At the time Joseph was in prison in Egypt there was a plot to poison Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. As a result, two high-ranking men of the king’s court were put in prison. One was the chief butler, who had charge of the royal vineyards, the wine cellars and the serving of wines. The other was the chief baker, or chef. He had charge of preparing and serving all the food for the king’s royal table.
There was no proof that either one of these men was guilty of having some part in trying to poison the king, and so for the time they were given good treatment. Potiphar himself, who probably by that time, began to think that Joseph wasn’t guilty, came to Joseph and told him to look after the two new prisoners (Gen. 40:4).
After they had been in prison for some time, and Joseph had become well acquainted with them, he, one morning, noticed that both appeared worried. When Joseph asked them why they were troubled, they told him of disturbing dreams that had come to them the night before.
“Tell me your dreams,” said Joseph. “Perhaps there is a meaning to them that God wants known to you” (Gen. 40:5).
I dreamed of a vine with three branches that blossomed and gave forth ripe grapes,” the butler told Joseph. “I pressed the juice from the grapes into a cup, and gave the cup to the king.”
This strange dream would have been difficult for Joseph to understand through his own thinking. But he had asked God for wisdom, and God helped him to understand what the dream meant.
“Your dream shows that within three days you will be taken from prison and will be given back your office as head butler to the king,” Joseph said (v. 12).
When the chief baker heard this happy meaning to the butler’s dream, he was anxious to tell Joseph his dream, hoping that it would also have a happy meaning.
“I dreamed,” the baker told Joseph, “that I was carrying three baskets of food to Pharaoh on my head. Hungry birds swarmed down and snatched up all the food from the baskets.”
When Joseph realized the awful meaning of this dream, he didn’t want to tell the chief baker about it, but he knew he would have to speak out what God had given him the wisdom to know.
“I don’t like to tell you this,” he said to the chief baker, “but within three days Pharaoh will hang you, and birds will pick the flesh from your bones” (v. 19).
Probably the two men didn’t completely believe what Joseph has told them. But three days later was Pharaoh’s birthday. It was a day of feasting and great celebration, and on which certain prisoner from the king’s jail were brought forth and pardoned.
On that day the chief butler was brought up from the dungeon, given a pardon and restored to his former office, just as Joseph said would happen. On that same day the chief baker was brought up from his cell and publicly hanged out where the vultures came to eat his flesh, just as Joseph said would happen.
When Joseph told Pharaoh’s butler what would happen, he asked the butler to remember him when the butler was again in Pharaoh’s court. “If you get the chance, please tell your king that I am an innocent Hebrew prisoner who has been held here unfairly for a long time,” said Joseph, “Perhaps he will free me” (v. 14). But the chief butler forgot all about speaking to the king for Joseph (v. 23).
Two more years passed, and one night Pharaoh dreamed two dreams which troubled him. He believed they held some meaning he should know, and therefore sent for men who were supposed to have magic powers to understand strange signs and unusual dreams and visions. Pharaoh told his dreams to these men, but none was able to give any meaning of them.
It happened that the chief butler was serving the king when this took place. Suddenly he remembered Joseph. He realized that he would find great favor with the king if he could direct one to Pharaoh who could show the meanings of the dreams. He told Pharaoh about Joseph, and how he had been able to give the true meaning of the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker (Gen. 41:9-13).
Very shortly guards came to Joseph and told him to prepare to meet Pharaoh. This was the chance for which Joseph had prayed so long! He was escorted up out of the dungeon and to a place where he could shave and dress in better clothes to meet the ruler of Egypt. Thus prepared, he was taken before the throne (v. 14).
“I have dreamed disturbing dreams,” said Pharaoh to Joseph. “I want to know their meanings. I have been told that you have the power to interpret dreams.”
“I don’t have that power,” Joseph answered. “But God does, and He will give you an answer through me.”
Pharaoh probably wondered at that remark. However, the king was anxious to try any method of getting what he wanted.
“I dreamed that I stood by the Nile River and saw seven fine, fat cows come up out of the water,” said Pharaoh to Joseph. “As these cows fed upon the heavy grass at the edge of the stream, seven thin cows came up from the river and ate up the seven fat cows. But even so, the thin cows were just as thin as they had been before eating.
“I dreamed again, and saw seven plump heads of grain growing out of one stalk. Seven thin heads of grain, looking as though they had been withered by a hot east wind, came out of the stalk and ate up the seven plump heads of grain.”
“I have told these things to other men who claim to be wise in such matters,” Pharaoh added, “but none has any answer. Now what do you say?”
