Saturday, July 28, 2012

Dreams in Genesis

Dreams and their Theological Meaning in Genesis

by Simon Lien-yueh Wei

I. Introduction

Dream narratives in the Bible (the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) abound in the Book of Genesis, which contains nearly one third of biblical dream narratives. Like other narratives, dream narratives are used by the biblical writer to convey theological messages or affirm theological beliefs.[1] Although dreams and their literal meanings in Genesis primarily serve the biblical stories, many profound theological meanings about dreams themselves can also be discovered from the dream narratives.

This paper is motivated by the fact that many biblical readers are fascinated by dream narratives of Genesis, but they neglect the theological meanings of dreams that those narratives may present. This paper attempts to manifest that the theological meanings of dreams revealed by those narratives include: 1) the dream world as a sacred space, 2) dreams as a divine language, 3) dreams as a mode of divine revelation, 4) dreams as a divine initiative intervening in human affairs for God's people, and 5) dreams as a divine-human encounter.

II. Dreams and their Theological Meanings in Genesis

1. The Dream World as a Sacred Space

The first theological meaning of dreams which can be revealed by dream narratives in Genesis is that the dream world is a sacred place. According to Mircea Eliade, space is not homogeneous; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others. When theophany takes place in some space, that space becomes sacred. The sacred space emphasizes not on the physical or geographical dimension, but on the religious and mysterious ones. The nostalgia of the religious is to inhibit the sacred space. They desire to situate themselves in that space and to open themselves to the divine.[2]

In all sacred space, the world of dreams may be the most private, exceptional, and mysterious one. When God comes to a dream, that dream becomes the sacred space. The dream narratives in the Hebrew Bible present this aspect clearly. As Robert Gnuse asserts, "Like their contemporaries in the ancient Near East, Israelites used the dream report in stereotypical fashion to respectfully describe a divine theophany."[3]

The view of dreams as the sacred space in which the theophany occurs can also be found in many dream narratives in Genesis. For instance, Gen 20:3 writes, "God came to Abimelech in a dream by night (NRSV)." Gen 31:24 tells us, "God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night."

This view is most explicitly shown in Jacob's dream at Bethel. The biblical text describes, "And he [Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him" (Gen 28:12-13). Jacob awakened and concludes that the Lord actually appears at the site where the dream occurred. He then named the place Bethel (house of God). However, it may be wrong if we think that the place Bethel is more sacred than the space of the dream. This is because the divine appeared not at Bethel, but in Jacob's dream at Bethel. Therefore, if it is the dream that should be seen as the locus of divine self-manifestation, then the dream's space should be the sacred place.

Moreover, from the practical dimension, if dreams are the space theophany takes place, then the narrative in Ex 3:1-5 (God asked Moses to remove his sandals in order to stand on the sacred place where theophany occurred) seems to remind Christians that before sleep they should lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles them in order to prepare themselves to meet their God in dreams. If they encounter the divine in dreams, they may think of Jacob's dream at Bethel. Then, they should regard those dreams as the house of God and the gate of heaven, or as the holy place.

In this sense, the dreams of Genesis in which the divine appears could be understood as "a break (an opening by which passage from heaven to earth is made possible), the axis mundi (the place connects the earthly world and the divine world),"[4] or the sanctuary. From the Christian theological perspective, we may say that if a church is the collective sacred space for the community of faith, then a dream world is the private sacred space for an individual believer. Since both spaces are sacred, the attitude of Christians toward them should be equal.

Indeed, our attitude towards dreams should be religious and sacred, rather than profane. If we desire to see God while we are still living in this world, then every day we may expect and prepare ourselves to meet God in dreams, the sacred space. At the same time, God may be expecting us to slumber so that God can come to our dreams and to meet us.

2. Dreams as a Divine Language Transmitting on Divine Messages

The second theological meaning of dreams in Genesis is that dreams can be regarded as a divine language transmitting on divine messages. In Genesis, the main purpose of the divine coming to human dreams is to deliver the message. Dreams are essentially used by the divine as a language to carry messages. The divine messages in dreams are significant not only for dreamers themselves but sometimes also for a tribe or a nation.

Many dream narratives in Genesis describe that God uses dreams as a language to transmit divine messages, such as God's commands, promises, encouragements, and directions for people.[5] For example, from the divine message in his dream, Abimelech not only learned the truth about the hidden relationship between Abraham and Sarah from God, but also received God's command to return Abraham's wife (Gen 20:3-7).

Through a dream, Jacob first received the divine covenant and promises directly from God about him and his offspring (Gen 28:13-15). In addition, when Jacob was frustrated with Laban's attitude toward him which was not what it had been, God instructed Jacob in a dream how to procure better yields from his flocks and commanded him to go back to his birth land (Gen 31:10-13). It was also through a dream that God sent a message to Laban and Pharaoh (Gen 31:24, 41:25-31).

