When our dreams, like those of Jacob, lie shattered in pieces, this story reminds us that God’s dream never dies. Though the stage on which we live may look like anarchy to our eyes, the Director in the wings continues to send new actors onto the stage; continues to lead the action with a subtle hand, to edit our script toward the promised end of a new heaven and a new earth.

August 9, 2020

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
. . . When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

Matthew 14:22-33
. . . And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

God In the Wings

Up to this point in the Genesis story, God has taken center stage.

God creates, carries on conversations with Adam and Eve, then speaks either directly or through dreams and visions to Noah, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The first 36 chapters of Genesis seem to be written to a people in touch with the spirit world, ready to take at face value a God who steps into the middle of human affairs like a director during rehearsal, with a clipboard, a script, and instructions: eat from this tree, but don’t eat the fruit of that tree; and you, Noah: build an ark and fill it with animals; Abram, Sarai, get up and move from where you are to over there. “What do you mean, ‘what’s my motivation?’ Your motivation is that I told you to and I’m the Director with a capital D.”

But, when we arrive at chapter 37 and the story of Joseph, it is as if rehearsal is over.

The Director steps into the darkened wings as the lights shine on the actors on the stage. The Director stands in the shadows, largely ignored by the actors, and neither seen nor heard by an audience who may wonder whether the Director is even in the building, if they think of the Director at all.

The analogy can only go so far.

On the one hand, it appears that the script is set, and the ending is telegraphed by Joseph’s dreams: he tells his brothers, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

That one didn’t go over any better than the first, but it seems the script is written. Just as Jacob grabbed hold of the blessing of his older brother Esau, Joseph will reign and have dominion over his older brothers. It’s in the script.

And then the brothers go off-script.

The stage becomes a place of improvised insurrection, and the power struggle begins. The brothers of Joseph don’t like the ending foreshadowed by the dream, so they plan to kill the dreamer. That should do it. But, the conspiracy begins to crack right away when Reuben and then Judah come up with plans to thwart the murder.

While they are squabbling over whether to waste their brother or sell him to a band of Ishmaelites, and Joseph is in a pit with no water to drink, some Midianite traders sneak up to the pit, lift Joseph up and out, and sell him to the Ishmaelites before the brothers know what has happened.

The brothers lost the twenty pieces of silver they could have gotten for their pesky little brother, but at least they were rid of him, or so they thought. When they dip his fancy coat into goat’s blood and take it to their father Jacob, they don’t even have to speak the lie. They let their father draw his own conclusion: “It is my son’s robe!” he says. “A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”

Between today’s lectionary reading and the conclusion in next week’s reading, the dream is all but forgotten. The dreamer is sold as a slave, taken to Egypt, falsely accused of sexual assault, thrown into a dungeon, then lifted out of the dungeon just as he was lifted out of the pit, then promoted to Chief Financial Officer of Egyptian Pharaoh, Incorporated.

(This is the condensed version. For a more fleshed-out telling of the story, see Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.)

Meanwhile, back in Canaan, Jacob slides into a deep grief, and the boys suffer from all the dysfunction that comes with trying to keep the secret of their abusive violence against Joseph. The narrator does not need to tell us of the inner conflict and fraternal strife that arose as the brothers watched their father grieve for Joseph even as they knew that Jacob’s favorite son was still alive.

When we remember that the story of Jacob, renamed Israel, is not only the story of a family, but the story of a nation, the story of God’s people, it deepens. Written for a people who lived in a time of the rise of secularism and the fading of religious influence, probably during the reign of Solomon, this story reminds us that God’s existence, as the Director in the wings, does not depend on our belief.

The story meets us in our grief over the loss of our dreams. When the dream job turns into a nightmare, when a marriage ends, when a house burns, our health fails, or when a pandemic upends all our best-laid plans, it feels like the universe has lost any order. It feels like the Deists might be right, that the Creator has wound up this clock and left it hanging out in space to unwind without any further attention; it feels like we are in a play without a working script, that the Director has left the building and the actors, sans script, sans Director, fight it out onstage toward an ending that seems to be moving in the direction of the last scene of Hamlet, with a stage littered with the dead.

When our dreams, like those of Jacob, lie shattered in pieces, this story reminds us that God’s dream never dies. Though the stage on which we live may look like anarchy to our eyes, the Director in the wings continues to send new actors onto the stage; continues to lead the action with a subtle hand, to edit our script toward the promised end of a new heaven and a new earth.

We can hear the echo of this story in the exchange between Cleopas and his companion, after Jesus is crucified, as they trudge toward Emmaus and fall into conversation with the risen Christ, though they do not yet know it is he. “But we had hoped,” they tell the stranger, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Jacob dreamed of descendants. God dreamed of a nation.

Cleopas and his companion dreamed of political freedom. God dreamed of our salvation.

The story of God’s people told in our Scriptures is, again and again, the story of the dreams of mortals dashed and the dream of God carried forward.

When the storm rages, and the wind drives us farther and farther from the safety of the land we have always known, Jesus comes to meet us, calls us toward him, takes us by the hand, and calms the storm.