Joseph’s Response to Pharaoh’s Dreams

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

How did Joseph know that Pharaoh’s dreams were prophetic; maybe they were natural nightmares? Reviewing Joseph’s first words to Pharaoh, it is amazing, and interesting. It shows you a truly important idea about life, that, perhaps, you would not otherwise know:

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that you hear a dream to interpret it.”  Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not I; God will answer Pharaoh’s peace” (Gen. 41:15,16).

Pharaoh praised Joseph and built him up. Joseph responded, ascribing all his wisdom to God. It sounds like a false humility. Rashi comments:

The wisdom to interpret dreams is not my own, but God will answer—He will put in my mouth an answer that will give Pharaoh peace.

On the surface, Joseph appears to be saying the dream is a good one. But how does he know; he had not yet heard the dream? Furthermore, according to Rashi, is it not the height of arrogance to claim knowledge of God’s plans? Pharaoh then retells Joseph his 2 dreams: 7 healthy cows eaten by 7 emaciated cows, and 7 healthy ears of grain swallowed 7 withered ears.

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one; God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do. The 7 healthy cows are 7 years, and the 7 healthy ears are 7 years; it is the same dream” (Ibid. 41:25,26).

Later, Joseph tells Pharaoh:

And as for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter is imminent from God, and that God will soon carry it out (Ibid. 41:32).

Thus, Joseph first explains the dreams’ repetition with this verse. Meaning, when earlier he told Pharaoh that the “dreams were one,” he was not yet explaining the duplication, but a different concept. What was that concept?

Joseph did not know that the dreams were prophetic; he hadn’t heard them yet. When Joseph said, “God will answer Pharaoh’s peace,” he was not referring to the interpretation; he was referring to Pharaoh’s state of mind. Pharaoh was suffering; conflict is the worst state of mind. Pharaoh was disturbed for he could not understand the dreams’ meaning. An ordinary dream will express one’s conflict; one can be disturbed regarding an inner conflict of which he is ignorant. Or he can be disturbed because the dream is prophetic and he senses that it is bad, but he doesn’t understand it. Either one of these possibilities would disturb Pharaoh. When Rashi says, “God will answer: He will put in my mouth an answer that will be for Pharaoh’s welfare,” he is not referring to the future. Joseph doesn’t know the dreams were prophetic; he hadn’t heard the dream yet. Joseph meant that either way, “I am going to alleviate your disturbed state of mind.” If it’s a natural dream, the disturbance is an unconscious conflict, and Joseph will help to reveal that conflict, and Pharaoh will achieve peace. And if the dream is prophetic and the outcome is hidden from Pharaoh, once Joseph would explain it to Pharaoh, it won’t disturb Pharaoh any more, even if it forecasts something bad. Joseph said that either way, he could help remove Pharaoh’s suffering. Ignorance traps one’s mind; it makes one obsess over a matter. Joseph told Pharaoh he could help remove that ignorance. Understanding the dream alleviates one’s mind.

The immediate suffering Pharaoh endured was greater than a bad outcome. The latter is just reality, but the worst thing is the inner struggle. More important than discovering the dream’s interpretation, is psychological harmony. Joseph said he will help alleviate this turmoil: “I will make you whole, I will make you at peace with yourself.” This is what Joseph meant. The dream could be bad or good; either way, he would alleviate Pharaoh’s distraught state [by removing his ignorance]. Joseph was not referring to assisting Pharaoh in the future reality [the dreams’ meaning]. He was referring to the fact that once the future reality ceases to be hidden from Pharaoh, the suffering will cease. But a prophetic dream disturbs a person, unlike a psychological conflict; it operates in its own orbit. That is, that the bad subject matter is hidden. In prophetic dreams, the event is hidden. But yet, man experiences the affect of the event. This affect—without a realistic cause—disturbs man. He has a disturbing affect, but he does not know why. He keeps trying to reach out to discover the cause. But once the cause is revealed, that pain is gone.

Let us answer Rashi, which always bothered me: “The wisdom to interpret dreams is not my own, but God will answer—He will put in my mouth an answer that will be for Pharaoh’s welfare.”  This sounds like false humility. Wouldn’t that make Joseph arrogant, claiming that God puts into his mouth an answer? Even if God had done so before, how can he know that God will do it again? And if Joseph means God always does this for him, is this not the height of arrogance? How does Joseph know for sure that God—from the heavens—will implant His answer in Joseph’s mind? Maybe He won’t.

