Joseph continues to walk with God and experience His presence and power, and those around him continue to be blessed as a result. In this chapter he helps fellow prisoners understand what God has for them, and one directly benefits from his help. However, as it was with Potiphar and the chief jailer, the blessings seem to flow through Joseph rather than to him. At the end of the chapter he still languishes in prison for something he didn’t do. God’s direction in Joseph’s life continues to be shrouded, and His way of fulfilling Joseph’s dreams continues to be very strange, yet through all of it Joseph continues to live faithfully and obediently.
We don’t know how long Joseph has been in prison when the events of this chapter take place. We know – based on verse 1 and verse 46 of Chapter 41 – that he is roughly 28 years old and has been in Egypt roughly 11 years. The text doesn’t tell us how long he served Potiphar before the incident with Potiphar’s wife, so there’s no way to know how many of the 11 years were with Potiphar and how many in prison.
At some point in his incarceration, the chief cupbearer and chief baker for Pharaoh offend the king and are put in the same prison as Joseph (per 39:20 this prison is where the king’s prisoners are confined). The text says they are put in the prison overseen by the captain of the bodyguard and that the captain puts Joseph in charge of the two officials. Since the captain of the bodyguard is Potiphar (per 39:1), presumably this means that Joseph is in his prison and he still trusts Joseph enough to have him attend the high-ranking prisoners (perhaps another sign that he didn’t totally buy his wife’s accusation). It may also mean that Joseph is able to interact with Potiphar without any bitterness over being imprisoned (another sign of his incredible fidelity to God). Verse 4 says the officials are in prison for some time (which of course means Joseph is too).
One morning Joseph comes to the two officials and notices they are dejected. When he asks them why, they tell him they’ve both had dreams they can’t interpret. Apparently the dreams are different and poignant enough that they know there’s a message in them. If they were in Pharaoh’s court – where they used to be – they’d be able to use the court magicians and wise men to get an interpretation. But since they’re in prison, no one is available. Since they know there’s a message in the dreams, it’s discouraging that no one can tell it to them.
Joseph responds to them in a somewhat surprising way. He says, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please.” He seems to have total confidence that God can give him the meaning of the dreams. He’s never been a holy man or a magician; he’s simply been a shepherd and a slave and now a prisoner. Yet he doesn’t hesitate at all. If God is the One who sent the dreams then God is the One who can make their meaning clear. And though he’s never interpreted anything other than his own very obvious dreams of 11 years ago, he knows God is with him and so God can give him the answer just as much as He could to a wise man or magician.
Joseph’s confidence comes from experiencing God’s direction for years. What has been so obvious to others – notably Potiphar and the chief jailer – hasn’t been lost on Joseph. God walks with him and guides him and blesses everything he touches. It’s why he’s been able to thrive in the midst of very difficult circumstances (slavery and prison). And since God has so clearly been with him for such a long time, he sees no problem with assuming God will work through him again. And if it doesn’t work and he can’t interpret the dreams? Not an issue because he clearly said the interpretation would come from God. If God doesn’t give it to him, it’s God’s decision and Joseph loses nothing.
His faith that God will give him the meaning of the dreams is the same faith that kept him from Potiphar’s wife. He walks so closely with God that he can’t imagine sinning against Him but can imagine having the power to do something he’s never done before.
The cupbearer tells Joseph his dream. Throughout the dream there are groupings of three. Three branches on the vine. Three verbs that describe what happens with the branch – it was budding, its blossoms came out, it clusters produced ripe grapes. Three mentions of Pharaoh. And three things the cupbearer does – took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.
Joseph tells the cupbearer the message is that in three days he will be restored by Pharaoh to his old position. He will again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand as he did formerly.
After Joseph interprets the dream he asks the cupbearer for a favor. He asks that when he’s restored he tell Joseph’s story to Pharaoh and see if he can get Joseph released. He explains to the cupbearer that he was kidnapped from his home and is now in prison for something he didn’t do.
Joseph’s request of the cupbearer is interesting. He’s in prison because an official in Pharaoh’s court put him there. That he now wants the cupbearer to plead his case means he either thinks the cupbearer is more powerful than Potiphar or he assumes the cupbearer might be willing to cross Potiphar to repay Joseph’s help.
Joseph may see this encounter as God’s way of getting him out. God brought the cupbearer and the baker to his prison and gave them both dreams that only Joseph – through God’s strength – could interpret. Now the cupbearer will go back to court and have direct access to Pharaoh. It sure seems like God is superintending circumstances in such a way to effect his release. Surely God means for this to be his ticket out?
