The Cupbearer’s Memory

In Hebrew Bible times, the cupbearer to the king was an office of extraordinary responsibility and prestige. A cupbearer served wine to the king, but his job was much more as it involved tasting the wine before the king drank, for quality but also in case of poison. An office of oppositions.

Closeup of Di Mano in Mano, Ganymede The Gods’ Cup-bearer, Oil Painting 17th Century

There are two cupbearers of note in the Hebrew Bible. The first, whom Joseph meets in Genesis 40, is thrown into prison along with Pharaoh’s baker for offending the king of Egypt. While there, both cupbearer and baker have strange dreams, which Joseph interprets. In three days, Joseph says, the king will restore the chief cupbearer to his office but hang the baker on a tree, “and the birds will eat your flesh off you” (v. 19).

In exchange for interpreting their dreams, Joseph asks the cupbearer to intercede for him.

Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house.

Genesis 40:14

Yet even when Joseph’s words come true, the cupbearer does not remember Joseph. Until later, when Pharaoh too is plagued by strange dreams, and the cupbearer suddenly recalls his promise. His erratic memory jogs our own when we later read these words of Nehemiah:

Now I was the cupbearer to the king.

Nehemiah 1:11b

Where Pharaoh’s cupbearer stumbles as mediator for Joseph, Nehemiah’s focus does. not. fail. The text tells us that as he took up the wine and gave it to King Artaxerxes, so he also took up the case of God’s people before him, pleading with the king to send him to Judah, “to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it” (2:5).

Nehemiah’s story further entertwines, then, the office of cupbearer and the significance of memory, their shared dualistic nature.

Quality and Poison. Memory and Forgetfulness.

And in case we’ve missed it, the book of Nehemiah recounts nine times Nehemiah calls on God to remember not only the word He commanded to Moses. Not just to “remember me, O my God.” But also to remember the wicked who had tried to frighten him (Neh 6:14) and who defiled the priesthood and the covenant (Neh 13:29). God’s memory, like the wine the cupbearer carries, both saves and judges.

So also God’s Garden of Eden held life and death, blessing and curse, the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons (1 Cor. 10:21). In that first garden, Adam and Eve chose the cup of fire and brimstone and burning wind (Ps 11:6). And such is our sad inheritance as their sons and daughters.

For a cup is in the hand of the Lord, and the wine foams; It is well mixed, and He pours out of this; Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.

Psalm 75:8

But who has taken out of our hand the cup of reeling, the chalice of God’s anger? Who has drunk it, even down to its dregs? Who contends for His people before the King, Ruler of Heaven and Earth?

As the soldiers gather to arrest Jesus Christ, our Champion Cupbearer, whose memory never fails, mortification and mettle intermingle in His words:

“Put the sword into the sheath;
the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?”
John 18:11

Therefore, please hear this, you afflicted,
Who are drunk, but not with wine:
Thus says your Lord, the Lord, even your God
Who contends for His people,
“Behold, I have taken out of your hand the cup of reeling,
The chalice of My anger;
You will never drink it again.
“I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
Who have said to you, ‘Lie down that we may walk over you.’
You have even made your back like the ground
And like the street for those who walk over it.”
Isaiah 51:21-23

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