SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 26 Genesis 40

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis** 40**. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:25
Genesis 3
Genesis 4
Genesis 5-6
Genesis 7-9:17
Genesis 9:18-10:32
Genesis 11
Genesis 12-13
Genesis 14-15
Genesis 16
Genesis 17
Genesis 18-19
Genesis 20-22
Genesis 23-24
Genesis 25
Genesis 26:1-33
Genesis 26:34-Genesis 28:9
Genesis 30:25-31:55
Genesis 32
Genesis 33
Genesis 34
Genesis 35-36
Genesis 37
Genesis 38
Genesis 39

[Genesis 40

New International Version (NIV)](

The Cupbearer and the Baker

40 Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. 2 Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them.

After they had been in custody for some time, 5 each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison—had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.

6 When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. 7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why do you look so sad today?”

8 “We both had dreams,” they answered, “but there is no one to interpret them.”

Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

9 So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, “In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, 10 and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.”

12 “This is what it means,” Joseph said to him. “The three branches are three days. 13 Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. 14 But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. 15 I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”

16 When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, “I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. 17 In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

18 “This is what it means,” Joseph said. “The three baskets are three days. 19 Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale your body on a pole. And the birds will eat away your flesh.”

20 Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand— 22 but he impaled the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.

23 The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

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Here’s one place where the transition between J and E is rough. In the last chapter Joseph had achieved the position of a supervisor, yet here he is made the servant of two noble prisoners.

Lesson #1 - Don’t burn Pharaoh’s toast.

Or perhaps Joseph knew which side his bread was buttered on, and was sucking up to two prominent members of Pharaoh’s household.

Now the story is back to Joseph the dream interpreter rather than Joseph the upwardedly-mobile worker. The purpose of the promotion appears to be to get Joseph into position to interact with the chief baker and cup bearer, so he can get a reputation sufficient for the next part of the story.

I wonder what the baker and cup bearer did to piss Pharaoh off, so that one was forgiven and the other impaled.


To me, this is an interesting part:

8 “We both had dreams,” they answered, “but there is no one to interpret them.”
Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

It’s almost like Joseph is saying he is God.

“Some time later” (literally: “after these things”) implying a connection with the prior story, and alerts us that something profound (or some sort of test) is about to happen. We had the same phrase before Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac.

In prison with Joseph are two of Pharaoh’s staff, the cupbearer and the chief baker. We know from Egyptian documents that the Cupbearer was an important official at court, who personally served wine to the Pharaoh, ahd we know of the wealth and power of the cupbearer. His loyalty could be a focus for political intrigue because of his easy access to Pharaoh, so it is logical that a cupbearer might fall into and out of favor.
There are lots of points of the entire Joseph saga that indicate the writer was familiar with Egyptian culture, government, customs, etc.

Joseph sees that the cupbearer and baker are dejected. He is sympathetic, another indication that he is maturing. He is concerned with the dreams of others, rather than his own. Interpreting his own dreams brought his downfall (hatred and slavery); interpreting the dreams of others will lead to his rise and prosperity. I disagree with Prof P, he’s not their “servant”, they’re fellow prisoners but they were of higher status before being imprisoned. (I don’t disagree that the story has lots of J vs E problems.)

Anyhow both prisoners have dreams that they can’t understand Some comments:
(1) I mentioned in Ch 37, the ancients recognized that some dreams were simply random. Repeated dreams had significance, and thus we have two similar dreams in prison, not just one.
(2) The coincidence of the cupbearer and baker having similar dreams, related to their professions (wine and bread), probably heightened their depression.
(3) Note the continual leit-motif of food, both the cupbearer and baker are involved with food service, and both of their dreams are about food (being served and being lost)
(4) Bread and wine are the basic foods of civilization, requiring agriculture and fermentation/food processing, and are heavily symbolic. Christianity will pick up on this later, of course.

A quick nod to stpauler’s comments about “Do not interpretations belong to God?” could imply Joseph thinks himself in place of God, but we’ll see in the next Chapter that’s it’s the opposite. Anyhow, the cupbearer’s dream is pretty straightforward. The number three implies three days (three branches, both “Pharaoh” and “cup” are mentioned three times.) And, in the dream, the cupbearer is back performing his normal duties. Joseph then asks the cupbearer to remember and plead for him, swearing his innocence.

The dream of the baker involves birds. Birds were also a symbol of ill-omen for Abraham (Gen 15:11, the covenant of the pieces.) Ominously, the baker cannot chase away the birds. He does not serve the food to Pharaoh, it’s eaten by the birds, symbolizing that the birds will eat his own flesh. He’ll be decapitated and impaled, but (more horrifying to an Egyptian) is not being mummified nor entombed, and so being cut off from the next world. Literary comment: The cupbearer is told (verse 13, literal translation): “Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position.” The baker is told (verse 19): “Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head…” Neat wordplay.

Verse 20 is the only birthday mentioned in the bible.

The dreams come true, but the cupbearer forgets what Joseph asked, and doesn’t repay kindness with kindness. In contrast, when Potiphar treated Joseph well, Joseph did well for him. And the cupbearer forgetting Joseph did is a deep foreshadowing of how the later Pharaoh will not remember Joseph did, and will enslave the Israelites.

