There is nothing to make us dream in the times we live in. We do, however, have the Scriptures and in them, the trace of dreams that the word of God has raised, against all evidence.
I therefore offer some thoughts starting with two texts.
The first is the conclusion of a long oracle in the book of Isaiah, chapter 19.
The climax is verses 23-25, which I now read to you:
23 In that day, there shall be a road from Egypt into Assyria
and Assyria shall go into Egypt and Egypt into Assyria
and Egypt shall serve Assyria / and Egypt shall serve [the one God] with Assyria .
Two different translations can be given here, most scholars today opt for the second.
24 In that day shall Israel be third with Egypt and Assyria,
a blessing in the midst of the earth,
25 which the Lord of hosts blessed, saying:
"blessed Egypt, my people,
Assyria, the work of my hands
and Israel, my inheritance."
(translation by DG)
It is a road that has always been there, indeed there was more than one, but it was never travelled in the way Isaiah says: it was used for troop movements of the great powers of the time, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, from Mesopotamia to Egypt not for benevolent exchanges between peoples at peace and brotherhood; or it was barred by borders erected by successive states.
The boldness of Isaiah's vision also stands out if we consider the context: a proclamation of judgement against Egypt (vv. 1-15), is developed with five successive clarifications (the last two are our text), all introduced by the formula "on that day".
The succession of clarifications on "that day" stops only when it is discovered that the judgment is not the last word of God. The succession of specifications about "that day" stops only when the prophet sees the way that is not yet there, only when the unheard of can be said, namely that Egypt, Assyria and Israel will be united before the one God. This vision is thus interpreted, corrected or even surpassed by other words about Egypt or 'the nations'.
Our vision is extraordinary because in speaking of Egypt and Assyria we speak of great powers, already enemies of each other and of Israel, now becoming allies. Enmity gives way not only to good neighbourliness, but to a mutually beneficial relationship. It is an upheaval in geopolitics (then and now) that is announced here.
But it is not enough. Egypt and Assyria receive 'titles' hitherto reserved only for Israel: Egypt becomes - God says - 'my people' and Assyria 'the work of my hands'. Israel is "third" among these peoples, but retains its distinctiveness: "my inheritance". Indeed, in the vision of the three peoples pacified and united before God, God's promise to Abraham seems to be fulfilled: "in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (Gen 12:3)".
The road we have not yet seen, the road that not only the whole world, at all latitudes, most urgently needs, is the road that God knows and wants to build. God builds the roads we need most, the ones we not only do not know how to build, but the ones we dare not even dream of, or the ones whose construction sites we close or whose bridges we blow up. If we take these words from the Bible seriously, true realism is that which is oriented to the visions of God's word, which begins not with what is there, but with what God has in store for mankind.
The second text speaks of those who have come to dream. I read Psalm 126.
- <A Song of Ascents.> When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
- Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
- The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
- Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
- May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
- Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
(New Revised Standard Version 1989)
Remembrance results in joy for those who had lost all hope: the temple destroyed, the nation subjugated, many in exile. But now the temple is rebuilt, one can even return there on pilgrimage, and what we have heard is one of the songs of the pilgrims who return there full of gratitude. And of astonishment. It seemed an unattainable dream; now, seeing it fulfilled, one is as if dreaming. One can smile again, one can even speak and sing about it: 'our tongue was filled with joy'. The new reality does not go unnoticed even among the nations, everyone sees it: "God has done great things for them." All this gravitates around the memory of the past. The present only seems bright. Images come to mind, which we have all seen, of the joy at the end of the Second World War.
Yet there is a tension in this prayer. Indeed, it seems like a contradiction: one asks God to do what one described a few lines earlier as already accomplished. The Lord has already "restored the fortunes of Zion", he has already reversed a dramatic situation, Yet he is still asked "Restore our fortunes." He is asked to do so impetuously and suddenly. This is the meaning of the image of the 'torrents of the Negheb': they are wadis, steep and parched gorges for most of the year; when the rainy season arrives on the plateau, they suddenly fill with swirling masses of water, overwhelming everything.
On a historical level, the tension can be explained. The worst is over, but the problems are not over. What may seem like a contradiction is actually typical of the biblical way of speaking about God. Between the 'already' of the 'great things' that God has already done and the expectation, hope and even supplication that he will 'still' do 'great things', a 'field of tension' is created, and it is in that field of tension that the journey of faith unfolds, which is made up of memory and expectation, gratitude and supplication.
In this tension, if we know how to keep the memory of what God has accomplished and the vision of what is promised, the space of hope and responsible action opens up. It is all the more important for us today, who are crushed by an instantaneousness without memory and without vision, without history and without a project.