Genesis (Part 185)

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

Genesis 41:14-24

14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. 18 Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20 And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21 but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22 I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23 Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24 and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”


While the previous verses painted a picture of Joseph doing well, and overseeing the prison, verse 14 paints a picture of a man in a pit, disheveled, and in need of shaving before he is fit to be brought before Pharaoh. However, the description in verse 14 is perhaps more ceremonial than that. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(14) He shaved himself.—Herodotus (ii. 36) mentions that the Egyptians suffered their hair and beards to grow only when in mourning; whereas in Palestine the beard was regarded as a manly ornament. On Egyptian monuments only captives and men of low condition are represented with beards. In the prison, therefore, Joseph would leave his beard untrimmed, but when summoned into the king’s presence, he would shave it off. Abravanel notices that for each suffering of Joseph there was an exact recompense. It was for dreams that his brethren hated him, and by help of dreams he was exalted in Egypt. They stripped him of his many-coloured coat; the Egyptians clothed him in byssus. They cast him into a pit, and from the pit of the prison he was drawn forth by Pharaoh. They sold him into slavery; in Egypt he was made lord.

The note confirms that it was customary to stand before Pharaoh shaven. Joseph might have been doing reasonably well and still be in need of that undertaking. The note also draws our attention to Joseph’s life story in an interesting way.

  • Joseph was hated by his brothers over dream interpretation – he was elevated in Egypt on account of his dreams.
  • Joseph’s brothers stripped him of his many colored coat – but he was clothed finely in Pharaoh’s court.
  • Joseph was cast into a pit by his brothers – he was raised from a pit in Egypt.
  • Joseph was sold into slavery – he was made a lord in Egypt.

Returning to the text with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 41:15

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it (literally, and interpreting it there is no one): and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it—literally, I have heard of thee, saying, thou hearest a dream to interpret it.

Genesis 41:16

And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me (literally, not I): God—Elohim (of. Genesis 40:8)—shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace—literally, shall answer the peace of Pharaoh, i.e. what shall be for the welfare of Pharaoh. The rendering Ἄνευ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἀποκριθησεται τὸ σωτήριον Φαραιό (LXX.), though giving the sense, fails in accuracy of translation.

Here we see the first exchange between Pharaoh and Joseph, with the latter in one sense demurring as a dream interpreter, but in another elevating the stakes of his reply by telling the most powerful man in Egypt, to his face, that God will interpret the dreams. Joseph says this before hearing the dream. He knows, or should know, that there is a chance he will have to deliver hard words that Pharaoh will not like to hear.

The text does not tell us how God was communicated the interpretations to Joseph. We might assume then that Joseph may have been aware, before he spoke to the leader of Egypt, that God was going to bless him with the situation. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 41:17-21

Pharaoh then relates his dreams in substantially the same terms as those in which they have already been recited, only adding concerning the lean kine that they were (Genesis 41:19such as I never saw (literally, I never saw such as these) in all the land of Egypt for badness: and that (Genesis 41:21when they had eaten them (i.e. the good kine) up, it could not be known they had eaten them;—literally, and they (i.e. the good kine) went into the interior parts, i.e. the stomach (of the bad kine), and it was not known that they had gone into the interior partsbut they (the bad kine) were still ill-favored, as at the beginning—literally, and their appearance was bad as in the beginning, i.e. previously; and concerning the thin and blasted ears, that they were also (Genesis 41:23withered—צְנֻמוֹת, from צָנַם, to be hard, meaning either barren (Gesenius), dry (Furst), or sapless (Kalisch)—a word which the LXX. and the Vulgate both omit. Onkelos explains by כרת, flowering, but not fruiting; and Dathius renders by jejunae. After which he (i.e. Pharaoh) informs Joseph that the professional interpreters attached to the Court (the chartummim, or masters of the occult sciences) could give him no idea of its meaning.

The mental image of cows eating other cows is pretty horrifying. I understand why Pharaoh was disturbed by this and sought out an answer. [Sidenote: This is a lesson, too, that just because a dream contains disturbing elements does not mean that it is not from God. I think there is a tendency among modern thinkers to associate “disturbing” with having an evil origin.] Adding to this, I draw attention to the note from Ellicott covering verse 19:

(19) Poor and very ill-favoured and leanfleshed.—Pharaoh, in his recital, describes his dreams at greater length than is the case in the narrative (Genesis 41:2-7), and also mentions the impressions made upon his imagination by what he had seen, as, for instance, that he had never beheld such lean cattle, and that they were as wretched in look after eating up the fat kine as before. There is also a slight difference in his description of the kine. In Genesis 41:3 they are called “evil in appearance, and lean of flesh;” but the words here are “lean, and evil in shape, and thin of flesh.”

Pharaoh is clearly disturbed by what he saw. He emphases that the image in his dream was awful and unlike anything he had ever seen before. Had the dreams not been so disturbing, perhaps Pharaoh ignores them.

The mental image I get for the dream of the cattle is indeed the stuff of nightmares. The ears of grain tale is less difficult to fathom. But we do get some notes on that as well. Ellicott provides a note for the word translated as “withered” in verse 23:

(23) Withered.—This word occurs only in this place. Its meaning is stony, that is, the grains were shrivelled and hard like bits of grit.

Pharaoh concludes the recitation of his dreams by letting Joseph know that none of his magicians knew what to tell him.

The next section – which I won’t get to in this post – is really fascinating on a number of levels. There is a mystery as to how (the mechanism) Joseph hears from God when giving his interpretation. There is a mystery as to dreams and dream interpretations more generally as well. Genesis is in some ways a story of de-evolution. Man begins by walking and talking with God. Then man is separated by sin. At some point, we get a Flood, the Garden of Eden become lost to history, but man occasionally still sees God personally (or at least a messenger from God in human form – as was the case in Abraham’s life.) Joseph does not seem to interact directly with a celestial being (God/The Angel of the Lord/Angels more generally/etc.) However, Joseph in some ways seems to be the most righteous member of his family tree.

Maybe I’ll do a deep dive on dreams and dream interpretation in conjunction with the next post.