Genesis 40:1-5 “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 . . . [and on to the end of the chapter]

There is a papyrus from ancient Egypt which contains the story of false accusation of adultery. It is called ‘The Story of Two Brothers.’ Dr. John Currid informs us that, “One brother accused the other of forcing a sexual relationship on his wife. In fact it was the wife who was the deceitful one, but she’d blamed her brother-in-law. The ending is different from the story of Joseph, the husband killing both his brother and his own wife when he found out she was a liar” (John D. Currid, Genesis, Volume 2, p. 231, E.P., 2003). Here in Genesis we have seen that Joseph was also the subject of sexual harassment. While wholly innocent, his boss’s wife had told her husband that Joseph had tried to rape her, but that she’d screamed for help and fought him off.

Potiphar had the power of life or death over Joseph. No one would have blinked an eyelid if he had cut Joseph’s throat, but maybe he knew his wife, and certainly he’d got to know and respect Joseph. There’s a little clue which we’ll come across later on to encourage us to think he hadn’t swallow everything that his wife said. We know that Potiphar’s heart was in God’s hands and so it was ultimately the Lord who led Potiphar (without his knowing it was God’s acting in him) to put Joseph in prison, and not any old prison but Pharaoh’s prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. It was still a fearful place. In fact we have a little inspired comment on Joseph in the Egyptian jail in Psalm 105. We are told in verse 18 of the initial cruelty he experienced there, held like a caged animal; “His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron.” How much worse could it get? Young Joseph could have been lying in Potiphar’s bed with Potiphar’s wife, but now he is in chains in a stinking dungeon. Joseph had done the righteous, God-honouring thing and yet he ended up incarcerated, his reputation in tatters. There are Christians who have been scrupulously faithful to the Lord, but instead of ending up with a Mercedes in the drive and a big house, rather, like Jeremiah they’d been thrown into a deep cistern, up to their necks in mud, or like Daniel thrown to the lions, or like Paul lashed with a whip and beaten with rods and put in prison for years. But there is no pit so deep that the Lord is not deeper still. There is no prison however secure with the highest walls, razor wire, locked doors, barred windows and armed guards that the Lord can’t enter any cell whenever he chooses. In the lonely cave on freezing Tierra del Fuego where the missionary Allan Gardiner starved to death unable to get away he wrote in his diary, “My soul trusts still upon God.” The last words he wrote were, “I know not how to thank God for his marvelous loving-kindness.” God was with him.

So what is the pattern we are seeing here in the life of Joseph? It is this that the long route from the house of Potiphar to his place at Pharaoh’s right hand lay through this prison. Joseph knew just one huge certainty about his future, and that was the message that God had given to him twice, that one day his father and brothers would bow down before him. God had said that, and it must be fulfilled. That was his certain hope, and until then he must take the suffering that God had decreed be his. That was the way of Christ himself; though he were a Son yet he learned obedience by the things that he suffered. As Liam Goligher says, “There is a pattern to Joseph’s life that has a ring of destiny to it. It is always God’s way to make his people like Jesus, and we see Jesus in Joseph’s story. There is this pattern these servants of God share, of exaltation — humiliation— exaltation. It is precisely the pattern we see in the life of our Lord Jesus – from the throne to the cross to the throne again. He leaves the glory he shared with the Father and humbles himself to take on our humanity and then our sin. We find him being misrepresented and mistreated just as Joseph was. The Bible talks about all the unrighteous things that unrighteous people said about Jesus. Then after experiencing the curse of the cross and separation from his Father, he was placed in ignominy in a grave. To the world looking on it was the final indignity. Yet three days later he was raised from the dead. He is now exalted to his Father’s right hand of power, delighting in the joy that’s been set before him and being given all authority in heaven and earth. We should not be surprised when we read of a godly man being persecuted. Jesus told his followers, ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you,’ and he taught his followers to see in this the blessing and favour of God himself: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The New Testament encourages usto “consider [Jesus] who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted” (Liam Goligher, Joseph: The Hidden Hand of God, Christian Focus, 2008, pp. 69&70).

