“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29)
When this text from Joel showed up in the daily devotional I’m using (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggemann) the words that jumped out for me were “your old men shall dream dreams.” I have been fairly successful at living in denial about my age, but somehow having my 74th birthday in October while recuperating from back surgery has made that reality come home to roost. So in this youth-oriented culture it felt good to see “old men’ (and I understand that generic term to include women also) included in this list of recipients of God’s Spirit.
Brueggemann offers this commentary on Joel: “The contemporaries of Joel are mostly prisoners of the present tense who cannot imagine life other than the way it is now.” He goes on to describe how Joel offers an escape from that imprisonment. “Joel’s poem tells otherwise! He anticipates a coming time when all sorts of people break out of such weary imprisonment. There will be prophecy, dreams, and visions, acts of imagination opening to otherwise…The news is that God’s intent has not succumbed to our precious status quo.”
That sacred use of imagination to help create a new reality free from the injustices of our present one is exciting and inspiring, but like the ice bucket challenge of a few year ago I was shocked back into my cynical self as I read on into the 3rd chapter of Joel. That whole chapter is a gruesome account of Yahweh’s revenge upon the enemies of Israel culminating with this exact opposite of the vision of Micah and Isaiah (cf my blog post from October 12 of this year, “Pacifism Put to the Test) when Joel, speaking for Yahweh says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weak say, “‘I am a warrior.’” (Joel 3:10)
I knew those words reversing the vision of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 were in Joel, but I had not remembered that they came immediately after the hopeful words in chapter 2. My heart sank as I realized that immediately after Joel’s promise that everyone would dream dreams and see visions come a whole chapter where Joel is a prisoner of the present, to use Brueggemann’s phrase. Joel is trapped in what President Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex many centuries later. The whole cycle of revenge escalating into more brutal mayhem has been a recurring nightmare throughout the history of humankind.
We justify our self-destructive reliance on our primal instincts by citing “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” from the Hebrew Scriptures, but what most of us don’t realize is that those words in Leviticus 24:19–21 and Exodus 21:24 were meant to set a limit on revenge so the punishment fit the crime rather than seeking to do the most damage possible on ones foes.
And just as the Levitical law was an improvement over previous moral codes, so Micah and Isaiah and other prophets in every generation have dreamed ever better dreams and visions, culminating in the life and teachings of Jesus who lived out his vision of God’s peaceable kingdom even when it meant sacrificing life for a greater truth and reality.
But because of human nature every generation must make its own escape from the prison of the present tense. As God’s children we are so much better than the quagmire of hate in which we are currently living. God’s spirit is upon us now just as it was in Joel’s time, and that means all of us of every age and every gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and nationality can still dream dreams and see visions of God’s reign where we will beat those swords again into plowshares, put away our nukes and learn war no more.
As I write this I am reminded of these words from a prophet for our time, John Lennon that still speak to this old dreamer:
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”