Joseph Dreams that the Sun, Moon and Stars Bow to Him – Does It Come True?
Joseph’s Two Dreams
The story of Joseph opens with him sharing a dream with his jealous brothers:
בראשית לז:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתִּי. לז:ז וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי.
Gen 37:6 He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: 37:7 There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.”
The brothers assume the meaning of the dream is obvious and react accordingly:
בראשית לז:ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אֶחָיו הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ אִם מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ...
Gen 37:8 His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?”…
Joseph then has another dream, which he again shares with his brothers:
בראשית לז:ט וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה חָלַמְתִּי חֲלוֹם עוֹד וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי.
Gen 37:9 He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
This time he tells his father as well, who also reacts angrily:
בראשית לז:י וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל אָבִיו וְאֶל אֶחָיו וַיִּגְעַר בּוֹ אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת לְךָ אָרְצָה.
Gen 37:10 And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. He said to him: “What is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?”
Jacob assumes that the eleven stars are the brothers, that he is the sun, and Joseph’s mother the moon, and that his dream is that the entire family will do obeisance to him.
The Joseph’s Mother Problem
The rabbis understand Jacob’s dismissive reaction as more than just offense at the dream’s chutzpah, but as an attempt to point out to Joseph that his dream is impossible (Genesis Rabbah 84, Theodor-Albeck, ed.):
ר' לוי בשם ר' חמא בר' חנינה... הבא נבא אני ואחיך ניחא שמא אני ואמך, רחל מיתה ואת אמרת אני ואמך,
R. Levi in the name R. Chama son of R. Chanina: “…That I and your brothers may come, this is one thing, but what about me and your mother? Rachel is dead, and yet you say that I and your mother [will come and bow before your]!”
How are we to make sense of the moon in the dream?
It’s Just a Frivolous Detail
One possibility offered by the rabbis is that this part of the dream was not prophetic (b. Berakhot 55a):
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי, כשם שאי אפשר לבר בלא תבן - כך אי אפשר לחלום בלא דברים בטלים. אמר רבי ברכיה: חלום, אף על פי שמקצתו מתקיים - כולו אינו מתקיים, מנא לן - מיוסף דכתיב והנה השמש והירח וגו'.
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: “Just as it is impossible to have grain without straw, it is impossible to have dreams without frivolous details.” Rabbi Berechiah said: “A dream, even though some of it may come true, not all of it will come true.” From where does he know this? From Joseph, as it says: (Gen 37:9) “and behold, the sun and the moon…”
While this reading solves the deceased-mother problem, it is not very satisfying. Why include this dramatic scene, with Jacob rebuking his favorite son for the dream if, in the end, it remains unfulfilled? All of the other dreams in the Joseph saga—the wine-steward’s, the baker’s, and Pharaoh’s—are fulfilled in their every detail, so this would be a strange exception.
Bilhah Is the Moon
Genesis Rabbah (quoted above) responds to Jacob’s problem by explaining what the moon “really” represents:
ולא היה אבינו יודע שהדברים מגיעים לבלהה שפחת רחל שגידלתו כאמו.
But our father [Jacob] did not know that the reference was to Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden, who brought him up like a mother.
This interpretation is problematic, however: The text never says that Bilhah brought Joseph up like a mother; that is simply R. Chama’s assertion. Nor does the text ever describe Bilhah bowing down to Joseph.
Jacob’s Grandsons Are the Moon
R. Moses Nahmanides (Ramban 1194–1270) dismisses Bilhah as an option, and suggests that the moon doesn’t represent one particular person, but Jacob’s grandsons, the descendants of his deceased wives (Gen 37:10), who accompany him to Egypt:
אבל ענין החלום כי השמש רמז ליעקב והירח רמז לבני ביתו וכל נשיו שבהן היו תולדותיו. וירמוז כי כל תולדותיו ישתחוו לו, והם כל שבעים נפש יוצאי ירכו כי כולם השתחוו בבואם אליו, ואחד עשר כוכבים אלו אחיו אשר השתחוו לו בפני עצמן טרם בא אביהם.
Rather the dream means the following: The sun represents Jacob, and the moon represents his household and all his wives with whom he produced his offspring. It indicates that all of his descendants will bow to him (Joseph), and this refers to his seventy offspring who all bowed to him (Joseph) when they appeared before him, while the eleven stars refer to his brothers, who all bowed before him before their father appeared.
