Pharaoh's Dream. Peter's Dream.

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Joseph’s early life was filled with tragedy. He was hated and betrayed by his brothers. He was thrown into a pit and his father made to believe he was dead. He was sold into slavery and carried down to Egypt where he was sold yet again. And just when things started looking up his master’s wife tried to seduce him. When he refused her advances she brought up false charges against him and he was thrown into prison. It so happens that Joseph found himself in Pharaoh’s dungeon alongside two former employees of the king. Both the royal cupbearer and the royal baker had been thrown into prison because they had displeased Pharaoh in some capacity. One night they both had troubling dreams and told them to Joseph who interpreted them. For the cupbearer, Joseph said that his dream was to let him know he would be restored to his position within three days. Joseph said the baker’s dream, however, signified that within three days he would be executed. Both of these dreams came to pass just as Joseph had interpreted them. When the cupbearer was released, Joseph asked him to put in a good word for him with Pharaoh. The cupbearer forgot, however, and exactly two years after Pharaoh’s cupbearer was released from prison Pharaoh woke to a disturbing dream of his own—in fact, two parallel dreams.

Pharaoh’s first dream was that he was standing near the Nile and seven plump, fat cows rose up from the river and began grazing nearby. Then, immediately, seven other cows who were emaciated looking came up out of the Nile as well. But rather than grazing alongside the first seven cows, they ate them instead. Pharaoh awoke, but fell back to sleep and had a similar dream to the first. He saw seven ears of plump, healthy grain growing on one stalk. Then immediately, he saw seven more ears of grain that were withered and diseased that sprouted up and consumed the original, healthy ears of grain.

Pharaoh was quite disturbed by his dreams. He knew there was significance to them, but didn’t know what they meant. So, he “called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:8). It was at this point that the cupbearer remembered that Joseph had been able to interpret his dream. He told the king about him and immediately Pharaoh sent for Joseph. 

When Joseph was brought before Pharaoh he interpreted his dreams as a warning from God that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven terrible years of famine. Joseph recommended that Pharaoh put someone wise in charge of Egypt’s food supply so that they would be prepared for the hardship during the years of famine. The king put Joseph himself in this position, making him the most powerful man in Egypt aside from Pharaoh himself.

In the Apostolic Scriptures, we have a similar incident related to dreams that occurred with the Apostle Peter. In Acts 10, Peter goes to the house of a man named Simon, falls into a deep sleep, and then has a dream. In the dream he sees something like a sheet come down from the sky that has all kinds of animals in it that the Torah strictly forbids God’s people from eating. But then a voice tells him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (vs. 13). However, Peter replies, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (vs. 14). The voice then responded, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (vs. 15). This happened three times before the sheet was taken back up and Peter awoke. The book of Acts tells us that when Peter awoke he was “inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean” (vs. 17).

Within Christian tradition, the interpretation to Peter’s dream is obvious: Stop following God’s laws regarding food. You have been freed from the restrictions God placed on you to signify you as a holy people. Now you are are just like everyone else. If it wiggles you can eat it. God has given you a smorgasbord, a virtual buffet with no limits. Your calling of holiness has run its course. 

But there is a problem with this interpretation that no one seems to want to address. What if Joseph had used the same method of interpretation commonly used on Peter’s vision in interpreting Pharaoh’s dream? It would probably sound something like this: God is telling Pharaoh that from this point forward, cows will be not only be carnivorous, but cannibalistic as well. And we will have to begin feeding cows to one another, because if they don’t eat meat, they will be emaciated and wither away. And as far as the grain is concerned, they will gain the ability to eat and will need to consume their own kind as well in order to be able to survive. 

We know this is a ridiculous way to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Dreams are not literal. They use objects, images, and themes to represent deeper concepts. Just as Joseph knew Pharaoh’s dreams to be a warning about the impending famine, Peter understood his dream as a warning as well. He eventually understands its meaning and—as he enters into the home of a non-Jew for the first time in his life—he provides the interpretation himself, saying, “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (vs. 28, emphasis added). He goes on to say, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vs. 34–35). 

This was the reason Peter was shown the vision. It had nothing to do with food, but everything to do with people. It set the stage for the new frontier of the disciples’ mission among the Gentiles. Rather than avoiding contact with Gentiles, which was normal for religious Jews of Peter’s day, he would need to embrace them and teach his fellow disciples to do the same. We always need to keep in mind that God’s Word doesn’t change because of a dream… or the misunderstanding of one. The standards God revealed to His people in the Torah have not been repealed, and God’s standard of holiness doesn’t disappear simply because we believe it to be out of fashion. No, Peter’s dietary restrictions didn’t change, nor did his strict observance of Torah. The radical transformation that took place, however, was that Peter’s arms were spread wider to embrace brothers and sisters he never knew he had.