Matthew 2:13-23, Joseph’s Obedience

The World We Live In

[December 29, 2013] This is the last Gospel text of 2013 by which we “remember” Jesus on the Lord’s Day as we break bread together. It is the famous passage on Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. It wakes us, like nothing else would, from our idyllic childish fantasies about Christmas. The world into which the Son of God was born was not only one of lowing cattle and rustic shepherds and ornate wise men. It is a political world where those with power and money and guns are afraid for themselves and destroy the families of the poor, the lives of women and murder children. It is a world of insecure and manic men where children not only interrupt their affairs but are perceived as a threat to their lifestyle. The cold-bloodedness of this story shocks us out of our Christmas reveling.

Doubtless our return to our false childhood memories of Christmases past—with a tree inside the house lit up with ornaments and lights, piled underneath with gifts brought by a jolly and rotund Saint Nicholas who arrived on a sled pulled by flying reindeer—encourages the association of Christianity with childishness and the imaginary world of children. Christianity, we think, does not breathe the same air of reality in which adults live. When adults go to church they regress back into children: they stop thinking for themselves and wait for a Hallmark moment of inspiration to come or to be assured that everything is alright and their uneasy conscience is cleansed. But a Syrian monarch who rips infants from their mother’s and puts them to the blade because he secretly fears that he can lose his hold on political power—this sounds particularly modern.

Oh, we picture a raving lunatic of a man, someone whom we do not ordinarily meet, and therefore this story seems to be either a fictitious picture or something from the ancient past, something with which we do not have to deal. Yet we are told, quite perceptively, that Herod was not alone in his fear of the Child, but “all Jerusalem with him.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel it was the people of Jerusalem that collaborated with the Romans on the death of the rural Jesus for fear that their urban style of life might be interrupted by the “new thing” that this young man seemed to want to bring in. “All Jerusalem with him”: it was not the king only but the “society,” the people who benefited from this king’s reign.

In the United States there are people who benefit from wealthy people’s indulgence in greed to the point that the children of the poor, and often their single mothers, are cut off from the most basic necessities of life. Heaven forbid that the rich should contribute back to the society that made them so rich. Their money is their own; they earned it (by the sweat of their underpaid laborers)! And the middle class collaborate, because they do not think anyone should have to pay tax. Head Start programs are defunded as are many other programs targeted for poor children, even as we continue to market frivolous products for the children of the rich and middle class. Oh yes, we like to look at cute pictures of happy children, and to give a few dollars to benefit Third World children whom we see in the images of appeals. But social benefits for poor mothers and their children, such as food stamps and unemployment, are cut off or defunded or decreased, and “Christian” folk cry out that the poor should work for their food when there is no work available and childcare is unaffordable. To help them, we say, is to “enable” them! (Imagine Jesus saying something like this!) The threat of the holy Child to our selfish life-styles raises into our sight our own evaluation of children, how insignificant they are and inconvenient. We turn on the children because we secretly hate the Child who by identifying with them, sanctifies them.

Yet, I fear, God has little patience for our self-centeredness. Herod dies. Oil peaked fifteen years ago. Global warming is unaddressed (and even if it were, it would take twenty years before we could see any impact from our repentance). It is only a matter of time before the great American dream will crumble for the rest of the middle-class as it has for the poor. The rich unfortunately will continue to protect themselves, even though they too are vulnerable to death and disease and the suffering of their loved ones. Not all the rich are selfish. Some manage their wealth with a tremendous sense of responsibility. They, however, only show that the others could do the same and do not, that the others have no excuse for the way they are. If some of the rich have a conscience, there is no reason others cannot. If wealth makes certain immune to their conscience, they nevertheless are evil. “Affluenza” is a condition, not an excuse.

