Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Joseph: Master of Dreams

Posted by foryourfaith on September 21, 2011


Can harsh circumstances and malicious intentions be turned to good account? The story of Joseph answers with an emphatic yes. As William Cowper’s 18th-century hymn says, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” The belief that God’s providence may be at work even in human evil is one of the perennial mysteries of the Bible.

Joseph suffered from the hatred of his brothers, which led to his enslavement. Later, he was imprisoned on false charges and forgotten in prison even by those whom he helped. Still, as he looked back on his life, he was able to say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

The ancient Hebrew language has no word for the concept of “providence.” But in the story of their people, the Israelites saw again and again the hand of God guiding events toward his own ends.

The story of Joseph is the longest of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis, longer than the accounts of Abraham and Isaac together. Within the story are woven numerous themes and historical elements.



The older brothers portray crime and guilt, repentance and reconciliation; Joseph in Egypt is the very embodiment of the wise man. Even in the greatest adversity he was true to his master and to himself. His piety and wisdom brought him success. The story of Joseph’s travail reveals how the Israelites were separated from the land they had been promised by God, and how Israel grew to be a nation in a foreign country.

Joseph was the eleventh of Jacob’s 12 sons by four women. But he was the first son of Rachel, the wife whom Jacob really loved. Like Sarah before her, and the mothers of Samson and Samuel after her, Rachel had been barren. Thus the birth of Joseph is described as an act of God, who opened her womb (Genesis 30:22). Rachel died giving birth to a second son, Benjamin. So it was that Jacob lavished all his love on her sons.

Joseph was portrayed as the favored and pampered 17-year-old son of a doting father, who “loved him more than all his brothers.” As a result “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.”

Jacob’s favoritism was expressed by his gift to Joseph of a “coat of many colors,” as the King James version of the Bible described it. The exact meaning of the Hebrew phrase is a puzzle, however, and no one knows for sure just what made this garment so special. The ancient Greek translators of the Bible took the Hebrew word Passim to mean “multicolored,” and that provided the basis for the King James translation. Studies in modern times have suggested a range of meanings, such as “a long robe with sleeves” or “an ornamented ceremonial robe.” Thus, the coat was not the rough tunic that his brothers would have worn, but a luxurious robe that spoke clearly of his privileged status.



Joseph’s dreams were another important facet of the story. Dreams were assumed to be a means of divine communications that indicated the future. In Joseph’s first dream the family was binding sheaves of grain. Joseph’s sheaf stood upright, and his brother’s sheaves bowed to it. In his second dream Joseph said, “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Even Jacob took offense, “Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Genesis 37:5-10).

After Joseph revealed these dreams, the jealousy and hatred of his brothers became implacable. But Joseph only reported the dreams God had sent; he did not interpret them. The narrator seems careful to attribute no excessive pride to Joseph. He appeared oblivious to the hatred his father’s favoritism and his dreams had aroused.

The older brothers were grazing Jacob’s flock north of Hebron, where the family dwelled at the time. Jacob sent Joseph wearing his decorated coat, to see how they were faring. When Joseph reached Shechem, where his brothers were supposed to be, he was told that they had gone to the town of Dothan – well outside the reach of his father’s protection. As he approached Dothan, the brothers saw him in the distance. “Here comes this dreamer” (literally, “master of dreams”), they said, and their hostility became murderous. “Come now, let us kill him . . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

But Reuben, the eldest, said, “Shed no blood; cast him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him.” Thus they stripped off the robe and threw Joseph into an empty cistern. Reuben secretly hoped to return later, rescue Joseph, and bring him back to his father.

Dothan was on a major trade route, and soon there came a camel caravan from Gilead carrying luxury items of gum, balm, and myrrh to Egypt. These items were extracts from plant resins, used for their fragrance or healing qualities. Joseph’s brother Judah immediately saw the opportunity for profit that these traders offered, and said, “What profits is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.” Thus they sold Joseph for 20 shekels of silver.



When the brothers returned home they went to their father and showed him Joseph’s robe, which they had spattered with goat’s blood. Jacob fell into their trap no less than Joseph: “A wild beast has devoured him,” he cried, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning (Genesis 37:33-35). The brothers thought that they had permanently rid themselves of Joseph.

In Egypt, Joseph was sold to a nobleman, Potiphar, a name meaning “he whom Re [the sun god] has given.” Potiphar is described in Hebrew as a saris, literally a eunuch, but, since he was married, it probably meant that he was a royal official. He was called “captain of the guard” and was one of the chief officials of Egypt.

Joseph was an immediate success under Potiphar. This was because Yahweh was with him. He quickly rose from foreign slave to Potiphar’s overseer “in charge of all that he had” (Genesis 39:2-4). But Joseph could progress no further in Potiphar’s service. To rise higher, he had first to fall.

