Pharaoh and Joseph Speak of a Common God to Save Egypt
A Hebrew Slave Who Interprets Dreams
According to Genesis, at the young age of 17, Joseph is thrown into a pit by his brothers and then brought to Egypt by traders and sold as a house slave. He works hard and is recognized as a valued servant by his master Potiphar, but when he rejects the advances of Potiphar’s wife, he finds himself in prison for the false charge of attempted rape.
In prison, Joseph is successful too. There he eventually encounters Pharaoh’s chief wine steward and baker, who had angered Pharaoh, and were also sent to prison. One night, the two men each have a disturbing dream, and it shows on their faces the next morning:
בראשית מ:ו וַיָּבֹא אֲלֵיהֶם יוֹסֵף בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּרְא אֹתָם וְהִנָּם זֹעֲפִים. מ:ז וַיִּשְׁאַל אֶת סְרִיסֵי פַרְעֹה אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ בְמִשְׁמַר בֵּית אֲדֹנָיו לֵאמֹר מַדּוּעַ פְּנֵיכֶם רָעִים הַיּוֹם. מ:ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו חֲלוֹם חָלַמְנוּ וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים סַפְּרוּ נָא לִי.
Gen 40:6 When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were distraught. 40:7 He asked Pharaoh’s courtiers, who were with him in custody in his master's house, saying, “Why do you appear downcast today?” 40:8 And they said to him, “We had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” So Joseph said to them, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.”
Joseph’s response has two features: He says that God, not humans, knows the meaning of dreams, but by asking them to tell him their dreams, he implies that he somehow has access to this divine knowledge and will understand their meaning. This response is good enough for the courtiers, and the first to speak is the wine-steward (vv. 9–11), who tells about his dream of the three grapevine branches and giving Pharaoh his cup.
After hearing the dream, Joseph immediately conveys its meaning to the wine-steward—that he will be returned to Pharaoh’s service in three days—confirming that he does have access to this divine wisdom. Nevertheless, immediately after interpreting the wine-steward’s dream, Joseph adds:
בראשית מ:יד כִּי אִם זְכַרְתַּנִי אִתְּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לָךְ וְעָשִׂיתָ נָּא עִמָּדִי חָסֶד וְהִזְכַּרְתַּנִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵאתַנִי מִן הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה. מ:טו כִּי גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים וְגַם פֹּה לֹא עָשִׂיתִי מְאוּמָה כִּי שָׂמוּ אֹתִי בַּבּוֹר.
Gen 40:14 But remember me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. 40:15 For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon.
Joseph is a talented person, with direct access to divine wisdom, but he is a foreigner, kidnapped from his homeland, sold into slavery in Egypt, and falsely imprisoned with no one to defend him. Joseph’s vulnerability is highlighted when the wine-steward is returned to service, and the baker executed as Joseph predicted:
בראשית מ:כג וְלֹא זָכַר שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵהוּ.
Gen 40:23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.
Two years after the wine-steward’s return to service, Pharaoh has a dream in which seven handsome, healthy cows grazing on rushes on the banks of the Nile are swallowed by seven scrawny, gaunt cows. He wakes up from the dream, but then goes back to sleep and has a similar dream: Seven healthy ears of grain grow out of a stalk, followed by seven scorched ears that swallow the first seven. Pharaoh again awakens and realizes that this, too, was a dream.
As the story progresses, we see that the dreams have disturbed Pharaoh, who has a premonition that they are symbolic:
בראשית מא:ח וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ וַיִּשְׁלַח וַיִּקְרָא אֶת כָּל חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת כָּל חֲכָמֶיהָ וַיְסַפֵּר פַּרְעֹה לָהֶם אֶת חֲלֹמוֹ וְאֵין פּוֹתֵר אוֹתָם לְפַרְעֹה.
Gen 41:8 Next morning, his spirit was agitated, and he sent for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men; and Pharaoh told them his dreams, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.
Despite being in a position of great power, Pharaoh experiences the same powerlessness as the wine-steward and baker initially felt in prison, since none of his Egyptian wisemen can divine the meaning of the dreams. This is the turning point of Joseph’s story.
