Joseph – dream interpreter

road aheadDo you dream? Joseph did and his experience with dreams raises some interesting challenges, questions and observations.

Joseph had a number of dreams and his experiences with them raises some interesting challenges, questions and observations. One challenge that dreams present is that it can be difficult to discern whether they’re symbolic or literal. Some questions that dreams raise are whether or not they’re meaningful and what role, if any, they play in our lives. Dreams can often feel very real and can be bizarre and confusing.

Having two dreams doesn’t merit the abuse that it does, especially from the immediate family. Jacob and his son Joseph wouldn’t have heard the insult, “here comes the dreamer!” (Gen 37:19) but it does show that there was already contempt in the heart of his brothers.

It’s important that we remain unprejudiced as we think about Joseph’s story. His dreams were unique and there’s no problem with him sharing them. They didn’t happen every day, after all. There was something profound about the two dreams, so much that the teenager recalled them and put value to them. Did he sense that God was speaking to him? We are not told, but the dreams certainly impacted him and what is noticeable is that the family members were immediately aware of the interpretation and implications of the dreams.

Tell the dream?

Perhaps he could have told the dreams in a different way – but when? How? He was talking to his own family, and that is how siblings talk, unguarded, vulnerable.  Acts 2:17 tells in the last days, old men will dream dreams. Perhaps dreams for older people indicate the perceived wisdom they may have of knowing how and when to deliver God’s revelation, but Joseph was the boy Joseph, and would become the unwitting victim of our hermeneutics! Besides, like father like son, Jacob and Joseph were both dreamers.  The last time you dreamt meaningfully, did you exercise caution when recounting it? Or were you like the baker and butler, telling it without hesitation, feeling neither threatened nor awkward?

Tell the dream and let God’s purpose unfold

One thing is for certain, if Joseph had not told his dreams then God in his providence, would have had to make the story work out in a different way – either way, the brothers would bow before him and he would end up in Egypt, used by God to save thousands of lives and become second-in-command over all of Egypt.

We are not told to weigh dreams – they are not the same as prophecies, but they are important, and far more important than we generally think, we are prone to discount dreams as the result of late night food binges. Time rolls on for Joseph in prison, the monotony of imprisonment broken only by his duties as the warden’s assistant, attending to particular inmates, a baker and a cup-bearer to the King.

The apostle Paul doesn’t make mention in 1 Corinthians about how revelation comes for the gift of prophecy, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn about it from other parts of the Bible. For example, we know that God communicates with us through dreams and visions. But how do we interpret, weigh and discern what dream is from God? It is an important question with implications.

It is because of Joseph’s dreams and his brothers interpretation of those dreams that bitter jealousy arose in their heart, and now Joseph the dreamer lives the nightmare of slavery and captivity far from home and his beloved father.

The inmates

The position of chief cup-bearer, who was responsible for serving the king’s wine and other drinks, was given only to the king’s most trusted confidants. They were considered highly trusted officers of the royal court. Since the position involved the king’s drink, it provided ample opportunity for assassinating the king via poisoning. Similarly, the chief baker was in charge of Pharaoh’s food. Both jobs were unique in that they were critical to the king’s safety. Perhaps the two men were in prison whilst inquiry was carried out. Nevertheless, the story begins with three men who have incurred the royal wrath.

I dreamed a dream …

One morning, Joseph is attending the two inmates when he notices their everyday disposition has changed, the smiles have gone or the banter has ceased. Either way, something has happened.. On enquiry he is informed they have had dreams, and they are profoundly at odds with what they have experienced. Two Egyptians in senior roles, in the heart of Egypt have dreamed dreams, on the same night, in the same place., and they are both aware that these dreams are different from the norm.

They were rattled. But wait! Aren’t these just dreams – something you could just ignore, an imagination of the sleeping mind? There was something different about these dreams that demanded attention, and interpretation. Maybe that has happened to you.

Joseph knows something about dreams. He has at least two dreams – you have probably had many more and Joseph may have had more, we only know about two of them. People dream dreams, God is not silent but making himself known in dream after dream. A man dreams he is driving along a road and instead of turning left, he turns right and drives into a ditch unexpectedly. How would you interpret that dream?

