Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Pharaoh's Dreams and Layers of Meaning

One of the things that I love so much about the Catholic approach to Scripture is the acceptance that there are layers upon layers of meaning to be found. This is very well illustrated when Joseph is needed to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Until I read these comments in the Catholic Scripture Study I never would have connected the famine in Pharaoh's dreams with man's condition waiting for Jesus, the "Living Bread" but it makes a definite connection. This is long but worth reading.
Pharaoh's dreams are given in great detail and repeated several times in chapter 41. The net effect of the repetition is to focus our attention on them. "Notice the details!" it fairly shouts.

But why? What is there to notice, other than the fact that the dreams warned Pharaoh of an economic downturn that would wipe out all memory of prosperity and potentially wipe out the population? Wasn't it just a setup, so Joseph could be brought into power?

This is a good time to remember that there are layers of meaning in Scripture, and that understanding the literal meaning can be a springboard to illuminating a deeper spiritual sense. In this case, Pharaoh's dreams and the state of Egypt they represent gain significance when we realize that they are in microcosm a picture of the condition of mankind after the fall. We gain profound insight into the way Joseph saves Egypt by seeing it as sign of the way Christ will come to change that condition.

Man has always been tempted to see his condition through the eyes of the Serpent. "Thou shalt not die!" he hissed -- and we would like to believe that. But in writing history, God wove in pictures and events that prove otherwise: choosing to go our own way was like eating a poisoned apple that causes death. Lest we doubt that one man's sin affects everyone, He showed us that the entire world is as if drowned in a great flood due to sin. Now in Egypt we see that after an initial period of bounty, sin has sucked the life out of the world until the plenty is forgotten and the whole world is in danger of starving to death.

Each story carries its own hint of the way help will come. In the Garden is a Tree whose fruit will give everlasting life, if we could only gain access to it. God's curse on the Serpent carries with it a further hint, that one day a woman and her seed will bring about a reversal. The New Testament reveals that Jesus is both that Tree of Life and the son of the Woman. Out of the flood, God brought one man to establish a new family on earth, just as later one man, Jesus, would conquer the floods of death and establish a new family. To save the world from famine, God sent Joseph, the beloved son of the father of God's people, to offer "grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea- [that] could not be measured." The people cried out for bread and he fed the earth out of his unlimited supply that they might live, and not die. Joseph is a type of Christ, the beloved Son of God, who offers abundant life to all who come to him to be fed.

Returning to Pharaoh's dreams, it is significant that other than the account of the flood, which signifies baptism, all the major pictures of man's condition and the solution to come (the fruit in the Garden; the famine and grain; and later manna in the wilderness, bread from heaven, the feeding of the 5,000; etc.) are couched in terms of food. For what is it that gives us life but the food that Jesus provides, His Body and Blood? As we read in St. John's gospel: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6:51). As Catholics we take in this new life every time we eat the host at Mass. As the Catechism so aptly says,
"... when the faithful receive the Body of the Son, they proclaim to one another the Good News that the first fruits of life have been given.' Now too are life and resurrection conferred on whoever receives Christ." What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life. Communion with the flesh of the risen Christ, a flesh -- given life and giving life through the Holy Spirit, "preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism." (1391-2)
All quoted material is from Catholic Exchange's "Catholic Scripture Study." See the sidebar under "Bible Study: Genesis" for links to references used.

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