So Joseph had been thrown into prison after the wife of a high ranking Egyptian official accused him of trying to sexually assault her. Altough Joseph probably didn’t realize it at the time, that experience would eventually go on to help him get ready for the next stage of his life in a very unusual way…
“Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined.
The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them. After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men — the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison — had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own” (Genesis 40:1-5).
These verses mention two important officials in the Egyptian government during that time: the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. The cupbearer (or “butler”) was the person who was in charge of overseeing the king’s grape vineyards and wine cellars. He also had the responsibility of tasting any food or drink before it was served to the king to make sure that someone hadn’t poisoned it first. Because of this, the cupbearer was a trustworthy person and someone who was usually a close friend to the king.
The chief baker was the person who was responsible for the overall food preparation at the king’s residence. Today, we might refer to someone in this position as the “head chef” for Pharaoh’s court. So these men held high profile responsibilities and because of this, they were were recognized as people of importance and respect.
The problem was that the cupbearer and the chief baker had both done something to anger and offend the king. Now the word that’s translated as “offended” in this passage means “to sin” or “to incur guilt” (1) and while we don’t know exactly what happened between these men, we do know that it had to be something much more serious than burning the king’s dinner or messing up his wine list. It’s been suggested that this wording implies that the cupbearer and chief baker had both been caught up in some kind of plot against the king, but it’s impossible to be certain.
(1) OT:2398 chata’ Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
“Some time later, Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer and chief baker offended their royal master. Pharaoh became angry with these two officials, and he put them in the prison where Joseph was, in the palace of the captain of the guard. They remained in prison for quite some time, and the captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, who looked after them” (Genesis 40:1-4 NLT).
So Pharaoh put these men into the same jail where Joseph was imprisoned. But did you notice that “the captain of the guard” was the one who assigned the butler and the chief baker to Joseph’s oversight? If you were reading closely during our look at Genesis 39, then you already know who this person is.
You see, the “captain of the guard” was identified as none other than Potiphar back in Genesis 39:1. In other words, the same man who was responsible for putting Joseph in prison was also the one who was responsible for assigning these men to his oversight.
So even though Potiphar couldn’t let Joseph out of jail due to his wife’s accusations against him, he did seem to recognize that her charges against him weren’t really true. This would explain why Potiphar continued to have Joseph work for him while he was in prison.
We’re then told that the cupbearer and chief baker had both been in custody for “some time.” This implies that Joseph had the opportunity to get to know both of them well- and that gave him the ability to see that something wasn’t right on one particular morning…
“One night each of the two men had a dream, but their dreams had different meanings. The next morning, when Joseph went to see the men, he could tell they were upset, and he asked, ‘Why are you so worried today?’
‘We each had a dream last night,’ they answered, ‘and there is no one to tell us what they mean'” (Genesis 40:5-8a CEV).
Now before we continue, let’s take a moment to think about Joseph’s situation. Imagine if you were stuck in jail for a crime that you didn’t commit, just as Joseph was. What if you had been arrested and thrown into prison on false charges and had been there for a long time, just as Joseph was. Would you feel angry about your situation? Would you be bitter? Would you feel concerned about other people as you woke up in jail day after day?
It’s probably safe to say that most people would be probably feel angry or resentful in a similar situation. But Joseph wasn’t like most people- and we’ll take a closer look at his response to these men next.
While most people would probably feel angry or bitter if they had been imprisoned on false charges, Joseph didn’t feel that way. Joseph wasn’t totally focused on his own feelings and he wasn’t indifferent to the things that were going on outside his own life during his imprisonment.
Instead, he demonstrated care and concern for the lives of those people whose paths crossed with his. So when the cupbearer and chief baker both had dreams that disturbed them, Joseph decided to ask them what was wrong. They replied by saying…
“‘We both had dreams,’ they answered him, ‘but there’s no one to tell us what they mean'” (Genesis 40:8a GW).
The cupbearer and chief baker each thought that there might be a deeper meaning behind each of their dreams but they were unable to figure out what it might be. So here was Joseph’s response…
“Then Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams'” (Genesis 40:8b).
These ten words tell us a lot about Joseph’s character and the kind of person he was. First, it’s clear Joseph was someone who was willing to help others even though it seemed like no one was willing to help him while he was in jail.
Next, notice that Joseph didn’t try to send these men to a palm reader, a fortune teller, or an astrologer. He didn’t hold a séance, examine some tarot cards, or bring out a Ouija board. Joseph didn’t seek the advice of a wizard, speak with a psychic, or consult some tea leaves. In other words, Joseph didn’t do any of the things that people sometimes do when they want to know the future without asking God for His help or direction.
