and his brothers protesting that these dreams could never come true. And I suggest he had this in mind all through, that circumstances would work out so that his brothers came bowing to him. I suggest that is what motivated him to suggest Pharaoh set a man over all Egypt to manage the people would come to buy grain- inwardly scheming that he would be the one chosen. He showed great spiritual ambition in all this. But Joseph also understands the double dream of Pharaoah to mean that God will "soon" fulfil it- and the double dream of the butler and baker indeed immediately came true. Joseph therefore understood that his own dreams would "soon" come true; but he understood that the "soon" was relative to God's view of time, and not his. The dreams of Pharaoh would take seven to fourteen years to come true; but Joseph understood that as "soon". We like Joseph must see that our redemption and the fulfilment of God's plan for us is likewise "soon"- in the ultimate perspective.

Who were bound in the prison- Joseph had previously been "bound" with harsh fetters (Ps. 105:18) but was now free enough to serve them. So he could relate to them and empathize with their suffering. This was going to be an important feature of his life; and the reason for many of our negative experiences is likewise so that we can relate to others in similar sufferings. Indeed 2 Cor. 1:4-8 says that this is the purpose of suffering. The Lord's empathy with our suffering was achieved through His own suffering and tasting death for every man. These men were "confined in the prison" (Heb.), but Joseph believes they will be led by their dreams to a far greater destiny beyond those prison walls. And this encouraged him that his dreams would likewise take him beyond the narrow confines of his present experience in the prison. But he could of course have bitterly concluded that others' dreams come true- but not his. But he rose above that. We have the same choice of perspective.


Gen 40:6 Joseph came in to them in the morning, and saw them, and saw that they were sad- We note Joseph's sensitivity to others and desire to help them, instead of being lost in his own bitterness and sense of injustice. This feature was taught by his sufferings; because he clearly had grown up the favourite and spoilt child, and such a background would militate against such characteristics.

One theme of the record is that circumstances repeat in life, because there is the higher hand of God over all. These men came to Joseph in the morning- and we are told concerning Pharaoh: "And it was in the morning that his spirit was troubled" (Gen. 41:8). The butler and baker tell Joseph: "We have dreamed a dream, and there is no one to interpret it" (40:8), and Pharaoh likewise told Joseph: "I have dreamed a dream and there is no one to interpret it" (Gen. 41:15). Joseph's "Do interpretations not belong to God?" (40:8)is then matched by what he tells Pharaoh: "It is not me; God will restore Pharaoh's peace of mind" (Gen. 41:16). Joseph saw the parallels. And just as he had the right, humble attitude about dream interpretation in the first case, so he did in the second case when the situation was repeated. We may fail the first time and get it right the second time; or get it right the first time and fail the second time. Or like Joseph, get it right and keep getting it right. But you have to think about your life with God in order to perceive this. And only then will you overcome man's obsessive and often depressive "search for meaning". For if man's search for ultimate meaning is left unanswered, then rich or poor, fat or thin, we slip further and further into depression and meaninglessness.

Gen 40:7 He asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody- The text stresses, as in :3, that the men were in the same prison as Joseph. Again we see the theme of identity between Joseph and those he sought to help.

In his master’s house, saying- "In the ward of his master's house" again suggests the prison house was under Potiphar.

Why do you look so sad today?- "Sad", ra, has the sense of evil. They knew Pharaoh's birthday was in three days, and there would be decisions made in connection with it which would affect them; they had a presentiment of something significant and probably evil that was to happen to them.

 The sensitive reader will perceive that Joseph had a strong fatherly image, even from a young age (also Gen. 41:43 mg.; 45:8). The Lord Jesus likewise; hence He referred to the disciples as His children when they were in the same peer group. This is understandable in that He is the supreme manifestation of the  sovereign Father.

Gen 40:8 They said to him, We have dreamed a dream- They assume that their two dreams are one dream, and the interpretation will be identical. See on :5.

