Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive

People throughout the ancient Mediterranean believed that the divine spoke to humans through dreams.

Such was the experience of the young woman, which brought images so vivid, a conversation so easily recalled, that the sights and sounds etched on the mind and memory were never to be forgotten. Whether she was asleep or awake is indeterminable as it was recorded later; the experience was so vivid in her sleep as to be unquestionably real or so dreamlike in her wakefulness as to not be doubted. When the event happened, day or night, winter or summer, month or year, is unknown, unimportant. It was an experience not bound by the normal rules of time. How long it lasted, and whether it was continuous in one or several series of moments, is irrelevant to the experience, to the overwhelming truth that the message contained, both for her and for others. People of her time and of the past had had similar experiences, as she well knew, from hearing stories told or listening to the scriptures being read. She had learned that messengers came and spoke to royalty and commoners alike. So sure were people of her time that such messages were divine, that kings sought out whoever could explain their dreams; some people had that art, soothsayers and prognosticators, experts who could read divine messages in the flights of birds, the arrangements of the stars, the shape of the liver of a sacrificial animal. She had no need for such expertise. Her experience was sufficient to know it was a messenger, one who came from God.

Strangely, in recollecting the experience, she did not describe the messenger save for his name, Gabriel, which means man of God, or strength in God, which was precisely what the girl, Mary, would require to fulfill the requirements of the message. It was an ethereal messenger who spoke to Mary, a messenger without form, merely the spoken word or thoughts, powerful enough to bring about a change in the girl, to cause her body to shutter in the presence of God, to hear more carefully the words spoken, to know for certain what was said to her in her mind.

            She was no one in particular, merely a girl, a virgin, daughter of commoners, illiterate and ignorant as were most such people two thousand years ago. At the same time she was exceptional, unique, one favored by God, selected by Him for an important role, a service for all humankind. Her purpose in life, like all girls and women of her time, was to marry and bear children, if she was so fortunate; few women questioned such a role, it was what their mothers and grandmothers had done, and what their daughters and granddaughters would do. To have a mate and have a child was as natural as to sleep and eat, to live and die. And yet the dreamlike message she experienced, which told her that this was her destiny, which was neither exceptional nor out of the ordinary, was forcefully put, a message of an imminent occurrence, something that could not be delayed. She was a virgin. And yet, she was to have a child. Her dream turned out to bear a divine gift.

            Modern philosophy and science are uncomfortable with the presence of God in any venue, much less the womb. What should be considered the most inviolable place has been violated and penetrated time and again to destroy the most sacred of all things, life. Great thinkers, such as Sigmund Freud, who saw God as the figment of the collective imagination, the product of psychic yearning for completion and love, are aware of no true unity with the divine, in or outside of the womb. Other great thinkers, such as Karl Marx, believing that biological demands precede consciousness, that before awareness is hunger, subject humans to the overwhelming dominance of time and place. Yet, ironically, now and in the past humans have engaged in an unending search for the divine, the discovery of which, it is thought, will yield answers to the many perplexing questions confronting humankind. Great have been the number of philosophers who ask the questions all humans ask and propose answers fit for their time and place. Rather than finding humility in the elusive search for truth, thinkers wallow in the hubris of knowing. All the while humans face the abyss of ignorance.

Dreams invite acceptance of the unreal, something outside of oneself. Individuals in any culture at any time feel an overwhelming need for completion, sense a pull from a transcendent other. What Rudolph Otto called the numinous was the dazzling light that blinded Paul of Tarsus; the child’s voice that responded to Aurelius Augustine’s agonizing question; the austere, universal presence of the One that so captivated Plotinus and his disciples Porphyry and Julian; the oneness that Siddhartha Gautama experienced in the rushing water of the river of life; and the fear and awe that Moses knew when standing on holy ground before Yahweh. All of these religious experiences involve particular people at particular times seeking, sensing, reaching out for, receiving, and accepting, the transcendent.