The instrument of his fall was Potiphar’s wife. Joseph’s near-tragedy bears a remarkable likeness to the events described in the ancient Egyptian story “The Tale of Two Brothers.” The wife of the elder brother attempted to seduce the boy Bata. When she failed, she lied to her husband, who set out furiously to kill his brother. Miraculously, he discovered the truth – and slew his dishonest wife. Potiphar’s wife repeated tried to seduce Joseph, who was shocked at the proposition: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Angry at being spurned, the woman tore part of Joseph’s garments and accused him of trying to rape her.



Potiphar was angry, but he did not execute the slave, which was the standard punishment for the offense. Instead, he placed him in the royal prison. There, as before, Joseph was successful and quickly became overseer of the other captives.

Joseph was put in charge of two special prisoners – Pharaoh’s butler and baker, who had committed some offense. They each were troubled by dreams. When they complained that they had no one to interpret their dreams, Joseph asserted that “interpretations belong to God.” However, he implied that he had access to that secret knowledge: “Tell them to me, I pray you” (Genesis 40:8).

Like Joseph’s, the prisoners’ dream predicted the future. The butler had dreamed that in three days he would be squeezing grapes into Pharaoh’s cup once again. But the baker’s dream indicated that in three days he would be executed. With knowledge of the future, Joseph begged the butler to remember him to Pharaoh when he was restored to his position. Though everything occurred just as Joseph had predicted, the butler forgot him.

Joseph passed two more years in prison. One morning the royal court was in a stir. Pharaoh had dreamed two portentous dreams, and “all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men” were baffled by their meaning (Genesis 41:8). The Egyptians thought themselves to be able interpreters, but when faced with Pharaoh’s dreams, they were at a loss. Finally the butler remembered Joseph, and he was brought, shaved and cleaned, before Pharaoh.

Pharaoh’s dreams were straightforward, but their meaning was obscure. First, seven well-fed cows emerged from the Nile, but they were followed and devoured by seven gaunt cows that grew no fatter. Then, seven plump heads of grain growing in a single stalk were swallowed by seven blighted heads of grain.



With God-given confidence, Joseph reported the meaning of the dreams. Seven years of plentiful harvest would be followed by seven disastrous years of famine. The doubling of the dream indicated that the future was “fixed by God” (Genesis 41:32). Wisdom dictated a prudent policy of storing grain against the famine, and Joseph advised that the whole of Egypt’s agricultural economy be marshaled behind his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.

Pharaoh was immediately convinced. He elevated Joseph, a foreign prisoner, to be viceroy of Egypt, with a mandate to control its grain supply. Joseph was given Pharaoh’s signet ring and a long Egyptian name meaning “God speaks: he is living!” (Genesis 41:45). He married the daughter of an Egyptian priest, and she bore him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

At the end of seven plentiful years, Joseph had stored more grain than could be measured. When famine struck, the grain that had been stored was sold back to the people, and Pharaoh’s economic control of the land was strengthened.

When the effects of the famine reached Canaan, Jacob sent 10 of his sons to Egypt to buy grain. As Joseph’s brothers bowed before him, not only was his original dream fulfilled but his brothers were in his power. The story is told with pathos. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize that the Egyptian viceroy was the brother they had sold into slavery.

Joseph devised a number of trials to test the character of his brothers. First, he accused them of being spies. Then he imprisoned them, held Simeon as a hostage, and demanded that they send for Benjamin, the youngest brother. Now, the brothers, in their own language, expressed regret at having sinned against young Joseph. “So now there comes reckoning for his blood,” Reuben said. Hearing Reuben’s remorse, Joseph turned away and wept.

On their return to Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph treated the brothers with unexpected graciousness, but as soon as they had left for Canaan, with Simeon restored to them, he had them arrested for the theft of a silver goblet. To their complete consternation, the cup was discovered in Benjamin’s sack of grain. Though innocent of the theft, he was condemned to death.



But Joseph was soon convinced that his brothers had changed, for they begged him to pardon Benjamin for their father’s sake. Judah mad a moving plea that he be allowed to substitute his life for that of Benjamin (Genesis 44:18-34). “Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him.” In a scene of joyous tears, he revealed himself to them. “I am your brother, Joseph,” he wept, “whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed . . . for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).

The patriarchal narratives of Genesis conclude with scenes of reunion, blessing, and prosperity in Egypt. Jacob brought his entire land to settle in the land of Goshen in the Nile delta, which Joseph obtained for them. Jacob adopted Joseph’s Egyptian sons as his own, so that Joseph’s inheritance was in their names. But as Jacob blessed the boys, he crossed his hands so that his right hand, signifying the greater blessing, rested on the head of the younger Ephraim, another instance of the younger son gaining precedence over the elder. The nearly blind father foretold that the tribe of Ephraim would be one of the greatest in Israel.

When he had given an appropriate blessing to each of his sons, Jacob “breathed his last, and was gathered to his people,” at the age of 147. Joseph and his brothers continued to prosper in Egypt, but they did not forget their heritage. “God will visit you,” the dying Joseph told his children, “and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham.” Centuries were to pass before the time of God’s visitation, and the return to Canaan.



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2 Responses to “Joseph: Master of Dreams”

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    […]Joseph: Master of Dreams « Mysteries of the Bible[…]

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