Genesis 41

Joseph’s Rise to Power

Commentaries by Susan Docherty

Works of art by Hilaire Pader, Peter von Cornelius and Unknown artist

Cite Share

Peter von Cornelius

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, 1816, Watercolour and gouache over pencil on brownish card, 38.6 x 35.7 cm, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; SZ Cornelius 20, Alinari / Art Resource, NY

A Discerning and Wise Man

Commentary by Susan Docherty

Cite Share

Peter von Cornelius belonged to the Brotherhood of St Luke, a band of German Christian and Romantic artists who were part of a larger group called the ‘Nazarenes’. Inspired by Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, they sought a return to the artistic forms and religious subjects of the pre-Enlightenment era (Grewe 2005: 43). This watercolour is a preparatory study (dated to 1816) for one of a cycle of large-scale frescoes showing scenes from the life of Joseph. The frescoes themselves were made for a hall of the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome (and subsequently removed to the National Gallery in Berlin in 1887). They seem to have been partly modelled on the decorations of the Sistine chapel.

In the foreground, with his back to the viewer, Joseph stands before Pharaoh, explaining to him the meaning of his dreams. The court attendants, who have been unable to explain these visions, listen to Joseph with silent and rapt attention, as befits a man of such wisdom and discernment, ‘in whom is the spirit of God’ (Genesis 41:38–39).

The insignia of kingly office (the sceptre and the crown) and the grand throne (surmounted by its niche and pediment) project confidence and power, yet these contrast sharply with Pharaoh’s deeply worried countenance (v.8). This suggests his awareness of the potential impact of his troubling dreams on the welfare of all his people (Westermann 1996: 46). This focus on Pharaoh’s economic concerns is reinforced by other details in the painting. We are given glimpses of the current fertility of the land through the arches in the lunette above him, for instance, and decorating the lunette itself, we see symbols of the ‘plenty’ that Egypt will initially (but only temporarily) continue to enjoy (v.29): baskets of fruit and a nursing woman.

It is not clear from the biblical text how far Joseph is actively seeking the position of chief overseer which he proposes to Pharaoh after interpreting his dreams (vv.33–36; Turner 2009: 181). However, his immediate assumption of this role is signalled in the scene at the right of the painting in which he appears in his grand chariot (v.43). This not only offers a route out of anxiety for Pharaoh, but also secures Joseph’s future: ‘You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you’ (v.40).



Grewe, Cordula. 2005. ‘Re-Enchantment as Artistic Practice: Strategies of Emulation in German Romantic Art and Theory’, New German Critique, 94: 36–71

Turner, Laurence A. 2009. Genesis, 2nd edn. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press)

Westermann, Claus. 1996. Joseph: Studies of the Joseph Stories in Genesis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark)

Hilaire Pader

The Triumph of Joseph, 1657, Oil on canvas, 275 x 775 cm, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Toulouse; (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lord of the Land

Commentary by Susan Docherty

Cite Share

This is one of three biblical scenes painted by the Toulouse-born artist Hilaire Pader in 1657 for the city’s cathedral of St Stephen. It hangs on the left side of the transept, underneath the organ.

The horizontal orientation of this long frieze works well to present the majesty and grandeur of Joseph’s office of vizier in Egypt. The painting is characterized by sumptuous colours, which stand out vividly even within the dark interior of its cathedral setting. The inclusion of such a large crowd of people in different styles of dress and from diverse backgrounds emphasizes the extent of Joseph’s influence over the whole country (41:43–46) and indeed over the entire world. The artist is, therefore, accurately showing how ‘all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth’ (v.57).

Joseph is seated in a gilded chariot, dressed in a rich robe, with the typically Egyptian symbols of his lordly status—a crown, golden necklace, and ring—clearly visible (de Vaux 1978: 299). The artist courted controversy by attributing some of his own facial features to his handsome and relatively youthful hero (Lestrade 2010: 8).

Joseph is preceded on his triumphant tour of the country by heralds who announce him with a cry of ‘abrek’ (41:43). The original meaning of this term is uncertain. It is probably an Egyptian loan-word, and is variously translated as ‘kneel’, or ‘attention’ (Vergote 2016: 135–37). Pader perhaps interprets it in the latter sense, since the bystanders are not doing obeisance before the chariot. The population of Egypt are represented, then, as submitting to the authority vested in Joseph (v.40), but the expressions on their faces suggest that they greet his passing with joy and gratitude rather than from a sense of duty or fear. This is a fitting reception for the man who has been inspired by God to ensure that ‘the land may not perish through the famine’ (v.36).



