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B'resheet/Genesis 37:5 And Yosef dreamed a dream and related [it] to his brothers
This, Gunther Plaut points out, is the first of six dreams that inhabit the Yosef cycle of stories. Yosef himself dreams two; two are related to Yosef while he is in prison in Egypt by senior members of Pharaoh's household; and two are dreamed in the same night by Pharaoh and then interpreted by Yosef. Plaut suggests that "while dreams are now studied as keys to hidden layers of personality, they were formerly thought to be prophetic." Nahum Sarna tells us that Yosef's dreams were "the third and most menacing source of discord" among the twelve brothers in Ya'akov's family: "Everywhere the dream was recognised as a means of divine communication. G-d does not figure explicitly in the content of the dream; yet it is taken for granted that He is the source of the message being conveyed. The predictive aspect of dreams was universally assumed in the ancient world and this was reason enough for the brothers to take Yosef seriously."
The Hebrew text uses two instances of the same root - the verb , Qal 3ms prefix with a vav-conversive, "to dream", and , the masculine noun, "a dream" - to emphasise what is happening. Yosef isn't just idly day-dreaming, imagining what he'd like to be when he grows up, and there are no hallucinogenic drugs in view. He dreamed a dream and that dream had substance, and he could remember and relate that substance quite clearly. The Sages of the Talmud say that a good dream brings life: "Rabbi Judah also said in the name of Rab: There are three things for which one should supplicate: a good king, a good year, and a good dream. 'A good king', as it is written: A king's heart is in the hands of the L-rd as the water-courses (Proverbs 21:1). 'A good year', as it is written: The eyes of the L-rd thy G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year (D'varim 11:12). 'A good dream', as it is written; Cause me to dream and cause me to live (Isaiah 38:16)" (b. Berachot 55a).
Later, during the time of the kings,HaShem commands that dreams should be shared and prophetic words spoken out - "Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream; and let him who has received My word report My word faithfully!" (Jeremiah 23:28, NJPS) - so Yosef does just that. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, "He had a dream and started telling it to his brothers. But as soon as he started trustingly telling it, they would have none of it. But he persisted: this dream you really must hear." The Hebrew text here uses the verb , the 3ms Hif'il prefix of the root , with a vav-conversive. The Qal form is not used in biblical Hebrew, but the Hif'il stem has a range of meaning: to declare, show, tell, announce, publish, proclaim (Davidson). While it is often used in a context that makes it clear that the quieter 'tell' is appropriate, we have to wonder from the brothers' reaction - "they hated him even more" (B'resheet 37:5b, NJPS) - whether there wasn't a bit of youthful announcing or proclaiming going on. The Sforno thinks so, commenting, "In this, too, he acted with the inexperience of youth. Our sages tell us 'there is no counsel in the young'" (b. Shabbat 89b). This is guaranteed to cause significant angst between Yosef and his brothers.
People who have had dreams don't always behave in the most appropriate way with what they can remember of the dream. Many dreams cannot be remembered in their entirety or with accuracy, but some are very vivid and the dreamer wants to find out what the dream is about, what it might mean or why they had it in the first place. The Bible itself only seems to mention dreams when they have a prophetic significance; it isn't interested in the flying, falling or indigestion dreams that nearly everyone has from time to time. If the Bible does talk about a dream, then it is exceptional and some process or narrative flow is impacted by the dream; it is a form of divine communication. As mentioned above, for example, the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh had been cast into the same prison where Yosef was being held and "both of them ... dreamed in the same night, each his own dream and each dream with its own meaning" (B'resheet 40:5, NJPS; these were highly symbolic dreams to which Yosef was given the interpretation: "Surely G-d can interpret!" (v. 8, NJPS)).
In the last two dreams in the Yosef cycle, Pharaoh has two back-to-back dreams with the same theme: the seven cows and the seven ears of corn. He can clearly remember and relate them, but no-one can interpret them until Yosef is fetched from prison. As he said to Pharaoh's officials, Yosef is very definite that it is G-d who provides the interpretations and is speaking, not him: "Not I! G-d will see to Pharaoh's welfare" (41:16, NJPS. During the time of Israel's early history in the Land, Gideon overhears Midianite soldiers sharing a dream about a tumbling cake of barley bread, with the meaning, "This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; G-d has given into his hand Midian and all the camp" (Judges 7:14, ESV).
