In our last study we saw Joseph’s life take another unfortunate turn for the worse. After being sold into slavery by his brothers Joseph is ultimately purchased by a powerful Egyptian named Potiphar. Though no one would have blamed Joseph for being bitter about his situation, this young man instead chooses to make the most of the life before him.
Over the course of the next few years Joseph proves to be such a faithful servant that Potiphar eventually places him over his entire household. Regrettably, Joseph’s newfound position places him into a dynamic where he draws the longing eyes of Potiphar’s wife.
Day after day this lecherous woman tries to get Joseph to relent to her sexual whims until finally things reach a head. She grabs hold of Joseph commanding him to “lie with her.” Out of options Joseph righteously resists her sexual advances by choosing to flee the home leaving behind his outer garment. In a tragic twist, to save face, this wicked and vindictive woman spins a tale whereby she unjustly accuses Joseph of attempted rape.
As a result we read in Genesis 39:20, “Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined.” At no fault of his own, Joseph finds himself falsely accused, slandered, and thrown “into prison!” He’s done nothing to warrant such a punishment and he isn’t given the opportunity to defend himself. For the simple crime of doing the right thing Joseph’s life has gone from bad to much much worse.
Genesis 39:21-23, “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing. The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”
Once again, while circumstantially I’m sure it was difficult to reconcile God’s favor with his plight, Joseph’s faith in God did not waiver. Not only are we told “the Lord was with Joseph,” but (in almost an identical way as with Potiphar) over the course of time (note: he was in prison for years) the Lord “gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.”
Amazingly, because it became increasingly obvious “the Lord was with Joseph” on account that “whatever he did the Lord made to prosper” we’re told (just like Potiphar had done with Joseph in his household) “the keeper of the prison committed to Jospeh’s hand” full control of the jail - so much so he “did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority.”
Genesis 40:1-4, “It came to pass after these things that the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their lord, the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief butler and the chief baker. So he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison, the place where Joseph was confined. And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them; so they were in custody for a while.”
Genesis 40:5-8, “Then the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison, had a dream, both of them, each man’s dream in one night and each man’s dream with its own interpretation. And Joseph came in to them in the morning and looked at them, and saw that they were sad. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, ‘Why do you look so sad today?’ And they said to him, ‘We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.’ So Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.’”
Genesis 40:9-15, “Then the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, ‘Behold, in my dream a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches; it was as though it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes. Then 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.’
And Joseph said to him, ‘This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days. Now within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your place, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand according to the former manner, when you were his butler. But remember me when it is well with you, and please show kindness to me; make mention of me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the dungeon.’”
Genesis 40:16-19, “When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Joseph, ‘I also was in my dream, and there were three white baskets on my head. In the uppermost basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, and the birds ate them out of the basket on my head.’ So Joseph answered and said, ‘This is the interpretation of it: The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head from you and hang you on a tree; and the birds will eat your flesh from you.’”
Genesis 40:20-23, “Now it came to pass on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. Then he restored the chief butler to his butlership again, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”
Chapter 40 opens with the introduction of two new characters sent to the King’s Prison and placed into Joseph’s care: They’re known only as the Butler and the Baker of Pharaoh.
Though the text does not tell us what these two men did to “anger and offend their lord” drawing such ire from Pharaoh that they’re both incarcerated, it’s likely whatever had taken place was severe enough to warrant the ultimate execution of the Baker.
Before we continue I do think a mistake is made by assuming the Baker was guilty and the Butler innocent. Almost every pastor I’ve heard commentate on this passage postulates that an assassination attempt had likely been made on Pharaoh’s life (poisoning) and that these two men were the chief suspects. They’re incarcerated while the investigation ensued.
The problem with this is that not only does the text fail to make this distinction stating plainly that both men “offended” Pharaoh (there’s no mention of an assassination attempt or ongoing investigation), but the ultimate restoration of the Butler and condemnation of the Baker appears to have been made independent of their presumed guilt or innocence.
