Saturday, September 22, 2007

Joseph, Pt. 1: "The Possible Dream" (Gen 37)

Four individuals shaped and defined Israel's rise as a nation and emergence into a force. Abraham was the spiritual giant who walked by faith, and not by sight. Isaac was the perfect gentleman who treated friends and neighbors fairly. Jacob was the consummate gladiator who grappled with God and man, and Joseph was the unsung hero who single-handedly delivered Israel and his family, all seventy of them, from a severe seven year famine.

Joseph's life was a dream that digressed into a nightmare on the road to glory. A friend noted rightly: “Vision without action is daydream; action without vision is nightmare.” His life intertwined not only with dreams, but with garments. When he was a teenager, his father made a robe for him that landed him in a pit (Gen 37:3). As a slave, Potiphar's wife caught Joseph’s cloak in her hands that landed him in prison (Gen 39:12). Finally, the robes of fine linen Pharaoh gave Joseph landed him in the palace (Gen 41:42).

My dreams are really insignificant and meaningless. Once I dreamed of taking a flight on a trip. In my dream, I could not decide if I should lodge at a hotel near the airport the night before the next day's trip, stay with a friend near the airport that I never had or stay at home and commute to the airport in prime time traffic. The following week, I had another dream. I was persuading my wife not to give away a cat she never had in real life, too!

Dreams are generally irrelevant, silly and overblown. Contrary to reality, people do not usually spend their sleep lives dreaming of getting rich, being successful, gaining fame or craving sex most or all of the time.

However, creative people have credited dreams for their discoveries. French chemist Auguste Kekule saw snakes biting their tales in a dream before he stumbled onto the mystery of the correct ring structure for the benzene molecule. Inventor Elias Howe attributed the discovery of the sewing machine to a nightmare of being captured by cannibals. Howe noticed the holes at the tip of the natives’ spears and designed the sewing machine accordingly. Vladimir Horowitz and other well-known pianists have described playing piano pieces or discovering a new fingering in their dreams that turned out to work perfectly. Robert Louis Stevenson said that his book “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” came to him in a dream.,5744,335625,00.html?query=dreams

The seventeen year-old Joseph (v 2) was Jacob and Rachel's miracle child, golden boy and teenage prodigy. Jacob, the father, loved Joseph to a family feud, sibling rivalry and to a house divided. Unfortunately, Rachel, the mother, who died after giving birth to Benjamin, her second child, was not there to bring up or reel in her firstborn.

The stage was set for the Israel’s four hundred years of enslavement in Egypt that God had disclosed to Abraham (Gen 15:13-16), except that the leading character, the star player and the show stopper was not ready for his debut. Joseph had a possible dream in his sleep and a promising future in the stars, but a potential crisis on his hands. He was ahead of himself, sure of himself and full of himself. When he was young, Joseph was talkative, insensitive, blunt, naïve and immature.

How does a person mature from a boy or youth to a man or an adult? What does one have to learn, understand and concede along the way? Where does immaturity end and maturity begin?

Recognize that God is Omniscient When Your Understanding is Incomplete
37:1 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. 5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. 9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. (Gen 37:1-11)

Once, young Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip fame had a money-making idea. So he overturned a box for a stand, wrote some words on it, placed it on the street and waited patiently for prospective buyers; however, none came. Before too long, Hobbes, Calvin's stuffed tiger, visited him and asked him, “How's business?” Calvin replied tersely: “Terrible.” Hobbes looked at the box, noticed the words on the box that read: “A swift kick in the butt - $1.00” and sympathized with Calvin’s lack of business: “Boy, that's hard to believe.”

The equally befuddled and disappointed Calvin rested his head on his hands, threw out his arms in exasperation and complained about his unsuccessful venture: “I can't understand it. Everybody I know needs what I'm selling.”

What Ralph Waldo Emerson once said is true of Joseph: “What you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”

Joseph was destined for great things, but he also had grand weaknesses and big egos to overcome. Craving for his brothers’ attention, acceptance and affection, he appeared where he was not invited, said what nobody wanted to hear and flaunted what no one else had, from paternal favors to heavenly visions. The young upstart often made a big fuss about his dreams, wore his loud, colorful and exclusive garment everywhere, getting on every one's nerves, case and blacklist. He was not wise, likable or tolerable. In short, he was a spoilt brat and a little monster - a pet to his father but a rat, a mole and a pest to his brothers.

