Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni.

Joseph, a truthful “interpreter” of dreams, speaks (and gives freely).

‘God will also predict something good for Pharaoh.’ ‘You say God,’ Amenhotep investigated. ‘You’ve said that several times. Which God do you mean? Because you come from Zahi and Amu I suppose that you mean the bull of the fields, the one that is called Baal, the Lord in the East.’ Joseph’s smile became more reserved; he shook his head. ‘My ancestors, the dreamers of God,’ he said, ‘made their pact with another Lord.’ “Then it can only be Adonai, the Groom,’ the king said quickly, ‘for whom the flute cries in the ravines, the god who rises again.” (Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers)

21 Joseph, interpreter of dreams

There are many different types of famine. We are passing through the greatest famine of dreams that human history has ever known. It is the famine of dreams produced by this solitary and individualistic capitalism which is a very serious form of poverty, because while the lack of bread does not exhaust hunger, if we deprive ourselves of the dreams we end up not feeling their absence anymore; we get used to a world of wishes that are more and more choked by goods, and soon become so poor that we become unaware of this poverty. How is it possible to dream of angels, heaven, the great rivers of Egypt, when we fall asleep in front of the TV? For big dreams you should fall sleep with a prayer on your lips, or wake up with a book of poems open on your chest that watched over your sleep.

Although innocent, the young Joseph found himself in prison, thrown again to the bottom of a “pit” (40:15). That prison, however, also became the site of the full bloom of his vocation, the one that had been announced to him by the prophetic dreams of his boyhood. Those early dreams got him to Egypt as a slave; the dreams that he interprets now in the land of the Nile will be the road that will make his great youthful dreams come true, and they will help him find his brothers who sold him and his father. It is in a prison where a new phase in the life of Joseph begins, the decisive one for himself and for his people (it is not uncommon for a “prison” to become the place of the beginning of a new life). In that “pit”, from the teller of his own dreams Joseph becomes the interpreter of the dreams of others. As a boy he only told the story of his dreams, but did not interpret them. The pain he felt over being hated and sold by his brothers, becoming a slave and then being imprisoned helped him mature and discover his own self. And in the crucible of suffering and injustice he discovered his vocation: he became a servant of the dreams of others.

In that prison there were two senior officers of the court with him: the cupbearer and the baker of the pharaoh (40:1). And ‘they both dreamed’ (40:5). The next morning ‘Joseph came to them (…) he saw that they were troubled. So he asked (them): »Why are your faces downcast today?«  They said to him, »We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.«‘ (40:7-8). The two officers tell their dreams to Joseph and he interprets them. Only those who have dreamed and had the courage to tell their dreams can decipher the dreams of others. Because of a paradoxical law that is at the heart of many high things of life, the best interpreters of dreams of others are those who have suffered the most because of their own dreams.

To have dreams and not to find somebody who can interpret them is a great cause of unhappiness for those who, despite the famine, dream on – there are still many, especially in the countries with the lowest GDP and the richest dreams, dreams that soon will also produce wealth. Dreams are always serious things, but the decisive ones are our “daydreams”, those that we call projects, aspirations, desire for liberation and justice, desire for the future and for happiness, the ones that make us glimpse our place in the world. The dreams of yesterday and today, however, need interpreters, someone who knows how to decipher the contents – or else, those dreams will die away. These interpreters are always important, but they are fundamentally so for young people, living the age of great dreams.

Joseph begins to interpret dreams as a gift to his two fellow prisoners: ‘Joseph said to them, »Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.«‘(40:8). The “good” interpretation of dreams is that which arises from gratuitousness, and not the one made for profit (‘Do not interpretations belong to God?’). The reason for the scarcity of good interpreters of our dreams lies in the essential need of this gratuitousness. They are a rare gift, but not extremely rare. “Spiritual guides” belong to this precious human category, they are the people who listen to and interpret our dreams and signs. The good interpretation of dreams is requested and given free of charge, as a gift. It’s not a job, and if it becomes a job it is not good.

The interpretations that Joseph gives those two dreams are very different: for the chief cupbearer he predicts liberation, for the chief of the bakers he announces death – as it later happens, too. The moral value of an interpreter of dreams is measured by his honesty, that is, the ability and the courage to tell even those interpretations that we do not want to hear. There have been and there are still too many fawning interpreters who tell us only the interpretations that we like to hear. Sometimes misinterpretations may also come from honest interpreters who do not have enough courage and love in themselves for this – even if the charisma of interpretation of dreams dies out if it is not nourished by the suffering of difficult interpretations. I have met young people whose lives were made very difficult, at times even wrecked by bad interpreters of their dreams, who, facing the obvious signs of a vocation different from that which the young man thought he had did not have either the honesty or the courage for a true interpretation; and so instead of exposing them to the pain of that hard truth, they manipulated the dreams and fed illusions, disappointments, frustrations, unhappiness to those young people. Trusting a manipulator of dreams is more damaging than the death of a dream for lack of interpreters.

After two years, the pharaoh, too, had a dream. ‘(…) he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them … And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows.’ (41:1-4) And Pharaoh woke up troubled; went back to sleep and he had another dream: ‘(…) seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears.’ (41:5-7). ‘The two dreams disturbed the pharaoh’s mind so much that he sent “and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.’ (41:8)

At this point there comes a narrative turn in the story. The chief cupbearer, to whom Joseph had interpreted the dream two years before, remembered him. He spoke to the pharaoh, who in turn sent him for Joseph. Joseph immediately reveals the key to the understanding of what is going to happen, and the nature of his task: “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer.” (41:16) We are facing a crucial time and era: the end of the age of diviners, soothsayers, magicians, and the start of the time of prophecy. Here Joseph becomes the first prophet of Israel. In fact, in this reading of the dream of the pharaoh we find the essential features that distinguish an authentic prophetic interpretation from the products of diviners and false prophets of all times. This prophetic interpretation is given as a gift and freely, because it is an exercise of the charisma that the “prophet” receives, it is not his artefact nor a technique learned in any school. It is a gift that must be accepted and believed in by its recipient in order to perform his function. It always leads to action and change.

Our society is full of for-profit advisors and it is increasingly inundated by magicians and horoscopes, but it desperately lacks good interpreters of dreams – and those few that we have are neither sought nor listened to, and thus they are at risk of extinction due to the lack of demand. That pharaoh, however, believed the interpretation/prophecy by Joseph, and acted accordingly. ‘There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land [the thin cows and ears that eat up the fat ones]’ (41:29-30). And so Joseph continued, ‘Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt … (to) take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years.’ (41:33-34).

Famines of the “thin cows” do happen. These famines, sooner or later, end of course, although sometimes at a great cost. The famines of dreams, however, do not end by themselves. They end only if, at a particular point, we decide to learn to dream again. It is not impossible. We have been able to do it after endless and unspeakable times of misery: after the wars and dictatorships, after the fratricides, after the death of children. We wanted to begin to dream again, together. So we listened to the poets, saints and artists who were able to interpret our new dreams. We prayed and cried together, recited their poems – our poems – and sang their songs – our songs. This is the only way individuals and peoples are reborn and resurrected.

Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck.’ (41:42).

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 06/07/2014