Commentary on Genesis 41

Last updated: November 24, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 8So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

9Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”

14Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” 17Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. 18Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”

25Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

37This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 40You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” 42Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. 43And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” 45And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.

46Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. 47During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, 48and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. 49And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.

50Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore them to him. 51Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” 52The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

53The seven years of plenty that occurred in the land of Egypt came to an end, 54and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. There was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. 55When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do.”

56So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.

Notes

1-2 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass.

The Nile River was the primary source of Egypt’s economic and social stability. “The motif of seven cows is a familiar one from Egyptian paintings and texts.”1

8 So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

It is inconceivable that the professional dream interpreters are unable to provide “interpretations.” The key phrase, therefore, is “for Pharaoh,” that is, their solutions do not satisfy him. The fact is that there is nothing in the dreams that relates in a personal way to Pharaoh himself. This, incidentally, is in contrast to all previous dreams in Genesis in which the dreamer plays a central role. It is therefore clear to Pharaoh that his dream experience has a wider, national significance. The customary fawning and flattering expositions of the magicians are therefore unconvincing.

The failure of the Egyptian professional dream interpreters has a significance that reaches far beyond the immediate story. This incident – the first clash recorded in the Bible between pagan magic and the will of God – constitutes a polemic against paganism. The same motif recurs in the contest between Moses and Aaron and the court magicians of Egypt in Exodus 7-9, in the rivalry between Daniel and the magicians in Daniel 2 and 4, and in the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-23.2

14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.

Egyptians preferred to be clean shaven.

32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.

This remark recalls the double dream that Joseph had in chapter 37 and foreshadows that those dreams will also be fulfilled.

38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”

Joseph is the first person in the Bible said to be endowed with the Spirit of God.

40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.”

This clause [and all my people shall order themselves as you command] is much discussed. A literal translation is: “and on your mouth all my people shall kiss (you)” (we’al-pika yissaq kil-‘ammi). First, let us look at some of the ancient versions. The LXX rendered yissaq with hypakousetai, which would correspond to Heb. yaqseb (Hiphil), meaning “give heed, obey.” Hence, “all my people shall be obedient to your mouth.” The Pesh. read yissapet, “shall be judged.” The Targ. rendered yissaq by the Ithpeel of zun, “be supported, managed” – “by your words all my people will be supported [or sustained, girded],” or in a secondary sense, “when you speak, all my people shall maintain silence [i.e., seal their lips, or be obedient.” Of these ancient versions, the LXX seems the most likely.

Some modern scholars have looked to the Egyptian language for clarification. One Egyptian idiom for “eat” was “to kiss one’s food.” So understood, the phrase would be read as “according to your word shall my people eat.” Others have appealed to the Egyptian idiom sn-t3, literally, “kiss the earth,” meaning “render homage.” So understood, the phrase would be read “according to your commands shall all my people kiss (the earth in submission).”

Redford avoids Egyptian analogies altogether and identifies yissaq with suq: “and in accordance with your command shall my people order themselves.” Perhaps the simplest and most convincing explanation is to emend MT yissaq to yasoq (from nasaq II, “yield, submit to”).3

42 Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck.

The signet ring enables Joseph to sign documents in the king’s name.

43 And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.

The most intriguing part of this verse is the word used by the runners before the chariot (or the pharaoh) as Joseph rides over the land: Abrek (‘abrek). Three different interpretations of this term are genuine possibilities. Dahood has appealed to Eblaite ‘agarakum and its variant ‘abarakum, “superintendent.” Close to this possibility is the suggested association of Heb. ‘abrek with Akk. abarakku, “chief steward of a private or royal household.” This Akkadian word is a technical title from Neo-Assyrian texts, a strange source to explicate a hapax legomenon in the Joseph story!

The third suggestion is to turn to the Egyptian language. In the early years of this century W. Spiegelburg connected ‘abrek with Egyp. ib-r.k, “Attention! Make way for!” (reflected in NEB and JB mg.). Vergote suggested more recently a connection with Egyp. i.brk, “do homage,” that is, taking it as an imperative with prothetic i from the Semitic verb barak, “to kneel.” Spiegelberg’s suggestion is better philologically because a prothetic aleph is not characteristic of third radical verbs in Egyptian. Vergote’s suggestion is preferred contextually because it is an explicit command to do something, rather than a vague summons, “Attention!”4

45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.

The meaning of Joseph’s new name is uncertain. Asenath means “she who belongs to (the goddess) Neith.”5 The priest of On (Heliopolis) held the title “Greatest of Seers.”6 On was the cultic center of the sun-god Re and was located about 7 miles northeast of modern Cairo.7

51 Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.”

Manasseh means “he who causes to forget.”8

52 The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

Ephraim means either “fertile land” or “pasture land.”9

55 When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do.”

The famine and Joseph’s position will result in the meeting between Joseph and his brothers.

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.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 281.

2Ibid., 282.

3Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 504-505.

4Ibid., 506.

5Ibid.

6Ibid.

7Ibid.

8Ibid., 289.

9Ibid.

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