“I have an answer,” Joseph replied. Both dreams have the same meaning, the reason being that God wanted to make doubly sure that His warning would be heeded. The seven fat cows and the seven plump heads of grain mean that the next seven years will bring very good flocks and crops to Egypt. There will be far more food than people can eat. The thin cows and the withered heads of grain mean that right after the seven good years there will come seven years of famine. Your herds will die because there will be so little growth out of the ground. It will be such a miserable time that people will even fail to remember the seven good years.”
Pharaoh and those around him stared in stunned silence at the young foreigner who had come up from the prison dungeons to tell what would happen to their nation in the next fourteen years. There was something about his earnest manner that caused them to believe him, though they didn’t want to believe what he had said about a famine.
“If what you have told me is true,” Pharaoh finally said, “then perhaps you have the wisdom to know what my country should do when the famine comes.”
“You should choose a wise and capable man to take charge of matters during the seven years of plenty,” Joseph replied. “That man should carry out a gigantic plan to store up a large part of the crops while they are good. Then, when the seven lean years arrive; there will be enough food for all” (Gen. 41:33-36).
After this Pharaoh and his officers and advisors gathered to talk over what Joseph had said.
“I believe this young Hebrew is being guided by God,” Pharaoh said. “If what he says is true, it would be foolish not to act on his suggestions.”
There was a chorus of voices agreeing with the king, not only because he was the king, but because all those who had heard Joseph looked upon him with awe and with a certain respect.
“If I should choose a man to take care of matters having to do with a coming famine, what better man is there than this Joseph?” Pharaoh asked.
Again there was a chorus of agreeing voices. But even if Pharaoh’s advisors hadn’t agreed, Pharaoh probably would have decided that Joseph was the person he wanted. The Egyptian king on the throne at this time was wiser than some who ruled before him and after him. Like a good king should, he wanted to do what was best for his land and his people.
When Joseph was again brought before Pharaoh, he received a great surprise for a person who had spent so much time in the king’s dungeon.
“From now on,” said Pharaoh to Joseph, “because your God has given you so much wisdom, you will be the ruler over my house and over all Egypt. Though I will be over you, your word will be law in all my realm” (Gen. 41:39-41).
That was how God answered the prayers of Joseph, one who was living by His laws. Not only was Joseph released from prison, but he was made second in rank to the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt. He was given a ring for stamping important government papers; a gold neck chain to show his very high position, expensive clothes and a costly carriage that was second only to Pharaoh’s. Besides, he was given beautifully furnished rooms to live in and servants to take care of all his needs.
From the time Joseph was sold as a slave at the age of seventeen, he had come up in thirteen years, now at the age of thirty, to be the real ruler of Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at that time!
To further show his royal esteem for Joseph, Pharaoh arranged for him to meet Asenath, the daughter of a high official of Egypt. Joseph quickly grew fond of Asenath, and they were married (Gen. 41:45).
For a long time after that, Joseph traveled around Egypt. Everywhere he went, he saw wonderful crops and fat herds. It was clear that God was carrying out His promise to bless the nation with the best that could come out of the ground.
Most of Egypt was usually dry, sandy desert. Without water from the Nile River that land would never have amounted to very much. But during those seven years of plenty, there was much more rain than usual, so that areas far from Egypt gave most unusual crops.
After finding out where the best places for grain storage should be, Joseph gave orders for many granaries to be built in various regions of the nation. Later, he started a system by which a large portion of the crops was gathered to store in the granaries. So much grain was stored up in the seven years that all record was lost of just how much was taken in (v. 48).
Meanwhile, Joseph became the father of two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. His life was now so full that he almost forgot the years he had spent in Pharaoh’s dungeon (v. 50).
Seven good years passed. The next year there was a gradual change in the weather. Showers came further and further apart. Streams became smaller. Hot east winds from the desert blew in more often, and with each one the green fields turned a little bit more to yellow. Within a few months it was plain that crops were going to fail.
Joseph’s prophecy was being proved. The time of famine had arrived! Before long there were reports that in some regions of the nation the people no longer had grain for their flocks or for bread. Then Joseph sent out orders to begin to open us the store houses.
As demands from the people for grain grew greater, it was plain that if the big crops hadn’t been stored, probably many tens of thousands of Egyptians would have starved even in the first year or two of the famine period (v. 54).
The famine wasn’t only in Egypt. It was everywhere, and so it wasn’t long before other peoples and nations were begging Egypt to sell them some of the stored grain. Joseph gave orders to sell to all who were in great need (vs. 55-57).
Back in Canaan, Joseph’s father, Jacob, was one of many thousands worried by the lack of rain. There was little or no grass for the flocks. Continued dry weather would mean the animals would die. There would then be neither grain nor meat to eat.