            The greatest threats to modern society in the third millennium, Anno Domini, are not overpopulation, hunger, disease, terrorism, global warming, and war–although these are pressing problems to be sure. Rather, the modern scientific worldview of purposeful objective thought is destroying the subjective, intuitive awareness of the numinous and transcendent that humans have sensed for countless ages. The individual’s sense of self is a casualty in the secularization of knowledge that has occurred during the past two centuries. Impersonal social and economic forces rather than life are the great agents of change. Reason and science have overwhelmed intuition and art; the subject who intertwines oneself with the object of inquiry is condemned as biased and prejudiced; personal religious beliefs have no place in scholarly endeavors. This secular, objective trend is, perhaps, a mere aberration in time. The period from the structured urban lifestyle that began in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago to today is comparatively brief in the history of humankind. The age of modern science since 1500 is on the human time scale just a fleeting moment. The transcendent and the transient, the subjective and the objective, intuition and reason, have been united from the beginning of humankind.

            Mary’s betrothed similarly received a dreamlike visitor, a messenger bearing a gift, who asked of him to accept what he did not understand, to abide by a will larger than himself. Joseph, a simple man who worked with his hands, not a great thinker or exceptional leader, rather a person content to listen and abide, dreamed of God’s messenger telling him to accept a destiny that would have otherwise been abhorrent to him. Betrothal to a virgin implied she would be untouched until marriage, that her womb was reserved for his seed. Joseph dreamed, however, that Mary was pregnant and that her womb was inviolable and sacred and that he must accept the child as his own. He awoke to a new reality that he acted upon with confidence in the truth. He transformed his entire life according to a message he received in a singular, inexact moment of time.

            Joseph was a Hebrew, a Semite, a descendant of people who had migrated from ancient Iraq, Mesopotamia, west to the land of Canaan, what in time became Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea. The Book of Genesis describes the transformation of these Semites into Hebrews by focusing upon the story of a man, Abram, and his wife, Sarai, nomadic herders who followed a divine call to journey to a distant land. Like other Semites, Abraham and Sarah and their people continued to feel the terror of the unknown, but their fear was mitigated by the realization of a God who cared for them, who was Himself Fate, who controlled all things, and who could circumvent the laws of nature should He so desire. This identification of self with God grew more sophisticated with the passing centuries. We find in Exodus Moses discovering a God of law and deliverance called simply, “I Am Who I Am.” Who precisely this God is and what are His powers and interest in humans is made specifically clear in the writings of the Psalmist David, king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah from 1000 to 961, Ante Christos. David, at the same time a warrior, murderer, adulterer, and conqueror, was also a poet and singer of extraordinary talent and sensitivity, whose Psalms express the epitome of piety and anguish, love and torment.

            David’s poems are ironic expressions of faith in an all-powerful God even as evil torments and controls the poet. David discovered the dreamlike existence of continually being seduced by some force, some spirit, something strangely in yet outside himself. It was there to counter whatever felt good, those pleasant feelings of life, when things appear right, more than adequate, and nothing is better than a peaceful smile and soft sensations of contentment. It was a fleeting sensation, this intrusion into constancy and order, this violation of satisfaction and happy thoughts. It pierced well-being. It distracted normalcy. It penetrated into a deep well of abandonment, fear, distrust, envy, selfishness, anger, and lust. It found the weakness of his being, the entrance in time of corruption, the fleeting path to what is not real, the moment when fantasy, indolence, hunger, dissatisfaction, and the corporeal reign. It was not right yet it felt good. It was wrong yet just for a moment it was allowed. Evil triumphed. But only in the passing moments. God triumphed over the timeless, the transcendent feelings and experiences that overwhelmed the singular instance of evil.

            God, Yahweh, transcends the moment by speaking in a timeless fashion. Sometimes his words are profound, as to Moses. Usually they are indirect, as to Elijah, when he heard God whispering to him. Sometimes the voice of God is found in the wind. The Hebrews discovered that God often speaks subtly, as through dreams. Elihu, in the ook of Job, proclaimed that God’s word comes to humans “in a vision of the night,” and He tells them of His plans, and dissuades them from their’s.

Many Hebrew prophets were experts in dream interpretation. Joseph the son of Jacob became the powerful adviser to pharaoh after providing an insightful interpretation of the Egyptian ruler’s dream. After failing to find his own dream prophesiers able to explain his perplexing dreams, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar employed Daniel, who provided the correct interpretation. The Hebrew prophets heard the voice of God in singular and transcendent moments, either when awake or asleep, and responded like Isaiah, who declared, “the Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.”

            Isaiah, learning of God’s plans, even predicted that at some point in time, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” God is with us.

(The above passage is taken from Metamorphosis: How Jesus of Nazareth Vanquished the Legion of Fear, available at Amazon:

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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