This following is a version of what I wrote in my recent book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: The Five Books of Moses.”


                                                        Joseph’s vs. Pharaoh’s dreams


The biblical scholar Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919) criticizes people who only examine the Bible to find laws or moral lessons. He stresses[1] that the Bible is also a masterpiece of literature. Its development of stories is superb and suspenseful.

In Genesis chapter 41, for example, there are three versions of Pharaoh’s dream, and readers can gain much by delving into the differences between them and why they occur. The first version is the biblical narrative about two dreams. Then, when Pharaoh speaks to his wise men, Scripture only mentions a dream in the singular and offers no details. Later, when Pharaoh speaks to Joseph, he tells about two dreams with new details in verses 19 and 21 that are not in the first biblical narrative.

The exact same technique is used in chapter 24, the incident of Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac. First the story is told in an impersonal objective manner by the Bible. Then when Abraham’s servant tells what had occurred there are additions, deletions, ambiguities, and obscurities in the retelling that gives readers an opportunity to interpret the events freely.

Readers may want to take Ehrlich’s critique to heart and think about the Bible’s narrative skill, for example, in portraying the similarities and differences between Joseph’s and Pharaoh’s dreams, and what they tell about the dreamers and what is transpiring. A literary analysis of Joseph and Pharaoh’s dreams raises questions and causes us to delve more deeply into what is said and why it is said. In addition, Joseph’s dreams help readers understand Pharaoh’s dreams better and vice versa.


Similarities: Each character dreamed. There are many dreams in the Bible and stories told, such as Jacob wrestling with an angel, which Maimonides tells us was a dream, even though the Bible does not reveal this fact. Since Scripture does not reveal that Jacob’s encounter was a dream, the sage Don Isaac Abarbanel thought the event actually occurred and Maimonides was wrong. Why doesn’t the Bible tell us that this event and others are dreams? Both Joseph and Pharaoh had two dreams. Why two? All four dreams seem to focus on the future. But don’t both also reflect the past and don’t both reveal some things about the personalities of the two of them? All four have numbers. Numbers play an important part in biblical events. Why? In Joseph’s dreams, his family is affected; in Pharaoh’s dreams, his extended family, his country, is affected. Are these the same? Are these dreams prophecies? Are prophecies granted to non-Israelites? What is prophecy?

Differences: Joseph’s dreams seem to focus on himself and Pharaoh’s on his country. Joseph’s dreams are one-dimensional: he will be great. Pharaoh’s are two-dimensional: there will be good conditions in Egypt followed by bad. Pharaoh’s dreams are warnings. Are Joseph’s dreams also warnings that he should restrain his prideful behavior, for if he fails to do so, his brothers will hurt him? Is this why the Torah states that Joseph’s two dreams occurred at different times, and Joseph had an opportunity, which he did not use, to see his brothers’ reaction to his dream? Joseph does not seek help in interpreting his dreams; Pharaoh does. Is this significant? Joseph’s dreams cause discord; Pharaoh’s aid his nation.

[1] In his “Mikra Ki-Pheshuto.