Pharaoh's Dreams Interpreted [Genesis 41:1–36 Study]

Pharaoh received two divine dreams. The cupbearer finally remembered Joseph. No one could interpret Pharoah's dreams until Joseph was summoned.

Pharaoh's Dreams Interpreted [Genesis 41:1–36 Study]
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Genesis 39-41 Outline

  • God Remembered Joseph in Potiphar’s House (Genesis 39)
  • God Remembered Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
  • God Remembered Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court (Genesis 41)

Genesis 41:1-36 Outline

  • Pharaoh Troubled by Two Dreams (v.1-8)
  • Cupbearer Remembered Joseph (v.9-13)
  • Joseph Summoned to Pharaoh (v.14-24)
  • Joseph Interpreted Pharaoh’s Dreams (v.25-36)

1. Pharaoh Troubled By Two Dreams

Gen. 41:1   After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 8 So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:1-8)

  • Genesis 41 begins 2 years after Joseph had interpreted the dreams of the chief cupbearer and chief baker while in prison.
  • One night Pharaoh received two dreams in succession from God.

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)

  • God has full control over all things including the minds of kings. In God’s providence, within a day after these dreams are given to Pharaoh, Joseph will be released from prison and made vice regent.

    • In the first dream he saw seven cows, attractive and plump feeding among the reeds along the Nile.
      • He then saw seven other cows, ugly and thin, coming up out of the Nile and eating up the seven attractive, plump cows.
    • Then Pharaoh awoke and fell asleep again.
    • In the second dream Pharaoh saw seven ears of grain, plump and good, growing on one stalk.
      • He then saw seven other ears of sprouted grain—thin and blighted by the east wind.
      • The thin ears of grain swallowed up the seven plump ones.
  • When Pharaoh woke, he realized that he had just received two dreams.

  • The next morning Pharaoh’s spirit was troubled, fearing that his dreams portended in Egypt an ominous future.

  • So he summoned all the magicians and wise men skilled in interpreting dreams. Pharaoh recounted his dreams, but no one was able to interpret.

  • That no one was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream is remarkable. These dreams were detailed with symbolism, so it is hard to imagine none of Pharaoh’s “wise men” and “magicians” were able to offer some interpretation. They likely tried, but none were able to interpret the dreams to Pharaoh’s satisfaction.

  • God filled the mind of Pharaoh with dreams, yet God simultaneously emptied the minds of Pharaoh’s wise men, removing any reasonable suggestion of an interpretation.

  • Compare Pharaoh in Egypt here in Genesis 41 with Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2.

    • Nebuchadnezzar was not willing or able to recount his dream to his magicians and wise men.
    • Instead he commanded his advisers to reveal both the dream and its interpretation without Nebuchadnezzar first recounting the dream.
    • Nebuchadnezzar explained that if a person can reveal the dream, he will be able to give its proper interpretation.
    • The magicians answered, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean.
  • Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, the Pharaoh recounts both dreams. His advisors must have been able to at least venture a guess on its interpretation. But the text says that “there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.”

    • God had blinded Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men, making them incapable of even a reasonable response. This sets up the cupbearer after two years remembering Joseph.
  • Dreams were often used by God as vehicles of revelation to individuals where direct contact with God was not preferred.

    • We see this with Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2.
    • In Genesis, this occurred in Genesis 20 when God spoke to Abimelech in a dream by night.
    • When Jacob was still immature, God appeared to him in a dream in Genesis 28.
    • God came to Laban in Genesis 31:24.
    • God gave Joseph in his youth his two dreams in Genesis 37.
    • God gave the chief cupbearer and baker divine dreams in Genesis 40.
    • We see this again with Pharoah in Genesis 41.
  • In Genesis, should God want to make direct contact, he would do so through a vision during the day or by physical appearance or what we call a theophany. But here God chose not to contact Pharoah directly.

2. The Cupbearer Remembered Joseph

Gen. 41:9   Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.” (Genesis 41:9-13)

  • The chief cupbearer overhears the conversation Pharaoh has with his magicians
    • He sees the magicians’ inability to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams.
  • The cupbearer seizes this opportunity to remember Joseph.
  • Using the plural, “I remember my offenses today” implies his original offense in Genesis 40:1 and his subsequent offense against Joseph in forgetting him.
  • The cupbearer recounts the story where Joseph correctly interpreted his dream as well as the baker’s dream. He shares the story to suggest that Joseph may be able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. If his suggestion proves helpful, he would likely gain favor with Pharaoh.
  • Pharaoh was amenable to the cupbearer’s suggestion that he call upon Joseph. He trusted the cupbearer, and because none of his wise men could interpret the dreams, Pharaoh was desperate.

