Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s two dreams are, from an objective viewpoint, implausible. Both dreams are, in their essence, about fatness and thinness and eating. Applying Freudian principles of dream interpretation, we can assume that Pharaoh had been preoccupied, during the day leading up to the night of the dreams, though probably not fully consciously, with his weight problem. Why are Joseph’s interpretations so far from what we would expect?
The Pharaoh Who Knew Joseph was the last person in the world to be dreaming about crop projections 14 years into the future. It’s clear from the alacrity with which he later bestowed on Joseph all responsibilities for domestic policy and administration that he had no interest in this stuff. Ramses the Great would not have handed over his signet ring and the power that went with it to any slave, let alone a slave who was intelligent and politically adroit. This pharaoh, however, liked to party and hang out with his dancing girls. And in any case, as we understand from the biblical account, he had received a briefing from his ministers for Agriculture and Food Distribution, in which he was told the harvest that year was going to be a bumper crop and they would need to build some more grain storage silos, if Pharaoh would kindly approve the expenditure. Pharaoh was irritated by the whole briefing. “So build them. What am I paying you for? Don’t pester me with this petty administrative nonsense.” You can see the type of pharaoh he was.
This, then, was the state of affairs in the palace on the morning before the night of the dreams. And Joseph was languishing in prison, still meditating on the acts of extraordinary naiveté that had got him sold into slavery and then landed him here. Potiphar’s wife had really liked him and he’d turned her into an enemy. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” one of his cellmates had commented, and all the others had shrugged in agreement, as though they’d known this from childhood.
When Pharaoh woke up on the morning before the dreams he decided to put on his favorite party robe, which he hadn’t worn for over a year. The robe, however, didn’t quite fit. It was tight around the midriff. He immediately called for the Royal Tailor, and asked him sarcastically, “What sort of tailor are you?” The tailor thought, “I’m a Pharaonic Tailor,” but repressed this little witticism, something he normally wouldn’t do, for he was a jovial tailor. Pharaoh yelled, “This thing doesn’t fit, you made the robe too small.” The tailor, who was becoming annoyed with himself for repressing what he now believed was a superb piece of repartee, blurted out in his distraction: “It was a perfect fit when I made it. The fault, dear Pharaoh, lies not in the garment but in the Royal Belly.” Now this pharaoh was, as pharaohs go, merciful and just. Consequently, he didn’t have the Royal Tailor tortured and executed but just ordered him clapped into chains and dragged off to prison.
The guards, who enjoyed the Royal Tailor’s parties and jokes, decided to put him in a storage room in the basement of the palace until the next day to see if Pharaoh would change his mind after he’d had a good night’s sleep. But, as we know, that night Pharaoh had his two dreams about fat and thin cattle and sheaves of wheat and so on and was anxious to get them interpreted, so when the guards asked him what they should do with the Royal Tailor, Pharaoh told them to take the tailor to the dungeon reserved for servants in disgrace and slaves of prominent people who, because they might spill some state secrets, were not locked up with common criminals.
And so it transpired that the Royal Tailor was being dragged into the dungeon just as Joseph was emerging. “Who’s that?” the tailor asked his guards. He was told, “That’s Potiphar’s Hebrew slave, who is being escorted to an audience with Pharaoh.” As he passed Joseph, the Royal Tailor leaned toward him and said, in an urgent voice because he was a kind man and full of compassion, “Don’t mention his weight problem.”
Joseph thought this a strange piece of advice since he hadn’t the slightest intention of mentioning Pharaoh’s weight problem. The years as a slave and in the dungeon had not been wasted (or, of course, waisted) on Joseph.
Even at the ripe age of 17 [Genesis 37:2], Joseph was still inflicting descriptions of his dreams on his long-suffering brothers. But by the time he was brought from the dungeon to Pharaoh he had learned to take the feelings of others into account before he favored them with samples of his inner life, and it is this portrait of the growth to maturity of an egocentric late developer that is, for me, the most poignant feature of the Joseph cycle.
David Curzon is a contributing editor to the Forward.