Genesis 41:1-41

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. [1]

Generally speaking, people don’t ordinarily put much importance in their dreams. Nor should they. Though people who study the science of sleep say we have many dreams every night, few of us remember any of them. In literature, the word “dream” is frequently used as an image of something unsubstantial. In Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero compares life to the passing world of spirits, saying, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” (Act 4, scene 1). Maybe your familiar with the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and its concluding line, “Life is but a dream.” Sometimes the Bible speaks of dreams in this way. In Psalm 73, Asaph compares the wicked to “a dream when one awakes,” saying that the Lord “will despise them as fantasies” (v. 20).

All the dreams we find in Joseph’s story are different from the run-of-mill dreams about which I have been speaking. In most cases—perhaps all—in which you dreamed or someone else was dreaming, the dreams were only a projection of subconscious fears or desires or memories. This was not the case with Joseph, the royal officials, or Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s dreams had been given to him by God, and they were part of that magnificent chain of events by which Joseph, then the brothers, then Benjamin, and finally Jacob and his entire family were brought to Egypt.


God further tempered and honed Joseph’s trust for two more years after he was forgotten by the royal cupbearer. As we’ll see, Joseph had become a radically YHWHW-centered man with no bible, no daily devotionals, no psalms to sing, no fellowship, and no direct visions from God (like his father, Jacob/Israel). How could such a thing be possible? Because YHWH was with him. The Holy Spirit does his work in his way. God, not Joseph, is the hero of this story.

Moses doesn’t tell us whether Joseph had a daily quite time, or what his prayer life was like, or how often he took a good look inside himself to work on his character traits. All we really know is that Joseph suffered as a falsely-accused slave and prisoner for 13 long, miserable years. The only glimmer of hope he had was that the royal cupbearer would mention him to Pharaoh. That glimmer winked out with passing of the days, weeks, months, and years of Joseph’s confinement in chains.

In fact, Joseph suffered BECAUSE God was with him. God’s special presence did not ensure Joseph’s “best life now” as Joseph would have defined it. Joseph didn’t suffer because he failed to appropriate some special blessing, or to pray the prayer of Jabez, or sow a seed of faith, or to visualize his dream destiny thingy, or to issue a prophetic word of rebuke against his circumstances. He suffered because God was forging Joseph into a weapon of salvation for Israel. Joseph is not the main character and author of his own story; God is the main character and sole author of Joseph’s story, and your story, and my story. As James wrote:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [2]

This is the way of the cross: suffering before glory. It was not only Joseph’s experience, it is the format for the earthly Christian life. It was the pattern of Jesus’ life, as Mark records in his gospel account:

…the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” [3]

Jesus rebuked Peter’s prosperity theology. Of course, our suffering is NOT redemptive. It is in no way salvific. It does not pay the cost of our sin as did that of the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. But our suffering is constructive. There is no Christian life without seasons of suffering. They build Christ into us. Joseph lost not only his sense of justice and of hope in any human solution to his problems, he lost his self-respect and his dignity. And when he had nothing left, he was left with YHWH alone. And he was forced to realize that YHWH wasn’t simply the only thing he had left, but everything. YHWH was the ONLY thing! So, with nearly half his young life spent in Egypt, Joseph was finally ready to become a bold witness before the most powerful ruler of the known world.

The occasion was a pair of dreams with a cannibalistic theme that disturbed Pharaoh. One commentator writes:

As the narratives of this chapter show, the assurance that God will surely bring future events to pass comes from the fact that the dreams relating those events are repeated twice. “Two” dreams with the same meaning show that God will certainly bring about that which was foreseen in the dreams. Throughout the narrative this theme is kept alive by a continuous return to the pattern of “twos.” In the previous chapter the “two” (shene, 40:2) officials of the king each had a dream. One dream was good, the other bad. The dreams and their interpretations are repeated twice, once by the writer in the narrative of chapter 40 and then again by the cup-bearer [in chapter 41] before the Pharaoh in vv.9–13.[4]

After two years have passed for Joseph, the king had two dreams, one part of each dream was good, and one part disturbingly bad. In his dreams, the king standing at bank of the great life-bringing sacred Nile, where Egyptian cattle often stood nearly-submerged in retreat against the heat and insects, coming out to feed among the papyrus beds along the bank. As he watched, “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.” The seven “ugly and thin” cows (Hebrew: evil in appearance and thin of flesh) ate the seven “good in appearance and fat” cows.

Cows are not cannibals by nature, so the scene is so shocking and grotesque to Pharaoh he wakes up startled like a child from a nightmare. But he was able to calm down after a time and fall back to sleep and into a second dream in which seven “plump and good” (v. 5) ears of grain were devoured by seven thin, heat-shriveled ears of grain. The attack of the cannibal grain was again startling to the king and awoke to the realization that he had been dreaming again. But being fully awake the next day did not grant him relief.