Nahmanides’ interpretation is overly complex and hard to accept. (For a detailed discussion of his understanding of the dreams and their fulfillment, see the addendum.) It seems exceedingly strange to have the sun and eleven stars represent one person each, but have the moon represent all of Jacob’s descendants, minus his sons, who are already featured as stars—58 people in total.
The Fulfillment of the Dreams
Leaving aside the intended referent of the moon, Joseph’s dreams do appear to be prophetic, as they come true later in the narrative:
בראשית מב:ה וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁבֹּר בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּאִים כִּי הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. מב:ו וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה.
Gen 42:5 Thus the sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations, for the famine extended to the land of Canaan. 42:6 Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground.
The theme of the first dream about the sheaves fits the scene, as the brothers are bowing to Joseph in the hopes of procuring grain. The text is even explicit about Joseph noticing the correspondence:
בראשית מב:ט וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם...
Gen 42:9 Joseph recalled the dreams that he had dreamed about them…
Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) explains:
אשר חלם להם – עליהם, וידע שנתקיימו, שהרי השתחוו לו.
“Which he dreamed for them”—about them, and he knew that they had come true, since they were bowing to him.
The text says he remembered “the dreams,” plural, but where is the second dream reflected in this scene? The second dream has eleven stars/brothers, but here only ten brothers bow to Joseph, since Benjamin is at home with his father. Moreover, the sun and the moon also bow to Joseph in this dream—but Jacob isn’t in Egypt either, and Joseph’s mother, as noted, isn’t even alive!
Yet somehow, when Joseph sees ten of his brothers bowing to him, he realizes his dreams (plural!) have been fulfilled. It seems that Joseph is not interpreting the second dream the way Jacob did.
A Purposefully Misleading Opening
The narrator gives us a clue that Jacob’s interpretation of the dream may not be correct, by ending the scene with an intriguing ambiguity:
בראשית לז:יא וַיְקַנְאוּ בוֹ אֶחָיו וְאָבִיו שָׁמַר אֶת הַדָּבָר.
Gen 37:11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Joseph ibn Kaspi (1280–1345) interprets Jacob’s reaction as evidence that he was play acting; he really isn’t angry at his favorite son, but he must rebuke him to keep up appearances and not enrage his other sons. Alternatively, I suggest that, at this point, Jacob simply cannot fathom how such a thing could come true.
Joseph’s mother is dead and Jacob himself would never bow to his son. (He, in fact, never does.) Yet, he is concerned that the dream may be a true prophecy, but with an alternative meaning he has not yet grasped.
Numbers as Units of Time
A key to interpreting Joseph’s second dream correctly can be found in Joseph’s interpretation of the other dreams in the saga.
Wine-Steward and Baker
In the first scene (Genesis 40), Joseph is in prison, where he meets Pharaoh’s chief wine-steward and chief baker, each of whom has had a dream that disturbed them. The wine-steward dreams of a grapevine with three branches. The vine produces buds and then grapes in quick succession, and the wine-steward squeezes the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup, which he then places into the king’s hand. Joseph explains that the three branches represent three days, at which time Pharaoh will return the wine-steward to his former position of prominence.
In the chief baker’s dream, he has three baskets of baked goods on his head, and birds are eating up the contents. Joseph again explains that the number three here signifies days, but in this case, the dream means that in three days, the baker will be beheaded, his corpse impaled, and birds will pick at his flesh.
In both dreams, Joseph’s interpretation answers the obvious question: Why do N identical objects appear; why is it N, and not N+3, or 2N? Joseph’s key insight then, is that N is significant, and that it represents N units of time, with the specific time unit determined by context. For example, baked goods are made daily, hence the 3 baskets of baked goods are 3 days.
In the second scene (Genesis 41), Pharaoh has two dreams in quick succession. First, as he is standing by the Nile, he sees seven fat cows grazing on the rushes, after which seven scrawny cows come and devour them, without themselves getting any fatter. Next, he dreams of a stalk with seven healthy ears of grain sprouting, followed by another stalk with seven scorched ears of grain sprouting, which devoured the healthy grain stalk.
Joseph interprets both dreams as having the same message: Each of the sevens refers to seven years, and the dream means that Egypt will experience seven years of bumper crops followed by seven years of famine.
