Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams — An Israelite Type-922 Folktale
Biblical Studies and Folklore Studies
The great German biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) brought methods from the broader study of religions (Religionsgeschichte) to bear on the Hebrew Bible. From his earliest work, he was interested in links between ancient Near Eastern material and the writings of the Hebrew Bible, and how these ancient motifs continued through the New Testament as well.
Gunkel was also an aficionado of the nascent field of folklore and applied a folklore studies lens to biblical stories. He noted that useful comparisons can be drawn between biblical motifs, forms, and attitudes, and those found in an international fund of folklore. In this piece, I would like to apply a folkloristic perspective to one episode in the Joseph saga (Genesis 37-50), his rise from prisoner to powerful official as narrated in Genesis 41.
Joseph’s Rise in Egypt
In this story, Joseph, his father Jacob’s favorite son, had been sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers, in a quintessential manifestation of sibling rivalry. After Joseph resists the advances of his first master’s wife, he is accused by her of attempted rape and he is placed in prison (Gen 39). There, he successfully interprets the dreams of fellow prisoners (Gen 40), revealing his divinely sent capacity to understand, with God’s help, the meaning of dreams.
When Pharaoh has a pair of disturbing dreams, his cupbearer tells him about his experience in prison with a Hebrew slave who knows how to interpret dreams. This leads Pharaoh to invite Joseph to interpret his disturbing dreams, and upon his successfully doing so, Joseph is appointed to be Pharaoh’s number two (Gen 41).
Looking at the Joseph story through the lens of folklore studies, we can see that Genesis 41 is an international tale type whereby a character of lower status solves a problem that eludes his superiors and is rewarded.
In 1910, Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne (1867-1925) published a catalog of international folk motifs called The Types of the Folk-Tale (Verzeichnis der Märchentypen). This collection was translated into English and greatly extended by American folklorist Stith Thompson (1885-1976) in 1928, and again in 1961.
By collecting thousands of folktales and cataloguing them according to motifs and their structure/arrangement, Aarne and Thompson attempted to isolate all the possible typological patterns which occur in folktales. Each of the various permutations and combinations of motifs, called a “type,” is assigned a catalogue number.
Thompson Type 922
The ATU (Aarne-Thompson-Uther) type system—often referred to merely as “Thompson Type”—remains a standard tool used by scholars when analyzing folklore. The specific tale of Joseph’s rise in Genesis 41, is an ATU or Thompson Type 922, in which a person of lower status is called before a person of higher status to answer difficult questions or to solve a problem requiring insight and is rewarded upon doing so in riches or some other form of elevation for his exercise of wisdom.
Daniel Biblical Type 922 Story
The story of Joseph in Genesis 41 is not the only Thompson type 922 story in the Bible. Another example is the story of Daniel’s rise in Daniel 2, according to which Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, has a disturbing dream that he wishes to have interpreted. Unlike Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar will not tell the dream to his advisors, and demands they tell him both the dream and its meaning.
The advisors, however, claim that such a request is impossible, and Nebuchadnezzar is about to have them executed when Daniel, a Jewish exile who is a junior advisor in the court, stops him. Daniel informs Nebuchadnezzar that he is able, with the help of God, to tell him his dream and its meaning, which he does. Daniel is then rewarded with material gifts and a high position in the king’s court.
Connecting the Two Stories
The biblical tales of Joseph and Daniel utilize motifs in a very similar way: the low status of each hero is a result of his exile, the person of high status is the leader of the country to which the hero has been exiled, and the difficult problem is to interpret the leader’s troubling dream(s).
The effort of the king to find someone to solve his problem is described in formulaic language that employs the phrase “agitation of spirit” (פ.ע.מ רוח), the verb “to call” (ק.ר.א) + a selection of terms for wise men and advisors, e.g. magicians, wise men, courtiers (see also Exod 7:11):
וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ וַיִּשְׁלַח וַיִּקְרָא אֶת כָּל חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת כָּל חֲכָמֶיהָ וַיְסַפֵּר פַּרְעֹה לָהֶם אֶת חֲלֹמוֹ וְאֵין פּוֹתֵר אוֹתָם לְפַרְעֹה
Next morning, his spirit was agitated, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men; and Pharaoh told them his dreams, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.
…חָלַם נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חֲלֹמוֹת וַתִּתְפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ וּשְׁנָתוֹ נִהְיְתָה עָלָיו. וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לִקְרֹא לַחַרְטֻמִּים וְלָאַשָּׁפִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וְלַכַּשְׂדִּים לְהַגִּיד לַמֶּלֶךְ חֲלֹמֹתָיו…
Nebuchadnezzar had a dream;his spirit was agitated, yet he was overcome by sleep. The king said to call for the magicians, exorcists, sorcerers, and Chaldeans in order to tell the king what he had dreamed….
