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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 41

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This long chapter is the record of the fifth series in the [~toledowth] of Jacob and may be entitled:


The narrative naturally divides into nine paragraphs:

  1. Pharaoh's dream (Genesis 41:1-8).

  2. The butler remembers (Genesis 41:9-13).

  3. Joseph appears before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:14-16).

  4. Pharaoh tells the dream to Joseph (Genesis 41:17-24).

  5. Joseph interprets the dream (Genesis 41:25-32).

  6. Joseph proposes measures to cope with the coming famine (Genesis 41:33-36).

  7. Joseph is appointed chief administrator (Genesis 41:37-45).

  8. The seven years of plenty (Genesis 41:46-53).

  9. The seven years of famine (Genesis 41:54-57).

"Even those who divide the sources recognize this chapter as a unified narrative."[1] This, of course, leaves the critics little to say about it. As Peake put it, "The narrative, for the most part, needs no comment!"[2] Perhaps the most impressive thing about the chapter is its perfect fulfillment of the pattern reaching all the way back to the double dream of Joseph (Genesis 37), the dream that foretold the very events centering around this double dream of Pharaoh, a dream which Joseph's father accurately interpreted (Genesis 37:10). That first pair of dreams was followed by a second pair, those of the butler and the baker related in the last chapter; and now, in this, "The providential series of double dreams concludes!"[3] The first prophesied of the third; and the second proved a stepping stone to the third, which is the climax of all three. Only one voice speaks throughout Genesis. Only one power controls its events. That voice and power are those of God.

Verses 1-8

"And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, well-favored and fat-fleshed: and they fed in the reedgrass. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, and lean-fleshed, and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the and lean-fleshed kine did eat up the seven well-favored and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed a second time: and, behold, seven ears of grain came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven ears, thin and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears swallowed up the seven rank and full ears. Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream. And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh."

"Pharaoh ..." This monarch, under whom Joseph was elevated, "was probably one of the Hyksos rulers shortly after 1720 B.C."[4]

"Reed-grass ..." was rendered "Nile-grass"[5] by Keil and probably referred to any lush grass growing in the vicinity of the river, which, of course, was the Nile.

"Ears of grain ..." The word here rendered "grain" is the Hebrew term [~bar], the meaning of which is "wheat."[6]

"There was none that could interpret ..."; Genesis 41:24 gives further light on the situation in Pharaoh's remark that, "none could declare it unto him." The evil import of the dream seems perfectly obvious. And the skilled interpreters could have come up with a lot of reasonable solutions, but none of them would do so! According to the Midrash, one of the interpretations was that Pharaoh would beget seven daughters and bury all seven of them. Another said that seven provinces would rise in rebellion against him, etc. The meaning was that they had some interpretations, but kept whispering around among themselves and would not tell Pharaoh anything.[7] However it happened, Pharaoh got nothing from the interpreters and wise men. "Thus the hand of God was upon the interpreters, making their devices of no effect, that the revelation might come by his own chosen instrument."[8] Keil also has a priceless word on this which he attributed to Baumgarten:

"It is the fate of the wisdom of this world that where it suffices it is compelled to be silent. For it belongs to the government of God to close the lips of the eloquent, and take away the understanding of the aged" (Job 12:20).[9]

Verses 9-13

"Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day: Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and he put me in ward in the house of the Captain of the guard, me and the chief baker: and we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream. And there was there a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream did he interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, but him he hanged."

Well, well, so at last the ungrateful butler remembered! However, it was not until "His ungrateful memory was stimulated by the opportunity of ingratiating himself with his royal master."[10]

Verse 14

"Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh."

(Note: Genesis 41:15-24 are in all respects practically identical with Genesis 41:1-8, above; and so they are omitted here. Of the very slight variations, Skinner said they should be expected as quite natural from a "desire for variety."[11] The variation in Genesis 41:24 was commented on under Genesis 41:8, above).

The shaving and dressing of Joseph were required by the rules for those appearing before Pharaoh, but the change must also have been very welcome to Joseph.

Verses 25-32

"And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: what God is about to do he hath declared unto Pharaoh. The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and kine that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing I spake unto Pharaoh: What God is about to do he hath showed unto Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt: and there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine which followeth; for it shall be very grievous. And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass."

Only God could have given the proper interpretation of this remarkable dream. Here, as in the case of the dreams of the butler and the baker, the revelation of what the numbers meant was the key to it. The sevens were not daughters, or provinces, as the wise men believed, but they were years. Also, the application of the dream was not to Pharaoh but to Egypt. That was important.

"The dream is one ..." This repeated statement not only provided the clue to Joseph's interpretation here, but it also has a much wider application in understanding the seven very similar sections of the Book of Revelation, the seven judgment scenes there, not being seven judgments at all, but seven presentations of the one and only final judgment.

"Will shortly come to pass ..." Here also is a most significant revelation. This statement definitely did not pertain to any notion that fourteen years of history would pass very quickly, but that the beginning of this series of events prophesied would be immediately. In the Book of Revelation also, the same principle holds true. Revelation speaks of many, many things which shall "shortly come to pass," not meaning in any sense that all of the events there foretold would take place within a few years, or even in a few centuries, but that the entire cosmic panorama of God's winding up and finishing the probation of Adam's race would begin at once.

"What God is about to do he hath showed unto Pharaoh ..." Joseph's thinking was always theocentric, and here he stressed the mercy of God in giving Pharaoh such an important alert and warning.

Verses 33-36

"Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt, and take the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up grain under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine."

Speiser commented on the foolish criticism that "the overseers (Genesis 41:34) is contradictory to the proposal of a single manager in Genesis 41:33! The task clearly involved a large staff, so all the clause indicates is that Joseph would choose his own assistants."[12] Such negative criticisms are on a parity with Peake's complaint that, "He had been twenty years in Egypt without troubling to let his father know that he was alive!"[13] Someone should enlighten men like Peake with reference to what the postal service was like in Egypt in those days for a slave in prison!

Verses 37-45

"And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants. And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom the spirit of God is? And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou: thou shall be over my house, and according to thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him ride in the second chariot which he had: and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he set him over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt."

It is obvious that no human source whatever lies behind this amazing narrative. If any man had written it, would there not have been a mention of the wife of Potiphar, or any other of those amazing events so closely connected with Joseph's history? What countless questions press themselves upon all who read these lines.

"Bow the knee ..." This is from a Hebrew term [~'abrek],"[14] which is usually classified by scholars has having no certain meaning. However, Dummelow pointed out that, "Throughout Egypt until today, this very word is used as a cry for the camel to kneel!"[15] This goes a long way toward establishing the validity of our translation here, "Bow the knee."

"Zaphenath-paneah ..." This new name conferred upon Joseph by Pharaoh is also one with disputed meanings, but one of the alternatives mentioned by Skinner was chosen by Whitelaw as a reasonable and probable meaning. It is "Salvator Mundi", as in the Septuagint (LXX) and followed by the Vulgate, meaning "Salvation of the World,"[16] which, in a sense, Joseph surely was.

"Priest of On ..." "On is Heliopolis, seven miles northeast of Cairo, anciently a center of the worship of the sun-god Re."[17]

"Asenath ..." has the meaning of, "She who is of Neith, the Minerva of the Egyptians."[18] Thus Joseph's marriage was to the daughter of a pagan priest, she herself being named after one of the pagan goddesses of Egypt. We agree with Francisco that, "This marriage was disastrous in its ultimate consequences. The lines of Ephraim and Manasseh were later leaders in Israel's idolatry."[19] There can be little doubt that the idolatrous tendencies of Joseph's sons had originated with Asenath.

Verses 46-53

"And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt, And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth handfuls. And he gathered up all the food for seven years which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid up he in the same. And Joseph laid up grain as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left off numbering; for it was without number. And unto Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bare unto him. And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: For he said, God hath made me forget all my toil, and my father's house. And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction. And the seven years of plenty, that were in the land of Egypt, came to an end."

The mention of "all the food of the seven years" (Genesis 41:48) means "all the food under consideration," namely, the double tithe, or one-fifth that had been appointed to be stored up.

"Made me forget ... all my father's house ..." was memorialized in the meaning of Manasseh, Joseph's first-born. And Calvin censured Joseph for this,[20] to which judgment many scholars object, but there appears to be justification for Calvin's view. The name which Joseph here used for God, was [~'Elohiym], the great Creator-God, and not Jehovah, the God of the covenant, thus leaving the impression that Joseph may have, at the moment, been drifting away from the stern implications of the holy covenant name for God. Surely, his marriage with a pagan princess was not in keeping with that covenant. However it was, the terrible years of famine were about to begin, and during the rigors of those years, and his eventual reunion with his family, all of his old faith in the blessed covenant was renewed. And, on his deathbed he requested that when Israel entered Canaan, they would carry his bones with them (Genesis 50:26).

Verses 54-57

"And the seven years of famine began to come, according as Joseph had said: and there was famine in all the lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith unto you, do. And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine was sore in the land of Egypt. And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was sore in all the earth."

"In all the land of Egypt, there was bread (Genesis 41:54) ... And when all the land of Egypt was famished (Genesis 41:55) ..." The first statement refers to the beginning of the famine, and also to the vast storehouse of food accumulated during the years of plenty. The second statement applies to the second phase of the famine, when the supplies the people had available were depleted and they began to be in want.

"The famine was in all lands (Genesis 41:54) ... over all the face of the earth ... All countries came into Egypt ... to buy grain ... The famine was sore in all the earth (Genesis 41:57) ..." These expressions are usually understood as hyperbole, and there cannot be any doubt that such a figure of speech is used throughout the Bible, even in the N.T. However, men of the fourth millenium after the event are in no position to tell us what really happened. We appreciate the candor of Leupold who said, concerning this universal famine, "We do not deny the possibility of a world-wide famine at that time." Neither do we!

This chapter sets the stage for the removal of Israel to Egypt, an event that begins to unfold in the very next chapter.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 41". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-41.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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