From Prison to Prince

After languishing in prison for several years Joseph is called upon to interpret Pharaoh's dreams and in doing so successfully is transformed from being a prisoner to becoming a prince of Egypt.
Class by:
45 of 50

We left Joseph in Potiphar's jail wrongly accused of having attempted to rape the chief official's wife. He rises to an important position in the jail and while there uses his special gifts of interpretation to explain the dreams of two high officials in jail pending an investigation. His interpretations are realized and one of the officials is restored and the other one is executed. The final scene sees him asking the freed official to help him get out of prison when he returns to the palace but he forgets and Joseph remains in jail for another two years.

We will now look at the events that take Joseph out of jail and propel him to a leadership position over the entire nation.

Pharaoh's Dream – Chapter 41

1Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. 2And lo, from the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat; and they grazed in the marsh grass. 3Then behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and gaunt, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4The ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then Pharaoh awoke. 5He fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump and good. 6Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them. 7The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.
- Genesis 41:1-7

Joseph's dreams seemed to come in pairs:

  • His two dreams where his family bowed down before him.
  • The two dreams by the butler and baker.
  • The two dreams of the Pharaoh.

Cows were especially significant in Egypt because the cow was the emblem of Isis the goddess of fertility.

In the "Book of the dead" the main holy book of ancient Egypt, the god of vegetation Orisis, is represented by a bull accompanied by seven cows. Cows, therefore, were a significant religious symbol in Egypt and a dream that had such startling imagery involving cows would have seemed significant.

Also, the dream about the crops had impact because Egypt, with its fertile lands near the Nile, was considered the granary to the ancient world. The dreams, although physically impossible, seemed so real that when he awoke the Pharaoh was relieved to see that he was only dreaming.

8Now in the morning his spirit was troubled, so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.
9Then the chief cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh, saying, "I would make mention today of my own offenses. 10Pharaoh was furious with his servants, and he put me in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, both me and the chief baker. 11We had a dream on the same night, he and I; each of us dreamed according to the interpretation of his own dream. 12Now a Hebrew youth was with us there, a servant of the captain of the bodyguard, and we related them to him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. To each one he interpreted according to his own dream. 13And just as he interpreted for us, so it happened; he restored me in my office, but he hanged him."

In his dreams the two symbols of Egypt's religious and economic wealth were destroyed and this troubled him.

  • The magicians and fortune tellers of Egypt had great powers (as Moses found out later).
  • God's servants demonstrate power given to them by God in order to create faith and praise to God.
  • Satan also has power although it is limited by God (i.e. the things that happened to Job).
  • His servants exercise certain powers in order to draw people away from faith in God.
  • Satan had the power to give all the kingdoms to Jesus. How many have given their souls in exchange for success or rulership in this world.
  • Many exercise occult power as did these ancient magicians.

We do not deny that strange and occult power exists, we simply say that it does not come from God and that it is not greater than God's. This is quite evident in this passage as the magicians and fortune tellers try to interpret the important dreams of the Pharaoh. These people were the court advisors who guided the king in much of the affairs of state. They realized the significance of the dream but could not conjure up a satisfying answer as to what they meant.

At this point the butler remembers Joseph and his remarkable and concise interpretation of the dreams they had in prison. At this point they have nothing to lose and the butler is at no risk in making the suggestion.

Joseph and Pharaoh

14Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon; and when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came to Pharaoh. 15Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." 16Joseph then answered Pharaoh, saying, "It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer."

The Egyptians were very particular about cleanliness, only allowing their beards to grow in times of mourning. So Joseph is summoned from prison and quickly cleaned up in preparation for his appearance before one of the most powerful leaders in the world at that time.

The Pharaoh lays before him the problem of the dream and the inability of the magicians to interpret. This could have been a great opportunity for Joseph to:

  • Be proud and flattered by this attention.
  • Try to bargain his way out of jail.
  • Exchange his power for financial reward.

