The Dreams of Joseph:
"You Meant It for Evil, But God Meant It for Good"

For Sunday August 7, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28 or 1 Kings 19:9–18

Psalm 105:1–6, 16–22, 45b or Psalm 85:8–13

Romans 10:5–15

Matthew 14:22–33

           In his book called Dreaming (2002), J. Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School contrasts two main ways that people have interpreted dreams. In the Freudian tradition, a dream is precisely not what the dreamer experiences it to be. Instead, it's an encoded, hidden, and mysterious message that must be decoded by a specialist (for a price, of course). In this view, dreams are unconscious or repressed desires that bubble up when the ego is asleep.

Joseph's Dreams by Susan Govatos.
Joseph's Dreams by Susan Govatos.

           Hobson dismisses this psychoanalytic model as a "scientifically naive idea" and "hopeless fantasy." He admits that he wants to "discredit Freud emphatically." Instead of identifying content analysis as the holy grail of dream theory, he proffers what he calls a formal analysis of dreams. Dream content varies from person to person, Hobson observes, but the formal properties of dreams are virtually identical in everyone — emotional salience, perceptual or visual vividness, bizarre logic and cognition, and difficulty in recall.

           In Hobson's reductionistic view, the rational mind and the physical brain are one and the same thing: our minds are "functional states of our brain." Dreaming, then, is nothing more than the spontaneous and involuntary activation of the mind-brain during sleep. Why the brain self-activates just so, we don't know. Nor can we be sure about any purpose of such neurological functions, if there are any.

          A third way to interpret dreams is to understand them as a means of divine communication. I would never claim that God was speaking to me through my dreams, especially given both their content (Freud) and form (Hobson). I like the advice of the early desert monastics, who even in their pre-scientific age were suspicious of dreams.

Joseph's Dreams by Shoshannah Brombacher.
Joseph's Dreams by Shoshannah Brombacher.

           Nonetheless, throughout history many people have discerned divine messages in their dreams. When I read Anthony Everitt's biography Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome (2009), I was surprised at how deeply superstitious Hadrian was about dreams, religion, magic, astrology, and Greek initiation rites. And dreams feature prominently throughout the Bible. Matthew's birth narrative of Jesus, to take just one example, revolves around five dreams.

           The story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 begins when he was seventeen and ends with his death in Egypt at the age of a hundred and ten. That's ninety-three long years exiled from his family. The story features three sets of two dreams, all six of which are construed as divine messages. Joseph had two dreams as a teenager, one about sheaves of grain and another about the stars in the sky. Both of them foretold that he would rule over his older brothers. The next four dreams feature Joseph as the interpreter of dreams, although he insists that it's not him but God who gives the interpretation. He deciphers a good dream by the cup bearer and a very bad dream by the baker, and then Pharaoh's two dreams about future years of feast and famine.

           These six dreams turned Joseph's life into something of a nightmare. Some of the deepest hurts that we experience come from our own families, often through no fault of our own. Such was the case with Joseph. His brothers resented their father's favoritism, epitomized in his "coat of many colors" that privileged him above them. So they sold Joseph to Midianite merchants (slave traders?), who in turn sold him to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. This began thirteen years of slavery and imprisonment for Joseph (37:2–3, 41:46). He was later tempted and falsely accused by Potiphar's wife. Languishing in prison for crimes he didn't commit, he was forgotten by the cup bearer who had gained his own freedom thanks to Joseph.

           As history unfolded, though, roles were reversed. Joseph's brothers and family were demoted to beggars in a famine, whereas he was elevated to Pharaoh's second-in-command. When their fratricide was exposed, the brothers fully expected retaliation. But in contrast to his brothers who tried to kill him out of jealousy, Joseph forgave his brothers out of a sense of God's providence. It's no wonder that this week's Psalm 105:16–22 honors Joseph.

           Joseph believed that God had a providential purpose in the private wrongs that he had suffered: to preserve a remnant that would fulfill the promise to Abraham. "Don't be afraid," assured Joseph. "Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Genesis 50:20). At least four times Joseph reassures his nervous brothers that "it was not you who sent me to Egypt, but God" (Genesis 45:5, 7, 8, 9). It's an astounding and radical idea, that nothing that I experience happens without divine design and permission. In the words of the song Like a River Glorious by Frances Ridley Havergal, "Every joy or sorrow / Falleth from above / Traced upon our dial / By the Sun of love."

Joseph's Dreams by A. Kronick.
Joseph's Dreams by A. Kronick.

           The Joseph story shows how God uses our worst sins, sufferings and failures in redemptive ways. Many Christians have observed how God brings good out of evil. St. Augustine wrote, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to allow no evil to exist.” The contemporary Frederick Buechner writes, “sin itself can be a means of grace.” Julian of Norwich (1342–1414) once said that “sin will be no shame but an honor.” Anthony deMello writes that “repentance reaches fullness when you are brought to gratitude for your sins.” Finally, Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) gave us the startling phrase “O felix culpa!” in reference to the fall of Adam. “O fortunate crime!” The fall of Adam with all its catastrophic consequences triggered something far better and greater — the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

           This is risky business. There's a thin and mysterious line between honoring God's providence and calling evil good. We should also be wary of enabling or excusing bad family behaviors instead of correcting them. Nor should we ever turn a blind eye to injustice as if it didn't matter. Nevertheless, Joseph moves beyond these legitimate concerns and discerns a larger purpose of good in the evil that he suffered. Perhaps this is something that one can claim for yourself but should never presume for another.

           I like how the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) acknowledges the evil in the world but also has faith in God's greater providence. Consider his poem Dreams and Nightmares 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.

Image credits: (1) Susan Govatos Fine Art; (2); and (3) Kronick Art Studio.