Jonathan Homrighausen

Minor characters—or, in Gina Hens-Piazza’s parlance, the “subaltern of the literary world”—are, by definition, easily forgotten.[1] Such figures often left unnamed and reduced to a solitary plot-driving action, economic function, or relationship to a protagonist, constitute the “supporting cast” of the biblical narrative, the John and Jane Does. One such easily-forgotten character is the cupbearer in the Joseph saga. This unnamed cupbearer (mashqeh) in the house of Pharaoh has a story of his own. Cast from his high-ranking position into prison in a palace-to-prison tale, he finds himself attended by a mysterious foreigner who correctly predicts his future by reading his dream. However, when he is reinstated to his prestigious position, he forgets Joseph, leaving the protagonist to linger in prison for two more years. Ironically, this forgettable bit player is mostly remembered for his crucial act of forgetting.

Just as the narrative voices of the Bible keep the spotlight away from these minor characters, most readers give them little attention. Humphreys categorises the cupbearer as a “type” which “demonstrate[s] little development over time and seem[s] primarily to represent a particular sort of person or office.”[2] As interesting as these type characters can be, they “do not, however, take over a story and become the focus for the reader’s attention.”[3] Likewise, Brueggemann notes that the narrator takes no independent interest in the cupbearer and the baker—they are only “instruments of the larger dream” of Joseph.[4] By and large, commentators follow the narrator by not focusing on details about minor characters which that narrator omits, downplays, or devalues.

However, an active reader has the option of resisting the narrator’s deliberate disattention. They can ask the cupbearer and other minor characters to speak past the narrator, past protagonists like Joseph, to tell their own tales. Adele Reinhartz, in her examination of the hundreds of unnamed characters in Hebrew Bible, finds that such characters can display individuality despite their anonymity.[5] She challenges readers to themselves become narrators, retelling those characters’ stories and resisting the textual narrator’s urge to neglect them.[6] She comments that the reader and the character are more entangled than formalist readings realise:

The ways in which we construct anonymous characters, delight in, or deplore the contrast or coherence between role designations, and engage with the permeability of personal identity involve us in the text as more than innocent bystanders. In allowing ourselves the freedom to engage the characters and bring them into proximity with others and with ourselves, we not only construct their identities but also our own.[7] 

Likewise, Gina Hens-Piazza’s method of reading minor characters as a praxis of justice and a practice of exegesis seeks to find their messages and meanings for our time. She recommends close scrutiny of these characters both for exegetical insight and as a praxis of justice resisting division, oppression, and hierarchy in both the biblical world and our own lived world. According to Hens-Piazza, the minor character study must only take the biblical narrator as an “initial draft,” digging and elaborating, imagining and interrogating further to write later drafts of that character.[8] Her suggestion coincides with other recent works on characterisation in the biblical narrative, both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, which suggest the use of reader empathy and imagination in the act of reading.[9]

In resisting the narrator’s focus on heroes and protagonists, both Reinhartz and Hens-Piazza attend to the gaps in the narrative, the “bits and fragments to be linked and pieced together in the process of reading.”[10] Sternberg contrasts legitimate gap-filling with “illegitimate gap-filling”, which is “launched and sustained by the reader’s subjective concerns… rather than by the text’s own norms and directives.”[11] As good as a narrator may be in constructing characters which seem relatable and real to the reader, ultimately all literary characters are constructions of the narrator, not real humans.[12] Caveat emptor: illegitimate gap-filling may lead the reader into arcane details wholly irrelevant to the narrative. There is such a thing as too much gap-filling psychological analysis or digging for details irrelevant to the narrative. Where that line between legitimate and illegitimate lies, however, is a matter of some readerly subjectivity.[13]

With these cautions in mind, let us turn to the story of the cupbearer found beneath and between the lines of the narrator’s story of Joseph. Such gap-analysis does resist the narrator, but also returns to the “norms and directives” of the text: the story of Joseph and the theme of forgetting. In examining the complexities of the cupbearer’s forgetting and remembering, gratitude and ingratitude, readers may find that they have been the cupbearer at one time or another. But the reader who forgets the cupbearer—enabled by the narrator’s neglecting him too—may fail to remember his lesson in the moral cost of forgetting.

“Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt” (Gen 40:1–4).[14]

Like many minor characters in the Bible, we learn no name for this cupbearer, one of many anonymous servants and stewards identified only by their social role and their master.[15] No description of his appearance or personality is supplied. Recent literary retellings add those details, from Thomas Mann’s description of the cupbearer as a “portly … man of joviality” to Stephen Mitchell’s portrait of “a short, plump man, with a shaved head, like all the nobility and priesthood, and luxuriant dark-brown eyebrows.”[16] Even for major characters, biblical narrators rarely convey information about outward appearance as modern writers do.[17]

The narrator uses three words to describe this figure’s role in Pharaoh’s court. He is introduced as the “cupbearer (mashqeh) of the king of Egypt” (40:1). In the next verse, two other labels are applied to him in tandem with his prison companion: “Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker” (40:2). The term saris, “high official, minister”, frequently applied to foreign officials (e.g. 2 Kgs 18:17; 20:18; Esth 1:10), can specifically denote a eunuch, but not always.[18] There is no reason to suppose that is the case here. They are also described as “chief” (sar) of their respective duties in the court: they are not just any cupbearer and baker, but the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, cluing in the reader that these two men have some prestige in Pharaoh’s household. Throughout the narrative, the narrator foregrounds the cupbearer by mentioning him first whenever the two servants are invoked.[19]

