The Butler and the Baker

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.—Galatians 3:13

The first person in the Bible recorded to have been hung on a tree was not an Israelite. It was an Egyptian baker. The account is found in Genesis 40. Joseph had been unjustly placed in the king’s prison on the false charge that he had assaulted the wife of his employer. The keeper of the prison treated Joseph kindly and placed him in charge of the other prisoners. The “king’s prison” was a minimum-security area where accused criminals were held pending a hearing on the charges against them.

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown has this to say of this type of prison: “Though prisons seem to have been an inseparable appendage of the palaces, this was not a common jail–it was the receptacle of state criminals; and, therefore, it may be presumed that more than ordinary strictness and vigilance were exercised over the prisoners. In general, however, the Egyptian, like other Oriental prisons, were used solely for the purposes of detention. Accused persons were cast into these until the charges against them could be investigated; and though the jailer was responsible for the appearance of all placed under his custody, yet, provided they were produced when called, he was never interrogated as to the way in which he had kept them.”

After a period of time, both the butler and the baker of Pharaoh had offended the king and were placed in the same prison. One night both of them had a dream and, when Joseph made his morning rounds, he noticed their sadness. Inquiring as to its cause, they each narrated to him their dream.

The butler related that in his dream he saw a budding and blossoming vine with three branches yielding rich grapes. He pressed them and presented them to Pharaoh in his cup. Joseph interpreted the dream to mean that the butler would be restored to favor with the king in three days.

Encouraged by the favorable interpretation, the baker then related his dream. He saw himself in vision as having three baskets of baked goods on his head and, as he walked, the birds ate all of the food in the three baskets. The three baskets, Joseph interpreted, also represented three days. But the fact that the birds, and not Pharaoh, was the partaker of their fruitage, meant that in three days the butler would be found guilty and hanged “on a tree” (Genesis 40:19).

The third day happened to be the birthday of Pharaoh, who called the two men to account. True to Joseph’s interpretation, he reinstated the butler to his position and had the baker killed and hanged (see “Hanging on the Tree” on the next page).

Joseph and Jesus

Joseph is a fitting representation of Jesus. As Joseph had a dream of his brother’s sheaves bowing down to his sheaf and another of the sun, moon, and stars (his whole family) paying obeisance, so Jesus had a foregleam of his glory to come. As Joseph first must go through an exile in a strange land and there suffer abuse, so Jesus bore the infirmities of all when he came to earth. As Joseph was ultimately exalted to the second in command in all Egypt, so Jesus has been given “all power in heaven and earth” and sits on the right hand of Jehovah. As Joseph saved not only Egypt but peoples of surrounding countries from the seven-year famine, so Jesus brings a full deliverance from the famine-like conditions of six thousand-year days.

Bread and Wine

Two striking symbols also arise in this narrative. In the butler we see a servant dealing with wine. This is evident in his dream of serving Pharaoh the fruit of pressed grapes. In the baker we see the maker of bread. We meet these same two symbols on the last night of Jesus’ life on earth when he introduces the memorial emblems of his coming sacrifice. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). Thus, as we see Joseph associated with bread and wine through the servants of Pharaoh, we see Jesus likewise identifying himself with the same two elements.

Jesus specified that the bread represented his body, his flesh. In John 6:51, again identifying his flesh with the symbol of bread, we find these words: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

The cup of wine, on the other hand, is identified with “the new testament,” more properly translated “the new covenant.” This becomes the objective of his death, to secure for all humanity a covenant relationship which will ensure life everlasting.

It is fitting in the story of Joseph, then, that the butler, or wine-taster, is given life while the bread-maker is executed.

It is also of interest to note that the settlement of the judgment with the butler and the baker was after three days. Likewise, it was three days after the “last supper,” at the resurrection of Jesus, that the final significance of the two memorial symbols achieves its full reality. Likewise, the significance of the symbolic bread and wine, the development of the Christ, takes parts of three thousand years to be fulfilled.

Hanging on the Tree

Historians tell us that the method of Egyptian execution was beheading (see Wycliffe Bible Commentary). Therefore, it seems the hanging of the baker on a tree was after he had been decapitated. Similarly, the Jewish law which called for criminals to be hung on a tree was only after they had already been killed by stoning. “And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:21-23). Neither the laws of Egypt nor of Israel permitted such a tortuous death as did the Roman law and as happened to Jesus of Nazareth.

The simple story of Joseph and the butler and baker show how from the earliest of times, there were foreshadows of the great atonement work to be accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth. How grateful we all should be that such an atonement was made and will never need to be repeated.