“Dreams transport us each and every night into that strange and radiant world inside ourselves wherein… we come face to face with powers greater than ourselves.”
~ James Hagan
We had such an interesting discussion about Joseph’s dreams in Torah study with Rabbi Allan Ulman. I’ve been in a study class with him for many years; we use a psycho–spiritual many layered look at Torah (the first 5 books of the bible) and other spiritual teachings. We usually think of Joseph as a somewhat arrogant youth, who is favored by his father (remember the fancy coat!) and lords it over his brothers. His first reported dream is about the bowing sheaves of wheat (Genesis 37) while he is young and living at home with his father and 11 brothers. Rather than his own hubris however, it is actually his brothers who interpret from Joseph’s dream that they are the sheaves of wheat that bow down to his sheave, and infer that Joseph is planning to rule over them. As Allan pointed out, the brothers are not actually dream interpreters– but Joseph is. So when his brothers try to interpret his dream and accuse him of planning to subjugate them, it is their overlay on it that we read.
It would seem that the skinny on biblical dream interpretation is that it corresponds with our modern view that the dreamer is the final expert–others cannot assume to know the true meaning of the dream unless the dreamer concurs. It is the brother’s projections of what they fear this dream means that we read about, not what Joseph is actually saying at this time. We find at the end of the Joseph saga however, that without knowing his identity, the brothers do in fact bow down to him as they ask for relief from the famine in their land, as he is Pharaoh’s right hand man. The future was contained in this dream, although they did not know it at the time. While that was not Joseph’s intention, it was what their future unfolded.
Here’s another dream layer: the potential that our dreams contain our future. How might our lives be different if we could recognize when we were “seeing around the corner of time”, if you will; and thus plan accordingly?
If you recall, earlier in the story, Joseph’s brothers are envious of their favored younger brother and conspire to kill him. The text actually says that they want to kill him because “he is a dreamer” (Gen. 37). The brothers are threatened by his dreams/visions, and it is his future that they want to kill off. This theme unfortunately continues to be true in our lives today- how many have been killed over the millenniums because their dreams or visions did not match up with their neighbor’s?
Joseph’s first dream, the sheaves, is about earthly matters: food, wheat, sustenance. It is the prequel to the dream of Pharaoh that is brought to Joseph many years later while he is imprisoned in jail. Word got out about his skills in interpreting the cupbearer’s and the baker’s dreams while he was imprisoned, and so he is brought to interpret Pharaohs dreams of the 7 fat and 7 lean sheep. In fact, the importance of that dream is doubled since Pharaoh also dreamed a similar dream about 7 healthy ears of corn and 7 shriveled ears. (We know that when a symbol or event is doubled or repeated in a dream, the message is of particular significance.) Once again, these dreams are concerned with food, sustenance, and the earth: By interpreting this dream correctly, Joseph averts a famine and saves the people.
Joseph’s second dream is about heavenly or spiritual matters. In this one, the sun, the moon and the stars were bowing down to him. His brothers freak out again when they hear this second dream, and they accuse him of thinking that they and his parents represent the sun, the moon and the stars who are to bow down to him. Joseph actually never makes that interpretation though. Though seem obvious, it is the others who again superimpose their own projections of envy and anger onto him. We’ve all had dreams where we had the position of “observer” as a dream story unfolds, this is the perspective that Joseph had in this dream. It is like watching a movie, instead of starring in it, and provides a different perspective.
I learned that the key to understanding this second dream is that Joseph accepts the mantle of divine will, and recognizes that he has a sacred life purpose. This mantle of divine purpose is in contrast to his youthful first “coat of many colors”. Joseph’s “hero’s journey”, as Joseph Campbell writes, is about relationship repair and reconciliation of brethren, carrying on the thread of the theme “am I my brother’s keeper?” that we were introduced to early on in Genesis in the story of Cain and Able. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery at the end of Exodus. He accepts the mantle of being his brother’s keeper in a way that Cain could not, as Joseph provisions his brothers against the famine in their own land. Joseph answers this question by saying, in effect, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am my brother’s keeper”. How do we answer that question in our own lives today?
In this story woven around Joseph’s dreams and his skill as an interpreter of dreams, we see the progression of the core theological concepts of family and community interdependence and caring for each other. We humans don’t start off very successfully in this department, (Cain killing Able is the template for the relationship of first set of siblings). As we follow our own deep stories and archetypes and pay attention to the dreams and visions of the men and women who precede us, hopefully we learn that we do need to take care of each other and honor our own and others dreams until we reach our promised land.