Interpreting Joseph’s Dreams

When I was a kid I thought Joseph’s dreams in the Old testament were straight up gibberish. To me, it was as though a dream was a bunch of binary code and Joseph was a computer. You simply feed the binary code into the computer and it comes out meaning something, but otherwise it’s just not understandable at all. But now that I better understand how God speaks, I see Joseph’s dreams in a different light.

Dreams are to some extent, very similar to parables. That is to say that they are stories full of meaning and symbolism and that God can open your eyes to interpret them. It’s not gibberish—it has a flow that can be understood. But to understand these dreams even more clearly, we must listen to them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Here’s why Joseph’s dreams are a great learning ground for us to better understand dreams: We get both the explanation of the dream and the interpretation. We get to reverse engineer the supernatural progression of Joseph’s thinking. Though his first recorded dreams are so symbolically obvious that it seems Joseph’s whole family gets it without any explanation.

He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” (Gen 37:6-8)

The symbolism is fairly obvious. Joseph is being treated as special in these dreams. The things his brothers own are bowing down to the things Joseph owns as though he is ruling over them. That’s exactly the way the brothers interpret this dream when they hear it, and since we know how Joseph’s story ends, we know this interpretation is correct. Joseph’s next dream is on the same track.

Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Gen 37:9-10)

As a kid, this symbolism weirded me out. Why were cosmic objects bowing before Joseph? It almost seemed as though he was a god or something. This dream looked like binary code to me. But then if you stop and pay attention, you realize that Joseph’s dad just explained the interpretation and it’s connected to all of the cosmic objects. These are not actual cosmic objects bowing down before Joseph, they are symbolic objects. The sun and moon are representative of Joseph’s parents and the eleven stars are Joseph’s eleven brothers. This is exactly how Jacob interpreted it. 

This dream isn’t gibberish, it’s symbolic. It’s full of meaning and if we pay close attention we can actually start to understand it. But if we look at these stories as gibberish that only Joseph could understand then our own dreams will appear like gibberish also.

Let’s continue looking at the symbolism in the dreams that Joseph comes across. In this next one, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and Joseph are in jail together and the cupbearer gives Joseph the details on a dream he had just had—well aware that the dream seemed to have meant something.

“In my dream there was a vine before me, and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” (Gen 40:9-11)

Take a moment and read over this dream a few more times before you read over the interpretation. Chances are you already know the story and how the dream gets interpreted, but maybe you haven’t read it in awhile and you don’t remember all the fine details of the interpretation. So as you read through the dream, think symbolically and parabolically and see what kind of conclusion you can reach before you look at Joseph’s own conclusion. Close your eyes and try to imagine the dream playing out in your own head. When you’re ready, move ahead to Joseph’s interpretation.

“This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer.” (Gen 40:12-13)

Did your interpretation seem to point to the same conclusion as Joseph’s? If so, what factors were at play in helping you get there? Here’s a few guesses as to how Joseph navigated the symbolism.

A VINE BUDDING, BLOSSOMING, & PRODUCING FRUIT Vines produce grapes which are directly related to the cupbearer’s job as he gives Pharaoh wine to drink. The vine clearly isn’t dying in this dream—it’s exploding into new life at an accelerated pace. This dream is clearly positive and full of life, as is Joseph’s interpretation in light of it. This prison cell will not be the end of the cupbearer’s story.
3 BRANCHES COMING OUT OF THE VINE If the vine represents life, we would imagine that the branches are representative of that life in someway. The three branches represent the three days that lead to the cupbearer’s restoration. Perhaps days are chosen over another measurement of time because of how quickly the vine produced fruit.
THE CUPBEARER IS DOING HIS JOB AGAIN This part almost seems literal. The cupbearer is returned to his position. The interpretation is exactly as it looks in this case. The symbolism has led us to believe the cupbearer will return to his job and even his dream affirms it.

Again, we can see that Joseph is not just making up an interpretation based on gibberish. He is dissecting the symbolism and turning it over to God for the secret to be revealed; for, to use his own words, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Gen 40:8). You’d almost think with how the cupbearer’s dream ended that he wouldn’t even need an interpretation, but that’s how essential God is to the mystery. Without God’s help, we can feel blind to the mystery, even when it’s obvious. While some of this symbolism is obvious by human reason, Joseph is able to look a little deeper into some of the dream by turning it over to God—particularly in regards to the three branches. Without God’s guidance, there was a lot of different ways we could have gone with that symbolism.

