God Remembers Joseph in Prison [Genesis 40 Study]

God's faithfulness followed Joseph in prison as he correctly interprets two dreams. The cupbearer forgot Joseph, but God still remembered Joseph.

God Remembers Joseph in Prison [Genesis 40 Study]
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  • Pharaoh’s servants sent to prison (v.1-4)
  • Pharaoh’s servants each given dreams. (v.5-8)
  • The cupbearer’s dream interpreted. (v.9-15)
  • The baker’s dream interpreted (v.16-19)
  • Pharaoh’s servants’ dreams fulfilled. (v.20-23)

1. Pharaoh’s servants sent to prison (v.1-4)

Gen. 40:1   Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. 2 And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody. (Genesis 40 v.1-4)

  • The phrase “some time after this” in verse 1 suggests that sometime elapsed between the events of chapter 39 and chapter 40.
    • Joseph was 17 years old in Genesis 37.
    • Joseph was 30 years old in Genesis 41.
    • 2 years elapsed between the end of Genesis 40 and the next chapter, so Joseph here is likely about 28 years old.
  • Genesis 39 never mentioned what happened to Potiphar’s wife after her false charges.
  • Likewise at the beginning of Genesis 40, no details are given for the crimes of Pharaoh’s two servants.
  • The chief cupbearer and the chief baker had offended Pharaoh.
    • The accusations were crimes committed against Pharaoh.
    • Referring to Pharaoh as the “king of Egypt” emphasizes the inferior position of these servants who were likely Pharaoh’s closest advisors.
    • By highlighting Pharoah’s anger, the text suggests that Pharaoh’s decision to imprison them was quick.
  • Both were thrown into prison for suspicious actions that angered Pharaoh.
    • They were detained while the matter was investigated
    • In God’s providence these officials were placed in the same prison as Joseph
    • Remember from the previous chapter oversight of this prison had been delegated to Joseph.
  • Some may ask who is this “captain of the guard”? Is it Potiphar?
    • Remember we had studied in Genesis 37 that “captain of the guard” was a unique title. It is attributed to Potiphar twice, once in Genesis 37:36. A second time in Genesis 39:1.
    • Some commentators believe it is Potiphar himself, and this prison which served as Pharoah’s holding place for his personal criminals was an extension of Potiphar’s house. Potiphar was protecting Joseph and still extending Joseph favor (hen) by giving him full power and authority over his prison.
    • Others think it’s another “captain of the guard” and not Potiphar.
  • At the end of verse 4, the sentence “they continued for some time in custody” implies a considerable period has passes before verse 5.

2. Pharaoh’s servants given divine dreams. (v.5-8)

Gen. 40:5   And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. 6 When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. 7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?” 8 They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” (Genesis 40 v.5-8)

  • On the same night both the cupbearer and the baker had dreams.
    • Egyptians believed that their gods used dreams to alert them of impending situations.
    • The cupbearer and baker soon realized their two dreams were given on the same night. Two dreams with similarities occurring in the same night was significant.
    • Because they did not understand their dream’s meaning, both were troubled.
    • Since they were in prison, they could not go to an interpreter.
  • Joseph noticed these men appeared dejected
    • When Joseph asked, the two men explained that during the night both had dreamed, but there was no one who can help interpret these dreams.
  • Joseph assured these two high court officials that interpretations belong to God
    • The two men inferred that Joseph possessed divine powers for interpreting dreams.
    • Notice Joseph’s humility. He didn’t say that he had the gift of interpretation. He just said that interpretations belong to Yahweh.
    • When a person acknowledges that his gifts and talents are given by God, he is more prepared to use the gifts for God’s glory.
    • Johann Sebastian Bach often said that he wrote all his music “for the greater glory of God.”
    • Joseph encouraged Pharoah’s two servants to tell him their dreams.

3. Cupbearer’s dream interpreted by Joseph (v.9-15)

Gen. 40:9   So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.” (Genesis 40 v.9-15)

  • The chief cupbearer described his dream about a vine with three branches. The vine blossomed and produced grapes. He took some of these grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.
  • If we look closely, we see this first dream involves units of three.
    • The vine has three branches.
    • Three verbs are used to describe the growth of the vine and its branches: “budded,” “shot forth,” and “ripened.”
    • Three times in verse 11 the cupbearer mentions Pharaoh.
    • In the same verse, the cupbearer mentions three times Pharoah’s cup.
    • And in verse 11, the cupbearer cites himself three times: “I took,” “I pressed,” “I placed.”
  • Joseph’s interpretation of dreams is the first supernatural power given by God in the book of Genesis.
    • I should also comment that God also stops appearing directly to the patriarchs. God appeared directly to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But he stopped after Jacob.
  • Joseph explained the dream. The three branches stood for three days. Before three days passed Pharaoh would restore him to his former high position in Pharaoh’s service.
  • The Hebrew actually says, “In three days Pharaoh will lift your head . . .” We’ll soon see that this sentence is repeated three times in this chapter: in the cupbearer’s dream, in the baker’s dream, and in the dreams’ fulfillment.
  • Now notice what Joseph says next.
    • Joseph had been patiently waiting for at least 10 years to be freed from his anguished state. He had been praying to God for 10 years.
    • Now, we see Joseph asking for help.
    • Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him after his restoration. He is asking the cupbearer for a favor to help him get out of prison.
    • He described how he had been forcibly “stolen” out of the land of the Hebrews.
    • Joseph explained he had done nothing to deserve being put in a this “pit.” Joseph used the same Hebrew word bor translated here in the ESV as “pit” both of the cistern in Canaan and Pharoah’s prison in Egypt.
    • This word “pit” underscores Joseph’s anguish. He hoped the cupbearer would show him kindness by speaking to Pharaoh to get him out of this prison.
    • Joseph emphasizes the fact that he was innocent. He was falsely accused.

