Genesis 41 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And 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. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 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.
9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A 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. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”
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. 15 And 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.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” 17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. 18 Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20 And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21 but 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. 22 I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23 Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24 and 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.”
25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27 The 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. 28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30 but 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, 31 and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let 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. 35 And 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. 36 That 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.”
37 This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 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.” 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” 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. 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. 44 Moreover, 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.” 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.
46 Joseph 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. 47 During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, 48 and 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. 49 And 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.
50 Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore them to him. 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.” 52 The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
53 The seven years of plenty that occurred in the land of Egypt came to an end, 54 and 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. 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.”
56 So 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. 57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.
Two common themes in Genesis are dreams and waiting. In the way of dreams, we’ve seen them in Abimelech/Abraham, Jacob, Laban, Joseph, and Pharaoh—sometimes more than once. In the way of waiting, we’ve seen it in everyone, but especially, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Both of these themes are obviously present in our passage. This scene marks the end of waiting and another dream. This time, by God’s design, Joseph’s waiting is over and it’s Pharaoh’s turn to dream.
We’re told that Pharaoh’s dreams came two full years after the dream, restoration, and forgetfulness of the cupbearer (1), and thirteen years after his own dream (37:2). Why two years (or thirteen)? We’re not told, but we are right to think of the words of our Lord, Jesus when He said to His followers, “My time has not yet come” (John 7:6). Just as we don’t know why Jesus’ ministry lasted three years (instead of 2 or 4 or 30), we don’t know why God’s timing for Joseph was such that two more years in prison was the number. Nevertheless, just as the end of all four Gospels tell of the coming of the time of Jesus, this passage tells of the beginning of the time of Joseph.
The main point for us to see in this passage—the one thing I really hope the Spirit causes you to hold on to and transforms you with—is that God’s purposes are perfect and never slow to come to pass. Everything God does is worthy of praise in both content and timing. He is never mistaken and He is never a second late or a penny short. Because of this, God deserves our worship and obedience, He is able to bear all of our hope, and this news is worth taking next door and to the ends of the earth. Let’s pray for all of these things and more.
PHARAOH’S DREAMS (1-8)
As I mentioned in the introduction, dreams are a significant theme in Genesis. Almost 1/3 of the Bible’s mentions of dreams occur in Genesis. I imagine this was the case in part because it highlighted the fact that God alone is God and as such is not bound by normal means. Indeed, He is not bound by any means. Consistent with His nature, He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). Knowing this, keeps us from looking to anything other than God and trusting in God’s means rather than God Himself.
Grace, to speak frankly, God speaking through dreams seems crazy. Probably because my dreams are usually very strange and seemingly meaningless, the idea of God speaking through them is almost completely counterintuitive to me. What’s crazier still, though, is that He speaks to His people both through their dreams and through the dreams of unbelievers. Again, our passage covers one of the crazier dream-revelations. God spoke to Joseph, through Pharaoh’s dreams.
In particular, God gave Pharaoh two dreams. It’s not important for us to try to parse out the details of the dreams here (Joseph does that for us in just a bit). What is important, however, is that we pause here and ask God to give us a proper experience of awe at the fact that even Pharaoh, one of the most powerful men on the planet, was merely a tool in God’s hands to accomplish His purposes. How can we not think of Proverbs 21:1 when we read this story?
Proverbs 21:1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
Grace, don’t miss the fact that without any effort whatsoever God was able to get to Pharaoh, who was largely untouchable by most of the world, in what would have been his most protected and secure place—in his home, in his sleep. Pharaoh didn’t know it immediately, bug God visited him in his dreams.
It really is curious to me that Pharaoh, like the cupbearer and baker, was troubled by his dreams. Likewise, it’s curious that Pharaoh assumed these troubling dreams had a specific meaning that needed to be unlocked. And I can’t help but wonder why no one was willing to try to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams for him. Why was Pharaoh troubled, what made him think these dreams were something more than normal dreams, and what kept his “magicians” from offering a guess as to the dreams’ meaning?
