Genesis (Part 183)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 41:1-8

41 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 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. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 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.


Imagine being Joseph for a moment. You have never done anything overtly wrong. Nevertheless, you have been sold into slavery by your brothers (and that was a consolation because they previously planned to kill you), you land on your feet and do well as a slave, before falsely being accused of a crime, your new jailor knows his own wife falsely accused you but says nothing, you interpreted a dream for the cupbearer, expecting that he might relay the story to Pharaoh or someone in his court, at which point you could be released from prison. And yet… two years pass. You remain in prison. He might have thought or hoped that word of his deed might spread in days. However, weeks, months, and eventually two years transpire before that seed/deed bears fruit in Pharaoh’s court.

It is not all bad for Joseph. Despite being a prisoner, he is treated well and essentially runs the place. However, it is hard not to imagine that his heart yearned for freedom and perhaps even the ability to return home to his family. God had other plans for Joseph and though everything around him probably seemed unfair, Joseph remained faithful. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary, in verse 1, at the turn of the tide:

(1) Pharaoh dreamed.—After two years spent in the prison, the time has now come for Joseph’s elevation to power; and it is to be noticed that this was not brought about by those arts by which men usually attain to greatness, such as statesmanship, or military skill; nor was it by accident, but according to the Biblical rule, by the direct intervention of Providence. Just as centuries afterwards, Daniel rose to high office at Babylon by God making known to him the dream of Nebuchadnezzar; so here, the transplantation of Israel into Egypt is brought about by the revelation to Joseph of “what was to be hereafter.”

The river.—Heb., Yeor, the Egyptian word for “great river.” It is the usual name in the Bible for the Nile, but is used for the Tigris in Daniel 12:5-6, and for any large river in Job 28:10. The Pharaoh in Those reign Joseph became governor of Egypt, is generally supposed to have been Apophis, the most famous of the shepherd kings. But Canon Cook, in his Essay, On the bearings of Egyptian History upon the Pentateuch, after carefully reviewing the whole subject, decides in favour of King Amenemha III., the greatest monarch of the noble twelfth dynasty, and the last king of all Egypt.

The note above speculates abut which Pharaoh Joseph serves. The Pulpit Commentaries also includes a lengthy note covering verse 1, and much more speculation on this same topic:

Genesis 41:1

And it came to pass at the end of two full years (literally, two years of days, i.e. two complete years from the commencement of Joseph’s incarceration, or more probably after the butler’s liberation), that Pharaoh—on the import of the term vide Genesis 12:15. Under what particular monarch Joseph came to Egypt is a question of much perplexity, and has been variously resolved by modern Egyptologists in favor of—

1. Osirtasen I; the founder of the twelfth dynasty, a prosperous and successful sore-reign, whose name appears on a granite obelisk at Heliopolis.

2. Assa, or Assis, the fifth king of the fifteenth dynasty of Shepherd kings (Stuart Poole in Smith’s ‘Bible Dict.,’ art. Egypt).

3. Apophis, a Shepherd king of the fifteenth dynasty, whom all the Greek authorities agree in mentioning as the patron of Joseph.

4. Thothmes III; a monarch of the eighteenth dynasty.

5. Rameses III; the king of Memphis, a ruler belonging to the twentieth dynasty. It may assist the student to arrive at a decision with respect to these contending aspirants for the throne of Pharaoh in the time of Joseph to know that Canon Cook, after an elaborate and careful as well as scholarly review of the entire question, regards it as at least “a very probable conjecture” that the Pharaoh of Joseph was Amenemha III; “who is represented on the lately-discovered table of Abydos as the last great king of all Egypt in the ancient empire (the last of the twelfth dynasty), and as such receiving divine honors from his descendant Rameses”—dreamed. “For the third time are dreams employed as the agencies of Joseph’s history: they first foreshadow his illustrious future; they then manifest that the Spirit of God had not abandoned him even in the abject condition of a slave and a prisoner; and lastly they are made the immediate forerunners of his greatness” (Kalisch.). And, behold, he stood by the riveri.e. upon the banks of the Nile, the term יֵאֹר (an Egyptian word signifying great river or canal, in the Memphitic dialect yaro, in the Sahidic yero) being used almost exclusively in Scripture for the Nile. This was the common name for the Nile among the Egyptians, the sacred being Hapi.

Some candidates have more support than others. Continuing with Ellicott in verse 2:

(2) Kine.—The cow was regarded by the Egyptians as the symbol of the earth, and of agriculture; and naturally both the kine and the ears of wheat rose out of the river, because as no rain falls in Egypt, its fertility entirely depends upon the overflow of the Nile. The cows sacred to Isis were seven in number, and in a copy of the Ritual of the Dead, Mr. Malan (p. 192) found a picture of the seven sacred cows with the divine bull.

In a meadow.—Heb., in the marsh-grass. The word occurs only in this chapter and in Job 8:11, where it is translated flag. It is the name of the rank herbage which grows luxuriantly along the banks of the Nile; or, as some think, of one special kind of marsh-grass, called by botanists cyperus esculentus.