Jacob had heard reports that the Egyptians had grain to sell. Therefore he sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain. He kept Benjamin, his youngest son, with him. He remembered all too well how he had lost young Joseph by sending him on a trip (Gen. 42:1-4).
Taking camels and donkeys to bring back the loads they hoped to buy, the ten sons journeyed down into Egypt to find that they should bring their request for grain to the governor, who was next in power to Pharaoh. In due time, they were brought before the governor. Not having any idea that he was the brother they had sold for a slave many years before, they bowed low to him.
Joseph knew them as soon as they came before him, however. When they bowed down before him, he remembered the dream he had dreamed as a lad, that his brothers would bow down to him. At last that prophetic dream had come true (v.6).
Joseph wanted to welcome them and tell them who he was. But instead, he decided to be harsh to them for their own good! “Where are you from and why are you here?” he asked sternly.
“We have come from the land of Canaan to buy food,” they replied. “Don’t ask me to believe that!” Joseph said, frowning. “I think you are spies. Probably you secretly think that Egypt is weak because of the famine, and you have come to see if your armies can crush us!”
“Oh, but we are not spies, sir!” they quickly replied in worried tones, as though they expected royal guards to seize them. “We are all the sons of one man who needs food. In fact, our father had twelve sons. The youngest is with him now. The other is dead” (vs. 9-13).
Joseph wanted to ask about his own younger brother whom he hadn’t heard about for so long, but he had to remain stern.
“I still think you are spies,” he said. “It might be wise to keep nine of you in prison and send one of you to bring back this young brother, you claim you have. That might convince me you aren’t spies!”
The ten brothers stood helplessly before Joseph while he continued frowning at them. “On second thought,” said Joseph, “I believe it would be better to send you all to prison to give you a chance to think matters over and decide to tell the truth.”
“But we are telling the truth,” they called to Joseph as guards roughly led them away to a dungeon (v. 17).
Three days later Joseph had his brothers brought before him again. “Do you still say you are not spies?” he asked. “We are not spies,” they chorused. “We have come only for grain.”
“You will get your grain,” Joseph surprised them by saying. The brothers looked at each other in relief. It looked as though this governor had decided to believe them.
“However,” Joseph added sternly, “one of you will stay here in prison until this young brother you speak of is brought to me!” The brothers’ faces fell when they heard this. Each feared he would be the one to be jailed.
“This trouble has come upon us because of that terrible thing we did to our poor brother Joseph,” they murmured fearfully among themselves. “I told you then it was a terrible thing to treat him the way you did,” Reuben spoke up. “Now we may pay for it.”
All the talk between Joseph, who spoke in the Egyptian language and his brothers, who spoke only in Hebrew, had been through an interpreter – one who spoke both languages (v. 23).But Joseph still remembered his native tongue, and when he heard his brothers talking excitedly among themselves, he understood every word. He felt so sorry for his brothers, even though they had been wicked, that he turned his head from them and wept.
But Joseph knew he would have to act harshly. The soldiers will now take one of you to prison,” he told them.
Joseph looked slowly over the tense faces before him. Finally his eyes settled on Simeon, the one who had suggested killing him when he, Joseph, was only seventeen years old. “Take that man to the dungeon!” Joseph snapped, pointing to Simeon.
Egyptian soldiers seized Simeon, bound him with chains, and dragged him away, leaving the other nine brothers very worried. It was plainer and plainer to them that God was having a direct hand in their affairs.
“Leave now,” Joseph told them. “You will be told where to pick up your grain and how much to pay.”
Later, the brothers bought the grain, loaded it on their animals, and gladly left the place. At nightfall, they stopped at a lonely spot where their animals could be fed and sheltered for the night. When the animals became hungry one of the brothers opened his sack to feed the animals. The first thing he saw in the sack was a bag of coins – the exact amount he had paid for the grain he was carrying!
“It’s the money I paid for my part of the grain!” he exclaimed to his surprised brothers.
“This is not good,” one of them said. “It could be a plot to arrest you for not paying for the grain.”
“They could arrest all of us if they could prove that one of us is a thief,” said another. “I can’t help feeling that God is beginning to deal harshly with us because of the wrong things we have done especially for what we did to Joseph” (vs. 25-28)!
The rest of the trip was not a happy one, because with each step the brothers feared that Egyptian soldiers would appear on the horizon behind them. But they returned to their father safely.
Jacob was happy to receive the grain. But he was most unhappy to learn, when his sons told him what had happened, that Simeon was being held prisoner and that the Governor of Egypt demanded to see Benjamin.
Be watching for the posting of our next segment of The Story of the Bible.