The Dream vs
The Killers of The Dream

The Dream

We are as good as dead. The blazing sun. Endless sand. Staggering under the heat. Stumbling. Falling. Sand ground into my mouth. Leaning on Cal, I turn to see the others. A thousand faces stare back. Now eight faces. Cal pulls me forward, but my legs give way. I collapse on my knees. Everyone is sprawled on the sand. Unable to move, we stare ahead of us, as if in prayer, waiting for God to finally end our misery.

What is this cloud? Growing in size, touching the ground and offering a cool, wet wind. When I open my eyes again, the cloud is gone, but there is a dune where it has touched the ground. Had it been there before? Compelled to climb in the dizzying heat, I reach the top of the dune at sunset.

I am stunned by what I see. Water; tranquil ponds and playful streams surrounded by swaying trees and lush foliage. A cool breeze blows up from the valley. Tears well and I collapse in despair as my mind says 'mirage'. But the verdant valley is still there when I open my eyes. I look back to see my companions sprawled on the sand. I have to tell the others.

We climb all night, a glow from the valley and cool breeze inviting us forward. In the morning we stand on the outcropping of a cliff, a sheer granite drop of 300 meters between us and the valley. There are no footholds down. Misery.

Dreams. Do you remember having a dream like that? A hope of something that might be to come? A hint of your calling? Remember back to your 20s when you dreamed... maybe it was about your vocation, or the kind of relationships you'd be part of, or the community that God was calling you to create. Hmmm, those dreams... the potential and hope of what lay ahead.

When he was 17, Joseph had dreams about the future too, dreams in which he was the hero of the story. You can just see him, this boy who was born to dream, in his long robe with special sleeves, the robe that Jacob gave Joseph as favoured first-born of Rachel. It's funny because he dreams of his vocation as a providing governor, but his vocation, in a sense, is dreams - an interpreter of dreams. So here he is, approaching his brothers with dreams on the mind, maybe with the sense that he's about to share something sacred or special with them; or maybe not, maybe he's just a kid talking about a dream. Either way, the story tells us that Joseph's dream pushed some buttons. It caused conflict, endangered the pecking order of the family, and ultimately incensed his brothers. As much as the dream may have revealed that Joseph was bound for something special, by the end of our passage everything has fallen apart.

Maybe that's been your experience too. Our dreams can be such a gift. They can offer a direction, a context in which we can see our lives as part of something bigger. At best, as part of God's plan. But then, inevitably our dreams get railroaded.

When Joseph shared his dreams with the unreceptive audience of his brothers and father - the very ones whom he would supposedly be the hero for - the very opposite of the dream's outcome happens. He is sold into slavery. The brothers return with a torn coat claiming that Jacob's favourite has been killed.

This is how scholar Walter Bruggemann summarizes it:

"The dream is lost. YHWH gives Joseph a dream. Those against the dream, the brothers, seek to kill the dream. Jacob believes that the dream has been killed. Where do we go from here? Where do we go after the dream is lost?"

The Story

Today's passage, Genesis 37, is just the beginning of the Joseph narrative that stretches from Genesis 37 - 47. This passage is also the beginning of a literary narrative that is quite different from what goes before it. In Genesis 12 - 36 we read about tribal memories that are more random than ordered. But in Genesis 37 something different is going on. It begins "a sustained and artistically crafted statement of considerable literary finesse." Something new is happening here, and it has theological intent.

The passage begins with a dream. Or rather the dream begins in our passage. Bruggemann sees the theme of the dream stretching all the way to Genesis 50. If we were meeting next week, we'd look at the end of the dream, so instead of leaving off this morning with a lost dream, we'll include the story's end. We're going to see that the realization of the dream is a major question of the whole narrative. Will this dream be realized? Is it valid?

Historically, Bruggemann suggests, the story of Joseph is written during Solomon's reign as King. A couple of things are going on. First, there's an issue with Israel's foundational stories. The stories are good, but what do you do when your oldest story of Abraham receiving the covenant promise from YHWH happens in Canaan, and then your next pivotal story sees Israel suffering in slavery, groaning for salvation in Egypt. Joseph's story creates a bridge to make sense of the geographical differences of these stories. It carries the family from Canaan to Egypt.

The other thing about Solomon's time is that it's a time of power and security for Israel. But what happens when you no longer have to rail against the forces of oppression or fight for your survival? What happens for us? We can become complacent thinking that we're doing okay because of our own actions. Joseph's story clearly communicates that it's not so much about us. Bruggemann says that "it's an amazing story to address a time when to see and know and control were all important." But more on that later.

