And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison….
But the Lord was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
The beauty of Joseph’s years in prison is best characterized by these words of the apostle Peter, “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, that is acceptable with God” (I Peter 2:20). Joseph had lived a Godly life. This was true already in his youth when he was yet in his father’s house. Not as though he was without sin; it is not likely that he showed no signs of youthful pride and arrogance under the favoritism of his father; but through it all he did show that he was sorry for his sin and desired to do what was right. In this he far surpassed his brothers who gave themselves repeatedly to follow the ways of iniquity. Because Joseph was more righteous than they, they hated him and sold him as a slave into Egypt. Joseph had done good and he suffered for it, but still he bore it patiently. A slave in Potiphar’s house, he continued to follow righteousness. Faithful in his duties, the blessing of God rested upon him and he prospered. But his antagonism toward sin could not be kept hidden. He refused to engage in sin with Potiphar’s wife; she became angry and for vengeance had him cast into prison. He was laid in irons and his feet they hurt with fetters (Ps. 105:18); that was the fruit of his faithfulness. What could be more discouraging? Did not his flesh cry out in rebellion? Was he not tempted to grumble and complain against the injustice of it all? Still, we meet him there in prison, patiently bearing also this burden, content in the way of his God. In Joseph we see the strength and beauty of a Godly life. Even by the fetters of a prison it could not be dimmed.
It was not long before also the keeper of the prison recognized the distinctive virtue of Joseph’s life. Even the irons and fetters of the king’s prison could not make him appear a wicked man. The day came when he was released from his bonds. We do not know how the justice of Egypt allowed for this. Perhaps Potiphar, who was the captain of the king’s guard and therefore the highest authority over the prison, became more convinced of Joseph’s innocence and allowed for this lightening of his sentence. Perhaps another succeeded him in office who bore no antagonism toward Joseph. Maybe the keeper of the prison was able to do it on his own authority. In any case God, Who rules the hearts of men; provided that Joseph should receive this greater freedom. Nor did it stop with that. The prison keeper’s confidence in Joseph continued to increase until he was actually promoted to positions of authority. We must not forget, however, that this did not take place immediately. There were months and maybe even years of menial work which came first. Born in a family of covenant-friendship with the Lord God of heaven and earth, Joseph was required to perform the most lowly tasks of an Egyptian prison. Nor did he consider himself above it. With the humility that becomes the children of God, he faithfully and diligently did also this work, content to be the very least. The Lord’s blessing was with him also in these lowly duties and gradually he was promoted to more important work. As in the house of Potiphar, he was finally given authority over others and the sphere of his authority continued to increase until under the prison-keeper he had complete control over all of the prisoners.
An interesting insight into the person of Joseph is provided when he found one day two of the prisoners, the imprisoned butler and baker of the king, with sad faces sitting in their cell. Joseph had known much sorrow in his life and had been humbled very low, but he had not forgotten how to be kind. His concern was with each of the prisoners which were under him, and as much as possible he was ready to help them in their needs. He was quick to notice the despondency of these two men and to inquire as to its cause. To show love and kindness to his neighbors was a principle of his life.
The butler and the baker had both been officers in the king’s household. In the palace very elaborate arrangements were made for every meal and these two men had been in charge of their respective departments. The exact reason for their being thrown in prison we do not know. It has often been speculated that there had possibly been intrigue in the court with an attempt to poison the king. Both the chief butler and baker being suspect, they were cast into prison until it could be determined which one was actually guilty. This is quite possible. However, considering the despotic nature which often characterized ancient kings, it is perhaps equally possible that through the negligence of someone, bad food had been served to the king resulting in a case of indigestion. Angered by this the king might have had very few scruples against throwing the two men responsible for his food into prison and in the end even requiring one of their lives.
