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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 41

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


6. Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretations ch. 41

Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams faithfully. This led to God elevating Joseph in the government and demonstrating His sovereign control over economic life in Egypt as He prepared to preserve Israel and Egypt through the coming famine.

Verses 1-8

The "magicians" were "men of the priestly caste, who occupied themselves with the sacred arts and sciences of the Egyptians, the hieroglyphic writings, astrology, the interpretation of dreams, the foretelling of events, magic, and conjuring, and who were regarded as the possessors of secret arts (vid. Ex. vii. 11) and the wise men of the nation." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:349.]

Divination tries to understand the future, and magic seeks to control it. God withheld the Egyptian diviners from comprehending the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams even though the clue to their interpretation lay in the religious symbols of Egypt.

"For the cow was the symbol of Isis, the goddess of the all-sustaining earth, and in the hieroglyphics it represents the earth, agriculture, and food; and the Nile, by its overflowing, was the source of fertility of the land." [Note: Ibid.]

Yet these symbols had multiple meanings to the Egyptians, which probably accounts for the difficulty of interpretation. [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 391.]

"Seven-year famines were a familiar feature of life in the ancient Near East." [Note: Ibid., p. 398.]

Verses 9-24

Joseph carefully gave God the glory for his interpretive gift in his response to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:16).

"As far as Joseph was concerned, absolute truthfulness in guarding God’s honor was far more important than personal advantages." [Note: Leupold, 2:1025-26.]

"Like Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar, he expressly disclaims all ability of himself to unfold the secret counsels of heaven, or exercise that wisdom for which Pharaoh seems very willing to give him credit. The same humility has been in every age a distinguishing ornament of all God’s faithful servants." [Note: Bush, 2:277.]

Verses 25-36

Joseph also presented God as sovereign over Pharaoh (Genesis 41:25; Genesis 41:28). The Egyptians regarded Pharaoh as a divine manifestation in human form. By accepting Joseph’s interpretation of his dreams Pharaoh chose to place himself under Joseph’s God. God rewarded this humility by preserving the land of Egypt in the coming famine.

". . . the writer has gone out of his way to present the whole narrative in a series of pairs, all fitting within the notion of the emphasis given by means of the repetition: ’The matter is certain and swift’ (Genesis 41:32). The repetition of the dreams, then, fits this pattern." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 214.]

"The intention of prophecies concerning judgments to come, is to excite those threatened with them to take proper measures for averting them." [Note: Bush, 2:281. Cf. von Rad, p. 376.]

"The writer’s emphasis on the ’good’ and ’evil’ represents Joseph’s wisdom and discernment as an ability to distinguish between the ’good’ (tob) and the ’evil’ (ra’). Such a picture suggests that in the story of Joseph the writer is returning to one of the central themes of the beginning of the book, the knowledge of ’good’ (tob) and ’evil’ (ra’). While Joseph is able to discern between ’good and evil,’ it is clear from this story that ultimately such knowledge comes only from God (Genesis 41:39). Joseph is the embodiment of the ideal that true wisdom, the ability to discern between ’good and evil,’ comes only from God. Thus the lesson of the early chapters of Genesis is artfully repeated in these last chapters." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," p. 240.]

"Joseph prefigured the victors Moses and Daniel, the bookends of Israel’s period of captivity, whose wisdom prevailed over the Gentiles (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:16)." [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 740.]

Verses 37-45

Pharaoh recognized Joseph as one who had unique supernatural powers (Genesis 41:38; cf. Daniel 5:14). He probably did not identify the "spirit" in Joseph as the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. There is no evidence that Pharaoh understood or believed in the God of Israel much less comprehended his triunity. Most likely he thought some deity had manifested himself or herself through Joseph.

It was not unknown in Egypt for the Pharaohs to appoint individuals who lacked previous social station or political rank to positions of authority in the government.

"At any time the king would-and did-appoint outsiders. In fact, the noteworthy careers, as preserved for us in tomb inscriptions, broke through all departmental limitations. Men of humble origin could rise to the top once their gifts were recognized; and we find that they were called to a succession of posts which would seem to us to have required entirely different preparatory training." [Note: Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 35. Cf. Kitchen, The Bible . . ., p. 74; J. K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, pp. 93-95; Wenham, Genesis 16-50, pp. 395-96; and Waltke, Genesis, p. 533.]

