“Pharaoh’s Dream” Painting
Sometime in the first or second millennium before Christ, there was a pharaoh in Egypt, and this pharaoh was having the same bad dream over and over, night after night. It was one of those terrible fever dreams, like the kind you get when you have a virus, and the pictures of the dream keep coming into your head until you wake up in a sweat to vomit. In this dream, Pharaoh saw seven fat cows come up out of the river Nile. They came up out of the water and walked right into Pharaoh’s court amongst all the people like they belonged there. These cows were nice and fat, and their hides had been rubbed with butter and perfumed, so it really was like they belonged in court. Then Pharaoh saw seven more cows come up out of the river. They also walked into the palace, but these cows were thin and diseased. Their mouths were full of broken yellow teeth and ulcers, and their bodies were like old hides stretched over bones. They were skeleton cows. As they entered, women began to shriek, and tables were overturned as people tried to get away from them. Then the skeleton cows began to eat the nice fat cows, and the site was terrible. There was blood and entrails pouring out onto the white marble floor, and the people began to vomit at the sight of it. The guard beside him falls to the floor convulsing. All are overcome. Pharaoh tries to stand to leave the room, but he cannot move. He starts to scream and wakes up. It was the same, night after night, and Pharaoh was troubled.
Like most ancient kings, Pharaoh kept sorcerers, priestesses and wise men of various types in his court for interpreting the meaning dreams and other oracles. Many of the these soothsayers came from conquered peoples, and so their status was always in doubt. They survived the politics of court simply by their ability to give good advice and not say anything foolish, and they were very competitive with each other. Pharaoh told the court the story of the dream and challenged each of the soothsayers to divine the meaning of it, and more importantly, what to do so that the dream stopped. The court could see that Pharaoh was very troubled by the dream, so it quickly became a contest. Naturally most of the interpretations were negative because no one survives as a soothsayer without being perceptive enough to at least read the general tone of a situation, but none of them seemed to say anything new. Each interpretation failed to impress Pharaoh in a way that he couldn’t put into words. All seemed to be lacking in insight, and it was as if they failed to see the urgency of the dream. This was no attack by the Hittites, no conspiracy in the temples. This was different.
Each night was the same, the same dream, the same restlessness, and then Pharaoh would enter court with the same story and the same challenge to the soothsayers. As the days wore on, Pharaoh grew tired, and his health started to deteriorate. The normal business of the court was at a stand still. Finally one morning Pharaoh appeared looking worse than ever. The chief minister asked if he had the dream yet again, and Pharaoh said yes. The soothsayers moved forward to offer advice as usual, but suddenly Pharaoh stood up and shouted at them, “Unless you are absolutely certain that you know the will of the gods concerning this dream, do not say a single word under penalty of death. If any man or woman speaks today without knowing the will of the gods on this matter, they will be put to death. Furthermore, you are to leave the court and not return until you learn the meaning of this dream. Except for the servants and the guards, leave now. All of you!”
There was a mass exit, then the room was empty except for the servants and other people who were never allowed to speak in his presence. The murmuring in the halls died away, and all was quiet at last. Pharaoh sank back into his throne and shut his tired eyes. As he dozed in and out, he listened to the sound of the serving girls removing the trays of food. With his eyes half-shut, they could not see him watching them. He caught an occasional whisper, even a giggle or two, but it all seemed so far away. Then he saw something that caught his attention over in the back corner. The wine steward was pleading in whispers for the guard behind the second column to do something for him, but the guard was refusing. The steward was very animated and red in the face, making all sorts of gestures with his hands, but the guard ignored him. The steward went on begging, and the guard just stared straight ahead as if he were not there. At first it was almost amusing watching the little man beg the giant guard in vain, but Pharaoh was exhausted, and he suddenly grew annoyed. His voice boomed across the empty marble room like thunder, “Steward, what is the problem?”
The steward turned with a start and dropped the wine, the clay jar busting on the floor, the red wine streaking across the white of the marble. Instantly, the stewards face turned white with fear and his eyes shot to the ground, but it was too late. He had looked at Pharaoh’s face, directly at it, and Pharaoh had seen it. This was not allowed, not from any servant, and the punishment was death. The steward began to shake with fear. Pharaoh repeated the command, but the steward couldn’t or wouldn’t say a word. “Well, what is it?” Pharaoh repeated, but still there was no answer. “Guard, come and speak for this man!” The guard hesitated, so Pharaoh shouted again, “Guard, come and speak for this man!”