And there is no one who can interpret it. Joseph said to them, Don’t interpretations belong to God?- Joseph is so sure dreams come true- and he likewise must have lived in faith that his would too. He would therefore have been looking for the day when his brothers came to him and knelt before him. Ps. 105:19 says that at this time, Joseph was tested by the word of God; he was tested as to whether he would continue to believe that God's word would come true for him, and his experience of these other dreams coming true would have encouraged him. We too are challenged to believe that the apparent disjuncture between who I am now, and who I shall eternally be... will be breached, faith shall be turned to sight, the prophetic word for me shall come true. Joseph's statement that interpretations belong to "God", i.e. the one and only God, his God... is more radical than it may seem. For the Egyptians were persuaded that interpretations belonged to the revered class of court magicians whose job it was to interpret dreams [called the hartummim]. To say that actually interpretations are from the God of Israel... was a slap in the face to that entire culture, and would have been immediately noticed. The butler would have recalled Joseph's statement, when later the magicians were unable to interpret Pharaoh's dream.

Another example of Joseph being tested by repeating circumstances was in the matter of playing God. In interpreting the dreams in prison, Joseph twice said that interpretations of dreams belong to God; "it is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer..." (Gen. 40:8; 41:16). Thus twice Joseph resisted the temptation to claim Divine power to himself. Some years later, however, I fear he failed a similar temptation, when he says to his brothers: "Such a man as I can indeed divine" (Gen. 44:15). He seems to be claiming for himself the power that earlier he had ascribed solely to God. But at the end of his life, when his brothers express their fear that Joseph will judge them harshly now that Jacob has died, Joseph assures them that he will not, as he is not going to play God: "Fear not, for am I in the place of God?" (Gen. 50:19). Significantly, these were the very words of Joseph's father to his mother in Gen. 30:2- showing how temptations and the essence of situations repeat across the generations and within the collective experience of groups of believers. We can discern what happened to Joseph going on in our own lives, if we will only take time to examine ourselves and the patterns of our experiences. A specific temptation or situation may, in essence, occur once, and we respond rightly; again it happens, and again we get it right; then again some years later, and we fail; and then some years later still, and we get it right. Constantly our understanding and obedience is being tested, developed, expanded, confirmed... by the Divinely controlled, providential structure of our lives and the situations and persons we encounter. Whether we travel the world each day meeting new people and apparently "new" situations all the time, or we sit in the same room confined by illness and with a limited pool of interaction... all the same, God is equally at work with us all, every moment. Let's not lose sight of the fact that Joseph stands as a pattern for us all.

Please tell it to me- This is the same word used of how Joseph told his dreams to his family, resulting in all his suffering (s.w. Gen. 37:9,10). He was further seeing the similarities between himself and these men. If indeed they were both guilty and one was to be exalted by grace (see on :1), then Joseph would have perceived that his promised exaltation was by grace alone, as although he was innocent of what he had been accused of, he was still a sinner deserving death.

Gen 40:9 The chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was in front of me- The critics claim that the Egyptians didn't drink wine. The chronology of Egyptology is open to much academic debate, and so this criticism is far from solid. But I wonder if this dream is not intended to encourage Joseph as to the fulfilment of his dreams, which were about a future time, when Israel would engage in agriculture and not pasturing cattle, and when his mother would be resurrected. Joseph's dream had only a primary fulfilment when his brothers bowed to him. Likewise it could be that Joseph perceived this dream of the butler to refer to some long distant point; it would come true in a primary sense, however. And this would have guided Joseph towards correctly understanding his own dreams- they would indeed have a primary fulfilment but the main fulfilment was at a time and culture yet to come.

Gen 40:10 And in the vine were three branches. It was as though it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters produced ripe grapes- The budding of the branch is elsewhere a symbol of resurrection. At this time, Joseph was being tested as to whether he would believe that God's word to him would come true (Ps. 105:19), and that word involved the resurrection of his mother to one day bow before him. The way this symbol came true for the butler was an encouragement to him. The budding and blossoming of the branch is a symbol of righteousness and Divine acceptance (s.w. Num. 17:5; Ps. 72:7; 92:12; Prov. 11:28). If the butler was righteous, he was still saved by grace according to this dream; and yet he failed to be grateful in saving another. This would have been a great lesson for Joseph; that although he was innocent of what he was accused of, he was still to realize that his salvation and predicted exaltation was all of grace, and he needed to learn the lesson of the butler and seek to save and be gracious to others. And indeed this was to be true of all Israel / Jacob's seed, who finally were to blossom and bud (Is. 27:6).

Gen 40:11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand- Joseph was to later use a cup, perhaps even Pharaoh's cup, in order to try to convict his brothers of their sin. He comments that he can "certainly divine" (Gen. 44:15) because of the cup through which he divines (Gen. 44:5). Joseph may be referring back to how he had correctly interpreted or divined this dream about the cup; and so the cup would be used in bringing about the fulfilment of his own dreams of exaltation above his brothers.