The baker hears the favorable message in the cupbearer’s dream and thinks the news will be good for him too. He tells Joseph his dream expectantly but it differs from the cupbearer’s in critical ways. First – the baker doesn’t do anything in the dream; he’s passive. Second – Pharaoh doesn’t appear. Birds eat bread out of three baskets on the baker’s head rather than Pharaoh eating what the baker serves him.
Sure enough, the meaning is the polar opposite of the good news Joseph had for the cupbearer. Instead of being restored, the baker will be executed in three days. As a matter of fact, it appears that he’ll be decapitated and then his corpse hung on a tree (perhaps impaled) and left for the birds. Whatever the baker did to Pharaoh, it was significant enough that Pharaoh is still really angry.
Everything Joseph predicts comes to pass. Three days after the dreams – on Pharaoh’s birthday (which could mean his actual birthday or perhaps the anniversary of his ascent to the throne) – he makes a feast for all his servants and restores the cupbearer to his old position. However, he also executes the baker.
It’s interesting to consider Joseph’s perspective at this point. These two men have dreams that are fulfilled in three days. His dreams – that didn’t take any interpreting because they so obviously showed him ruling over his family – have languished for 11 years without coming true. And while he certainly wouldn’t switch places with the baker, it may be hard to watch the cupbearer walk out of prison completely free and restored to his old position just three days after receiving a message from God.
It’s especially hard if the cupbearer did in fact do something to Pharaoh to get himself imprisoned in the first place. Joseph did nothing wrong and stays in prison. The cupbearer apparently did do something wrong but now resumes his life as if nothing happened.
And that’s not the worst of it. The worst part of the cupbearer going free is that he promptly forgets all about Joseph. He doesn’t say anything to anyone about Joseph’s plight. He gets his old job back and starts working with Pharaoh but says nothing about his lost buddy in prison. Joseph helped him when he was at his lowest but he completely forgets to repay the favor.
So where do we leave Joseph as the chapter ends?
- He’s still in prison and will be there another TWO years (41:1).
- He’s still done nothing to deserve his fate. He shouldn’t be in Egypt and certainly shouldn’t be in prison. He’s acted righteously at every turn and been punished as a result.
- He’s possibly confused. He was used by God in Potiphar’s house and he was used by God in prison and he was used by God to assist the cupbearer. Potiphar, the chief jailer, and the cupbearer were all blessed as a result of having Joseph in their lives. Yet Joseph remains in prison and has no idea if and when he’ll get out. The blessings flow through him but not to him.
- He clearly has God with him. God just showed His presence by allowing Joseph to interpret the dreams. Yet God’s power and wisdom and guidance don’t change his circumstances.
- He may have just had his hopes crushed. If God didn’t intend for the encounter with the cupbearer to end with his release, why bring the man to him at all? Why not just leave Joseph in his daily drudgery instead of getting his hopes up? What was the point of so clearly using him in the cupbearer’s life if it wasn’t to enable his release?
So what does he do for the next two years? We obviously don’t know any details, but some details from the next chapter give us some clues. When Pharaoh calls him out of prison Joseph is still clearly experiencing God’s presence in his life. And he says nothing to Pharaoh that sounds bitter at all. That means that he apparently spends his time in prison being faithful to God and serving the chief jailer (and possibly Potiphar – the man who unjustly imprisoned him). He faithfully waits and trusts and obeys. We know from his interaction with Mrs. Potiphar that he knows how to faithfully obey every day (39:10). So it’s not hard to imagine that he does this for the next 730 days. He waits without knowing how long the wait will be. He trusts without knowing what God’s plan or timing are. And he obeys because he only knows to be faithful to the One who’s guided him for so long.
There’s one last thing not to miss about this story. If in fact we’re right that Joseph could look at his encounter with the cupbearer and assume it’s God’s way of enabling his release; and if we’re right to surmise that after the cupbearer leaves and nothing changes that his hopes could be crushed; then it’s interesting to know the rest of the story. Because in fact the interaction with the cupbearer IS God’s way of enabling Joseph’s release. But it’s a release TWO YEARS from now. God will use the cupbearer exactly as Joseph hopes. But He’s going to do it in His own time. And His time will pass VERY slowly. Because God isn’t done with Joseph yet. Before He can exalt him He needs to form him a little longer in the heat of injustice and captivity.
Knowing Joseph’s story can help us if we’re in the heat and pressure of God’s molding. If God has us in a place that’s no fun and confusing and seemingly hopeless, we can learn from Joseph’s example. What do we do under those circumstances? We wait without knowing for how long. We trust without understanding the plan. And we obey because we love the One who asks us to wait and trust and obey. Ultimately we faithfully serve the One who controls the heat and the pressure.