The guard slowly stepped out from the shadow of the column and walked to the center of the floor and stood beside the shaking steward. Clearly the guard was almost as terrified as the steward now. Both stared directly at their feet. “Well, what is it?” Pharaoh said.
The guard leaned his head down so that the steward could reach his ear. The steward’s chest shook with gasps. Pharaoh could hear him speaking, but he couldn’t understand a word. The man’s voice was choking and squeaky. The guard nodded his head but looked puzzled all the same. After a few minutes, Pharaoh could wait no longer, “Well, what has he to say?”
The guard took one step forward but still stared directly down at the floor in front of him. “Sire, I cannot understand a word he says. Perhaps…”
“Leave us! Guards clear the hall and shut the doors behind you.”
Around the room, guards stepped forward from between the columns and walked toward the main entrance at the rear. The steward started to back away as well, but Pharaoh boomed like thunder, “Stay!”
The steward froze in his tracks. There was the sound of the door being bolted from without, and when that died away, there was nothing but the sound of his own breath. The silence was terrifying. Pharaoh looked at him. “Come forward!”
The steward took a few steps forward, taking great care not to look in the direction of the thrown. He was still not close enough for Pharaoh’s liking. “Come closer!”
The steward inched forward. He touched his toe to the first step of the thrown, but then stepped back. Pharaoh slapped the side of the thrown in aggravation and stood up and stepped down onto the floor. In his entire life, he had never touched a servant, but he grabbed the steward by both shoulders and commanded him to speak. The steward’s breath gasped in and out. It was not possible to tell if the sounds he made were attempts at words of the sound of him choking on his on breath, but his head remained perfectly bowed staring at the floor. Pharaoh could take no more. “Lift up you head and look me directly in the face and speak to me as you would any man. Do it now! You have no reason to fear death or punishment of any kind.”
Suddenly, the steward’s gasping stopped, and he looked directly into Pharaoh’s face. “My lord,” he said in amazement. Then he looked away and began to speak, slowly, but with less of the gasping or the squeakiness that had made him incomprehensible. “Does Pharaoh remember when I was accused of drunkenness and stealing the wine?”
“And I was sent to prison?”
“Yes, but you were restored. It was all the lies of the baker.”
“Yes, but while I was there, I was as good as a dead man. I had no way of knowing I would be restored. I lived as a dead man.”
“And I had a strange dream, a simple dream, but strange in its intensity. I knew…”
“Was it the dream of the cows?”
“No, not at all. But it came to me over and over. I knew that it had meaning and significance, only I had no idea what it might be, so I began to tell it to those around me. I soon learned that there was a foreigner in the prison who was gifted in the interpretation of dreams, a man called Yasef from a small tribe in the land of the Hittites.”
“And what did he say of the dream?”
“He said many things, so many things I laughed at him.” The steward began to laugh softly but a little crazy, like he was relaxing from the greatest scare of his life. He looked at Pharaoh and said, “He said so many crazy things, I hadn’t believed him until…”
“What did he say?” Pharaoh shook seriousness back into the man, “Tell me!”
The steward’s smile melted into a look of astonishment. He looked directly into Pharaoh’s eyes and said, “He said, ‘You have no reason to fear death. As surely as God Almighty speaks to me in my dreams, you will live to speak to Pharaoh face to face as you would any man.’ He said all sorts of crazy talk. They whipped him for that. The warden…”
“Guards!” Pharaoh shouted, “Guards! My chariot!” Pharaoh had the steward by the wrist and pushed him to the door. “Guards! Guards! Come now. Unbolt this door!” Pharaoh beat on the door with his own fists. They weren’t coming fast enough. Pharaoh kept beating the door and calling them. The steward joined in, beating with his bare knuckles. He too called the guards like sheep or children. It was unbelievable.
There was the sound of running in the hall, the clink of swords and metal, and the sound of the heavy bronze bolt falling clear of the latch. The doors swung open, and there stood the entire watch with swords drawn. Pharaoh grabbed the steward’s wrist and pushed him through the mass of guards without regard to form or etiquette. Within minutes, Pharaoh had pulled the steward into his own chariot, and they were streaking out across the desert.