In both of these scenes the numbers of identical objects represent units of time. This suggests that the eleven stars in Joseph’s second dream also represent time.
Eleven Years and the Wine-Steward’s Dream
In his analysis of this story, Ron Pirson (1963–2006), the late Dutch Bible scholar from the University of Tilberg, suggested that eleven stars do not represent Joseph’s eleven brothers but eleven years. The significance of this number becomes clear when we look at the story’s timetable:
- Joseph has his dreams when he is 17 years old (Gen 37:2).
- Joseph is 30 years old when he comes before Pharaoh (Gen 41:46).
- Two years before he comes before Pharaoh, when he is 28 years old, he interprets the wine-steward’s dream (Gen 41:1).
Thus, the interval between Joseph’s dreams and his correctly interpreting the wine-steward’s dream, the turning point in his life after being sold into slavery, is 11 years, represented by the eleven stars. But what is the meaning of the sun and moon and how do we account for the two years Joseph languishes in prison?
The Sun and Moon as Two Years (Pirson)
Pirson argues that the sun and moon represent the two years between his interpreting the wine-steward’s dream and that of Pharaoh; 11+2=13. Thus, according to Pirson, the dream is predicting Joseph’s rise to power as viceroy thirteen years after the dream.
On this point, I would quibble with Pirson’s interpretation, since if the dream wanted to say “the event—Joseph being named viceroy—will take place in thirteen years,” it really should have included thirteen stars. When interpreting a dream as one that “tells time,” we should only take identical objects into account. I therefore suggest an alternative meaning to the sun and moon here.
The Sun and Moon as Pharaoh and the Wine-Steward
The sun and the moon dominate or “rule” the sky, as is clear from biblical tropes (Gen 1:16–18, Ps 136:8–9). Thinking of Pharaoh as the sun would have been natural to anyone in Egypt, especially since one of the Pharaoh’s throne names always had the element meaning “son of Ra,” the sun-god. If so, the moon, a lesser (but still significant) light in the sky, could represent the chief wine-steward, a subservient official who is responsible for Joseph’s introduction to Pharaoh.
While Pharaoh and the wine-steward never bow down to Joseph themselves, Pharaoh is the one who gives Joseph the power that brings the rest of the world to do just that. Thus, the meaning of the dream could be something like, “in eleven years, something will happen that will lead an important official to introduce you to the ruler of Egypt, who will grant you the power to make everyone in the world bow to you.”
A Verbal Hint
According to this numerical interpretation, the dreams are not exact replicas of each other like those of Pharaoh, since the first is about the brothers bowing, and the second about when and how Joseph will obtain this power. Pirson argues that this difference is already hinted at in Genesis 37 through the verbs used to describe Joseph’s recounting the dreams.
Dream 1 (Gen 37:5)
וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו
Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers.
Dream 2 (Gen 37:9–10)
וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו... וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל אָבִיו וְאֶל אֶחָיו
He dreamed another dream, and recounted it to his brothers… and he recounted to his father and his brothers
Like in English, the latter root ס.פ.ר, repeated twice, is related to the word for counting. Thus, this choice of words hints that the second dream relays important number information. Notably, only the second dream has a number at all.
Connecting the Two Dreams Further
One final problem with the numerical interpretation is that the two dreams are not fulfilled at the same moment. The second dream, about the stars, is fulfilled when Joseph is appointed viceroy or when Joseph interprets the wine-steward’s dream, while the first dream, about the brothers’ sheaves, is fulfilled when the brothers appear before Joseph much later in the story. In fact, as we noted above, it is only at that point that the text says that Joseph remembers his dreams, implying that both are fulfilled at that moment.
To deal with this problem, Pirson suggests one further way of reading the second dream: If we add the sun and the moon (1+1=2), and multiply this by the stars (2x11=22), we get the number of years between Joseph having his dreams and the brothers bowing before him, their ostensible fulfillment.
Thirteen years pass between the dreams and Joseph being installed as viceroy, followed by the seven years of plenty, and then the seven years of famine. As the brothers appear during the second year of the famine (Gen 45:11), we have an exactly 22–year interval.
Keeping the Matter in Mind
The overall picture of Joseph’s two dreams turns out to be complex. Both are saying that Joseph will become very powerful in the future, and his brothers will bow before him. Both hint at this unfolding in stages. The latter even gives the precise timing for the shift in Joseph’s fortune and the moment his brothers will bow, but the hint is opaque and at 17, Joseph is too inexperienced to tease out the information.
