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The Dangers of Witchcraft

A Year In Genesis  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Dreaming With God

Joseph, interpreter of dreams and wearer of many-colored coats, has fascinated readers of scripture for thousands of years. Unlike his ancestors, Jacob and Isaac, Joseph seems to be faithful. He resists temptation and places his faith firmly in God. Yet, unlike Jacob and Isaac, Joseph is not one of the patriarchs. God does not choose one brother over the others to receive the promise. Instead, he carries out his promise through the lineage of all 12 brothers. So why focus in on Joseph? It is a peculiar choice, and we may not find an answer to the question.
Joseph, interpreter of dreams and wearer of many-colored coats, has fascinated readers of scripture for thousands of years. Unlike his ancestors, Jacob and Isaac, Joseph seems to be faithful. He resists temptation and places his faith firmly in God. Yet, unlike Jacob and Isaac, Joseph is not one of the patriarchs. God does not choose one brother over the others to receive the promise. Instead, he carries out his promise through the lineage of all 12 brothers. So why focus in on Joseph? It is a peculiar choice, and we may not find an answer to the question.
However, though he may not be a patriarch like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph is a very special man. He is a man who dreams dreams, and not just any dreams, but dreams from God. Now, there were many in Joseph’s own day who claimed to receive dreams from the gods. In fact, the interpretation of dreams was something that the ancient world took very seriously. Oddly enough, interpreting dreams was also something forbidden in the Law!
: Do not practice divination or seek omens. (NIV)/ Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. (NLT)
The New Revised Standard Version Ritual and Moral Holiness

You shall not practice augury or witchcraft.

The New Revised Standard Version Penalties for Violations of Holiness

A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned to death, their blood is upon them.

The New Revised Standard Version Child-Sacrifice, Divination, and Magic Prohibited

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD

Growing up, I can recall many of these same passages being used to warn me not to read Harry Potter! Witchcraft and wizardry is evil, according to scripture, so Harry Potter must be from the Devil himself!
This is very bad news for Joseph, because interpreting dreams fits very neatly into the category of “augury”, “divination”, “witchcraft”, and “wizardry”.
So what’s the deal? Why is it that Joseph is breaking the law, practicing the Devil’s magic, and yet still seems to be on good terms with God? And more importantly, as Halloween draws closer, can I watch Harry Potter this year and still go to Heaven?
Joseph still seems to be in God’s good graces, despite his delving into the arcane, and so this hints to us that there’s a little more to the story than “all magic is evil!”. I don’t hold any grudges against the people growing up who warned me to stay away from Harry Potter and Dungeons and Dragons, they were trying to be faithful to what they thought was in scripture. But, as it turns out, scripture is a lot more complicated sometimes. To understand why books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy ban magic, we should start by understanding what the ancient world thought magic was.
To put it simply, the kind of magic banned in the ancient world is very different from the kind of magic you’ll find at Hogwarts. Magic in Joseph’s time was a way to consort with powerful spirits, and even to gain control over the gods. Yes, powerful sorcerers were thought to be able to bend even the gods to their will, to use magic against them, to influence spirits, and change the outcome of divine decisions. Yahweh, the God of Israel, however, wanted to make it clear that no such thing would work on him. Spells, potions, and incantations had no hold over this God, and anyone who tried such a thing would find themselves facing a God far more powerful than the weak-willed spirits of pagan cults.
What makes Joseph’s “witchcraft” different is that he explicitly tells us that the interpretation of dreams belongs to God and God alone. Joseph does not attempt to interpret these dreams, but instead receives the interpretation through prayer. Both the dream and the interpretation were God’s, and not man’s. Through prayer and an openness to God’s spirit, however, Joseph was able to peer behind the veil and catch a glimpse of the dreams of God. And by such faith, Joseph was blessed with a vision of the future, a future incomprehensible to his father and brothers.
God had a dream of one brother rising above the others, and of all earthly things and even heavenly beings bowing down to worship him. A dream that no doubt was meant to foreshadow what would happen in Joseph’s own story, but also that foreshadows something greater even than Joseph. And yet, a dream that turned out to be quite different from what everyone expected.
But interpreting dreams can be a dangerous business without the help of God.

The Depth and Depravity of Sin

But interpreting dreams can be a dangerous business without the help of God. And that is why, when Joseph shares his dreams with his father and brothers, they become outraged:
The New Revised Standard Version Joseph Dreams of Greatness

6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

The New Revised Standard Version Joseph Dreams of Greatness

9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

You see, the brothers believed they understood the dream. And in trying to interpret the dream, the brothers tried to seize control of the future, to change the course of God’s own plans, to run the world according to their own dreams, and not God’s. A vision of having to serve another, after all, is a terrifying thing. It is that very aversion to servanthood that lead the first humans to rebel, and the whispers of the rebellious serpent continue to whisper in the ear of Joseph’s brothers still: “You don’t have to serve Joseph… You can be like God… You don’t have to bow down… you can seize control and make your own dreams come true.”
Here, at the end of the Genesis story, we see that humanity has not only listened to the serpent in the Garden, but has in fact refined the poison of that snake into something far deadlier. As Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him, and to cover up their foul deed, we can hear the echoes of Cain and Abel, and of Jacob and Esau, similar tales about brothers who have listened to the voice of the serpent and seen it tear their families apart.
As Joseph goes out to meet his brothers, they conspire to kill him:
The New Revised Standard Version Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers

“Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

And we might remember the voice of God to Cain so very long ago, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Now, however, in a twisted kind of irony, it is Joseph’s own brothers who sit crouching at the door, waiting to devour him. Reuben, of course, timidly suggests they not kill their brother, but throw him into a deep pit instead. Reuben hoped to sneak in after dark and rescue his brother Joseph. He hoped that he could avoid confrontation, and prevent his brothers’ evil scheme without having to really get involved. While he may have had the best of intentions, such a refusal to confront his brothers’ evil was cowardly. And killers of God’s dream will not be stopped by a coward!
So Judas and the other brothers threw Joseph into a deep pit. They stripped him of his robes. The robes that had once given Joseph status over the brothers are torn away, and Joseph is cast down from his lofty position. And, while the brothers did not go so far as to kill Joseph, they sold him into the bonds of slavery in Egypt.
Then, returning to their father Jacob, they pulled the same kind of trick on him that he had pulled on Isaac many years ago. The sons come before their father and lie, and in their treachery, they hoped to steal their father’s favor away from Joseph.

The Frailty of the Dream

Little did they know, however, that Joseph was not the only one they would throw into a pit that day:
The New Revised Standard Version Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers

Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.

When Joseph had first told his dreams to his father, Jacob “Kept the matter in mind”. While he outwardly rebuked his son, inwardly he pondered his son’s words. Somewhere in his heart, Jacob was hopeful that the dream might come to pass. Perhaps, like Mary, he pondered these things in his heart, knowing that he couldn’t quite understand what it might all mean, but holding onto hope in God nonetheless.
But now, such a dream was dead. How could God’s dream be realized now? Jacob is dealing with the worst kind of loss. Loss of his son, and loss of hope for the dream. At the sight of his son’s bloody robes, Jacob is forced to come face to face with the frailty of life, and the frailty of the dream. So Jacob does the only thing one can do in such a situation: he weeps and laments and refuses to be consoled.
As Jeremiah would write many years later:
Thus says the LORD:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
15 Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
What is Jacob to do in the face of such hopelessness?
because they are no more.

The Victory of God

While Jacob’s mourning is very real, fortunately, God does not leave the story there. The story immediately gives us a glimmer of hope in v. 36:
The New Revised Standard Version Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers

Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

Joseph has been sold into slavery in a far off land, but he is not dead. The sins of man have jeopardized God’s dream, but they most certainly have not destroyed it. Because God has a dream, a dream that will not be abandoned. A dream that Jacob’s sorrow will turn into joy.
As Jeremiah writes:
The New Revised Standard Version The Joyful Return of the Exiles

Thus says the LORD:

A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are no more.

16 Thus says the LORD:

Keep your voice from weeping,

and your eyes from tears;

for there is a reward for your work,

says the LORD:

they shall come back from the land of the enemy;

17 there is hope for your future,

says the LORD:

your children shall come back to their own country.

At the end of Joseph’s story, his brothers and his father will come to see that dream realized. They will, in fact, comet to bow down before their brother Joseph. The dream, however, still doesn’t turn out quite how they had interpreted it. In fact, it’s very likely that the dream doesn’t turn out how Joseph expected it either. Such is the way of God’s dreaming.
Which brings us back to witchcraft. It is, after all, a dangerous thing to interpret dreams. Because interpreting dreams tends to put boundaries and draw lines on what can and can’t happen. This is especially dangerous in so far as God’s dreams are concerned. Like Joseph’s brothers, we like to set boundaries on what God can and cannot do. On what God can or cannot dream. Yet, despite all the best efforts of man to kill God’s dream, God will always see to it that the dream becomes a reality. And, despite all of our best efforts, it is often the case that we have no idea the full extent of God’s dreaming until, at last, we see it realized for ourselves.
Such was the case with the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus. God dreamed a dream of a king to come and restore his people. And when Jesus, that king, finally came, God’s people had already attempted to interpret that dream for him. They had all kinds of ideas of what the Messiah could or could not do, of how God could or could not act. And when Christ revealed God’s dream of a Messiah that had not come to raise an army and overthrow Rome, but who had come to suffer and die on the cross, many found such a dream untenable and abhorrent. And they did all in their power to stop God’s dreaming. They stripped the robes off of the Son of Man, and they threw him into the dark pit of Sheol. Yet, despite all of their best efforts to control the dreams of God, when Christ was finally revealed risen from the tomb, many of those who had opposed God’s dreams found that God’s vision was far more beautiful and magnificent than they had ever imagined. And how foolish they must have felt for interpreting dreams.
As God’s plan unfolds, it is likely we will find ourselves in the shoes of more than one person in the story. We may share in the dreams of God, as Joseph did, or very often, we may stand in the way and seek to kill the dream, to make of God’s dream not what He wills, but what we will. And, occasionally, we may find ourselves in the shoes of Jacob, pondering it all in our hearts, not quite sure what to make of it all. But amazingly, the dreams of God don’t depend on the brothers, or the father, or even on Joseph. The dreams of God are at work all on their own. And even as Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, or Christ’s body is laid in the tomb, God has not given up on the dream.
Point/Counterpoint (i.e. this, but that)
B- The Depth of the Depravity of Sin
If/Then (i.e. if this, then that)
C- The Frailty of the Dream
Point/Counterpoint (i.e. this, but that)
D- The Victory of God
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