Then the LORD came down in the column of cloud, and standing at the entrance of the tent, called Aaron and Miriam. When both came forward, he said, “Now listen to the words of the LORD: Should there be a prophet among you, in visions will I reveal myself to him, in dreams will I speak to him.
Pharaoh then said to Joseph: “I had a dream but there was no one to interpret it. But I hear it said of you ‘If he hears a dream he can interpret it.'” “It is not I,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God who will respond for the well-being of Pharaoh.”
We need to learn three things about prophecy in the Bible before we get to the Book of Revelation:
1. It needs to be interpreted;
2. it reveals its message to some people while concealing it from others;
3. and it has multiple layers of true interpretation and multiple true fulfillments.
Today we will learn from Joseph about point #1: Prophecy must be interpreted.
Open your Bible (or click here) and read Genesis 41, the whole chapter, then come back to this post.
There are some important things to notice about this event.
First, Pharaoh is able to receive the vision and to know that it has a true prophetic interpretation—but he doesn’t know what it is.
Second, God gave the gift of the vision to Pharaoh, but He also willed that Pharaoh would have to seek out someone else to whom God had given the gift of interpreting it.
Third, had Pharaoh remained on the surface and decided that the vision was warning him about cows that eat other cows, he would have interpreted the vision wrongly—and Egypt would have perished. Interpreting the dream in a superficially literal way would not have been more faithful to the prophetic vision, nor would it have been “playing it safe” to interpret it thus. It would have meant error, disaster, and ruin. Only with Joseph’s help was Pharaoh able to learn what it was that God intended to signify with the strange symbols of cannibalistic cows.
Fourth, the correct interpretation makes sense, but only once it has been explained. No matter how smart or learned Pharaoh and his wise men were, they still could not have figured it out. It is not simply that their science was inadequate because they lived a long time ago; it is rather that natural science is itself inadequate to figure out the God who radically transcends nature.
History tells us that the Egyptians were very interested in figuring out dreams and kept records of them for that purpose, and we might even concede that they could provide rationally satisfying interpretations of dreams from time to time. We might suppose that there are some consistent things about human psychology that make dream-symbolism consistently reflect the dreamer’s subconscious thought, so an empirical approach like the Egyptians’ might have discovered some of these, allowing ‘magicians’ to extrapolate reasonable guesses about the meaning of a dream, even if they didn’t know why it worked. Or we might suppose that the magicians were right sometimes because demons occasionally intervened to make some of their superstitious practices appear to work. But if the dream is not a product of the dreamer’s mind but truly a message from God, with a meaning decided on by God in accord with conventions devised and chosen by God, then the true interpretation will not be known unless God gives it, as Joseph testifies (Gen 40:8).
Notice that this is completely consistent with the nature of divine revelation. God does tell us some things that we could have figured out on our own, like the precepts of the natural moral law. However, he also reveals many things that human reason cannot discover unaided, like the truths of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Once they are revealed to us, we can see that they make sense. But we could not have deduced them on our own from our natural knowledge, no matter how advanced our natural science or philosophy might be.
How can we apply these lessons to the Book of Revelation?
First, anyone who can read can read the Book of Revelation. But not everyone who reads it knows the right interpretation immediately.
Second, the prophetic vision and the interpretation of the prophetic vision are both gifts that are God’s to give, and he gives them to whom he wills. He often gives them separately, as he gave the vision to Pharaoh but the interpretation to Joseph. Just because God gave St. John both the vision and understanding of the vision, does not mean that we will understand the vision right away.
Third, we see the wisdom of the Catholic Church in insisting that the prophetic visions of the Book of Revelation must be interpreted as symbols. A hyper-literalist interpretation, even though motivated by a certain sort of reverence for the text, actually obscures the true meaning of the vision and denies access to the mysteries by remaining on the surface of the words.
Fourth, the right interpretation makes sense, but we can’t figure out the full message by brains and research alone—it has to be given by God. We might receive it through someone else to whom God has given it. This means that when we don’t know, we should pray to God to be given insight into the mystery and not be too afraid or too proud to accept guidance from God’s holy Church and the great authorities of the Tradition.
Reginald Arthur, Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh’s Dream