“Here comes the dreamer…” These words dart like daggers of disdain from the mouths of Joseph’s brothers as they herald his approach. Then they lay out their plot to kill their brother and throw his lifeless body in a pit. No doubt, they’ve been dreaming of this day for quite a while. They’ve been imagining how they might bring his young life to an end, dreaming about a time when they would be free of their annoying little brother, searching for the right time and circumstances to discard the dreamer out of reach of their father’s love and protection, with the simple explanation that a wild animal must have attacked and devoured him.
As the youngest of three brothers, this plot makes me more than a little uncomfortable! Yet, the older I get, the easier it is for me to comprehend why these brothers didn’t adore Joseph. The first son of Rachel, the woman Jacob worked 14 years to marry, he is the clear favorite of their father. He’s been given more than any of them, including a fancy robe that marks him as the very picture of privilege. (He’s got a personal tailor on speed dial, while his siblings are shopping off the rack.) Instead of working with the others to tend the herds of livestock, he reports back to Jacob, tattling on his brothers, describing all their shortcomings.
On top of that, he keeps sharing his narcissistic dreams, making clear to them that he has aspirations of being their superior. They’re all going to bow down to him; he’s going to be the center of their worlds, and they’ll pledge their allegiance to him. The arrogance!
This dreaming remains an integral part of Joseph’s life. After he’s sold to the Ishmaelite traders who happen to pass by his brothers, he’s trafficked off to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, who appoints him the head of his household. He’s then imprisoned after being accused of attempted rape (falsely, we’re told). We don’t hear anything of his dreams during this period, but I have to believe that his shift from a place of privilege, where he could dream of lofty goals like leadership in his family, to the bottom of a pit, to human trafficking victim, to being falsely imprisoned, yielded vastly different dreams.
Through it all, he hones his ability to interpret his dreams, a skill that will ultimately secure his leadership role in Pharaoh’s government. While in prison, Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of two other prisoners who were once part of the royal household staff; one is restored to his position as Pharaoh’s cupbearer (perhaps something like a modern-day sommelier). The other, a baker, is put to death. When Pharaoh has a sleepless night due to troubling dreams a few years later, the cupbearer remembers Joseph and shares his story with the ruler.
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as predictions of seven years of agricultural abundance, followed by seven years of famine and suggests a domestic policy of collecting and storing the surplus to prepare for the coming lean years. Pharaoh places him in charge of this endeavor, which becomes a smashing success. All thanks to dreams!
I have to admit, all this dream talk bothers me. It doesn’t jive with my modern sensibilities or our context. Whomever finally wrote the story down was counting on a different understanding of dreams and their significance. In the ancient world, these sorts of dreams were understood to be of divine origin. Did you notice that God is never mentioned in the text? That continues throughout most of the rest of the book of Genesis. The familiar references to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t there. Instead, God is present in a series of disruptive dreams – dreams that tear a family apart, that speak of restoration and death, that avert a catastrophic famine throughout northern Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.
Friends, God is a dreamer! And, when God dreams, as lives are divinely disrupted, good things come into being. From the very beginning, God has dreamt a vision of shalom, a world where all of creation works together to support and care for all creatures, all plants, the whole planet… God invites all of creation into this creative dreamwork and knows that we’ll all make mistakes along the way. God is persistent with love and grace, though, and steps in to work even in the midst of our mistakes, to bring about life-giving, new things. It’s not always possible to see it in the moment; in fact, we lose sight of God and God’s action in the busy-ness of our daily lives.
Take Joseph’s family, for instance. Joseph’s disruptive, prophetic dreams were difficult for his family – even for his father, Jacob – to hear. They could see only the image of the family bowing down to Joseph – exactly what I think each one of us would see without the benefit of knowing how the story unfolds. In trying to put an end to Joseph and his dreams, his brothers shift the story in a new direction, one that will take them all away from familiar places and people and push them beyond their comfort zones. God continues to work with their actions, offering new possibilities for abundant life, and we see Joseph stepping into the leadership role he dreamt of as a boy.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s family goes through all kinds of transitions. His father grieves his son’s death. His siblings live with their guilt and shame, building up calluses over these raw feelings as they push them down. Israel, the other name Jacob is given, goes from being a personal identifier to a shared identity for the growing family, who will become known as Israelites, or the children of Israel – a new people. The family moves from Canaan to Egypt, joining their identity with a new place and setting the stage for the Exodus story that will further shape them.
As the story unfolds, we are reminded that these people are blessed to be a blessing, not just for their own people, but for all people – the whole planet. At the center of that blessing is reconciliation within their own family. More than 20 years have passed by the time they’re reunited. Through it all, God is faithfully working to bring about the dream of abundance that’s been unfolding all along. The son that once was dead is alive. The family is reunited in life-giving relationship. Everyone has matured. The dream that once had been so disturbing now yields abundant life. This reconciliation wasn’t an overnight process; neither did it involve sweeping anything under the rug. It was years in the making and involved difficult truths being shared in uncomfortable moments.
This is the kind of dreaming God is inviting us into. This is the kind of dreaming Jesus is up to in our gospel reading. He reminds us that anger, hate, and unkind words left unchecked drive wedges between us, pushing us away from God’s dream of shalom. We are freed from all that stands in the way of a loving relationship with God and neighbor not so we can do whatever we choose, but so that we can let go of the things we call sin that have such a strong grip on us.
Joseph’s story is our story. We aren’t given this dream to try to find ourselves in the characters of the story. We’ve all played multiple parts over the years. It reminds us of God’s dream for all of creation. It reminds us of the roles we’ve played, both positive and negative, in our current narrative. It points us toward the dreamers in our midst today – people like Greta Thunberg, who is calling all nations to take action as we dream of a future where we put stewardship of the earth ahead of our immediate wants and needs. It points us to people like Lenny Duncan, who has the courage to lovingly hold the church accountable for its role, both past and ongoing, in the oppression of far too many of our siblings. And, it points us to countless others who are willing to share their difficult, disruptive dreams, with the hope of drawing us into God’s dream of shalom.
Like Joseph’s family, we are a family in transition. Some of us are still experiencing grief, even as we celebrate new leadership models and new life. We are beginning to embrace new visions and dreams, even as we may have a hard time imagining where those dreams will lead us. We are examining our own privilege, even as we continue to benefit from it, and wonder what it means for this faith community to work toward dismantling that privilege. Dear Ones, we are doing the difficult work of becoming together, and God is continuing to invite you to the creative dream work of shalom. Let’s join in this dreaming together, speaking difficult truths, acting in faith and love, and trusting in God’s faithful promise to walk every step of the way with you – loving you, sustaining you, and giving you grace.