Have you ever had a recurring dream? I had one for several years as a youngster. It was inspired, I still believe, by an episode of a TV show I had watched in which a young boy and his collie dog felt threatened by a lion running loose around their home. In my dream, I too was suddenly alone—sometimes in a pasture, sometimes in our house—and would hear a lion’s menacing growl. The sound kept getting closer and louder until I was sure the lion was ready to pounce or break in the door. On the verge of screaming for help, I usually would wake myself in startled terror. Eventually I stopped having the nightmare, but the memory of it clings to me to this day.
We often use the word “dream” in one of two ways. The first way refers to what is described in the opening paragraph: a series of thoughts, images, and sensations that occurs in a person’s mind during sleep. The second way refers to mentally envisioning—and perhaps even working toward—a situation or outcome that a person wants to happen. When people speak of “the American dream” they are using the term in this second way.
In the Bible, dreams could have yet a third, deeper purpose. Sometimes God communicated to people through dreams. Joseph was one of those people. Joseph was the patriarch Jacob’s favorite son among his twelve sons; he was the firstborn child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. Joseph quickly became known among his siblings as “that dreamer” (Gen. 37:19, NIV). The brothers did not use that label with fondness either. They took exception to what they viewed as Joseph’s self-honoring dreams. And they vowed that one day they would turn Joseph’s dreams into nightmares for the young man.
Joseph’s dreams provoked intense jealousy among his brothers. Joseph had two dreams to be exact. But both dreams appeared to reveal the same message. First, he dreamed of a large grain field in which he and his brothers were tying stalks of grain into bundles. Suddenly Joseph’s bundle stood up. His brothers’ bundles also became animated; they gathered around Joseph’s bundle and bowed down before it! I can just imagine Joseph impishly asking his older brothers, “Guys, what could this dream possibly mean?”
Joseph’s second dream featured grand celestial characters. Can you hear Joseph explaining the dream to his parents and eleven brothers? “There was the sun, the moon, and—let’s see: one, two, three—yes, eleven stars! And guess what? They were all bowing down to me. (Not to my grain bundle. Not to my star. To me!) What ever could this mean, family? Hmmm. Could God be telling us something important? Needless to say, after Joseph’s second dream his brothers were hopping mad and bitterly jealous. Their hatred and jealousy kept them from even considering the possibility that God might well be giving the family a hopeful message about the future. All that the brothers could see was the nightmare of having to put up with “Daddy’s favorite.”
Joseph’s dreams took an unexpected and scary route to fulfillment. Both of his dreams seemed to foreshadow an amazing future for the young Israelite. Joseph would one day become a ruler. Yet, he would not have wanted to dream the details of how he would arrive at that position. That would have been the stuff of nightmares! His brothers would plot to kill him, yet later choose a different action: selling Joseph as a slave to traders heading for Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph would be sold to a high-ranking official, serve him well, but later be falsely accused of attacking the man’s wife. Joseph would languish in prison for at least two long years. Yet, it was while he was in prison that Joseph, through God’s providential help, received the opportunity to eventually rise to second-in-command in Egypt. Out of nightmares, his dreams came true!
God brought Joseph’s dreams to fulfillment through His providential care and eternal purpose. The biblical writer made clear throughout Joseph’s story that the Lord God was with the young man in the good times and in the bad times. Joseph experienced some of the worst treatment imaginable, but he was never alone. God blessed Joseph and even used his nightmares to prepare Joseph for a life of leadership and greatness. A higher purpose was at work—God’s redemptive purpose. As Joseph would later say to his repentant brothers, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people” (Gen. 50:20).
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.