Since we are given so little data on this cupbearer, one way to interrogate his role in the story-world of the Joseph saga is through comparison with other representations of cupbearers from ancient Israel and its neighbours. Some of these figures are likely historical, like Nehemiah; others, like Pharaoh’s cupbearer, are likely historical fiction; but even so, all draw on a stock character figure grounded in the social reality of palace life. Only one other character in the Hebrew Bible is described in the same role: Nehemiah, who served as the cupbearer (mashqeh) to the Persian king Artaxerxes (Neh 1:11), a position of high influence, power, and trust who, by testing the king’s drink for poison, literally held the king’s life in his care.[20] Nehemiah’s proximity to the king enables him to engage in intimate discourse with the man (2:1–5) and even to ask a favour of the king, a trip to Judah—which Artaxerxes not only obliges but even sends a personal bodyguard with Nehemiah and materials to rebuild the city (2:6–9). Nehemiah’s example suggests the intimacy that a royal official who serves the ruler in such a personal way might enjoy with the man. Still, Nehemiah’s fear at the king’s initial questioning (2:2), his prayer before asking Artaxerxes his request (2:4), and his deferential language to Artaxerxes remind the reader that he was certainly not the king’s social equal. Nehemiah’s more detailed depiction of the cupbearer’s role raises the question of why the cupbearer is in prison with Joseph. How did this cupbearer interact with Pharaoh? Was he new in his position as chief cupbearer, or was he a trusted servant of many years?

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon, she is impressed by the grandeur of his palace, including his cupbearers: “[w]hen the queen of Sheba had observed all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his valets, and his burnt-offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her” (1 Kgs 10:4–5). The Chronicler’s retelling of the story emphasises “his valets and their clothing” (2 Chr 9:4). Note that the Hebrew behind “valets” in both cases is the same as the Hebrew behind “cupbearer” in Genesis 40: mashqeh. As with any part of the ornament of Solomon’s palace, aesthetics is key, so the cupbearers would have been dressed handsomely.[21] Their specific mention here underlines their position’s prestige—a prestige only reflecting the light of the king. How might Pharaoh’s cupbearer have felt about that prestige? Was he proud to serve the mighty king, or cynical because he had peeked behind the curtain of Oz and seen him as a normal person?

Moving outside the world of ancient Israel, comparable written sources describe the role of the royal cupbearer in other ancient cultures. These sources may prompt at least some speculation about the life of our Egyptian steward, giving us new questions to ask of the Joseph narrative. Xenophon, for example, describes in his Cyropedia—a biography of Persian ruler Cyrus, another narrative source that is likely more legend than fact—that the future ruler served as cupbearer for his grandfather King Astyages. Xenophon narrates Astyages’s introduction of Sacas, the existing cupbearer whose job Cyrus seized:

“But,” said Astyages, “are you not going to give any to Sacas, my cupbearer,[22] whom I like best of all?” Now Sacas, it seems, chanced to be a handsome fellow who had the office of introducing to Astyages those who had business with him and of keeping out those whom he thought it not expedient to admit (Cyr. 1.3.8).[23]

Again, one sees the intimacy between cupbearer and king, as well as the importance of the fine appearance of the steward. Yet here the cupbearer bears another crucial duty: he controls access to the king, giving him a great deal of power in the court. Xenophon continues:

And Cyrus asked pertly, as a boy might do who was not yet at all shy, “Pray, grandfather, why do you like this fellow so much?” And Astyages replied with a jest: “Do you not see,” said he, “how nicely and gracefully he pours the wine?” Now the cupbearers of those kings perform their office with fine airs; they pour in the wine with neatness and then present the goblet, conveying it with three fingers, and offer it in such a way as to place it most conveniently in the grasp of the one who is to drink (Cyr 1.3.8).

Sacas is shown as a man who grasps intimately the refined etiquette of the court, the kind of behaviour respected by those in power, even down to mannerisms that have little to do with the job but everything to do with conveying an image of superiority and refinement. As with Solomon’s cupbearers, it would be more than the servants’ clothing that impressed the Queen of Sheba. Later on, Xenophon describes another aspect of the function of the cupbearer: “Now, it is a well-known fact that the king’s cupbearers, when they proffer the cup, draw off some of it with the ladle, pour it into their left hand, and swallow it down—so that, if they should put poison in, they may not profit by it” (Cyr 1.3.9). Whether he wishes to or not, the cupbearer may even die for the king—part of his very office being that his life is worth less than the king’s. Even if Xenophon’s description of the young life of Cyrus is of dubious historicity, his depiction of the prestige of the position and some of its duties is reflected in Akkadian, Egyptian, and Assyrian sources.[24] In the selection of symbols and stock characters which ancient Israelite authors employed, readers might speculate that Pharaoh’s cupbearer may have been imagined by its earliest audiences as having at least some of the following traits: training in court etiquette, good taste in wine, a handsome appearance, conviviality with their master, and, most importantly, great influence.[25] Likewise, ancient readers of the Joseph saga, such as Josephus and Jerome, understood the prestige of the cupbearer’s royal position.[26] One can imagine, then, the unusual relationship a cupbearer might have had with his king, including our cupbearer and Pharaoh. On the one hand, his close access to Pharaoh may have given him a special relationship with the ruler. Even if he did not have the explicit job of deciding who would and would not have an audience with Pharaoh, he certainly had some sway with the potentate, as shown by his ability to gain Joseph a royal audience. While we have no idea how he felt about the ruler-cynicism, fear, or Mitchell’s “confidence and devotion”—he would at least have known him personally.[27] Since the cupbearer was often also a poison-tester, his job carried the fundamental condition that his life has less worth than his master’s. The hierarchy of the relationship would never recede.

