This week's parashah continues the story of Joseph, mikeitz, "at the end of" his prison term. Joseph has been Pharaoh's prisoner for two years. Although the cupbearer who was freed from the jail earlier (Genesis 40) had promised to tell Pharaoh of Joseph's dream interpreting talents, it is not until this parashah when Pharaoh has his own perplexing dreams that Joseph is remembered and called to duty. He is released from jail in order to implement planning for the famine he foretells.
This week's selection, taken from the second aliyah, includes Joseph and Pharaoh's conversation regarding Joseph's talent:
Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I dreamt a dream and there is no one to interpret it; but I have heard this about you: you have but to hear a dream to interpret it." Joseph answered Pharaoh by saying, "Not I-it is God who will account for Pharaoh's well-being." (41:15-16)
Dreams have been a common occurrence in the Genesis narrative. What distinguishes Pharaoh's dreams from the others is its seeming incomprehensibility. Whereas previous dreams, such as Joseph's about the sun, the moon and eleven stars have yielded clear interpretations, Pharaoh's remains a mystery. Modern commentator Nahum Sarna observes, "Joseph's dreams, although falling into the same symbolic category, were at once comprehensible to the narrator and his brothers. This distinction is more than incidental. Despite the fact that Israel shared with its pagan neighbors a belief in the reality of dreams as a medium of divine communication, it never developed, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, a class of professional interpreters of dream literature." (Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 218)
Robert Alter's translation conveys the message that Joseph has insight, but no supernatural powers of dream interpretation. Alter translates Pharaoh's comment I have heard about you that you can understand a dream to solve it, using the word "understand" where our translation has "hear." He explains, "'Heard' and 'understand' are the same verb (shama), which has both these senses, precisely like the French entendre." ( The Five Books of Moses, 232)
Pharaoh calls in many soothsayer-priests and sages from around Egypt, but none are able to interpret his dreams (Genesis 41:8). Joseph serves Pharaoh as dream interpreter in a distinctive fashion. He exhibits humility and self-abnegation, attributing his ability to God. This episode provides compelling evidence that Joseph has grown since his narcissist adolescence into an adult who humbly walks with God.
Once Joseph understands Pharaoh's dreams he delivers the bad news and immediately proposes a plan of action. Pharaoh calls him "discerning" and "wise" (Genesis 41:39). The focus of Joseph's skill is shifted immediately as he takes a high office in Pharaoh's court. He is not chief of prophecy or prediction or dream interpretation, rather he is given responsibility over the wealth and detail of managing Egypt through the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Pharaoh gives him great authority, telling him, Only, I, The Throne, shall be greater than you (Genesis 41:40).
Joseph has matured. He is no longer the dreamer, but is admired for his ability to move from the dream to the reality. His gift is to perceive a need and create solutions that will preserve the lives of a nation of people, not his own ego. Proof that his effort was successful is his own family's arrival in seeking refuge from the regional famine. Although Joseph recognizes God as directing his destiny, divine messages via dreams do not direct him. His wise choices and counsel help him to succeed. Word travels to Jacob and the brothers, and presumably others traveled to Egypt as well. Egypt's success in preparation and management of the famine is entirely because of Joseph's visionary effective leadership in arranging storehouses and a distribution network. Dreams become reality by a commitment to do what is right.
- Dreams have been the subject of stories for many centuries. Why do you think people have universally found them so important?
- Joseph's ability to understand the dream and plan for the famine cause Pharaoh to call him "discerning" and "wise." What do you think makes a person wise? Does Joseph's tendency to credit God contribute to his wisdom?
- The result of the dream interpretation is that Joseph helps Egypt prepare for a famine. Where is there famine today, literally and figuratively? How can we plan for times of famine?
For Further Learning
Interpreting God's messages through dreams and signs has been a dubious art since Biblical times. People are still suspect of those who claim to understand the meaning of dreams.Learn about the comical Harry Potter character, dizzy Divination Professor Trelawney. How are Joseph's behavior and insight different from Professor Trelawney's antics? What motivates each character?