This is the world we live in, not the world of the Christmas pageant. A world that does not love children and those who take care of them—unless it can indulge its own fantasies and alleviate its guilty conscience (because it has no time for children) by buying for the little ones things and more things. Those who are not so poor overprotect their children and insist on molding them—even as we expose them to every kind of crap on television and the internet—as if they were symbols of some part of our own selves that has been lost. Yet we cannot pay attention to them; we cannot listen to them as if they too were real. Our love of our own children is narcissistic and not real; and so we cannot love other people’s children. We do not mourn when they die, or we identify only with their imaginary parents.

The Dreamer

Yet overlaying this harsh reality is Joseph the dreamer. He too is real, and apparently so are his dreams. His namesake, Joseph of the Book of Genesis, was also a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. And it is because Joseph is a dreamer that Jesus has any sort of future. It is because Joseph trusts his dreams that Jesus does not die at Herod’s hand.

We easily dismiss dreams as being irrational, the waste product of excess day-thoughts. They are often about nothing, senseless images or sexual fantasies. Or so we suppose. Yet dreams have a language of their own, the language of our imagination, the language of our unconscious, and that language speaks to us (our conscious selves). If we understood this language, it would make sense, and it would have a respectable rationality of its own. For, as psychoanalysis has long known, dreams speak the language of semiotics, making abstract things concrete, and often enable us to work through things that otherwise are too intangible. Far from being senseless and irrational, they actually make a great deal of sense. Far from being mere waste products of our “productive” mind, they actually are intended to speak to us and give us back our sanity.

In Matthew 1:20 the angel of the Lord (the messenger of YHWH) appeared to Joseph in a dream and spoke to him. When Joseph awoke he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took Mary into his home as his wife instead of divorcing her as he had contemplated (v. 24). In 2:12 the wise men (the magi) were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod—probably as magi they could interpret dreams—and they returned to their own country by a different route. Now the angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph in a dream with the urgent message, “Get up, take the Child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the Child and do away with him.” So Joseph got up and, taking the Child and His mother with him, left that very night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead (2:13-15). Then, after Herod’s death, the angel of the Lord appeared to him again in a dream when he was in Egypt and told him, “Get up, take the Child and his mother with you and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up and, taking the Child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel. But when he realized that another Herod (a son) ruled over Judea (where Bethlehem was), he was rightfully afraid to go there. Again, he was warned in another dream, and in response to the dream he withdrew to the region of Galilee where he settled the family in the town of Nazareth. Matthew recounts five dreams that directed the life of those around Jesus, dreams that protected them and Him. He was a helpless Child, at the mercy of adults, and it was because these adults, especially Joseph—adults that trusted their dreams—that he was protected and lived.

In the ancient world dreams were very important. Some people, such as Aristotle or Cicero, had a biological understanding of dreams that is very modern. They are simply traces of waking thoughts; mere illusions. If so, this undercut their role in divination. Their only useful function was in medical diagnoses. This view, however, was not widespread.

For others, dreams, while hallucinatory, might yet contain useful information—for the mind is still active even when one’s body is asleep—and can even have an enigmatic foreknowledge of the future, if their ambiguous images can be properly deciphered. The soul in sleep has a sympathetic connection to the body and therefore dreams can convey certain medical conditions. Sometimes, in our dreams, we solve difficult problems the solution of which eluded us when we were awake. According to Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), God may manifest certain “diviner things” to select people while they dream (such as the ancient Pharaoh or the prophet Daniel), while, in the theory of divination, every individual soul is interrelated sympathetically to the collective or universal soul, as the microcosm is to the macrocosm (more on this in a moment).

For others dreams were considered quite real. For one thing, you can tell that you are dreaming by waking up; but you cannot tell that you are awake by falling back asleep. It is almost as though waking and dreaming partake in the same sort of substantiality. One has a waking body and one has a body when dreaming (a “dream-body”). In one’s dreams one’s waking life seems quite unreal, but one’s dreaming life seems quite sensate: it is the reverse from when we are awake.