Cattle hold a special place in Egypt at this time. Continuing in verse 3 with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 41:3

And, behold, seven other kind came up after them out of the river, ill. favored and lean-fleshed. The second seven cows, “evil to look upon,” i.e. bad in appearance, and “thin (beaten small, dakoth, from dakak, to crush or beat small) of flesh,” also proceeded from the river, since a failure in the periodical overflow of the Nile was the usual cause of scarcity and famine in Egypt. And stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. The use of the term lip, שָׂפָה, for brink, common enough in Hebrew (Genesis 22:17Exodus 14:301 Kings 5:9), occurs also in a papyrus of the nineteenth dynasty, “I sat down by the lip of the river,” which appears to suggest the impression that the verse in the text was written by one who was equally familiar with both languages.

Genesis 41:4

And the ill-favored and lean fleshed kine did eat up the seven we favored and fat kine—without there being any effect to show that they had eaten them (Genesis 41:21). So (literally, and) Pharaoh awoke.

This is a pretty horrifying nightmare. No wonder it stuck in Pharaoh’s mind. Continuing with Ellicott in verse 5:

(5) Seven ears . . . upon one stalk.—The wheat cultivated in Egypt is called triticum compositum, because it produces several ears upon the same stalk. The statement of Herodotus (ii. 36), that the Egyptians regarded it as disgraceful to feed upon wheat or barley, is disproved by the paintings in the temples, especially in the district of Thebes, which show that it was the main crop there, and its cultivation held in high honour. Maspero, Hist. Ancienne, p. 9, says, “In spite of Herodotus, the usual food of the people was wheat and other cereals, which the soil of Egypt produces in abundance.”

This note kind of dunks on one of the most famous/important historians of all time. Considering that Herodotus is much closer in time, one wonders what sources he was drawing from to make the statements that he made. The Pulpit Commentaries includes a long note for verse 6:

Genesis 41:6

And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them—literally, burnt up of the east, קָדִים being put poetically for the fuller רוּחַ קָדִים. It has been urged that this displays a gross ignorance of the nature, of the climate in Egypt (Bohlen), since a wind directly east is rare in Egypt, and when it does occur is not injurious to vegetation; but, on the other hand, it is open to reply

(1) that direct east winds may be rare in Egypt, but so are dearth and famine such as that described in the narrative equally exceptional (Kalisch);

(2) that the Hebrews having only names to describe the four principal winds, the kadirn might comprise any wind blowing from an easterly direction (Hengstenberg); and

(3) that the south-east wind, “blowing in the months of March and April, is one of the most injurious winds, and of longest continuance” (Havernick). Hengstenberg quotes Ukert as saying, “As long as the south-east wind continues, doors and windows are closed; but the fine dust penetrates everywhere; everything dries up; wooden vessels warp and crack. The thermometer rises suddenly from 16° 20°, up to 30° 36°, and even 38°, Reaumur. This wind works destruction upon everything. The grass withers so that it entirely perishes if this wind blows long”.

Just as Joseph had two dreams when he lived among his brothers, and just as he interpreted two dreams, two years ago, while a prisoner, now Pharaoah has two dreams of his own. Not all of the divine dreams and interpretations in the Bible involve two, but this is definitely a recurring theme in the life of Joseph. Every step of the way, as God communicates through dreams with Joseph, God provides a confirming dreams.

The note above debates the verse’s description of the wind in a lot of detail. Scholars do spend a lot of time debating topics such s whether the wind ever blows from the east in Egypt. Bohlen apparently argued that a belief in an east wind displays “gross ignorance” of the nature of the climate. It’s unfair to speculate without the full context, but I do sometimes wonder when reading through commentaries whether some scholars try too hard to disprove the text of the Bible. Continuing on with verse 7:

Genesis 41:7

And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank (i.e. fat) and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream—manifestly of the same import as that which had preceded. The dream was doubled because of its certainty and nearness (Genesis 41:32).

Seven cows devouring seven other cows is terrifying to be sure. I struggle to visualize thin ears of grain devouring fat ears of grain. Perhaps this was even more terrifying. Pharaoh woke up and sought out his dream interpreters straight away. The text refers to these men as magicians. From Ellicott:

(8) Magicians.—The word used here probably means the “sacred scribes,” who were skilled in writing and reading hieroglyphics. But in ancient times the possession of real knowledge was generally accompanied by a claim to an occult and mysterious acquaintance with the secrets of the gods and of nature. And as the people regarded the knowledge which such scribes really possessed as more than human, the claim was easily maintained, or, rather, grew naturally out of the superstition of the multitude. So, too, the “wise men” were men educated and trained, but probably the profession of magic, of divination, and astrology was that which gained for them wealth and honour, and not the possession of whatever real science existed at that time in Egypt. We find, subsequently, even Joseph claiming the power of divination.

There was none that could interpret . . . —Probably many of the wise men made the attempt, but in such an imperfect manner as not to be able to satisfy Pharaoh’s mind, or allay the excitement of his spirit.

The stage is now set for Joseph to continue ascending in power despite (and because of) his mistreatment. Would this moment have been possible if he had allowed himself to lose faith on account of his “unfair” treatment? The story of Joseph is truly one where God’s perspective of events is not the same as our own.