This chapter picks up the story after ‘some time’ had passed since Joseph was falsely accused of raping Potiphar’s wife. Joseph was still in prison and had been gaining trust and responsibility to the point where he was put over other prisoners. In this chapter, Joseph is joined in prison by two of Pharaoh’s senior officials who had fallen out of favour. These prisoners were assigned to Joseph’s care (and the person who gave this assignment was the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, who we learned in the previous chapter is Potiphar – perhaps he had his suspicions that Joseph was innocent all along?)
The chapter tells the story of Joseph’s interaction with these two men and how he was able to minister to them and bring God’s revelation even in this dark place.
Dreams and Interpretations
At the heart of the story is the question of dreams and interpretations. The way the characters in the story relate to dreams might seem strange to many people today, as we tend to seem dreams as having very little significance and perhaps just the mind trying to process events. In ancient Egypt, dreams were viewed very differently. They were seen as laden with meaning and often predictive of the future. It would be usual for there to be magicians or diviners who could hear and ‘interpret’ dreams for people (at least for people with sufficient power and influence). In this story, both the cupbearer and the baker had a dream, and this left them troubled because there was nobody with them who can interpret the dream.
Joseph’s response to this is interesting. He did not dismiss the idea of dreams being significant, but he did push back on where they are looking for an interpretation and asserted that “interpretations belong to God.” Joseph understood that God can speak in many ways, and in a culture that put such stock in dreams it is not unsurprising that God could use this to speak to people. This is not the only time we see this happen in the Bible. It happened several more times in the Joseph story, as well as in Daniel. It also happened in the birth narratives of Jesus and also in guiding the apostles in Acts. There are also many testimonies today from around the world of God speaking to people through dreams (including many of Jesus showing himself to people in dreams in majority muslim countries).
Though God can and does speak through things such as dreams, these often make no sense without interpretation and Joseph agreed to interpret the dreams for the men. The cupbearer saw a vine with three branches that budded very quickly and was pressed into Pharaoh’s cup. This meant he would be restored in three days. The baker saw birds eating bread from three baskets on his head, and this meant he would be executed by Pharaoh in three days. In both cases, Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams came to pass.
Through the Bible we see God communicating in many ways, including dreams, and he can still speak in such ways today. We should bear in mind that this sort of revelation does not carry authority in the way the Bible does and we must weigh anything we think what God might be saying against Scripture. Nevertheless we should be open to hear God speaking and not surprised when he communicates in supernatural ways.
Having been through so much suffering and injustice it would be understandable to see Joseph becoming disillusioned and withdrawn, and yet this was not the case at all. In the midst of his adversity, Joseph still showed faithfulness and kindness in how he handled himself.
This can be seen first in his reaction to the two officials after their dreams. Joseph came into the room in the morning and he noticed that they were troubled. It is a simple point but an important one. Joseph was still switched on to what other people were feeling and he noticed their distress. He was not so wrapped up in his own problems that he was blind to theirs. Moreover, he didn’t just notice that there was a problem but he asked about it. He was not afraid of sharing in somebody else’s mess and was ready to give a space for them to speak about what was bothering them.
Joseph was also confident in stepping forward and volunteering himself when he knew he was able to help. The language of spiritual gifts is not used until the New Testament, but it is clearly analogous to what is happening here. Joseph had a divine enablement from God to give a true interpretation of the dreams and he was not afraid to step forward and use his gift, despite it being a potentially costly thing to do if he was wrong about it. He used his gift faithfully and was willing to share what God had shown him whether that was an interpretation the dreamer would want to receive or not.
God has put each of us in situations around other people for a reason and we have the opportunity to serve and do good to them. Like Joseph, we can pay attention to what is going on with people around us, and can show compassion by giving space to talk about what is troubling them. We also have gifts from God that we can use to serve others, and as the opportunity arises we can be bold in stepping forward and using those gifts in order to be a blessing and bring God’s revelation.
Rotting and Forgotten
After Joseph had given the cup-bearer the interpretation of his dream, he asked him to put in a word with Pharaoh to get him out of prison. Though the dream came true, we are told that the cup-bearer failed to deliver on his agreement and instead completely forgot Joseph. It was already around thirteen years since Joseph was sold as a slave and this could have been the turning point in his story, but it wasn’t. He remained in prison, forgotten, for another two years.
Sometimes the hardest times to continue faithfully serving God are when hopes have been dashed and disappointment sets in. It is one thing to pray for and speak God’s word to other people when things are going well, but it is quite another thing to continue doing so when it seems like your own prayers are unanswered and you are ignored. Joseph served God through a long season of suffering, with many false starts and disappointments along the way. This story is an example to us all that the setbacks we face are not the end of the story, but are things God will ultimately use for good, and we are called to remain faithful through the midst of them, just like Joseph.
How Does It Point to Jesus?
In this chapter we see Joseph as someone who combines suffering and faithfulness, and we see this combination even more clearly in Christ. While Joseph was thrown into prison, Christ was thrown into the grave, and yet it was through this that he came into a position of authority and was able to bring salvation to many.