Based on a Dreams Retreat by Rev. Colin Andrews




Dreamwork in the Old Testament times: Relating to God through dreams and visions.


The Voice of God.


Where is the voice of God in our day? Where has it been found in times past?


What better place to begin our exploration of dreams and the spiritual life than to go back to Old Testament times? In doing this we are placing ourselves at the original site end experience that initiated the historical development of the Judeo-Christian religion. And since dreams themselves are very much original experience, it will not be surprising to discover the central place dreams held in the lives of the Hebrew prophets, leaders, and people.


What approach did the ancient Hebrews take toward the dream? How did they value dreams? What was the tradition of dreams and dreamwork found in the Old Testament? How are dreams and visions related to each other in the Bible? What did the Hebrews look for in their dreams?


A number of 0ld Testament attitudes toward dreams and relating to God are evident from Jacob's dream. First through his dream Jacob was convinced that God had made direct contact with him. We have here, then, the belief that God speaks through dreams and, as seen elsewhere in the Old Testament, through visions also.


In the Old Testament, both dreams and visions seem to possess equal spiritual authority. In fact, in Hebrew and Greek, the words for dream and visions are related to the same prophetic root experience. Further, dreams and visions were often spoken of in the same breath, e.g. “If anyone among you is a prophet, I will make myself known to him in a vision. I will speak to him in a dream.”(Num 12: 6) Or, speaking through Joel, one of the later prophets, God says,


Afterwards I will pour out my spirit on everyone: your sons and daughters will proclaim my message, your old men will have dreams, and your young men shall see visions. At that time I will pour out my spirit even on servants, both men and women. I will pour out my spirit in those days.” (JoeI 2: 28-29)


On the day of Pentecost, the first words of Peter's speech to the assembled crowds were those very words from Joel (Acts 2:17-18).


Thus, a basic principle of biblical dream theory is that God makes direct contact through dreams and visions. God is interested in establishing relationship, and does it through such inner experiences. This basic principle was taken up by Christians in the first centuries, and remains the foundation stone of contemporary theory of dreams and dreamwork.


Both dreams and visions seem to come from the same source in the inner world. The difference is that dreams appear to us during sleep, while visions are experiences of intense imagery, sound and feeling occurring during the waking state. Most commonly, visions happen to people during prayer, but also in periods of major stress and transition points. One women who was staying day and night by her dying son's bedside had extremely intense visions of God, which gave the woman support and a deeply religious perspective in dealing with her son's dying.


We note also that in biblical times God spoke through dreams and visions not only to individuals but to the community as well. This is certainly true of Jacob's dream at Bethel, for the message in the dream was meant not only for Jacob but also for his family and his descendants. For example, the prophet, Hosea felt that Jacob's dream was the property of the entire Hebrew community. In commenting on Jacob's dream, the Greek translation has Hosea saying, ‘God met Jacob at Bethel and spoke to him.’ In the original Hebrew, however, the text reads, ‘God met Jacob at Bethel and spoke to us.’ (Hos 12: 5).


The symbolic and literal content of dreams:


Jacob's dream (Gen 28: 10-22) contains both literal and symbolic material. Yahweh's words (vv. 13- 15) seem to be a clear and direct communication to Jacob, and may be considered the literal or manifest content of the dream. But what are we to make of the symbolic images in this famous dream? The ladder? The angels? Note that Jacob does not seem to deal directly with the imagery. It is simply there - perhaps as an added sign that God is really present in the dream and in the place where he is sleeping.


In the Old Testament, there seem to be different ways of dealing with symbolic imagery in dreams. One way is Jacob's, who seems inspired by the images of his dreams, but does not attempt to interpret them. Jacob's son Joseph, who deals with symbols in another way, becomes a direct interpreter of dream images. He tends to find messages in the symbols.


Symbolism is a universal language. