Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”
The cupbearer: “Oh yeah. I was supposed to tell you about him. So this guy I met two years ago when I was in jail…”
It has now been thirteen years since Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers but his big moment is arriving. Joseph’s faithfulness while enduring years of unfair treatment has allowed him to steadily elevate his position. That’s one of the enduring lessons of this story. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day:—literally, my faults (sc. am) remembering today; but whether he understood by his faults his ingratitude to Joseph or his offense against Pharaoh commentators are not agreed, though the latter seems the more probable—Pharaoh was wroth with his servants,—literally, broke out against them (vide Genesis 40:2)—and put me in ward in the captain of the guard’s house,—literally, put me in custody of the house of the captain of the slaughterers (cf. Genesis 40:3)—both me and the chief baker: and we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream (vide Genesis 40:5). And there was there with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard (vide Genesis 37:36); and we told him (so. our dreams), and he interpreted to us our dreams (vide Genesis 40:12, Genesis 40:13, Genesis 40:18, Genesis 40:19); to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he (not Pharaoh, but Joseph) restored unto mine office, and him he hanged (vide Genesis 40:21, Genesis 40:22).
There is an interesting commentary on the forgetfulness of the cuperbearer, at moremidrash.com, titled Joseph and the Cupbearer: Memory and Hope, linked HERE. I will include some excerpts below:
Bereishit Rabbah 88:7
[Biblical Story (Genesis 40:20-23): On the third day – his birthday – Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief baker he impaled – just as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.]
“Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember” (Genesis 40:23). All day long he would set conditions, but an angel would come and reverse them; and he would tie knots, but an angel would come and untie them. The Holy One said to him: You have forgotten him, but I have not forgotten him! Thus it is written, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”
Understanding the Midrash
This two-part midrash revolves around the central question of why the biblical text states first that the chief cupbearer didn’t remember Joseph, then that he forgot Joseph. What does this redundancy teach us? The first answer from the midrash is that although the cupbearer keeps trying to remember to tell Pharaoh about this remarkable dream-interpreter, going so far as to set conditions that might trigger his memory, an angel keeps getting in the way, making him forget every day for two years. That’s why the text says he didn’t remember, and that he kept forgetting. He was trying to remember, but an angel foiled his attempts. This seems to be part of God’s plan, waiting until Joseph has learned to trust in God and not in humans, and until Pharaoh has his dreams of feasting and famine. God says, humans may forget, but I do not. This first teaching emphasizes God’s extraordinary attentiveness, even while all evidence points to abandonment.
The second part of the midrash similarly understands the doubled forgetfulness of the cupbearer as indicating that human memory is faulty but divine memory is enduring. But then it launches into a lengthy list of unlikely episodes in Jewish history, each one as astonishing as Joseph’s rise from prison to prime minister. The point of this teaching seems to be that because God does not forget, there is always hope for the unlikely to happen, the small but significant connection to be made that saves everything in the end. And perhaps the midrash serves as a more enduring reminder than individual human memory of God’s presence in history.
For those of you who do not know what a midrash is, I will remind you below. From Wiki:
Midrash (/ˈmɪdrɑːʃ/; Hebrew: מִדְרָשׁ; pl. מִדְרָשִׁים midrashim or מִדְרָשׁוֹת midrashot) is expansive Jewish Biblical exegesis using a rabbinic mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud. The word itself means “textual interpretation”, “study”, or “exegesis“, derived from the root verb darash (דָּרַשׁ), which means “resort to, seek, seek with care, enquire, require”, forms of which appear frequently in the Hebrew Bible.
Midrash and rabbinic readings “discern value in texts, words, and letters, as potential revelatory spaces”, writes the Hebrew scholar Wilda Gafney. “They reimagine dominant narratival readings while crafting new ones to stand alongside—not replace—former readings. Midrash also asks questions of the text; sometimes it provides answers, sometimes it leaves the reader to answer the questions”. Vanessa Lovelace defines midrash as “a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line”.
The term is also used of a rabbinic work that interprets Scripture in that manner. Such works contain early interpretations and commentaries on the Written Torah and Oral Torah (spoken law and sermons), as well as non-legalistic rabbinic literature (aggadah) and occasionally Jewish religious laws (halakha), which usually form a running commentary on specific passages in the Hebrew Scripture (Tanakh).
The word Midrash, especially if capitalized, can refer to a specific compilation of these rabbinic writings composed between 400 and 1200 CE. According to Gary Porton and Jacob Neusner, midrash has three technical meanings:
- Judaic biblical interpretation;
- the method used in interpreting;
- a collection of such interpretations.
As my Jewish friends know, the midrash is a very useful tool in studying the Scriptures. However, its post-Christ authorship can sometimes lead to confusion and disagreement between Jews and Christians regarding the thoughts and beliefs of Jewish religious leaders during the Second Temple (pre-Christ) period. One really good example of this is the “Two Powers in Heaven” issue. A Jew today will tell you that this teaching was and is a heresy. A Jew at the time of Jesus though, would not have been so clear on that point. In fact, that lack of clarity provided some of the groundwork for Jesus’ claims of divinity.
For a book on this topic, see a link HERE appropriately titled “Two Powers in Heaven.”
In his now classic Two Powers in Heaven, Alan Segal examines rabbinic evidence about early manifestations of the “two powers” heresy within Judaism. Segal sheds light upon the development of and relationships among early Christianity, Gnosticism, and Merkabah mysticism and demonstrates that belief in the “two powers in heaven” was widespread by the first century, and may have been a catalyst for the Jewish rejection of early Christianity. An important addition to New Testament and Gnostic scholarship by this much revered scholar, Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven is made available once again for a new generation.
Citing midrash to argue for what the Apostle Paul may have believed, on a given topic, is dicey, and you will occasionally see people doing that type of thing. But I believe that if you understand those interpretive limitations going in, even as a Christian, you can find the Midrash to be really helpful in developing your understanding. It is my belief that one cannot properly understand the New Testament without also understanding the Old Testament.
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