My last two posts here have sparked a lively discussion on what dreams mean in the Christian story, and how Christians are sometimes confused about that. Back to basics. I want to review very briefly what the Gospel according to Matthew tells us about how dreams kept the infant Jesus alive.
Four dreams, in just one chapter.
Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the Magi] departed for their own country. Matt 2:12
Now after they departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “Rise up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod seeks the child, to kill him” Matt 2:13
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying,“Rise up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for the ones seeking the life of the child’s life have died.” Arising, he took the child and his mother, and entered into the land of Israel. Matt 2:19-21
But having heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid . And having been warned in a dream, he departed into the district of Galilee and settled in the city called Nazareth. Matt 2:22-23
The Greek word for “dream” in each of these passages is onar. It is a word that was in common circulation in the Hellenic and Hellenistic world for many centuries before Christ, universally understood to mean a vision seen in sleep. Later in the book of Matthew, it is used to describe the dream of Pilate’s wife that led her to warn him not to harm Jesus.
For those who maintain that the Bible means what it says, the message is surely clear. Through night dreams, the Magi – the wise men from the East – were guided not to deliver baby Jesus into the hands of the tyrant king who meant to kill him. Through a dream, Joseph was guided to take the holy child and Mary into safety in Egypt. Through subsequent dreams, Joseph was instructed that it was safe to return to Israel – but not to Judea, where Jesus was born. The testimony of Matthew, read literally, is that the Jesus was spared to fulfill his mission because of a series of dreams. And that dreams may be visitations by messengers from a deeper reality..
This is not a message for one time, but for all times. Rembrandt saw that clear; we can feel the shimmer of his angel’s wings. Whatever our belief systems, the message of Matthew is that dreams give us a direct line to the sacred, and can even save our lives.
The translations here are based on The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament but correspond closely the best-known versions of the New Testament.