The narrator supplies few details about the nature of the cupbearer’s imprisonment. This is not a long-term prison sentence, but merely a holding cell while awaiting further sentence.[28] We learn no morsels about the cell other than Joseph’s description that it is a “pit”, possibly marking it as fully or partially underground (40:15).[29] No other prisoners are mentioned, though that does not preclude their possibility. There have been other prisoners with Joseph before (39:22), but that does not mean these others overlapped with the cupbearer and the baker.

The nature of the cupbearer’s offence looms as another large narrative hole. There is no reason to assume he has committed any real crime; he and his companion have only “offended” or “gave offence to” Pharaoh (Gen 41:9) and made him angry (Gen 41:10). As evidenced by the behaviour of Potiphar’s wife, by Ahasuerus towards Vashti, and by David toward Bathsheba and Uriah, those in unaccountable power can be, in Barbara Green’s words, “arbitrary and hasty, possibly super-sensitive, perhaps unfair and unwise.”[30] The cupbearer’s punishment may not have been occasioned by any actual crime. This narrative lacuna has not stopped exegetical traditions from speculating on the nature of the cupbearer’s offence. Genesis Rabbah offers two traditions: in one, a fly was found in Pharaoh’s cup, and in the other, the two servants desire to marry his daughter.[31] In some Islamic exegetical traditions, the baker attempted to poison the king and the innocent cupbearer was thrown under suspicion as an accomplice.[32] In short, the cupbearer may be guilty of a truly punishable crime. He may also be, or at least feel himself, wholly innocent, or at least guilty of nothing more than a minor courtly faux pas such as neglecting a fly in the wine.

“One night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker” (Gen 40:5–8)

Just as the two servants were introduced in verse 1 as a pair, so here they have their dreams as a pair. Indeed, the blurring of anonymous characters’ identities is a common feature in the biblical narrative, used for various storytelling effects.[33] In this case, since the narrator has partnered them through their own words, their separation through Joseph’s diverging dream interpretations is all the more dramatic.[34] An ambiguity: we do not know how much the cupbearer and the baker saw themselves as a pair. Were they close friends in the service of the king? Or enemies in a rivalry for courtly power and influence? If, as the Islamic tradition suggests, the cupbearer was innocent and the baker truly guilty, was the cupbearer resentful of his fellow servant’s risky plot? None of these questions can be addressed apart from imagination, but in Hens-Piazza’s method even asking these questions has the exegetical value of humanizing the characters.

At some point after waking up and before encountering Joseph in the morning, the servants conclude that their dreams were significant. Not all dreams, of course, are significant, in ancient or contemporary times. Most are forgotten or only dimly remembered upon waking. Other times, people wake up with a dream that they know is meaningful or powerful, and they make an effort to remember it. That seems to have happened here, given the detail of their waking memories, especially for the cupbearer. When Joseph comes to them, they speak in unison—“They said to him, ‘we have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them’” (v. 8)—indeed, the Hebrew has “we have dreamed a dream,”[35] suggesting that these men see a commonality in their dreams, a view soon to be shattered by Joseph. Their words suggest that they have already spoken to one another, and perhaps even tried to interpret their own and each other’s dreams; having failed in doing so, they have mutually decided to consult Joseph. 

While Joseph had been waiting on the two servants (v. 4), in his initial narrated interaction with them, Joseph and the servants mutually shed light on one another’s characters. The narrator does not tell us why the servants chose to consult Joseph. Perhaps he is the only other person they have contact with, so they decide to give him a try. Perhaps they see him as righteous, as in later Jewish tradition and the qur’anic telling.[36] In Mann’s retelling of the scene, the cupbearer has already developed trust and confidence in Joseph, but the baker at first spurns Joseph’s aid, desiring a professional interpreter.[37]

For his part, Joseph’s initial questioning of the prisoners characterises them as well. He asks them why their faces are “downcast” in verse 7, foreshadowing the description of the cows in Pharaoh’s dream (41:1–4).[38] What might have made the cupbearer and his companion troubled? The length of their holding time may have been one factor, though this detail is not supplied. The text tells us that “they continued for some time” (wayiheyu yamim) in the prison. Sarna, perhaps following medieval commentators such as Rashi and Rashbam, suggests that yamim (literally, “days”) could idiomatically refer to one year, but there is no reason to hold that too firmly.[39] Mann’s novel keeps them in the prison for only thirty-seven days before their dreams.[40] The longer the sentence, the greater the servants’ anxiety about the dreams. Their anxiety might also have been heightened by the simultaneity of their dreams and their lack of access to a professional Egyptian dream interpreter.[41]

