What does Genesis chapter 41 mean?After years in prison, Joseph is finally restored as his circumstances are dramatically reversed. Prior to this, he has spent quite some time unjustly jailed; he has been forgotten even by those he has helped (Genesis 40:14–15, 23).
Pharaoh, king of Egypt, experiences two troubling and prophetic dreams. In the first, seven beautiful, healthy cows come up out of the Nile River to feed on the grass. Then seven famished, emaciated cows come up after them and devour them. The second dream is similar. Pharaoh sees seven good ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Then seven thin, wasted-looking ears grow up after them and somehow swallow up the healthy ears of grain. Ancient Egyptians placed great emphasis on dreams, and these are especially vivid; Pharaoh is shaken by these visions (Genesis 41:1–7).
The king calls his wise men and magicians. These men would have been educated in various disciplines. Some would have been priests or shamans of Egyptian religion. Despite all their efforts, none can tell him what the dreams might mean. This is especially strange, since they could have tried to give a false answer; many would have thought that better than telling Pharaoh "I don't know." Yet God's provision means they can't even invent a good explanation. Finally, Pharaoh's chief cupbearer remembers how Joseph, "a young Hebrew," accurately interpreted his and the baker's troubling dreams in prison two years earlier. Most likely, the cupbearer had not lost that history from his mind. Rather, this is the first time he felt it was to his advantage to bring it up (Genesis 41:8–13).
Joseph is quickly released from prison and brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh says he has heard the young Hebrews can interpret dreams. In a bold statement, Joseph corrects the absolute ruler of Egypt: he insists that it is God who has the knowledge. Joseph promises to pass along the divine truth once he has heard the dreams (Genesis 41:15–16).
Pharaoh's description of his dreams follows the same outline recorded earlier in the chapter. He adds a few noteworthy details, however. The second set of seven cows which Pharaoh sees are described here using terms which mean "evil," "ugly," and "scrawny." Pharaoh notes that these are the most horrible-looking animals he has ever seen. Further, when the skeletal cows have eaten the healthy cows, they still look as if they are starving. The second set of ears of grain look as if they've been blasted by the sandstorms of the desert (Genesis 41:17–24).
Joseph explains that God—Joseph's God—is revealing what He is about to do. Both dreams mean the same thing, and the repetition is meant for emphasis. Seven years of great abundance, represented by the healthy cows and grain, will be followed by seven years of terrible famine, represented by the sickly cows and grain. The starvation will be so severe that the good years will be quickly forgotten (Genesis 41:25–32).
In the ancient world, kings were not given advice unless they asked for it—and even then, their advisors needed to be careful. In this situation, however, Joseph—an imprisoned slave—immediately goes from interpreting Pharaoh's dreams to giving him counsel on how to run his own country. Joseph launches into a proposed plan for how Pharaoh should manage the coming crisis. Joseph says Pharaoh should appoint a wise leader, along with a team of overseers, to take 20 percent of each crop for the next seven years and put it into storehouses. Then, when the famine begins, Egypt will be provided for (Genesis 41:33–36).
Rather than being offended at Joseph's nerve, Pharaoh is pleased with Joseph's interpretation of his dreams and his proposal for managing their predictions. After a quick conference with his advisors, Pharaoh decides that Joseph should be appointed to prepare for and manage the coming crisis. Why? Pharaoh is convinced that God's Spirit is in Joseph, making him the wisest man in Egypt. No one else even comes close to demonstrating that level of divine favor. He gives breathtaking power to this Hebrew slave just released from years in prison. He makes Joseph what some would call a "vizier:" his second in command over all of Egypt. He gives Joseph his own signet ring, along with fine clothes, a gold necklace, and a specially designated chariot. These are all symbolic of his authority. In addition, Pharaoh gives to Joseph an Egyptian name and immediately marries him into a prestigious Egyptian family. In a very short time, Joseph has all the authority, power, and cultural clout he needs to act on Pharaoh's behalf to save Pharaoh's kingdom (Genesis 41:37–45).
Joseph, now 30, has spent most of his adult life as an Egyptian captive (Genesis 37:2, 28). Now, he follows through on his plan to save that nation from disaster. He oversees the gathering of the super-abundant crops each of the first seven years. He ensures the surplus is stored in the major cities of the nation. In fact, more grain is stored away than can be counted. God once again demonstrates to Joseph and all who know him that the Lord is with him (Genesis 41:46–49).
Another blessing follows. Joseph has two sons. The names reflect Joseph's joy that God has not let his own suffering go to waste. The first son is named Manasseh, which implies "forgetting." In this context, it does not mean Joseph has lost all memory of his difficulty; rather it means his new prosperity has outweighed it. The second son's name, Ephraim, reflects how God has given Joseph prosperity, even in the land where he is technically still a slave (Genesis 41:50–52).
After exactly the time predicted, the famine strikes, just as Joseph said that it would. When the people run out of grain and come to Pharaoh for help, he sends them to Joseph. What happens next follows the same pattern seen elsewhere in Joseph's life: he drastically improves the fortunes of his masters (Genesis 39:2–6, 20–23). He does not merely redistribute the grain, he also uses it to massively increase Pharaoh's power and wealth (Genesis 47:13–26). For the most part, this is accomplished as Joseph sells grain both to the Egyptians and to people of other nations who come looking for food because of the global famine (Genesis 41:53–57).
That global disaster, and Joseph's new position, lead to an amazing reunion with Joseph's family. Over the next few chapters, the same brothers who sold him as a slave will come to Egypt for help. Without knowing it, they will encounter their once-hated younger brother, and he will act to save them from starvation.