Joseph is a Fruitful Bough


Genesis 40, 41

I. “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless, the Lord’s counsel—that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).

This is a piece of the puzzle, one important element in the working out of the counsel of the Lord. It contributes to giving a more mature grasp of God’s ways among men from several standpoints. It shows that individual worshippers of Jehovah may trust his way with them and learn to rejoice and worship him more purely in the process. We cannot miss in this story how the text sets forth the particular, punctilious, and strategic providence of God. Second, we see that his providence is in pursuit of the fulfillment of promises made in covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Third, as a vital element of that fulfillment, we find also the necessity to fulfill the dreams that God gave to Joseph. Other dreams arise, given by God, to validate the special calling of God on Joseph—butler, baker, and Pharaoh—life, death, plenty, and famine. Fourth, all of this emerges for the elevation of Joseph, for the safety of the sons of Israel, for the establishing of the messianic genealogy and nation, for the fulfillment of the covenant of redemption “in the hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began” (Titus 1:2).

II. The First Set of Dreams.

A. Joseph, as a caretaker-prisoner, is presented with two dreams that perplex his fellow inmates.

    1. As their fellow inmate, but also designated as their caretaker, Joseph noticed their sadness and inquired. Both had dreams they could not understand.
    2. Joseph immediately gave both the knowledge and the right of interpretation of dreams to God, that is, the God he knew as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and his father Jacob. Joseph was fully committed to the presence and purpose of God in his situation for he indicated no doubt that this presented an opportunity for God to present his control of all events.
    3. Both dreams involved the number three—vines and baskets of bread. Both were related to the tasks formerly performed by these prisoners. In the butler’s dream, he squeezes grapes and gives the juice to Pharaoh. In the baker’s, birds eat the bread from a basket sitting on top of his head.

B. Joseph interpreted the butler’s dream and added a request not to be forgotten when the butler was restored.

Joseph told that butler that he would be restored to Pharaoh’s service. Fully confident that his interpretation was true, he pressed the butler to keep him in mind and do a kindness for him to seek his release. He professes in a short form his innocence. Just as Joseph had interpreted according to God’s revelation, the butler was restored to his position three days later. The butler, however, did not remember to set forth Joseph’s plea before Pharaoh. Should he have done it at this time, the word would have had no context and Pharaoh would have had no reason to give serious thought to the request. God, however, would establish a circumstance in which far more influential counselors than the butler would consent to Joseph’s release.

C. Joseph interpreted the baker’s dream, crushing the hopes that momentarily encouraged his mind.

Three baskets represented three days; a bird eating bread did not represent the baker’s restoration to cooking for Pharaoh but carrion–eaters feasting on the dead body of the baker.

D. In both instances, Joseph was faithful to the revelation given him by God.

Dreams are like parables. They both reveal and hide. Their meaning becomes clear when an authoritative interpreter shows how each part reflects an aspect of God’s purpose (Matthew 13:10–52). When the interpretation is given, the parts all fit, and the symbols are highly provocative. Prior to the interpretation, however, one could manufacture meanings completely alien to the reality. When the interpretation is fulfilled, this gives evidence that the interpreter has a positive cognitive understanding of some part of the counsel of God. In the case of Jesus’ parables, they were constructed by the one who had “come from heaven,” who knew the covenantal purposes of his incarnation, death, and eventual ascension, and could develop such a symbolic story as a method of true instruction about things as yet unrevealed. God alone can give the meaning of a dream, when a dream comes as a vehicle for revelation.

    1. During the Babylonian captivity, Daniel interpreted two dreams of a detailed nature for Nebuchadnezzar, for the first of which he also was required to narrate the content of the dream prior to having heard it (Daniel 2 and 4). In that context Daniel praised God as the one who “reveals deep and secret things” for he had “made known to us the king’s demand” (Daniel 2:22–23). In the first dream, God revealed a summary of world history that would end with the reign of the Messiah in “a kingdom which shall never be destroyed,” a kingdom that would “break in pieces and destroy” all other kingdoms, and that “shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). The second dream concerned Nebuchadnezzar himself as to how God would break his pride and bring him to a sincere worship and “to know that heaven rules” (Daniel 4:26).
    2. In the New Testament, Cornelius had a vision that instructed him to find Peter who would “tell you what you must do.” Peter also fell into a trance and had a vision that prepared him for the visit of the servants of Cornelius. A vision in which he was instructed not to call “unclean” what God had cleansed. These visions resulted in Peter’s preaching of the gospel to the household of Cornelius (including his “relatives and close friends”) with the intended result that a Gentile Pentecost came upon the gathering (Acts 10:3, 10:24, 44–47).
    3. In pursuit of initiating a mission into Europe, God gave to Paul “a vision” in the night of a man from Macedonia asking for help (Acts 16:810). This resulted in Paul’s journey into Macedonia with his company to “preach the gospel to them.” In Philippi, at the riverside, when Lydia heard Paul’s message, “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).
    4. In Corinth, Paul had a night “vision” of God’s purpose for his elect in the city of Corinth. This resulted in a continuation of 18 months, “teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9–11).