Joseph further characterises himself and his fellow prisoners by the tone of his speech to them. To Pharaoh, he speaks deferentially, using the third person instead of the second person (e.g. 41:25–28).[42] By contrast, Joseph does not speak deferentially to his fellow prisoners. In relation to the servants, Joseph’s status is ambiguous. Outside of the prison, these men enjoy a much higher status as trusted servants of the king; inside the prison, Joseph was the most favoured by the chief jailer (39:21–23). Does Joseph speak to them in “human solidarity” with a “simple interest in others,”[43] or does he see these courtiers as an opportunity to improve his own lot? The narrator does not say.

“So the chief cupbearer told his dreams to Joseph” (Gen 40:9–15)

The cupbearer’s first speech reveals an anxious, confused figure who likely believes himself innocent. Ironically, given the cupbearer’s crucial forgetting, his memory of his dream is exceptionally specific, albeit recounted in the muddled and confused fashion characteristic of oneiric experience. His lack of response to Joseph’s brief monologue (vv. 14–15) hints at his later failure of memory after being restored to his former position (v. 23).

The combination of specificity and confusion in the cupbearer’s dream narration suggests the authenticity of his speech; he is not making up a dream merely to get his desired interpretation. The use of hinneh draws the reader into the cupbearer’s point of view, focalising his experience.[44] In front of him was a vine with three branches budding into bloom and clusters of grapes (vv. 9–10). The next verse continues: “Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand” (v. 11). On the one hand, the cupbearer recounts details such as holding the cup, filling it, and handing it to his master. Such details are not necessary; he needed only say that he gave wine to Pharaoh. On the other hand, he omits one crucial detail: the grapes on the vine being turned into wine before going into the cup. As anyone who has paid attention to their dreams can attest, this telescoping of time, this skipping the logical steps required of reality, is typical of oneiric experience and its waking recall.[45] Further, the cupbearer does not recount any affective dimension of his dream, underscoring his lack of self-insight and need for Joseph’s interpretation. He is not changing his dream narrative to receive the answer he wants or make himself look good. He really does just want an answer.[46]

While Joseph interprets the cupbearer’s dream with an eye to the future, it may also serve as a key to the past, a way for the cupbearer to remember his former honoured position. If so, the contrast between past and present would make the cupbearer as distraught as Joseph finds him in the morning. This distress may be compounded either by guilt at his offence or anger at his punishment despite innocence; we are not told. Some have speculated that the cupbearer’s dream reveals his innocence and/or true devotion to Pharaoh since the dream has him restored to his former position and serving Pharaoh. Waltke and Fredericks, for example, suggest that the dream signals the steward’s “clean conscience and confidence.”[47] Westermann suggests that his threefold repetition of “Pharaoh” in verse 11 signals the bond between servant and master.[48] I do not find such suggestions convincing. Dreams may reflect reality. They also display wishes and fears.

Joseph’s speech to the cupbearer both gives him the answer he seeks and discloses Joseph’s own desire, soon to be forgotten. Joseph implores the cupbearer to “remember me” when he ascends to his former position (40:14) and divulges his own innocence. If the cupbearer considers himself innocent, then he should identify with Joseph’s plight, making his later neglect of Joseph more despicable.[49] Here the complexities of forgetting and remembering come to the fore. The cupbearer may have been too carelessly excited by the prospect of returning to his former position to truly pay attention to Joseph’s desires. If he was not paying attention in the first place, then his later forgetting is both easy to comprehend and partially his fault for half-ignoring Joseph earlier. The reader is told nothing of the cupbearer’s immediate response to Joseph, either in word or deed.

“When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favourable” (Gen 40:16–19)

Up to this point, the baker and the cupbearer have been treated in tandem, but here their characterisations diverge. While the cupbearer’s motive for narrating his dream to Joseph remains unknown, the baker’s is that he wants the same “favourable” interpretation his companion received. His self-serving motive, while understandable, is reflected in his terser, clearer dream recollection. Unlike the cupbearer, he does not confuse temporal and spatial details. His echoing of his companion’s dream’s details, such as the three baskets and the explicit mention of Pharaoh, might suggest that he is shaping his narrative for a similar response from Joseph—and again, in verse 9, he and the cupbearer had referred to their dreams as adream. The previous connection between these characters, and their sudden contrast beginning in verse 16, constructs them as narrative foils or analogous characters.[50] If the baker is self-serving, then the cupbearer may be more earnest. Neither the baker’s nor the cupbearer’s reactions are remembered here. The cupbearer may feel guilt that he received a good interpretation, perhaps pity on his fellow servant for his ominous prediction. He may trust in Joseph more, seeing that Joseph is not merely giving everyone positive interpretations to curry favour. He may have been paying no attention to his companion’s dream just as he seemed to pay little attention to Joseph’s monologue (vv. 4–15).

