In the course of human history, there have been many individuals who were known as a prophet; mostly, this title held a religious connotation, but in many instances, the prophet was also a military commander on the battlefield. The prophet, according to the various religious Judeo-Christian-Islamic texts, spoke for God and was the means by which the Divine Inspirations were delivered to humanity. According to the Israelite text, God spoke through the prophets by means of dreams and visions; God, accordingly, would do nothing in the physical realm without first informing his prophets (1917 The Jewish Publication Society Numbers 12.6; Amos 3.7). The English word prophet derived from the Greek prophētēs— itself derived from the Greek preposition pro and the substantive phētēs. Originally, the term meant to speak out or to speak openly— it can even mean to speak in advance. In the ancient Greek writings, the prophet was the herald of the champions who competed in the Olympian games (Bacchylides, Epinicians 9.3). According to this understanding, John the Baptist was understood to be the herald of Jesus the Nazarene. In the Semitic languages of Judaism and Islam, the word for a prophet was נָבִיא navi’ which was derived from the verb נָבָא nava’ meaning to inform. In the Hebrew Text, Abraham was the first to be named a prophet, but it was Joseph who was the first to demonstrate just what a prophet could do.
Joseph was the first son of Jacob that was born to Rachel— his younger brother was Benjamin. Rachel was the beloved wife of Jacob for whom he labored seven years to marry. Of course, Jacob was tricked into marrying her sister Leah— seeing that she was the firstborn. According to the Hebrew Text, Leah was the first to have children- which was an act of God because Jacob did not love Leah. After many years, Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph- as Jacob had become old; for this reason, Joseph was the beloved son of Jacob— prompting jealousy from his 10 other brothers.
When Joseph was around the age of 17, he had a dream; in his dream, he was binding sheaves with his brothers. His sheave stood up and the sheaves that his brothers had bound prostrated themselves to Joseph’s sheave. When he told this to his brothers, it made them even more jealous— to the point that they could not speak any peaceable word to Joseph. To add fuel to the fire, Joseph related to his parent and his brothers a second dream. In that dream, Joseph saw the sun, the moon, and eleven stars prostrating themselves to Joseph. This time, even his father admonished him.
As his brothers were keeping their father’s sheep, Jacob sent Joseph to them to bring back word. It was at this time that his brothers plotted against him— at first, considering to kill him. In the end, they decided to sell him into slavery. He was taken to Egypt by a caravan of Ishmaelites and was sold to Potiphar— the chief executioner of Pharaoh.
As the servant of Potiphar, Joseph received the honor of being the chief steward of Potiphar’s house. All of the household affairs was left to Joseph. In time, Joseph ran into some problems with Potiphar’s wife which landed him a demotion— from being the chief steward to being the chief jailer at the prison which was located at the house of Potiphar. While Joseph was in this position, two of Pharaoh’s servants- the chief cup-bearer and the chief baker- were both sent to the prison in which Joseph was the administrator. While in prison, these two men each had a dream— Joseph was able to interpret both dreams. The baker was executed by Pharaoh and the chief cup-bearer was returned to his duties.
A few years passed by and Pharaoh himself had two dreams in the same night. When he woke from these dreams, he sought for one who could explain the meaning of the dreams— none of Pharaoh’s advisers could proffer an explanation. At this point, the chief cup-bearer remembered Joseph and how he was able to interpret his own dream while in prison; the cup-bearer informed Pharaoh that such an interpreter was available.
Many have attributed the ability of Joseph to interpret these dreams as being a divine inspiration; it is, however, more likely that Joseph was educated enough to deduce the meanings of the dreams himself. The station in which Joseph found himself, as well as the dreams of Pharaoh, is sufficient to prove this theory.
First, it must be established that Potiphar was the chief executioner of Pharaoh; Joseph was formerly his chief steward who was amazing at running the affairs of Potiphar’s household. The only problem came from Potiphar’s wife who accused Joseph of sexual advances. Many might have assumed that Potiphar was angry at Joseph for this and placed him in prison, but this is not correct according to the narrative. Joseph was demoted and given charge of the prison— at which he also excelled. Potiphar and Joseph remained friends and it was Potiphar who set Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer and chief baker under Joseph’s charge. It is probably that Pharaoh had already determined that the chief baker would be executed— Potiphar, the chief executioner, would have sure explained this to Joseph. To the men, however, it seemed as if Joseph was inspired by God.