What’s not surprising, though, is that Pharaoh would turn to magicians and the “wise” men of Egypt for an interpretation. It is a key fact of life on earth that when you do not acknowledge God as God (as Joseph did, “Do not interpretations belong to God?”), all you have left is to look for answers in places where they cannot be found. To seek to know God’s mind, providence, and world in any place but God Himself, is truly the equivalent of asking a magic 8ball. It’s easy to see how ridiculous that is, isn’t it? Of course it is, but before we get too far up on our high horse, let us realize that with even a little thought and humility, we’ll see this in ourselves all over the place.
How often do you seek the “wisdom” of the world—either consciously or unconsciously—instead of the wisdom of God? How often do you go first to Google instead of God’s Word? (Of course there are times that’s appropriate, like when we want to know the capitol of Bhutan or how many oz. are in a cup, but not when it comes to matters of living a life that pleases God.) How often does God work in, through, and around you, but you’re too focused on other things to notice? How often do you chalk something up to coincidence, when it’s really an act of God’s providence?
Pharaoh made each of these mistakes, and so have we. May God give us eyes to see and learn from both.
To that end, in the way of a simple reminder, there is a Christian way of understanding everything in the world. That is to say, God made the world in a certain way and we ought to learn that way…in economics, government, relationships, science, philosophy, music, church, art, ministry, and everything else.
Pharaoh’s dreams are a reminder that God is God, that He alone is God, that the whole universe is His, and that He is greater than we could possibly imagine.
THE CUPBEARER REMEMBERS (9-13)
Well, with Pharaoh’s people unable to help him understand the meaning of his dreams, where would he turn for answers?
Seeing his master’s troubled mind, the cupbearer remembered “his offenses,” his dreams, and Joseph. He recalled for Pharaoh how Joseph, “a young Hebrew,” had told him exactly what his dreams meant. It’s important to note, however, that the cupbearer failed to mention that which Joseph made explicit—that the dreams and their interpretations had come, not from Joseph, but from Joseph’s God.
Discouraged and seemingly out of options, this new revelation clearly intrigued Pharaoh.
JOSEPH’S INTERPRETATION (14-36)
Therefore, Pharaoh summoned Joseph from his prison.
Shaved and changed, and having been questioned by Pharaoh concerning his interpretation prowess, Joseph quickly corrected the cupbearers error. When Pharaoh said to Joseph, “’I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.’”
In speaking of a “favorable answer,” Joseph wasn’t promising that God would bless Pharaoh, only that Joseph’s God was indeed the God of dreams and their interpretations.
Again, without anywhere else to turn, Joseph’s answer was apparently good enough. We know that because Pharaoh proceeded to tell Joseph his dreams. And without hesitation, Joseph gave God the credit and told Pharaoh their meaning and great wisdom to go along with it.
Grace, before we move on to the next section, please notice with me two very practical principles here. First, because Joseph was certain that God was God and that God was with him, Joseph didn’t hesitate to stand before and even correct Pharaoh. What would have caused great angst in most (which was probably why the “magicians” refused to render a guess), was a time of peace for Joseph. Why? Because Joseph had experienced the power and might of God. Truly (and let us settle on this, this morning), to walk in fellowship with God is to fear nothing else. If you were close, personal friends with the president of the US, regularly interacting with the most powerful people in our country, would the mayor of Scandia intimidate you? Of course not. In the same way, for us to know God in His power and glory is to cast out all other fear.
The second thing to notice is that Joseph was without pride. He didn’t take one ounce of credit for whatever interpretation work he’d done or might do. He gave all credit and glory to God. Grace, consider how you respond when complimented for a job-well-done. Where do your heart and mind go? What do you usually say in response? Let’s learn from Joseph and turn all praise back to God. We can’t help but to have our minds drawn to 1 Corinthians 1:28 – 2:1 which says, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not [that’s not some poor, homeless person; that’s you and me], to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'”
JOSEPH’S RISE TO POWER (37-45, 50-52)
It is significant that Pharaoh recognized the rightness of Joseph’s interpretation. So many leaders, both inside and outside of Israel, throughout the Bible failed to see these things. Along these lines, in his dying speech, Stephen accused the Jewish leaders of killing all the prophets (Acts 7:52). Grace, it truly is a gift of God when God speaks truth to the world. Without God’s revelation we could know nothing with certainty. But it is another, a second, gift of God when we are able to recognize the truth as from God.