Now that we’re getting a hang of this, let’s try again with the chief baker’s dream, who was also in jail with Joseph.

“I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” (Gen 40:16-17).

Again, take some time to think over the symbolism here before you read Joseph’s interpretation. How would you interpret it? When you’re ready, read the interpretation.

“This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.” (Gen 40:18-19)

Now let’s dissect this dream like we did the last one.

3 BASKETS OF BAKED FOOD In Egypt it was cultural to carry baskets on your head, but one has to wonder how someone could pull off doing so with three baskets of food. The picture painted is of a painstaking balancing act where one slip could ruin everything. Just as three vines represented three days for the cupbearer, so three baskets represent three days for the baker. But in light of the negative atmosphere of the dream and the fact that the baker never actually feeds pharaoh, Joseph concludes the three days end in death.
BIRDS ARE EATING THE FOOD Not only are the birds throwing off a delicate balancing act, but they’re eating the food off of his head. The birds here are seen in a negative light. For Joseph, the birds are as negative as can be. They aren’t just eating the baker’s food, they’re eating his dead body after Pharaoh gives him a death sentence.
THE FOOD IS ON THE BAKER’S HEAD The cupbearer mentions the fact that the food was on his head twice. He was trying to carry the food on his head and the birds tried to eat it while it was on his head. While it was cultural for the baker to carry baskets of food on his head, Joseph also saw it as symbolism. Pharaoh will “have his head” and his body will be left for the birds to consume.

Again, we have the luxury of knowing the interpretation and so the symbolism we come up with is influenced by Joseph’s knowledge. But despite that, the Bible is training us to understand how supernatural dreams work. They have symbolism and meaning and the interpretation of dreams given by God can only truly be known if God gives it to us.

We are also beginning to learn that atmosphere has a lot to do with the interpretation. As you have envisioned the dreams above you’ve probably begun to see details you didn’t see before. As the vines blossomed, you saw color take over the scene and a time lapse of growth happen right in front of you. As you envisioned the birds attacking the baker, the dream perhaps became colored with shades of brown and black. The very atmosphere of the dream was leading you to interpret one direction or another.

Now that we’re stating to get this down, let’s move on to the most complicated dream Joseph has to interpret. After news gets to Pharaoh that Joseph has the gift of dream interpretation, he summons him.

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.” (Ge 41:17-24)

At first or second glance, this dream has some visible metaphorical implications, but there are some revelations in the dream that simply can’t be unlocked by the human mind. That much is seen clearly in that none of the magicians or wise men in Egypt could interpret the dream.

God had given the dream to Pharaoh and therefore only God is the answer to the interpretation. He has the hidden knowledge, not the demons or false gods of Egypt. The magicians cannot divine what their sources do not know. But Joseph knows the ultimate source that gave Pharaoh the dream and so Yahweh gives him the interpretation.

Before you continue on, use the investigative skills you’ve learned over these last few pages and see what you can come up with for Pharaoh’s elaborate and confusing dream. Once again, close your eyes and imagine the dream playing out before you. And then when you’re ready, continue on.

Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. (Ge 41:25-32)

Not only does Joseph shed light on the metaphorical implications of the dream that could have been understood to some extent by the human mind (good things becoming bad things; fat things being replaced by starving things), but he goes on to shed light on the revelations that simply can’t be pulled out of the metaphors. Seven good years of agriculture are coming—not seven months or seven decades. And this will be immediately followed by seven years of famine. Likewise, since Pharaoh received this dream of warning twice with two different metaphors (cows and stalks), Joseph knows that there is no avoiding the famine or negotiating with God to lessen it through intercession or repentance. This is not a prophetic word in which God will be convinced to change his mind—one way or another, it is coming.

We should see by now that dreams are an incredible source of divine communication. To write them off as entirely science is to crush their power. Yes, they can be science, but they also can be more. They can compel kings to protect their kingdoms. They can save lives—even the life of baby Jesus Himself.

So if you find yourself wondering why God doesn’t use dreams anymore to communicate to us, I suggest to you that you have bought into a cultural misconception and diminished God’s power with Western enlightenment. In fact, you may have already experienced a dream from God and had no idea, simply because you didn’t give it the time of day. Let’s face it, if most of us woke up from the same dream Pharaoh had, we would have laughed. That’s how disconnected we are from the power of dreams.

Want to continue the conversation? Take the long journey with my book/audiobook, The Rush and the Rest, or take a shorter path with my condensed version, Fantasy IRL.


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