Consider Joseph! He was a man of like passions as we have; he was not a super Christian. There are no super Christians. Joseph had done nothing wrong; he’d done everything right and yet he ended up in these chains of shame. You are having a tough time? So did this great servant of God. The one thing we must not fail to notice is found writ large in the final paragraph of chapter 39: “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him;[there was never solitary confinement for Joseph; there was always Someone with him] he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warder. So the warder put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warder paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (vv.21-23). John Newton said, “When I am happy in Christ November’s as sunny as May.” If the Lord is with me I will be able to live at peace and with contentment in a concentration camp, as many Chinese Christians know, but if the Lord isn’t with me then life even in a Manhattan penthouse would be unbearable. Potiphar’s wife still had a life of luxury but God wasn’t with her; Joseph was surviving on prison fare, but Jehovah was with him.


So the Lord was with Joseph, so he was being prepared for his destiny – to be with God for ever. A prison was God’s chosen means of preparation for his future, that is, by the sufferings of God’s servant it is attained. Joseph need not worry; he was in the right place at the right time meeting the right people. So it is with every Christian; in the timing of events, and the folk that God brings into his life, the Christian’s destiny is being accomplished as God is working out his purposes for each one of us moment by moment, in every occurrence. Here is Joseph, a young and blameless man, in prison, and yet holding onto the promised word of God that his future is going to be very different from a jail, because one day his brothers and father now living in distant Canaan are going to honour him. How in the world is that going to be accomplished? Let us see the next links in the mystery of providence.


Some time later . . .’ (v.1) our chapter begins. The period of time is indefinite. Joseph is now 28 years of age. We know that because two years later he will be brought before Pharaoh and then he will be thirty. So he has already been in Egypt either in Potiphar’s house or in prison, for eleven years. It was a long time to be a slave . . . a long time in the school of adversity. But God judged how long it needed to be before graduation from that school.

Then one day there was a commotion in the prison. The soldiers from Pharaoh’s palace arrived escorting and guarding two new prisoners, and not just uppity slaves like Joseph. “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” (vv.1&2). They were high-standing and valued courtiers and they had offended their master. We are not told what their crimes were; that information is quite incidental to the flow of the narrative. But it was not some arbitrary whim of the king’s that had put them there. The position of the cupbearer was not that of a mere footman; it was one of high advisory role. He was the trusted right hand man of Pharaoh, almost a prime minister. He would taste the goblet before Pharaoh to insure that the vessel was not poisoned. Remember that Nehemiah was cupbearer in Babylon and he had enormous influence over the Emperor of Babylon.

So here were crucial contacts for Joseph, and their arrival in prison would have given hope to Joseph that they might be the means God was planning to deliver him. No doubt in his years in prison there had been other men coming and going who also had raised his hopes but nothing had come of those contacts. Would this be the set time for God to deliver him from incarceration?

But Joseph might also have had added hope through the fascinating means God used to bring these two high fliers into his orbit. We are told that Pharaoh “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” (vv.3&4). Who is this – this captain of the guard who had custody of the men and then assigned them to Joseph? We have already met him haven’t we? Go back to the previous chapter and the opening verse; “Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.” It was not the warden of the prison who assigned them to Joseph’s care, it was the choice of Potiphar. How had it been, I wonder, during these past years between Potiphar and his wife? Had he found out more and more about the real Mrs. Potiphar? Was there doubt in Potiphar’s mind about the justice of what he had done in putting his favourite servant into prison? Was this decision to assign these men to Joseph a lifeline that he was throwing out? When Potiphar escorted the two silent, glum, high officials whom he knew well to the prison, did he say to them, “I’ll do what I can for you. I’ve put you under a man in the prison who once worked for me. He’s a great fellow. I was sorry that I had to get rid of him. He will look after you. You can trust him.” Haven’t you noticed the polyphonic nature of these patriarchal narratives? You meet a minor character, a wife, a servant, a brother, and you think that you’ll never meet them again, but they turn up and have a significant role within a few chapters. Not just the patriarchs themselves but God is interested in the lives of little people. Whatever the reasons why Potiphar placed these two colleagues of his under Joseph, the fact that he was now in charge of them was a sign of God’s favour resting on Joseph in the prison. That day when Joseph got up he never dreamed . . . he never asked God that such an amazing event should happen that day in that way.