In the second year of his reign as king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream for which he seeks an explanation. Unlike Pharaoh and the Midianite soldiers, although he can himself remember the dream, he refuses to tell would-be interpreters what it was, instead demanding that they should tell him both the dream - so that he knows that they are on the level - and its interpretation. When his magicians and Chaldeans admit that they cannot do this, the king orders them all to be executed - perhaps he thinks that someone is holding out on him! After praying, Daniel is given both the dream and the interpretation which he shares with the king, telling him, "He who reveals mysteries has let you know what is to happen. Not because my wisdom is greater than that of other creatures has this mystery been revealed to me, but in order that the meaning should be made known to the king" (Daniel 2:29-30, NJPS); this is not me, this is G-d!
Yeshua's birth narratives - at least according to Matthew - are filled with dreams; it is how G-d communicates with the man. Yosef has four dreams - to marry Mary, to flee to Egypt, to return from Egypt, and to settle in Nazareth - while the magi have a dream warning them not to go back to Herod. Luke is more cautious with the idea of dreams; in his gospel, angels appear to bring the news of John's conception and Yeshua's conception and birth, while "it had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the L-rd's Christ" (Luke 2:26, ESVand Anna, "a prophetess ... of the tribe of Asher" (v. 36, ESV) just happens to come by "at that very hour" (v. 38, ESV). During Yeshua's trial sequence, Matthew reports that Pilate's wife sent him word, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of Him today in a dream" (Matthew 27:19, ESV). Lastly, in the book of Acts, Paul has a dream in which "a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16:9, ESV), which Paul and his team interpret to mean that "God had called us to preach the gospel to them" (v. 10, ESV). G-d speaks through dreams.
When appropriately interpreted, dreams are authoritative; they are one of the key ways in which heaven communicates with earth. Many of the key figures and leaders in Israel's history - from the patriarchs Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov, Yosef, the judges, King Solomon and Gentile rulers such as Pharaoh and Nebchadnezzar, not to mention the prophets - receive dreams or "night visions" as a way of instruction and encouragement from G-d. Simply the mention of the phrase "I had a dream ..." is enough to authenticate what follows as being of divine origin, uniquely privileged and authoritative. Biblically literate cultures ever since have been aware of the power of dreams and the messages that they convey. Perhaps this is why when in response to a cry from the crowd during a speech given to a civil rights rally from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. made his impromptu but famous statement, "I have a dream ..." This prompted the then President Kennedy, watching King on a small black and white television set in the White House to comment, "He's good; he's damn good!" King was an ordained American Baptist minister, speaking to a crowd of over 250,000 supporters, the vast majority of whom would have been church-goers if not Christians; Kennedy was raised in a Catholic family. Neither man nor the crowd would have missed the biblical allusion and the authority it conveyed.
Should we, then, expect G-d to be speaking to us through dreams today? Exclusively, no; but as one option in a range of communication channels, definitely! The prophet Joel prophesied that in the last days, G-d would "pour out [His] spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 3:1, NJPS). Such a powerful linkage of prophecy, dreams and visions speaks every day about the way that G-d will and is communicating with His people. We should be praying for G-d to speak in all and any of the available ways that each of us can hear and receive. We should expect G-d to answer that prayer. The question then becomes, how we handle dreams when they come. Unlike Yosef, who didn't choose the most sensitive way to share his revelation, we need to be aware of the effect that the content of the dream may have on others; we need to make sure that we correctly attribute the dream to G-d rather than claiming it as our own and, perhaps above all, we need to be slightly diffident by using language such as: I think that G-d might be saying ..." This avoids the appearance that we are simply playing the G-d card and allows space for G-d to interpret the dream for others as well as ourselves.
Further Study: Isaiah 32:14-18; Acts 15:7-11; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 2 Corinthians 4:13-15
Application: Have you had a dream recently in which G-d spoke to you? Did you process and share that dream in an appropriate way and how was it received by others? Pray today for more dreams and for the wisdom to share them so that others may be encouraged and grow to seek G-d for themselves.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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