Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 40:1-23
by Mary Stegink
The narrative of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Baker falls within the broader narrative of the story of Joseph. It’s hard to pull this out and look at it without placing it in the context of Joseph’s trials and tribulations thus far. So, let’s review where Joseph’s been when we get to this chapter of his life. Joseph has it all – he is the much longed for and anticipated son of Jacob and Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. He has ten older half-brothers, and one younger full brother. He is not only a ‘Mama’s boy,’ but he’s also Daddy’s obvious favorite. He didn’t think twice about snitching on his brothers (Genesis 37: 2) thus earning him the ‘coat of many colors.’ In addition, he is a strong, confident young man – he must have been to go out and report his own dreams to his Father and his older brothers. Can you imagine? 17 year-old Joseph – “hey guys, guess what? I had this dream where we were all sheaves of grain – and my sheaf rose up and all of your sheaves bowed down to it!” The brothers were not amused – actually, the Scripture says “they hated him all the more because of it.” And then, to add more fuel to their fire, Joseph has another dream – and this time it was about the sun, the moon, and the stars – all bowing down to Joseph. Even Jacob was annoyed by this one – “what, are you kidding? Do you think this could ever happen?” All of this dream talk, the favored position, the beautiful coat – it’s all too much for the brothers – and so they plot to kill Joseph while they’re out watching the sheep. But one brother, Judah, decides that blood is thicker than water, and gets the idea they could sell Joseph to the caravan of Midianite merchants who were coming up on the horizon. And that’s what happens – Joseph is sold, the older brothers let Jacob believe he was killed by a wild animal, and life goes on. Joseph ends up being sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph quickly earns the trust of Potiphar and ends up being his household manager. Unfortunately the young, handsome, strong Joseph also caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She was determined to get Joseph into her bed. Joseph politely declined. And in a perfect example of “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” when Joseph runs from her embrace a second time, she sets it up to look like attempted rape. And, for the second time in his young life, he is unjustly accused, ripped from what he knew, and thrown into prison. And that’s where we find him at the beginning of this passage – in prison. But, even here, he has earned the favor of the prison warden has been given a position where he is in charge of the rest of the inmates.
Two of these inmates are employees of the Pharaoh: his Cupbearer and his Baker. It seems likely that there was an attempted poisoning of the Pharaoh – and the obvious suspects would be those who had access to his food preparation. After they had been in custody “for some time” – each of these men has a dream. The dreams unsettle them – and they’re worried because there isn’t anyone around who can interpret them.
Side Note on the importance of dreams: in the time of Joseph – dreams were considered to be highly significant. There were actually professional dream interpreters (as we’ll see later when Pharaoh has his dreams). But, here’s the thing – usually dreams looked back – and they could be interpreted by looking at the hints and clues of what had happened. Joseph’s dreams, the dreams of the Cupbearer and the Baker, and later, Pharaoh’s dreams all looked forward. These dreams were describing something that was to come – and thus, much “trickier” to interpret.
Joseph notices that his charges are feeling unsettled and dejected so he asks them what’s bothering them. And they are as upset about the dreams as they are about the lack of someone to tell them what they mean. Joseph offers to help and so they tell him their respective dreams. And Joseph tells them what they mean. It’s good news for the Cupbearer and bad news for the Baker. Three days later the Cupbearer is restored to his position and the Baker loses his life.
Side Notes on the character of Joseph: This poor kid has been through so much! Fearing for his life (from his own family!), being sold into slavery in an unknown land, serving a good master only to be wrongly accused of attempted rape by a bored, lonely wife, thrown into prison, and, now, being at the beck and call of his fellow inmates. It would be easy to understand if we found him sitting in a corner sulking about all of his bad luck. But, through it all, he remains faithful to his God. He is kind and compassionate to his fellow prisoners – he cares enough to ask what’s bothering them. But he also isn’t out to win a popularity contest (maybe he learned something from his dealings with his brothers?) Despite the difficulty of the Baker’s dream – he gives a faithful account of what was going to happen. I imagine him holding the Baker as the bad news sunk in. And, he immediately gives the credit for the dream interpretation to God. Joseph is merely the messenger (Brueggeman calls him the conduit). Brueggeman also suggests that this was a risky move for Joseph – that dreams and their interpretation belong to God. He says, “Pharaoh, like every imperial master, presumes a monopoly on knowledge.” And yet, Joseph remains faithful to God and gives him the glory and the credit for this gift. All Joseph asks in return is to be remembered.