Lestrade, Jean. 2010. Le Triomphe de Joseph et Le Deluge (Whitefish: Kessinger)

Trouvé, Stéphanie. 2016. ‘Lomazzo and France: Hilaire Pader’s Translation: Theoretical and Artistic Issues’, available at

de Vaux, Roland. 1978. The Early History of Israel, vol. 1 (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd)

Vergote, Jozef. 1959. Joseph en Égypte (Louvain: Publications Universitaires)

Unknown artist

Scenes from the life of Joseph, from the Golden Haggadah (upper right: Pharaoh's dream; upper left: Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream; lower right: the arrest of Simeon; lower left: Joseph revealing himself to his brothers), c.1320–30, Illuminated manuscript, 245 x 190/195 mm, The British Library, London; Add MS 27210, fol. 7r, © The British Library Board (Add MS 27210, fol. 7r)

Pharaoh’s Troubling Dreams

Commentary by Susan Docherty

Cite Share

When Jews retell the story of the exodus at the annual family Passover meal, they use a special service book called a Haggadah (named from the Hebrew verb ‘to tell’). This particularly beautiful and ornate example was produced in Catalonia around the year 1320 (Narkiss 1970: 56). It contains fifty-six miniature paintings of biblical scenes, all decorated with opulent gold leaf and intricate punchwork.

This folio represents the section of the Joseph narrative recounted in Genesis 41–43. As with all Hebrew texts, it is read from right to left, beginning in the upper register. The first panel depicts Pharaoh’s two dreams, then Joseph’s explanation of them. Both dreams, of cows and ears of grain (Genesis 41:1–7), are combined within the first miniature. This reflects Joseph’s interpretation that they share a single meaning (v.25). Cows were associated with fertility in ancient Egyptian thought, as well as serving as an essential source of food and labour (Brewer 1994). The dreams therefore presage a serious threat to the kingdom’s economy and prosperity, and so greatly trouble Pharaoh (v.8).

In the top left panel, Joseph is seated next to the ruler, in intimate discussion with him. Their heads are leaning towards one another, and the positions of their hands indicate an animated conversation. All the other courtiers stand a little way off, separated from them both physically and by their lack of comprehension of the dreams. This composition suggests that Joseph, although a foreigner and former prisoner (39:20), is already well on the way to becoming Pharaoh’s closest advisor and second-in-command (41:33–41). The result of his appointment to that position is revealed in the two miniatures on the bottom register: it will ultimately bring about his reconciliation with his brothers and enable him to provide food for the Israelites as well as the Egyptians during the coming famine.

The Golden Haggadah demonstrates the close interaction between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim culture in this period (Epstein 2011: 3; Kogman-Appel 2004). Each scene is framed with the geometric patterns typical of Islamic decoration, for example, and the figures are drawn with the long flowing bodies characteristic of contemporary Christian illuminated Bibles and Gothic art generally.

Such interweaving of influences is particularly appropriate for a narrative about the mutually beneficial engagement of Egyptians and Hebrews.



Brewer, Douglas J., Donald Redford, and Susan Redford. 1994. Domestic Plants and Animals: The Egyptian Origins (Warminster: Aris & Phillips)

Epstein, Marc Michael. 2011. The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Kogman-Appel, Katrin. 2004. Jewish Book Art Between Islam and Christianity: The Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Medieval Spain (Leiden: Brill)

Narkiss, Bezalel. 1970. The Golden Haggadah: A Fourteenth-century Illuminated Hebrew Manuscript in the British Museum (London: British Museum)

Peter von Cornelius :

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, 1816 , Watercolour and gouache over pencil on brownish card

Hilaire Pader :

The Triumph of Joseph, 1657 , Oil on canvas

Unknown artist :

Scenes from the life of Joseph, from the Golden Haggadah (upper right: Pharaoh's dream; upper left: Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream; lower right: the arrest of Simeon; lower left: Joseph revealing himself to his brothers), c.1320–30 , Illuminated manuscript

‘Fruitful in the Land of my Affliction’

Comparative commentary by Susan Docherty

Cite Share

The story of Joseph (Genesis 37; 39–45) is ‘…the most intricately constructed … of all the patriarchal histories … for sustained dramatic effect … unsurpassed in the whole Pentateuch’ (Speiser 1964: 292). Genesis 41 is widely regarded as the very centre of this dramatic tale (Westermann 1986: 85). It tells of Joseph’s unlikely rise to power in Egypt, and sets the stage for his reunion with his family after a two-decade long separation. It divides into three parts, a common pattern in Hebrew narrative: a description of Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41:1–13); an account of their interpretation by Joseph (vv.14–46); and a demonstration of their eventual fulfilment, in which Joseph will play a central role (vv.47–57; Wenham 2000: 389).

These three acts are represented in turn in this exhibition. Two of the artworks reflect an appreciation of the chapter as a whole and of the interconnections between its three sections. So folio 7 of the Golden Haggadah encompasses both the dream interpretation scene and the final episode of this narrative, in which Joseph as Pharaoh’s chief advisor will welcome his family to Egypt.

