by Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 290-27, 1989, p. 1195. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Dreams have fallen on hard times in our jaded world. We should be grateful that a previous age preserved their legacy in Scripture.
In the lectionary reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Ahaz declines to ask God for a sign lest he put God to the test and thus be guilty of what Scripture elsewhere denounces as spiritual presumption. God answers by saying that if Ahaz will not ask for a sign then God will give him one (Isa. 7:10-17) , which must have knocked the wind out of Ahaz’s sails. It turns out that Ahaz’s modesty is a pretext for avoiding responsibility.
When does our own sound religious conviction become a denial of religious responsibility? This is not the same problem T. S. Eliot describes in Murder in the Cathedral whereby a religious person arranges circumstances so as to obtain personal vindication, thus using the greater cause to serve the lesser. Rather, it has to do with a piety that plays on the proper theme of creaturely subordination to God in order to escape deeper forms of obedience. Keeping to God’s side may thus require our contravening a faithful norm.
Ahaz needed to return to the barracks, as it were, and continue to place himself under superior command. If he will not ask for a sign, then God will give him one. Ahaz learns that Scripture’s injunction not to press God for a sign (e.g., Deut. 6:16; Ps. 78:18, 41; Mal. 3:15; Mark 8:11; Acts 5:9, 15:10) is itself subject to the One whose word it is. Ultimately only God can answer to God, and Ahaz cannot deny that without committing a grave act of disobedience.
Whereas in Isaiah, Ahaz is merely told about the extraordinary sign by which God would redeem the people, in Matthew 1:18-25 the sign comes as a lucid dream of instruction to Joseph, who had not asked or been prepared for one. The difference between the auditory command in Isaiah and the dream experience in Matthew is significant. Many prophets received their oracles during dreams: God came to Abimelech (Gen. 20:3) and to Laban the Syrian in a dream (Gen. 31:24) ; Joseph is the prince of dreams (Gen. 37:5,41:1 if.) ; God appeared to Solomon in a dream (I Kings 3:5) ; Nebuchadnezzar was instructed in a dream (Dan. 2:1) ; Jeremiah asks prophets to testify if they have been given a dream (Jer. 23:28) Dreams and prophecy were intertwined; it was impossible to do the work of a prophet without doing dream-work, and true dreams established the prophet in the office of prophecy. When a dream is particularly intense it becomes a vision. Thus was Abraham chosen for his vocation (Gen. 15:1) and thus also did God’s word come to Samuel (I Sam. 3:lff.) Job describes graphically how when he flees to his bed for relief, God pursues him with tormenting dreams and visions:
When I think that my bed will comfort
that sleep will relieve my complaining,
thou dost terrify me with dreams
and afright me with visions.
I would rather be choked outright…
[Job 7:13-15, NEB].
Dreams and visions deny Job escape rather than, as we moderns like to think, offer him one. For Job, to dream is to hear a voice other than his own; for us, to dream is to set a personal agenda. The day was still far off when dreams would be seen as the psyche’s projection. In a passage close to the sentiment of Proverbs 29:18 ("Where there is no vision the people perish") , Job says:
In dreams, in visions of the night,
when deepest sleep falls upon men,
while they sleep on their beds, God makes
and his correction strikes them with terror.
To turn a man from reckless conduct. . .
and [stop] him from crossing the river of
death. . .
This sentiment finds numerous parallels in African Christian literature. A standard prayer addressed to dead ancestors reads: "We who are here, whatever we commit, please reveal the same to us in a dream. May God give you power to send a message in a dream to warn us against anything whatsoever we may be doing so that we do not miss our way. The Greek historian Herodotus speaks of similar practices among the Nasamonians, who kept vigil at the graves of their ancestors to incubate dreams of guidance and instruction.
These beliefs are reinforced by parallel texts in the New Testament, including the Advent lectionary readings. The Gospel account, for example, stresses how the spirit of God intervened twice in the events leading to the birth of Jesus, first to invest Mary with the child, and then, in what must have been an extraordinarily delicate mission, to persuade Joseph to play faithful husband and rescind his divorce proceedings. That dream saved the church from having to choke on a prickly stigma. Without it Christianity might have become nothing better or worse than a scandal-ridden movement, but with it we receive word from an unimpeachable source. "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him" (Matt. 1:24)
Job speaks of retiring to bed to look for rest and instead, in dreams and visions, finding a God who will not let go and let us be. Through the turmoil of tussling with this God, Job learns in dreams and visions to let God be God. That message belongs with dreams, channels of God’s power. Through the Christ child, God gave us proof of God’s self-anointing. We are, by extension, an anointed people, called to abide the dream of Immanuel ‘s coming.