Egypt’s Years of Abundance and Famine in Pharaoh’s Dream

Joseph's Dream Interpretation Results in Promotion - O.A.Stemler image/public domain 1926

Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream demonstrates how dreams in the ancient world acted as warnings and visions about the natural world like the Nile.

The story of Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41 is probably the most significant example of the role of dreams in the Old and New Testaments. Dreams have been parts of important rituals and ceremonies in many ancient cultures. Yet the dreams in the Bible as warnings or vehicles for hidden truth are usually associated with cultures that already valued such ritual. It is in this light that the actions of Joseph, the interpreter of Pharaoh’s dream, must be evaluated.

Joseph and the Art of Dream Interpretation

Joseph was taken into Egypt after being sold into slavery by his own, jealous brothers. Joseph was the youngest son, only seventeen, when his father gave him a tunic that set the boy apart from the other brothers. Joseph was not modest but used a dream to indicate that at some future point, his brothers would bow down before him.

Spiritualizing the text suggests that God used the boy’s arrogance to fulfill a long-term plan. The realities of the story, however, indicate that Joseph was highly observant, intelligent, ambitious, and a risk taker. There is no evidence that he was particularly devout. Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream was based on keen observation.

Seven Years of Plenty and Seven Years of Famine

Joseph was attuned to the climate changes that impacted the rise and fall of the Nile River. Historically, significant changes in dry and rainy periods impacted many civilizations. One reason given for the slow decay of Ancient Rome involved climate changes that altered previously abundant grain harvests.

Pharaoh’s dream involved seven sickly cows emerging from the Nile to devour seven healthy cows. In the second dream, seven ears of poor corn swallowed up seven ears of good corn. Images and symbols play an important part in these dreams. The Nile was the source of life in Egypt. In later decades, it was said that, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”

During the Middle Kingdom, the image of the Pharaoh as the herdsman of cattle became popular. Thus, it was with good reason that he awoke from these two dreams greatly troubled. Finally, the ears of corn point to Egyptian abundance. According to belief, Osiris, the most popular god, had taught the people how to farm.

The Coming of Famine Affirms Joseph’s Interpretation

Joseph’s interpretation and force of personality was enough for Pharaoh to make him the second most important man in Egypt, a vizier empowered to confiscate grain during the good years so that Egypt would not starve during the lean years. According to the Genesis account, as he grew into the job, he became wiser.

At the very end of Genesis 41, the writer indicates that the famine was global in nature. Word spread, however, that there was grain in Egypt and this brought the children of Israel, the seed of Jacob, into the land. The passage, however, indicates the arrival of many groups, possibly the Hyksos, according to some interpretations.

Biblical Dreams as Warnings

Dreams in the Bible served as warnings, not for purposes of revelation. Jesus never once referred to dreams. At the time of his birth, the visiting Magi were warned in a dream to return home using a different route, in order to avoid King Herod.

In the Old Testament, Daniel interprets the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar which many scholars believe to be apocalyptic. But the king also suffered from mental abnormalities. Does this detract from the interpretation? Most scholars that use the Daniel passages to define end times prophecies say no.

The Role of Harvest Time in Ancient Egypt

Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams touches on the very essence of Egyptian civilization. In Egypt, where most persons were farmers, the common view of the afterlife included vast fields of wheat and barley. This speaks to the importance of key crops.

Even in the 21st Century, the same concerns over crops persist as global food prices increase dramatically. Reuters, among other media sources (January 26, 2011), notes that Algeria is purchasing millions of tons of grain to preempt food riots that could destabilize the government.

Yet it would be wrong to tie current global affairs in the Middle East with either biblical dreams or portents of apocalyptic doom. Pharaoh’s dream, whether historical or allegorical, was an isolated, specific occurrence.