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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Joseph in Prison, Genesis 40

A. Joseph Interprets the Dreams of Two Prisoners, Genesis 40.

40:1-4 Joseph's Fellow Prisoners
#1  40:1-4  Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.  2 The Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker,  3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined.  4 The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody.
I mentioned above (see p.  ? ) how Joseph was put in a prison for royal prisoners, many suspected of treason. The functions of the chief cupbearer and chief baker fit this category, since they could have been suspected of poisoning the king's food or drink (vv. 1-3). Examples occur in Hittite texts of palace officials in charge of the king's food and drink standing trial for defiling him. One such was a Chief Water-carrier put on trial by ordeal because the king found a hair in his drinking water (CTH 265 iii 24ff.), showing that the king's drinking water had not been properly strained to insure purity. 
When some day the king's anger is aroused and I (the king) summon you, all the kitchen personnel, and hand you over to the River (for an ordeal)—whoever is proven innocent, will remain the king's servant. But whoever is proven guilty, I, the king, do not desire him. They shall put him to death (-si … HUL-lu hingan piyanzi) together with his wife and his children.
Elaborate instructions exist for such officials as to the precautions they must take.  In such cases, not only the underling cupbearer or baker was held accountable, but also his supervisor, all the way up the chain of command. So the two men in prison with Joseph represented the top level of command. 
The Hebrew verb translated "offended" or "committed an offense against" in v. 1 means literally "sinned against." But the same Semitic verb is used in Babylonian texts for political offenses: acts against the sovereign. In other words, not "sin" in a religious sense. Still, it represented the highest level of crime against the king, and its punishment would be correspondingly severe. The pharaoh's "anger" (v. 2) was therefore not just annoyance at poor cooking or bad tasting wine, but anger because he thought his life was threatened. He may have believed this if he experienced stomach ache or upset stomach or some other malady after eating.
40:5-8 Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Chief Cupbearer and Chief Baker
#2   5 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 meaning.  6 When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled.  7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officials, who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?”  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 very fact that among Egyptian magical texts are examples of incantations to remove bad dreams (OEAE 2:328 "Magic in Medicine") shows that the Egyptians were levelheaded enough to recognize either that not all dreams were predictions, or that practical steps could be taken to eliminate the predicted evil. But texts from the First Intermediate period onward already signal the existence of oracular dreams (OEAE 2:329 "Magic in Medicine"). In rituals the blessed dead are implored to fight with forces of evil arrayed against the living petitioner and to reveal their help in dreams (OEAE 2:332, 336). But it was not until the period of Moses that we find concrete evidence for manuals to systematize dream phenomena and propose regular meanings to each. The Nineteenth Dynasty Dream Book, owned by the scribe Kenherkhepeshef and his descendents at Deir el-Medina, documents the … practice of dream interpretation in the private domain. Events seen in dreams, including interactions with divinities, were held to have good or bad consequences for the future, and advice could be provided on the use of spells to counteract inauspicious visions. Although, for the most part, direct consultation of such texts may have been limited to the literate elite, we should allow for the possibility of the oral transmission of their contents. (A. Stevens, “domestic Religious Practices” in UCLA Encycl. of Anc. Egypt [2009]). See translations in "Dream Oracles" by Robert Ritner in CoS 1:52f. 
In the ANE dream interpretation was a specialized skill, and persons wishing interpretations had to pay professionals. In Egypt there is no special term denoting professional dream interpreters. The word ḥarṭôm used in Gen 42:8 means "magician" in general, indicating no specialism in dream interpretation among the Egyptian court scholars. Contrary to earlier beliefs, there is no evidence that Egyptian dream interpreters were highly prized internationally and imported into other Near Eastern countries. Instead, each country developed its own methods of decoding dreams and, if professional help was needed, it used local talent. It has been claimed that in the Bible native Israelites have no need of the aid of interpreters, but can understand their own dreams. While it is true that Joseph's first two dreams seem clear enough in their implications, both to him and his family members, it would be rash to assume that Israelites never felt the need of more expert help. If so, the priests in the Tabernacle or Temple would have been logical sources of help. Although young Samuel's nocturnal voices from God were not dreams per se, it is Eli, the High Priest, who helps him to understand that God is speaking to him. 
