Genesis Chapter 40: Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Butler and Baker

Mar 13th, 2010 | By | Category: Genesis, Verse by Verse --Studies led by Br. Frank Shallieu (Click on Book name)

Genesis Chapter 40: Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Butler and Baker

Gen. 40:1 And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt.

Gen. 40:2 And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers.

It was providential that the chief butler and the chief baker were imprisoned with Joseph at this time. The butler’s function was to taste the king’s food and wine (as cupbearer) to prevent poisoning.

“Pharaoh was wroth,” and having the power of life and death, as was characteristic of ruling monarchs at that time, he sent the chief baker and the chief butler to the dungeon. The following are other examples in Scripture of absolute power of the king:

1. Queen Esther fasted before going in to see the king, her husband, with a request. If the king showed disfavor by not holding the scepter the proper way, she could lose her life.

2. Nehemiah’s sad countenance could have been the cause of his being put to death.

3. Queen Vashti was deposed for lack of respect for the king, her husband.

What was the age of Pharaoh at this time? We know he was young because Joseph, at age 30, was a “father” to him. In Genesis 45:8, Joseph said that he had been made “a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.”

Gen. 40:3 And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.

Pharaoh put the butler and the baker in prison “in the house of the captain of the guard” where Joseph was imprisoned. The “captain of the guard” was Potiphar. Hence the prison was on Potiphar’s property (compare Gen. 39:1,20). In Hebrew, “captain of the guard” means “chief of the executioners.”

Gen. 40:4 And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them: and they continued a season in ward.

Potiphar charged Joseph with the responsibility of serving the chief butler and the chief baker in prison. Being Pharaoh’s prisoners, they were of a higher rank than Joseph.

The keeper of the prison, who was different from the captain of the guard, had committed all the prisoners into Joseph’s hand (Gen. 39:22). Although the keeper of the prison had put Joseph in charge, Potiphar, as captain of the guard, had more power and authority and thus could make Joseph subordinate to the chief butler and the chief baker, two special prisoners of very high rank. Of course Joseph would have retained his charge over the other prisoners. As captain of the guard, Potiphar was aware of Joseph’s progress and elevation in prison by the keeper. Joseph is a picture of Jesus, who was “Lord” but also a “servant.”

The statement “they [the butler and the baker] continued a season in ward” shows that there was a passage of time before their dreams.

Gen. 40:5 And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison.

Both the butler and the baker “dreamed a dream”; that is, they had separate dreams on the same night with different interpretations. Each man had a dream that comported with his destiny, one favorable, one unfavorable.

Gen. 40:6 And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad.

In the morning, Joseph noticed that their faces looked sad and troubled.

Gen. 40:7 And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his lord’s house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly today?

Joseph asked the butler and the baker why they looked so sad. Notice that they were in the “ward of his [Joseph’s] lord’s [master’s—RSV] house”; that is, they were in Potiphar’s house (compare Gen. 39:2).

Gen. 40:8 And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.

The chief butler and baker were sad because there was no one to interpret their dreams. Joseph responded, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” Joseph’s sensitivity and caring for others were manifested in his observation that the two had sad countenances and then in his inquiring why.

The dreams seemed very significant to the chief butler and baker. Hence they were concerned that no interpreter was available. They considered the dreams to be an omen. Had they been free from prison, they probably would have consulted one of the magi.

The question “Do not interpretations belong to God?” gave God the glory in advance. Joseph was called a “dreamer,” but he also interpreted dreams (Gen. 37:19). He gave credit to God in advance so that even if the interpretation was found to be self-evident, that glory would still stand. (For example, the meaning of Joseph’s own dream about the sun and moon genuflecting before him was obvious to his family.) Daniel similarly gave God the glory (Dan. 2:28).

Gen. 40:9 And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me;

Gen. 40:10 And in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes:

Gen. 40:11 And 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.

The chief butler told his dream. A vine had three branches that budded, and blossoms shot forth and produced ripe grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in the butler’s hand, so the butler took the grapes and pressed them into the cup and gave the cup to Pharaoh.

Gen. 40:12 And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days:

Gen. 40:13 Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.

Joseph’s interpretation that the three branches were three days would not have been not selfevident knowledge to the magi. The account gives only a synopsis of the dream. The chief butler may have given Joseph more details such as, “The branches developed in succession.”

Both a progression of development (buds, blossoms, grapes, wine into Pharaoh’s cup) and time (one, two, three branches) are suggested. The point of the dream was that the chief butler would be reinstated to his previous position in three days. The chief baker was listening to this interpretation (verse 16).

Gen. 40:14 But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and show kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house:

Gen. 40:15 For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.

