The Wise Men's Dream
January 8, 2023
What do Gideon and the three wise men have in common?
Well, just as in the story of Gideon, it is the same with the account surrounding the first few weeks of Jesus' birth in Matthew, chapters 1 and 2; we read the stories and enjoy them so much, but we can tend to overlook the rather significant importance that dreams played in the lives of the people involved.
Gideon received great courage from hearing a dream that a Midianite soldier was recounting to one of his friends in the enemy camp . Upon hearing the dream as well as the interpretation of the dream given by the other soldier, Gideon knew without a doubt that this dream was from God. So sure was he that God was actually speaking through this dream that he had no hesitation in leading his army of a mere 300 men against an "army as thick as locusts" (Judges 7:12). He thoroughly believed that they wouldn't be annihilated by the enemy, leaving behind many widows and fatherless children but that they would have a great victory, thereby bringing freedom to his people. This is how much weight he put on the dream - a dream given not to the children of the covenant put to a pagan soldier! The stakes were very high, but he and his men believed the word of God and they did in fact win! Gideon became one of the greatest judges in the history of Israel. (Please click on "Gideon's Dream" to find out more about this dream.)
When the three wise men came into Jerusalem asking where "the infant king of the Jews" was, this made quite a stir amongst the inhabitants of the city (Mat. 2: 1-2). These men were very clearly unbelievers from another land, but they obviously had some knowledge of the Jewish prophecies of a messiah that was to come. They also seemed to know that he had in fact been born because they said they had a seen a new star rise in the sky.
When King Herod heard all about this, the scriptures say that he was "perturbed" because he was, of course, very concerned about the news of a new child king who might rise up against him and take his place. In fact, it also says that the whole of Jerusalem was perturbed. Who were these strangers, these unbelievers, and how could they even know that a new infant king of the Jews had been born? And how could they, the chosen people, not know?
Herod therefore had the wise men summoned to him in a private interview. They told him all that they knew and Herod revealed to them that according to the prophecies, the child would be in Bethlehem. Herod sent them on their journey but asked them to come back to him and report all that they had seen so that "he too could go and do him homage" (Mat. 2: 7-9).The three wise men continued on to Bethlehem and were rewarded in their search when they found the child Jesus with his parents. We all know that part of the story very well and as Catholics, we honour its beauty with the feast of Epiphany.
And then come those two little lines of scripture. My New Jerusalem bible says, "But they were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way." (Mat. 2:12), but the King James bible and a few other translations say, "But God warned the wise men in a dream". Now isn't that an interesting development? The scriptures are very clear that this dream was definitely of divine origin. God spoke to these three men not through a word of knowledge or through the agency of human beings or even of angels, but He chose to speak a word of warning through a dream! He warned them not to go back to Herod and told them to return to their country by a different route. Once again, we see God speaking not to the Children of the Promise, but to three pagan men. Good and wise men, but pagans none the less.
In believing that God was speaking to them through a dream, this meant that their obedience to God's directives would oblige them to disobey the King's direct wishes, an action that was very politically incorrect and perhaps dangerous. They were in a foreign land and Herod, as king of that land, was said to be quite ruthless, murderous and a dangerous man to cross. But they had given such weight to the dream - such as Gideon did - that they were willing to risk the wrath of Herod. We are told that they did in fact return home by a different way, without going back to see Herod.
There is a bit of mystery in this whole passage with the three wise men. We aren't told how they came to know about the prophesied messiah or how they knew that the new star that had risen was actually the sign that proclaimed the birth of this messiah. We don't know if only one of them received the dream or if all three did. But what we do know is that God the Father protected His son Jesus by entrusting a task - given through a dream - to three unbelievers. Because these men didn't go back to report to Herod, this gave God a bit more time to also speak to Joseph in a dream, instructing him to leave immediately for Egypt with Mary and Jesus. God the Father knew what was coming. He knew that Herod's wrath would be unleashed and that he would eventually command his soldiers to slaughter all the newborn. So we see that through the obedience of the magi and through St. Joseph's obedience, Jesus, our Messiah and Redeemer was able to fulfill the mission that he'd been sent for; namely, the salvation of the whole world.
God will sometimes give us a dream that will have a great amount of weight attached to it and, as with every dream, our first task is to discern if the dream really, truly is from God. Once we have established that it is indeed from Him, the next vital step is to take the time to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help us decipher the message. And after we've prayed and received revelation about the meaning of our dream, we then have a responsibility to respond to the message by acting upon this word from God.
Our heavenly Father wants to guide us, protect us and lead us upon the right path at all times, but there are certain times when the stakes are quite high for ourselves or for our loved ones, and our obedience to the guidance in the dream could literally be a matter of "life and death".