Seaborn Hall, 2/22/20
In part one, we addressed the dreams and Joseph’s interpretation of them that would prepare the way for him to leave prison and be lifted up to Pharaoh’s right hand. Here we go back in time approximately thirteen years and analyze the dreams that foreshadow Joseph’s imprisonment and eventual exaltation.
Joseph was the youngest of his other eleven brothers and Jacob’s favorite, being the ‘son of his old age.’ He was Rachel’s first son. At seventeen Joseph was typically full of himself and a little arrogant, just like most teenagers who think that they know more than they do at such a young age. He did not know when to speak and when to shut up, especially around his half-brothers.
Joseph’s brothers hated him, apparently enough to do him harm. When he has two dreams that seem to predict his exaltation over his father and his brothers – an event very unlikely in the patriarchal and hierarchal ancient world where the eldest typically inherits everything – his brothers hate him all the more.
Joseph’s Two Dreams
Genesis 37: 5 Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Please listen to this dream which I have had; 7 for behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 Then his brothers said to him, “Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
Gen. 37:9 Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, “Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 He related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
The Interpretation Of Joseph’s First Dream
Note that the brothers immediately understand and interpret Joseph’s first dream. There were two reasons for this. Remember, we have said that the Ancient Near East cultural milieu was familiar with the symbolic language of dreams and their interpretation. Additionally, Jacob, their father experienced dreams throughout his life and had probably passed this down to all of his sons. Second, this was a simple dream.
As a passing aside, notice also that Jacob ‘rebuked’ Joseph because of his dream. This was not unbelief, because the text says ‘his father kept the saying in mind.’ This was a lack of understanding due to tradition and an incomplete understanding of how God works.
The tradition of Jacob’s bloodline and culture was that God blesses and gives to the eldest. The younger would never rule his older brothers. Yes, Jacob had his own experience of being the youngest and the one who inherited the blessing. But, this was an exception and still not enough to shake Jacob’s belief that God was usually with ‘tradition.’ The church has the same struggle today discerning between a correct view of God and ‘tradition.’
“Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.”
This is not so complex that any of us would have a big problem understanding it. Joseph had eleven brothers, including his young full brother Benjamin who was still no more than a baby or young child at this point. If he saw a dream in which he and his brothers were harvesting in a field and ten ‘sheaves’ bowing down to him, especially if it was in a field and it was the custom for he and his brothers to harvest crops in a field, he would naturally conclude that the ‘sheaves’ were symbolic for his brothers. This would be especially true if Joseph’s sheaf first ‘rose up and also stood erect’ and then the other ‘sheaves gathered around and bowed down” to his.
A point of interpretation: It is the dream context that makes this clear. If you have a dream with corn or wheat ‘sheaves’ in it do the sheaves automatically translate into persons or brothers or sisters? No. It is always the context that dictates the translation/interpretation. At first, there seems to be no timing element or any indication that the fulfillment is to take place immediately – except for the repeating of the dream (addressed below).
What are ‘sheaves?’ Sheaves are long stems of unthreshed grain bound together in the field for drying before threshing out of the individual grains takes place. Threshing separates the grain from the stems. In the dream the sheaves act symbolically for Joseph and the brothers, but as the dream is fulfilled we will see that it is more than just this.
Note the meaning in the motif of a ‘sheaf.’ It is agricultural, related to food. It is seasonal, related to timing. It is metaphorical for discipline, character, hard work, and time for the harvest to come.
In this simple dream were already suggestions for what Joseph’s future held and the timing of when the fulfillment might take place. As to Joseph’s life and the fulfillment: there was to be a planting – that includes dying, a growing, maturity of the seed – then, a harvesting, and then a threshing with further harvesting.
The Interpretation Of Joseph’s Second Dream
Note the apparent simple nature of the second dream as well: Behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Dreams do not have to be complex to be God-given.
First notice that the dream, though short, is significant right away because it portrays a condition so different, and so far from, true reality. Jospeh is the second youngest in his father’s house and the youngest compared to his ten adult brothers.
Many things are interesting about this second dream and Jacob’s interpretation of it. Notice that right away Jacob realizes the meaning: “Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” The dream functions on multiple levels. On one level is Jacob’s interpretation, the sun stands for the ‘father,’ the moon, the ‘mother’, and the eleven stars the brothers of Joseph.
On a deeper level, the dream may foreshadow where the fulfillment of the dream will take place. On another level the dreams function as a foreshadowing of the Egyptian economic and religious systems. Bread was a staple and a currency. Grain was all important. The Sun God Re was one of the most important Egyptian gods. The God of the moon as well. The stars were used for guidance. Joseph will be someone that even gods bow down to and wherever he is guided he will have favor. In one fell swoop – one short scene – this dream foreshadows both Joseph’s destiny and the economic and religious system within which it would unfold and be fulfilled.
Interpretive Background: Was Joseph Arrogant – Or Just A ‘Teenager’?
Genesis 37:2 “Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father….They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! (Gen. 37:19 NAS95)”
One question relative to Joseph might be why he would share such dreams with brothers that he knew didn’t exactly like him in the first place. One can imagine that the animosity between Joseph and his brothers was not hidden and boiled over on to the surface more than on one occasion. Joseph was alone with no full brother from his mother Rachel and all of his brothers were his half-brothers with other mothers.
