Joseph the son of Jacob had two dreams when he was 17 years old.
Years later, Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years.
I suggest that this repetition of the number 17 can give us a new insight into when Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled.
We find the number 17 mentioned only these two times in Genesis.
Let’s look into the related events.
Joseph Had Two Dreams
Dreams play an important role in Joseph’s life. However, as recorded in the Bible, he himself had only two dreams.
He interpreted the dreams of the butler, the baker, and Pharaoh. But he was not the person who had those dreams.
Joseph’s First Dream
Both of Joseph’s dreams happened when he was 17 years old.
Here’s the text of the first dream:
5 Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and then they hated him even more.
6 But he said to them, “Listen please to this dream that I have dreamed:
7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and remained upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”
8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
The dream begins with all of the brothers working together in a field.
Without any prior warning, Joseph’s sheaf stands up. Joseph did not make it stand up. The sheaf did this on its own.
All of the other sheaves gather around and bow down. Again, the sheaves did this on their own.
The brothers were working in a grain field. Was this a wheat field or a barley field? Presumably, this was a wheat field since barley was usually used as animal food.
One strange feature of this dream is that we have no prior mention of Jacob’s family being involved in raising crops. They were shepherds.
When the family moved to Egypt, they asked Pharaoh for permission to live in Goshen because it was a good place for their flocks. See Genesis 46:31 – 34 and 47:3 – 6.
Also, Pharaoh instructed Joseph to appoint some of his brothers over Pharaoh’s own flocks.
Joseph’s Second Dream
A short time later Joseph had another dream.
9 He had another dream and told it to his brothers. He said, “Behold, I had another dream. Behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.”
10 He told it to his father and to his brothers and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow to the ground before you?”
11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
This dream includes his father (represented by the sun) and his mother (represented by the moon). The eleven stars represent his brothers.
It is Joseph’s father, Jacob, who supplies the interpretation of the second dream.
Rashi points out that part of Jacob’s intention was to discredit Joseph’s dream. By interpreting the moon to represent Joseph’s mother, Jacob was hinting that the dream could not be true. Joseph’s mother, Rachel, had died many years before.
What Jacob did not realize is that the moon represents Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, who was like a mother to Joseph.
Based on Jacob’s interpretation, the brothers become jealous of Joseph. Their reaction after the first dream was increased hatred.
This indicates that they recognized the prophetic nature of Joseph’s dreams.
Why Did God Give Joseph Dreams?
We see in the Bible that sometimes God uses dreams to communicate with people.
That’s clearly the case with the dreams of the baker, wine steward, and Pharaoh.
Why did God give Joseph these 2 dreams?
I suggest that God was giving Joseph a message of hope. Joseph was about to be betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers.
These 2 dreams could have been a comfort to him during his early years in Egypt. No matter how bleak his present appeared, Joseph could know that his future would be different.
He could not know how God would fulfill the dreams, but he could have the hope that the fulfillment was coming.
Joseph’s Dreams Fulfilled?
It’s natural to conclude that Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled when Jacob came to Egypt with the entire family.
The first part of the fulfillment is Joseph’s brothers bowing down to him. That happened at least 3 times as we read in the following verses:
26 When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present that they had with them and bowed down before him to the ground.
28 They said, “Your servant, our father, is well; he is still alive.” And they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.
Genesis Chapter 44
14 Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house (he was still there) and they fell before him on the ground.
15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?”
16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the sin of your servants. Behold, we are my lord’s slaves, both we and he in whose hand the goblet was found.”
We also see in Genesis 44:16 that they willingly accepted on themselves the role of slaves to Joseph.
Immediately after these events, Jacob comes down to Egypt with his entire family.
Joseph essentially (politely but firmly) ordered Jacob to come down to him.
9 Hurry, go up to my father and say to him: This is what your son Joseph said: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay.
Jacob does not hesitate, but immediately moves the family to Egypt.
Granted, it is never mentioned that Jacob actually bowed to Joseph. However, his actions in coming right away indicate he was acting in a subservient role to Joseph.
Therefore, it is reasonable to say that Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled as soon as Jacob came down to Egypt.
Joseph was 17 years old when he had the dreams and was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:2).
He was 30 years old when he became viceroy of Egypt (Genesis 41:46).
There were 7 years of plenty in Egypt before the famine began (Genesis 41:53).
The famine had been going on for 2 years when Jacob came to Egypt (Genesis 45:6).
