Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has delighted – and enlightened – clergy and layman alike,
offering enduring interpretations of the Bible. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblicalcommentator. Chapter 40 pertains to Joseph’s interactions with Pharaoh’s staff members, while in prison. But who were Joseph’s fellow inmates?
“And it came to pass after these things, that the Egyptian king’s wine
steward and baker offended their master, the king of Egypt. And
Pharoah was wroth at his two courtiers, against the chief steward, and
against the chief baker.”
Abravanel, who served as the treasurer to the kings of Portugal and Spain, understood palace protocol.
He draws upon personal experience in order to make sense of the verses quoted above.
The first verse brought above speaks about the king’s wine steward and baker. Yet, the next verse
describes two men as officers, before calling them chiefs. Abravanel seeks to clarify for Bible students
the cast of characters. Who exactly ran afoul Egypt’s king?
Abravanel posits that Pharaoh’s palace’s cuisine attendants – food and beverage personnel – likely
resembled palace staff hierarchy in his own time (15 th century). Thus, the first verse does not refer to the
chief wine steward or chief baker. Abravanel assumes this because the title “chief” or “minister” does
not appear there. Instead, the Bible merely mentions stewards or attendants. In contrast, the second
verse does talk about the food and drink officers, also known as ministers.
Untangling matters, Abravanel clarifies. Pharaoh had higher ups or ministers in charge of cuisine (wine
and baker). In their respective duties and areas of expertise, no attendant ranked higher than them.
These ministers personally served Pharaoh rarely, the exception being the most special of occasions
(Pharaoh’s birthday or major festival). Their presence at those celebrations showed the king respect,
and enhancing the event.
However, every other day, the ministers remained behind the scenes, supervising their sizable staff.
Clearly, the officers’ employees were reliable, professionals whose trust was implicit. After all, one
misstep on the employees part carried deadly ramifications for all concerned. Pharaoh, of course,
expected dependable service from his ministers, those closest to the throne.
Abravanel ties it all together. “And it came to pass after these things, that the Egyptian king’s wine
steward and baker offended their master, the king of Egypt.” These were the men who attended to the
king day in day out. As to their offense, it is not explicit. Perhaps they plotted to poison Pharaoh, or some other dastardly deed against the monarchy. Be that as it may, the king did not expend an ounce of energy on them after they were apprehended. He summarily chopped off their heads.
“And Pharaoh was wroth at his two courtiers….” The regent fumed at his two ministers, under whose
supervision was an army of workers. “And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard,
into prison, the place where Joseph was bound.” A white-collar lockup fit the two officers’ station, and
not a prison reserved for the rank and file.
At the end of our chapter, we will read about the circumstances surrounding the serendipitous meeting
between Joseph and the two senior ministers, one that will change the course of history.