A Letter that Has not Been Read

A Letter that Has not Been Read: Dreams in the Hebrew Bible

Shaul Bar
Translated by Lenn J. Schramm
Volume: 25
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt166sb89
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  • Book Info
    A Letter that Has not Been Read
    Book Description:

    Since Freud, the study of dreams has typically involved inquiry into past and present emotional states. The ancients, unfamiliar with the intricate byways of the human soul revealed by modern psychology, typically saw dreams as channels of communication between human beings and external sources. Shaul Bar explores the etymology of key terms for dreams in the Hebrew Bible, presents dozens of examples of biblical dreams and visions, and categorizes them as prophetic, symbolic, or incubation. He studies biblical dreams and visions in the context of similar phenomena in the literature of neighboring cultures and analyzes the functions of dream reports in the biblical corpus. The literature of dream interpretation in Egypt and Mesopotamia informs Bar’s treatment of the structure of dream accounts as conforming to the three-part model (setting, message, response) proposed for ancient Near Eastern dream accounts in A. Leo Oppenheim’s classic work on dream interpretation. Symbolic dreams, whether or not God is their source, contain no divine appearance and require interpretation to be understood. While oneiro-criticism was a significant profession in ancient Near Eastern cultures, the Hebrew Bible presents only two such experts, Joseph and Daniel. Both were active in royal courts, and the success of both in interpreting the rulers’ dreams served to confirm the superiority of the God of Israel. Ambivalence characterizes the attitude toward dreams and visions in prophetic literature. Joel and Job allow that they have some value. But Jeremiah, Zechariah, Isaiah, and Ecclesiates find no religious significance in them and even treat them as tools of deceit. The Talmud presents no consensus about whether dreams are a legitimate form of communication from God. Although a guild of professional interpreters existed in Jerusalem and the Talmud includes a short dream book, many Sages expressed skepticism about such alleged divine messages. Dreams also serve important functions within the literary world of the Hebrew Bible. Bar shows how Jacob’s dream at Bethel serves to explain the sanctity of the place and detach it from its Canaanite context, how the dreams in the Joseph cycle show the hand of divine providence in the descent to Egypt followed by the ascent to the Promised Land, how Solomon’s dream at Gibeon serves to legitimate Solomon’s rule, and how Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams served to emphasize once again that it is the Lord who guides universal history.

    eISBN: 978-0-87820-106-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Since Freud, the rational modern approach to human dreams has typically involved inquiry into past or current emotional states. Dreams are seen as manifestations of the subconscious. What we have not resolved, what we are unwilling to admit, and even what we dare not recognize while awake–all find expression while we are sleeping: wishes, anxiety, fear, lust, hatred, ambition, jealousy, longing.¹

    In contrast, the ancients, unfamiliar with the intricate byways of the human soul revealed by modern psychology, saw dreams as channels of communication between human beings and external sources. In sleep, they believed, messages were conveyed to the...

  6. 1 The Prophetic Dream
    (pp. 9-43)

    A. Leo Oppenheim believed that themessage dream,which I shall call theprophetic dream, is derived from theincubation dream–a dream visited upon one while sleeping in a sanctuary or holy place after ritual preparations, which he held was the archetype of the message dream of Scripture.¹ Working from this model, Oppenheim attempted to explain motifs found in various cultures, in which the description of the deity as a mighty figure standing by the head of the dreamer is only a distortion, typical of dreams, of the image of the deity before whom the suppliant is asking for...

  7. 2 Symbolic Dreams
    (pp. 44-77)

    Although the ancients were unaware of the role of the subconscious as understood by modern psychology, the amora Rabbi Jonathan observed that “a person is shown only the thoughts of his own heart.”¹ His colleague Rava added that people do not dream about something they cannot imagine while awake: no one dreams about a tree of gold or an elephant that can pass through the eye of a needle.²

    Elsewhere in the Talmud, we read that a Roman emperor, seeking to test the wisdom of Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania, demanded that he tell him what the emperor was dreaming about...

  8. 3 The Interpretation of Dreams
    (pp. 78-107)

    The interpretation of dreams has always been influenced by the prevalent theory about their sources. Because in antiquity it was assumed that dreams were divinely inspired and contained messages about the future, human beings took great pains to understand and interpret them. For that reason, it is not surprising that there were professional dream interpreters in the ancient Near East. Indeed, guidebooks for interpreting dreams are extant from both Egypt and Mesopotamia, complete with instructions and keys for interpretation. Clay tablets from Mesopotamia, most of them from the famous library of the Assyrian King Assurbanipal, discovered in Nineveh, present a...

  9. 4 Perceptions of Dreams in the Prophetic and Wisdom Literature
    (pp. 108-142)

    Although dreams are important in Genesis, the biblical corpus from 1 Kings 3 through Daniel 2 describes no specific ones–the prophets report their visions instead. Nevertheless, the prophets refer to dreams in a number of passages. Did they or didn’t they allow that these experiences could be legitimate manifestations of the word of the Lord? Is there a prophetic consensus among them about their legitimacy or are there different shades of opinion?

    Because we are dealing with a variegated literature produced by many authors over a long period of time, we would expect a proliferation of views on the...

  10. 5 Visions
    (pp. 143-182)

    The line of demarcation between dreams and visions, or between God’s appearance to a sleeper in a dream and genuine revelation to a waking person, is not clear and distinct in every case.¹ Maimonides writes: “None of them see a prophetic vision, but only a dream in a nocturnal vision, or in daytime after they fall into a trance, as it says: ‘I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream’ (Num. 12:6).”² In other words, the prophets experienced their revelations in nocturnal dreams or during the day, after falling into a trance,...

  11. 6 The Intent of the Dream Stories
    (pp. 183-217)

    Biblical narrative, which in the main is a historical recitation, is characterized by a simple and flowing style, devoid of rhetorical ornamentation. Irrelevant details are omitted. The story-tellers, who had a fixed and unwavering world view, sought to present the facts themselves in an objective and realistic fashion. Their proclivity for brevity and restraint allows readers to focus on those actions that lead to the climax of the tale and draw their own conclusions.

    This brevity provided the midrashic homilists with many opportunities for filling in background and lacunae. Subsequently, the biblical redactors, too, had clear and fixed goals. When...

  12. 7 Conclusions
    (pp. 218-222)

    We have seen that in much of biblical literature, dreams serve as a medium of communication between human beings and God. In referring to the future, they depict events of major significance for the dreamer, sometimes including divine promises and encouragement, other times warnings about actions to be avoided.

    There are two types of those communicative dreams in the Bible–prophetic and symbolic. Prophetic dreams contain an annunciation, injunction, or warning, spoken to the dreamer in clear and intelligible terms by God Himself, who addresses a human being directly. Symbolic dreams, in contrast, rely on tokens with an esoteric or...

  13. Appendix: The Incubation Dream
    (pp. 223-232)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-252)
  15. Index
    (pp. 253-262)