Medical research tells us that when one is dreaming, that person is experiencing REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) which is a deep sleep that allows for dreaming. But long before medical research, we find that in ancient history many cultures found that there was something special about dreams. For example, in the Bible dreams were ordinarily a sign of revelation.
We don’t know if Joseph knew that was in REM sleep when he had the two dreams discussed in Matthew (2:13-15, 19-23,) but he was well aware that the dreams were revelatory. One dream had him going “into” Egypt” and the other dream told him to “come out” of Egypt. Since both dream accounts end with a reference to the peoples’ Scripture–the TaNaK (Old Testament), we can understand Matthew’s reference since his audience was predominantly Jewish. It was Matthew’s idea to point out that the TaNaK and his Gospel were sonehow linked.
In the first dream, Joseph is told that King Herod of Judea is going to kill Jesus, because the Magi told Herod that they learned from the stars that in Bethlehem was born the “king of the Jews.” Herod could not stand competititon for his kingship, so he decided to slaughter all male children two years old and under. Joseph was told in the dream to take Mary and the child Jesus and go to Egypt.
This was the context for the subsequent return from Egypt and Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1, “…and out of Egypt I have called my son.” Even though Hosea and Matthew lived centuries apart, this citation indicated to both that God loved his “son” especially in the midst of danger. This was the theological concept acceptable to the two of them. But, for Hosea the “son” was the people Israel and the gift of salvation was the Exodus.
And for Matthew, the “son” was Jesus, and the gift of salvation was freedom for Jesus to go to Nazareth and prepare for his public ministry. Both Hosea and Matthew believed in the same theological concept but expressed the word “son” to fit their particular faith expression. The second dream to return to Israel is problematic because the Old Testament citation, the so-called “prophecy,” is nowhere to be found. Matthew must have had other resources, but his purpose of relating the two testaments is the attempt to bring about continuity.
What can we learn from Joseph’s “dream revelations?” Amid the many possibilities one stands out prominently for me, namely, the “dream revelation” itself. What do I mean by that? Well, we know that dreams are subtle. “Subtlety” has a way of being real without our having planned the result. Joseph’s dreams were subtle, but he was able to interpret them correctly because his mind and heart were open to God’s revelation. This is due to the relationship that existed between Joseph and God.
This reminds me of the word “Providence” as it refers to God. Things happen to us, often in a subtle fashion, and we are not certain of the motive for the original choice. I may do something, be it due to the comments or behaviors of certain people, or the resurgence of a past idea. So, I make the choice corresponding to my faith commitments and so become responsible for what follows.
I remember a definition of “providence” that made an impression on me. “Providence is a series of accidents where God is speaking to me.” Now that is subtelty. Consequently, the lesson that we can learn from Joseph is to make sure that we have an open mind and heart to listen to God’s voice however and whenever it comes. For that to happen, a definitely positive relationship with God is necessary. What is keeping us from having it?