The Wine-Steward Remembers Joseph
Upon seeing the failure of the Egyptian wisemen, the wine-steward speaks up, telling Pharaoh of what he experienced two years before, when he and the baker were in prison. Note the words he uses to describe Joseph:
בראשית מא:יא וַנַּחַלְמָה חֲלוֹם בְּלַיְלָה אֶחָד אֲנִי וָהוּא אִישׁ כְּפִתְרוֹן חֲלֹמוֹ חָלָמְנוּ. מא:יב וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים וַנְּסַפֶּר לוֹ וַיִּפְתָּר לָנוּ אֶת חֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ פָּתָר. מא:יג וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר פָּתַר לָנוּ כֵּן הָיָה אֹתִי הֵשִׁיב עַל כַּנִּי וְאֹתוֹ תָלָה.
Gen 41:11 We had dreams the same night, he and I, each of us a dream with a meaning of its own. 41:12 There with us was a Hebrew youth, a slave of the chief steward; and when we told him our dreams, he interpreted them for us, telling each of the meaning of his dream. 41:13 And as he interpreted for us, so it came to pass: I was restored to my post, and the other was impaled.
While presented as a successful dream interpreter, Joseph is also
- A foreigner, more specifically, a Hebrew—a pejorative term for a nomadic foreigner, whom the Egyptians disrespect (Gen 43:32);
- A slave;
- A lad, which seems more like a status than an age, since he is 30 years old (Gen 41:46);
- In prison.
Nevertheless, Joseph’s otherness and foreignness does not stop Pharaoh from seeking help from this Hebrew slave; Pharaoh is impressed enough with the story to give Joseph a chance to interpret his dreams.
Joseph Prepares to Meet Pharaoh
Pharaoh orders Joseph brought before him, but this Hebrew slave and prisoner undergoes some transformative preparation first:
בראשית מא:יד וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִן הַבּוֹר וַיְגַלַּח וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו וַיָּבֹא אֶל פַּרְעֹה.
Gen 41:14 Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon. He had his hair cut, changed his clothes, and appeared before Pharaoh.
Note the shift in grammar in the three parts of the verse:
- Pharaoh sends people to call for Joseph (3rd sg.)
- Those people rush Joseph from the dungeon (3rd pl.)
- Joseph shaves, changes his clothes, and comes before Pharaoh (3rd sg.)
The shift to third person singular at the end shows that Joseph was active in preparing himself for the meeting. Shaving and changing the garment reflects more than just the necessity to clean himself up before seeing the king, but a willingness to adapt to the surrounding culture. Levantines like Joseph wore beards; Egyptians did not.
Joseph Speaks about God
Pharaoh begins by telling Joseph the situation:
בראשית מא:טו וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַאֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי עָלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר תִּשְׁמַע חֲלוֹם לִפְתֹּר אֹתוֹ.
Gen 41:15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.”
Pharaoh here is quite complimentary, and Joseph responds with a similar theme to what he told the wine-steward and baker, that it is only through God that such dreams may be interpreted (see 40:8):
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.”
Instead of taking the credit himself, Joseph again invokes God, but at the same time, stands ready to interpret, confident in his access to this divine wisdom. Pharaoh accepts Joseph’s explanation, and proceeds to relate his dreams, ending his rendition with a reaffirmation of the problem, this time mentioning the failure of his advisors explicitly:
בראשית מא:כד …וָאֹמַר אֶל הַחַרְטֻמִּים וְאֵין מַגִּיד לִי.
Gen 41:24 …I have told my magicians, but none has an explanation for me.
As he did with the wine-steward and the baker, Joseph knows the meaning of the dream immediately, but before laying it out in detail, he explains to Pharaoh that the dreams are a message from God:
בראשית מא:כה וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל פַּרְעֹה חֲלוֹם פַּרְעֹה אֶחָד הוּא אֵת אֲשֶׁר הָאֱלֹהִים עֹשֶׂה הִגִּיד לְפַרְעֹה.
Gen 41:25 And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.”