Interesting to note the differences between the two men and their dreams:

The cupbearer, in his dream, is active – he is squeezing the grapes and making wine for Pharaoh. The baker, on the other hand, is passive – the basket sits on his head and the birds eat from it – but he does nothing.

The cupbearer, it seems, is more polite than the baker. He waits for Joseph’s invitation before beginning his dream. As for the baker, on the other hand, once he sees the favorable interpretation his colleague got, begins with a (metaphorical) “me too, me too.”

Zev Steinhardt

I’d always imagined that both were in prison for the same crime, and Pharaoh figured out it was the baker who was at fault. Being food positions, I assumed something so grave as to need capital punishment was probably a poisoning or sickness of some sort. That would fit both of them possibly being at fault.

I never noticed that “lift your head” wordplay. That’s pretty cool.

That’s interesting. I didn’t know any of the details of the story had any independent verification. I took it for granted that the story was unverifiable.

Nitpick: birthdays and birthday feasts are mentioned in Job in the Old Testament, and as the occasion for when Herod had John the Baptist beheaded in Matthew and Mark.

Maybe that is the part that allowed Joseph to interpret that the cupbearer would be alive, and the baker dead.


The wording is very similar in the original Hebrew as well.

For the cupbearer it’s “Yisa Pharoah as Roshecha…”
For the baker it’s “Yisa Pharoah as Rosh’cha Ma’Alecha”

Zev Steinhardt

Actually, he was hung, not impaled. The word used “Talah” is the same one used for hanging all over the Bible.

As to the question, a midrash attempts to answer it. In the midrash, Pharoah found a fly in his cup and a stone in his bread. The cupbearer was allowed to go free because it’s fairly easy for a fly to fall into a cup and not be noticed. A stone falling into the dough, however, is a greater degree of negligence.

Zev Steinhardt

Um, careful, please. I’m not saying that the Joseph story itself has independent verification. I’m saying that elements of culture, politics, etc described in the story shows familiarity with Egyptian culture and custom. I’ve mentioned a few, such as importance of cupbearer. We’ll have others in the next chapter (Joseph gets a haircut before being brought to Pharaoh, he’s awarded a gold chain, etc) This is not independent verification of the existence of Joseph or his story, this is just saying that the author(s) of the story were familiar (and took for granted) Egyptian culture, different from earlier nomadic culture or later Israelite culture.

In short: the author(s) was NOT just some Hebrew story-teller who made things up. He/she/they were someone who knew a lot about Egyptian culture. And brought it into the story in a logical and unobtrusive way (it’s not trumpted about, it’s taken for granted.)

That’s why I said “the details of the story” and not “the story itself”.

Presumably the same word as used for the hanging of Hamaan in Esther?

The impalement of the body must have been for display, and not pre-mortem torture the way the Persians did it.

The Egyptians used stones for grinding, didn’t they? I can imagine the Pharaoh being irritated that his head baker didn’t pick the stones out of the flour. He expected a pretty high level of service.

History’s first “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup” joke!


Yes, it’s the same word.

Zev Steinhardt

Pharaoh: Excuse me, but there is a fly in my soup.
Servant: Oh no! Let me bring the head waiter immediately!
Pharaoh: Just the waiter’s head will be fine.

I know it is tricky to judge historical figures with today’s morality, but surely the Pharaoh’s actions here are meant to be a bad example. A stone in my bread? Death, and no afterlife for you! What utter mercilessness.

Am I wrong in thinking that, Joseph aside, this example is meant to be a negative one in the development of Biblical ethics? You set a guy up as a god on Earth and he ends up disposing of people for the most trivial reasons. Looks like an object lesson to me.

Generally speaking, the bible isn’t trying to set up examples of good vs bad governments. Much later, in Deuteronomy, Moses does warn the Israelites about the dangers of giving power to one person and setting up a king; they ignore that advice, and in the book of Samuel, they set up the kings who do all the dreadful things that Moses warned against.

I think the point here is that Pharaoh is all-powerful, but I think that’s just a reflection of political reality in ancient Egypt. There’s no hint in the text itself that there’s anything “wrong” or unethical in this situation, there’s just what it is. (I think that your point allows for an interesting discussion.)

Does he (Moses)?

To my memory, the only time a king is mentioned in Deuteronomy is in the command to have one. In that chapter, there is no warning of the dangers of concentrating power in one person’s hands.

IIRC, it was Samuel himself who tried to warn the Israelites about the dangers of having a king before appointing Saul.

Zev Steinhardt

We’re talking about a government figurehead, yes, but I said ethics. The Pharaoh possesses immense power, but otherwise does not appear to be an especially virtuous fellow, no?

Deuteronomy 17:14 ff. But you’re right, I was conflating Samuel’s dire warnings with Moses’ instructions on how to limit the power of the king.

Ah, yes, I see what you’re saying. Nice point. If one accepts the midrashic reasons for the imprisonment of the cupbearer and baker, then I agree with you. But the plain text itself doesn’t give us reasons, so we don’t know whether the reasons were arbitrary or substantial; this pharaoh does seem to be concerned with the welfare of his people, which contrasts with the pharaoh of the Exodus.