For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
In this poem, Langston Hughes portrays dreams as essential to a good and satisfying life. But what happens when the dream itself is disruptive? What happens when dreams collide? What happens when the dream seems so impossible that it causes more pain than hope?
Langston Hughes understood something of the pain of dreams since he wrote as an African American in the beginning of the 20th century in New York. Langston Hughes would have resonated with the Joseph story.
Last week Matt talked about God’s promise to Abraham to give him a son. God worked a miracle, and Abraham’s wife Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Isaac had two sons – Jacob and Esau. After Jacob got himself two wives and two concubines, he had collected 10 sons, by three different women, but none with Rachel – his first love.
Finally, when it seemed like all hope was lost for Rachel, she became pregnant and gave birth to Joseph. Joseph became the golden boy, the child of his most loved wife, the child of his old age. Let’s read the story in Genesis 37.
1 So Jacob settled again in the land of Canaan, where his father had lived as a foreigner. 2 This is the account of Jacob and his family. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he often tended his father’s flocks. He worked for his half brothers, the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. But Joseph reported to his father some of the bad things his brothers were doing.
3 Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. So one day Jacob had a special gift made for Joseph—a beautiful robe. 4 But his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him.
5 One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. 6 “Listen to this dream,” he said. 7 “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!”
8 His brothers responded, “So you think you will be our king, do you? Do you actually think you will reign over us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dreams and the way he talked about them.
9 Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!”
10 This time he told the dream to his father as well as to his brothers, but his father scolded him. “What kind of dream is that?” he asked. “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow to the ground before you?” 11 But while his brothers were jealous of Joseph, his father wondered what the dreams meant.
12 Soon after this, Joseph’s brothers went to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem. 13 When they had been gone for some time, Jacob said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing the sheep at Shechem. Get ready, and I will send you to them.”
“I’m ready to go,” Joseph replied.
14 “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are getting along,” Jacob said. “Then come back and bring me a report.” So Jacob sent him on his way, and Joseph traveled to Shechem from their home in the valley of Hebron.
15 When he arrived there, a man from the area noticed him wandering around the countryside. “What are you looking for?” he asked.
16 “I’m looking for my brothers,” Joseph replied. “Do you know where they are pasturing their sheep?”
17 “Yes,” the man told him. “They have moved on from here, but I heard them say, ‘Let’s go on to Dothan.’” So Joseph followed his brothers to Dothan and found them there.
18 When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him. 19 “Here comes the dreamer!” they said. 20 “Come on, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns. We can tell our father, ‘A wild animal has eaten him.’ Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!”
21 But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. “Let’s not kill him,” he said. 22 “Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty cistern here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him.” Reuben was secretly planning to rescue Joseph and return him to his father.
23 So when Joseph arrived, his brothers ripped off the beautiful robe he was wearing. 24 Then they grabbed him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then, just as they were sitting down to eat, they looked up and saw a caravan of camels in the distance coming toward them. It was a group of Ishmaelite traders taking a load of gum, balm, and aromatic resin from Gilead down to Egypt.
26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother? We’d have to cover up the crime. 27 Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!” And his brothers agreed. 28 So when the Ishmaelites, who were Midianite traders, came by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to them for twenty pieces of silver. And the traders took him to Egypt.
29 Some time later, Reuben returned to get Joseph out of the cistern. When he discovered that Joseph was missing, he tore his clothes in grief. 30 Then he went back to his brothers and lamented, “The boy is gone! What will I do now?”
31 Then the brothers killed a young goat and dipped Joseph’s robe in its blood. 32 They sent the beautiful robe to their father with this message: “Look at what we found. Doesn’t this robe belong to your son?”
33 Their father recognized it immediately. “Yes,” he said, “it is my son’s robe. A wild animal must have eaten him. Joseph has clearly been torn to pieces!” 34 Then Jacob tore his clothes and dressed himself in burlap. He mourned deeply for his son for a long time. 35 His family all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “I will go to my grave mourning for my son,” he would say, and then he would weep.
36 Meanwhile, the Midianite traders arrived in Egypt, where they sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard.
[[ Joseph, King of Dreams – clip. (http://youtu.be/-cgR7D3iujQ) Start 2:46 – 5:18 and 7:34 -9:00]]
There are three driving forces in this story: Joseph’s dreams, his brothers’ dreams, and God’s dreams.
Let’s look first at the brothers’ dreams. Their dreams are only implied, but they are rather simple. They want to inherit the family wealth, get their share, and enjoy life for themselves and their families. This isn’t a bad dream, as far as dreams go, but it’s rather small.
Joseph’s dreams are more troublesome. He didn’t ask for any big dreams, but his life is interrupted by these dreams that turn the household order upside down. Similar to Korean culture, the younger bow to the older, and the children submit to the parents. But in Joseph’s dream, he – the youngest – will become the ruler of the house. Naturally, his brothers didn’t like the sound of that – especially as it actually seemed possible with Joseph being Jacob’s golden boy. Joseph’s dreams conflict with his brothers’ dreams.
We also need to note that Joseph’s dreams are mysterious. He doesn’t know how or when or if they will happen for sure. Joseph didn’t ask for these dreams. They just came to him. They were a divine interruption into his stable life, and they made life harder – not easier. Many, many years would pass before these dreams would make sense to Joseph or his family.
Next, let’s look at God’s dreams. Oh, you didn’t catch that part in the story? That’s because it’s not in the story – at least not in words. Through out this story, God is the silent partner. He is working behind the scenes, quietly moving the story along toward the fulfillment of his dreams. If we look at the larger context of Genesis, we can see that God is basically dreaming three things during the Joseph story.