Joseph not only informs Pharaoh of the meaning of the dreams—seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine—but frames them as a revelation from God. This is, by implication, the very God from whom Joseph receives his dream-interpreting abilities. Thus, Joseph recognizes the foreign king as a medium of divine revelation, a point he reiterates in v. 28 and finally in v. 32, where he explains why the message was repeated:
בראשית מא:לב וְעַל הִשָּׁנוֹת הַחֲלוֹם אֶל פַּרְעֹה פַּעֲמָיִם כִּי נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר מֵעִם הָאֱלֹהִים וּמְמַהֵר הָאֱלֹהִים לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
Gen 31:32 As for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out.
With this, Joseph has both completed the interpretation and injected a feeling of urgency, which will allow him to take the next step of inserting himself into Pharaoh’s administration.
Appointing a Wise Man
In theory, Joseph’s task is done; Pharaoh wanted to know what the dreams meant and Joseph told him. But Joseph understands that for his fortune to be transformed, he needs to express his own agency and develop relationships with those who are in power. As such, he is not blind to the opportunity the situation affords him, and he continues by suggesting a solution to the problem posed by the dream:
בראשית מא:לג וְעַתָּה יֵרֶא פַרְעֹה אִישׁ נָבוֹן וְחָכָם וִישִׁיתֵהוּ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 41:33 Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.
The job of this wise man, Joseph explains, is to organize a system of food storage throughout Egypt, putting away the excess grain from the years of plenty to support the people through the years of famine. Though Joseph does not specify that he should be that wise man, Pharaoh has no problem arriving at this conclusion:
בראשית מא:לח וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל עֲבָדָיו הֲנִמְצָא כָזֶה אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בּוֹ. מא:לט וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֵי הוֹדִיעַ אֱלֹהִים אוֹתְךָ אֶת כָּל זֹאת אֵין נָבוֹן וְחָכָם כָּמוֹךָ.
Gen 41:38 And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” 41:39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.”
Not only does Pharaoh see Joseph’s wisdom, but he accepts Joseph’s framing of the wisdom, that it is a reflection of Joseph channeling the spirit of God.
Just as Joseph felt the need to shave and change his clothes, presumably to Egyptian style garments, before meeting with Pharaoh, part of Joseph’s promotion to Pharaoh’s viceroy will be his further Egyptianizing:
בראשית מא:מב וַיָּסַר פַּרְעֹה אֶת טַבַּעְתּוֹ מֵעַל יָדוֹ וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ עַל יַד יוֹסֵף וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ בִּגְדֵי שֵׁשׁ וַיָּשֶׂם רְבִד הַזָּהָב עַל צַוָּארוֹ. מא:מג וַיַּרְכֵּב אֹתוֹ בְּמִרְכֶּבֶת הַמִּשְׁנֶה אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיִּקְרְאוּ לְפָנָיו אַבְרֵךְ וְנָתוֹן אֹתוֹ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 41:42 And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. 41:43 He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt.
Here we see how Joseph’s power and his Egyptian guise will be intertwined. He will receive Pharaoh’s signet ring and use of a chariot as second-in-command, and at the same time, he will be dressed in robes and wear the classic Egyptian gold chain. But the Egyptianization of Joseph goes even further:
בראשית מא:מה וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן לְאִשָּׁה וַיֵּצֵא יוֹסֵף עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 41:45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him for a wife Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On. Thus Joseph emerged in charge of the land of Egypt.
As part of becoming in charge of Egypt, Pharaoh changes Joseph’s name to an Egyptian one, and has him marry not merely a native Egyptian woman, but the daughter of a priest of On (Heliopolis), one of the centers for the worship of Ra, the sun god. Joseph introduced Pharaoh to his god, and Pharaoh has now introduced Joseph to Egypt’s god. The text shows no hint of criticism of Joseph here.
Joseph’s name, Yoseph, or in its long form Yehoseph (Ps 81:6), begins with the theophoric element Yaho, i.e., the Israelite deity, YHWH. The name of his new father-in-law, Potiphera, ends with a theophoric element, Ra. But neither Joseph nor Pharaoh in their discussions make recourse to the personal name of either deity; they merely use the generic term elohim, God.
The text does not speak of an Egyptian God or an Israelite God, but simply of God. Thus, the text creates a religious common ground between the migrant Hebrew Joseph and the host Egyptian Pharaoh. A Hebrew and an Egyptian, different ethnically, religiously and socio-economically, see the other as an agent of God and are willing to work together to face the pending disaster of famine (Gen 41:28, 39).