Instead, Joseph said, “Don’t interpretations come from God?” (Genesis 40:8 MSG). By saying this, Joseph pointed the the cupbearer and chief baker right back to the only Person who could actually answer their question- God. Then he expressed his confidence that God could give him the answers they were looking for by saying, “Go ahead and tell me your dreams” (NLT).
So Joseph spoke about his confidence in God but he also demonstrated his confidence in God by asking these men to speak with him about their dreams. Now it might be a little surprising to hear Joseph say something like this since the last time he spoke on this subject, it eventually got him thrown into an empty well and sold off into slavery. But since Joseph was willing to help, these men were willing to let him- and we’ll start to hear the interpretations of their dreams next.
“So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, ‘In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand'” (Genesis 40:9-11).
A big part of the cupbearer’s responsibility in those days involved tasting the king’s wine before the king drank it to make certain that no one had poisoned it first. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the cupbearer’s dream featured some images that were connected with his former job- familiar things like grapes, grape vines, and Pharaoh’s goblet or cup.
The problem was that even though the cupbearer knew these items well, he didn’t understand the meaning behind the familiar images of his dream. But after hearing the cupbearer tell his story, God allowed Joseph to reveal the deeper significance behind those images…
“‘This is what it means,’ Joseph said to him. ‘The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer'” (Genesis 40:12-13).
Notice that Joseph didn’t try to tell the cupbearer that there was a vague interpretation or obscure meaning behind his dream- he came right out and effectively told him, “this = that”. First he said, “This is the meaning of your dream. The three branches stand for three days…” (CEV).
In other words, Joseph told the cupbearer, “You will find out on the day after tomorrow if what am about to tell you will come true.” And what was going to happen after three days? Well, that comes next: “within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh’s cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer” (Genesis 40:13 NASU).
This term “lift up your head ” (as seen above) is an Old Testament way of expressing the return of dignity or power in someone’s life. If we were to rephrase this idea in a more up to date sense, we might say that Joseph told the cupbearer, “In three days, you’ll be able to hold your head up high once more.”
“‘I know what the dream means,’ Joseph said. ‘The three branches mean three days! Within three days Pharaoh is going to take you out of prison and give you back your job again as his chief butler” (Genesis 40:12-13 TLB).
So Joseph provided the cupbearer with the meaning behind his dream. But now that Joseph had given him the interpretation of his dream, he had one small favor to ask…
“But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (Genesis 40:14-15).
There’s something important that we can learn from Joseph’s response in these verses. Even though God was in control of Joseph’s life, Joseph still felt that it was OK to ask for the cupbearer’s assistance in getting out of the bad situation that he was in. While it was true that Joseph was going to be in prison for as long as God wanted him there, that still didn’t stop him from making a request that could help him get out of this unjust situation.
This experience also helps to serve as an example that we can apply in our lives today. You see, while God does direct the course of our existence, we still have a responsibility to make common sense responses to the circumstances we face in life. For instance, take a look at something that the Apostle Paul once wrote in a letter that he sent to the church that met in the town of Corinth…
“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you — although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
In other words, Paul said that it was OK for someone to take advantage of an opportunity to improve his or her circumstances. Of course, the danger is that “good opportunities” can often turn out to be not so good if someone doesn’t take the time to ask God for His guidance and direction first. It’s usually better to ask God for His direction before making decisions and then prayerfully move forward on those opportunities that come our way.
So in a general sense, if there are good, reasonable, and appropriate ways to improve the circumstances we face in life, then Joseph’s example tells us that its OK to try and move forward on them.
So Joseph successfully interpreted the dream of the cupbearer but there was still one more interpretation to go…
“When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, ‘I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head'” (Genesis 40:16-17).
After hearing Joseph’s explanation of the meaning behind the cupbearer’s dream, the chief baker wanted to hear what Joseph had to say about his dream as well. After all, the chief baker’s dream also featured some images that were very similar to the cupbearer’s dream. For example, both dreams involved the type of work that each man had been involved in before he was put in jail. The idea of “three” was also featured in each dream. In the cupbearer’s case, his dream involved three branches. In the chief baker’s dream, he saw the image of three baskets of bread.
As it turned out, the number three actually represented the same thing in both dreams- it stood for the number of days that were left until each dream was fulfilled. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities ended. You see, the fulfillment of the cupbearer’s dream would turn out to be something that was very positive for him. The chief baker would not be so fortunate…
“‘This is what it means,’ Joseph said. ‘The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh'” (Genesis 40:18-19).