First, on a practical level, he wants to keep humanity alive. A famine is coming, and the world is going to need huge reserves of food. Chapter 37 is the first step in a move to get Joseph to a position of leadership in Egypt where he can help feed the world in a time of crisis. Caring for physical needs is always one of God’s basic concerns.
Second, throughout Genesis God is working with Abraham’s family to establish a holy people. Bringing the Israelites to Egypt seemed like a detour, but it was actually part of the plan for God to prove himself and to win the permanent loyalty of his people.
Third, God wants to win over the whole world. God sets out the parameters of his dream in his promise to Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others … All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
In the short-term, and even medium-term, these three dreams seem to be running in different directions, sometimes diverging, sometimes crashing into each other. But in the long-term, they actually fold into each other.
The brothers’ dreams only become possible and sustainable because Joseph’s dream comes true. Later in the story, we’ll see that God puts Joseph in a position of leadership in Egypt, and God guides him to enact a plan to save the whole region from starvation during a seven year famine. Without Joseph’s leadership, the brothers and their dreams would have died.
Joseph’s mysterious dreams may seem rather selfish at first. Everyone is bowing down to him. But as Joseph acts with quiet faithfulness, wisdom, and unselfishness, God slowly moves his larger plan forward. Finally, we see how Joseph’s dream became part of God’s larger plan to feed the world and then to win the world’s worship.
God’s dream fades so far to the background that it seems to get lost until the final chapters of Genesis. God promised Abraham to bless his family and to bless all people through them. But instead, they key figure ends up in a far off country, in slavery, and then in prison. The total direction of the story seems to be backward and full of detours – until it is viewed from the end of the story.
This story walks on the borderland of logic. We are confronted with two kinds of mysteries here.
First, blessings and curses are not always clear. Joseph reminds me of an old Chinese parable.
An old farmer, named Sei Weng, had only one horse. One day, his horse ran away into the wilderness. His neighbors came to console him over his great loss, but Sei Weng said, “What makes you so sure this is not also a blessing?”
A few weeks later, the horse returned with a beautiful wild stallion. The villagers gathered around again and congratulated Sei Weng on his wonderful good luck, but Sei Weng said, “What makes you so sure this is not also a curse?”
Sei Weng’s only son tamed the wild horse and rode it every morning. One day, the horse bucked him, and he fell and broke his hip. Everyone said, “Ah, your good luck has turned into a curse.” But Sei Weng replied again, “What makes you so sure this is not also a blessing?”
A few months later, barbarians attacked from the north. Every able-bodied man joined the army to defend their homeland, but Sei Weng’s son could not ride because of his broken hip. Every young man from the village was killed in battle. Only Sei Weng’s son survived.
Many of us can look back on our lives and see similar happenings. Something that seemed terrible at the time can turn into a backhanded blessing. Getting fired, losing a girlfriend, missing an opportunity – on and on, we see some events that turn out to be good for us even though they seemed very bad at the time. It is hard to know what is truly for the best until the end of the story. Life is mystery.
The second deep mystery here is similar. It is hard to know how God is acting. These days most Christians say that God does not “cause” “bad” things to happen to us. We say that God simply “allows” bad things to happen, and then God works through them or beyond them. However, Genesis disrupts that convenient logic.
It is wrong to say that God broke up Joseph’s family and sold him into slavery and sent him to prison. “He is a faithful God who does no wrong” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
Yet, it also seems wrong to say that God simply worked around and in spite of the actions of others. Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20).
In John Walton’s commentary on this story, he says we need “some language that falls between ‘cause’ and ‘allow’” to do justice to God’s actions here. God is working on some middle plane – guiding the overall scope of the events without micromanaging the details. When it comes to anyone event in our lives, we may not be able to say whether God “caused” it or simply “allowed” it. But when we look at the overall scope of our lives and God’s action in the world, we can say with certainty that God is working for our good and for the good of the world.
Through it all, we can only say together with Paul: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28).
OK, now remember how this story is driven by three sets of dreams: the brothers’ dreams, Joseph’s dreams, and God’s dreams. This gives us a window as to how to apply this passage in our own lives.
Hold others’ dreams – not at all. Everyone has dreams. Sometimes those dreams seem to conflict with our own dreams. Like Joseph’s brothers, we can start a fight to try to ensure that our dreams come out on top. But we don’t know how it will all work out. Maybe our dreams work together in ways that we can’t even see yet. Don’t destroy someone else’s dreams. Don’t shoot them down. Even if you don’t understand them, let their dreams be their dreams. Deal with your own stuff.
But hold your dreams lightly. Everyone has dreams. I believe that God puts fundamental longings in the human heart: for beauty, for service, for justice, for love. Sometimes these longings take the shape of specific passions or dreams. Hold on to those. There is a good chance that God put that passion there. But hold it lightly. You have no idea how the details will work or how the timing may all play out. What looks like a detour or a curse may actually be part of the plan working toward your dream. Hold onto your dream, but hold it lightly waiting patiently for God to lead the way.
Finally, hold God’s dream tightly. God works in mysterious ways. We are like the farmer who doesn’t understand the mystery of plant growth. We simply work the soil with faithful actions, and God brings the harvest of Kingdom goodness (Mark 4:26-29). “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9).
We groan with creation in the waiting, but we hold tightly to God’s promise that he will redeem us and creation from all death and decay. In the midst of all life’s conflicts and confusing events, hold on to God’s dream without fail. Christ died for us. Christ was raised for us. Christ is still pleading and working for us. Nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:20-39).
Hold fast to God’s dream
For if this dream dies in you
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to God’s dream
For when God’s dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.