They are not, of course, the same. When you dream, you leave the community of the awake and enter a private world in which anything can happen, and where one can converse with the gods (and angels and demons) and with the dead. One is inside the world of one’s own soul. Yet it was also believed that we share that world in common with others. Although the soul has constructed its own world, it is a world that has an independence from the individual and in which people can actually communicate with each other or where figures in one’s own dreams can cross over into other people’s dreams. See, for example, Augustine’s City of God 18.18, written in the early 5th century.

Everyone believed in the existence of certain beings—demons, angels, aions, or spirits—who functioned as mediators of a larger supernatural world. They are everywhere, but normally only certain people are able to establish contact with these beings. Dreams, however, are the means by which everyone has access to these powers. It is the place where the boundary between “heaven and earth” is most permeable. People thought either that these beings made contact with them or that the “dream-body” travelled to meet these beings. In any case, one has access to the reasoning power of the gods (or of the Stoic’s Fate: “the pervasive governing principle within whose purview all life unfolds”), and therefore can learn about things which in waking life it is quite impossible to learn. The gods see causal links between things that we cannot see. In dreams they may reveal these connections to us to help us interpret our waking lives as we live them. By enabling us to see our particular lives in the context of a universal cosmic structure and its flow, the mediators in our dreams help give our lives meaning.

This is similar to the theory behind the ancient divination practice of the I Ching or the modern (18th century) divination practice of Tarot Cards. In the context of a practice such as Jungian psychology, there may be some use for these. When used fatalistically, for example, in the way a horoscope is typically read, or without proper self-examination or guidance, it can have a power of suggestion that is harmful. We may unwittingly be surrendering to harmful powers (“demons”) that are lodged in our unconscious.

In any case, I think there is a great deal of merit to this way of viewing dreams, though we would like to put it in the terms of modern psychoanalysis and the collective subconscious instead of the supernatural. If we are going to retain the category of the “supernatural,” it needs to be demythologized and intellectualized, and thus understood within an integrated worldview.

In the case of Joseph, the angel (or messenger) of YHWH visits him repeatedly and, in each case that we are told of, communicates vital instructions for him to follow. Philo (a 1st century Jew of Alexandria) used the image of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12-16) to describe the role of angels connecting the realms of heaven and earth, the ladder (or the staircase) being the soul itself upon which the angels descend and ascend in constant motion. By this means they conduct the soul on its heavenly journey. In fact, for Philo this movement of angels is indistinguishable from dreams themselves, and also from the “divine word” that guides the soul. Apocalyptic writers also saw angels, dreams and the heavenly journey as interconnected phenomena. For them, however, an angel appears to the dreamer and they converse, the purpose of these visitations being the communication of ethical standards and rewards (or punishments) in which the angel almost represents the dreamer’s “higher” self. Moreover, such writers saw such dreams as public property, the interior world that they conveyed being common to all. Among Jews and Christians angels were not the only visitors in dreams; demons also came to deceive or dement us (evincing a dualistic Zoroastrian influence). Dreams are thus “a way of figural thinking in which images give tangibility to our sense of what really matters.” David Miller (quoted by Patricia Fox Miller) says that “angels as images are the differentiation of being.”

Dreaming is part of the soul’s imaginative activity, Synesius said. “Imagination is the basis of consciousness; it is a ‘halfway house between spirit and matter, which makes communication between the two possible’” (Patricia Cox Miller quoting Jay Bregman). By means of the dream we probe the depths of the visible. As Synesius said, “a dreamer does not return to earth upon awaking; he is already there!” Dreamers are not fleeing from themselves or the world, but delving more deeply into both.

This discussion of dreams is based on Patricia Cox Miller’s book Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), especially chapter two.

In Joseph’s dreams, the angel of YHWH visits him and directly instructs him what to do, even giving the reason why. It is not any ordinary angel that visits him but the singular “angel of YHWH” who accompanied Israel through the wilderness. We often assume that this angel is Gabriel because this is the name of the angel who appears to Zechariah and Mary in the Gospel according to Luke. Gabriel was one of the seven angels who stand in the presence of YHWH. Perhaps he was the same angel, but Matthew does not tell us this. Daniel seems to presume that Michael is the angelic “prince” of Israel, and Jude speaks of Michael disputing over the body of Moses. Matthew, however, makes no attempt to assign the angel a name.