Regardless, Moses tells us that after remaining in “custody for a while” (an unspecified amount of time) a particular night arose where both the Butler and Baker end up having uniquely different, but equally vivid dreams. Let’s quickly recap the dreams of each man:
The Butler saw “in his dream a vine before him and in the vine three branches.” Additionally, he observed that these three branches looked “as though they had budded” with “blossoms shooting forth, and its clusters bringing forth ripe grapes.” Then upon seeing that “Pharaoh’s cup was in his hand” the Butler proceeds to “take the grapes and press them into Pharaoh’s cup” before “placing the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”
As it pertained to the Baker we’re told he saw “in his dream three white baskets on his head.” While there’s no mention of the two lower baskets, he does observe that “in the uppermost basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh.” Sadly though, “birds ate them out of the basket” so that he was unable to provide these goods to the king.
While it’s true both dreams likely manifested from a compilation of various fragments of their memories (the Butler was used to making wine and presenting the cup to Pharaoh and the Baker was in charge of providing his meals), for whatever reason both of these men awoke from their dreams sensing that what they’d just seen possessed a deeper meaning.
The reality is that each man awoke the next morning convinced they had been given some kind of prophetic vision by God into their future. And yet, their problem and source of frustration was an inability to interpret what each dream intended to reveal.
There is no doubt their inability to ascertain the meaning proved to be deeply troubling for when Joseph finally approached the Butler and Baker that morning their consternation was clearly visible. Concerned for these men, Joseph asks, “Why do you look so sad today?”
Well… After hearing their explanation Joseph proceeds to say something I find deeply fascinating. He asks, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.” What makes this statement mind-blowing to me is what it reveals about Joseph.
Here we have a man who’d himself been given a dream by God as well as an interpretation that spoke of a future exaltation he’d one day experience. And yet, over the next ten years following his dreams Joseph has literally failed to see even one aspect of God’s revelation come to fruition. In actuality it’s been quite the contrary… He’s descended down!
How easy it would have been for Joseph to have been pessimistic, condescending, even filled with unbelief concerning their dreams. As William M. Taylor wrote, “Many a man, having had his experience of dreams, would have said to these prisoners, ‘Think no more about them; they are mere delusions. I too have had my dreams; and once they seemed to me prophetic, but they have only mocked me, and it will be the same with you.”
And yet, this is not Joseph’s reaction! The very fact he says, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” reveals the reality that Joseph still (even while facing the disappointments of prison) maintained a steadfast confidence in the truthfulness of God’s Word and trustworthiness of God’s promises - even when he had no circumstantial evidence to rely upon.
You see Joseph was able to endure his prison for one simple reason… He knew God’s Word and therefore God’s promises would never fail! And it was this truth that filled his life with strength and continued purpose even when his situation grew all the more daunting.
Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom once remarked that the key to endurance is to “let God’s promises shine on your problems.” Friend, Paul would even write from his own prison cell in a letter to the Philippians (1:6) that he was “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” For Joseph God’s Word remained the anchor that staid his soul even in the fiercest of storms.
And it’s in this comprehending of Joseph’s perspective of his prison that we come to understand his behavior in his prison. If God’s Word was still sure then the prison itself was invariably part of God’s plan. And since this was the case there had to be a reason!
How amazing that Joseph found purpose in his suffering by seeking to comfort fellow sufferers. Instead of self-pity, Joseph occupied his time serving his fellow prison-mates.
Friend, I can not emphasize enough the power and importance of serving others when you find yourself in the place of suffering. So often in such times it’s so easy to allow our gaze to turn inward (to our own self-detriment) when the key is to look both upwards then outwards.
In his prison Joseph found purpose by looking for opportunities to serve others. It’s how he knew these two men were sad and it was his servants-heart that afforded him the platform to speak. They were willing to share with Joseph because they knew he cared about them!
Once again to this point William M. Taylor wrote, “Those who have been themselves held in trouble, are the most efficient helpers of others when they are in trial… Yes, it is only through suffering that we learn to sympathize… Thus we may console ourselves under our own trials with the thought that God is endowing us thereby with the gift of sympathy, and fitting us to become sons and daughters of consolation to others in affliction.”