Similarly, a shared formula pattern describes the bestowing of the award. In both cases, this is expressed through a verbal element of appointing + object + prepositional link connoting authority over + term for royal provenance:
Gen 41:33, 41
וְעַתָּה יֵרֶא פַרְעֹה אִישׁ נָבוֹן וְחָכָם וִישִׁיתֵהוּ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם… וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף רְאֵה נָתַתִּי אֹתְךָ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
[Joseph said:] Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt…. Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.”
אֱדַיִן מַלְכָּא לְדָנִיֵּאל רַבִּי וּמַתְּנָן רַבְרְבָן שַׂגִּיאָן יְהַב לֵהּ וְהַשְׁלְטֵהּ עַל כָּל מְדִינַת בָּבֶל וְרַב סִגְנִין עַל כָּל חַכִּימֵי בָבֶל.
The king then elevated Daniel and gave him very many gifts, and made him governor of the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect of all the wise men of Babylon.
Biblical scholars typically assume that such shared language suggests that one story knew the other, and they focus on how later texts reuse earlier ones. Thus, this commonality in plot, content, and language has led most, in line with one common methodological Tendenz of biblical scholarship, to suggest that the Daniel text is dependent upon, derives from, or alludes to the story of Joseph in Genesis 41 in a process of “interliterary allusion.” Some suggest, in fact, that Daniel 2 is a midrash or exegesis on the story of Joseph found in Genesis.
Intertextuality or Traditional Referentiality?
But this older-style approach to intertextuality common among biblicists, which emphasizes re-use of or commentary upon a specific source, is a distraction. First, though it is possible that the author of Daniel knew the story of Joseph in Genesis 41 and had it in mind when composing Daniel 2, this is not necessarily so.
Instead, it is likely that both authors were making use of a shared tradition reflected in oral and written material, a way of speaking and writing, of expressing content that John Miles Foley termed “traditional referentiality.” In other words, readers or listeners would be familiar with certain motifs and type scenes (and not necessarily specific texts now found in the Bible), which these authors make use of, adapting them to their respective narrative contexts.
Aaron Versus the Sorcerer (Exodus 7)
For example, one such traditional motif, calling to wise men, is also found concerning Pharaoh in Exod 7:11, after Aaron turns his rod into a serpent:
שמות ז:יא וַיִּקְרָא גַּם פַּרְעֹה לַחֲכָמִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גַם הֵם חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם כֵּן.
Exod 7:11 Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells;
The story of Aaron’s staff is not a Thompson Type 922, and the similarity with the description of advisors in Genesis 41 does not mean that one is copying from the other. Instead, this language is a metonymic or shorthand indicator that the tale deals with a court contest, matters of status, and the soon to be revealed wisdom of the underdog hero. In the Exodus story, Aaron’s staff will swallow the staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, showing the power of his and Moses’ God YHWH over that of Pharaoh.
In focusing on questions of literary dependence, scholars risk ignoring the wider significance and use of the formula pattern.
Ahiqar: A Mesopotamian 922 Type Story
In the ancient Near East, a popular Thompson Type 922 folktale was the story of Ahiqar (Aḥi-yaqar). The earliest extant version of this story, in Aramaic, was uncovered by German archaeologists excavating the 5th century Judean fortress of Elephantine in Egypt. Although it was popular in Jewish circles—the Jewish book of Tobit even claims that Ahiqar was an Israelite from the tribe of Naphtali—the story originates in Assyria and may even have been composed originally in Akkadian.
In brief, the story tells about an Assyrian wise man named Ahiqar, who served at the courts of Sennacherib and his son Esarhaddon. As Ahiqar has no son, he adopts his nephew Nadan and treats him as his own son, and asks Esarhaddon to accept Nadan as his counselor upon Ahiqar’s retirement. Nadan, however, deals treacherously with his uncle, accusing him of disloyalty to the king.
Esarhaddon orders an officer by the name of Nabu-šuma-iškun to find Ahiqar and execute him, but as Ahiqar had once saved Nabu-šuma-iškun’s life in the past, he asks for reciprocity in return. Nabu-šuma-iškun agrees, kills one of his own slaves to fake Ahiqar’s death, and hides Ahiqar in a makeshift prison, where he lives as a castaway or outcast.
News of the great wise man Ahiqar’s “death” reaches the ears of the Pharaoh of Egypt, who sees an opportunity to hurt his Assyrian rival. The Pharaoh challenges Esarhaddon with a riddle-like trial or wager: Egypt would like to build a castle in the air. If Esarhaddon can send him someone who knows how to do this, Egypt will pay three years of taxes to Assyria, but if Assyria cannot send Egypt someone with this knowhow, Assyria must pay three years’ taxes to Egypt.
The story continues in a classic Type 922 fashion: Esarhaddon is furious with Nadan, since he cannot solve the riddle, and bemoans his rash decision to have Ahiqar executed. Nabu-šuma-iškun hears this, and, in a manner reminiscent of the cupbearer in the Joseph story, tells the king that he can produce Ahiqar, who will certainly know the answer. Ahiqar appears before Esarhaddon, and the king sends him to Egypt.
