Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers at least partially in response to his recounting a dream that included them in a not-very-flattering way. His release from prison in Egypt was also accomplished because of a few dreams, two from a couple of Pharaoh’s employees and two from Pharaoh himself.
The dreams of the employees dealt with their jobs, one as a cupbearer who dreamed about three vines producing grapes which he gathered and pressed into Pharaoh’s cup while the baker’s dealt with three baskets of baked goods which birds were eating. The baker’s dream was seen as a portent of death, but the cupbearer would be restored to his position. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him and help him get out of prison, but the cupbearer forgot about Joseph for two whole years. It took the dreams of Pharaoh that no one could figure out to make the cupbearer suddenly remember Joseph. He was brought out of jail, successfully interpreted the dreams and was made the Number Two man in the whole kingdom. Of course, Joseph didn’t claim all the credit for the interpretation; God had given those interpretations to him.
Whether then or now, dreams are thought to be a form of communication, perhaps between the spirit world and the real one, a prophetic vision, or a window on what the dreamer had experienced the day before. Those who could interpret dreams were very important because they could unlock the secrets the dreams exposed. Some cultures sent out their youths to the wilderness to seek dreams which they bring back and recount to the elders and which could fashion the path of the rest of their lives. Some would call them hallucinations, some fantasies, but to the youth and their tribes, they were communications with the spirit world that surrounded them yet was invisible and often unnoticed. The youths were been sent out as boys but returned as men.
Everybody dreams, but not everybody remembers their dreams much less know what those dreams mean. It is possible to walk into any library or bookstore (or browse Amazon.com) and find a number of books on what dreams mean. Every culture and society has dreamers, people who see what could or should be and who recount that vision to the tribe, the town, the country, the world. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I have a dream” speech, placed himself in the sandals of Moses leading his people. He dreamed of a promised land of equality and justice for all, regardless of status, race or anything else that created a barrier between people. It was inarguably one of the most powerful speeches of all time, and it became the motivation of millions of people to seek what Dr. King had dreamed. Sometimes, like Joseph, Dr. King and his dream are forgotten for a time, but, just as suddenly, his vision is renewed and reinvigorated for the benefit of not just one person or even one group but for the world.
A lot of people will say that dreams are just fantasies. They believe that dreams of what could be just never come true so they’re all put in the realm of the mind dabbling in fantasy while the rest of the body sleeps. Even if we aren’t asleep, though, we can dream. Sometimes we scoff at those dreams too, the ones where we do something great, some good fortune comes to us, we land the job we’ve always wanted or find the soulmate we’ve hoped to find. Do we remember those dreams when they happen? Or do we use them to more actively work to make them realities?
Dreams have built kingdoms and also destroyed them. The dream of one person has been able to change the world for good or for ill The deluded dreams of despots have caused great suffering and death to countless souls just as dreams of the more beneficent have helped millions through new visions of social programs, medical research and technological advances.
In Joel (2:28 NRSV) and also in Acts (2:17, NRSV), God promises that God’s spirit/Spirit will be given to all people and that “[Y]our sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” The old may dream of the past or even the present but they can also sometimes see the trajectory of those paths and the effect they have had on the world. The young can dream of what they want the world to be relative to where it is now and work toward that goal. What the two ages have in common is the present, the time to work, to build, to continue dreaming and looking for the vision to move ahead.
God uses dreams sometimes to get messages to people that they may not have noticed in their waking moments. God sent a dream to Abimelech the king warning him not to mess with the beautiful Sarah who was actually Abraham’s wife, and not his sister. Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels moving up and down, reminding him of God’s promise to continue the line of God’s chosen people begun with Abraham through and now moving through Jacob. Daniel, like Joseph, was able to interpret dreams and portents. Even the New Testament Joseph, who was contemplating calling off the wedding to Mary because of a mysterious pregnancy in which he had no part, had a message from God in a dream and so became the earthly father to a child named Jesus.
Whether dreams while sleeping or daydreams (or visions) while we are wide awake, let us pay attention and not dismiss them out of hand as pure fiction. Some undoubtedly will be (like winning the lottery without buying a ticket), but some may just be the spark from the match that lights up the world as it passes from candle to candle.
May we have those moments when we, like Dr. King, can face the world prophetically and say, “I have a dream today.” May we follow those dreams to make the world a better place.