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Paul wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Note: It was because Joseph allowed himself to be comforted by God that he was then able to effectively comfort those around him.
Before we dig into the meaning of these two dreams, it’s important you first understand that while God can and does speak through dreams (there are numerous examples of this happening throughout Scripture), not every dream is divinely inspired.
Which leads to the obvious question… How do you know if a dream is from God? It would appear (not only as illustrated in this text, but demonstrated in almost every instance a dream is of divine origin recorded in Scripture) these unique dreams whereby God is seeking to reveal something are always coupled with an unshakeable sense upon awaking that the dream itself was not normal and was instead divinely initiated for some specific purpose.
My point is that if you’re given a dream by God for the intended purposes of revelation, you’ll know it the very moment you wake up! There will be no doubt it was from God.
The second component to this entire concept is the “interpretation.” Though it’s only logical if God gave the dream He also holds the interpretation, the question begs - How was Joseph so confident he would be given the interpretation? The truth is that I really don’t know.
It would seem, before even hearing the dreams, that God somehow moved on Joseph’s heart letting him know he’d be given the interpretation. In much the same way the Butler and Baker knew their dreams were divine, Joseph sensed he’d be able to provide the meaning.
Not to digress, but there are two additional points about dreams that need to be made: (1) Dreams will never contradict the revelation of God’s Word. Instead, I’m convinced dreams are designed to simply support a work the Holy Spirit is already doing in a person’s life.
(2) While I’m not saying you can’t be used by God to interpret another person’s dream… And though the Bible does describe gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment that may be applicable, “Dream Interpretation” is not a listed as a “Gift of the Spirit.”
Let’s quickly look at the meaning of these two dreams… Upon hearing the Butler’s dream, the Lord gives Joseph quite an encouraging interpretation for him. He tells him, “The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your place, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand according to the former manner.”
Well… Upon seeing that the Butler’s dream would lead to his restoration, the Baker decides to get in on the action. Sadly though, the interpretation of his dream wasn’t as uplifting. Joseph informs him, “The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head from you and hang you on a tree; and the birds will eat your flesh from you.”
Once again how did Joseph know “three branches” and “three baskets” represented “three days?” Honestly, I haven’t a clue - other than the fact God must have revealed it to him. In actuality, what this does tells us is that Joseph was so confident his interpretation was correct he was willing to give himself only three days to either be validated or proven wrong.
Not surprisingly, Joseph’s interpretation proved to be correct as we’re told in verses 21-22 that “on the third day” Pharaoh “restored the chief butler, but he hanged the chief baker.”
Before we look at a larger purpose behind this particular story, I do think it’s important I point out the boldness Joseph demonstrates as a servant and therefore interpreter of God’s Word.
While I’m not necessarily going out on a limb when I say we’d all rather preach the Butler’s sermon of forgiveness and restoration as opposed to the Baker’s - which was one of judgment and death, Joseph was willing to preach each when they were warranted.
You see Joseph was clearly more interested in communicating the truth of God’s Word than he was with pleasing men. I’m sure sharing such a brutal message with the Baker was not easy, but it was necessary. I imagine Joseph spoke to him with a palpable love and honesty.
Sadly, when we avoid telling the people we’ve been called by God to serve that His Word clearly states that if they continue in their rejection of Jesus and His sacrifice that their future destiny will include a real judgment leading to a very real hell we do them a grave disservice.
Timothy Keller emphasizes the importance of honestly teaching such difficult truths writing, “To preach the good news, we must preach the bad… It’s only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.”
The reality is that God’s Word really only presents two fundamental messages for humanity… God’s amazing grace demonstrated by accepting Jesus’ atonement for sin or the fact God’s wrath and judgment await those who willing reject such grace!
