Joseph, apparently demonstrating excellence everywhere he goes, has responsibility as a prisoner, having earned the trust of the prison keeper. Joseph has dominion over the other prisoners and “The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper.” Genesis 39:23
So when Joseph watches over a wary butler and baker that have done some unknown things to offend Pharaoh, his handling of the situation is apt. These men are the “chiefs” of their position, meaning they are both in charge of all the servants and baking that takes place under Pharaoh respectively. As they sleep in the prison, the butler and baker have seemingly inexplicable dreams on the same night. Joseph, attentive and well-intentioned as he is, notices their sadness and confusion over their dreams and says to them in verse 8: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.” Joseph’s empathy and concern compel him.
Before we call his attitude presumptuous, we should remember that Joseph is both a righteous, faithful believer in God and (although at this exact moment it is yet to be proven), a dependable interpreter of dreams. Recall in Genesis 37:5-11 how he interpreted his own dreams to his family: that he would one day rule over them. Joseph’s dreams from that passage have not yet come true, but they will.
The chief butler tells his dream to Joseph first. It concerns a vine with three branches that bring ripe grapes. The butler gives Pharaoh his cup, having pressed the ripe grapes within. In this dream, the butler is serving Pharaoh again and Joseph interprets it to mean that the butler will be restored to his previous position. Many translations say that the butler’s head will be “lifted up”, meaning that he will be restored and respected again. Joseph is absolutely convinced that this interpretation is true. Since he knows that the butler will return to serve Pharaoh, he asks him to appeal to Pharaoh on his behalf, that he has been taken from his homeland, made to be a slave and has been wrongly placed in prison. But the butler, like many of us could tend to do, forgets Joseph’s requested favor once he is replaced to normalcy.
The chief baker, encouraged by this positive interpretation, asks Joseph to interpret his dream. His dream involved three white baskets on top of his head, with birds eating out of the top one. In this dream, the goods meant for Pharaoh are consumed by birds, suggesting that after three days’ time the baker would not be back in Pharaoh’s good graces. As Joseph makes this interpretation, he says that Pharaoh will “lift off” his head and hang him from a tree, a fitting departure from the butler’s head bring lifted up. For in three days, the baker is hanged and birds eat his flesh. The butler and baker’s dreams are parallel in their structure and opposite in their interpretation.
This chapter tells us about the faithfulness of Joseph and about God’s faith in Joseph. Joseph’s accurate interpretations of the ambiguous dreams show us how much God was with him. If we were told of the actions that landed the butler and baker in prison, we may be able to suss out a moral lesson aside from “don’t anger the king”, but their mistakes are not central to this chapter. More important is the story of Joseph, a godly man who has reason to hate God. Despite being taken and sold, accused and imprisoned, Joseph maintains faith. Joseph’s strength and faith are a gold standard that we should reach for and he is the first in the Bible story to demonstrate faith under such adversity. Job and Paul liken themselves unto Joseph in their way as they continue to believe in God and not reject Him, even when conditions are horrible. Paul and Joseph particularly have much in common in this respect as Paul sings while in prison in Acts 16. Both Paul and Joseph make the best out of a bad situation, using the God-given faculties at hand. It should drive us to ask, “How do I respond when God has put me in an awful place?”
Because the place we are in now is not where we will be forever. If we remain faithful, our final abode will be heaven. An eternity spent in a perfect place surely is worth time spent in prisons, time spent in dark emotions, time wrestling family strife, time brooding over unexpected diagnoses, etc.
What do you think?