III. Pharaoh’s Set of Dreams. (41:1–32)

A. Pharaoh’s perplexity.

The text records the dreams as they occurred. The dreams had cattle in one and stalks of wheat in the other. Seven lean and ugly cattle ate seven fat and healthy cattle. Seven shriveled, scorched, and withered stalks of wheat swallowed seven healthy stalks.

    1. Pharaoh was troubled so by these dreams that he wanted to find an interpretation of them. That he remembered them with such vivid detail was remarkable to him, for often dreams fade soon after awaking. That he had two dreams with similar circumstances also impressed him so much that “his spirit was troubled.”
    2. He called for those who dealt with the occult, told them his dreams, and none could interpret them. Had they tried, they would have come up with a wild variety of stories so that nothing definite could have been discerned.

B. Immediately all of this distress and mystery about the dreams reminded the cupbearer about the prisoner Joseph.

He recounted the events to Pharaoh (41:9–13) and said that “just as he interpreted for us, so it happened” (13). This account caused Pharaoh immediately to issue an urgent call for Joseph. The men “hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon” let him clean up and shave, and then presented him to Pharaoh.

    1. When Pharaoh attributed the power to interpret dreams to Joseph, Joseph immediately disclaimed such insight but said, “God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
    2. Also note the deferential spirit Joseph showed to Pharaoh throughout his engagement, calling him by his official title of power and dignity. He does not say, “God will give me,” but “God will give Pharaoh” (16). Note also verse 25, 28, 32, 33, 34, 35 [“under Pharaoh’s authority”]. Joseph is consistent, and insistent, that God gave the dream to PHARAOH; the plans are to be carried out under the authority of PHARAOH. He recognizes Pharaoh as the ruler of the land but is clear that God rules the world, causes abundance and want, gives revelation and assures that one understands the meaning of the revelation.

C. The text records Pharaoh’s recounting of the dreams, inserting his remarks that indicate his amazed perplexity: “such as I had never seen for ugliness in all the land of Egypt; . . . when they had devoured them, . . . they were just as ugly as before” (21).

D. Joseph saw by divine revelation that God warned Pharaoh (“God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do” vs. 25, 28) about a fourteen-year period in which seven years of amazing abundance would be followed by seven years of severe famine.

As it occurred this famine extended to all the lands contiguous to Egypt so that severe want spread throughout a wide region (54). Both dreams predicted the same event, and it was given twice in order to establish the certainty of it in the mind of Pharaoh. It is not that God’s word is not enough when he says a thing only once, but for the persuasion of a pagan mind, God graciously showed in two dreams and in using two different sorts of images what was about to occur (32).

IV. Joseph’s Solution. (33–36)

Joseph gave a clear strategy to make the years of abundance not a time of extravagance (“all the abundance will be unknown in the land because of the subsequent famine”), but a time of preparation for the severity.

A. He advised Pharaoh to “take action.”

\Thus, the entire operation would be the idea and come from the authority of Pharaoh. He emphasizes Pharaoh’s authority throughout the proposal (33, 34, 35).

B. Pharaoh should not be bothered with the day to day operations of this grand scheme, but should appoint “a man, discerning and wise” to have authority in the matter.

In addition, he should see to it that other overseers would carry through the plan over the entire nation of Egypt.

C. One-fifth of each year’s produce would be put in reserve for sustaining the country during the years of famine (34–36).

One-fifth of superabundance could amount to one-half of a normal year.

D. It is quite striking to consider that all of this was arranged in order to exalt Joseph to a place of authority with the entire operation both in preparation and eventually in distribution (55) under his authority.

Joseph’s dreams would come to pass, and the sons of Isaac would be preserved and would multiply greatly.

V. Joseph Given Power (38–57)

A. Pharaoh knew that God had given this to Joseph, and he wanted a divinely-guided administrator.

“Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?” (38). “No one is as discerning and wise as you are” (39). On the basis of this confidence, Pharaoh gave to Joseph all authority in Egypt, Pharaoh’s own throne excepted (40, 41). Many worldly people recognize immediate advantages of consenting to elements of divine revelation; They are willing to follow stable principles in order to gain an advantage.

B. Pharaoh made sure that all knew that Joseph was in charge (42–45).

He gave him a signet ring, clothed him in a garment indicative of his exalted status [as his father previously had done], placed a piece of valuable and finely crafted jewelry around his neck. He had him driven through much of the land in a chariot second only to that of Pharaoh in its splendor and position. He reaffirmed his intent to Joseph concerning the magnitude of his authority (44). He gave him a new name which probably indicated Pharaoh’s confidence that Joseph spoke with the wisdom of God (“one to whom hidden things are revealed”). He gave him a wife from a prominent family and religious authority in Egypt. The implications of this action both in the mind of Pharaoh and in the providence of God are intriguing. John Gill believes that Potiphera was not a priest but a “prince,” a man of secular esteem and authority in the city eventually known as Heliopolis.

