Dream oracles in the ancient world (Job 4)

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Illustration: The Oracle of Amun at Siwa

The belief in dream oracles is well attested in the ancient world, including in the Bible. Job’s friend Eliphaz stated that he had received in a dream a divine message relating to Job’s misery (Job 4:12-21). Elihu also expressed his knowledge that dreams are one means by which God communicates with people (33:14-18). The Lord visited the patriarch Jacob in a nocturnal vision (Genesis 28:11-19). His son Joseph also received prophetic dreams (Genesis 37:5-11), as did Solomon (1 Kings 3:5-15), prophets in general (Numbers 12:6), Daniel (Daniel 7) and Joseph the carpenter (Matthew 1:20-24, 2:13).

Dream oracles were not exclusive to Israel, however. Joseph, the son of Jacob, interpreted the dream of pharaoh and his servants (Genesis 40:5-22, 41:15-32), Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 4:4-27), and the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to king Herod (Matthew 2:12).

Of course, not all dream oracles can be considered legitimate. If the omen portended in the dream encouraged the worship of anyone besides the one true God, or if the apparent implication of the dream did not come to pass, that message did not issue from the Lord (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Numerous texts from outside of Israel attest to the importance placed upon dreams throughout the ancient Near East:

  • Prophetic dreams are attested at Mari (eighteenth century B.C.). One text describes a dream that was repeated, as well as the pharaoh’s in Genesis 41.
  • When seeking instructions on temple building, king Gudea of Lagash invited deity Nirgirsu to visit him by offering sacrofices and laying down in the temple to sleep.
  • When venturing forth to battle a great monster, the legendary hero Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu encouraged the gods to give them dream oracles.
  • Ugaritic texts provide examples of such dreams. In the Epic of Kirta the god El speaks to the hero in his sleep.
  • Handbooks for dream interpretation have been uncovered in New Kingdom Egypt (sixteenth-eleventh centuries B.C.). For example, if a man saw himself in a dream submerged in the Nile, that was a good omen, signifying that he had been purified of all evil. But seeing a dwarf in a dream portended a tragedy: The dreamer’s life would be shortende by half.

Dreams were one of the many ways people of the ancient world believed that humans received divine messages. It is important to observe, however, that the Bible contains no guidebook for interpreting dreams. There is no magical code we can follow. If God communicates by a dream, only God can give the interpretation (Genesis 40:8).


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