Joseph has been called the biblical King of Dreams. Truly, Genesis relates three pairs of dreams that changed his life and guided his destiny while also affecting the fates of the Children of Israel and Egypt.
The first two dreams came to Joseph when he was a young man living in Jacob’s house (Genesis 37). In the first, he saw himself binding sheaves of wheat with his brothers. His brothers’ sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s sheaf. The second bore a similar message; the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him.
The meaning behind these two dreams was obvious to all, and caused his brothers to be angry with him and his father to rebuke him. The first dream came true when the brothers went to Egypt to buy food from their brother and bowed down to him (Genesis 42:6).
But the details of the second dream are problematic, almost refuting the obvious meaning. Though the eleven stars clearly represent the eleven brothers, the sun and moon, which seem to represent his parents, are a problem as Rachel is already deceased and Jacob does not accompany his sons to Egypt when they bow down to Joseph.
The Talmud (Berachot 55a) offers an explanation, suggesting that the inclusion of the sun and the moon was a “frivolous detail”:
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: “Just as it is impossible to have grain without straw, it is impossible to have dreams without frivolous details.” Rabbi Berechiah said: “A dream, even though some of it may come true, not all of it will come true.” From where does he know this? From Joseph, as it says: (Gen 37:9) “and behold, the sun and the moon…”
This explanation is problematic, however, as all of the details in the remaining dreams were precise and necessary.
The Sages explains that despite the obvious flaw, Jacob nonetheless believed the dream was prophetic. The brothers, and possibly Jacob himself, could (and would) serve their younger brother in the future. Rachel’s obeisance to her firstborn would have to wait until after the resurrection of the dead.
The second pair of dreams came to his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker, on the same night in the Egyptian prison (Genesis 40). The cupbearer dreamt of a grape vine with three branches laden with clusters of grapes. In the dream, the cup bearer pressed the grapes and presented the cup of wine to Pharoah.
The chief baker dreamt of bearing three baskets of bread on his head. Birds were eating the bread out of the top basket.
Joseph did what no one else could; he interpreted the dreams. After stating that understanding dreams comes from God, Joseph explained that in three days, each prisoner would have his fate sealed. The cup bearer would be restored to his position in the palace while the baker would be executed.
The cup bearer promised to advocate for Joseph after returning to his position in the palace but this promise was forgotten.
Two years later, the third pair of dreams came to Pharaoh (Genesis 41). In the first dream, Pharaoh dreamt he was standing on the shore of the Nile when seven fine cows came up from the water to graze. They were followed by seven gaunt cows who consumed the fat cows.
Pharaoh woke from the dream but went back to sleep and dreamt again. In this dream, “seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, growing on a single stalk”, were consumed by “seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind”.
Pharaoh knew that the dreams were significant but none of his magicians or wise men could interpret them. The cupbearer remembered Joseph and he was taken from prison, cleaned up and presented to Pharaoh. He then interpreted the dreams, with the disclaimer that all answers come from God. Joseph noted that like the previous pairs of dreams, Pharaoh’s dreams had one message: seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine that would be so harsh they would erase the benefits of the first seven years.
It is the interpretation of these two dreams that lead Pharaoh to set Joseph in charge of Egypt’s future. It is interesting to note that the manifestation of Pharaoh’s dreams brought to reality Joseph’s dreams, setting him above his brothers.