The Reverend Seth Ethan Carey
November 11th, 2007
First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Introduction to the Scripture
During the words with children this morning, we got an entertaining look at the events that lead up to our scripture reading. We saw Joseph being sold into slavery by his own brothers, and we saw them pretending to feel bad about it, when in fact they never liked him much to begin with. You see, as a child, Joseph used to have these dreams about his older brothers bowing down and serving him. Well, after a few years of hearing about it they decided to beat him up and sell him to the Egyptians, making it look like he’d been eaten by a wild animal.
But Joseph didn’t stop dreaming. In fact, he dreamt so much that he got to be pretty good at interpreting dreams. So we find him this morning in Egypt, where he learns that he has some skill with interpreting other people’s dreams, too.
But Joseph’s story leaves me wondering—can dreams really be interpreted? Can we ever hope to make sense of them? Or like God, do our dreams have a logic all their own?
I had a dream, once, many years ago. I was only a small child when it crept into my sleep, but for some reason I’ve never forgotten it. The nocturnal vision was devoid of all logic or reason, as so many dreams are. But its surreal imagery etched itself onto my impressionable young mind, carving its pictures deeply.
I am standing in a shopping mall. I’m looking for something. I don’t know what it is, but I know that I need to find it before the clock strikes midnight. The corridors of the labyrinthine shopping complex are vast, and I tread them with growing anxiety. The hands of a majestic clock on the ceiling turn relentlessly as I drift past storefronts. The stores are busy at first, bustling with shoppers going about their business and employees checking their watches, eager for their shifts to end. But as I quicken my pace and draw closer to the mall’s inner sanctum, I notice that the customers are growing fewer, the stores emptier. Soon there is almost no one left. A bored sales associate stares at the wall of his vacant store. A rent-a-cop security guard passes by in silence, his polished shoes clicking on the marble floor. The sound echoes.
In dreams, time doesn’t follow its usual rhythms. So I don’t know how long it takes me to reach the shopping mall’s core. But when I get there, I find my treasure at last—a shiny green apple, perfectly smooth, sitting atop a stone pillar. But before I can stretch out my hand and take it, the stroke of midnight is upon me. A great bell tolls in the distance as a thousand storefront security gates slam shut. A gate comes down around the apple, too, locking it forever beyond my reach. I stare at it with longing.
And as an all-seeing eye emerges on its surface—as though waking from an ancient sleep—the apple stares right back.
I imagine that by now nearly everyone in this room is trying to interpret this strange episode, trying to apply some kind of logic or symbolism to its bizarre events. Perhaps you’re thinking that the shopping mall signifies a consumer-driven greed, or that the thinning crowd of customers is symbolic of a growing sense of isolation. Or maybe you’re wondering if that crisp green apple represents a long-repressed urge to eat healthy food.
If these thoughts or others like them have crossed your mind, it’s probably because our first response to dreams is almost always to interpret them.
That’s because dreams are one of the few phenomena in our lives that we really don’t understand. They’re mystical and elusive, and that’s a combination that tends to make people very uncomfortable. Studying the science and psychology of dreams gives us a means to understand them, to put them in a box and label them, leaving them to be stored in the great warehouse of human achievement, right alongside sliced bread and the atom bomb.
And sleep researchers have indeed made great progress in understanding the neurological science of dreams. They’ve discovered that certain parts of the brain are, for all practical purposes, disconnected during REM sleep. The dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex and the precuneus, which collectively dictate our awareness of who we are, where we are, and what we are doing, receive significantly less chemical stimulation when we dream. This imbalance accounts for what we usually call “dream logic,” our casual explanation for the paradoxes that occur in our strange dreams. When we dream, we often find ourselves shifting from one identity to another in the blink of an eye, sometimes from a participant in a scene to a fly on the wall who looks down on it. Sometimes the scene changes altogether, without warning, and we hardly even notice. Our friends mingle with celebrities and characters from old books, and it seems perfectly reasonable while it’s happening. Black and white images burst with radiant color and fade back to gray. People behave strangely, and do things for no apparent reason at all.
When this kind of stuff happens in a David Lynch film, people call it “obnoxious.” When it happens in our sleep, we call it “dream logic.”
But while neurologists and dream scientists can account for the physiological angle of dreaming, while they can explain why we might feel detached from ourselves when we dream, the actual content of our dreams is another story. Scientists and psychologists and religious scholars have been throwing theories at one another for years, struggling to answer the question of why we dream at all. Some argue that the stuff of dreams is little more than a random collection of images that have taken hold in our minds throughout the course of the day. Freudian psychotherapists assert that dreams are manifestations of the subconscious, and that by interpreting them we can learn more about what makes us tick.
And for thousands of years, shamans, priests, theologians, mystics, and other religious authorities have claimed that our dreams are a gateway to another world, divine revelations that God shares with us while we sleep.