To naturalize Joseph, Pharaoh gave him an Egyptian name (Genesis 41:45; cf. Daniel 1:7) and an Egyptian wife from an appropriate level of society. Joseph’s father-in-law was evidently a high-ranking priest in the celebrated temple of the sun located in the city of On (Gr. Heliopolis) 10 miles northeast of modern Cairo.

"The high priest at On held the exalted title ’Greatest of Seers.’ Joseph thus marries into the elite of Egyptian nobility." [Note: Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p. 288.]

Joseph’s marriage to an Egyptian seems to have been Pharaoh’s order, and God permitted it. The patriarchs generally avoided marrying Canaanites because of God’s curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:25), but marriage to non-Canaanite Gentiles was less serious. Joseph’s wife and in-laws did not turn him away from his faith in Yahweh or his high regard for God’s promises to his forefathers (cf. Moses).

Verses 46-57

The notation of the birth of Joseph’s sons is, of course, very significant in view of God’s purposes concerning Abraham’s family (Genesis 41:50-52). Joseph acknowledged God’s goodness to him in naming both his sons. An allusion to the blessing aspect of the patriarchal promises occurs in Genesis 41:49.

"If the name of Joseph’s first son (Manasseh) focuses on a God who preserves, the name of Joseph’s second son (Ephraim) focuses on a God who blesses." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 512.]

Some readers of Genesis have wondered why Joseph did not inform Jacob of his welfare quickly since he must have realized that Jacob would have worried about his disappearance. In naming Manasseh, Joseph said God had enabled him to forget all (his troubles in) his father’s household (Genesis 41:51). Perhaps Joseph did not try to contact Jacob because he thought his father had set him up for what happened to him at Dothan. [Note: Marc Shapiro, "The Silence of Joseph," Journal of Reform Judaism 36:1 (Winter 1989):15-17.] This seems very unlikely to me since Jacob’s sorrow over Joseph’s apparent death seems genuine. Perhaps Joseph did not try to contact Jacob because, through the remarkable events by which God exalted him, he came to realize that God would fulfill the rest of His promises contained in his dreams. [Note: Delitzsch, 2:306; Waltke, Genesis, p. 535.] He may have concluded that his best course of action would be to continue to let God take the initiative as He had done so consistently in his life to that time. Joseph had evidently come to trust God in place of his father. In this sense he had forgotten his father’s household.

"’Forget’ does not mean here ’not remember’ but rather to have something no longer (cf. Job 39:17; Job 11:16. See, too, the Arabic proverb, ’Whoever drinks water from the Nile forgets his fatherland if he is a foreigner’). The phrase refers, therefore, more to an objective external fact than to a subjective, psychological process." [Note: von Rad, p. 379.]

One might say that for Joseph life in Canaan was a closed chapter of his life. [Note: Cf. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 766.]

"Just as Adam is seen in the Creation account as dependent on God for his knowledge of ’good and evil,’ so Joseph also is portrayed here in the same terms . . . Just as Adam is made God’s ’vicegerent’ to rule over all the land, so similarly Joseph is portrayed here as the Pharaoh’s ’vicegerent’ over all his land (Genesis 41:40-43). As Adam was made in God’s image to rule over all the land, so the king here gave Joseph his ’signet ring’ and dressed him in royal garments (Genesis 41:42). The picture of Joseph resembles the psalmist’s understanding of Genesis 1 when, regarding that passage, he writes, ’[You have] crowned him with glory and honor./ You made him ruler over the works of your hands;/ you put everything under his feet’ (Psalms 8:5-7). Just as God provided a wife for Adam in the garden and gave man all the land for his enjoyment, so the king gave a wife to Joseph and put him over all the land (Genesis 41:45). . . .

"The picture of Joseph, then, looks back to Adam; but more, it looks forward to one who was yet to come. It anticipates the coming of the one from the house of Judah to whom the kingdom belongs (cf. Genesis 49:10). Thus in the final shape of the narrative, the tension between the house of Joseph and the house of Judah, which lies within many of these texts, is resolved by making the life of Joseph into a picture of the one who is to reign from the house of Judah." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," p. 242. See also idem, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 215.]

God controls the fortunes of nations to protect and provide for His covenant people.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 41". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-41.html. 2012.
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