After he gives the Cupbearer the good news he tells him his own story – and asks the Cupbearer to plead his case when he’s freed. Joseph asks for justice. The Cupbearer is restored in time to celebrate the Pharaoh’s birthday and in all of the excitement, he forgets. This chapter of Joseph’s life ends with these word, “The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” It will be two more years before he remembers. Two more years.
Throughout the Joseph narrative this refrain comes up: “The Lord was with him and the Lord gave him success in everything he did.” It describes his time in Potiphar’s household. It describes his time in prison and it will describe his work in the Pharaoh’s government. I have to wonder, however, if he felt that the Lord was with him when he saw the sweaty, angry faces of his brothers as they lifted him out of the cistern. I wonder if he felt that way when he stood in the hot, dusty marketplace wondering who was going to bid on him and take him home. I wonder if he felt that way while Potiphar’s wife made her accusation. I wonder if he felt that way when he saw Potiphar’s face fall when he heard that accusation. I wonder if he felt that way when the prison doors clanged shut behind him. And I wonder if he knew the Lord was with him as he waited, and waited, and waited some more for the Cupbearer to remember him.
This chapter is as much about “where is God in the waiting?” as it is about the miracle of interpreting dreams. I think this is why we love the story of Joseph as much as we do. All of this (dare I say) crappy stuff happens to him and he never seems to lose his cool or his faith. He just continues on – doing what the Lord is calling him to do – whatever the circumstance. But, we also have the gift of thousands of years of hindsight here – we know the whole story. We know what’s going to happen next – Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph’s wise-through-God interpretations, his being made governor over the entire land, his shrewd management of the crops, and, of course, his emotional reconciliation with his family. Of course it’s easy for us to see God’s hand throughout the story because we know the entire story. I have to believe that Joseph had his human moments too – wondering if God had forgotten him. And I’m pretty confident there have been times in the lives of our congregants where they have wondered the very same thing. I’m also quite confident that there have been moments in your life when you’ve wondered this yourself (because I certainly have).
Commentator Walton says this, “we can at times feel caught in the current of the events that surround us, not understanding how we can be winning when it feels so much like losing.”
It’s exactly at these moments that we absolutely have to remember that we belong to a good and faithful God – and that he’s blessing us with his presence every moment of every day. We have to remember how he saw us through the past, how he’s with us today, and then take all of that and trust him to see us into the future and use us in amazing ways. That’s the message of the Joseph narrative.
I know a bit about waiting and wondering. Upon graduation from seminary I was in the group of “they’ll have a call before the summer is out.” I was particularly eager to get on with this part of my life – eager to begin ministry behind the pulpit. I wanted to be settled before my youngest daughter started high school – I didn’t want her to have to move during these important years. I was eager to have a regular income and health insurance again (my husband had lost his job of 26 years the year before). I waited 16 months and in that waiting I had 11 different conversations with 11 different churches which all ended with a “no, thank you.” The waiting made no sense at the time – and my husband kept saying, “God hasn’t let us down in the past, he’s not going to let us down now!” And I wanted to scream back, “but we don’t have money for groceries this week!!!” But, he was right – because when I look back, I see how God was faithful through those long, difficult months. I see how God’s people reached out and loved us and encouraged us. We didn’t go hungry. We were spared major medical expenses the year we were without insurance. We always had a roof over our head. And we learned to be patient and to trust. And God – at just the right time – brought us to Ridgewood, NJ. Our daughter left Grand Rapids Chr. High in the middle of her sophomore year and absolutely flourished at Eastern Christian High School. He has blessed us in more ways than I can count. This is what we were waiting for – we just didn’t know it at the time – and now it doesn’t matter. God is faithful – past, present, and future.