In addition, Joseph’s mother, Rachel, was known to be beautiful and Jacob’s favorite wife. Jacob had labored fourteen years with Laban, Rachel and Leah’s father, for the right of marrying Rachel, after Laban had tricked him into marrying Leah, the oldest, first. In addition, four of the brothers were offspring from maid-servants. As such, there was no expected inheritance and one can imagine that there was resentment bubbling under the surface due to their situation. This history and set-up was bound to have produced rivalries and ill-feelings between all of the brothers, but particularly between the older brothers towards a younger favorite. Joseph may have become the focus that all of the resentments and rivalries united around. Hatred of him brought all of the brothers together as one.
It is also probable that Joseph did not help things. His mother, Rachel, had recently died giving birth to his younger brother. He was young, handsome, and strong and his father’s favorite. His father probably felt somewhat protective of him in light of his mother’s death. His father had given him a ‘varicolored tunic’, a multicolored robe as a symbol of his love and that he was Jacob’s favorite. He had no reason to feel poorly about himself and apparently he let this be known. When he had his ‘dreams’ he probably felt that this was a way to impress his brothers and engender their respect. It was a miscalculation.
This had to be intimidating for the eldest Reuben, and the other older brothers, like Simeon, Issachar, Levi, and Judah, who had cultural and traditional reasons to expect their father’s inheritance or favor. In addition, Reuben had recently slept with Jacob’s concubine and it had become known. He was the eldest, but out of his father’s favor. Also rumbling around in the back of their minds must have been their father, Jacob’s, own experience – though the youngest of two brothers, God had given him the inheritance.
Following the sharing of his dreams, Jacob sent Joseph out to find his brothers pastoring the flock. While Joseph is ‘wandering’ around the wilderness looking for them ‘a man found him.’ Whether this man is meant to be the Lord Himself, an angel, just a stranger, or a literary device the author uses is probably not the point. Regardless of which it is its meaning is clear. It was no accident that Joseph was to find his brothers and that they would see him coming and plot to sell him away.
When the brothers see Joseph in the distance they exclaim, “Here comes this dreamer!” The Hebrew word for ‘dreamer’ here is Baal, the word for the ancient god of rain, sex, and fertility. It is used as an epithet, meaning something like, “Here comes this arrogant ‘Lord of dreams’ who thinks himself to be so mighty!”
Interestingly, Baal, as the god of life and fertility was often seen as locked in combat with the god of death – the one attempting to bring fertility and life, the other attempting to bring famine and death. Baal was seen riding on the ‘storm clouds.’ Joseph’s brother’s own words about him were a prophetic declaration of God’s purpose in him about to unfold. Through their actions they were to make him the ‘Lord of dreams’ and place him in the trials that would form his character.
The fact that he meets this strange, anonymous ‘man’ in the wilderness is the writer’s way of telling us that this was no ‘accident.’ Joseph was ‘meant’ to be sold into slavery. Later, the text will note of the brothers: “Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt.” Everything happened just the way that God intended.
Timing In Joseph’s Dreams And Interpretation
“Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about (Gen. 41:32 NAS95).”
Joseph had two consecutive dreams, but we are not told whether the dreams were on the same night or two different nights. The way the text seems to separate the two dreams it seems likely that the dreams were on different, but perhaps consecutive nights. But, it is possible that the dreams were separated by some nights – or even a longer period – in between.
We don’t know about the above for sure, but we do know what Joseph will tell Pharaoh about his own dreams in the future (Gen. 41:32, quote above). In Pharaoh’s case, he had dreamed two different, but similar dreams consecutively on the same night, the second after waking and returning to sleep. Joseph’s interpretation of this phenomenon is that “it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about.”
As we’ve seen, Joseph has had some experience with repeating dreams. Perhaps his interpretation to Pharaoh here means that he has been contemplating the repeating nature of his own earlier dreams and has begun to realize that God has a plan for him. As he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams he begins to realize the part that he can play in the unfolding tapestry. He may realize that while Pharaoh’s dreams repeated on the same night and that means they will unfold quickly – his own dreams repeated with some distance between them signifying a longer period before fulfillment.
Joseph may be like Neo towards the end of Keanu Reaves film, The Matrix, at this point – he is beginning to realize who he is and what it is that God wants to do. He now realizes that he is to be exalted, he sees the reason for it and he, by his advice, places himself in a position to do good. When he advises Pharaoh the type of man he should seek out, he is describing the qualities that God has built into his own life over the years.
As for the number two, two was a known symbol for a ‘witness’ in the ancient world. There must be two witnesses to bring an accusation. There must be two to get married. There must be two to make a covenant. There must be two witnesses to bring a charge against someone. A second consecutive dream becomes a ‘witness’ that the first dream is God-given, that something that God is speaking will happen.
Joseph, to repeat, interprets the same night consecutive nature of Pharaoh’s second dream as meaning that God will bring it about ‘quickly.’ It is not extrapolating too much to suggest that he seems to now believe that the delayed consecutive nature of his own dream may mean a delayed time frame in the dream’s fulfillment, but a delay that is now about to end.
At this point in time Joseph has walked through his own despair and unbelief and is ‘seeing’ how God’s hand could unfold in his life. He believes that his own dreams were God-given and God-determined and that they will be fulfilled. Through his trials and God’s dealings with him, Joseph has become a different character of man from the arrogant little teenager that his brothers sold into bondage.
In Part 3 we will address the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams in Pharaoh’a court as well as Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams that places him there.
Joseph’s Dreams: What Can We Learn? Part One, Seaborn Hall, Common Sense Spiritual Life