Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


In the Bible

The biblical view of dreams agrees substantially with that held by almost all ancient peoples. Dreams are visions of things actually transpiring on an ultramundane plane, where persons are not bound to bodies or events to specific moments and places. This plane is indistinguishable from that of the gods (or God), and dreams are therefore considered to be divine communications (Gen. 20:3, 6; 31:10–11). What is thus revealed may subsequently be actualized in historical fact. Accordingly, dreams are regarded as presages or omens. They are best understood by visionaries, i.e., by prophets, mantics, and ecstatics, who, in their suprasensory states, are in rapport with the "divine dimension," and it is to such persons that God vouchsafes dreams when He wishes to communicate with mankind (cf. Num. 12:6). In the Bible, "dreamer," "prophet," and "magician" are related terms (cf. Jer. 23:28; 27:9; 29:8; see *Divination). The final interpretation of dreams rests with God (Gen. 40:8).

Dreams are usually symbolic, and their interpretation (known as oneiromancy) revolves around the unraveling of their images. Dreambooks, in which such images are codified, feature in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. Biblical examples of such symbolic dreams are those of Joseph (Gen. 37:5ff.), of Pharaoh's butler and baker (ibid. 40:1ff.), and of Pharaoh himself (ibid. 41:1, 5); in Judges (7:13ff.) a man's dream that a cake of barley rolls onto the Midianite camp and bowls it over is taken to portend the imminent discomfiture of that people. Ancient Near Eastern parallels are afforded by a series of prophetic dreams related in the Babylonian "Epic of Gilgamesh" and in the Hittite "Legend of Kessi."

Dreams that occur in sacred places are considered to be revelations from the resident deity. People in search of divine direction resort to such shrines and sleep on the premises. This widespread practice, called incubation, is attested for the ancient Near East by a Sumerian inscription of Gudea of Lagash and a Hittite text of King Mursilis II of Hatti. The only clear instance in the Bible is the story of Jacob at Beer-Sheba (Gen. 46:1ff.), though some scholars claim that the narratives of the infant Samuel at Shiloh and of Jacob at Beth-El fall within the same category. It is necessary, however, to distinguish between incubation, which involves a purposeful visit to a shrine, and more general revelation through dreams, such as is described, for example, in I Kings 3:5–15 (Solomon at Gibeon). In sundry passages (e.g., Jer. 23:25; Zech. 10:2), the Bible speaks of false dreams. There appear to be two criteria for this designation, as there are also for false prophecy: a dream may be deemed false either because it is not subsequently realized, or because it never occurred at all. In the future Golden Age, says the prophet Joel (3:1), the gift of prophetic dreaming will be bestowed on all men, young and old alike. In the Greco-Roman age, apocalyptic visions were thought to be vouchsafed in dreams. Literary works inspired by this idea are the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypses of Ezra and Baruch. There is evidence of a pious protest against oneiromancy; both Ben Sira (31:1ff.) and the Letter of Aristeas (213–216) denounce belief in dreams.


A. Lowinger, Der Traum in der juedischen Literatur (1908); A. Kristianpoller, Traum und Traumdeutung (Monumenta Talmudica, 4, 1923); J. St. Lincoln, Dream in Primitive Culture (1935); E.L. Ehrlich, in: BZAW, 73 (1953), 1–170; H.L. Oppenheim, Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (1956); Jacob of Marvège, She'elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim, ed. by R. Margoliouth (1957), introduction, 3–20; S. Lieberman, Yevanit ve-Yavnut be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1962), 204–9; M. Harris, in: PAAJR, 31 (1963), 51–80.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.