Sermon - 3rd September 2017
Dreaming with God
Scripture - Genesis 37:1-4; 37:5-8,11; 40:1, 5, 8b, 12-14; 41:1-5, 14, 25, 28-30
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Musical interludes from “Joseph” (by Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice)
We humans spend around a third of our time asleep; and while we sleep, we dream. Sometimes, we remember our dreams; other times, the memory of them fades quickly after we get up. Some of us also have the unpleasant experience of nightmares, as our minds struggle to cope with past painful situations.
‘Dreams’ are what we also call those ideas and hope for our future: what we would like to become, what we would like to do. Sometimes our ‘dreams’ break into our waking time, and we call them ‘day dreams’.
It is not unsurprising, therefore, that we find mention of dreams in the Bible. We may be familiar with the dreams Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, had, bringing him reassurance to marry Mary, and to keep the young family safe when they sought asylum in Egypt from King Herod.
Today, we are going to be looking at another Joseph, the one in the book of Genesis, beloved son of Jacob born to him in his old age by his wife, Rebecca, the true love of his life.
[1st Reading – Genesis 37:1-4] [Music: “Joseph’s coat”]
We know from recent a sermon about Jacob that he was far from perfect: he had deceived his own twin-brother out of his birth-right; and Jacob himself was wronged by his own cousin, Laban, which resulted in fourteen years of indentured work in order for him to marry his dream woman, Rachel, who bore Joseph in Jacob’s old age after years of infertility, dreaming for a child.
Let us mention the coat. The notion of it being multi-coloured stems from the Septuagint which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, where “poikilos” is used to translate “ketonet passim” as ‘multi-coloured’. There is something quite significant here: the only other occurrence in the Hebrew Scriptures of this is in 2 Samuel 13:18-19, where it refers to the dresses of young women!
From our first reading – and from the song – Jacob, a man with 12 sons (and 1 daughter), was walking a dangerous path in terms of family harmony by having Joseph as his favourite and lavishing gifts upon him. The other brothers were hard-working men, shepherds and farmers; Joseph was a home boy.
So-called queer theologians have suggested two interpretations: firstly, that Joseph was what we would call ‘trans’ – hence the lavish, possibly female, garment; or, that Joseph was a proto-stereotype of a gay man – homely, soft with a keen eye for fashion!
It is difficult to create parallels between 21st century labels and early Bronze Age civilisations; however, Joseph later becomes the head of household for the Egyptian Potiphar, a position usually held by a eunuch. As we know from other Biblical accounts, ‘eunuch’ is often a way of describing a man without interest in women, i.e. a gay man.
Moreover, some of us will be only too painfully aware that rejection from within the family hurts the most. Joseph’s purported sexuality may have given additional weight to the brothers’ hatred of him, apart from him telling tales to their father about them, as we heard in the reading.
Maybe deep-down Joseph knew that the situation was not ideal and needed to change, something which his mind brought out as he slept and dreamt.
[2nd Reading – Genesis 37:5-8,11] [Music: “Joseph’s Dreams”]
Like the brothers, and even their father Jacob who (in Genesis 37:10) rebuked Joseph, we, too, probably feel uneasy with Joseph’s dreams. We might call them “dreams of his own self-importance” or “dreams of grandeur”. The science-fiction writer, JM Straczynski, wrote these words in his script “Point Of No Return”:
“Greatness is never appreciated in youth, called pride in midlife, dismissed in old age and reconsidered in death. Because we cannot tolerate greatness in our midst, we do all that we can to destroy it.”
Have you noticed something yet about today’s readings? There is no mention of God! As we read Genesis from the beginning, God is central, speaking a considerable amount of dialogue with the characters – Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the account of Joseph, God seemingly takes a back-seat role, speaking into the situation through the medium of dreams. To understand this, we need to look at the history of the Biblical text.
Biblical scholars date the authorship of the Joseph story between the 9th and 8th centuries BCE and it can be found in both the primary sources (J & E) of Genesis. Given the different style, including God’s role in the story, and given the consistent style throughout the account, it is likely that it was the same author. There is no recorded evidence of a Joseph (or his later given Egyptian name ‘Zaphenath-paneah’) in Egyptian archaeology; however, the Egypt and its ways as described in the Joseph account are consistent with historical Egypt of the Hyskos period between 18th and 16th centuries BCE. The Hyskos were Semitic, meaning they came from the same area as Canaan. This may be the historical backdrop for the story, and how the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, ready for the Exodus some four centuries later.
Back to the story… Joseph brothers got so fed up with him, they considered murdering him, but instead sold him into slavery. In Egypt, he became head of Potiphar’s household (a position usually held by a ‘eunuch’). Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph; he resisted; she accused him nonetheless, and he ended up in jail…
[3rd Reading – Genesis 40:1, 5, 8b, 12-14] [Music: “Go, Go, Joseph”]
If we read the account of Joseph as a work of literature, the reading and the song we have just heard about Pharaoh’s butler and baker and their dreams serve as a literary device to set the scene. We also get a mention of God: “It is God who gives the ability to interpret dreams.” We began with Joseph as the dreamer; he has now become, under God’s inspiration, the interpreter of dreams. The accurate interpretation and foresight of these two dreams, resulting in the release of the butler and the execution of the baker, place the characters in the right place for what follows…
[4th Reading – Genesis 41:1-5, 14, 25, 28-30] [Music: “Pharaoh Story”]
If you know anything about ancient Egypt and the pharaohs, you probably know that the Pharaoh was considered to a god – while alive, he was the ‘incarnation’ of Horus and the son of Ra (the Sun god). This musical extract speaks clearly of the absolute power held by Pharaoh.
In Genesis 41:8, we read: “In the morning [Pharaoh’s] spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.” That is Joseph’s cue to enter!
Let us consider the situation: Joseph, a foreign slave, was speaking to Pharaoh, considered to be a god on Earth and speaks of the Hebrew God (Elohim). To the assembled royal court, this must have appalled them. Moreover, this foreign slave and the God about Whom he spoke was clearly higher than Pharaoh and spoke of future prosperity (7 bumper harvests), tragedy (7 years of famine) and God’s survival plan for Egypt.
Today, we live in a world where the powerful still delude themselves, just like Pharaoh deluded himself: as an example, one only has to look at the terrible devastation of the flood in the USA, and how powerless the allegedly most powerful country on Earth has been.
The same is true of many individuals: their wealth, their power, their influence; all can be snuffed out in a moment. The recent 20th anniversary of the accident which killed Princess Diana is such an example.
On the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter quoted the Hebrew prophet Joel: “God says: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message; your young men will see visions, and your old men will have dreams.’” (Acts 2:16-17)
Even before Pharaoh, Joseph did not hold back from speaking about God. Likewise, as Christians, we trust in the Holy Spirit to guide our lives, giving to God our hope and dreams for our world, others and ourselves; and to speak out, as Joseph did, to speak the word of God, even and especially in the difficult places.
There is more to learn from Joseph’s story, and we will do so in a few weeks’ time.