Genesis 40: Joseph in a Dungeon with Dreamers

Joseph had his own prophetic dreams, but now he must be faithful to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh's chief butler and baker.

Chapter Notes

  • Have you ever had to communicate unpleasant news?

  • In Genesis 40 we are reminded that believers must be courageous enough to share messages of judgment as well as blessing.

Commentary

  • vv. 1–4 - As we learned last time, Joseph is wrongfully imprisoned. While there, another two important men end up thrown into the same place; the butler and baker of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. We’re told that they offended their lord and made him mad, and while we’re not given specifics, since the butler handled beverages, and the baker for food, it may be that Pharaoh believed there was some kind of plot to poison him. Thus, these two suspects are thrown in prison until more information comes to light. The captain of the guard, possibly still Potiphar, knowing the character of Joseph, puts him in charge of these important civil servants. 

  • vv. 5–8 - The butler and baker spend some time in the prison, sufficient time for Joseph to be familiar with their nature and behavior. One day Joseph discerns their sadness and makes an inquiry. It turns out that both of them had a disturbing dream on the same night. Up to this point we have seen that God has communicated via dreams to Abraham (Genesis 15), Abimelech (Genesis 20), Jacob (Genesis 28, 31), Laban, (Genesis 31), and Joseph (Genesis 37), and as a prophet of God, Joseph trusted God to give him understanding of parabolic dreams.

  • vv. 9–15 - The butler, perhaps aided by his clean conscience, is the first to reveal his dream to Joseph. Upon hearing it, Joseph is able to reveal to the butler that within the next three days, he will be restored to his old position. In addition, Joseph takes advantage of the opportunity to exhort the butler to remember him and advocate for his release.

  • vv. 16–19 - Encouraged by the positive interpretation, the baker reveals his dream to Joseph. The similarities between the dreams perhaps led him to believe there would be a similar outcome. But instead of being restored, Joseph explains that he will be hanged and eaten by scavenging birds. 

  • vv. 20–23 - As prophesied, on Pharaoh’s birthday three days later, the butler is restored and the baker is hanged. But amidst the celebrations and feelings of personal joy and relief, the butler forgets all about Joseph.

Application

  1. Believers should be encouraged to pray that God will move in the lives of the ungodly. God, by His providence, gave two men dreams on the same night, both having an impression on them. By this, we are reminded that God has access to men in ways no one else does. When the circumstances call for it, do not hesitate to pray for divine intervention. 

  2. Believers in authority are somewhat responsible for discerning the condition of those under them. Joseph’s attentiveness in perceiving the sadness of the two servants of Pharaoh reveals his compassion. When Christ was facing the cross, He seemed more concern for the wellbeing of His people. He sensed the anxiety of His disciples and said, “Let not your heart be troubled.” It is that same spirit of Christ which moved David to express self-care when he asked, “Why art thou cast down, oh my soul?” In a similar fashion, Joseph is not so caught up in his own suffering that he is blind to the suffering of others. May God enlarge our hearts.

  3. Prisons do not just contain criminals. Joseph was innocent of the charge that landed him in prison, and it would appear the same was true of the butler. Unjust imprisonments are scattered through the Bible. There are a few in the Old Testament, most notably Jeremiah. We also have John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and others in the New Testament. But also our Lord Jesus Christ. In addition, In Matthew 25, Christ teaches us to expect that he will have His people in prison, and to visit them is to serve Christ. As the West becomes more militant against the truth, expect more Christians to be imprisoned. In such times, professors without the heart of Christ will be exposed by their lack of compassion. 

  4. Joseph’s ministry typifies Christ as our Prophet. In particular, we see Joseph’s faithfulness to proclaim both a message of divine favor and of divine judgment. In the ministry of Christ, we see the same clear distinction, and yet few preachers today will proclaim any sense of judgment at all. If you have such a pastor, thank God for him, and pray he might ever preach Christ as both the bestower of blessings and judgments. 

  5. Man’s forgetfulness is not an excuse for faithless frustration. Joseph had hopeful expectations that the butler would be able to advocate for his release from prison. However, day after day passed with no explanation or communication. While we do not excuse the butler’s forgetfulness, we must recognize God’s sovereign hand. Had Joseph been released, he would have returned to Jacob and would never have been in a position to save the extended family. In this we see the sufferings of Christ who endured injustice under God’s sovereign hand in order to obtain our eternal redemption. But it also teaches us to respond to the human flaws and sins in faith, rather than in frustration. The butler’s forgetfulness was not a reflection of God. As God says through Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isaiah 49:15).


“Joseph came to the butler and said, “Why look ye so sadly today?” In our case we have not forgotten how Jesus came to us and inquired into our state. With what tender accents of sympathy did He address our hearts!” — Charles Spurgeon

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Authors
Armen Thomassian