Gen 40:12 Joseph said to him, This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days- Joseph was confident that he had the right interpretation of dreams, and his confidence was strengthened by his interpretation of these men's dreams being proven right. He therefore was being encouraged that God's word for him too would come true.

Gen 40:13 Within three more days, Pharaoh will lift up your head- The Hebraism had a double meaning- to lift up in glory, or lift up ones head in execution and crucifixion. The baker's head was likewise 'lifted up'- but from off his body. The similarity was to make Joseph see that those who benefitted from the fulfilment of Divine dreams only did so by grace. For it was "just" grace that the butler was exalted and the baker beheaded.

And restore you to your office. You will give Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, the way you did when you were his cupbearer- The language here so emphasizes restoration, "to your place... after the former manner" (AV). This is the language of the restoration from Babylon. Maybe Joseph reflected that what he had been promised in his dreams was so much greater; not an exaltation in order to be restored, but an exaltation far higher than he had ever been.

Gen 40:14 But remember me when it will be well with you, and please show kindness to me, and make mention of me to Pharaoh- To hold a plan in one's own mind is to have it ‘with’ them. The Hebrew text here bears this out, when Joseph begs: “Remember me with yourself”. So for the essential purpose of God in His Son to be ‘with’ Him does not in any sense imply that a person was literally ‘with’ God in Heaven. "Remember me with thee" (AVmg.); Joseph perceived that the exaltation of the butler was intended to look forward to his own exaltation. He realized that his dreams would have their final fulfilment at the resurrection when his mother would arise; but he confidently expected a primary fulfilment in his own life. We ought to have that same confidence for this life as well as that which is to come. But Joseph also realized that the fulfilment of the Divine plan requires some volition from men; and so he begged the butler to play his part. "Show kindness" is a term elsewhere associated with the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises; Joseph believed that those promises would have a primary fulfilment in his life, in his exaltation from prison. And he urged the butler to play his part in fulfilling them. And yet as with us, and all the Abraham family, especially his father Jacob, there is here a very human desire to force through the fulfilment of the promises by dint of human device.

"Remember me..." is almost a pathetic plea, recalling his desperate pleas for help when in the pit (Gen. 42:21). Joseph learnt what it felt like to beg for assistance, and not find it. Instead of getting bitter about it, he surely vowed to be different, and he was given the opportunity to do so when made the manager of the world's greatest famine relief program. Many of course respond to having their pleas unheard by closing up their heart of compassion. But he instead used his negative experiences to confirm him in being eager to do for others what had not been done to him.

Doubtless the thief on the cross had in mind the desperate plea of Joseph: “Have me in remembrance when…" you come into your position of power (Gen. 40:14 RV). The thief had perhaps meditated upon the implications of the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come". He saw it as now being certain because of the cross- “when you come in your Kingdom…". And yet he felt as if he was in prospect already there before the coming King, as he hung there before Him on the cross. The thief’s words “Remember me when you come in your Kingdom" is almost certainly reference to Gen. 40:14, where Joseph desperately and pathetically asks: “But think on me when it shall be well with you..". Joseph went on to say “ also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon" (Gen. 40:15). This is very much the spirit of “This man has done nothing amiss...".

And bring me out of this house- The same  words are often used by Moses in describing how Israel had been brought out of the house of Egyptian bondage (e.g. Dt. 13:5,10). The primary audience of Genesis was Israel in the wilderness, and they would have clearly seen the connection. Just as it seemed Joseph was suffering unfairly in that house of bondage at the hands of the Egyptians, so had Israel been. But they too had been brought out, through the Red Sea.

Gen 40:15 For indeed, I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews- Joseph wasn't "stolen", he was sold by his brothers; but he had so often generously told the story that way that he spoke of it as "indeed" true. Just as his brothers repeated the lie about Joseph being dead to the point that they believed it. His generosity of spirit is revealed also in how he doesn't talk in detail about his suffering at the hand of Potiphar's wife. The same words are found in Gen. 44:8, where the brothers are accused of having stolen things out of the house of Joseph's house. Perhaps the idea was that Joseph felt they had stolen him, in that they had stolen the best years of his life; and he wanted them to know how it feels to be a convicted thief, because they had in this sense stolen him.