In commenting on Jacob’s reaction, Genesis Rabbah (84) states:
ואביו שמר את הדבר—אמר ר' לוי נטל קולמוס וכתב היום והשעה והמקום.
“His father kept the matter in mind”—Rabbi Levi said: “He picked up a pen and wrote down the day, hour, and place [of the dream].”
R. Levi here captures the essence of the problem both Jacob and Joseph have in interpreting the dream; exact numbers and time intervals are the key to understanding the dream. Like his father, Joseph needs to “keep the matter in mind” for twenty-two years until finally, at the moment of their total fulfillment, he finally understands their full meaning.
Nahmanides’ Reconstruction of the Dream Fulfillment
To make sure that every detail of Joseph’s dream is realized in the story, Nahmanides creates an elaborate multistep fulfillment. First, upon seeing Joseph the first time, ten brothers bow to him, fulfilling the first dream, which just refers to the brothers’ sheaves bowing in general but doesn’t specify a number. Next, the brothers return with Benjamin and all eleven bow, fulfilling part of the second dream with the eleven stars. Finally, Jacob and his entourage appear, and their bowing fulfills the sun and moon part of that dream:
והנכון בעיני כי יאמר הכתוב כי בראות יוסף את אחיו משתחוים לו, זכר כל החלומות אשר חלם להם. ואמר בלבו עתה יתקיימו כלם על כן חשב זאת התחבולה שיעליל עליהם כדי שיביאו גם בנימין אחיו אליו, לקיים גם החלום האחר שאמר: ואחד עשר כוכבים משתחוים לי.
What seems correct to me is that when scripture describes how, when Joseph saw his brothers bowing to him, he remembered all of the dreams he had about them, that he said to himself “how they will all come true.” Therefore, he thought up the specious accusation he would lob against them, so that they would bring their brother Benjamin to him, so that they could fulfill the next dream, which said “eleven stars were bowing to me.”
וזה טעם וירדו אחי יוסף עשרה, כי החלום הראשון היה אל העשרה, כי בהם אמר: ויגד אותו לאחיו ויוסיפו עוד שנוא אותו, ולהם אמר: והנה אנחנו מאלמים אלומים, והנה בנימין איננו בכלל הזה, ועתה נתקיים החלום הראשון בהשתחוייתם אליו. והחלום השני לא יוכל להתקיים עד בא בנימין גם אביו.
This is the reason (Gen 42:6) “and Joseph’s ten brothers came” for the first dream was only about ten, since regarding them it said (Gen 37:5) “and he told his brothers and the continued to hate him even more.” It was to these brothers that he said (Gen 37:7) “and you were binding sheaves,” and Benjamin was not with them (since he didn’t hate Joseph). And now the first dream had been realized, when they bowed to him, but the second dream could not come true until Benjamin and his father would come.
The reading here is detailed and creative, and tries to hit every bar, but as a straightforward peshat reading, it is difficult to accept. First, Nahmanides has Joseph pretend the brothers are spies only so that Benjamin could bow to him and fulfill the eleven-star dream. This ignores all the other motives Joseph likely had for these actions (teaching them a lesson, testing how they treat his brother, etc.).
Second, Nahmanides’ approach assumes that the two dreams should be interpreted as separate incidents, whereas the simple meaning, as we later see with Pharaoh’s dreams, is that they are a mutually reinforcing paired set, communicating the same message.
Finally, as already noted, the entourage explanation is problematic, but even if we accept it, the Torah never describes the entourage bowing to Joseph. Yet this is the supposed denouement of the dream fulfillment, which Nahmanides believes is the key to the whole story.
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Dr. Mordecai David Rosen has a B.Sc. in physics/math from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD in Plasma Physics from Princeton University, and is employed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he studies fusion reactions created there, at the National Ignition Facility, the world's largest laser. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), winner of the Teller Medal of the American Nuclear Society for his role in creating a new field: High Energy Density Physics, and winner of the APS Excellence in Plasma Physics Award for designing the world's first laboratory x-ray laser. He and his wife, Rena (whom he met in kindergarten at the Yeshivah of Flatbush) attend Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, CA. Their children and their families span the globe from Ra'anana, Israel, to N.Y. City, to Berkeley, CA.
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