Differentiating Daniel from Joseph
The way Joseph deploys his references to elohim are made sharper by contrasting it to how Daniel discusses God with Nebuchadnezzar. The book of Daniel is a significantly later work that the story of Joseph: Daniel’s final form only took shape in the Hellenistic period. The author of the earlier parts of the book of Daniel built some of his narratives on the Joseph story, especially that of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2.
Like Joseph, Daniel interprets the dreams of a foreign king, who is “disturbed” by his dream, as Pharaoh was, and whose advisors are unable to do so, as Pharaoh’s were. Yet, unlike Joseph, Daniel does not simply speak about God in a universal way, but appears to be informing Nebuchadnezzar about the God in Heaven, i.e., the proper God, that of Daniel’s people, whom Daniel can access and Nebuchadnezzar’s advisors cannot (Dan 2:19-23):
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….
Daniel’s point, that his God is the ultimate God that all should worship, is not lost on Nebuchadnezzar, who declares after hearing Daniel’s rendition and interpretation:
דניאל ב:מז ...מִן קְשֹׁט דִּי אֱלָהֲכוֹן הוּא אֱלָהּ אֱלָהִין וּמָרֵא מַלְכִין וְגָלֵה רָזִין דִּי יְכֵלְתָּ לְמִגְלֵא רָזָה דְנָה.
Dan 2:47 … 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 idea that Israel’s God reigns supreme is a constant refrain in the Daniel stories, and it goes hand in hand with the theme that Jews or Judeans are different from the people they live amongst and that this difference must be maintained. Thus Daniel and his friends will not eat the (non-kosher) palace food (ch. 1), his friends will not bow to a statue (ch. 3), and Daniel bows and prays to YHWH, even when this was declared illegal (ch. 6). The book of Daniel that emphasizes time after time that Jews should not try to fit in, but stand up for their differences, and God will protect them.
The Joseph story has a very different attitude about how Joseph, and by extension Israelites, should behave in Egypt. In this story, Joseph tries to fit in. He is fine wearing Egyptian clothing and taking an Egyptian name. He is even willing to speak to Pharaoh about God in such a way as to find common ground. Clearly there is a difference in power between the forced migrant Hebrew slave and Pharaoh, yet what stands out is that both parties need each other, and they consider the other as a partner in facing the pending disaster.
Joseph and Pharaoh do not compete over whose God is more wise and powerful, but they find a common ground in which they see the religious other as an instrument through whom God speaks. This point fits into the broader theme of the Joseph novella, which has to do with how Israelites (or Judahites) can survive, and even flourish, as a minority in the diaspora.
A Diaspora Novella
Joseph, who was a dreamer in the land of the Hebrews, becomes an interpreter of dreams in Egypt, and uses this to establish a position of prominence, which he will ultimately use to save his new country, Egypt, and his entire family. The trauma of being forced into migration and being thrown into prison did not put an end to Joseph’s dreams.
Like many forced migrants, Joseph was confronted with a choice: to settle for whatever the circumstances throw at him or take agency and transform these obstacles into steps towards restoring his dignity and fulfilling his dreams. Joseph, therefore, serves as a model for Israelites or Judeans in the diaspora on how to relate to the surrounding culture in which they find themselves.
The Struggle of Diaspora Communities
How to integrate into a new and foreign society is a perennial problem for individuals and communities who are forced to migrate and are confronted with cultural, religious and socio-economic differences with the people among whom they live. Forced migrants may feel as if they have lost everything that orients their lives, but their resilience and their ability to negotiate cultural differences with the host community allows them to reconstruct a new meaning, a new purpose for their lives.
Their success partly depends on their taking initiative, but also hinges on the openness and willingness of the host community to use its power to integrate the foreigner in their midst. Pharaoh put aside the ethnic and the socio-economic differences and simply addressed Joseph as a one who listens to dreams and interprets them.
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Prof. Safwat Marzouk is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. Marzouk is the author of Egypt as a Monster in the Book of Ezekiel (Mohr Siebeck, 2015) and a number of articles including “Migration in the Joseph Narrative: Integration, Separation, and Transnationalism,” and “Interrogating Identity: A Christian Egyptian Reading of the Hagar-Ishmael Traditions.”
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