So back to the story. What a hive of family tension: a father who loves one wife more than the other, and thus loves Rachel's first-born more than his other sons. He shows this love by favouring Joseph, giving him a special coat - this coat may also be an indication that Joseph was exempt from working in the fields like his brothers did. That's not a great way to encourage brotherly love and respect. Then there's the brothers, sons of Jacob, but also sons of second-rate women in their father's eyes. The brothers are jealous and greedy and vengeful. And they believe that they have power to do what they want with this annoying younger brother. Then there is Joseph, the absent-minded kid who is unaware that telling on your brothers and sharing your dreams of dominance over them incites their anger. Or maybe Joseph, as favoured son, felt the confidence of Jacob's authority behind him, and didn't care how he was affecting his brothers. Whatever the deeper intentions of the players, the story is a mess of human striving.

But there is another character in this story: the dream.

Bruggemann says,

"Without the dream there would be no Joseph and no narrative. From the perspective of the brothers, without the dream there would be no trouble or conflict. For the father, without the dream there would be no grief or loss. The dream sets its own course, the father-brothers-dreamer notwithstanding. And in the end, the dream prevails over the tensions of the family."

But this dream, it's from God, isn't it? God's a character in this story, right? Although we know that the purpose of God is announced through the dream at the beginning of the passage because we've read the end of the story, no one in the family knows that this is a dream from God. In fact, Bruggemann says that this narrative is about the hiddenness of God. Even the way that the story is told reinforces this. God does not appear, speak, act or intrude. "The story hints and implies. Only very late does it make anything explicit. Only at the end are intentions discerned."

The Journey

How odd to imagine Joseph's life, from being the favoured son to being a slave and then a prisoner and then a governor, but always consistently a man connected to dreams. He had no clear understanding that his life was contained within God's plan, at least not according to the story we have, but he seemed to live as authentically as he knew how. He worked hard, stayed loyal to Pharoah, he interpreted dreams honestly whether the interpretations favoured the hearers or not. He interpreted regardless of whether he gained anything from it. He rose in power in spite of being opposed by his brothers and he gained prestige in spite of being unconnected to family in a highly patriarchal society. Joseph did good, perhaps as King Solomon was doing pretty good, but this story isn't about what Joseph did, or what we do. In fact it's about God's hidden and decisive power which works in and through but also against human forms of power. God is working out his purpose through and in spite of Egypt, through and in spite of Joseph and his brothers. And the message to the Israel of Solomon's time? God is working through and in spite of Solomon and Israel.

At the end of the story, when Joseph's brothers are afraid that he'll hate them for what they did to him, Joseph exclaims, "Don't be afraid! I have no right to change what God has decided. You tried to harm me, but God made it turn out for the best, so that he could save all these people, as he is now doing." Bruggemann wonders if it's only when Joseph utters these words of praise - this doxology of the disclosure - that Joseph fully realizes that this story of dreams and hatred and deception and slavery and governorship has all been within the purposes of God. Maybe Joseph is as surprised as the brothers to hear those words come out of his mouth.

Bruggemann says:

"We play all parts of this tense triangle. Like Joseph, we sometimes dream; sometimes like the brothers, we deny the dream. And sometimes we are like Jacob to "keep the thing". But clearly, the dream does not depend on the father or the brothers or even on Joseph. It is at work on its own. Amazingly, even as Joseph sets out for Egypt as a slave, God has not abandoned the dream."

We climb all night, a glow from the valley and cool breeze inviting us forward. In the morning we stand on the outcropping of a cliff, a sheer granite drop of 300 meters between us and the valley. There are no footholds down. Misery.

I walk toward the edge of the cliff and discover ten cylinders connecting the top of the cliff to the valley below. As a platform rises to the top of each cylinder, Cal steps onto one and disappears, descending. Each of us enter our own cylinder and descend. The way down seems like an eternity but we are met by a strange calm. It all begins to make sense: the desert, the cloud, the cylinders. It was all meant to happen.

For three days we do nothing but eat and sleep. On the fourth day we wake up laughing at our good fortune. By the third week, I have forgotten hunger and with it thinking. The cylinders are gone; the oasis stretches endlessly. Something else catches my eye. On the horizon are ten figures walking towards us. Burnt and gaunt, they are like we had been. "We'll stay here awhile," their leader says.

That night we tell stories around a fire. This new group has suffered like us; they revel in the oasis like us, but there is a certain reserve about them that I find annoying, a subtle judgement on me. That night I lie awake, feeling disturbed for the first time in weeks.

Waking up to a banging frying pan, I storm over to the man who is also shouting for us to wake up. My demands to know what he is doing are met by his steely glare, "This isn't paradise, you fool!" As he begins to talk, my anger drains away. I begin to see that the very thing I needed has become a seduction into complacency. We would all have died in the desert. But we have grown lazy in the oasis. He is talking about the Journey. As I listen a burning grows within me. I know he is telling the truth. As beautiful as it is, the lush valley is temporary; something else waits beyond it. I don't know what, but I start to feel like walking.

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