One night while in prison each of these two men received a dream. We have no reason to believe, of course, that dreams were more rare in that day than now. Nor could it be considered an uncommon phenomenon that two men should have a dream in the same night. Nevertheless, the dreams which the butler and the baker had that night were different. They were special dreams. The dreams of these men had been controlled by God in, such a way that they could be used to make known the future unto them. They were special revelations from God. Moreover, these men realized that it was so. There was, of course, the general superstition of that day which tended to ascribe special significance to every dream; but this was more than that. Most of the average dreams they passed by with hardly a second thought. These dreams continued to bother them. When they awoke in the morning it was with the feeling weighing upon their minds that what they had seen in the night could not be lightly passed by. The more they thought upon it the stronger that feeling became. But try as they would, they could not tell what the meaning was. Neither was it possible for them to go to the professional interpreters of that day who made a practice of spinning fanciful interpretations around the dreams that were related to them, in much the same way that many professional psychologists do today. Thus these men were troubled. With downcast faces they sat musing each one over that which he had dreamed.
Joseph, coming upon these men, inquired of them, “Wherefore look ye so sadly today?’ When they replied that they had dreamed dreams but had no interpreter, he said further, “Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.” One thing is of special significance in this statement, that is, his ready reference to God. We are led to conclude that Joseph talked very openly about his God. Though in a strange land and among a people that knew not the Lord, he expressed himself very freely. Nor was he afraid to speak of his God as being sovereign over all the earth, the God Who rules the hearts of men and ultimately produces the dreams that come to them in the night. He only knows the purpose and significance of every thought that passes through the minds of men whether sleeping or awake. In essence Joseph told them just that.
The butler was the first to make reply. His readiness to speak may well have been, because his conscience was more free in regard to the matter for which they were in prison. He related his dream thus: “In my dream, behold a vine was before me; and in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes: and Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes, and pressed them in Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.” It was a dream as could be expected from a man of his occupation, but it also bore the mark of the unusual. As though in a matter of a few moments, the butler saw a vine sprout, blossom and bring forth grapes which not only ripened immediately but which could be pressed out by him into wine fully seasoned and ready for the lips of Pharaoh. The Lord immediately revealed to Joseph the meaning of this. The three branches represented three days; the rapid production of wine represented prosperity; and in the dream the butler was evidently performing his usual duties. “Yet within three days,” interpreted Joseph, “shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.”
The baker, encouraged by the promise of the butler’s dream, and recognizing certain similarities between that dream and his own, was now anxious to relate his dream to Joseph. “I also was in my dream,” he offered, “and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head: and in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head.” It is not surprising that the baker was encouraged by the interpretation of the butler’s dream for there were definite similarities between it and his own. In the first place the number three figured prominently in the dream, and in the second place he was represented also as performing his former duties. What the baker, in his eagerness overlooked was the fact that he was frustrated in his work; the birds of the heaven interfered and he was powerless to drive them away. To Joseph fell the difficult task of relating the interpretation. “The three baskets are three days: yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.”
The three days passed and it was Pharaoh’s birthday. In celebration he prepared a great feast for his servants, even calling the butler and baker from the prison. Just as Joseph had interpreted, the butler was restored to his former position, and the baker was hanged. Whether Pharaoh had found the butler to be innocent and the baker guilty of some misdeed, or whether he was merely driven by the whims of his fancy, we do not know. This much was established before the minds of both Joseph and the butler, the dreams and interpretations which God had sent were true. That was the important point which had to be established.
Before the butler left the prison, however, in fact immediately after Joseph related to him the interpretation of his dream, Joseph made of him a request : “Think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house: for indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.” To this request the butler readily agreed. Not only did he feel grateful to Joseph for interpreting the dream, but he was also quite sure of Joseph’s innocence. His promise to Joseph was sure.
The days following the butler’s release from prison were undoubtedly filled with eager anticipation for Joseph. Surely the butler would not forget his promise, and the cause of Joseph was just. Soon he could expect to be released as a free man and would be able to make his way back to his family in Canaan. Perhaps then, even the dreams of his childhood which seemed impossible of fulfillment in Egypt, might still come to pass.
But the butler was a natural man and as such unreliable. Procrastination and forgetfulness soon set in. Even more the plan of God was biding its proper time. Yet two years of trial in patience had to pass for Joseph before it would be fulfilled.