After a long session of answering riddles, Pharaoh tells Ahiqar to build the castle in the air. Ahiqar sends two boys up on eagles, who call down to the Egyptians that they should hand them some bricks and they will start building. Pharaoh says it is impossible to get bricks to people all the way up in the sky, to which Ahiqar replies that if he can’t even get the bricks to his builders, how are they supposed to build the castle. The story ends with Pharaoh paying the tribute to Assyria, Esarhaddon reinstating Ahiqar as advisor, and Nadan dying a cruel death.
Though the story differs in many details from the Joseph and Daniel stories, it contains the basic contours of the Thompson Type 922. Ahiqar is the underdog, since he is hiding in a prison, pretending to be dead. The problem or riddle is Esarhaddon’s need to discover how to build a castle in the air, so he can win the bet with Egypt. Ahiqar succeeds because of his wisdom and is rewarded with high position.
The Unique Place of YHWH in Biblical Type 922 Stories
All Thompson Type 922 stories make use of certain core elements. Nevertheless, each is a unique story in its own right, making use of the type’s salient features in its own way. Awareness of the recurring content of such tale types allows for deeper appreciation of the humanistic dimensions of Israelite versions of type 922, e.g., concerns with status, the tendency to root for the little guy, people’s fascination with puzzlers and mysteries, etc. Such awareness allows us to engage in the comparative work that underscores what is culturally special and defining about the biblical usage of a familiar cross-culturally evidenced narrative pattern.
One element that stands out in the biblical type 922 stories, absent in Ahiqar and other examples of this genre outside the Bible, is the role of Israel’s God in the story. In the biblical stories, the typology has been tweaked to allow the deity a key role. According to Genesis 41, Joseph is not really the one to solve the problem; the sender and solver of all difficulties is YHWH. Joseph says this explicitly:
בראשית מא:טז וַיַּעַן יוֹסֵף אֶת פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר בִּלְעָדָי אֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה.
Gen 41:16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”
Joseph reiterates this point in his presentation of the solution (vv. 28, 32), and Pharaoh himself takes Joseph at his word, commenting on how God revealed these things to him (vv. 38-39).
In Daniel 2, God’s involvement is even more explicit, since God appears to Daniel in a dream and explicitly tells him the answer (v. 19). In his speech to Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel specifically contrasts God’s knowledge with the failure of the king’s advisors:
דניאל ב:כז …רָזָה דִּי מַלְכָּא שָׁאֵל לָא חַכִּימִין אָשְׁפִין חַרְטֻמִּין גָּזְרִין יָכְלִין לְהַחֲוָיָה לְמַלְכָּא. ב:כח בְּרַם אִיתַי אֱלָהּ בִּשְׁמַיָּא גָּלֵא רָזִין וְהוֹדַע לְמַלְכָּא נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מָה דִּי לֶהֱוֵא בְּאַחֲרִית יוֹמַיָּא…
Dan 2:27 …The mystery about which the king has inquired—wise men, exorcists, magicians, and diviners cannot tell to the king. 2:28 But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what is to be at the end of days…
After Daniel reveals the dream and its meaning to him, Nebuchadnezzar accepts not just the message, but the superiority of Daniel’s god:
דניאל ב:מז עָנֵה מַלְכָּא לְדָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר מִן קְשֹׁט דִּי אֱלָהֲכוֹן הוּא אֱלָהּ אֱלָהִין וּמָרֵא מַלְכִין וְגָלֵה רָזִין דִּי יְכֵלְתָּ לְמִגְלֵא רָזָה דְנָה.
Dan 2:47 The king said in reply to Daniel, “Truly your God must be the God of gods and Lord of kings and the revealer of mysteries to have enabled you to reveal this mystery.”
The wisdom of Ahiqar, for instance, is his own, and he is in no way attempting to show up the Assyrian king or his gods, or to convince him of the importance of some alternative divinity to his own. For the biblical authors, however, highlighting the greatness of Israel’s God was a crucial element in the story.
In other words, study of folktales does not only involve what the comparable stories share, but also, in what ways they differ. By comparing the biblical accounts of Joseph’s and Daniel’s rise with other type 922 stories, we gain added insight into the cultural religious orientations of their authors.
The implication of Daniel 2 and Genesis 41 is that God may communicate via dreams and that He enables interpreters such as Daniel and Joseph. It is important, moreover, that the person of high status, a foreigner, comes to recognize the power of YHWH and declares his praise, a favorite theme of the ancient Israelite national anthology.
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December 4, 2018
June 3, 2020
Prof. Susan Niditch is Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College. She hold’s a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and her research deals with the cultures of ancient and early Judaism. Her particular interests include the study of ancient Israelite literature from the perspectives of folklore and oral studies; biblical ethics with special attention to war, gender, and the body; the reception history of the Bible; and the rich symbolic media of biblical ritual texts. Her most recent book is The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (Yale 2015). She is currently working on a new commentary on the Book of Jonah for the Hermeneia Series.
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