Dream us forward – Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
I’ve discovered that Google (or whatever search engine you use) can pretty much replace Joseph and his famous ability to interpret dreams.
This week I had a dream that the ground floor of my house was much larger than I had thought, and I started designing new rooms for that part of the house. According to the internet this dream is an invitation to step outside what I had accepted as reality and expand my horizons.
Then I went walking with Callum this week and he said he’d had a dream in which he won six tickets to the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Matildas were there and he’d invited me and my family to go with him!
So obviously these two dreams are related!
Or perhaps not. Dreams are always open to interpretation. Perhaps we needed Joseph after all!
There are several ways that people think about dreams.
Freudian theorists believe that dreams are not what they appear on face value but are encoded messages that can be decoded by an expert. The elements of our dreams represent unconscious or repressed desires that bubble to the surface when we are asleep.
Some scientists, however, say that dreaming is simply the mind-brain spontaneously and involuntarily activating during sleep. They don’t know why this neurological function occurs, or whether it has a purpose, but they don’t attach any meaning to what we dream.
In the biblical tradition God is often said to speak to people through dreams. For instance, the story of Jacob’s ladder (which we just sang about), in Genesis 28, where in addition to seeing a ladder, a connection between earth and heaven, Jacob has his own connection with God; a dream so real that when he wakes, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” Interestingly, there is a tie in here with what other sleep and dream researchers say is happening when we sleep; that because our brains operate at a more emotional level than when we are awake, our brains may make connections that our conscious selves would not make.
Looking at our reading for today, however, this terrible story of family dysfunction, another explanation for why we dream also occurs to me.
Dreams are also the product of poor sleep, of sleep impacted by stress and anxiety. According to one site, “Being sleep-deprived for a night or two (or more) can make parts of your brain much more active when you finally do slip into REM sleep. You’re likely to have more vivid dreams if you’ve had some restless nights. You’re also more likely to recall those dreams, too.”
Which leads me to draw a connection between the dreams Joseph has, which are not included in our lectionary reading today, and this story of family disintegration and family violence, which is.
Is the young, seventeen year old, Joseph dreaming, not purely prophetic visions of his future, of God’s plan and providence for his life, but because he is aware, at a deeper emotional level, of the tensions tearing his family apart; of the impact of his father’s blatant favouritism, of his own arrogance and widening the rift by telling tales on his brothers, of their brother’s deep hurt at their father’s behaviour and their feelings of insecurity and resentment that have followed.
When you think of Joseph’s family as an enmeshed family system, a family system where roles are confused, where unrealistic expectations and unhealthy dependence run rampart, there is a context for the terrible irony of his brothers’ words, “Here comes this dreamer…. We will see what will become of his dreams…”
In our reading these feelings reach such an intensity that they plan that most original of sins, and violation of near Eastern family life, fratricide. Professor of Hebrew at Emory University, Roger Nam, comments that verse 18 “they conspired to kill him” is a hitpael construction, a relatively rare Hebrew verbal stem that is both reflexive and causative, that could be translated “they caused deceit to themselves to kill him.” The twisted tensions in this family are revealed in the contorted thinking of Joseph’s brothers, ‘causing deceit to themselves’ as well as in Joseph’s restless sleep.
But they do not kill him. Rueben, the oldest, the one who in the ancient world should have had his father’s special favours, counsels them not to take his life. Instead, and this is still horrific, they throw him into a pit in the wilderness without water, and then, the text says, they sat down to eat. Again, we are being reminded of the ways in which the near Eastern codes of kinship and hospitality are being broken. Finally, they place profit over that code and their human compassion and sell Joseph to a caravan of traders heading to Egypt.
And this is where our lectionary reading ends: with Joseph being taken as a slave to Egypt.
We know this is not the end of Joseph’s story, but a long and painful road lies ahead. To use the second definition of dreams – sometimes our dreams come crashing down; our dreams for our families, our dreams for our children, for ourselves, for the communities we are part of, and wider. And this passage also reminds us that sometimes we are implicit in that collapse and even that some of our dreams were fantasies from the beginning.
But this passage also tells us that God is there. Yet again, God is in that place. Even in their darkest nightmare of family dysfunction, God is present, a witness to the reality of their human experience and dreaming them toward life and renewal.
And it is the same for us. In everything we face God is present, offering forgiveness and reconciliation, offering life, offering strength to go on. Even in the darkest nightmares of our lives, God is present, witnessing our reality, our experiences, and dreaming us towards life and renewal. As God considers our world – this world God so loves – in its current nightmares, the nightmares of injustice and inequitable distributions of resources, of war and of climate change, of deprivation for some, while others sit down to eat, God continues to dream us forward…
I want to close with a prayer by Walter Brueggemann along these lines. It is titled ‘Dreams and Nightmares’ and comes from his book Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008):
Last night as I lay sleeping,
I had a dream so fair . . .
I dreamed of the Holy City, well ordered and just.
I dreamed of a garden of paradise, well-being all around and a good water supply.
I dreamed of disarmament and forgiveness, and caring embrace for all those in need.
I dreamed of a coming time when death is no more.
Last night as I lay sleeping . . .
I had a nightmare of sins unforgiven.
I had a nightmare of land mines still exploding and maimed children.
I had a nightmare of the poor left unloved,
of the homeless left unnoticed,
of the dead left ungrieved.
I had a nightmare of quarrels and rages and wars great and small.
When I awoke, I found you still to be God,
presiding over the day and night
with serene sovereignty,
for dark and light are both alike to you.
At the break of day we submit to you
our best dreams
and our worst nightmares,
asking that your healing mercy should override threats,
that your goodness will make our
nightmares less toxic
and our dreams more real.
Thank you for visiting us with newness
that overrides what is old and deathly among us.
Come among us this day; dream us toward
health and peace,
we pray in the real name of Jesus
who exposes our fantasies.