Joseph’s Surrounding People: (2) the Chief Cupbearer and the Chief Baker

Joseph was locked in a prison where the king’s prisoners were confined (Gen 39:20). But that prison is also described as “the house of the captain of the guard” (Gen 40:3). These descriptions seem to indicate two different places because the first is an official prison where the chief jailer is in charge of everything, but the second is a personal house (the house of Potiphar, the captain of the guard) where Potiphar manages everything. As mentioned in the previous post, Joseph was not treated as other prisoners in the king’s prison because the chief jailer committed all the prisoners and everything done there to Joseph’s care. However, in the house of the captain of the guard, Potiphar made him serve the cupbearer and the baker.

The Documentary Hypothesis can explain these narrative problems, as I often mentioned in a few posts here, but that is not my main concern in this writing. I will instead talk about Joseph’s surrounding people, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in Gen 40.

1. The Cupbearer: mashqe (sg), mashqim (pl)

In the king’s prison, Joseph met two prisoners of the king, a cupbearer and a baker. Verse 2 introduces them together as “officers,” which in Hebrew is saris. This is the word that describes Potiphar in Gen 39:1 (See this post). The term that refers explicitly to the first figure is משקה (mashqe); this word is usually translated as “cupbearer” (vv. 1, 3, 13). Another expression for this person is שר המשקים (sar hammashqim) (2, 9, 20, 23). The word sar is already explained; it is used to indicate Potiphar’s position, “the captain.” Since mashqim is the plural form of mashqe (cupbearer), sar hammashqim means “the captain of cupbearers” or “the chief cupbearer.” (*note: ham in hammashqim is the definite article.)

Holton Collection / Getty Images

In some Christian traditions, especially in Korea, drinking alcohol is recognized as a sin. But alcohol in the Hebrew Bible is not as negative as some Christians might think. For example, the cupbearer, who is in charge of the king’s wine and beer, was once put in prison, but he was restored to his position, unlike the baker, another prisoner who were locked in the prison with the cupbearer. The cupbearer also made a pivotal contribution when Joseph was freed and elevated to rule entire Egypt.

Moreover, Nehemiah was the cupbearer in the Persian palace. He was the leader of the Jerusalem wall restoration.

O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.

Neh 1:11 (NRSV)

Furthermore, the cupbearer was included in Israel’s glorious aspects that Solomon proudly showed to the queen of Sheba.

4 And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, 5 the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings which he offered at the house of the LORD, there was no more spirit in her.

1Kg 10:4-5 (RSV)(cf. 2Chr 9:1-5)

As shown above, the cupbearer’s position is usually described quite positively in the Hebrew Bible.

2. The Baker: ofeh (sg), ofim (pl)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Another person Joseph met in prison is a baker; in Hebrew, it is אפה (ofeh) (1, 5, 13). Another expression is שר האפים (sar haofim), that is “the chief of the bakers (ofim is the plural form of ofehand ha is the definite article).

This person is unfortunately destined to death. The cupbearer lived, but the baker was executed. Maybe it is just a coincidence or maybe not. In the Hebrew Bible, “bakers” are usually described negatively. For instance, Samuel, in 1Sam 8:11-22, responds to the people who demand a king for them as follows:

He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.

1 Sam 8:13 (NRSV)

The passage mainly talks about the abusive aspects of power that kings will exert, and one of the examples of the abuse is to make “your daughters king’s bakers.” In ancient Egypt, there was no wheat like we use. What they used to make bread was emmer, which requires more complex and hard processing. (For ancient baking, see this post) Baking is basically a difficult work, but probably more so in ancient times. As dangerous, difficult, and dirty works are often disrespected socially, it seems that bakers in ancient times were disrespected.

Another example of ofeh appears in Hos 7:4 and 6. Here baker’s oven, which should be maintained hot and relentless, is metaphorically used to describe adulterers’ desire for sins.

4 They are all adulterers; they are like a heated oven, whose baker does not need to stir the fire, from the kneading of the dough until it is leavened…… 6. For they are kindled like an oven, their heart burns within them; all night their anger smolders; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire.

Hos 7:4, 6 (NRSV)

The instance in Jer 37 is a little ambiguos. Here Zedekiah, who put Jeremiah in prison for Jeremiah’s damning prophesy, summons him back and asks God’s messages. Then, Zedekiah did not put him back in prison but let him live in the court of the guard, where Jeremiah got a loaf of bread daily from the bakers’ street. So, in this case, the usage of the word ofeh is not quite negative since they helped Jeremiah survive, but it is not positive either because the bakers’ role is not the main point at all. 

So King Zedekiah gave orders, and they committed Jeremiah to the court of the guard; and a loaf of bread was given him daily from the bakers’ street, until all the bread of the city was gone. So Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.

Jer 37:21 (NRSV)
Baker Street station in London: Image by David Mark from Pixabay


I briefly surveyed Joseph’s surrounding people. The cupbearer is to provide alcoholic beverages to the king. For some Christians, especially in Korea, this job is not an advisable profession because alcohol is involved. But in the Hebrew Bible, alcoholic beverage is not as bad as one might think it is; Nehemiah’s job was also a cupbearer. On the contrary, baking was hard and (though it cannot be proven) a socially marginalized profession. When the queen of Sheba visited Israel to see Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon made a display of various things, including his cupbearer but not his bakers. Even the bakers who helped Jeremiah were not respected people but mere laborers who carried out what they are told to do. Of course, the chief baker of Pharaoh seems to be a noble person. But suppose you compare him with the cupbearer, who was put in prison on the same day probably for the same reason but restored to his position. In that case, you can even imagine that bakers could have been regularly discriminated against in a noble society too.

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