Doing the math, we have 30 – 17 + 7 + 2 = 22 years between the dreams and when they were fulfilled.
Jacob 17 and Joseph 17
I want to suggest a different approach to understand when Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled and how they were fulfilled.
Joseph had his dreams when he was 17 years old.
2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. …
The next few verses (which were quoted above) give the details about Joseph’s two dreams and how his father and brothers reacted to them.
It also turns out that Jacob lived for 17 years after he came down to Egypt.
28 And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.
We could say that it’s a mere coincidence that we have two time spans of 17 years.
However, I found two commentators who take a different approach. They are both commenting on the verse Genesis 47:28.
The commentator Radak references a midrash and writes: They explained, just as Joseph was in the bosom of Jacob 17 years, so too was Jacob in the bosom of Joseph 17 years.
The Chizkuni writes a similar idea: This verse is written to praise Joseph who sustained his father and all of his family 17 years, just as his father sustained him, for, behold, he was 17 years old when he was sold.
Joseph – Son and Father
Let’s add to this one more idea.
At the end of his life, Jacob blesses all of his sons. The blessing of Joseph is 5 verses long. I want to look at a snippet of one verse:
24 … from there is the shepherd, the stone of Israel.
The English word “stone” is the translation of the Hebrew word “even” spelled aleph – bet – nun. In other words, Jacob is calling Joseph “Even Yisrael.”
There are several ways “Even Yisrael” is interpreted.
The one we will look at here is to break the word “Even” into two Hebrew words: “av” (spelled aleph – bet) and “ben” (spelled bet – nun).
The translation of “av” is father and the translation of “ben” is son. According to this interpretation of “Even Yisrael,” Joseph is being called the “Son and Father of Yisrael.”
In his role as “son,” Joseph was sustained by his father Jacob for 17 years.
In his role as “father,” Joseph sustained Jacob during the last 17 years of his life.
Joseph’s Dreams – A New Interpretation
Let’s put it all together now.
Joseph’s brothers interpreted the first dream that Joseph would become a harsh ruler over them. They would be forced to bow down to him.
Their interpretation was wrong. In fact, Joseph’s first dream indicated that at some time in the future Joseph would become the person who supports and sustains the entire family.
How do we explain the bowing down to Joseph? Doesn’t that indicate he was ruling over them?
In my dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition) the verb “bow” has several possible meanings. Here is the relevant one for us:
bow: to bend the head, body, or knee in reverence, submission, or shame.
bow: to incline (as the head) especially in respect or submission.
My suggestion is that the bowing referred to in the dreams is not due to submission but rather reverence or respect. The dreams are predicting that in the future the family should bow to Joseph as a way of showing respect.
Yes, Joseph will be a ruler. But he will be ruler over Egypt. However, his relationship with his family will be in the role of provider. Those who he is providing for should show him respect and be thankful for all he is doing for them.
This is borne out with how Joseph dealt with his brothers when he first revealed himself to them:
5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.
10 You will dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have.
11 I will provide for you there, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.
He was in a position to make them his slaves. But, he never indicated a desire to do that.
After Jacob came to Egypt here is what Joseph did for the family:
12 And Joseph provided his father, his brothers, and all his father’s household with food, according to the needs of the children.
After Jacob Died
We see clearly how Joseph saw his role in the family by how he acted after Jacob died.
His brothers were afraid that Joseph would now seize the opportunity to take revenge for their having sold him as a slave.
They sent a message to Joseph claiming Jacob wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers.
They also came and again bowed down to Joseph and presented themselves to him as slaves.
18 His brothers also went and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your slaves.”
19 Joseph said to them: “Do not be afraid. For am I in the place of God?
20 And you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to make it as it is today, to keep a numerous nation alive.
21 So now, do not fear; I will provide for you and your children.” He comforted them and spoke to their hearts.
Joseph has no intention of making them slaves. He doesn’t view himself as their ruler, lord, or king. He views himself as in the role of “father”, the one who provides for the family.
Joseph’s Dreams Fulfilled – A Better Approach
Above I suggested that Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled when Jacob brought the family to Egypt.
That approach is basically correct. However, it’s incomplete.
I think the better approach is to say that Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled during the 17 years that Jacob lived in Egypt.
It was during these years that Joseph fulfilled the role of “father” to Jacob and his family. He protected them in Egypt. He provided the food that they needed, as was symbolized by the sheaves in his first dream.
In other words, the fulfillment didn’t happen at one point in time. Fulfillment was a process that took 17 years.