The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, the children of the lowly maids and not the powerful wives of Jacob, were Joseph’s first targets when he brought a bad report to his father (v 2). The words “bad report” is translated elsewhere as mean slander (Ps 31:13), defamation (Jer 20:10) and malicious talk (Ezek 36:3). Maybe what Joseph said of his less privileged brothers to their father Jacob was true, but he was unkind, unfair and unbearable.

In no time, Joseph's brothers were jealous of him (Gen 37:11), bitter at him and rude to him (Gen 37:4). They were up to their neck with him, giving the evil eye to him and sick to the stomach of him. No relationship could rival the brothers’ murderous hatred for Joseph; the Hebrew word for “hate” (Gen 37:4, 5, 8) appears more in this chapter and in their relationship than any in the Bible. Even Jacob, the father, who adored him and couldn't resist his charms, couldn't stand his bizarre and grandiose dreams.

Up to this point, Joseph did not know, understand or realize that God did not give the talents, the opportunity and the destiny for him alone, but for the salvation of the Jews, Egyptians and the rest of mankind. He did not pray for understanding, reassure his brothers or uphold family unity, reconciliation or harmony. The way he communicated, detailed and retold his dream elevated himself over others, set brother against brother and divided the whole family. When his brothers asked the second question (v 8), “Will you actually ‘rule’ us?” Joseph had no reply, did not elaborate and showed no restraint, irking his parents next. Only in the end when the brothers bowed to Joseph in Egypt will the verb “bow” reappear thrice (Gen 42:6, 43: 26, 28), revealing that they were not bowing to Joseph the brother, but Joseph the minister (Gen 42:8-9).

You may be capable, talented and promising, but are you wise, disciplined, and mature? Do you treat people honorably, tactfully and cordially? Is your head swollen with pride? Is your head thinking straight? Or is your head bigger than your heart?

Recognize that God is Omnipotent When Your Power is Inadequate
12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father's flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.” “Very well,” he replied. 14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron. When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?” 16 He replied, “I'm looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?” 17 “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, 'Let's go to Dothan.'“ So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let's kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we'll see what comes of his dreams.” 21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let's not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don't shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don't lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe--the richly ornamented robe he was wearing-- 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it. 25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt. 26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let's sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (Gen 37:18-27)

After my wife and I had sold our first home, we rented a two-bedroom house for a few months before we found one. One day as the garage door opened to greet my return, I noticed that one of the moving boxes that were stored in the garage was on the floor right in the middle of my parking space. I assumed that the box had fallen from poor stacking or strong winds. But on second thought, why did the box fall or travel so far away from its corner spot, and how could the winds seep into the garage? Just then, I noticed the door to the house was open and my worst fears came true: Someone had broken into the house!

The burglars left nothing untouched. They rummaged through the pocket of every piece of clothing, upended and searched each box and container and even opened our mail. Immediately, I looked for our passports, checks, extra car keys, jewelry and small safe. The burglars, apparently, did not take our passports, car keys or checks. Fortunately, we had left the small safe open, so the burglars did not take it when they noticed it only contained documents and not jewelry or cash. Like everything else, the documents were strewn all over the floor. My wife also found all her jewelry, which she hid in a special place, and the $50 cash and extra foreign currency she had placed in a cabinet.

Tabulating our losses, we concluded that the burglars were youngsters looking for cash and had left most of our belongings alone, except for her laptop, two backpacks and a few cans of Coke! Though we were thankful, feelings of disappointment, disgruntlement and disgust naturally and often surfaced, until we met my sister who is renting the unit next to ours. She told us: “I was so fortunate. I had left $10,000 cash in my house that day when I was at work.” Then I understood God's grace to us. I had suffered a scare, a break-in and a minor loss, but if the burglars had broken into my sister's house next door instead, she would have suffered a hardship, a disaster and a major blow!

God’s wisdom is indisputable. His power is perfect and His ways are inscrutable!

