Commentary on Genesis 40

Last updated: November 21, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. 2And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. 4The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody.

5And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. 6When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. 7So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?” 8They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”

9So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 12Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.”

16When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” 18And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

20On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

Notes

1 Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt.

The narrative does not state how long Joseph was in prison. It does say the total period of slavery and imprisonment was thirteen years (37:2; 41:46). The two year period between the events of chapters 40 and 41 indicate that Joseph was twenty-eight years old at the end of this chapter (41:1). The exact duties of the cup bearer and baker are not clear, but they are high ranking members of court. The narrator makes it clear that, unlike Joseph, these two men actually committed an offense.

2-3 And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined.

The captain of the guard may be Potiphar from chapter 39.

4 The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody.

Potiphar assigns Joseph to wait on (wayesaret, v. 4) these two men. This is the same verb used back in 39:4 to describe Joseph’s relationship to Potiphar (lit., “and he [Joseph] served him [Potiphar]”). According to some scholars, here is one valid criterion for separating ch. 39 (J) from ch. 40 (E). In 39:19-23 Joseph is in prison, but he is given by the chief jailer authority over the other prisoners. By contrast, in ch. 40 he has no authority over any prisoners; in fact, he is a servant to two of them. This is a misreading of the text. Nowhere does ch. 40 disagree with ch. 39. Joseph still maintains a position of authority in prison. When, however, the chief cupbearer and baker enter the scene, his responsibility is expanded to include meeting the needs and waiting upon these new coprisoners, both of whom had earlier been responsible for putting wine (the cupbearer) and bread (the baker) on Pharaoh’s table. What he did for Potiphar, and may continue to do for Potiphar, he now does for the cupbearer and baker. Certainly Joseph’s responsibilities to Potiphar included anything but menial, tedious, chorelike activities. The same would be true of his responsibilities to these two. Furthermore, 40:3b, 15 clearly state that Joseph was in prison, exactly in accord with 39:19-23.1

5 And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation.

Since they were imprisoned, the men may have been looking for any sign as to what their fate would be.

8 They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”

The two men were distraught because they did not have access to a professional interpreter of dreams. Joseph’s response implies that he did not consider the interpretation of dreams to be an art that humans could learn. Rather, he believed that dreams could only be interpreted if God gave a person that ability.

16-17 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.”

The dream corresponded in several ways with the cupbearer’s. Both have threes – three branches and three baskets; both dreams pertain to their respective occupations; and in both dreams the cupbearer and baker appear. The differences are significant too. In the baker’s dream Pharaoh is not seen, the baker is not performing his duty, and there is nothing in the former dream corresponding to the birds of prey. The baker is totally passive. The vision of three baskets balancing on the baker’s head paints an unusual sight and was perhaps comical to some readers. The term “baskets” (sallim) is associated with baked goods (e.g. Exod 29:2-3), though not always (Judg 6:19). The prolific number and variety of the items (“all kinds of baked goods”) reflect what we know of Egyptian cuisine. From the top basket birds were feasting on the food designated for Pharaoh. The word for “bird” (‘op) is the general term, referring to clean and unclean species (e.g., Lev 20:25), but it may describe birds that feed off carcasses (e.g., Deut 28:26). Carnivorous birds dining on fallen corpses is a common prophetic image of God’s judgment against the wicked (e.g., Jer 34:20; Ezek 39:17-20; Rev 19:17-18). The baker’s vision of birds picking at the food brings to mind the disquieting episode of Abraham (‘ayit, “birds of prey,” 15:11). Since Pharaoh did not receive the baked goods prepared by the baker, unlike the dream of the cupbearer, the picture conveyed impending doom. Unlike Abraham, who in his vision dispersed the scavengers (15:11), the baker failed in his duty by leaving the food unguarded (e.g., 2 Sam 21:10; Jer 7:33).2

18-19 And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

What Joseph is predicting is an aggravated form of death penalty, execution followed by exposure (cf. Deut 21:22-23; Josh 10:26). The baker will not simply be executed, but his corpse will be impaled and exposed. This treatment was designed to prevent his spirit from resting in the afterlife.3

23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

Joseph will stay in prison for another two years (41:1).

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 475-476.

2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 750.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 384.

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