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 3 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/dreams-in-the-hebrew-bible


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

10No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer,11o ... View more

Judg 7:13-15

13When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling a dream to his comrade; and he said, “I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Mi ... View more

Job 33:14-18

14For God speaks in one way,
and in two, though people do not perceive it.15In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
while they s ... View more

Gen 37:5-11

5Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.7There we were, b ... View more

Gen 40-41

The Dreams of Two Prisoners
1Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.2Pharaoh was angry wit ... View more

Dan 2

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream
1In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed such dreams that his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him.2So ... View more

Dan 4

Nebuchadnezzar's Second Dream
1 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages that live throughout the earth: May you have abundant prosperity!2The ... 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

1Kgs 3

Solomon's Prayer for Wisdom
1Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh's daughter and brought her into the city of David, unt ... 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

Gen 28

1Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.2Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, y ... View more

Gen 31:24

24But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night, and said to him, “Take heed that you say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad.”

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

1Sam 15:16

16Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” He replied, “Speak.”

2Sam 7:4-5

4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan:5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?

Jer 31:26

26Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.

Num 22

Balak Summons Balaam to Curse Israel
1The Israelites set out, and camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.2Now Balak son of Zippor saw all t ... View more

1Sam 3

Samuel's Calling and Prophetic Activity
1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not ... View more

Jer 23:25-32

25I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!”26How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ev ... View more

Jer 14:14

14And the Lord said to me: The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to y ... View more

Zech 10:2

2For the teraphim utter nonsense,
and the diviners see lies;
the dreamers tell false dreams,
and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep; ... View more

Jer 29:8

8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams tha ... View more

Deut 13:2-6

2and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,”3you must ... View more

Sir 34:1-8

Dreams Mean Nothing
1The senseless have vain and false hopes,
and dreams give wings to fools.2As one who catches at a shadow and pursues the wind,
so is anyone ... View more

Joel 2:28

God's Spirit Poured Out
28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
... View more

Gen 40-41

The Dreams of Two Prisoners
1Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.2Pharaoh was angry wit ... View more

Dan 1-6

Four Young Israelites at the Babylonian Court
1In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and b ... View more

Dan 7-12

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

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