Seaborn Hall, 1/04/20
History of Dreams
Dreams have a long history that pre-dates and post-dates the Bible. The world has been changed by dreams: Albert Einstein (theory of relativity), Neils Bohr (structure of the atom), Mary Shelly (Frankenstein), and Paul McCartney (‘Yesterday’) all saw insights, inventions, or creations in dreams, just to name a few.
Evidence of dreams and dream interpretation dates back to Mesopotamia and the Sumerians in 3100 BC. Even if we begin with the Jewish Scriptures and the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East (ANE) there is plenty of material to cover.
The ANE was the cultural milieu of early Bible history and the characters of the Bible were well situated and informed within the wisdom literature and understandings of the time. Any family or individual born in this time would have had some familiarity with the symbolic language of dreams.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all have experience with God-given dreams but the dreams we are probably most familiar with begin with Jacob and his son who was sold into slavery, Joseph.
Biblical History of Dreams
Joseph’s dreams are not the first dreams in the Bible we see used in a dramatic way but may be the first unfolded before us in such a dramatic story. It is also the first time that we see the gift and skill of dream interpretation presented in a dynamic way. Being able to interpret dreams will save Joseph’s life.
In a story beginning in Genesis 37, Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob and his favorite is thus hated by his other brothers. On top of being the favorite, Joseph has the nasty habit of boasting. When he has two consecutive dreams of corn stalks bowing down to him and the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him he excitedly tells his father and brother that one day he will rule over them. In the patriarchal and hierarchical culture of the ANE, his brothers don’t think too kindly of this and decide to kill him – but one brother talks the others into selling him to traders passing through their land. Subsequently he ends up in Egypt where he becomes the head slave to the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard.
Eventually, being able to interpret dreams will free Joseph from prison and put him at Pharaoh’s side as his right hand man. Joseph’s dreams teach us so much about dreams and dream interpretation that will will devote a special installment to them.
Before Joseph, the word of the Lord comes to Abraham in a vision at Genesis 15:1. Before this, it appears that the Lord appeared to Abraham face to face (as in Genesis 17:1, 18:1), an experience for which we find the template in Numbers 12:1-8. Numbers 12, as the reader should know by now, is the initial Biblical template for prophecy and interpreting dreams. There are two levels of prophecy presented here. Dreams are part of the fabric of the second, or lower level, and are interpreted symbolically. This means there is ample room for the interpreter to make error.
The Bible’s First Dreams And More History
The first dream or vision in the Bible appears to be at Genesis 15:1, “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great (Gen. 15:1 NAS95).” The Hebrew word used here is a word for ‘vision’ or ‘apparition,’ but not dream.
Before this, apparently God spoke to His servants ‘face to face’ (Numbers 12: 1-8). This seems to be validated by Genesis 12:7 and other passages. According to Genesis 12:7, The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him (Gen. 12:7 NAS95).” The word for ‘appear’ here implies a ‘face to face’ meeting.
At Genesis 20:1ff we see the first instance of a dream in Abraham’s life and it is given – not to him – but to a King. For the second time, Abraham deceives a ruler by telling him that his wife is his sister to protect his own life and, in this instance, God gives Abimelech a dream warning him not to touch Abraham’s wife.
The first dream in the Bible is a warning dream. This a feature of the Bible we should pay attention to – if a warning dream is the very first dream in the Bible maybe they are important to God and a normal way He chooses to communicate.
There will be other incidences of dreams that God uses to advance His cause and speak to His servants. A dream will encourage a guy named Gideon to face his fear and to rise up and lead his nation against a stronger enemy – with just 300 men. Dreams – and dream interpretation – will be instrumental in raising up Daniel to become an advisor to the king during the Babylonian exile. Dreams will help a guy named Job, and his friends, to know when God is speaking or warning them they are on the wrong path.
Dreams will also ‘fool’ the foolish, mislead, deceive and lead astray. False dreams and false prophets will at times be the scourge of Israel (Jeremiah 23), encouraging them to follow their own soulish impulses into destruction. Dream discernment and knowing a good dream from a bad dream, a true dream from a false dream, and a God dream from a soulish or demonic dream is thus one of the most important, if not the most important, functions of good dream interpretation.
Finally, dreams will become the vehicle for supernatural visitations and warn and lead Joseph, the husband of Mary, to get his family to safety in a time of trouble. You might say that God speaking through dreams is part of the reason that the baby Jesus was able to survive His early days. This is how much importance God places in dreams.
Dreams Are A Language
Dreams are a language. But, what do we mean by this? What is language? It is at its simplest, symbols for meaning.
When we view language in this manner then how to interpret dreams becomes very understandable because dreams are full of symbols that have meaning. The problem with dreams, some would say, is that the symbols and the meaning of them are unclear, even confusing. But, this is only because we haven’t developed a habit of understanding the language of dreams. In Western culture especially, but also in many other cultures, we haven’t grown up understanding how to interpret symbols. What we need is knowledge and practice.
When you think about any language – English, Tagalog, Visaya, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, whatever – what are the words of the language except symbol for meaning? In this case, the word – not a picture like in a dream – is the symbol for which there is an understood meaning behind the word. We could even come up with a picture that describes almost every word (and, in fact, this is one of the best methods for teaching). In this case the picture would be the symbol for the word. But, the word is also the symbol for the understood meaning in the language. Each word in different cultures represents a commonly understood meaning that has come to be over many years – centuries in many cases – of use.
Some words, of course, are fairly new ‘symbols’ and have just gained the meaning behind them. ‘Woke’ for instance, was a word understood primarily as ‘waking from sleep’ until recently, when it became known for symbolizing someone in tune with a politically correct way of thinking and speaking. ‘Bad’ used to be thought of as evil. Now someone who is ‘bad’ might be cool or have done or said something ‘edgy’ or provocative.
These two aspects, or levels, of understanding of words, the old meaning or meanings, and the new meaning, are similar to the different vocabulary that we find in dreams. There is a Biblical vocabulary and a Personal vocabulary for most dreams. God uses Biblical symbols and meanings to speak but He also uses personal and universal symbols to speak.
An example of a personal symbol might be a person in your dream who is your best friend. In this case your best friend could by symbolic for loyalty, intimacy, caring, kindness, or any other quality or characteristic that you associate with him or her. An example of a universal symbol might be the President of the United States, or the President or Prime Minister of any other nation of the dreamer. In this case, the President might be symbolic for a ‘Presidential’ role or authority or characteristic of the dreamer or for someone else in the dreamer’s life. Occasionally these symbols might even stand literally for themself and really represent the President of a nation.
This being the case, how do we interpret the changing and flexible nature of symbols, whether the symbols are words or the symbols are pictures as portrayed in dreams? Context, context, context. The most important three rules of any kind of interpretation are: Pay close attention to the context. Context will tell you what the dream is about, who the dream is about and what the field of meaning is for each of the symbols.
Summary Of Part One
Dreams have a previously determined historical meaning both through the Bible and through the personal and universal meanings of your life and culture. They have a long history back to the Ancient Near East culture and long before. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were instrumental in building a secular contemporary understanding of dreams and dream interpretation.
Various figures have been responsible for a Biblical view of dreams and dream interpretation but there is probably not one most influential figure. We build our Biblical dream interpretation philosophy and methodology on the foundations provided by Morton Kelsey, John Paul Jackson, and Doug Addison – but anyone who does dream interpretation work is indirectly depending on Freud, Jung and others. We will demonstrate how this is true in the next installment. We will also expand on dream context, focus and vocabulary and suggest a template for dream interpretation.