While it’s true this story is included in the Genesis record because it sets the stage for what happens in the next chapter, what’s most interesting about this story isn’t the particulars of the dream, interpretation, or what follows, but instead the picture these things represent…
For starters, all three men in our story find themselves in the exact same prison for vastly different reasons. As mentioned before, the text clearly states that both the Butler and Baker have done something to deserve their fate. They “offended Pharaoh” or literally in the Hebrew they “sinned against Pharaoh.” The word means “to miss the goal or incur guilt.”
In contrast with these men Joseph finds himself in the same prison under different pretenses. He’s a completely innocent man. Joseph was guilty of no crime. He’s sinned against no man. And yet, we still find him sharing the same cell as the guilty for the simple reason that this was part of God’s plan in using Joseph to save the world! In a sense, while the Butler and Baker are in a prison of their own making, God sent Joseph into this prison.
What a picture of Jesus - A man also sent by God to a prison called earth - An innocent man sent to share a cell with the guilty! And like we see in Joseph’s life, this was a critical part of God’s plan for salvation. Before Jesus could be our Savior… Before He died on the cross, rose the third day, and was exalted to the right-hand of the Father… It was required that He first join the human experience - join fallen man in our prison, to share in our suffering.
Like Joseph, Jesus was sent into our condition for a simple reason. In Mark 10:45 Jesus said of Himself that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” In Hebrews 4:15 we’re told that in Jesus “we have a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses” because “in all points He was tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Friend, Jesus is not only an effective comforter to the prisoner because He willingly entered our prison, but He came into our circumstance to provide the same message Joseph relayed to the Butler and Baker: A message of restoration and life and one of judgment and death.
From the larger perspective what we have recorded for us is a story of one prison filled with three very different men. We have Joseph who’s a type of Jesus… A suffering servant completely innocent of any wrong doing sent by God to this prison to become a savior.
And yet, we also have the Butler and Baker - a picture of sinful man. What’s interesting is that while both men are incredibly similar (they’re both guilty, Joseph serves both, and they each receive a revelation from God) the fate of each dramatically diverges. The Baker we presume receives his just punishment, but the Butler is graciously restored by Pharaoh.
So what’s the difference? Why does one receive grace and the other judgment? Personally, I believe the answer resides in a subtle detail most overlook within our text. Notice that after Joseph explains to them that “interpretations belong to God” we find contrasting responses from these men. In verse 9 we’re told that immediately, “The chief butler told his dream to Joseph” while verse 16 provides a different reaction from the Baker… We read, “When the chief baker saw that the butler’s interpretation was good, he said to Joseph.”
Whereas the Butler seems to demonstrate an honest desire to know what God was trying to reveal to him, the Baker appears only interested because his counterpart had received a favorable interpretation. In a profound sense because their motivations for knowing truth were radically different, the application of the truth yielded contrary results.
I’m convinced the sole difference between these two men really boils down to a matter of the heart revealed in their motivations for hearing Joseph’s interpretation. The Butler genuinely desired to know what God was revealing to him while the Baker seems largely indifferent. How interesting that as a result the Butler ends up receiving a message of restoration while the Baker finds himself facing a certain judgment.
Beyond all of this… It’s also fascinating to note that the Butler is restored by Pharaoh not because he was more innocent than the Baker, but simply on account of Pharaoh’s grace and unmerited favor. This man entered the prison a guilty man because of his sin; and yet, he found himself set free and ultimately restored because of his faith in God’s Word.
In conclusion… Consider the essence of the Butler’s dream - a dream that contained a message of salvation, a message he longed to know, and one that ultimately afforded restoration via grace and not his deservingness. God revealed these glorious truths through a picture of the “pressing” of “grapes” that came from the “branches” of a “vine.”
Though I understand the Butler, Joseph, or Moses for that matter would not have understood the significance of any of these things in the moment, it’s rather amazing that the first mention in the Bible of both the vine, branches, and grapes comes from this very passage!
Which then becomes all the more significant when in John 15:5 Jesus makes this statement, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” Revealed in the Butler’s dream we have the essence of salvation itself… This man was saved because his life yielded fruit pleasing to the King for one simple reason - it came from the Living Vine.
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