Dreams and Nightmares

Chapters 12-50 of Genesis contain the stories of four generations of ancestors: Abraham/Sarah (chapters 12-24); Isaac/Rebekah (25-26); Jacob/Rachel and Leah (27-36); and Joseph (37-50). Walter Brueggemann raises a startling, but obvious question: given the four sets of ancestral stories in Genesis, why is God revealed, for example, in Exodus 3 as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? Why does the shorter version, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” remain throughout the Scriptures as Israel’s theological summary? Where is Joseph in this list?

Joseph’s absence from Israel’s theological mantra is mystifying. He was given “the dream” concerning the promise of God, the unfolding of which is the shape of his entire story. (As someone has observed, to realize the generative power of a dream, imagine how different history might have been had Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shouted, “I have an idea!”). According to Joseph’s dream, he would be first, in spite of birth order. Everyone would bow down before him. He was rescued from death and prison. He rose to the greatest heights in Egyptian affairs. With such a story of success, why doesn’t Joseph have a place with the other three ancestors whose stories comprise Genesis? Why is his name not remembered in the same way?

Brueggemann ventures an answer. Joseph’s name was dropped because he conducted the imperial work of Pharaoh, the figure who threatens Israel’s very existence. Pharaoh was deeply disturbed by a dream of his own, a genuine nightmare which was a portent of a coming threat. Joseph became not only the interpreter of Pharaoh’s nightmare, but also the consultant, manager, and chaplain of that nightmare. From his position of royal power, Joseph seized all the money, all the livestock, and even all the bodies of Pharoah’s subjects for the sake of the imperial food monopoly. In doing so, claims Brueggemann, Joseph traded in the old covenantal dreams and gave himself over to “the deep, defining nightmare of the empire.”

Importantly, there is no hint of this in the Genesis narrative. Throughout Joseph’s story, God’s actions are hidden among the contingencies of history. God’s part in bringing Joseph’s dream to pass is announced only at the very end (ch. 50). Moreover, as Joseph does Pharoah’s work, there is no mention of any moral dilemma or regret on his part; neither does the narrator give any indication of approval or disapproval. In the end, says Brueggemann, we don’t know whether the narrative is “pure admiration for Joseph or if it is quiet irony.” What is clear, however, is that Joseph’s deeds on behalf of Pharaoh’s threatened empire become the interlude before Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Israel’s “long and wise memory” knows this, and drops Joseph’s name from its bedrock theological summary (“A Fourth-Generation Sellout,” in Inscribing the Text).

So how are we to read and hear this passage? First of all, we listen closely to the story for the truth it tells. Some inmates I know tell me that their assurance that God is busy on their behalf, most often in hidden and unnoticed ways, is their main lifeline, and the same is true for the rest of us who dwell at temporary addresses. Joseph’s story touches our fractured families and our deferred dreams. And what more redemptive lens through which to view our lives than Joseph’s concluding word, that God turned for good the evil his brothers intended. We listen closely to the story in and of itself, and resist the tendency to impose the straightjacket of “spiritual principles” or “theological truths” (e.g. “Four Tips When You’re Down in the Pit,” etc). Such attempts inevitably focus more on our performance than on God.

We could stop right there; in fact, very often we do. But let’s keep going. Let’s follow Brueggemann’s lead and consider this week’s passages from the context of the Bible’s long and wise memory. After all, these are the kind of reading skills we glean and cultivate from the Bible itself.

Christians believe that God is in the process of healing and reconciling all creation. God’s covenant promise is the calling out of a people through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed, a people open to receive God’s blessing and open to being used for God’s purposes in the world. By contrast, the “deep defining nightmare” of an empire has to do with the threats it faces (security, scarcity, etc.). From Joseph, we learn the hard truth that it is possible to be so focused on threats to the “empire” that the covenant promise is ignored, distorted, diluted, seduced, and/or co-opted.

This can happen ever so subtly, especially because the language of both dreams and nightmares uses a religious vocabulary. This past week was the anniversary of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, and Ferguson, and…). Over the radio, the code message that the bombing of Hiroshima had been successful (!) was, “Visible effects greater than Trinity [code name for atomic bomb tests]. Proceeding to Papacy [code name for Tinian].” In her response to the bombing of Hiroshima, Dorothy Day called attention to these ironies of religious language. According to reports at the time, when the news came that the bomb had exploded, President Truman was “jubilant.” “Jubilant,” repeated Dorothy Day, as in “Jubilate Deo.” President Truman was not the “True Man” as in Jesus Christ, but “a true man of his time in that he was jubilant” (“We Go on Record: The Catholic Worker Response to Hiroshima”).

Seventy-two years later, incendiary words of fire and fury are being exchanged between North Korea and the United States. A nuclear threat is most certainly a defining nightmare for any country, so it is not surprising that religious language is plentiful, especially from one Rev. Robert Jeffress, a well-heeled, high-profile Baptist preacher, apparently so infatuated with the corridors of power, and so entangled with the country’s security threats, real and perceived, that his public pronouncements, chapter and verse, sound astonishingly similar to those of a radical cleric calling for holy war.

According to the long and wise memory of Biblical truth, who are the chaplains of the nightmare, and who are the ones living the dream?

Today’s Gospel reading is preceded by the beheading of John the Baptist. The prophet’s gruesome death was the result of a sorry mixture of Herod’s insecurity, swagger, and petty face-saving. Jesus responded to this senseless “politics of death” (Hauerwas) by feeding the 5000, not from a calculated imperial food monopoly but out of the overwhelming compassion and care of God. He then launched his followers out into troubled waters. When they saw a figure approaching, they thought, “Ghost! Threat! Nightmare!” Jesus drew near and spoke. “It is I. Do not fear. Come.” Their fears turned to worship. This is still the way to the other side.

2 Responses to “Dreams and Nightmares”

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  1. Susan Adams says:

    Thanks for your very good work with these texts, Jim. Very timely. Grace and peace to you.

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