This second interpretation must have been very difficult for Joseph to disclose to the chief baker. After all, it’s certainly not easy to tell someone that he or she is about to die. But Joseph handled this situation in a way that set the right example for people who want to honor God. You see, Joseph was as faithful to communicate the bad news to the chief baker as he was to communicate the good news to the cupbearer.
Like Joseph, one of the most difficult things that a God-honoring person has to do is to tell people the truth when that truth is hard to say. That’s because people don’t always react very well when they are presented with hard or unpleasant truths. This can be difficult for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for the person with a strong desire to be popular and well-liked by everyone else. We’ll talk about the reasons for that next.
“’This is what the dream means,” Joseph told him. ‘The three baskets also represent three days. Three days from now Pharaoh will lift you up and impale your body on a pole. Then birds will come and peck away at your flesh’” (Genesis 40:18-19 NLT).
One important responsibility for any God-honoring person is to tell people the truth, even when that truth may be difficult or unpleasant to hear. That’s what Joseph did in the Scripture quoted above. But this responsibility can be almost impossible if someone’s main desire is to be accepted and approved by others in his or her group.
For instance, let’s take the example of a Christian whose number one priority is to be popular and well-liked by other people in his or her social circle. Now being popular and well-liked are good things, but here’s the problem: you can’t always be Mr. or Ms. Godly Person and also be Mr. or Ms. Popularity in a world where most people would really prefer not to think about God at all.
You see, if someone really wants to follow God wholeheartedly, then that person must also be willing to break from the crowd in certain situations (and possibly sacrifice some popularity) in order to speak the truth or do what’s right. In other words, you have to be willing to deliver the bad news as well as the good news just as Joseph did. This idea is also repeated later on in the New Testament when the Apostle Paul said to a group of church leaders, “I did not keep back from declaring to you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27 MKJV).
Of course, someone might see Joseph’s message to the chief baker as something that was unnecessarily cruel and hurtful. Or perhaps someone might say that Joseph didn’t do enough to consider the chief baker’s feelings in the way that he communicated the meaning of his dream. While it’s true that we should always try to be considerate and “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) when talking to others, we should also consider this: would it have been better for Joseph to lie to the baker about what was going to happen to him? Would it have been better for Joseph to misrepresent the truth about what the future held for this man? Would it have been better for Joseph to conceal the reality of what this man was up against in consideration of his feelings?
The truth was that Joseph was actually helping the chief baker in speaking to him the way that he did, and we’ll see why next.
Joseph’s interpretation of the chief baker’s dream started off in a way that was similar to his interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream- but there was one important change. While Joseph told the cupbearer that Pharaoh was going to “lift up” his head, he told the baker that Pharaoh was going to “lift off” his head. This one small difference meant that each man had a very different future destiny.
You see, Joseph told the baker, “Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh” (Genesis 40:19). This referred to gruesome form of Egyptian punishment that was somewhat similar to crucifixion. Here’s what would happen: when someone was convicted of a crime that was worthy of the death sentence in Egypt during that time, the convicted person’s head would be cut off. Next, the headless body was impaled on a stake alongside a road where it would eventually be eaten by various birds of prey.
It’s likely that the Egyptians did this to send the same kind of message that the Roman Empire later sent through the act of crucifixion. The unspoken message in both cases was clear: “Do you want to break the law? Do you want to defy the government? Do you want to challenge the authority? This could happen to you.”
This reality must have made it difficult for Joseph to communicate the meaning of the chief baker’s dream, but Joseph chose to be honest with him. And because Joseph told the truth about what he was up against, the chief baker had time to get ready for what was going to happen. Since God had graciously given this man three days advance notice of what was going to happen to him, he had some time to speak with Joseph, learn about the God who had given him this dream, and get right with Him before his death.
That brings us to an important lesson that we can apply from this example. When it comes time to look for a church home, be sure to look for a church with leaders who are serious about following Joseph’s example- leaders who are teach everything from the Bible, even those passages that may seem uncomfortable or difficult.
After all, if a church has leaders who aren’t willing to talk about Scriptural truths because those truths make them feel uncomfortable, then what other things are they leaving out? It’s better to find a church that speaks the truth from God whether that truth is “good” or “bad” just as Joseph did here.
“Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation” (Genesis 40:20-22).
Some speculate that it was Pharaoh’s custom to throw a big party to celebrate the day of his birth and to offer pardons to various prisoners each year during that time. If this was true, then it would explain why Pharaoh summoned the cupbearer and the chief baker during this birthday feast with the members of his administration.