An entire caravan of guards raced behind, but they couldn’t quite keep pace. Pharaoh had the driver whip the horses beyond what was safe or practical. He was determined to find this foreigner and know the meaning of the dream before the sun set.
When they arrived at the gates of the prison, they were covered with dust, both the steward and Pharaoh in his fine linen. The chariot and Pharaoh’s standard were also covered with dust. There was no reason for those inside to think that this was anything but a new arrival. Besides, there was no precedent of anyone of any importance to visit the prison. Without question this was a new arrival and new arrivals at the prison were always a subject of intense anticipation. Perhaps the new inmate was a recent casualty of court politics, a noble recently fallen from grace, a man who had never known work before. The inmates knew how to welcome such people. They picked up rocks and mud and feces and waited directly inside the gate.
Pharaoh did not wait for the guards or even his driver. He grabbed the arm of the steward and pushed him through the gates. A roar went up from the crowd, then silence. The inmates dropped their rocks, their mud and feces and fell to the ground, as did the prison guards. Compared to Pharaoh’s guards who now swarmed through the gates, the prison guards were hardly distinguishable from the raggedy convicts anyway. All were silent.
Pharaoh spoke, “Where is the foreigner, the one called Yasef?”
There was murmuring across the yard. Clearly not everyone could here over the wind. Pharaoh repeated the question, “Where is the foreigner, the one called Yasef?”
“Lord, here I am.” A youth at the back of the crowd stepped through the crouching prisoners and came to stand before Pharaoh. Emaciated and dressed in rags, he looked totally ordinary in every way. Surely this man couldn’t have the answer, could he?
“Is this the man?” Pharaoh asked the steward.
The steward nodded vigorously. Pharaoh turned back to the prisoner and said, “Are you Yasef, the one who claims to know the secret meaning of dreams?”
“I am Yasef, but it is the Lord that tells me the meaning of dreams.”
“Then let me tell you mine. But first I should warn you that I have grown tired of false prophets, and this very day I have commanded that no one should offer any interpretation of this dream unless they were absolutely certain that they are speaking the will of the gods concerning it. Speak if you have wisdom but know that the punishment of speaking falsely is death.” He looked grimly at Yasef. “Should I tell you my dream?”
“There is no need to do so. The Lord has shown it to me also.”
Pharaoh looked at the boy. Was he arrogant or insane? This was no time for fools. The life of the kingdom itself was at stake. So be it, Pharaoh thought, he would let the boy decide his own fate. “Then tell me the will of the Lord.”
“The dream is from the Lord and is no ordinary dream. The seven fat and buttered cows are seven years of plenty. In these seven years, Egypt will know harvests like never before. Grain will be as cheap to come by as reeds.” Then the boy raised his face and looked Pharaoh directly in the eyes. “But the seven lean cows are the seven years of pestilence, drought and famine that will come after. There will be neither sowing nor reaping in all of these seven years, and the harshest famine will be across all the face of the land, both Egypt and beyond. There will not be one blade of grass anywhere. The land will waste into dust, and all the people and all the cattle will die. Everywhere.”
Pharaoh was dumbstruck. “That is the will of the Lord?”
“No it is not. This is why the Lord has sent you the dream, that all the Land of Egypt may be spared. The Lord has shown you what is about to happen. You are to build storehouses and granaries to preserve the people in the time of famine. Over these storehouses, you are to appoint only the most trusted of men, men who have sure knowledge of the grievous times that are to come. Else they might be tempted to use the positions for profit. Every last ounce of grain must be saved. There must be no waste because it will all be needed desperately in the end.”
Pharaoh considered the advice, marveling at what a day it had been.
“Did the Lord reveal anything more to you?”
“Only that I should remember humility and kindness no matter what happens.”
“Then let me show you the hand of the Lord in all things, even your captivity in this prison. Take this ring from my own hand. On it is the seal of Pharaoh. Yasef, you are the first of my trusted men. Immediately you will return with me to Memphis. You will begin this work tomorrow.”
And with that, Pharaoh lead Yasef out through the gates to the waiting chariots, and they raced off in a cloud of dust, followed by the steward and the guards. Then it was quiet, except for the sound of the dry east wind rustling through the dry desert scrub.