“On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast” (Gen 40:22–3)

The narrator is uninterested in recounting the complexities of emotion, the anxiety and fear, that these servants might have felt for the next three days and during the party. His lens has fully shifted back to Joseph. Yet at the end of chapter 40, the cupbearer’s crucial plot-stalling action is emphasised: he does not remember Joseph but instead forgets him. These prosaic verbs suggest many nuances of memory, forgetting, responsibility, and culpability.

While the narrator doubly emphasises the cupbearer’s forgetting, he does not tell us why the cupbearer forgets. Commentators’ explanations for this forgetting vary tremendously in how much culpability they assign the servant. Some exegetes let him off the hook by invoking supernatural plot interventions. A folkloristic detail in Genesis Rabbah gives one possible answer:

For that entire day he was making resolutions [to inform Pharaoh], but the angel came and reversed them. He tied knots [so as to remember] and the angel came and untied them. Said the Holy One, blessed be he, to him, “You may have forgotten him, but I have not forgotten him.”[51]

Here God causes the cupbearer to forget as part of a divine plan. In the Qur’an, Satan causes the cupbearer to forget (Q12:42). In both cases, God or Satan’s activity also answers a theodicy problem: If God is protecting and guiding Joseph, then how could God have allowed him to languish in prison for another two years? In both scenarios, the cupbearer is at least partially exonerated. 

Other commentators shift more blame onto the cupbearer, finding that forgetting is at least partially a volitional act. Humphreys describes the cupbearer’s forgetting as a “remarkably self-centered” failure of gratitude.[52] Waltke and Fredericks go so far as to describe his actions as “not a mental lapse but a moral lapse” prefiguring the condition of Israel in Egypt (Exod 1:8).[53] Forgetting is not always something that happens to someone. The cupbearer may have recalled his fellow prisoner several times, putting it out of his mind repeatedly, until it no longer came to mind. He may have barely remembered Joseph in his excitement to get out of prison. Indeed, Joseph might be a minor character in the cupbearer’s narrative: “Joseph is just one more forgotten prisoner.”[54] Thus Ibn Ezra suggests that he was not malevolent: “He literally did not remember him, mentally.”[55]

Somewhere between the extremes of total exoneration and complete condemnation lies another possibility. I imagine the cupbearer did recall Joseph but was understandably loath to call any attention to himself and his misdeed in Pharaoh’s presence. He would likely have feared Pharaoh after being sent to prison. He would not want to call attention to his previous offence to Pharaoh, which any mention of his jail time would have prompted. Over time, failing to act on this memory would have led to failure to remember at all. Certainly, the cupbearer had power to act to help Joseph, more power than Joseph had in prison. Yet the cupbearer, even out of prison, was obviously not a man of infinite power.

“After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed” (Gen 41:1–13)

As with the three-day gap in Genesis 40:20, the narrator tells us nothing of these two years when Joseph was in prison and the cupbearer was back in his job. Perhaps Pharaoh forgot his previous anger at the cupbearer, perhaps not. Perhaps the cupbearer felt secure in his office—perhaps not. By giving Pharaoh a similar lack of insight into his own dream, the narrator hints that perhaps Pharaoh is no smarter than the cupbearer—or that dream interpretation is a tricky task in which even a Pharaoh cannot succeed.

Pharaoh’s dream, and his distress at having no interpretation for it, provide both opportunity and risk for the cupbearer. Green elaborates on the difficult rhetorical tightrope that this servant might have walked.[56] On the one hand, he stands to gain favour by providing Pharaoh with a solution to his problem. On the other hand, he must craft his words in such a way to avoid giving the impression that he thinks Pharaoh is impotent or lacks control. He does not tell Pharaoh what to do, only narrates his story and allows Pharaoh to draw his own conclusions. He also must recount the story of his imprisonment without reminding Pharaoh of why he was thrown in prison. Certainly, he must downplay the fate of the baker, lest he is seen as insinuating disagreement with the latter’s treatment. The servant’s rhetorical tightrope belies Waltke and Frederick’s argument that he must have been “happy” to settle his debt with Joseph and assist Pharaoh.[57] The situation is too tense, too fraught, to elicit only joy. 

The cupbearer’s rhetorical balancing act might explain one facet of his speech for which Jewish exegetes have judged him harshly: the seemingly derogatory way he refers to Joseph even as he commends the dream interpreter to his king. The cupbearer describes Joseph: “A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard” (41:12a). As early as Genesis Rabbah (89:9), Jewish exegetes condemned the cupbearer for implying that Joseph was merely young and foolish, for marking his ethnic difference, and for mentioning his status as a slave, all of which downplay his abilities. Rashi, following Genesis Rabbah, inveighs:

Damn these wicked people who can’t even do someone a favour without insulting him! He says Joseph is a “boy” and therefore a fool, not fit for greatness; a “Hebrew,” who does not even know our language; and a “servant,” when it was written in the laws of Egypt that no servant could reign or wear noble raiment.[58]

In mentioning Joseph’s inability to reign, the cupbearer may be ensuring that Joseph does not find himself in royal power with the ability to seek vengeance on him for forgetting the dream-interpreter’s plight. On the other hand, the cupbearer may be insinuating that whatever Joseph did to go into prison was a mere youthful indiscretion, making him less blame-worthy than a mature criminal.[59] Rather than judge the steward harshly as does Rashi, we might have sympathy for his tense situation. We may even take his repentance at his word and shine a sympathetic light on his rhetoric.

