Joseph, the Interpreter of Dreams and a Man of Great Virtues

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The Bible has a lot about Israelites being in Egypt, but there is no archeological evidence for it. Archeology has confirmed many strange things about the Bible, but Egyptologists wonder why there is no archeological evidence for such a big event as Exodus. But another story before Exodus was that of Joseph. Explore the character, unique skills, and reputation of his multifaceted personality.

Oil painting showing Joseph with his brothers who are in negotiation to sell him off as a slave.
Due to their animosity and dislike for Joseph, his brothers sold him to Ishmaelites.
(Image: Konstantin Flavitsky/Public domain)

Joseph’s Special Skills

The Bible, Genesis 37–50, has the story of Joseph who was special because he had a skill of dealing with dreams. Once in his dreams, he saw 11 plants bowing down to him. He also saw 11 stars bowing down, and the sun and the moon, perhaps his mother and father. But the 11 certainly referred to his brothers.

Joseph interpreted this as they all were going to bow down to him. This did not endear Joseph to his brothers as they did not like it. Joseph was also his father’s favorite and had a special multi-colored coat given to him by his father. The coat was special, not everybody had one. So Joseph was the apple of his father’s eye, and his brothers did not like that. They tied him up and threw him in a well. While discussing whether to leave him there to die, the Ishmaelites came along on their way to Egypt, and Joseph was sold to them as a slave.

Learn more about the lives of the ancient Egyptians.

Joseph’s Interpretation of Dreams

Joseph arrived in Egypt and was sold to Potiphar, an important official. Joseph was industrious and worked hard. He was clever, and in spite of being a slave, was quite successful. But then there was treachery. Potiphar’s wife started liking Joseph and made advances, but Joseph was virtuous and rejected the advances. Potiphar’s wife, when rejected, accused him of attempting to rape her, and Joseph was sent to jail unjustly.

In jail, Joseph met with two other inmates. One was the cupbearer to the pharaoh, an important position. The cupbearer had a dream, which involved three bunches of grapes squeezed into a cup, and he wondered what that meant. The other inmate was a baker, who dreamt of carrying little cakes he had baked on his head on a tray, and how the birds ate them.

Painting showing the pharaoh and his officials in the palace.
The pharaoh had a dream of seven lean and seven fat cows which his priests could not interpret resulting in a chance for Joseph to interpret it, thus earning a reputation for himself. (Image: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen/Public domain)

They did not know what the dreams meant, and Joseph said, “I can interpret dreams”, which he did. He told the cupbearer, “You’re going to go free in three days” and to the baker, “You’re going to be hanged in three days.” Both of these interpretations came to pass. One was executed, and the other freed. Joseph said to the cupbearer, “Don’t forget me when you get back to the pharaoh’s palace.” But he forgot Joseph who remained in jail.

Later, the pharaoh had dreams where he saw seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows, and also seven lean ears of corn devouring seven fat ears of corn. He called his magicians to interpret the dream and they did not know. That was when the cupbearer remembered Joseph, the dream interpreter.

Joseph was called to interpret the pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph said, “It means that you’re going to have seven lean years eventually, but the good news is you’ll have seven good years first.” Based on Joseph’s interpretation of dreams, the economy of Egypt was planned for the next 14 years. The idea was to put grain aside, store it up during the seven good years so as to be safe during the hard times.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Joseph, the Prime Minister

The painting shows Joseph on a chariot with crowds thronging in.
Joseph’s interpretation of the pharaoh’s dream was taken seriously and things were planned accordingly. As a reward for his strong skills, Joseph was made the prime minister and given a seal of authority. (Image: Hilaire Pader/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Joseph became the vizier of Egypt, the prime minister, and was given a gold seal of authority after he interpreted the pharaoh’s dream. In the Bible, it says that Joseph became a wonderful man whom everybody loved, and wherever he went they cried after him ‘Abrek’—an enigmatic phrase.

Learn more about how the Bible describes a lengthy sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt.

Jacob, the Father

While Joseph prospered, the entire region of the Middle East was hit by a famine. During this difficult period, Joseph’s father, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt because he knew that the country had stored grain.

He sent all his remaining sons except Benjamin who was his favorite because he was the only son by Rachel, his favored wife. The name ‘Benjamin’ is interesting because ‘Jamin’ meant ‘right’ or ‘on the right side.’ ‘Ben’ meant ‘son’. Benjamin had the place of honor on the right-hand side of his father.

Benjamin was the special one and his father did not want to lose him. So he stayed behind, and the other 10 brothers went to Egypt, asking for food in exchange for money. They met Joseph, who was distributing grains and he recognized them. However, they were not able to recognize him, as he had changed in all these years to become a senior official.

Common Questions about Joseph, the Interpreter of Dreams

Q: What did Joseph’s brothers sell him to Ishmaelites?

Joseph’s brothers sold him to Ishmaelites because they did not like him.

Q: What did Joseph do when he was in the prison in Egypt?

Joseph could interpret people’s dreams. While in the prison in Egypt, he interpreted the dreams of a baker and pharaoh’s cupbearer.

Q: What position was given to Joseph in Egypt?

Joseph was given the position of the prime minister once he interpreted pharaoh’s dream about the upcoming 14 good and bad years in Egypt. Based on Joseph’s interpretation, the economy was planned accordingly. Joseph was also given a gold seal of authority.

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