And here also- The force of "here also" here may mean that Joseph "also", like the butler and baker, was imprisoned under false accusation; see on :1.

Have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon- The shame of Joseph in the dungeon was that this was for the lowest of the low, according to Ex. 12:29- a type of the supreme degradation of Christ on the cross. "Dungeon" is s.w. "pit", the grave, in Zech. 9:11. We sense Joseph's deep internal outcry against the cruel injustice of what had happened to him. He remains for all time an encouragement to those tempted to lose their faith through the experience of bitter injustice.

Gen 40:16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Joseph- This again has the ring of psychological, imaginable truth to it. We are led by the text to correctly imagine his eagerness to hear something good about himself too.

I also was in my dream, and behold, three baskets of white bread were on my head- White bread would be leavened bread. Just as the things in the butler's dream represented good spiritual things elsewhere in the Bible, so the things in the baker's dream have generally negative associations.

Gen 40:17 In the top basket- If this means the third basket, then the idea is that the baker's death would be on the third day. Or maybe the idea was that his body would be pecked by birds on the third day.  

There was all kinds of baked food for Pharaoh, and the birds ate them out of the basket on my head- The works of the baker came to represent him personally; for it was his flesh which was to be eaten by birds (:19). Birds devouring the works of the hands of sinners is the language of the final judgment (Rev. 19:21), suggesting that this is all encouragement to Joseph that judgment day would come and all injustice will be then finally resolved; see on :19.

Gen 40:18 Joseph answered, This is its interpretation. The three baskets are three days- We wonder if the three days look forward to the Lord's death and resurrection, which is the basis upon which men shall be judged, and thereby saved or condemned.

Gen 40:19 Within three more days, Pharaoh will lift up your head from off you, and will hang you on a tree; and the birds will eat your flesh from off you- It could be that the baker really was guilty. The language here is used of the sinner whom God curses (Dt. 21:22,23). The whole situation looks forward to the day of final judgment. Maybe Joseph was being encouraged that judgment would indeed come, and the wicked condemned and the innocent restored. For he would have struggled so much with a sense of injustice, of judgment / justice not being done for him. And this situation encouraged him that finally, it would be done.

Gen 40:20 It happened 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- We can imagine how Joseph felt when the message came that these two men who were in bonds, fed and perhaps washed by him as their servant (:4), were suddenly to go into Pharaoh's presence. He would have seen the power of the prophetic word in the dreams, and reflected that his dreams required a like exaltation. This is why when the call came, he would have been expecting it; the experience of the butler was to show him the path he was to tread.  

Gen 40:21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position again, and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand- The final salvation of Israel is often described in terms of restoration (Acts 3:21). It is a theme which began with the cursing of Eden, in hope of restoration in terms of the Kingdom of God coming on earth. But even in this life there is a sense of restoration; restored to how God intended us to be for Him.

Gen 40:22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them- The point is made that Joseph's interpretation of dreams came true. It was to encourage him that his own dreams would likewise.

Gen 40:23 Yet the chief cupbearer didn’t remember Joseph, but forgot him- Joseph was "forgotten" in prison, just as Judah later felt the same. Joseph therefore did this to him, knowing his brothers would leave Judah in prison feeling 'forgotten', so that Judah would enter into his sufferings. Our trials likewise are lovingly orchestrated so that we might identify with the sufferings of Christ. Joseph's pleas for mercy were ignored when he was in the pit; and now likewise in the dungeon. Later Israel were condemned for not being "grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (Am. 6:6). This experience of being ignored and forgotten didn't make Joseph bitter and self-centred; rather it made him the more sensitive to others. For all time we have the challenge to resist the natural human tendency towards ingratitude, and to simply forget the grace shown to us, allowing life and daily busyness to crowd out our obligation to gratitude. The same word will be used of how people would quickly forget the blessing of seven good harvests (Gen. 41:30). Time and again in Deuteronomy, Moses begs Israel to "not forget" God's goodness. So often we are given examples of people who did not remember but forgot God's grace, or Joash who remembered not the kindness of Jehoiada to him (2 Chron. 24:22). It is why we break bread, to remember and not forget- because that is our tendency. Regular giving thanks for food is one way in which we can keep working at our need to show more gratitude. The grateful person is far less likely to be consumed in bitterness and self pity.