In Pharaoh’s first dream, he found himself standing on the banks of the Nile when seven healthy cows emerged from the river to feed upon the grass. After them, emerged seven unhealthy and lean cows which ate the healthy cows. In Pharaoh’s second dream, he saw seven healthy and full ears of grain growing from a single stalk; he then saw seven unhealthy ears of grain which seemed to have been blasted and dried out by an Eastern wind which grew up after the seven healthy ears— then he woke.
Joseph, again, explained the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams correctly; the question is how? There are several clues in the dreams themselves which can shed light on how Joseph understood them. First of which is Pharaoh’s position in the dreams— standing on the banks of the Nile. The Nile was used to begin the Egyptian year; the Egyptian calendar began at the inundation of the Nile when the Nile overflows its banks and re-nourishes the farmlands with fresh silt. In Egyptian mythology, the Nile was named after the personification of the inundation itself— Hapi. Hapi was considered a fertility deity as well as a deity of the established cosmos; in other words, Hapi kept the cosmos in order. Since Pharaoh was standing on the banks of Hapi, Joseph understood that this dream was related to the cosmos, the order of the universe, as well as time itself. The cows of Pharaoh’s dreams would have been easily identified with the Egyptian goddess Hathor— her name meaning the House of Horus [the Egyptian Sun god]. She represented the primordial waters from which the sun was born at the beginning of time; she was represented as a cow. The cows, being fourteen, naturally would have represented fourteen events connected with time; the fact that Pharaoh stood on the banks of the Nile for this dream meant that it would have been fourteen years as the inundation was the beginning of the Egyptian solar year.
Immediately, Joseph would have recognized fourteen years in Pharaoh’s first dream; the next step would have been to understand just what about these fourteen years Pharaoh was dreaming. The first seven cows were healthy while the last seven were lean and fed upon the healthy cows. Although these cows could have represented any number of interpretations, Pharaoh had a second dream. In that dream, he saw the seven healthy and full ears of grain after which seven wind-blasted ears grew up. Grain is the source of bread and of life in Egypt. In ancient Egyptian, the words for life and grain are written the same— ankh. The difference in the words are found only in the determinatives; for grain, ankh would have three seeds as a determinative sign while for life or living beings, ankh would have the scarab beetle as a determinative. The scarab was the symbol of creation, being, existence as well as resurrection and renewal of life. With these two dreams, Joseph would have understood that both represented a fourteen years period in which life and food would be involved. The seven healthy cows and the seven full ears of life-giving grain would have naturally represented a seven-year period of plenty. The seven lean cows and the seven wind-dried ears of grain would, then, represent a seven-year period in which food would be scarce.
In addition to these clues, there was also the direction of the wind which blasted and dried the grain— from the East. This clue would have brought Joseph’s attention to the generational cycle of famine which plagued Cana’an. There was famine in the days of his great-grandfather Abraham; there was also a famine in the days of his grandfather Isaac. The famine of his generation was already beginning when he was sold into slavery— the reason why the sons of Jacob were in Shekhem and not in Hebron with their father. The herbage had already begun to be scarce. The fact that the wind was from the East meant that the famine would, eventually, reach Egypt. Joseph, then, had all the clues to figure out the meaning of the dream without divine inspiration.
There is an interesting verse concerning prophets and seers in the first book of Samuel
Before-time in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, thus he said: ‘Come and let us go to the seer’; for he that is now called a prophet was before-time called a seer. (1917 The Jewish Publication Society 1 Samuel 9:9)
The Hebrew word for seer is רֹואֶה ro’eh— from the verb רָאָה ra’ah [to see]. In the Hebrew Text, when God would appear to someone, it was written that God was made to be seen; the niph’al [passive] verb וַיֵּרָא wayyera was consistently used. In the first book of the Chronicles is another interesting passage concerning Uzziah seeking the visions of God from Zechariah
And he set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding in the vision of God; and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him to prosper.
(1917 The Jewish Publication Society 1 Chronicles 26:5)
In this passage, the hiphil participle הַמֵּבִין ha–mebin was used as a periphrasis for the skill of Zachariah— in other words, the prophet; Zechariah was the one able to make the visions of God understandable.
A prophet, the Semitic word meaning one who is informed, began as a seer. A seer is someone which is enlightened and pays attention to the situation and time in which he/she find him/herself. By seeing and observing the events in the prison, Joseph was able to rightly interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s ministers; by understanding the past environment in which he lived and the stories passed along from his parents- as well as having an understanding of the political and religious life of Egypt- Joseph was able to rightly predict the coming famine of Pharaoh’s dream.
And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: ‘My lord Moses, shut them in.’ And Moses said unto him: ‘Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!’ (1917 The Jewish Publication Society Numbers 11:27-29)