In fact, every dream in Genesis can be seen as a divine language to communicate the divine message. The dreams in Genesis may be classified typologically as auditory message dreams (e.g. Gen 20:3, 28:12-15, 31:10-13, 24), in which the divine delivers auditory messages in plain language, and symbolic dreams (e.g. Gen 37:5-10, 40:5 ff, 41: 1 ff), in which the dreamers witness enigmatic visual images that, for most cases (except Joseph's dream), require an interpreter with the aid of god to decipher the hidden messages in the dreams. The auditory dreams may be more likely as a mode, rather than a language, for God to communicate with humanity. However, they are essentially a divine language, especially from the perspective of dreamers, because it is through dreams that dreamers heard or received divine messages (just like it is through our spoken language that we received auditory messages from other people in our daily lives). In this sense, dreams, like other vehicles which carry divine message (such as visions), should be viewed as a language of God.

Likewise, the symbolic dreams may not be a divine language seemingly because the dreamers themselves even did not know the divine messages or their meanings in the symbolic dreams at all. However, because the symbolic dreams still carry divine messages (which were eventually known by dreamers through an interpreter in the biblical story), only by a different way, they should be viewed as a language of God. In short, dreams in Genesis, whether they are formulated in comprehensible messages or in enigmatic symbols, can all be regarded as a divine language which transmits divine message.[6]

3. Dreams as a Way of Divine Revelation

The third theological meaning of dreams in Genesis is that dreams is a mode of divine revelation. The mode of revelation in the Hebrew Bible varies from external phenomena (e.g. voices and forces of nature) to internal phenomena (e.g. visions and dreams). In Genesis, dreams are one of the legitimate and common channels by which God reveals God's will and foreshadows future events.

For instance, God reveals God's will to Abimelech, Jacob, and Laban through dreams (Gen 20:3-7, 28:12-15, 31:11-16, 31:24). Gen 41:25b writes, "God had revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do." The biblical narrative describes Pharaoh's dream as a foreshadowing from God which shows the coming of great abundance and famine in Egypt (Gen 41:15-32). Therefore, Jean-Michel de Tarragon claims that ordinary prophecy could always benefit from revelation by dreams, such as the dream of Jacob at Bethel and the dreams that Joseph interpreted for his companions in captivity and for Pharaoh.[7]

Moreover, scholars have been able to deduce some theological agenda of the biblical writers concerning revelation from dream narratives in Genesis. For instance, Hermann Gunkel argues, "[E] prefers dreams and the call of the angel from heaven--the most invisible means of revelation.¨[8] A. Oppenheim and Robert Gnuse also observe that many narratives in Genesis as well as in the Hebrew Bible appear in the materials attributed to the Elohist. For Gnuse, the Elohist sees God as distant from creation while demanding fear and obedience as human responses. This aura of transcendence requires the Elohist to use more indirect forms of revelation than the anthropomorphic theophanies of the Yahwist.[9]

Gnuse also commends, "Israelites believed that reality encountered them in their dreams, whether it was from God or from somewhere else, the experience was to be respected. Thus, God might choose the dream as a mode of revelation."[10] Hence, dreams eventually became one of the best modes of revelation, either for God, for the Elohist, or for Israelites. In short, dreams in Genesis can be understood as a mode for God to reveal the divine will and to foreshadow future events.

4. Dreams as a Divine Initiative Intervening in Human Affairs for God's People

The fourth theological meaning of dreams in Genesis is that dreams is a divine initiative intervening in human affairs for God's people. In Genesis, people cannot force God into giving dreams for divine direction or revelation through the ancient practice of incubation (sleeping in a temple and praying for a dream from the divine).[11]

Although some scholars have claimed that Jacob's dream at Bethel results from the practice of incubation, Diana Lipton's argument may successfully invalidate this kind of idea. She argues that the text (Gen 28:10-22) never mentions about the practice of incubation or any action Jacob did concerning it at all. In addition, it is generally acknowledged prerequisite of dream incubation that the dreamer should be aware of the holiness of the place before falling asleep. Therefore, Jacob's failure to recognize holiness of the place proves that he was not involved in the practice.[12]

A. Oppenheim also points out that even if Jacob's dream at Bethel was involved in the practice of incubation, "this might be called a case of unintentional incubation."[13] Robert Gnuse even asserts that the Israelites disdained the practice of incubation.[14] Thus it is impossible to view Jacob's dream as a result of incubation. We may now conclude that all dreamers in Genesis received dreams passively and unexpectedly.[15] Every dream originates from God or serves for God's will concerning God's people.

The dream of Abimelech and Laban (Gen 20:3-7, 31:22-29) clearly show God's proactive action and protection through dreams for God's people. The divine action through dreams happened even when God's people did not know that they were in danger (Gen 31:29). For this reason, Scott Noegel proclaims that the dream of Abimelech illustrates "how Yahweh assumes an active role in saving the founding father of the Israelite religion."[16] Jacob's dream in Gen 31:10-13 also reveals that God has a proactive hand in the successes of God's people. Pharaoh's dream discloses God's intervention in the affair of Egypt not merely for Joseph but for the Israelites (Gen 41:25-41, 45:4-9).