His thirteen years in captivity had taught him patience, restraint and humility.

  • He immediately acknowledged that he had no power except by God.
  • He made no conditions for the interpretation.
  • He assured Pharaoh that the situation although difficult, would end in peace.

In the past, Joseph had used his gift to try to dominate and elevate himself in front of his brothers, but now after the painful lessons he had learned, he managed to act in a restrained and gracious way while in control in the king's court.

In the next verses (17 to 24), the king simply repeats his dream to Joseph for his interpretation. He adds some details (like the thin cattle were in worse shape after eating the seven fat ones). He also explains how the magicians were helpless in trying to explain the dreams.

This acknowledgement suggests that the king was not only afraid of the problems that the dreams foretold but was not equipped to handle a national crisis.

25Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same; God has told to Pharaoh what He is about to do. 26The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same. 27The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind will be seven years of famine. 28It is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. 29Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; 30and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will ravage the land. 31So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe. 32Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about.

Joseph explains the significance of the numbers.

  • Two dreams a sure confirmation that God is sending the dream.
  • 7 cows, 7 ears represent years of good and bad.

The interpretation is so natural, so obvious that it is accepted by all who hear it.

Some interesting notes about the use of God's name by Joseph:

  • Joseph attributes the dreams and interpretations 4 times in these passages.
  • Whenever he refers to God in speaking to the Egyptians he uses the term "Elohim" which means mighty Creator and Sovereign King – a term which the Egyptians could relate to.
  • Whenever the writer refers to God and Joseph in their relationship with one another he uses the term "Jehovah" which means "Lord".

The dream is thus interpreted and accepted by the Pharaoh and the magicians as well.

33Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. 35Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh's authority, and let them guard it. 36Let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish during the famine."

God not only provides the interpretation but also a plan of action through the mouth of Joseph.

  • Find a worthy administrator.
  • Appoint officers to collect a special tax - 20%.
  • Build storage facilities to store the 20% of food bought with tax or collected as tax into storage.

The plan would avoid the situation where the responsibility over life and death of everyone would reside on a single person (the king) and would allow provisions and distribution for the future.

There is no reason to think that Joseph is thinking of himself here. He is continuing to give God's message following the interpretation.

Joseph the Chief Official

37Now the proposal seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his servants.
38Then Pharaoh said to his servants, "Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?" 39So Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are. 40You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you." 41Pharaoh said to Joseph, "See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt." 42Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put the gold necklace around his neck. 43He had him ride in his second chariot; and they proclaimed before him, "Bow the knee!" And he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Though I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt." 45Then Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, as his wife. And Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh and his advisors recognize that Joseph is the right person for this job because they recognize the Spirit of God in him. The way that he had revealed the dreams not only provided an interpretation but his humble, poised and wise presentation had made an effective witness for God before the pagan king and his court. The king was consciously acting according to God's will by accepting the interpretation and selecting Joseph.

All the signs of power are now given to Joseph in order to elevate him in the eyes of the people so he could carry out his project.

  • He needed their acceptance to collect taxes and food without confusion and resistance.
  • He receives the appointment from the Pharaoh to the number two position without resistance from other counselors.
  • He receives a signet ring as a seal for official documents.
  • He receives a new and official wardrobe.
  • He receives the gold chain and medal which signify his authority.
  • They organize a royal procession as a way of introducing him and his new position to the people as the second in command.

The king also found him a wife since he was not an Egyptian; he needed this credibility through marriage to be accepted by the population.

His wife was a daughter of a pagan priest. We do not know of her conversion, only that Joseph had only her as wife and that their children were raised as believers in Jehovah.

46Now Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. 47During the seven years of plenty the land brought forth abundantly. 48So he gathered all the food of these seven years which occurred in the land of Egypt and placed the food in the cities; he placed in every city the food from its own surrounding fields. 49Thus Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.

50Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him. 51Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, "For," he said, "God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household." 52He named the second Ephraim, "For," he said, "God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."

Joseph immediately begins to survey the land and collect the food. To allay fears of the people, the storehouses are built in different cities. Joseph has two sons and gives them names signifying how he feels: Manasseh – forgetting, and Ephraim – doubly fruitful.

The years were bountiful to the point where it was difficult to keep track of everything that was in storage. From prison to prince, God had restored Joseph in a moment. This is a wonderful lesson for us when we are discouraged. God can restore us in a moment whether it be here on earth or in the "twinkling" of an eye when Jesus comes.

Joseph maintained his faith and when he was restored, it was as if the thirteen years in prison, the suffering, the loneliness and injustice had never occurred.

Heaven will be like this, we will remember people and places and events – but the greatness of our experience there will be such that it will make our experience here like it never happened.

53When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end, 54and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. 55So when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, you shall do." 56When the famine was spread over all the face of the earth, then Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians; and the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57The people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth.

Just as Joseph had predicted, the famine arrived after the seven years of great abundance. This caused the people to look to Pharaoh for help, and he pointed them to Joseph who put his food bank operation into service. In addition to the food shortage in Egypt, there was also a food shortage in surrounding countries who would come to Egypt to buy food.

This, of course, was part of God's plan to eventually bring the children of Israel to Egypt for 400 long years.


1. We are on God's timetable

We would be a lot less stressed out if we understood that we are on God's timetable and not our own. He brings us into the world, He brings us out and He will order everything in-between if we let Him.

We get into more trouble and worry because we get ahead of Him by not seeking His will in prayer; we get behind Him by refusing to obey His will and going our own way. Joseph learned that God was working things out in His own time and that He could use Joseph when He was ready. Christians have eternity, this helps them to have patience in this world while God accomplishes His purposes using His own schedule.

2. God lifts up the humble and lowers the proud

In this story we see two men exercise humility. Joseph learned it through trials and suffering. His character changed and because of it God raised him from captivity and placed him at the right hand of the king.

The Pharaoh did not learn humility from suffering, his came from being confronted with the power of God in Joseph's work and character. The king could have rejected Joseph's interpretation, rejected this advice from a jailed foreigner, but he humbled himself and God saved his country and his crown.

God hates pride and the Bible says that He actively works against the proud, and conversely works for the humble. This should make us think twice about "puffing up" and being difficult when offended or contradicted, the meek will inherit the earth, the proud will inherit a rebuke and punishment.

3. Prosperity comes from God

These pagans were unaware that their prosperity came from the God of Joseph. They worshipped all kinds of fertility and nature gods and appealed to them for good harvests etc.

Worshipping a pagan "earth god" or the god of money, or the god of leisure, or the god of self-reliance, good government, humanism, central planning – are all the same things. The Lord, Jesus Christ, He is the one who prospers nations and "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." (Psalms 33:12)

One of our great roles and concerns as the church is that it is we, the believers, who many times stand between God and the nation for God's continued blessings. Without Joseph they would have been ruined. Without God's people everywhere, God's wrath would fall upon the nations.

We need to be especially prayerful that this country which has enjoyed tremendous prosperity in the last two centuries because of its faith, does not inherit God's wrath because of its unfaithfulness at the present time. We do well to pray and serve the Lord and hope He spares the nation because of the righteous that live within it.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was the significance of the emblems in Pharaoh's dream from Genesis 41?
  2. What is the significance of Pharaoh's wise men not being able to interpret the dream but Joseph being able to?
  3. What is noticeable about how Joseph not only provides an interpretation of the dream but that he also provides a recommendation for a wise plan of action?
  4. What preparation did Joseph have to begin in his service to Pharaoh and what can we learn from this about our service to God?
  5. How does Joseph's rise from prison to the court of Pharaoh serve as an example of God's plans for us?
  6. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
45 of 50