The narrator says the king was “troubled in spirit” (v. 8). Egyptian Pharaohs were considered gods who lived on the diving realm. Their dreams were given special importance. These dreams had come as a pair, giving them special significance. So, the king assembled, “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.” The dreams so stunned Pharaoh that the narrator uses an astonished “behold” six times (in the Hebrew) in seven verses to indicate the king’s response.

Out of a vast company of necromancers and pagan priests and priestesses representing all Egypt’s numerous demon gods, not one risked their necks for the man who had so recently executed his chief baker for displeasing him. The dreams likely reflected bad news. Nobody wants to share bad news with the most powerful man in the world. So, Pharaoh was left in his frantic state. As we read, we can see God at work. This was the third pair of God-given dreams that Joseph would interpret. But Pharaoh didn’t know this. He had never heard of the God of Israel, much less did he believe in such a God. He was supposed to be a god himself. But he was a powerless god, unable to understand the message he though his gods were giving him.


It was not good for the king to be in such a state of agitation – certainly not for anyone who worked closely with him like the cupbearer. So, at the right moment, the cupbearer volunteered he knew someone who interpreted dreams. Though it was not a particularly comfortable subject to raise, he brough up his imprisonment. He said, “I remember my offenses today” (v. 9). He may have been referring to both his offense against Pharaoh and his offense of blowing off Joseph until now by forgetting Joseph’s plea for help (40:14).

He recounted his experience with Joseph:

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 remembered the event accurately for the most part. However, he left out the part where Joseph claimed dreams belong to the Hebrew God, who alone has the power to give and interpret dreams. His account also gives the impression that he took the initiative to ask Joseph, when Joseph had been the one who inquired of them. Of course, the cupbearer made no mention of how he had done nothing for Joseph until now – when it was advantageous for him to bring it up.

The cupbearer’s story triggers a whirlwind of activity as the string of verbs in verse 14 indicates. “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.” Hebrews wore beards. Egyptians did not. Joseph had to be cleaned up and dressed to be presentable to the king. As R. Kent Hughes writes:

So in a flash Joseph was shaved, sanitized, Egyptianized, and presented to Pharaoh. The young Hebrew had gone from the pit to the palace in an instant. There handsome, well-built Joseph stood, looking more like an Egyptian than a Hebrew.[5]

Though God is not mentioned at this point, he is the orchestrator and convener of this meeting between the Hebrew slave and the king of Egypt. God had used both Pharaoh’s dream and the cupbearer’s selfishness and Joseph’s suffering to bring about this meeting at the proper time. Had the cupbearer mentioned Joseph to the king earlier, the king would have likely forgotten. But now he is desperate to know the meaning of his pair of dreams, which he repeated to Joseph.


From Joseph’s point of view, his situation would have been intimidating. He had been yanked out of the filthy pit, hosed off, shaved, outfitted in royal attire, scented with oil, and taken to Pharaoh’s throne room to stand in front of the king and all his courtiers. The temptation to say the acceptable thing to the pagan king must have been intense. The throne room alone, with its elaborate décor would have been enough to give one pause before speaking to the most powerful man in the known world. In front of such naked power, even lions become lambs.

How would Joseph fare in the face of a desperate and needy human god? Would he resort of flattery? Would he claim the credit for himself? Pharaoh said, “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.” The prudent human thing to do would have been to leave YHWH out of the picture entirely and claim the power to interpret dreams as entirely his own. But Joseph is entirely God-reflexed by this point in his life. He will take no credit. “16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” As Derek Kidner notes:

While Pharaoh naturally thought of expertise in the ‘science’ of dreams, Joseph almost explosively disavowed this whole approach (the exclamation, It is not in me, is a single word). With hasty brevity he points from himself to God (the position in the sentence makes it emphatic) as sole revealer, disposer and benefactor….[6]

Joseph had been forged with a spine of steel. Joseph tells the man who considers himself a god that THE God (ha Elohim) would explain his dream. Standing before the throne of the god-king of Egypt, Joseph asserts the sovereign power and clear superiority of the Covenant God of Israel over the demon gods of Egypt. Joseph was unphased by his whirlwind trip from prison to palace. His 13 years of preparatory suffering were now paying a giant dividend. Through Joseph, God was now asserting and glorifying himself along the Nile.

Pharaoh was not put off by Joseph’s directness or his mention of the God of the Hebrews. He wanted results, not a religious discussion. So, he unloaded his dreams, only with more detail in verses 17-24. The whole of the dream is repeated again in the narrative to emphasize the “pairs” – two dreams, two retellings that speak to the certainty and urgency of the matter. The king emphasized the ugliness of his dreams and his being deeply disturbed by them. He added about the lean cows, “very ugly [“evil”] and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt.” Further, when the grotesquely-skinny cannibal bovines at the seven healthy cows, “they were still as ugly as at the beginning” (v. 21).