This mystical approach to dream interpretation is called oneiromancy, for those of you who like fancy words as much as I do. This esoteric art was practiced in Babylon, Greece, Egypt, Israel, and just about every other ancient civilization you can think of. The Egyptians engaged in something called “dream incubation,” wherein priests interpreted the dreams of those who slept in holy temples dedicated for this very purpose. Some of the Greeks believed that the sick could be healed if they invited Asclepius, the god of medicine, to visit them in their sleep. In a similar fashion, ancient Jewish Rabbis recorded a ritual for invoking Sar ha-Chalom, the angel of dreams, who would reveal secret truths to the ambitious dreamer.
So it comes as no surprise that dreams play a significant role in our scriptures. The biblical figure of Daniel is alleged to have interpreted the disturbing dreams of a Babylonian king, by which he foretold the rise and fall of nations. Just a few weeks ago we heard the legend of Jacob’s ladder, a story about how Jacob had a dream-vision while he slept and beheld a ladder stretching up into Heaven, surrounded by angels. The author of this story clearly had no intention of interpreting this dream as a cryptic manifestation of Jacob’s subconscious. The author had no intention of interpreting this dream at all—for Jacob, the dream was exactly what it appeared to be. It was nothing less than a chance to look upon Heaven’s gate with his own two eyes, as surely as I look upon you right now.
And then of course there is Joseph, who is a legendary master of dream interpretation. The scripture we just heard finds Joseph in an Egyptian prison, a short while after his jealous brothers decided to sell him into slavery. He’s locked up in there with the Pharaoh’s butler and the head of the kitchen staff, and he wakes one morning to find the both of them looking rather depressed. The reason for their sorrow, they tell Joseph, is that they both had these weird dreams the night before, and there’s no one who can tell them what they mean.
It’s not surprising that their dreams left them troubled. Studies in dream research have shown that anxiety is the single most common emotion associated with dreams. Typical dreams involve getting lost, falling from great heights, going back to school, failing a test, being late for an appointment, and being attacked by an evil force. I’m especially familiar with that last one. I once had a dream that my grandmother’s house was being attacked by an army of zombies and Imperial storm troopers from Star Wars, working together for some dread purpose that I can’t comprehend.
Maybe I do watch too many movies.
But if the butler and the baker are anxious about their dreams, they’re even more distressed by their inability to interpret them. They just can’t stand the fact that their lives were invaded by these mysterious images for which they have no explanation. They aren’t willing to accept these visions and the feelings they may have stirred up. No, they want to talk about it. They want someone to tell them what it all means. They want to convert the images into words. But like a great work of art, our dreams may hold more meaning than words can express.
I think Joseph’s first response to their situation is a good one. He says, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Or in other words, who are we to define these sacred visions? Who are we to determine their meaning?
Then Joseph goes ahead and interprets them anyway. “Please,” he says, “tell me your dreams.”
Well if Joseph can interpret visions, then so can I. So listen up everyone. I will now attempt to interpret my childhood dream.
You’ll recall that the dream took place in a vast shopping mall. But with its towering obsidian pillars, marble floors, and vast corridors, it looked more like some kind of temple. This is an interesting observation, if I may say so myself, as one could argue that as the center of commerce in a capitalist society, the shopping mall is in fact the holy temple of modern America.
You’ll also recall that I’m searching for something in this shopping mall, and I have a limited time to find it. And in the end, what do I find but an enticing apple seated upon a stone pillar. The apple is a distinctly theological symbol. Drawing on the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, dream interpreters have long suggested that the apple is a symbol of temptation. But if we take the religious imagery a step further, then it may symbolize the temptation of knowledge. After all, Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
So I’m in a holy temple searching for forbidden knowledge. Stay with me now.
You’ll remember that the dream ended when a gate slammed down around the apple, just as an eye opened up on its surface and stared me down. Again, dream interpreters often bestow a disembodied eye with religious significance, claiming that it could represent the all-seeing eye of God.
So I’m in a holy temple searching for forbidden knowledge of God. And just as I’m about to reach out my hand and take it, the gates all close. And all I can do is stare, filled with wonder.
If you’re thinking that I just arbitrarily interpreted my dream in such a way as to get a point across, then you’re very observant. Still, if I may say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good point.
Regardless of whether or not our dreams come from God, their mystical quality makes them a good metaphor for the divine. God is mysterious, elusive, unwilling to be seized, hijacked, or confined by logic.
Like our dreams, God’s love holds more meaning than words can express. And yet we are a religion of the word. Our Bible—unless you count the illustrated children’s version—is a collection of words. We celebrate our Lord Jesus Christ as the Word of God made flesh.
We like words, because they’re the expression of our reason. But reason will only take us so far. At some point we have to surrender to the mystery, even celebrate it, and stop trying to find a place for it in the unfinished puzzle. As the philosopher Pascal once wrote, “The heart has reasons of which reason knows not.” The heart has reasons of which reason knows not.
Maybe our dreams aren’t a product of the mind at all, but rather of the heart. That’s the part of us that loves. And maybe that’s the part of us that understands God the best.