“In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.” — Gen. 40.19 (NJPS)
There was a time when many people believed dreams were messages from gods. Guilds of dream-masters, trained in decoding these “visions of the night,” arose in ancient Egypt. These Masters of Secrets soon stumbled upon a perplexing question: Did they read the future or create it? Of course, if they only read it, they weren’t responsible for what would happen. But what if their interpretation produced the future they foretold; was a prediction, an omen, not a predetermined fact? Were they accountable for what they prophesied then? What if Divinity sent a dream but acted based on the interpreter’s words? This difference is crucial in comprehending a tale recorded in early Hebrew writing. It is the story of a gruesome death—prophesied by the most famous dream-master in Hebrew literature, a man named Yosef.
In Collected Tales of Old Mesopotamia, Gila Goldener, late Isaacson Professor of ancient Near Eastern literature, Grün College, University of Beersheba, includes a letter addressed to Yosef by one of his clients. Her source text is A1107K, from the University of Beersheba Library, Special Collections. Below is Goldener’s English translation of the original. Make of it what you will.
Master of Secrets,
I cannot sleep. I cannot put what you told me out of my mind. Like termites that penetrate the roots and hollow the heart of a date palm, your words have entered me and eaten away my strength. I have become like water. There is no one to help me, to whom I can turn, no one who cares. If I could, I would erase the hours between now and yesterday. I would return to the time before we spoke, remain silent, and in doing so, change tomorrow. But I cannot. Time’s river neither stops nor returns for anyone.
Yesterday morning I awoke troubled. During the night, I had a dream I could not understand. I have always disliked dreams. They are often frightening, populated with strange creatures and odd situations. They take place in mysterious, unusual places. They terrify me. When I was a child, my father told me that dreams have no meaning. They are merely physical phenomena, he said. They come from drinking too much wine, for instance, eating spoiled food, or sleeping by an open window through which a cold night wind is blowing. On the other hand, my mother said that dreams are messages from the gods. I hoped my father was right, but I believed my mother.
When my cellmate awoke, I told him what I had dreamed, hoping that he might help me understand it, but he had had a similar one. We examined both of them and tried to decode them. Our efforts were fruitless. When you arrived to attend us, sensing that something was not right, you asked why we looked so downcast. We told you that we had had dreams and could not grasp their meanings. “Interpretation belongs to God,” you said, then invited us to tell you what we had dreamed. I hesitated, unsure if I should trust you. You are a foreigner. I hear it in your speech; see it in your manner. My cellmate was not as cautious.
He and I worked for the same man, who put us both in prison. Our employer found a fly in a cup of wine that my colleague, a wine steward, had poured him. That was sufficient to land him in jail, even though no one could say if the fly had been in the cup before he poured the wine or had fallen into it afterward. The timing of the fly’s arrival made no difference to our master. I am a baker. My offense was a matter of his biting a pebble in a loaf of bread I had baked. Such are the caprices of men with power.
Vines, branches, blossoms, grapes, and a wine cup were the stuff of my companion’s dream. I listened carefully to your interpretation of it. What lovely things you said! There was nothing he needed to worry about, quite the opposite. You told him he would be freed in three days and restored to his position. When finished, you requested a simple kindness. You asked that he remember you and speak favorably of you to our master, hoping that you, a prisoner like us, might leave this place.
After hearing such a reassuring interpretation, I decided to share my dream with you. There were baskets, not vines, overflowing with baked goods in mine. I was balancing three of them on my head. Birds were flying around them, picking at their contents. I often found birds arriving to claim their share after placing freshly baked things in the palace’s kitchen windows to cool. There, however, I had my assistants chase them away. I was walking, in my dream, carrying the baskets, and had no assistants. I could not frighten the birds away. So they ate as they pleased.
When I finished telling you my dream, you looked at me curiously. Without sympathy or compassion, without feeling, like one of my helpers reading back to me a marketing list I had given him, you said the words that haunt me now.
I have to stop. The sun’s rising, and I hear the jailor’s key rattling the lock. All’s over, then.
Gershon Ben-Avraham writes short stories and poetry. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image), received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. His short story “The Plan” appeared in Issue 11 of The Dillydoun Review. Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy from Temple University.