In the Depths of the Dungeon

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Based on Genesis Chapter 40

Although he was stuck in prison for who-knows-how-long, Joseph had not been abandoned. Given his helplessness and the uncertainty of his situation, Joseph was undoubtedly tempted to despair. However, God was there with him — with him and for him. God was somehow with Joseph the entire time; and God blessed Joseph with success and favor, even while he was in the pit of prison. The Book of Genesis repeatedly emphasizes the importance of God being with Joseph there. With God’s blessing on him even through the most difficult time of his life, Joseph won the respect of everyone around him. He even earned the complete and utter trust of the boss, the keeper of the prison, someone we would today call the warden.

Behind Bars

One morning while making the rounds and checking on the other inmates, Joseph noticed that something was wrong. Two of the inmates appeared quite upset. Of course, Joseph asked the two what was bothering them. They said that they had had disturbing dreams. He invited them to describe their dreams. It is important to the story to know that these two particular prisoners were not insignificant nobodies, but high royal officials who until recently had had immediate access to the Pharaoh himself.

Pharaoh’s personal cupbearer described his dream first. He had dreamt about three branches on a grape vine. The three branches somehow produced fully ripe grapes way, way, way faster than they normally and naturally would. In his dream, Pharaoh’s cupbearer then squished all the ripe grapes and brought the grape juice to Pharaoh.

Old-Fashioned Grape Press

Then Joseph interpreted the dream for the cupbearer. The three branches represented three days, Joseph explained. In just three days, the cupbearer would be released from prison, and would be elevated up to his former position. He would soon be released and get his old job back. Having interpreted the dream, Joseph requested that upon his release the cupbearer please mention the injustice of Joseph’s plight to the Pharaoh. But and however, once elevated back to his old position, the cupbearer’s mind was preoccupied on other things. He forgot all about Joseph the Dream Interpreter, for two long years.

Back to the second official’s interpreted dream, though. It was the royal baker’s turn. When he heard that Joseph gave the cupbearer an optimistic interpretation, the royal baker was eager to describe his dream. He had dreamt that he had three baskets of baked goods on top his head, from which the birds were eating. This time, when Joseph interpreted the dream for the royal baker, it was not good news — not at all. The three baskets represented three days. Like the cupbearer, the royal baker would be elevated in just three days. But unlike the cupbearer, the royal baker would not be elevated in a desirable way. In just three days, Pharaoh would elevate the baker’s head (and body) by hanging him and strangling him on a tree. Joseph’s final words to the royal baker were especially horrifying: “And the birds will eat the flesh from you.” Yikes. 

The Baker and the Birds

As it so happens, that third day was Pharaoh’s own birthday. Pharaoh was celebrated with a big birthday bash. And everything Joseph had predicted happened. Both the royal cupbearer and the royal baker were elevated on the occasion. The royal cupbearer was elevated out of prison back to his former position. But the royal baker was elevated out of prison to a noose. Joseph, however, had to wait in prison for another two years to be elevated, because the cupbearer forgot all about him. The royal cupbearer would only happen to remember Joseph later, when the Pharaoh himself had some perplexing dreams that needed interpretation.

Questions for Consideration

• How do you think did Joseph felt while he was unfairly imprisoned? What doubts probably went occasionally through his mind? What temptations might Joseph have struggled with? What do you think was hardest for Joseph during his time in prison?

• What hopes or dreams might have kept Joseph going while he was in prison?

• What does it mean when Genesis says that God was with Joseph? What might Joseph have experienced that made him aware of God being there with him? Is this point (about God being there for Joseph) meant to give us hope that God will be us when we go through difficult times?

• Why was God there for Joseph in a way that God might not have been for some of the other prisoners?

• Based on the backstory of Joseph’s boyhood, what keeps re-emerging and recurring as a curious (and yet nightly) phenomenon that repeatedly alters the course of his life? What might we, as readers, potentially conclude about this curious, nightly phenomenon? Might God use the same phenomenon in our lives today?

• Which talents or gifts did Joseph demonstrate while in prison?

• Were Joseph’s prison years good or bad for him? How do you think Joseph might have changed as a result of his prison years?

• Why is the word elevate important in this story? Who was elevated, and how? Who had to wait a while longer to be elevated?

• Looking ahead: What eventually got Joseph out of prison? Who gets credit for getting Joseph out of prison?