Joseph's brothers acted out of jealousy, greed and spite. It was not a prank, a joke, or even a warning. What they did was vicious, wicked, senseless and reprehensible. It was inexcusable, unjustified and unnecessary. However, note that though the brothers were in charge, they were not in control. Their plans were weaker, stranger and changing by the minute. Plan A, which failed, was to kill Joseph (v 19). Plan B, which did not succeed, was to starve him to death. So they resorted to Plan C, trading him for money, the least dangerous of the three. Providentially and perplexingly, Reuben and Judah, the sons of Leah, the fiercest rival of Rachel, Joseph's mother, saved him.

God is omnipotent. Although the name and mention of God were absent from this chapter, His hand, wisdom, and intervention were present, prominent and precious. God allowed bad things to happen to Joseph, though He did not make or cause them. He also did not stop or reverse it, but used and transformed it for His purpose and glory. Though He did not write or rewrite the chapter's beginning, He reworked and revised the middle and the end.

Joseph the dreamer learned a hard lesson. He was not as intelligent, as indispensable and as influential as he thought. God had given him the passage of dreams but not the power of interpretation, the dream’s beginning and the end but not the middle. Allen Ross noted that Joseph's dreams differ from other dreams in the book of Genesis, in that his dreams had symbols, images and visuals only, but no verbal communication. (Genesis 596, Allen Ross, Baker) Joseph should have kept his weird dreams to himself, especially when he implied that his late mother would show up and bow to him (v 10). Even in jail, his answers were good for other dreamers, but never himself. He was not the master dreamer, or “baal dreamer” in Hebrew (Gen 37:19), his brothers labeled him. Only when he was humbled by prison did he have an explanation, a forum and a use for his dreams.

Recognize that God is Omnipresent When Your Life is Isolated
36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard. (Gen 37:36)

There was an old story of an unhappy princess who was unhappy that she was not a beauty. She did not like the way she looked, could not find anyone or anyway to improve on it, and worried herself to no end as to what others would think of her, say about her or feel about her.

One day a kind old aunt visited her, comforted her and gave her three beauty tips. The princess took her aunt's advice to heart, busied herself practicing what she was taught and, before too long, not only had she forgotten about her previous state of unhappiness, she had garnered rave reviews throughout the land and beyond as a princess of incomparable beauty.

Of course, young ladies all over the land then sought the princess to ask her for the secret of her popularity. They listened attentively as she sweetly, faithfully and helpfully recounted her old aunt’s three age-old beauty tips: “One, smile at everyone you meet. Two, look for all the beautiful things you could find. Third, say something kind to everyone.”

It's been said, “We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking, only to learn that it is God who is shaking them.”

Ironically, Joseph’s brothers did him a favor by selling him. Canaan was a place of death with the coming famine, his brothers were a brotherhood of blood and the family was not unanimous in grief. Only one of the brothers - Reuben – felt the pain (Gen 37:29-30) even as Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days – the longest expression of grief in the Bible (Gen 37:34). The family members comforted their father (Gen 37:35), but did not mourn or miss their brother’s absence.

With God’s presence in Joseph's life, Egypt was a place of refuge, the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's rival, were harmless merchants and Joseph was at peace. Exile was better than home for Joseph. It saved him his neck, head and life. Not only that, he was a changed man, a mature adult and a good neighbor.

Joseph was mistreated, victimized and sold by his brothers, but God delivered, transformed and used him. For the next thirteen years (Gen 41:46) he had no one but God to rely on, to turn to and fellowship with. God was with Joseph in Canaan, too, but Joseph did not know, acknowledge or show it, but in Egypt, he treated God no longer as a stranger or a visitor, but a friend and companion.

Hudson Taylor said: “It does not matter how great the pressure is. What really matters is where the pressure lies- whether it comes between you and God, or whether it presses you nearer His heart.” (Charles Swindoll, Grind I 99)

Conclusion: Hannah Smith said, “The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self; the most difficult thing we have to manage is self.” Maturity is not a gift. It cannot be rushed, bought or inherited. You can dream dreams, but reading dreams, people and situations is a different matter. Are you part of the problem to a trouble, strife or misunderstanding, or are you part of the solution? Do you help or hinder? What does it take to mend fences, build bridges and smooth feathers? Do obstacles, problems and difficulties sink or surge your spiritual growth? Do you confidently, cheerfully and continually trust in God through the long, winding and uneven path of life?


At 4:58 AM , Blogger Joanne Hillman said...

Wonderful sermon with many excellent insights! Thank you


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