Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pharaoh’s Two Dreams

Pharaoh's Dreams-Sheva Apelbaum

This weekend, we read Genesis chapter 41. In the story, Pharaoh has two terrifying dreams and cannot figure them out completely.  He asks his royal magicians and all the wise men of Egypt to solve the riddle, but they fail. Pharaoh’s cup bearer suddenly remembers  how Joseph had interpreted his dream which helped him get out of jail. He tells Pharaoh about Joseph, who is finally able to interpret the dream and offer a solution. 

Most of the time, the bible tends do be very short in it’s description of events. Stories are almost never repeated, especially not within a few short paragraphs.  If you read the story carefully, you’ll see that the two description of Pharaoh’s dream are similar but not identical.  While reading it, I commented to my dad that it seamed wasteful to repeat the story for a second time.  Why not just say that “then Pharaoh told his dream to Joseph?”  I suspected that there was some good reason for this.  

The dream itself is very interesting, but more interesting is the way it is told and re-told.  There are many unanswered questions. For example: in each telling, why does Pharaoh hide some details and adds others? How does he know that his advisors failed to interpret the dream correctly?  Why does Joseph go beyond just interpreting the dream and offers Pharaoh advice?

Here are the two versions of the dreams. The first version is the  narration, the second version is Pharaoh retelling his dream to his interpreters and Joseph.

”…behold, he stood by the river. 2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven cows, well-favored and fat-fleshed; and they fed in the reed-grass. 3 And, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the river, ill favored and lean-fleshed; and thy stood by the other cows on the river bank. 4 And the ill-favored and lean-fleshed cows did eat up the seven well-favored and fat cows. So Pharaoh awoke.”

”…behold, I stood upon the brink of the river. 18 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven cows, fat-fleshed and well-favored; and they fed in the reed-grass. 19 And, behold, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ill-favored and lean-fleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness. 20 And the lean and ill-favoured cows did eat up the first seven fat cows. 21 And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill-favored as at the beginning. So I awoke.”

In version-1, we read "…and, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the river... and stood by the other cows on the river bank."

In version-2, Pharaoh doesn’t mention that he saw the two groups of cows standing side by side before the lean cows consumed the fat ones.  He also adds some new details: "…and when they eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them, but they were still ill-favored as at the beginning."

Cows Cows Cows-Sheva Apelbaum

This is an interesting addition; it also gets repeated twice for emphasis: (1) "…it could not be known that they had eaten them up…” (2) “…but they were still ill-favored as at the beginning."

I think that Pharaoh already suspected that the meaning of the first part of his dream had something to do with seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.  What I think he couldn’t figure out was the actual message and the solution. So, he used a secret test to identify the real interpreter who would be able to completely explain the full meaning of his dream.

When Pharaoh tells his dream, he deliberately omits the part about the fat and lean cows standing side by side and instead emphasizes how lean they were.  It looks like Pharaoh's royal interpreters all fell into the trap he had laid for them. Not having the missing detail and having been manipulated to think that it was all about a simple equation (seven years of gain will be followed by an equal seven years famine), they concluded that the outcome of the dream was fixed.  This meant that by the end of the seven years of famine, Egypt would starve to death.

When Pharaoh repeats this story to Joseph,  just like the royal advisors, Joseph starts by interpreting the dream to mean that the seven good years will be offset by the seven bad years. But then he provides Pharaoh with the missing explanation for the secret part of his dream, which is that prior, during, and shortly after the seven good years there will be a period of time (my dad calls it a bubble)  in which Pharaoh can take action (this is when both cows stand side by side). 

Egyption Grain-Sheva Apelbaum

Joseph also tells Pharaoh exactly what to do in order to extend the seven good years to outlast the seven bad ones.  The solution was a complete reorganization of the Egyptian economy and land ownership which let Egypt not only weather the famine but also support it’s neighbors (Joseph’s family came down to Egypt during the second year of the seven years of famine).

Hebrews in Egypt


  1. Hi girl, not for nothing your name means 'seven' - you are 'fat and well fed' and you are prepared for the meager years in life - you will know to prevent and you will know how to deal with what you couldn't prevent!

    As always, I enjoyed your post and I delight in your smart and clever way of thinking!

    Oh dear, may you always be a 'fat cow' :-) and may you know to interpret your own dreams!

  2. Oh dear oh dear, even so I meant that cow stuff metaphorically it doesn't sound so good! Please forgive me - I wish your life will be a "fat cow", not you! XOXOXO Yael. :-)

  3. Not at all Yael, not at all! I am not offended in the least! You’re comment was very nice and sweet, and even funny. I am sorry it took me a little longer to respond, this week has been busy for me.