God was drawing near to Joseph in his hour of need. John Calvin says, “God, before he opened the door for his servants’ deliverance, entered into the very prison to sustain him with his own strength.” So you understand what I am saying, that Potiphar had not had him killed; Potiphar had put Joseph in the royal prison, and now Potiphar had put these high government officers under Joseph, and in such ways God was showing Joseph that he loved him and had not forgotten his word to raise him high. God was giving him tokens of his grace and concern, drawing near to him and saying, “Joseph, your brothers hated you and now they are trying to forget all about you; Potiphar’s wife lied about you and got you into such serious trouble. Those people are all glad you are out of their lives, but you are not out of my life (and you are really not out of their lives either). Your name is written on the palms of my hands in marks of indelible grace. I have not forgotten you nor my purposes for your life.”

God was reassuring Joseph by the arrival of these men, and I am saying that when people come into our lives out of the blue, and they desire our good without any other agenda, then they are a whisper from our loving Father telling us that he still remembers us, and he has a purpose for us, and is working things well. He cares for us. Did Joseph feel a little excited? Did he have some anticipation that things were going to change very soon? God was working and Joseph waited to see what would happen.


As early as the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, that is, about 2050 B.C. (that would be over a hundred and fifty years before Joseph), the Egyptians believed that dreams were a medium by which the gods revealed the future to humans. They believed that dreams could predict the future. There are actually Egyptian examples of dream parchments listing motifs that can occur in dreams explaining what they ‘meant.’ If you dreamt about flying, or about a well, or about weaving, or about looking at yourself in a mirror, or about thousands of other things, these could portend something good
or something bad that was going to hap­pen. You checked the books. They might record how in the past people had dreamed of something like dogs barking and subsequently such and such a thing had happened to them. They may have drowned in the Nile, and so the message was if you dream of braking dogs avoid river travel in the next weeks. Such guidance might be as general as the horoscopes that appear in our papers and magazines, but a dream could also point to some specific future event. When the books failed, and you needed to know how to interpret these dreams more exactly, then in Egypt there were unofficial interpreters – clairvoyant ladies, amateurs, who lived in the next street – but also officially recognized dream experts, professionals, who could help people who had to pay them for the interpretation.

There are just two men in the Old Testament who were known as interpreters of dreams, Joseph and Daniel. When Joseph told his Jehovahist family about his two dreams there wasn’t a single brother who said, “What in the world does that dream mean?” They didn’t need an interpreter to know what it meant because of their religion. They all understood that dream immediately and they resented it enormously. But here in pagan Egypt an interpreter was needed, and also when Daniel was serving a pagan emperor in Babylon an interpreter was needed to explain to the pagan dreamers. They were not the Lord’s loved ones, and only his loved ones know his revelation. So Joseph alone could interpret these special dreams that came from God.

So one night in prison both the baker and the cupbearer had a single vivid dream – two dreams coming simultaneously. They both woke up in a cold sweat. Joseph, you remember, had also had two dreams a decade earlier, and this doublet had also served to confirm their significance. “Each dream had a meaning of its own” (v.5). In other words the message of each dream was different for both the men. When Joseph saw them they were both dejected. “Why are your faces so sad?” he asked, and they explained that they had had powerful dreams, but what in the world did they mean. As they were in prison there was no one who could tell them. Then Joseph said, “Don’t interpretations belong to God?” In other words, “You need to learn that true interpretations don’t come from dream books or professional diviners or the little old lady who lives down the road. They come from God.” They came from Joseph’s God. You remember that Pilate’s wife had a frightening dream and she was very moved by it and told her husband about her experience, but she also gave him her interpretation, “Don’t have anything to do with this man.” That was the wrong interpretation. The right interpretation was, “Jesus is the Son of the living God. Bow before him! Worship and adore him! Lay down your life for his sake! Be saved from the wrath to come!” Not, “Don’t have anything to do with this man.” Have everything to do with him! Give him your soul, your life, your all! You need to know God in order to know what messages he constantly brings into your life. We know that God is speaking to people every day. The heavens are declaring the glory of God. But people are giving those messages a totally wrong interpretation. They can’t understand the meaning of reality that’s right in their faces day after day – this world is full of the glory of God – let alone their dreams because they’re rejecting the great facts of Creation, the Fall, and Redemption through Christ. If you can’t understand your conscience and God’s creation then you are certainly not going to understand dreams.