At the start of his speech, the cupbearer gives the reader an honest glimpse into his own answer to the problem of culpability and memory. His admission of guilt seems earnest; it is rhetorically unnecessary. The cupbearer marks himself as doubly guilty. He tells Pharaoh that “It is my faults (khet) that I remember (zakar) today” (41:9). His word order, beginning the sentence with “my faults” rather than the expected verb, signifies his focus on what he has failed to do. His use of zakar possibly echoes Joseph’s in 40:14 and the narrator’s in 40:23; his use of khet to describe his shortcoming may echo his earlier act of offending (khata) Pharaoh (40:1). Waltke and Fredericks suggest that his use of the plural “faults” refers to both his failure to help Joseph and his failure to help Pharaoh by sharing Joseph’s gifts with him earlier.[60] I suggest an alternate reading: his plural “faults” are explained by his plural forgettings. He has not only intentionally pushed Joseph to the back of his mind, but he has unintentionally even forgotten that he has forgotten Joseph.

Postlude: The Cupbearer In All of Us

The saga of the cupbearer displays three layers of forgetting and its consequences. The first two take place in the narrative. First, the cupbearer remembers his dream in detail yet somehow manages to forget Joseph. Second, he forgets Joseph, then forgets that he has forgotten Joseph. Finally, he remembers Joseph and his dream. Perhaps, to him, Joseph is just a minor character. His story elicits questions about memory and culpability: How responsible is he for forgetting Joseph? Yet this nuanced story is in turn minimised by the narrator, who consigns the cupbearer to a bit part, failing to even assign him a name.

The third layer of forgetting is that of the reader, who follows the narrator by forgetting this character who functions mainly as a literary prop. Green speaks of the many characters in the Joseph saga’s “richly varied capacities to ignore, to repress, to distort, to enact, to fade out of awareness.” She invites the reader to ask where they fit in this story: “If we are shrewd, we will come to recognise ourselves doing the same.[61] The cupbearer becomes a cautionary tale for anyone who finds themselves anywhere in the gradation of means of forgetting: “destroying, denying, repressing, suppressing, forgetting, projecting, misreading, self-promoting, reviewing, revising, re-enacting, recollating, construing, reconstruing, filling full.”[62] In forgetting the cupbearer, we must ask ourselves what minor characters we have forgotten in our lives, the many people whose acts enable our dreams, our health, and our sustenance. In remembering the cupbearer, we confront our own ethical action (or inaction) as we notice and engage both fictive characters and real persons.[63]

Thus, the cupbearer’s saga ties into an entire network of forgetting and remembering in the Hebrew Bible.[64] It foreshadows, for example, a later Pharaoh’s forgetting Joseph and considering Israel a dangerous minority.[65] It echoes invocations to Israel to remember God and the actions God has done for God’s people abound in biblical literature. In Moses’ farewell speech, he exhorts the Israelites to “Remember the days of old, consider the years long past” (Deut 32:7a). On a theological level: If a reader forgets the cupbearer just as he forgot Joseph, then who else do they forget?


Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 4th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Bar-Efrat, Shimon. Narrative Art in the Bible. Translated by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson. Sheffield: Almond, 1989.

Barton, John. “Characterization and Ethics.” Pages 1–16 in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings. Edited by Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020. doi:10.5040/

Berlin, Adele. Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. Sheffield: Almond, 1983.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Ezra-Nehemiah. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988.

Brenner-Idan, Athalya. “Jezebel Now: Gazing through Multiple Windows.” Pages 121–134 in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings. Edited by Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020. doi:10.5040/

Brodie, Thomas L. Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, & Theological Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1982.

Carasik, Michael, ed. Genesis. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Ebach, Jürgen. Genesis 37–50. Freiburg: Herder, 2007.

Grabbe, Lester L. Ezra-Nehemiah. London: Routledge, 1998.

Green, Barbara. “What Profit for Us?” Remembering the Story of Joseph. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996.

Grossman, Jonathan. “Different Dreams: Two Models of Interpretation for Three Pairs of Dreams (Genesis 37-50).” Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (2016): 717–732. doi:10.15699/jbl.1354.2016.3083.

Haleem, M. A. S. Abdel. “The Story of Joseph in the Qur’an and the Old Testament.” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 1 (1990): 171–191. doi:10.1080/09596419008720933.

Hens-Piazza, Gina. “Artifacts of Scenery or Agents of Change? A Subaltern Character in 2 Kings 4:1-7.” Pages 199–213 in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings. Edited by Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020. doi:10.5040/

———. “Supporting Cast Versus Supporting Caste: Reading the Old Testament as Praxis of Justice.” Pages 109–120 in The Bible and Catholic Theological Ethics. Edited by Yiu Sing Lucas Chan, James Keenan, and Ronaldo Zacharias. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017.

———. The Supporting Cast of the Bible: Reading on Behalf of the Multitude. Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020.