The cannibal grain was not as repulsive to the king. But still, what disturbed Pharaoh was that the dreams were ominous, but nobody could (or would) explain them. Something bad was coming but he didn’t know what it was or how to stop it. The dreamer was helpless. The pharaoh-god was impotent. But the one true God, YHWH, was about to testify to his power in a dramatic way.


Joseph’s interpretation was completely God-centered. Joseph had already prefaced his interpretation with the sure statement “THE God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (v. 16). Now Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams invokes God at the beginning, the middle, and the end of verses 25-32. Joseph began by saying, “25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; the God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” Verse 28 duplicates the testimony about God, “28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” And in his third attribution to God, Joseph mentions him twice in verse 32, “32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and the God will shortly bring it about.” Joseph’s interpretation to Pharaoh and before all the courtiers of Egypt was that the One True God controlled their existence.

As we know, the interpretation was one about a cyclic famine following seven years of plentiful harvest. Joseph was grim and explicit:

29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30 but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31 and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.

Joseph’s language anticipated that of the biblical prophets that would follow in Israel. The future of Egypt was firmly fixed by the God without any reference to Pharaoh. Pharaoh does not get to decide anything about Egypt’s future. He’s irrelevant and marginal to the kingdom’s future. Joseph has announced to the king of Egypt that the future is completely out of his hands. The pharaoh-god can bring about nothing. Nor can he resist the future that the God will bring.

Again, we come face-to-face with a fundamental, bedrock principle of scripture. Kings do not make history. They are merely one of the tools God uses to effect history. He channels their hearts as a farmer channels water. There is no government over which God’s providence does not fall. The prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 45:4-7, explained that God raised up the pagan king Cyrus to effect God’s purposes for his people:

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. [7]

Kings do not make history. They serve history, just as the Promised Seed declared to Pontius Pilate in John 19:10-11, “So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” [8]

John wrote that Pilate was so shaken by Jesus’ statement that he tried to set Jesus free. But as powerful as he was, he could not thwart God’s plan for the Promised Seed – who had lived the perfect life we can never live and offers that perfection to all who will trust him – to shed his perfect blood on a cross for our sin. Rulers do not make history. God makes history. We have to remember that everyday since the world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly at work preaching the exact opposite.

Joseph was certain of that very thing as he stood before Pharaoh. Perhaps Joseph’s certainty is what God used to persuade Pharaoh of the truth of the interpretation and the wisdom of Joseph’s advice:

33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.

Joseph’s “20% x 7 years” plan was brilliant. “The decentralization of the stored grain would, when the time came, allow for convenient distribution. And the storage of grain in centers of population provided for adequate protection should it be needed as the famine grew in severity. Fascinatingly, every aspect of Joseph’s plan called for dynamic action.”[9] Joseph’s plan was based on his own God-given wisdom and his certain knowledge of what God was about to do. Knowledge of God’s sovereignty never results in INACTION. We act according to what we trust. That what drives world missions! We know God is gathering a people for himself from every tribe and tongue and nation (Rev. 7:9), so we pray, we give, and we go.


Joseph’s plan required sound leadership and wise administration. He did not seem to know he was applying for the job. He was not engineering a contrived plot to elevate himself politically or socially. But God WAS engineering such a plot by channeling Pharaoh’s heart.

37 This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh did not know ha Elohim. His phrase “the spirit of God” would have been shaped by his own pagan theology. But he nevertheless recognized this “new” God was powerful and beneficent. However ignorantly, Pharaoh was giving glory to God. The man who thought himself a god was honoring the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. And he noticed that Joseph had no peer in all Egypt. So, Joseph was made the vizier – the prime minister, the king’s hand. In a matter of hours, Joseph had gone from prisoner to prime minister. Humanly speaking, the next 14 years of Egypt’s future (as well as Israel’s future) lay in the hands of this man. Though he didn’t know it, the coming famine would bring his brothers to bow down to him.

Joseph knew what you and I daily forget: there was no power in himself. All power belongs ONLY to ha Elohim. God, not kings or rulers, fixes the future as surely as he has arranged our past. He does it for his glory and the good of his people. Joseph’s defining virtue was that he had a massive view of God. His concept of God far exceeded any other human being on the planet earth at that time. God’s choice of servants is always defined by their concept of God. A small and weak God makes small and weak and fearful and angry people.

Do you have a little God or a big God? So much hangs upon your answer, because those who embrace the God of the Scriptures embrace the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David and Daniel and Paul and Peter— and that makes all the difference!


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 41:1–8.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jas 1:2–4.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 8:31–33.

[4] Sailhamer, 2:239.

[5] Hughes, 477. Kindle Edition.

[6] Kidner, 1:206.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 45:4–7.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 19:10–11.

[9] Hughes, 481. Kindle Edition.