Indeed, the dream narratives in Genesis present the close relationship between God and God's people. The divine action and voices surrounds them. The dreams witness the divine intention of intervening in human affairs in order to manifest the almighty God who guides God's people and directs the flow of history for them.[17]

God acts for God's people on God's own initiative without anyone else ordering, suggesting, or helping. It is only God who "speaks through dreams, either to make known His will or to announce future events."[18] In short, dreams in Genesis demonstrate the transcendence and initiative of God, who dominates and directs all things for God's people.

5. Dreams as a Divine-Human Encounter

The fifth theological meaning of dreams in Genesis is that dreams as a human-divine encounter. From Genesis we may find that it is difficult for humans to see God directly. People cannot meet God in the same way they meet others. Dreams, like visions, thus become an alternative way for the divine-human encounter. Moreover, the experience of encountering the divine in dreams is able to change people's attitudes toward God or their acts toward God's people.

The divine-human encounter is depicted in many dream narratives in Genesis (e.g. Gen 20:3-7, 28:10-15, 31:24). For instance, Gen 28:10-15 portrays that Jacob dreams a ladder which connects between the earth and heaven; then the divine appears to Jacob, and Jacob encounters with the divine. According to Frances Flannery-Daily, the ladder in this dream could be seen as "a symbol that bridges earth and heaven, signifying that the divine realm is accessible from earth" through dreams.[19] In this sense, this dream can be regarded as a kind of ladder which is able to make divinity and humanity connected. 

Moreover, in Genesis, after people wake from the dreams in which they encounter the divine, their attitudes toward God or their acts towards God's people are altered. Supporting by Niditch's argument, Flannery-Daily states that biblical dreams "speak directly to the idea that contact with the divine has a profound effect on the dreamer."[20] Lipton also asserts that each dream in Genesis is received during a period of anxiety or danger, either for the dreamer or the person for whom the dream is actually intended; but each dream signals a change in status for the dreamer or the person, or for both.[21]

This is evident in the reactions of Abimelech, Jacob, and Laban to their dreams (Gen 20:3-18, 28:10-22, 31:10-21, 24-29). After waking from their dreams, Abimelech returned Abraham's wife, and Laban bewared of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad. Jacob¡¦s dream at Bethel also leads to the change of his attitude toward God. The first time that Jacob spoke of God is in Gen 27:20. At that time, he called the Lord not as his God, but as Isaac's God. But when he encountered the Lord in the dream at Bethel, not only did he practice (this is the first time he practiced) some religious rites for God (e.g. set the stone up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it; name that site as Bethel, house of God) but also he made a vow that he will regard the Lord as his God and set aside a tithe for God if he sees further evidences. In addition, after encountering with the Lord in another dream, Jacob followed God's direction: left the land of Laban and returned to his birth land, the land of Canaan (Gen 31:10-21).

All these examples demonstrate the fact that many dreams in Genesis are the events of divine-human encounter. Those dreams force people to make critical decisions or take significant actions as reactions to their dreams. Their encounters with the divine in dreams require their active and immediate responses to God or God's people in waking lives.

III. Conclusion

One third of biblical dream narratives are presented in Genesis. For many readers, dream narratives are one of the most fascinating narratives in the entire Bible. Dreams in Genesis may primarily serve the biblical stories. But dreams themselves can also reveal many significant theological meanings, which have been neglected by many biblical readers.

After deeply exploring the dream narratives in Genesis, we may discover that the theological meanings of dreams include: the dream world as a sacred space, dreams as a divine language transmitting divine messages, dreams as a common mode of divine revelation, dreams as a divine initiative intervening in human affairs for God's people, and dreams as a divine-human encounter, which is able to change the dreamer's attitude toward God or God's people.


Blau, Ludwig. "Dreams." in Isidore Singer, ed. The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. IV. NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1901.

Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. by Willard R. Trask. FL: Harcourt, 1959.

Flannery-Dailey, Frances. Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras. Boston: Brill, 2004.

Gnuse, Robert Karl, Dreams and Dreams Reports in the Writings of Josephus: A Traditio-Historical Analysis. NY: E. J. Brill, 1996.

"Dreams and their Theological Significance in the Biblical Tradition." in the Journal Currents in Theology and Mission. 8 Jan, 1981. ATLA Religion Database.

Husser, Jean-Marie, Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World. UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Lipton, Diana. Revisions of Night: Politics and Promises in the Patriarchal Dreams of Genesis. UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Mendelsohn, I. "Dreams." in George A. Buttrick, ed. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. I. TN: Abingdon, 1962.

Noegel, Scott. "Dreams and Dream Interpretations in Mesopotamia and in the Hebrew Bible." in Bulkeley, Kelly. ed. Dreams: A Reader on Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. NY: Palgrave, 2001.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. The Interpretation of Dreams in the Near Ancient East. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1956.

de Tarragon, Jean-Michel , "Witchcraft, Magic, and Divination in Canaan and Ancient Israel." in Jack. M. Sasson, ed. Civilization of the Near East. Vol. III. NY: Charles Scribner's Son, 1995.

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