So God had given a revelation of the future to these two men but they were baffled as to the meaning. He had done this in order to bring Joseph very close to them, testifying to them God’s glory. Joseph’s God knows exactly what is going to happen in the future of these two men, yes but of every one of us too. Joseph’s sober privilege in Egypt was to tell the baker and the cupbearer that one was going to be delivered while the other was to be condemned. Joseph knew that that was what God was saying to these men, as we know the futures of all men by a revelation from Jehovah Jesus. He will stand one day before the world and he will separate all men into two groups, sheep and goats, one group to go to heaven and the other to go to hell. Now words like those words of Jesus are the words of a misguided and mischievous fantasist or they are the words of the incarnate God. Joseph stood on the continent of Africa and he faced officials from the mightiest nation in the world of his day, and he said to them, “Tell me your dreams!” (v.8). John Piper has a book on mission and evangelism and he named it, Let the Nations be Glad. Let Africa be glad because Joseph can tell these men about the God whom he serves, the God who lives and is not silent, the God who holds the future and he reveals it to men of Egypt as he has revealed it far more fully to us in the Old and New Testaments. So I can tell the futures of all of you. if you have ears to hear then hear me! You are each one going to die. You are each one going to meet God. You are each one going to be judged for your life, and there will be either justification or condemnation, just one of two destinies confronting each one of you; justification for those for whom their Saviour came and lived and died as the Lamb of God; condemnation to those who rejected Christ’s salvation. That is our destiny. I cannot tell you whether you are bound for heaven or hell but I can say that no one goes to the Father but by Jesus Christ.


His dream was like a speeded up nature film in which you see the plant’s leaves appearing, and then buds and flowers and tiny fruit and the fruit ripening until it is ready for harvest. We are told, “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’” (vv.9-11). Immediately Joseph interpreted the dream; “‘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’” (vv.12&13). What wonderful news for the cupbearer.

How could the cupbearer reward the diviner for his divination? Joseph says, “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” (vv.14&15). So Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, but then he made a plea to him for help and deliverance based on its fulfilment. But didn’t Joseph believe that God could open prison doors and let him free? Wasn’t this lack of faith to ask a pagan to say a word in the ear of another pagan in order to ga
in his release? In Joseph’s defence I would say that believing absolutely in God’s providence doesn’t mean that we don’t lock our front doors when we go to church, or fail to lock our cars when we leave them. We are under obligation to act with responsibility. There are those who grumble about the sovereignty of God saying that “If we believed in God’s providence, it would lead us to laziness, and non-activity. If God is so much in control as you say, then why should we do anything? If God is sovereign, why pray? If God is sovereign, why witness? If God is sovereign, why do anything?” Those people are slaves to logic rather than to Scripture. They argue that if God has ordained everything, then surely it means that we don’t need to do anything. This is never the logic that entered into Joseph’s mind. Would a student be believable if he said, “If I am destined to have a first in my exams I will get it whether I send my projects in on time or study for my exams or even go to lectures.” There is a name for a student like that. He is a fool.

Should Joseph, after he interpreted the dream of the cupbearer, ask him to remember him to Pharaoh? I say that what Joseph is doing is perfectly appropriate. This is an opportunity that’s been placed before him in God’s providence, and Joseph is so confident that God’s interpretation of that dream is going to come to pass, that he says, “Look, when you’re freed, please remember me to Pharaoh.” It’s a very measured request. Joseph doesn’t demand that the cupbearer get him an audience with Pharaoh. He says, “Would you remember me before Pharaoh and help me get out of this place?” So he makes a simple request that is perfectly appropriate. Joseph was acting wisely and taking responsibility, being active in pressing for his release even as he trusts in God’s providence. Of course, Joseph himself has already made it clear that his interpretation of the dream is not due to any power in himself. It’s God who’s the interpreter of dreams, and again isn’t it interesting that that’s the same thing that Daniel says when he is asked to interpret the dreams in Babylon. He replies, “I’m not the one who is able to interpret the dreams. But I know the one who is able to interpret them, and I can ask him and he may reveal it.”


The baker was encouraged at this hopeful interpretation and he eagerly told 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” (vv.16&17). Again with the same lack of hesitation Joseph spoke up, “‘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’” (vv.18&19). Aaaaaah!

I’ve adapted some words of Dr. Ligon Duncan in his fine sermon on this incident. Now the baker’s dream has that very shocking, even brutal meaning. In fact, even the way that Joseph discloses the interpretation of this dream is a bit surprising. It almost seems insensitive. But think about it. How could you share the divine interpretation of this dream without pain? There’s no way to do it. Joseph lived in the most brutal of ages. They were in a brutal prison in a brutal civilization. Life was cheap and sudden death all too familiar. At least the baker had three days in which to cry to Joseph’s God for pardon for his sins.