Humphreys, W. Lee. Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Jacobs, Jonathan. “Analogies between Minor Characters: The Example of Michal.” Pages 157–166 in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Samuel. Edited by Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020. doi:10.5040/

Kaltner, John. Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character Through the Qur’an. Interfaces. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 2003.

Levenson, Alan T. Joseph: Portraits through the Ages. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2016.

Lipton, Diana. “Sweet Dreams? Interpreting Food in the Dreams of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Baker.” The Bible and Interpretation, January 2018.

Mann, Thomas. Joseph and His Brothers: The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider. Translated by John E. Woods. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

McKay, Heather A. “Dreams: Had, Recounted and Interpreted—Power Plays in the Joseph Story.” Pages 151–161 in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J. A. Clines. Edited by James K. Aitken, Jeremy M. S. Clines, and Christl M. Maier. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2013. doi:10.2307/j.ctt5vjz47.16.

Mitchell, Stephen. Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2019.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner Karacay Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E. B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015.

Neusner, Jacob. Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis; a New American Translation. Vol. 3. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1985.

Phillips, Gary A. “The Commanding Faces of Biblical Stories.” Pages 584–598 in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative. Edited by Danna Nolan Fewell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199967728.013.51.

Porzig, Peter. “Eunuch, Eunuchs II. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” Encyclopaedia of the Bible and Its Reception 8: 174–175. doi:10.1515/ebr.eunucheunuchs.

Reinhartz, Adele. “Why Ask My Name?” Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Rendsburg, Gary. How the Bible Is Written. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2019.

Rüggemeier, Jan, and Elizabeth E. Shively. “Introduction: Towards a Cognitive Theory of New Testament Characters: Methodology, Problems, and Desiderata.” Biblical Interpretation 29 (2021): 403–429. doi:10.1163/15685152-29040001.

Sarna, Nahum M. Genesis. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Schwáb, Zoltán. “Mind the Gap: The Impact of Wolfgang Iser’s Reader–Response Criticism on Biblical Studies—A Critical Assessment.” Literature and Theology 17 (2003): 170–81. doi:10.1093/litthe/17.2.170.

Simkovich, Malka. “Why the Sages Add Titles to Biblical Personalities.” TheTorah.Com, 21 August 2013.

Simon, Uriel. “Minor Characters in Biblical Narrative.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 15 (1990): 11–19. doi:10.1177/030908929001504602.

Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Sweeney, Marvin A. I & II Kings. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

Tadmor, Hayim. “Was the Biblical Sārîs a Eunuch?” Pages 317–325 in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots: Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield. Edited by Jonas Carl Greenfield. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995.

Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 37-50: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1986.

———. Joseph: Eleven Bible Studies on Genesis. Translated by Omar Kaste. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996.

Xenophon. Cyropaedia: Books 1-4. Translated by Walter Miller. Loeb Classical Library 51. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. “Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch?” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980): 132–142. doi:10.1515/zatw.1980.92.1.132.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1982.

[1] Gina Hens-Piazza, The Supporting Cast of the Bible: Reading on Behalf of the Multitude (Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020), 7. Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Gina Hens-Piazza, Marc Brettler, Ellen Davis, David Pleins, Lucinda Mosher, and Mary Berry for their suggestions, as well as the anonymous peer reviewers of this journal.

[2] W. Lee Humphreys, Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 71. On types, see Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, trans. Dorothea Shefer-Vanson (Sheffield: Almond, 1989), 80; Uriel Simon, “Minor Characters in Biblical Narrative,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament  15 (1990): 11–19, doi:10.1177/030908929001504602.

[3] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 76.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 322.

[5] Adele Reinhartz, “Why Ask My Name?” Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3–4.

[6] Reinhartz, “Why Ask My Name?”, 178–186.

[7] Reinhartz, “Why Ask My Name?”, 191.

[8] Hens-Piazza, The Supporting Cast of the Bible; Gina Hens-Piazza, “Artifacts of Scenery or Agents of Change? A Subaltern Character in 2 Kings 4:1-7,” in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings, eds. Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020), 199–213, doi:10.5040/; Gina Hens-Piazza, “Supporting Cast Versus Supporting Caste: Reading the Old Testament as Praxis of Justice,” in The Bible and Catholic Theological Ethics, eds. Yiu Sing Lucas Chan, James Keenan, and Ronaldo Zacharias (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017), 109–120.

[9] Athalya Brenner-Idan, “Jezebel Now: Gazing through Multiple Windows,” in Bodner and Johnson, Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings, 121–134, doi:10.5040/; Jan Rüggemeier and Elizabeth E. Shively, “Introduction: Towards a Cognitive Theory of New Testament Characters: Methodology, Problems, and Desiderata,” Biblical Interpretation 29 (2021): 403–29, doi:10.1163/15685152-29040001.

[10] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985), 186.

[11] Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 188.

[12] Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 4th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 105–106.

[13] For further discussion of how Sternberg’s language of gaps and blanks has played out in Hebrew Bible narrative criticism, see Zoltán Schwáb, “Mind the Gap: The Impact of Wolfgang Iser’s Reader–Response Criticism on Biblical Studies—A Critical Assessment,” Literature and Theology 17 (2003): 174–176, doi:10.1093/litthe/17.2.170.

