Month: December 2016

The Chief Baker and the Chief Cupbearer

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In honor of this week’s Torah Reading, with the Saga of Joseph’s dreams. Joseph is working in the Jail house, and meets two very miserable political prisoners:

“Pharaoh was angry with his two courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker” (Genesis 40:2)

Joseph famously interprets their dreams, and we know how that ends up. Bad for the chief baker, and good for the chief cupbearer.

Almost every kid in a Jewish school will hear this story, and the background to it: Pharaoh was angry, because the negligence of his respective chiefs: The baker allowed a rock to make its way into a baked good, and the cupbearer allowed a fly to get into Pharaoh’s drink.

A few artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art can bring this famous story to life.

Let us start with the background story. Pharaoh was being served a drink, it appears, and a fly somehow made its way into his wine. In the Assyrian relief below, see the scene, find the similarities. Notice how flies were kept out of drinks.

King Ashurnasirpal II wears the royal crown, a conical cap with a small peak and a long diadem. He holds a bow, a symbol of his authority, and a ceremonial bowl. Facing him, a eunuch, a “beardless one,” carries a fly whisk and a ladle for replenishing the royal vessel. [text adapted from the Met website]

Credit: Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932, available at the Met, Gallery 401. Image source:

All ended well for the chief cupbearer:

“He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup on Pharaoh’s hand” (Gen. 40:21)

But the Hebrew is actually slightly different.

וַיִּתֵּ֥ן הַכּ֖וֹס עַל־כַּ֥ף פַּרְעֹֽה – and he placed the cup on top of Pharaoh’s palm, very similar to the depiction above. Could it be that this wasn’t a traditional cup, but something more common at the time?

The “cup” being used in this relief is a Phiale, or libation bowl. You can see one of many examples available at the Met, here.

Next is the unfortunate story of the chief baker. His dream was of bad omen, indeed.


When the chief baker saw how favorably he had interpreted, he said to Joseph, “In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head.

In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head.” (Gen. 40:16-17)
This imagery was an omen for its dreamer losing his head:
In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.” (ibid, 19)
Was it a common thing for Egyptians to balance three baskets on their heads? Sure, it was a dream. But the imagery must have drawn from the time. Lo and behold, I found an Egyptian-like triple-basket: Last November I visited the exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom at Met. In the gift shop, I saw this basket, presumably meant to look like something from the time period.

2015-12-01 16.34.56.jpg

Unfortunately, I did not bother to find out more about it, nor did I purchase one for myself. So sad.