In what scholars call the “Joseph Novella” (Genesis 37-50), Joseph is both a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. As a result of Joseph’s dreams, conflict with his brothers brings him to Egypt. Joseph’s first dream echoes an ancient Egyptian dream, and his eventual imprisonment also finds a parallel in Egyptian dream interpretation. While Scripture includes similarities with Egyptian dreams, the Bible inverts the Egyptian Book of Dreams to highlight the wisdom of Israel’s God over that of the Egyptian interpreters.  

The Egyptian Book of Dreams, which dates to around the time of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt (c. 1200’s BCE), lists various dreams and their interpretations. For instance, “If a man sees himself in a dream… threshing grain upon the threshing floor, good; [it means] the giving of life to him in his house.” In Joseph’s first dream, he and his brothers are binding sheaves of grain, “When suddenly,” Joseph recalls, “my sheaf stood up… then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf” (Gen 37:7). While Joseph’s dream in the grain field mirrors that of the Egyptian threshing floor, it does not end up “giving life to him in his house”; rather, it rouses the ire of his brothers, so that “they hated him even more” (37:8).

Another Egyptian interpretation asserts that a dream of someone “looking into a deep well [is] bad; [it means] he will be put in prison.” This interpretation parallels what happens to Joseph because of his dreams: “His brothers… cast him into a pit (בוֹר; bor). The pit was empty; there was no water in it (אין בוא מים; ein bo mayim)” (Gen 37:23-24). While the Hebrew בוֹר (bor) is translated “pit” in this verse, the same word also means “well” (e.g., Deut 6:11; Prov 5:15)—only this particular well had no water. In accordance with the Egyptian Dream Book, Joseph looks into a well and then ends up in an Egyptian prison!

Yet, Joseph’s story doesn’t end in prison. Instead, the God of Israel works through Joseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, which leads to Joseph’s release, his rise to a position of authority, and the saving of the surrounding peoples during a famine (see Gen 41:16, 25). As Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant evil (רע; ra) against me, but God meant it for good (טוֹב; tov), to bring it about that many people should be kept alive (להחית; lehahayot)” (Gen 50:20). Joseph’s experiences mirror the Egyptian Dream Book, but God’s wisdom exceeds that of Egypt’s interpreters: although Joseph’s dream of the sheaves does not immediately result in “life for him and his family,” per the Egyptian Dream Book, the God of Israel ensures that Joseph’s dreams result in life for both his family and all the nations around Egypt!

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Truly enjoyed your connections between the God of Israel & Egyptian Dream interpretations.

    Several years ago, as my husband read the Bible—transitioning from Tanakh to Brit Hadash, he dreamed of a “Green sheaf”.

    Later, he dreamed of being on a “Threshing floor”. He was amazed there was ‘No Dust’ on the threshing floor! A man walked up to him, saying, “Come. I have more to show you.”

    How would these dreams be interpreted?
  2. Is there not a Characteristic/attribute/trait of YAH here in Gen 50 that presents Him/YAH as a ‘Weaver’ (for His Good Purpose for any who chooses to faithfully believe in who He says He is)? This is a Truth that is like a ‘sword of the Spirit’ on a daily basis. That dream is in Torah for His Instruction to me/us.
  3. The articles are very enlightening. I would appreciate if you make an exposition/article about the Jewish/Exodus understanding of God “I Am Who I Am”. Again your Biblical understanding from a Jewish perspective is very helpful and outstanding.
  4. My curiosity wants to know which pre-dates which? Does the Book of Dreams exist prior to Joseph's stay in Egypt or did Joseph's God-given talent to interpret dreams inspire Egyptian scholars/magicians to record or add/embellish to and create the Book of Dreams?
  5. Shalom. So, if it came after Joseph lived, it is possible that Joseph could have influenced it. Of course we can not know for certain.
    • Great question, Dolores. You're right that we can't know. It's tricky since, while Joseph would have lived before the Egyptian Dream book as we have it, the biblical text of the Joseph story (Gen 37-50) was written after the Egyptian Dream book. Thus, like so much else in biblical studies, it has to remain up in the air.
  6. There is a pit in the house of Ciaphus. The crusaders took the line from the psalm "I was numbered as one in the pit" to suppose Christ was kept there during his interigation. They lowered themselves into it and etched cross's all-around the enclosure
  7. I find it difficult to accept your late date for the Exodus. If it took place 480 years before Solomon started building the Temple (1 Kings 6:1), surely this points to a date just after 1450 BC. A later date is based on questionable dates by archaeologists for Egyptian rulers!
    • A date in the 1400s BCE is possible, but since the 480 years given in 1 Kgs 6:1 is the sum of 12 x 40 -- i.e., the number of the twelve tribes of Israel multiplied by the number that represents a full "generation" in Israelite thought (40) -- it may be wiser to interpret the 480 years as a symbolic amount of time, rather than a precise calendrical record.
  8. The underpinning to this interpretation is your chronology and authorship view. Since you put everything late then everything can get muddy.

    If a person accepts at face value the chronology verses, then the Book of Dreams has no bearing on Gen 37-50.

    If you don’t, then anything is possible.
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