by Father Mike Stubbs
A psychoanalyst might interpret a dream to help a patient arrive at a better self-understanding. The dream might reveal deep-seated desires or fears.
On the other hand, we ordinarily do not examine our dreams to learn something about the outside world. For example, we would not use a dream to trade on the stock market.
Several thousand years ago, though, it was a different story. People believed that dreams often bore a message from the gods. The ancient Egyptians employed specially trained professionals to interpret their dreams. The pharaoh kept several on his staff.
This Egyptian interest in dreams explains the important role dreams play in the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers (Gn 37-47). Joseph succeeds in interpreting the dreams of the royal cupbearer and baker, as well as the pharaoh himself. Joseph’s skills as a reader of dreams enables him to rise in political power and to save his brothers and his father from starvation.
But Joseph does not only excel in interpreting dreams; he also himself receives dreams which contain messages from God.
The Joseph of the New Testament, at least as described in Matthew’s Gospel, also receives messages from God by way of dreams. We see a good example of that in Sunday’s Gospel reading. Mt 2:13-15, 19-23. A dream warns Joseph about Herod’s murderous intentions toward Jesus and advises him to flee with his family to Egypt. When the danger has passed, another dream instructs Joseph to return home. A third dream specifies that they should settle in Galilee. When we remember that the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent mentioned an earlier dream explaining the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, that brings it to a total of four dreams for Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel.
Dreams link the Joseph of the New Testament to the Joseph of the Old Testament. That connection is further strengthened by the flight into Egypt of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Just as Egypt served as a place of refuge from famine for the family of the Old Testament Joseph, so also Egypt serves as a place of refuge for the family of the New Testament Joseph from the terrors of King Herod.
Matthew’s Gospel clearly draws a parallel between the Josephs of the Old and New Testaments. But what point does Matthew wish to make?
Matthew is primarily interested in making a statement about Jesus. His discussion of Joseph serves as a means to that end. Matthew draws a parallel between Jesus, the child in the New Testament Joseph’s family, and the family of the Old Testament Joseph, which is the nascent people of Israel. Joseph and his 11 brothers, sons of Israel, which make up that family, are the forefathers of the 12 tribes.
Just as Israel was saved from famine by taking refuge in Egypt in the Old Testament, so now Jesus is saved from Herod by taking refuge in Egypt. Jesus is the new Israel, the people of Israel personified. Just as God related to Israel in the Old Testament, so now God relates to Jesus, as a loving and compassionate father.
In the Old Testament, God calls the people of Israel his children: “Thus says the Lord; Israel is my son, my first-born” (Ex 4:22).
Now, in the New Testament, God once again claims Jesus as his son.
Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.