Joseph's Dream Interpretations

Moshe Ben-Chaim

In Genesis, 41:1, we read of the dreams of Pharaoh. He saw seven lean cows swallow up seven fat cows, and no enlargement could be seen in those lean cows. After waking and falling asleep a second time, Pharaoh dreams again, seeing seven full ears of grain being swallowed by seven thin ears. Again there was no telling that the "thin swallowed the fat".


Pharaoh awoke and called to all his interpreters, but none could offer a pleasing interpretation, until Joseph.


Joseph told Pharaoh the following (Gen, 45:25):

25: The dream of Pharaoh is one, that which God plans to do has He shown to Pharaoh. 26: The seven good cows represent seven years, and the seven good ears represent seven years, it is one dream. 27: And the seven lean, bad cows that came up after them are seven years and the seven withered ears blown by the wind are seven years of famine. 28: This is the matter which I had told to Pharaoh, what God plans to do He has shown to Pharaoh.”


Joseph continues to tell Pharaoh that first, there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of great famine. The famine will be so severe as to erase memory of the plenty. Joseph explains why the dream was repeated, as God was to enact the plenty and the famine immediately. He then advises Pharaoh to store the plenty in preparation, thereby placing Pharaoh in control of all produce.


The questions which arise are as follows:

1) What did Pharaoh see in Joseph’s interpretation, which satisfied him, as opposed to the Egyptian interpreters? The interpreters said that Pharaoh would have seven daughters and bury seven daughters. (Rashi) Joseph said the seven represented years of plenty and famine. What is more satisfying in Joseph’s interpretation?

2) In his interpretation, Joseph does not keep to the order of things. His first interpretation is in passage 27, where he commences with mentioning the famine. But this takes place ‘after’ the plenty, so Joseph should have commenced with explaining that the fat cows or ears represented plenty, as these came first in Pharaoh’s dreams. Why did Joseph reverse the order?

3) Very significant is Joseph’s statement in passage 28, “This is the matter which I had told to Pharaoh, what God plans to do He has shown to Pharaoh.” As if to say, “You see Pharaoh, I have now proved what I was saying, that this is from God”. It seems from this passage that Joseph contented himself that he had successfully proven to Pharaoh – already at this point – that his dreams informed him of God’s plan. This would mean that in these words alone Joseph feels he has already convinced Pharaoh that the dreams are from God. What in his words up to this point convinced Joseph that he made his point clear to Pharaoh? (Ramban and Klay Yakkar do not suggest Joseph was Divinely inspired with the interpretations: he succeeded in unraveling each dream solely through his own wisdom.)


A closer look at Joseph’s words gives us the answer. Notice that Joseph repeats one element, “it is one dream” (45:25,26). This repetition is what Joseph is trying to drive home in Pharaoh’s mind. (Pharaoh’s astrologers do not attempt to explain this repetition)


Joseph differed from the astrologers not so much in the dream’s content, but in his explanation of the style of the dreams. Joseph showed Pharaoh that his dreams were exact duplicates; a phenomenon which does not have its source in human dream dynamics, but rather, something only possible when emanating from a Divine Source – from God. Numbers 12:6 Ibn Ezra teaches that duplication in dreams indicates their Divine origin: “[Divine] dreams are doubled, as is the manner of prophecies”.

Pharaoh was wise enough to see this as true. The proof of this explanation is not only Joseph’s repetition, but in the fact that Joseph concluded to Pharaoh midstream in his explanation, that "this is already proof enough that your dreams are Divine". Joseph said, “This is the matter which I had told to Pharaoh”. Saying, in other words, “you see, it is true.” Joseph went on with the rest of the interpretation, but not as a proof of Divine origin. Joseph was convinced that this element of exact repetition proves that the dreams were from God. He therefore interrupted his interpretation to impress this upon Pharaoh.


While discussing this explanation with a friend, he quoted verse 41:32 where Joseph said that the doubling of the dreams is to teach Pharaoh that the matter is imminent, and not as I suggested, that it is to teach a Divine pattern. Perhaps this question did not bother me as much as the dreams bothered Pharaoh! But it was a good question. However, I then came across an Ibn Ezra which says the doubling of the dreams teaching imminence, is not derived from the dreams’ duplication per se, but from the duplication in “one night”. According to Ibn Ezra, had the dreams been identical, but took place on separate nights, we would not learn of the "imminence" factor, but we would still learn their Divine nature. Pharaoh’s dreams occurred in one night. This taught imminence of the years of plenty and the ensuing famine. But the design of identical dreams is indicative of Divine origin. The other idea of imminence is why they both came in one night’s sleep, and not over a few nights. This Ibn Ezra allows our original explanation to remain in place. Joseph was in fact stating that the identical nature of the dreams – not their single night’s occurrence – taught the Divine aspect. 

Ramban states that two separate but similar dreams are unnatural: Pharaoh could have naturally seen both of the dreams’ content concerning the cows and the ears in one single dream. (Ramban, Gen. 41:32)  Ramban, quoting Rabbi Eliezer, says that the one fact that there were two dreams of cows and grain teaches that the matter was true and fixed. The second fact, that both dreams occurred in a single night, teaches imminence. Again we see two separate elements: 1) duplication, and 2) the element of imminence. The duplication alone teaches that the dreams are Divine.


We see that Joseph dreamt of the sheaves and stars bowing to him. The wine steward and baker had similar dreams too, and Pharaoh also had two similar dreams. This consistent pattern of duplicating dreams reveals to us that such dreams are Divine, and something, which Joseph detected in each case, arriving at his determinations in all three instances that each dream was Divine.


The reason why Joseph commenced with interpreting the famine aspect first, was that Joseph desired to be freed from prison and avert this catastrophe. His calculation, which proved intelligent, was to hit Pharaoh with bad news before the good news, even though this reversed the order. Joseph is known as the chief psychologist in Jewish history, and he knew that human emotions become attached to the first element of news, even if followed by good tidings. By presenting Pharaoh with the stark reality of an utter and imminent famine, Joseph intended to render Pharaoh helpless, and in need of one who could save him - in need of a Joseph.