Genesis 40

The capacity for dreaming may not be solely a human animal trait, but the tendency to place great significance into possible meanings – and great efforts at arriving at those meanings – surely must be one. Our dreams haunt us, and whether we place stock in them or not, I would be quite surprised to meet someone who did not think on their own dreams at least a little if such were remembered. The vividness and feel of a dream can even at times excel that of waking life, and given the vastness of the mind’s pre-aware (or “subconscious”, although for technical reasons I dislike that term and find it misleading) data processing abilities who is to say that we cannot learn something from dreams which otherwise would go unnoticed in the busyness of our days? Yet the future? Well, let us leave the door to mystery pleasantly open and simply smile agnostically.

In this chapter the plotline of the Joseph saga moves inexorably forward and we are given hints and foreshadowings for how the story will develop. Our man is in a prison of some sort, and judging by the apparent freedom of movement within it that he has, and that his fellow inmates are two servants of the royal court (the chief cupbearer and the chief baker), one would think that by the standards of the time it was not an altogether unpleasant holding house. (I am reminded of the treatment offending members of the samurai class received in Edo Period Japan: they were placed in apartments within the compound and had servants assigned to them; but that is many worlds away from our narrative.) These other prisoners each have strange dreams which trouble them and whose (presumedly important) meaning they should like to learn; we of course are immediately reminded of Chapter 37 and Joseph’s dreams regarding himself. The details of each are interesting, and the personal connections demonstrated make them seem like the sort of nighttime vision a person could have; Joseph – appropriately giving credit to the divine – assures the other men that answers can be found. Such are, and on telling them Joseph asks for a good word to be put in with Pharaoh on his behalf. What was predicted comes to pass as surely as Bet follows Alef, and the cupbearer goes to his reward while the baker goes to his punishment (execution, most unfortunately). However, and how very like life, the chapter ends with this:

40.23: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.”

There are many ways in which we might take this verse: we could see it as an addition of some tension to the drama, a twisting of storytelling finesse; we could understand it as a part of the history of this figure, a portion of the real (“true”?) Patriarch’s days when things seemed dark and daunting; we could read it as a lesson for ourselves, one that may be applied in any era. There are others as well, of course; in the context of this section of the Book of Genesis though an underlying theme is that whatever events might appear to be on their surface for those (characters) living through them, and too for those observing them (including ourselves as readers (or hearers, historically)), guidance is being provided and God’s/“God’s” design is ineluctably being carried out. It may take time, and it may well eventuate in unexpected ways, but it will happen. This is an extremely comforting faith for those able to hold it, yet it raises terribly difficult – untenable, insurmountable really – questions of theodicy and demands for some explanation for the ills we find around us. Such issues are naturally well beyond the scope of our present efforts, and so we return to Joseph’s being forgotten as a point in itself away from the overarching series of occurrences. Joseph had done this good turn, not wrongly claiming it as from his own power (verse 8b: “So Joseph said to them, ‘Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams].’”), and requested merely to be remembered to the authority most likely to be able to help him. This did not happen. How did Joseph take it? What did he think about while he remained in prison? Was he resentful? Resigned? We are not told; and in that we are invited to place ourselves in his situation and ponder how we might feel and what we might do: an exercise like this can certainly teach as much – if not more than – all that may be gained from wondering on a dream.

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