For him, the important thing is that the angel who directly represents the concerns of YHWH appeared to Joseph as one who has a particular interest in the Child. To say “the messenger of YHWH” is to say that YHWH appeared to Joseph Himself and the dream-image by which YHWH represented Himself was the “angel” or messenger, since YHWH cannot appear directly (YHWH has no image). When YHWH appeared to Moses in the burning bush, this was also called the angel of YHWH (and so in other places). In Joseph’s dream the angel communicates to him the immediate danger the Child is in, a knowledge of which Joseph was not and could not have been consciously aware otherwise.

The same mediation of YHWH by means of a dream-image is what communicated to Joseph that he was to take Mary home as his wife and to adopt her Child as his own and to name Him Jesus (Joshua). The “angel” communicated to Joseph something that could not have been humanly ascertained.

While some “angels” may be an image that represents our higher self (this is supposed in Gnostic and Mormon angelology: see Harold Bloom’s Omens of Millennium), the angel that appeared to Joseph transcended this (in contradiction to these alternative theories), as would only be appropriate for an angel that announces the Incarnation. The Incarnation was not the incarnation of a higher being into human form; rather it was the assumption of createdness (in a particular creation) by the Creator of all, or the assumption of time by the eternal One. It was not a question of degrees, as in Arian theology, but rather the orthodox paradox of absolutes—in a rather Kierkegaardian sense, that is, without a Hegelian synthesis.

Our Dreams

There is much more that can be said about dreams and our “heavenly journey” and about angels and our “higher self,” and even about the communal aspect of all this. According to Jungian psychoanalytical theory, our dream-bodies do not go away when we awaken but continue to interact with each other without our conscious awareness. Some theorists surmise that our collective consciousness may actually be a whole (or holon), that is, it may itself be a single consciousness (much as the individual cells of our body, while each independently alive, together may a single organism), or contribute to the single consciousness of Gaia (the earth), which herself may contribute to the consciousness of Sol (the sun, as part of its solar body). This is speculative, of course. It may seem far-fetched, but it is not philosophically or scientifically out of the question. Matthew Fox (a theologian) and Rupert Sheldrake (a scientist) together theorized that such higher consciousnesses may in fact be angels, whose images visit us in visions and dreams. The semiotics of such dreams and visions would still need to be properly interpreted, of course, as the ancients already understood (and which is what psychoanalysis attempts to practice). Perhaps, however, this gives too much substance to the ancient theory of the macrocosm (which is reflected in and interacts with every microcosm; consider also the Chinese Dao), or perhaps it merely substantiates it. In any case, I find it all interesting.

God, however, in a Christian understanding, takes us well beyond this. All our thoughts about angels are still speculations about creation. Created things are not unrelated to God (they are univocal) but, while God is inclusive of time and space, all is instantaneous in God and without distance; God is moreover free from their limits and indeed beyond any sort of categorization, and therefore necessarily inconceivable. God is (ist) at once absolutely immanent and absolutely transcendent with respect to the creation, and yet God also exists (ex-ists) in time and space, in our own substance (our time and space, and substance, is God’s own). Hold all three of these thoughts together. When we speak of the Incarnation, it is of this God that we speak. This God has become human, God’s own creation, by “entering” creation as a Person. (This is another abstract concept that needs unfolding.) Here we are face-to-face with the Christian paradox.

Still, what about our dreams? If I have said anything so far, it is that our dreams are important and say important things to us. If God communicates with us, there will be a resonance in our imaginations and dreams, and therefore faithfulness to God requires that we honor that resonance. Our Christianity can be all in our minds, our discursive reasoning. But here we are easily deceived. The mind rationalizes. Our thinking needs to find a more holistic way, where our thoughts become effective tools or our spirit and body, and integrate what is in our heart with other people (persons) and the living environment of which we are a part, and the world with which we must interact.