Back to Joseph. Joseph’s brothers had interpreted his dreams years before and now Joseph is ready to face a similar challenge. Joseph didn’t have the ability to interpret dreams, but like Daniel a few hundred years later, there was recognition that not only does God give dreams, but He reveals the meaning of them. We constantly need to look to God for revelation concerning the meaning of dreams, with no gift of dream interpretation it means we rely on God’s help.

We are a relational people, depending on the Holy Spirit and not our logic or imagination. Joseph’s ‘ability’ to interpret dreams came with that understanding (Genesis 37:5). With all things working together for Joseph’s good, God in providence used supernatural means to promote his intricate plan. From Genesis 37 to 41 five significant dreams (including Pharaoh’s) are set in place to put Joseph in place where God wants him.

Now Joseph will interpret dreams that will have major implications but later as the story ends with his family reconciled he will interpret to his family what God was doing. The journey to that point is a painful but necessary one. His brothers meant it for evil. But God meant it for good.

The narrative continues.

What’s your dream?

Your heart goes out to them. You know how the story unfolds, and the baker is going to be lulled into a false sense of security. They are sat like two naughty school boys, waiting for reprieve. Do you think if the baker had gone first that the cup-bearer would have been filled with dread? And so, in the early morning heat of Egypt as the day starts Joseph listens to two dreams. This is a significant day but in the timing and wisdom of God it will be overlooked.

For a while. The cup-bearer, who knew in his heart that he was innocent of any crimes against Pharaoh, was probably more anxious to hear the interpretation, so he related his dream first. Joseph’s interpretation was not vague, but very explicit. In fact, his interpretation would be tested within a matter of days. Within three days, the officials would know whether Joseph was right.

He was not claiming to be a prophet, if he was wrong nothing would come of it, but Joseph was confident; God reveals dreams and in that confidence he told the interpretation, and with that conviction that he was right accompanied his interpretation with a request:

“But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (vs. 14-15).

Joseph sees this interpretation as an opportunity to somehow be released from prison – despite his godly attitude through his affliction, Joseph wanted freedom from prison.

The twist

The music score in the background of this story suddenly gets sinister. Upon hearing the “favourable interpretation” of the cup-bearer’s dream, the baker was now expecting a favourable interpretation (since their dreams were so similar). And so (despite his knowledge that he himself was guilty), he now does not hesitate to relate his dream. Joseph, however, does not fulfil his expectation of a favourable interpretation. Instead, he tells the interpretation without hesitation:

“This is what it means… The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh” (vs. 18-19).

Joseph shows courage in giving this dire prediction to a high official of Pharaoh’s court. Notice that Joseph interpreted the three baskets as three days, not three years. Joseph went with the leading God put in his heart, not his own interpretation or application. Joseph has interpreted two Egyptian’s dreams, another one is to follow in two years time.

Why were these dreams important? It is possible that they were a sign from God showing that Joseph must be ready to take an opportunity when it comes. This opportunity will present itself at some point in the future, and Joseph must be prepared for it.

Forgotten by man, but not by God

We learn in the next chapter of Genesis that two full years passed before Joseph was remembered. How would you have fared? The Bible doesn’t tell us about Joseph’s continued “long night of the soul” but he continued to be faithful to God, and wait on His timing.

Here’s the big picture, reduced to a few words – Joseph has gone through a lot of difficult times, pains and struggles. You have too. His story is littered with a clear sense of God’s hand on his life but despite circumstances he has to wait for things to fully pan out in the way that he expected, and even then, did he really believe that he would end up at the massive position that he did?

Maybe in terms of Hebrews 11 he did. In this story we find a young man having audacious faith in God despite the hardships he faces, and then surprisingly, interprets the dreams of those outside of the community of Israel, with the confidence similar to Daniel, that there is a God in heaven who reveals the mysteries of the dreams He inspires. It is a remarkable story filled with specific moments that are there to capture our attention.

The question is, where do you find yourself in this narrative? Do you feel the pain and frustration of Joseph? Have you looked beyond the accelerating narrative and felt the warm air of Egypt in the room as the moment arrives to tell the dreams that have laid siege to the excitement of emotions? This is a powerful story that rewards those who slowly think, consider and feel the message that God is bringing.

JonIt’s a powerful moment in the life of Joseph, but it is not the destination. The journey, really has only just begun.