It was during this time that Pharaoh apparently cleared the cupbearer of any wrongdoing and gave him his old job back. Unfortunately for the chief baker, he received the death sentence just as Joseph said he would.
But then comes one of the saddest verses in the entire Bible…
“The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” (Genesis 40:23).
Have you ever had the feeling that you had been forgotten by someone else? If so, then you can understand how it feels to realize that someone that you were counting on has let you down. You see, the cupbearer was free and ready to move on with his new life- but Joseph was still alone and in prison.
So what was it like for Joseph during this time? Well, perhaps a few days went by and Joseph said to himself, “The cupbearer is probably talking with Pharaoh about my situation now- it shouldn’t be long before I get out of here.” But nothing happened, and Joseph was left to think, “OK, well maybe tomorrow…“ as he counted off the days.
Then a few weeks went by and perhaps Joseph tried to keep up a good attitude by saying, “This is taking longer than I expected but Pharaoh is busy and I’m sure there’s a good reason for the delay.” And Joseph continued to wait.
Then as the months passed and the seasons changed, Joseph was finally faced with the truth: the man that he had helped was not going to do anything to help him. So there was Joseph -abandoned by his brothers, alone, and in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. And with all of that, the cupbearer gave Joseph one additional burden to carry: “He forgot about me…”
“Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer, however, forgot all about Joseph, never giving him another thought” (Genesis 40:23 NLT).
So why did the cupbearer forget about Joseph after Joseph interpreted his dream? Well, the reality is that people always make time for the things they feel are important, and the only conclusion we can draw from his failure to help Joseph is that the cupbearer didn’t think that Joseph was that important. If the cupbearer really wanted to show his appreciation for what Joseph had done for him, then he would been made sure to follow through on Joseph’s request to remember him and show him some kindness (Genesis 40:14-15).
Of course, it’s possible that the cupbearer did plan to speak with Pharaoh about Joseph’s situation at some point, but once he got out of prison, he quickly became distracted by the things that were going on in his life and forgot all about him. If that was the case, then it meant that the cupbearer had the same kind of attitude that people often have in our world today- he became so preoccupied with the needs and interests of his own life that he had no care or concern for the needs of others.
This episode in Joseph’s life helps to remind us of an important truth: even though times have changed since the days of the Bible, people have remained the same in many ways. This simply means that what was true for Joseph and Pharaoh’s cupbearer may also be true for people today as well.
You see, its possible that someone you were counting on is going to let you down as well, just like the king’s cupbearer did with Joseph. While it can be depressing to think about something like that, it’s important to think about the way that we should respond in dealing with the disillusionment and disappointment that comes whenever something like this happens.
For instance, Joseph wasn’t abandoned by an enemy or someone who was against him; he was abandoned by someone who should have been his friend. We’ll also find out later that Joseph had been forgotten and left behind by the king’s cupbearer for two long years. These are the kind of things that can add up to pain and bitterness when they happen to people today.
For most people, it would be natural to respond by feeling angry, resentful, or betrayed in a situation like this. But Joseph was different and it seems clear that he realized that God was working out a plan despite the way things appeared.
We’ll talk more about what Joseph’s example means for people today next.
The end of Genesis chapter forty finds Joseph alone and in prison. He had been rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery, and thrown into jail for a crime he didn’t commit. And if that wasn’t enough, his plea for help had been forgotten by someone who should have been willing to help him.
In this last respect, Joseph’s experience is common to almost everyone: like Joseph, almost everyone will experience a situation where someone that he or she was counting on fails come through.
When something like this happens, it’s important to remember that God is working out a plan for our ultimate benefit despite the way things may appear. And in order to trust God like Joseph did, we have to accept the fact that God really does have our best interests in mind even when it may not seem to be that way.
Of course, someone might read this and say, “How can I know that God has my best interests in mind when things look so bad for me right now?” Well, the answer is that God says so right in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah.29:11).
Now this doesn’t mean that its wrong to ask someone to help us. But it does mean that there’s a difference between trusting someone and putting your trust in someone. It means that our ultimate dependence needs to be on God and not on other people. You see, a committed Christian knows that there is always a reason behind the things that happen, even if he or she doesn’t always know what that reason is. That’s because, “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
So if someone you were really counting on has let you down, ask God to help you look at that situation as an opportunity to exercise faith. After all, there would be no need for faith if God never allowed you to be in a position where you had to exercise it, right? When you are faced with a situation like the one that Joseph experienced, you can say, “Why did God let this happen to me?” or you can say, “This is an opportunity to exercise the kind of faith that is pleasing to God.”
Remember- the cupbearer had forgotten about Joseph, but God didn’t.