I was teaching 30s-40s adult Sunday School several weeks ago, studying the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and we were discussing how God speaks to man today. The expected answers came first; God speaks through His word (the Bible), He speaks through other people (the pastor, trusted Christian friends and family), and He speaks through circumstances (opening some doors to opportunity and closing others). These were all good answers, but none of them described how He spoke to Jeremiah in that chapter. The Weeping Prophet heard the word of God through visions and through the Lord speaking directly to his heart. I asked how many heard God in those ways and the room fell silent.
Does God still speak through dreams? Does he speak through visions? Did He ever? Sigmund Freud and modern naturalists would say no, that dreams are the product of the swirling mass of id and ego, or other psychological and naturalistic forces, within each of us. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God spoke through dreams and visions to men and women in the Old and New Testaments. Which is true?
Genesis 41 describes a pivotal moment in Biblical history, the story of Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph’s interpretation, and his subsequent rise to power in Egypt. Without God’s providence in this event, the nation of Israel never would have been formed. What would have happened if Pharaoh had ignored his dream as a result of indigestion or a repressed childhood, rather than a message from the gods? What would have happened if Joseph had been a typical sycophant, imagining an interpretation that would sound good to Pharaoh and get him out of prison? We will examine the key passages in Genesis 41, discover what they meant to the original audience, gather the key points which are applicable to us today, and apply these points to life in 2012.
The original meaning of this chapter is the straightforward interpretation of the passage, and we can see how those involved interpreted the story by their actions. Pharaoh interpreted his dream as a bona fide message from his god(s). Joseph also interpreted his dream as a message, but from Jehovah, not from one of the false gods of the Egyptian pantheon. Ancient priests in Egypt had dream interpretation manuals which would help them interpret dreams but those trying to help Pharaoh found no help in their books.
The theme of this passage is simply that God speaks to man, and that it is important for man to listen. Though Pharaoh did not know the Lord, He told Pharaoh what He would do in the future so that he could prepare Egypt to become the salvation and the incubator of Abraham’s descendents. Pharaoh listened and responded appropriately.
Joseph knew the Lord and God told him the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream and the right plan to mitigate the effects of the famine for the same purpose, to save and grow the Hebrews, the people of the Lord. Had either man failed to listen, the sovereign Lord of the Universe would still have accomplished His purposes but Joseph and Pharaoh would have suffered the consequences of their failure (cf. Esther 4:13-14).
Pharaoh and Joseph lived in a cultural and religious context in which few doubted that God speaks to man. We live in a context in which anyone who says that God speaks to him is greeted with raised eyebrows at best and guffaws and anger at worst. After centuries of skepticism regarding the Bible and thousands of charlatans over time peddling self-aggrandizing falsehoods ostensibly from the mouth of God, it is little wonder. As a result, few believe that God actually speaks to man in a way that can or should affect his day to day life.
Even if a modern Christian believes that God speaks to them, we usually limit the ways in which we allow ourselves to hear the message. When the Lord speaks through the special revelation of the Bible, whether studied or heard in a sermon, we might listen. When the Lord speaks through the wise words of a trusted family member, friend or pastor, we might listen.
When the Lord speaks through the general revelation of His creation, we might listen. Or we might assume that since natural phenomena are a result of generally explainable physical forces, they can’t be a message from God. Is a rainstorm during a drought a gift of God and an answer to prayer, or is it a natural event caused by physical forces? Ancient Hebrews would say “both.” Modern Americans might say “only the latter”. With such an attitude, the Creator could be shouting at us through His creation, but we couldn’t hear it because our assumptions would prevent it.
However, when the Lord speaks in His still, small voice to the spirit of man, we think that “a thought popped in our head.” When He gives us a dream, we find it amusing or annoying but without significance. When He gives us a vision, we take an aspirin and go to bed. These forms of revelation can be deceiving to be sure, but can’t any form of information be manipulated by our wicked hearts? We must ask ourselves, are dreams, visions and the “still, small voice of God” always less reliable than the means that followers of Jesus more commonly accept? Have not believers been led astray by false teachers distorting the Bible? Haven’t we all seen preachers who spoke deception from the pulpit? Aren’t trusted Christians occasionally wrong, or even deceitful?
The Lord spoke to His instruments with dreams and visions in the Old Testament and the New Testament and there is no reliable evidence that He does not do so now. Rather, the words of faithful Christians suggest that He has done so since the beginning of the Church. Guided by His Spirit, we must weigh each message we receive, checking it against the Bible, the words of trusted advisors, our experience, God’s revelation in nature, and the tradition of faith. The Bereans in Acts 17:11 are a fine model. Then we must humbly discern what is from Him, pray for guidance, and obey. Only then will we become like Christ.
Hoffmeier, James K. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008.
Lower, J.M. “Dream.” In Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, by Merrill C. Tenney, 162-164. Grand Rapids: Regency, 1976.