Dreams in the Hebrew Bible by Jean-Marie Husser

In the cultures of the ancient Near East, dreams fell into different categories, each of which was understood differently. Among everyday dreams, a distinction was drawn between ordinary dreams, without any significance, and others that were signs of destiny; these dream omens required the interpretative skills of a specialist—a professional diviner, or oneiromancer. Other dreams contained a clear and direct message from a divinity and did not require interpreters. These message dreams were akin to oracles, and those who received them (men or women) were considered to be prophets or messengers of the gods. Still other dreams were the particular privilege of kings; they were made up of grandiose, symbolic scenes or images, sometimes with divine apparitions. Enigmatic in content, these symbolic dreams required an interpreter (male or female), using either intuition or divine inspiration to decipher them.

These distinctions are present in the Hebrew Bible, though there is no clear evidence of oneiromancy for everyday dreams; perhaps the practice was covered by the general prohibition of divination (Deut 18:10-11), though it is not the subject of any specific legislation. Nevertheless, the premonitory character of certain dreams was clearly recognized (Judg 7:13-15), and the belief that God could use dreams to instruct an individual directly (Job 33:14-18) was shared with other peoples of antiquity. According to the Babylonian Talmud, in the Roman period there were 24 rabbinic dream-interpreters practicing in Jerusalem for a fee (b. Berakot 55a-b).

Dreams reputed to have been sent by God fall into two categories: those seen (visual) and those heard (auditory). The former are symbolic and need an interpretation; they are found mainly in the story of Joseph (Gen 37:5-11, Gen 40-41) and in the narratives of the book of Daniel (Dan 2, Dan 4, Dan 7). These dream narratives are literary fictions intended to highlight the ability and the wisdom of the interpreter (Joseph or Daniel). Auditory dreams, in contrast, convey a clear message from God; they are addressed to kings, such as Solomon (1Kgs 3) or Abimelech (Gen 20:3-7); or to patriarchs, such as Jacob (Gen 28); or to other important figures, such as Laban (Gen 31:24). This kind of dream usually had the function of legitimizing the authority of the dreamer by showing his close connection with God.

Although the prophetic books speak of dreams very rarely and are sometimes contradictory on the subject, it is certain that some form of dream, which is never precisely described, did sometimes influence prophetic inspiration (Num 12:6-8). Some prophets received oracles by night and then uttered them by day (1Sam 15:16, 2Sam 7:4-5, Jer 31:26). Balaam even converses with God by night (Num 22) before pronouncing his oracles. The story of Samuel’s calling (1Sam 3) illustrates perfectly how the divine word addresses a particular state of consciousness by night; there is no vision but rather a word heard during the sleep which awakens the prophet’s consciousness, in his sleep, to the fact that he is listening to a divine message. When Jeremiah condemns “false prophets” who present their dreams as divine oracles (Jer 23:25-32), he criticizes the fact that their dreams or visions come from their imagination and not from God (see also Jer 14:14, Zech 10:2). Nevertheless, Jer 29:8 and Deut 13:2-6 also express some distrust of dreams, possibly in reaction to the influence exerted on exiled Jews by Babylonian oneiromancy.

 In the Judaism of the Second Temple period, dreams constituted a recognized means of access to divine wisdom, even if it was strictly controlled (Sir 34:1-8), and an oracle in the book of Joel considers dreams to be one of the eschatological manifestations of the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28). The ability of certain wise men to interpret dreams and prophecies was considered a gift from God, as is illustrated by figures such as Joseph (Gen 40-41), whose story was written in the Jewish diaspora during the Persian period, or Daniel (Dan 1-6). From the second century B.C.E., when prophecy was thought to have ended, this form of inspiration took over and was expressed in the visionary style of apocalyptic writings. In these writings, the difference between dreams and visions to all intents and purposes disappears, as in Dan 7-12 or in 1 Enoch.

Jean-Marie Husser, "Dreams in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 12 Dec 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/dreams-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Jean-Marie Husser

Jean-Marie Husser
Professor, University of Strasbourg

Jean-Marie Husser is professor of the history of religions in the Faculty of Historical Sciences, University of Strasbourg (France), where he currently heads the Department of History of Religions. His main interests are the ancient religions of Syro-Phoenicia, in particular Ugarit, and Jewish apocalyptic movements. He is the author of Le Songe et la parole: Etude sur le rêve et sa fonction dans l'ancien Israël (de Gruyter, 1994) and Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), and is co-editor with A. Mouton of Le Cauchemar dans les sociétés antiques (De Boccard, 2010).

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.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

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

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

One who interprets dreams, often to predict the future.

A rule commanding someone not to do something.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

Those biblical books written by or attributed to prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Deut 18:10-11

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Judg 7:13-15

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Job 33:14-18

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Gen 37:5-11

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Gen 40-41

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Dan 2

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Dan 4

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Dan 7

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1Kgs 3

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Gen 20:3-7

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Gen 28

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Gen 31:24

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Num 12:6-8

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1Sam 15:16

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2Sam 7:4-5

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Jer 31:26

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Num 22

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1Sam 3

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Jer 23:25-32

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Jer 14:14

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Zech 10:2

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Jer 29:8

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Deut 13:2-6

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Sir 34:1-8

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Joel 2:28

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Gen 40-41

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Dan 1-6

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Dan 7-12

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