What is salutary is that Joseph, as a faithful messenger of God, was under divine obligation to report accurately the actual interpretation of the dream. He was not to change it, sweeten it, embellish it, or compromise it by vagueness. John Calvin in his commentary says: ‘The task of the preacher is to tell you the truth as God has revealed it, even when it’s unpleasant.’ Joseph didn’t make up the interpretation of the dream. He didn’t invent God’s providence, he simply reported it. Ideally that’s what the minister of God does. He isn’t the one who inspired the word of God. He didn’t make up God’s response to you and to your situation. He simply supplies the divine evaluation and the divine judgment on your life. There are times when the messenger brings bad news, and his hearers might blame the bad news on the messenger himself and he can feel their rage, but the messenger still must be faithful. What does that mean for you and me? One thing for you, as you sit in the pew, you should desire messengers who will tell you the truth as it is, even when it’s uncomfortable for you. You don’t want men who will rearrange your prejudices each week, and give you straight ‘A’ grades for your conduct and your grasp of biblical Christianity Sunday after Sunday, stroking your affections and telling you that ‘you are beautiful people.’ We all need messengers who will speak to us about our sin, our doubts, about our responsibility, about our obligations, about our need to resist temptation, and mortify our sins, and all those things which are challenging for us to do. Joseph was a faithful and brave servant of God. A man of God has to do what a man of God has to do! He told the baker something that the baker never wanted to hear. It was a frightening shock to him especially directly after hearing such good news given to his colleague, but Joseph said it like it was. He had learned that he had to do that many years ago when he told his brothers the dreams he’d had and as a result was almost killed and then sold into slavery. But that had taken from him fear of what men would do to him. He feared God the more. A man has to do what a man has to do.


i] These events came to pass exactly as Joseph had said (v.22). Their fulfilment was a sign that said, “This man knows God, and he speaks from God, and he acts as a man should act whom God is with. Hear him!” Joseph had the mind of God and the blessing of God. That is why Christians still study his life almost 4000 years after his death because God does not change. There were great principles by which God dealt with Joseph, and great principles through which Joseph dealt with others, his brothers, Potiphar and his wife, the warden in the prison, the cupbearer, the baker and soon Pharaoh himself. God deals with us too and as we deal with one another it is by these same principles, submission to God, humility, dependence on God being with us for our joy and contentment, faithfully speaking his word without fear of men, doing all to God’s glory.

ii] The deliverance for Joseph did not come immediately. Still Joseph had to learn patience. Think of it! For twelve year he has worked as a slave and been in prison and he hasn’t put a foot wrong, and yet still he needs to learn patience. You see the application? If Joseph . . . Joseph . . . needed to learn the lesson of endurance then certainly you and I need to learn it. This test comes, and the
n this heartache, and then this disappointment, and then this delay and God says, “Trust me. You complain how impatient you are and that you need to learn patience and I am answering your prayers and then you say, ‘Why? Why are you dealing with me in this way?’ I am teaching you patience and trust. I know what I am doing and the forgetfulness of men and the lack of explanation, and the dashing of hope is all working for tremendous good. The day will come your brothers will fall down at your feet.”

We have looked too hopefully at men, at their joining our congregation, at their promises of help, and predictions that a new day is going to dawn soon. We have thought that if only these things occurred we would get out of the fix we were in, but nothing happened, and we were cast on God once again. That is the best place to be, depending on God not men.

iii] God had a better plan for Joseph than he had. When we ask God for something he either gives us what we ask for or he gives us something better. Joseph asked for release from prison. He imagined that the grateful cupbearer would make a request to Pharaoh that a young man who had helped him while in prison would be released, and that Pharaoh would arrange it, the prison doors would be open and Joseph would wander out into the Egyptian sunlight amazed and excited. Then what? Would he make his way back to Canaan? Would he marry an Egyptian girl and settle in a corner of that vast country in anonymity. That would not serve God’s cause of saving the Seed of the woman during seven years of devastating famine, the Seed of the line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah, who one day was to come into the world. God has plans to save the Seed through Joseph’s elevation to Pharaoh’s right hand and so something more than release from prison was needed, as we shall see next time . . .

22nd May 2011   GEOFF THOMAS