Joseph brushes aside the need for professional help for these two fellow prisoners and offers to help, free of charge. His words "Don't interpretations (of dreams) belong to God?" (v. 8) suggests that he has an access to God that they do not enjoy, but that he is more than willing to use that access to help them. 
One of the refreshing things about Joseph's attitude in prison is his lack of preoccupation with his own plight. Instead, he is concerned for his fellow prisoners. When he notices two of them troubled, he asks what troubles them. And when he learns it is dreams, he offers to help them understand their dreams. The farthest thing from his mind is that this could lead to his own release and restoration to favor with the pharaoh. He just wants to help some troubled souls. 
The two men's dreams came to them on the very same night (v. 5) and have similar features such as the recurring number "three," which might have suggested to them that the meanings were the same: either both good or both bad. So our text makes it clear that their "interpretations" (i.e., meanings) are distinct: "each with its own meaning." 
40:9-15 Chief Cupbearer's Dream and Its Meaning
#3   9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me,  10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms came out and the clusters ripened into grapes.  11 Pharaoh’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.” 
12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days;  13 within three days the Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer.  14 But remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to the Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place.  15 For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.” 
The dreams are clothed in the dreamer's own customary duties: the cupbearer with his care of the king's wine, the baker's preparation of the king's bread. 
Joseph needs no time to think about it, for God gives him immediate insight. He said to the two men at the outset that “Do not interpretations belong to God?" And the implication was that he knew God would reveal the meanings to him. There is nothing in the phenomena of the dream that must have the meaning Joseph assigned to it: he was simply given God's meaning directly and told the dreamer how this could fit the imagery of the dream. The fact that the Chief Cupbearer's cup was in his hand in the dream, and he was again serving the pharaoh indicated that he would be cleared of guilt and restored to office. The three branches on the vine indicated the time: three days from now. The three-day period in both dreams is the period during which both men's cases will be investigated by the  pharaoh. The results of those investigations will determine whether each will be exonerated or condemned to die. The phrase Joseph used for the Chief Cupbearer's restoration to favor is "the pharaoh will lift up your head." This is a known idiom for showing clemency and favor to a servant. In this man's case it shows he was cleared of guilt and restored to office.
Since the verdict of this dream is a good one, Joseph asks in return that the Chief Cupbearer remember  him after he is restored to office, and ask the pharaoh to have his case re-examined, since he was innocent of the charge against him and also was kidnapped from his home in Canaan.
40:16-19 Chief Baker's Dream and Its Meaning
#4   16 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,  17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for the Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.”  18 And Joseph answered, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days;  19 within three days the Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a pole; and the birds will eat the flesh from you.” 
Emboldened by the good prediction Joseph attached to his colleague's dream and Joseph's certainty that the interpretation is correct shown by his requesting that the Cupbearer remember him, the Chief Baker—in spite of knowing in his conscience that he is guilty as charged— asks him to interpret his dream, hoping nevertheless for a similar good prediction. Once again, the dreamer himself appears in the dream and is seeking to serve the pharaoh with food or drink. But whereas the Cupbearer's wine is produced by his own squeezing of the grapes and is safely delivered into the king's cup with the king himself present in the dream, the Baker is not shown baking the breads, but only carrying them, and negligently carries the pharaoh's 's pastries uncovered in the uppermost basket on his head, so that birds can eat them: a potentially bad sign. See Egyptian paintings showing the royal bakery and the multitude of baked goods. Furthermore, the baker in his dream never reaches the pharaoh. Everything in his dream shows his bad conscience: he knows that he has indeed been guilty of neglect of his duties. These clues can alert Joseph to the true condition of the two men, but they are not the standard symbols for determining favorable and unfavorable dreams in the Egyptian Dream Book.  Nevertheless, once again the meaning is given to Joseph by God and cannot be mechanically derived from the phenomena. No Egyptian dream interpreter would necessarily see the meaning from the imagery. It is God who enables Joseph to read the dreams of the two men and to see that each is indeed "according to its meaning." He knows from these clues that the Cupbearer is innocent of his charge, while the Baker is guilty. In the Baker's dream he carries the uncovered breads in a basket on his head. This tells Joseph that his execution will be by beheading.  So Joseph deliberately reuses the phrase he used with the Cupbearer—the pharaoh "will lift up your head"—but in a horrific sense. The Chief Baker's dream indicates that he will not be exonerated, but decapitated, and his headless body publicly impaled. Since this indicates that the man will be in no position to intercede for Joseph with the pharaoh, he doesn't make the request to the Baker that he did to the Cupbearer. 