However, the explanation is that this was a prayer, not foreknowledge, for no man knows God’s thoughts. Joseph said to Pharaoh in other words, “It is my prayer that God puts words in my mouth.” As the Rav said on the words, “And God should give dread; V’chane tane pachdicha” (High Holiday prayers), it is a prayer that God “should” give man proper dread of God’s kingship. Joseph said, “I have no special powers, and I can’t guarantee an answer.” Joseph prayed that God “should” give him an answer so Pharaoh would be at peace, not that God “will” do this.

Now we have the question which we started with: How did Joseph know that Pharaoh’s dreams were in fact prophetic? Dreams are wish fulfillment. Even in a bad dream—a nightmare—there exists some positive element. It may not be the essence of the dream, which might be very bad, but there exists some good. However, Joseph said, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one.” Now, if with “Pharaoh’s dreams are one” Joseph meant to address the dreams’ repetition, Joseph’s words later would be redundant: “And as for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter is imminent by God, and that God will soon carry it out” (Ibid. 41:32).  This would be redundant. But the language in 41:32 indicates that Joseph did not yet discuss the repetition of the dreams. In truth, in 41:32, Joseph addresses the repetition for the first time. Thus, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one” stated earlier cannot address the imminent nature of the forecast. It does not mean that there are both good and bad cows, one good element and one bad. “It’s one dream” means this: There are no good cows; there is no value in the good cows. Meaning, the subsequent emaciated cows completely obscured the healthy cows; there was no good in the healthy cows as they will inevitably be swallowed by the famine. The goodness of the healthy cows serves no good element, Pharaoh gains no benefit at all. [We can paraphrase the dream as] “One dream of bad cows completely removing the good of the healthy cows.” The dream is not “good cows” separate from “bad cows.”  Both cows are tied together; the good cows are destined to be swallowed by the bad cows. Sum total, there is no good in these dreams. [The years of plenty were obscured, as if they never were].

Thus, there was no good element in Pharaoh’s dreams. Thereby Joseph understood these dreams were prophetic, for they contained no positive element [natural dreams are partially wish fulfillment—a positive element—but Pharaoh’s dreams contained no such good; no such wish. Thus, the dreams must be prophetic]. Telling Pharaoh his dreams were one, Joseph was not explaining the duplication, but he was saying that as a whole, the dreams contained no positive element. This was not a simple nightmare with deeply rooted conflicts. As there is nothing good in these dreams, they must be prophetic.

Another important point is that primitive man is fatalistic about dreams. He feels that a dream forecasts inevitable doom. Joseph taught Pharaoh a different philosophy: man can act with intellect to avoid a forecast. [And that’s exactly what Joseph did.] Pharaoh always thought that an interpretation is final. Joseph taught Pharaoh that although the interpretation is horrible, “You are not bound by it.” Free will can override the interpretation [it can manipulate real future factors, and avoid catastrophe. The forecast was true, but depending on man’s response, he can either sit back and tolerate the doom—a primitive attitude—or he can devise a strategy to alter the outcome]. 

Pharaoh responded to Joseph’s suggestion to appoint a grain keeper: “Can we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:38). Pharaoh expressed surprise at this new method: matters are not fatalistic; man his free will. A dream is just a revelation; God is informing man what will happen [without man’s intervention], but it does not have t0 result this way [it does not have to go unaltered]. All depends on man’s free will. Pharaoh meant to say, “We never viewed life this way; we always viewed life and dreams as fatalistic.” 

Pharaoh called Joseph a “man”; one not frightened by superstition. Nevertheless, Joseph is not an atheist; “God’s spirit is in him.” An atheist, you can say, is a man.” Putin said, “I can do as I will; there is no divine retribution.” OK, that’s his view. He is a “man.” But he has no “spirit of God.” But Pharaoh said of Joseph that he is a free thinker; he has free will, he does not fear acting, but he also has knowledge of God through his spirit of God. “Can we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” Pharaoh was surprised; usually you find a heretic who is a powerful man, or you find a man with the spirit of God in him, but he cannot act. But Joseph possessed both qualities.