Prophetic Dreams and Visions in the Hebrew Bible by Susan Niditch

Dreams and visions in the ancient Near East offered insights into everyday realities or provided opportunities to transcend them by connecting the earthly and otherworldly, the lived present and the unknown future. They predicted events, personal and cosmic, as in Abraham’s vision in the night (Gen 17), the prophet Micaiah’s prebattle vision (1Kgs 22), and Daniel’s dream vision of the four beasts (Dan 7). They mark critical transitions in the lives of holy people, such as the initiation of the prophets Ezekiel (Ezek 1-3) and Isaiah (Isa 6), and they serve as warnings or directives, as in the dreams of Pharaoh (Gen 41) and Abimelech (Gen 20:3-7) or the visions of Amos (Amos 7:7-9, Amos 8:1-3) and Jeremiah (Jer 11:11-19, Jer 24).

Many visionary experiences were understood by their hearers, and by Israelites more broadly, as divine revelations. Yet not all dreams and visions, even if they derived from God, were understood to be true—God could lead as well as mislead, according to the biblical perception. For example, Micaiah learns that God himself is going to send a lying spirit to the prophets in order to achieve the death of King Ahab (1Kgs 22:20-23). Some biblical texts recognize that those who dream may misinterpret their dreams or even make them up (Deut 13:5); perhaps this is why some biblical texts express a marked preference for direct word oracles (Num 12:6-8).

Many prophetic texts intermingle the auditory and the visionary: the prophet sees a vision and information is verbally revealed within it. These visions use a variety of commonly recognized motifs, such as dining with the deity, the presence of smoke and seraphs, and the deity enthroned. Some dreams and visions described in the Hebrew Bible, like those of Pharaoh, Amos, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Daniel, communicate via symbols that must be interpreted to be understood; others, like the one attributed to Isaiah, are more direct in their message.

Isa 6 is an example of a visionary visit to God’s realm—complete with the expected motifs. In the simplest version of this pattern, Moses, Nadab, Abihu, and the elders of Israel eat and drink in the presence of the deity, whose feet rest on a luminescent, lapis lazuli–like pavement (Exod 24:9-11). In 1Kgs 22:19-23, Micaiah reports seeing the deity surrounded by his courtiers, “the host of heaven,” to his right and left, and he hears them plan the death of Ahab. Isaiah’s report of his visionary experience (Isa 6) is similar, though it provides a more majestic image of the deity enthroned. God’s robe fills the heavenly temple, the seraphs arrayed to his right and left attend him with song, the thresholds shake, and the house fills with smoke, as in the powerful revelation scene at Sinai (Exod 19). Isaiah describes his emotional response and a purifying ritual involving hot coals that transforms him into a messenger of God, a mission for which he volunteers. The oracle he is to deliver is heard in this heavenly setting, conveyed in a visionary experience.

Even more baroque are the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. The former provides a template for later Jewish mysticism, and the latter, with its complex symbolism and messages about the blessed few, exemplifies apocalyptic literature.

Susan Niditch, "Prophetic Dreams and Visions in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 28 Apr 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/prophetic-dreams-and-visions-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Susan Niditch

Susan Niditch
Professor, Amherst College

Susan Niditch has taught at Amherst since 1978 where she is the Samuel Green Professor of Religion. Her research interests include the study of ancient Israelite literature from the perspectives of folklore and oral studies; biblical ethics with special interests in war, gender, and the body; the reception history of the Bible; and study of the rich symbolic media of biblical ritual texts. Recent publications include: Judges: A Commentary and ‘My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man’: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel. Her new project deals with personal religion and self-representation in late biblical literature.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

1Kgs 22

Joint Campaign with Judah against Aram
1For three years Aram and Israel continued without war.2But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the ... View more

Dan 7

Visions of the Four Beasts
1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the ... View more

Ezek 1-3

The Vision of the Chariot
1In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens ... View more

Isa 6

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. ... View more

Gen 41

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream
1After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile,2and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fa ... View more

Gen 20:3-7

3But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.”4No ... View more

Amos 7:7-9

7This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do ... View more

Amos 8:1-3

The Basket of Fruit
1This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit.2He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” The ... View more

Jer 11:11-19

11Therefore, thus says the Lord, assuredly I am going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape; though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them. ... View more

Jer 24

The Good and the Bad Figs
1The Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. This was after King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken ... View more

1Kgs 22:20-23

20And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another,21until a spirit ... View more

Deut 13:5

5But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord your God—who brought you out of the land of E ... View more

Num 12:6-8

6And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the Lord make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.7Not so with my serv ... View more

Isa 6

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. ... View more

Exod 24:9-11

On the Mountain with God
9Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,10and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet t ... View more

1Kgs 22:19-23

19Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right an ... View more

Isa 6

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. ... View more

Exod 19

The Israelites Reach Mount Sinai
1On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness ... View more

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