Convinced of the legitimacy and divine origin of Joseph’s interpretation and advice (“since God has shown you all this…”), Pharaoh immediately placed Joseph in charge of carrying out his plan’s execution. Pharaoh’s decision seems very much in line with that of Laban, the captain of the guard, and the prison guard. Each was happy to receive the benefit of being associated with a man of God without the burden of becoming a man of God.
I’ve pressed on this before, but I do want to ask once again: Are you content to get God’s gifts, or do you understand God as the greatest gift? Your answer to that question tells you a great deal about the true nature of your faith. It really is one of the best diagnostic tools we have to determine the legitimacy and maturity of our faith.
Well, because Pharaoh believed Joseph’s interpretation was from God and correct, he made Joseph second in charge of the entire land of Egypt. He lavished gifts upon him and even gave Joseph his own signet ring and second chariot.
And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44 Moreover, 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.” 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.
Before moving on to the final section, I think it’s important for us to slow down for just a minute here. I’ve often wondered about whether or not God was truly honored with Joseph’s near-total assimilation into Egyptian culture. It was clearly a work of God that Pharaoh would bring a foreigner out of prison and into command of Egypt, but was taking an Egyptian name, marrying the daughter of an Egyptian priest, and taking on the clothing and customs of Egypt taking it too far? Indeed, Joseph had children with Potiphera and in naming them ascribed all of this to God.
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.” 52 The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Was all of this a direct work of God? Was Joseph acting in every way as God intended? If not, what would it have meant for Joseph to not be of this world (John 17) in this particular situation? We’re right to remember Daniel’s time in Babylon (Daniel 1:8) and compare the responses of the two men. Whatever we are to make of it, we see clear reservations in Daniel against adopting the whole of the pagan culture he was in, but we don’t see any of that in Joseph. At the very least this reminds us to ask the question of our relationship with the world around us.
Grace, I hope you regularly feel the need to ask and press in on the question of how we navigate this life, and this decreasingly Christian culture, in a manner pleasing to God? Which aspects of culture are we free to adopt and which must we reject? Where are we wrongly being separatists and where are we right to draw a line? The answers to these questions are sometimes clear, but often not. May we pray for one another in this, share whatever wisdom we have, and be humble enough to reconsider when God’s Word or the counsel of another call for it.
The main point for us to see here is that God’s power was over all. It’s hard to picture someone lower (an enslaved prisoner), rise higher (second only to the most powerful man on earth), faster. And in that is yet another expression of the unstoppable power of God.
THE YEARS OF PLENTY AND FAMINE (46-49, 53-57)
Finally, with all of this established, just as they did with the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, things began to play out exactly as Pharaoh dreamed. There was seven years of remarkable bounty (to the point that it couldn’t even be measured). During that time Joseph stored everything up for Pharaoh. Then, at the end of the years of plenty, when the severe famine came, Joseph opened the storehouses to feed the people of Egypt and all the earth.
As we’ll see in the coming chapters, this marvelous work of God went far beyond simply feeding hungry people during a famine. That is, God did far more than simply keep people alive. For now, though, we’re reminded of the promises of Jesus in John 6,
32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
What God miraculously gave in part here, through Joseph’s interpretation, wisdom, and competency, He’d one day, miraculously give in full in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Joseph’s relative, Jesus. Grace, this passage is a picture of the fact that God is the light of the whole world. This light would come through one family, but it was never meant exclusively for one family. Through one of Joseph’s kin, God would, as He promised, provide a Savior for everyone who would receive Him in faith. Would you see the power of God on display once again in this passage and turn it into trust in Jesus, repentance of your sins, in order that you’d give God the glory He is due and know everlasting fellowship with Him?