Our “visioning” then cannot genuinely take place without our free imagination and especially our actual dreaming. Such visioning may put us in touch with what the Holy Spirit is doing in us and among those with whom we live or will be living. Being thus “in touch” may be the way to go forward without wasting our lives.

Jesus’ Experience

Joseph, like his namesake, went to Egypt. As the Joseph of the Book of Genesis brought his family there to live, so did Joseph the father of Jesus. Egypt was a real place. Yet these movements also had symbolic value. In the text of Matthew’s gospel, geography is both real and symbolic, and Matthew uses it to organize his story.

Jesus went to Egypt like Jacob, and His family joined the community of Jews that had been there since the days of Jeremiah. When He returned to “the land of Israel,” the land of the promise, He returned as Joshua and became the “Branch” (Netzer) prophesied by Isaiah. In the next chapter He will go to the Jordan, as Joshua did, and take the people into the Promised Land—as He is baptized in identification with them and pronounces the Blessing (the Beatitudes) on His disciples.

The journey to Egypt and back again is very symbolic, then, for His role as the Joshua who leads the people into the Promised Land. He does not lead them into the Promised Land, however, without Himself entering into the depths of identification with their sin and suffering. Though Jesus Himself did not suffer in Egypt, His stay there symbolized the identification with suffering humanity that was His life and death.

We must not forget, however, that He was brought to Egypt because of the oppression of His people. When Herod killed the little children of “the little town of Bethlehem,” imagine the confusion, fear and pain that the children experienced and the heart-break and trauma of their parents. Matthew does not give us the graphic details (thankfully, for they would be too much to bear). Instead he quotes Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah”—just outside of Bethlehem where Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, was buried—“lamenting and weeping bitterly: it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” In Jeremiah 31:15 Rachel weeps for the northern tribes (of which Joseph and Benjamin are part). Here she weeps for the children of Bethlehem. She laments and weeps bitterly and refuses to be comforted. There is no comfort for this kind of injustice. The death of Jesus does not make it go away. His resurrection from the dead does not make it go away. There is no retribution that will bring them back or make things better. Nor is there any replacement that can replace the loss of loved ones. God can forgive the murderers, but the children and parents still went through what they did and it cannot be undone.

This is the world into which Jesus has come. It is the world with which He enters into deepest sympathy and love. He becomes the victim of this world and suffers as an Innocent at its hands. He becomes what those children in Bethlehem became. His mother suffered what their mothers did. All these things happened because the powers—in the one case Herod, in the other case Pilate—felt their power threatened by this Harmless One. When Jesus rose from the dead, this evil was not undone and did not stop. Innocents are still slaughtered. Children are still murdered. The world has in many ways become a better place, without a doubt, because of His message of inclusiveness and nonviolence. But it has not become a better place because of who He is. In many ways the world has become a worse place. It was the infighting of Christians with each other that paved the way for the rise and spread of Islam and the violence that followed, and still follows, in its path. I pray, and Moslems the world over pray, for this to change. In some ways it is Jesus’ own followers—the “crowd”—that threatens the world and perpetuates injustice. His colossal Presence in the world has cast this dark shadow that is undeniable, a shadow with its own evil and that justifies every kind of evil. It was inevitable that the Light should cast this kind of shadow, being that the world into which He came is so evil to begin with.

Joseph did what he could. He protected the Child and His mother, and by his quick and immediate response to the insights he received in his dreams, he enabled God’s work in the world to go on. Jesus grew up for a few years with the Jews of Alexandria, whose influence may have continued with His family for the years to come, and then grew up in Galilee, a multilingual cross-roads of cultures from East and West where Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles mingled. Galilee may have been rural but it was hardly cut-off from the urban life of Jerusalem or its own Hellenized towns or the “civilized” life of Rome and Persia. Jesus grew up there as the Son of Joseph, a man who was a practical businessman and a carpenter (an artisan and craftsman) but also a dreamer.

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