Joseph asked the chief butler to remember him and to kindly mention his name to Pharaoh. Joseph also asked the butler to request his release from prison and told of his innocency.

Gen. 40:16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph, I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head:

Gen. 40:17 And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head.

The chief baker’s dream was that he had three white baskets on his head. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods and dainties for Pharaoh. The birds ate of the baked goodies in the top basket.

Gen. 40:18 And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days:

Gen. 40:19 Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.

There was a similarity between the two dreams: three branches versus three baskets. Only the top basket was filled with bread and royal dainties, however. The fact that the bottom two baskets were empty suggested an unfavorable destiny. The three tiered baskets (one, two, three) also suggested time—a representation of three days.

The top basket got depleted of the dainties that were for the king; that is, there was nothing left to give to Pharaoh. A void, an emptiness, a lack of fulfillment or purpose, was thus shown. Hence the chief baker’s destiny was unfavorable: the death sentence.

In three days, Pharaoh would hang the chief baker, and birds would eat his flesh. Dainty meats were associated with the baker’s flesh—the birds ate both. The baker would be lifted out of the prison by his neck and hung on a tree.

Both the butler’s and the baker’s heads were lifted up: one to a favorable destiny and the other to an unfavorable destiny. “He [Jesus] shall drink of the brook [of experiences] in the way: therefore shall he [God] lift up [in death and resurrection] the head [Jesus]” (Psa. 110:7). In his earthly ministry, Jesus did whatever God’s will was. Eventually Jesus’ obedience led to the Cross, where God permitted him to be lifted up in death, but subsequently Jesus was elevated out of death and to the divine nature. Out of apparent defeat, therefore, came the victory.

Gen. 40:20 And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants.

Pharaoh lifted up both heads but to two different destinies.

Gen. 40:21 And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand:

Gen. 40:22 But he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them.

The butler was restored and the baker hanged. Both were called out of prison, one for restoration and the other for execution. Hence the baker was lifted up out of prison and then hanged; birds ate his flesh.

Gen. 40:23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.

But the chief butler forgot Joseph and did not mention his name to Pharaoh. Incidentally, in interpreting the Bible, time features can be shown by objects, animals, money weights, cows, branches, baskets, ears of corn, etc.

(1987–1989 Study)

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  1. GENESIS 40 COMMENTARY: This chapter is notable for the further evidence it gives of Joseph’s intimate acquaintance with and faith in God, and close dealings of God with him in the revelation of these things. In this chapter, Joseph interprets two dreams and both of his interpretations are proven true. The first thing to note is that both the baker and cupbearer would be highly trusted and influential officials in Pharaoh’s court. This might not be immediately obvious, since being a cupbearer (literally, someone who carries a cup full of wine to the king) sounds very menial, and almost like a slave’s role. Being a baker is not much above that, because you just bake bread. The cupbearer is responsible for ensuring that the wine is not poisoned, and the baker is responsible for ensuring the bread is not poisoned. Therefore they are directly responsible for protecting the king’s life, and conversely they are positioned so that they could kill the king if they desired. There are records of this happening many times to ancient sovereigns, so they will naturally be extremely judicious in their selection of cupbearers. Furthermore, the cupbearer was a sort of confidante or advisor to the king. As such, he would have tremendous influence over the king. There have been several dreams in the bible already. We saw Abraham have a dream (making the covenant with God), Jacob had a dream (the ladder with angels), and Joseph had two dreams earlier. Each time a dream has been recorded, I offered some ideas on how the dreams can be interpreted and their significance. This is almost premature because I have no explained *why* dreams can be interpreted, and how the symbolism should be rendered.
    If interpretations belong to God, then how is Joseph sharing the interpretation? The answer is simple: he is filled with the Spirit of God through his connection to the Abraham promise and the Spirit gives him the interpretation. Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation (coupled with “interpretations belong to God”) is then very surprising and illuminating. In all of those cases, the promise was tightly focused on 1) many children, 2) inheritance of land, 3) “blessing” and “greatness”, which are ambiguous and undefined, but probably related to points 1) and 2). Now we are seeing this promise surprisingly expanded to include wisdom and dream interpretations, or in the broadest possible sense, “access to God’s interpretations of dreams”. This chapter uses a pun on the expression “lift up the head of”, which is used to mean both “restore to honor” and “execute”. The NIV has a good translation of this: “Pharaoh lifted up the head of the cupbearer, but lifted off (i.e. removed) the head of the baker”. This is one of those areas that highlights the difficulty of translating the bible, because you want to be able to capture the original author’s cleverness in this passage, yet the double entendre is an idiomatic expression that is not commonly used in modern English, “to lift up head.” We will see the phrase “To lift up a head”-meaning-exaltation often in the Psalms in particular, as well as the prophetic literature.

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