In neither case are we told whether the dreamer believed Joseph at the time. In three days they would come to believe, just as in three days Jesus' disciples would come to believe his predicted resurrection. 
Two opposite fates await every human being at death: eternal life and eternal death. Joseph didn't determine their fates: he simply announced to them what God had revealed to him. In our witnessing we cannot predict the fate of any person we seek to persuade: but we can confidently direct them to God's Word about the opposite prospects they have to choose between.
40:20-23 The Dreams Come True, but Joseph is Forgotten
#5   On 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.  21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand;  22 but the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had interpreted to them.  23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
Here again we see how God worked everything together in such a serendipitous manner. The three days pass, and the pharaoh "lifts the head" of each in a different way: he restores one and executes the other. Both decisions take place on a day celebrating the pharaoh's ascension to the throne, called in Egyptian "the day of the king's birth". It was appropriate that the day on which the verdict of the investigations of the two men charged with attempting to kill the king should be on the day celebrating the beginning of his kingship. The investigations having been concluded that only one of the two men was actually guilty. The other should be released and restored to his post. Joseph's two dreams in ch. 37 predicted the same future for him. These two dreams indicated innocence and guilt and predicted opposite fates for the two dreamers. But the pair were to confirm the innocence of Joseph and his special gift from God to interpret dreams. Yet God would test Joseph's fate further by letting the Chief Cupbearer forget for a while the request of Joseph. 
Dreams play a crucial role in the Joseph story, even more crucial from a literary point of view than they do in the previous stories about Jacob. Since they all occur in pairs, they serve to provide a thematic unity to the stories of Joseph and his brother, the Cupbearer and the Baker, and the Pharaoh. Shaul Bar points out that they also provide dramatic tension and release: each new set of dreams raises the expectation for its fulfillment. But the dreams of Cupbearer and Baker and of the Pharaoh have a relatively prompt fulfillment. We don't have to wait long for the dream's validation. Joseph's own dreams—on the other hand—and their eventual fulfillment provide a frame around the entire story, embracing the intermediate dreams, whose relatively short fulfillment times give promise to the long-awaited fulfillment of Joseph's own dreams in Gen 37. If we think in terms of a messianic foreshadowing embedded in the Joseph story, the dreams with near fulfillment would correspond to the messianic prophecies fulfilled during the lifetime of Jesus, while Joseph's own dreams that wait long for fulfillment, leading the reader to wonder if they will ever be fulfilled, correspond the the messianic prophecies of Jesus' Second Coming. Though we wait long,we are reassured by those predictions that have already occurred in Jesus' first coming, that the Second Coming that we long for is absolutely certain. 

Joseph offers us several lessons in this week's passage. He is not depressed over his present state. Nor is he so focused on himself that he ignores the troubles of those around him. He cheerfully offers his help and has faith that God will reveal to him the meaning of the dreams. If this had not worked, he would have been the butt of jokes in the prison, much as his brothers had mocked him for his own dreams and his interpretation of them, saying "Here comes that dreamer!" Regardless of how we understand his telling his dreams to his brothers, here—in prison—Joseph was moved by kindness and faith, a powerful combination for any of us. And when the dreams came true, and yet no intervention was made on his own behalf, he waited patiently. All of these attitudes are good for each of us to have.