    1. If Potiphera were indeed a priest, was Pharaoh indicating that he considered the worship which Joseph practiced, clearly distinct from that of the Egyptians, as a superior way of knowing God? He put the man to whom he had submitted all of Egypt into the family of a priest.
    2. If the translation option of “prince” is taken, it would have implications for governing authority. Perhaps it more consistent with the nature of his position that his wife be from a family with experience at governance. Joseph was embedded into a family recognized as having earned skills for fairness wielded in the context of authority?
    3. In the providence of God, this was one of the ways in which God was from the beginning including the people of every nation among his own chosen people. Joseph’s sons by Asenath would both receive an inheritance in the Land of Promise.

C. Joseph proved to be an efficient, divinely-blessed administrator.

That which he was able to gather through his plan and faithful administration of it made the collections of sustaining food “beyond measure” (49).

D. He is given sons who stand as testimonies to God’s merciful providence in his life.

    1. The names of his son Manasseh indicated that God’s mercies had made him forget—that is, no longer feel the hurt and affliction that he received from his brothers—“all my trouble and all my father’s household” (51). When we find ourselves to be the recipients of divine mercies and are exalted to the status of sons of God, it is an indication of ingratitude, short-sightedness, and an unforgiving spirit, to point to past wrongs as a reason for agitation of spirit or an abiding sense of injustice. Such an indwelling resentment indicates that we still feel deserving of some kind of restitution even though we have received exceeding abundantly above all we could ask or think by God’s present grace to us (Ephesians 3:20–21).
    2. In Ephraim’s name, we find Joseph’s acknowledgement that the affliction only resulted in greater blessings than he could ever have received had the affliction not occurred. Had he not been a slave in Egypt, and imprisoned in Egypt, he would never have been the most powerful person in Egypt, short of the throne of Pharaoh himself. Treachery against him from his brothers brought him to Egypt. Treachery from Potiphar’s wife eventually did not destroy him but elevated him beyond the prestige of that household to a sealed trust over the entire land.

E. All countries came to Joseph for life-sustaining provision (57) for he was indeed, “a fruitful bough” (49:22).

As an end result of his affliction (49:23), the mysterious providence of God, and the constant working of God in each and every moment of Joseph’s life, he became a blessing to all nations (49:26).

F. Though it certainly is possible to carry the observation of types of Christ in the Old Testament too far, nevertheless it is a part of the intrinsic rhythm of redemption to observe the way in which God established a pattern of humiliation and suffering as a preparation for redemptive status.

Note the parallels between Joseph and Jesus. Joseph was born among brothers who quickly resented him. In Luke 4:2030, his countrymen shifted from marveling at his gracious words to seeking to throw him over a cliff. On occasions his brothers sought him in order to minimize the impression of Jesus’ obvious divine authority (Matthew 12:46–49; Mark 3:31–34; Luke 8:19–21; John 7:35). Joseph’s brothers put him into a deep situation of humiliation and suffering because of an honest statement about his God-given role. We find this type of phenomenon in the life of Jesus (Matthew 19:64–68). Joseph’s brothers delivered him over to death as it were. We find the Jewish countrymen of Jesus delivering him up to death (Luke 23:23–25). Finally, we find in Joseph a transformation of the whole experience of humiliation into the only source of salvation. Jesus’ humiliation even to the death of the cross brought salvation to sinners and exaltation as Savior and Lord to the God-man, Jesus (Philippians 2:8–11; Colossians 1:22–23). Blessed be the name of the Lord!


Genesis 40, 41 Poem

So plain, but puzzling; so odd,
True visions of their state,
The dreams they had were words from God,
Revealed to them their fate.

The prisoner Joseph granted skill
To speak so truth they heard;
One was released the other killed.
The Lord made clear the word.

Still Joseph languished, plea unheard,
Until God’s time had come.
Then Pharaoh dreamed, his mind was stirred.
Who could discern their sum?

“A prisoner with amazing ken,
Why, he made clear my dream!”
“Release him now, and bring him in;
My mind is in a steam.”

Clean and shaven, Joseph entered,
Heard the dreams of Pharaoh.
Egypt’s future weal was centered
Broad in scope, then narrow.

Joseph then was raised to power
To execute his plan.
God’s wisdom sent him to this hour
To save his heirs and land.

Not Joseph’s skill but God’s decree
Did make the meaning plain.
Prepare for loss; all did agree,
Conserve and then sustain.

Unfolding mercies slowly rise
To bring in sight God’s grace.
By truth we’re taught, by joy surprised,
Toward Christ we run our race.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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