How should a Christian respond to false accusation?

  • Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits writes that Christians should patiently endure the humiliation of false accusations.

“we should be willing to suffer much in our interests and feelings for the sake of peace, rather than do what we have opportunity, and perhaps the right, to do in defending ourselves.”[1]

  • Jesus was constantly slandered by false charges, but Jesus did not try to be vindicated of these false charges.
    • Jesus was willing to have a bad reputation.
    • Most human beings want to guard their reputation. We want people to like us and to applaud us.
  • Other Christians differ from Jonathan Edwards.
    • Christians should not be silent but plead innocence, lest by an undefended slander, the Christian and the church’s reputation is compromised and injured.
    • Silence means consent.
    • Apostle Paul reluctantly responded to his critics and false teachers in 2 Corinthians 10-13.
  • Balance of self-justification from every complaint and speaking the truth.
  • Here we see Joseph pleading his case of innocence to the cupbearer.

4. Baker’s dream interpreted by Joseph (v.16-19)

Gen. 40:16   When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” 18 And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 pIn three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.” (Genesis 40 v.16-19)

  • Encouraged after hearing at the favorable interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream, the chief baker shared his dream to Joseph which also has these units of three.
    • He saw on his head three baskets of bread; in the top one were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh.
    • But birds were eating the baked goods.
    • See the contrast. The cupbearer served Pharoah while the baker served birds.
  • Joseph interpreted his dream. The three baskets stood for three days. In three days Pharaoh was also going to “lift up his head.”
    • Remember this same phrase to describe the cupbearer back in verse 13. The baker must have been initially thrilled when he had heard this.
    • But in an ironic twist, Joseph uses this phrase to mean that Pharaoh would have him hanged on a tree.
    • Instead of being buried, his body would eaten by birds.
    • Egyptians typically mummified those who die, revering the dead body. Having one’s dead flesh mutilated and eaten by birds was sacrilege.

One way to differentiate the true from the false prophet.

  • The false prophet always gives the interpretation the people wanted to hear.
  • The true prophet gives the true interpretation even if it was bad news.

5. Pharoah’s servants’ dreams fulfilled (v.20-23)

Gen. 40:20   On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him. (Genesis 40:20-23)

  • Three days later, Pharaoh threw a great birthday party. I believe this is the only birthday party mentioned in the Old Testament.
  • Pharaoh “lifted up the head” and had both the chief cupbearer and the chief baker brought from prison.
  • He restored the cupbearer to his position, but he hanged the chief baker.
  • God’s interpretation explained by Joseph proved true.
  • But the cupbearer failed to remember Joseph. Joseph remained in prison.
  • It’s been 11 years since Joseph had been sold to slavery in Egypt.
    • Joseph must have been so eager the first few days after the cupbearer leaves prison.
    • Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months. For 2 years, nothing.

How could the cupbearer not remember Joseph?

  • In ancient times, someone who correctly and positively interpreted a dream was believed to have helped make the positive dream come true.[2] So the cupbearer had even more reason to be grateful to Joseph.
  • He could not have simply forgotten Joseph.
  • Verse 23 sounds redundant—“the cupbearer did not remember Joseph; but forgot him.”
    • The text’s redundancy emphasizes the cupbearer’s deliberate ingratitude.
  • Background: “The cupbearer” did more than open bottles and taste the wine, if this description is just taken literally.
    • The Hebrew term משׁקה “cupbearer” corresponds to Egyptian wbʾ. “These officials (often foreigners) became in many cases confidants and favorites of the king and wielded political influence” (Kitchen, NBD, 283). Nehemiah occupied a similar position in the Persian court (Neh 1:11–2:8).[3]
    • A modern day United States equivalent is serving as the Secretary of Agriculture in the President’s cabinet.
    • When the cupbearer was thrown in prison, it was likely for some crime or poor decision made as Pharaoh’s cabinet member.
    • The cupbearer may have feared his restoration to his position was at best tenuous. So to risk losing his position again by suggesting another person in Pharaoh’s prison was falsely accused which would solicit Pharaoh’s repentance required too much personal risk.
    • So the cupbearer probably wanted to wait until his position was better secured. And as time passed, he forgot Joseph.

In contrast, what the thief on the cross asked Jesus.

  • “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
  • And Jesus remembered him; the thief was saved.

While the cupbearer forgot Joseph, God remembered Joseph and remained faithful in three ways.

  • God gave Joseph his presence. He remained with Joseph.
  • God gave him chesed (steadfast love, loving kindness).
  • God gave him chen (favor and grace)

God’s faithfulness followed Joseph from his childhood, his time as slave in Potiphar’s house, his time in prison, and soon his ascendency to prominence.

Our next Bible study, we will continue the Joseph narrative and come to one of the more pivotal chapters, Genesis 41.

  1. Jonathan Edwards. “Charity and Its Fruits.”
    “4. Charity Meek in Bearing Evil and Injuries” ↩︎

  2. Talmud Brachot 55b. ↩︎

  3. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, vol. 2, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1994), 381. ↩︎

Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph

  1. Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
  2. Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
  3. Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
  4. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
  5. Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
  6. God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
  7. Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
  8. Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
  9. Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
  10. Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
  11. Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
  12. Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
  13. Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
  14. Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
  15. A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
  16. It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
  17. Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
  18. God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
  19. "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
  20. Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
  21. God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)