3. Joseph Summoned to Pharaoh

Gen. 41:14   Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” 17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. 18 Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20 And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21 but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22 I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23 Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24 and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.” (Genesis 41:14-24)

  • Pharaoh immediately sent for Joseph. Joseph is finally rescued from the pit, that is the prison.
  • To present himself properly before Pharaoh, Joseph had to shave and change his clothes.
    • This was to make Joseph look presentable before appearing to Pharoah.
    • One commentator explains, “In the ancient Near East, only the Egyptians were clean-shaven, and the verb used here can equally refer to shaving the head, or close-cropping it, another distinctive Egyptian practice” (Alter).
  • Pharaoh states his predicament that he had a dream without anyone to interpret.
    • Pharaoh does not draw attention to the inability of his professional magicians and wise men.
    • Pharaoh also does not tell Joseph how he knew about Joseph, but Joseph knew.
  • Joseph replied, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
    • Joseph was not shy or reticent. Remember that during this time, Pharaoh was considered a deity or god in Egypt. So for Joseph to speak so freely was a sign of godly confidence.
    • With years for God to prepare himself for this moment, Joseph was confident.
    • Joseph’s reply revealed three truths
      • Pharoah’s answer was not innately within Joseph himself.
      • Instead, Joseph identifies that the source of interpretation comes from Elohim.
        • Note that Joseph uses the Hebrew term Elohim to address God to the Egyptians throughout the Genesis narrative.
      • Furthermore, Joseph also prophetically pronounces that this answer will be favorable. Here in verse 16, “favorable” is translated from the Hebrew word shalom. Without hearing the dream, Joseph assures Pharaoh that the news is good.
  • Pharaoh gives no additional pleasantries or examination of Joseph’s credentials or qualifications. Without hesitation, Pharaoh summarizes his two dreams.
  • In the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, repetition implies importance. The space for writing in scrolls is limited, so to retell the explanation of Pharoah’s dream a second time is significant.
  • When we compare the narrator’s version of Pharaoh’s dream in verses 1-7 to Pharaoh’s retelling of the dream here in verses 15-24, we see differences that highlight Pharaoh’s anxiety.
    • v.3 = cows were ugly and thin
    • v.19 = cows were poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt.
    • v.21, Pharaoh adds the additional detail, “but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still ugly as at the beginning.”
    • v.6 = seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind
    • v.23 = seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind.
    • Pharaoh adds more negative terms and descriptions in his retelling.
  • Pharaoh finally admits that he told these dreams to his magicians, but they were unable to interpret and explain these dreams. Pharoah admits to Joseph his helplessness.

4. Joseph Intreprets Pharoah’s Two Dreams

Gen. 41:25   Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27 The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30 but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31 and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.” (Genesis 41:25-36)

  • Again, I want to return to Daniel 2 and compare Joseph with Daniel. Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was not given instantaneously.
    • Daniel shared the overall situation with others as recorded in Daniel 2:17.
    • They prayed together that Daniel might receive an answer.
    • God then revealed the dream’s content and interpretation to Daniel that night.
    • Daniel prayed to God in thanksgiving in Daniel 2:20-23.
  • In contrast, Joseph did not seek guidance through prayer. Joseph did not need to wait to have God disclose privately to him the interpretation of the dream.
  • Just like with the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, Joseph was able to discern the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream immediately.
  • I should note that when Joseph speaks of God in verses 25, 28, and 32, he adds the definite article with elohim. The definite article with elohim is the usual way of referring to God in the Old Testament. Joseph is highlighting that this God is the one and true God, not one of many false gods identified by Egyptian polytheism.
  • Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams.
    • Joseph explains the significance of the number seven as referring to seven years.
    • Seven years represented by the healthy cows and ears forecasted seven years of abundance.
    • Seven years represented by the thin cows and ears predicted seven years of famine.
    • Only one sentence is used to describe the years of plenty, while five sentences were used to describe the years of famine.
    • In an ancient near East, a seven year famine would be utterly devastating.
    • Joseph also explains that the duplicate dreams is God’s way of affirming its certainty.
  • Joseph then shifts to give counsel to the Pharaoh of Egypt.
    • Joseph is a man of great confidence. From his recent release from prison, Joseph was advising the king of Egypt. His confidence testified his interpretations and advice came from God.
  • What was Joseph’s advice?
    • First, select a discerning person and appoint him to manager the overall affairs. Notice that Joseph did not self-nominate himself, but it is implied that Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men were not discerning given their inability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.
    • Second, select additional overseers to collect and store a fifth of the harvest during the seven years of abundance. Storehouses were needed to store this food in the cities and placed under government control.
    • Third, during the seven years of famine, the collected food must be distributed to all in need.
    • Joseph warns that the failure to follow these recommendations would cause Egypt to perish.
  • A severe famine in the Ancient Near East that lasts for 7 years would be utterly devastating. Joseph made it clear to Pharaoh. If you do not take proper action now, in 14 years, Egypt will no longer exist.

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)