[14] NRSV translations are used throughout.

[15] Reinhartz, “Why Ask My Name?”, 32–44.

[16] Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers: The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider, trans. John E. Woods (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 1089–1090; Stephen Mitchell, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2019), 129.

[17] Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 48–53.

[18] “סָרִיס,” DCH 6:197–8; Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch?,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980): 135–136, doi:10.1515/zatw.1980.92.1.132. For an alternate perspective, see Hayim Tadmor, “Was the Biblical Sārîs a Eunuch?,” in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots: Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield, ed. Jonas Carl Greenfield (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995), 317–25; Peter Porzig, “Eunuch, Eunuchs II. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,” Encyclopaedia of the Bible and Its Reception 8: 174–175, doi:10.1515/ebr.eunucheunuchs.

[19] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 276.

[20] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 212–213; Lester L. Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah (London: Routledge, 1998), 186–188. While Nehemiah lived much later than the setting of the Joseph saga, the writing of Genesis 40–41 may be closer to Nehemiah’s date, thus making the connection of these two stories more useful.

[21] Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 147–152.

[22] In LXX Genesis 40, the cupbearer is described as oinochoōn (40:13, 20) and with the related term archioinochoos (40:1, 2, 5, 13, 21, 23; 41:9).

[23] Translated in Xenophon, Cyropaedia: Books 1–4, trans. Walter Miller, Loeb Classical Library 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914).

[24] Yamauchi, “Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch?,” 133.

[25] Yamauchi, “Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch?,” 134.

[26] See, for example, Jerome’s commentary on Genesis 40 in his Hebrew Questions on Genesis, as well as Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 2.63.

[27] Mitchell, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, 124.

[28] Sarna, Genesis, 277; Claus Westermann, Genesis 37–50: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1986), 74.

[29] Sarna, Genesis, 279.

[30] Barbara Green, “What Profit for Us?” Remembering the Story of Joseph (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), 95.

[31] Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis; a New American Translation (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1985), 3:240.

[32] Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al., eds., The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015), 600–601. The story of Joseph (Yusuf in Arabic) is told in Surah Yusuf, the twelfth surah of the Qur’an. See also John Kaltner, Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character Through the Qur’an, Interfaces (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 2003); M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, “The Story of Joseph in the Qur’an and the Old Testament,” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 1 (1990): 171–191, doi:10.1080/09596419008720933.

[33] Reinhartz, “Why Ask My Name?”, 137–153.

[34] Jonathan Grossman, “Different Dreams: Two Models of Interpretation for Three Pairs of Dreams (Genesis 37-50),” Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (2016): 723–24, doi:10.15699/jbl.1354.2016.3083.

[35] The translation is my own.

[36] See Malka Simkovich, “Why the Sages Add Titles to Biblical Personalities,” TheTorah.Com, August 21, 2013,; also see Qur’an, Surah Yusuf, v. 36; Kaltner, Inquiring of Joseph, 53.

[37] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 1103.

[38] Alan T. Levenson, Joseph: Portraits through the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2016), 34.

[39] Sarna, Genesis, 277; for English translations of medieval Jewish commentators cited throughout, see Michael Carasik, ed., Genesis (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2018).

[40] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 1101.

[41] Sarna, Genesis, 277.

[42] On direct speech and social status in biblical narrative, see Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 66–67.

[43] Claus Westermann, Joseph: Eleven Bible Studies on Genesis, trans. Omar Kaste (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 37.

[44] Gary Rendsburg, How the Bible Is Written (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2019), 422–423; Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond, 1983), 62–63.

[45] Sarna, Genesis, 278.

[46] Heather A. McKay, “Dreams: Had, Recounted and Interpreted—Power Plays in the Joseph Story,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J. A. Clines, eds. James K. Aitken, Jeremy M. S. Clines, and Christl M. Maier (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2013), 157, doi:10.2307/j.ctt5vjz47.16.

[47] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 526. See also Diana Lipton, “Sweet Dreams? Interpreting Food in the Dreams of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Baker,” The Bible and Interpretation, January 2018,

[48] Westermann, Genesis 37-50, 75.

[49] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 526.

[50] On analogous minor characters, see also Jonathan Jacobs, “Analogies between Minor Characters: The Example of Michal,” in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Samuel, eds. Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020), 157–166, doi:10.5040/

[51] Neusner, Genesis Rabbah, 3:245.

[52] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 73.

[53] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 526.

[54] Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, & Theological Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 370.

[55] Carasik, Genesis, 357.

[56] Green, What Profit for Us?, 99–100.

[57] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 88.

[58] Carasik, Genesis, 361.

[59] I am grateful to Ellen Davis for this point.

[60] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 530.

[61] Green, What Profit for Us?, 212.

[62] Green, What Profit for Us?, 211.

[63] John Barton, “Characterization and Ethics,” in Bodner and Johnson, Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings, 1–16, doi:10.5040/; Gary A. Phillips, “The Commanding Faces of Biblical Stories,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 584–598, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199967728.013.51.

[64] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 5–16.

[65] Jürgen Ebach, Genesis 37–50 (Freiburg: Herder, 2007), 218–219.