In Peter von Cornelius’s portrayal of Joseph explaining Pharaoh’s dreams, too, the composition hints at the implications of this for Joseph’s future role and authority, particularly through the secondary scene at the right which shows him riding in his chariot. In the main scene Joseph alone is foregrounded, albeit with his back to the viewer, and the king and all his courtiers listen to him in respectful silence, although the sense of closeness between the two main protagonists which emerges in the Golden Haggadah is lacking.

Hilaire Pader concentrates wholly on the final scene, lavishly celebrating Joseph’s eminence as grand vizier of Egypt. The success of a Hebrew abroad was enthusiastically celebrated by both early Jews (as in Joseph and Aseneth, a romantic novel written in Greek by an unnamed author around the turn of the era), and early Christians, who saw in Joseph’s life a prefiguration of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation (as in the sermons of St Ephrem the Syrian). With rich colours and large crowds, Pader deftly conveys a sense of the size and wealth of the land over which Joseph is set, and of the splendour and power with which he is invested.

Over the course of this chapter, then, the imprisoned and forgotten slave has been transformed into a member of the Egyptian elite, second only to Pharaoh in authority and married into a high-status priestly family (vv.4–45). Ironically, it is Joseph’s apparently complete absorption into his adopted society depicted so fully by Pader that will bring about his reconnection with his Hebrew origins, when members of his family journey to Egypt during the famine (41:57–42:3).  

Pharaoh’s dreams are presented in the biblical text as a true and divinely-sent message (41:25, 28, 32), reflecting a view widespread in the ancient world (Westermann 1996: 46). The providential and life-changing power of dreams is literally enacted in this narrative and in these visual representations of it, as they are instrumental in raising Joseph to greatness and ultimately enabling him to give life and prosperity to his entire clan when they migrate to Egypt (42:2; 45:18).

For the biblical narrator, however, these events are not primarily about the individual character, Joseph. Rather, they form one strand within a much larger epic about Israel’s ancestors, who encounter numerous obstacles on their way to inheriting the promises made to them by their God of land, descendants, and blessings (Genesis 12:1–3; 17:2–8; 22:16–18). Joseph’s life encapsulates the experience of these early patriarchs, and also foreshadows the key events of the exodus, when his people will become enslaved in Egypt as he was, will interact with another Pharaoh in order to gain their deliverance, and will again ultimately triumph through divine intervention (Exodus 1:1–14:31). This link between Joseph’s own life and the exodus is made explicit when he gives his second son, Ephraim, a name which recalls both the divine promises to Abraham of ‘fruitfulness’ (Genesis 12:2; 15:5; 17:2–6; 22:15–17) and the ‘afflictions’ which his descendants will suffer in Egypt (Genesis 41:52; see Exodus 3:7, 17; 4:3). It is also appropriately highlighted by the inclusion of an artistic portrayal of the Joseph narrative at the front of the Golden Haggadah, a book designed for use in the annual celebration of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt at Passover.



Goodacre, Mark. 1999. ‘The Aseneth Home Page’, available The Aseneth Home Page (

Speiser, Ephraim. 1964. Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Wenham, Gordon. 2000. Genesis 1650, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan)

Westermann, Claus. 1986. Genesis 3750 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress)

———. 1996. Joseph: Studies of the Joseph Stories in Genesis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark)

Next exhibition: Genesis 48

Genesis 41

Revised Standard Version

41 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows sleek and fat, and they fed in the reed grass. 3And behold, seven other cows, gaunt and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4And the gaunt and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 8So in the morning his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men; and Pharaoh told them his dream, but there was none who could interpret it to Pharaoh.

9 Then the chief butler said to Pharaoh, “I remember my faults today. 10When Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. 12A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard; and when we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13And as he interpreted to us, so it came to pass; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”

14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it; and I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” 17Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; 18and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass; 19and seven other cows came up after them, poor and very gaunt and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20And the thin and gaunt cows ate up the first seven fat cows, 21but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as gaunt as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good; 23and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”

25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dream of Pharaoh is one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dream is one. 27The seven lean and gaunt cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28It is as I told Pharaoh, God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land, 31and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of that famine which will follow, for it will be very grievous. 32And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass. 33Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take the fifth part of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. 35And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine which are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

37 This proposal seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his servants. 38And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; 40you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” 42Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; 43and he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44Moreover Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no man shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” 45And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphʹenath-paneʹah; and he gave him in marriage Asʹenath, the daughter of Potiʹphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.

46 Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went through all the land of Egypt. 47During the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth abundantly, 48and he gathered up all the food of the seven years when there was plenty in the land of Egypt, and stored up food in the cities; he stored up in every city the food from the fields around it. 49And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.

50 Before the year of famine came, Joseph had two sons, whom Asʹenath, the daughter of Potiʹphera priest of On, bore to him. 51Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasʹseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” 52The name of the second he called Eʹphraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

53 The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; 54and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. There was famine in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. 55When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” 56So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.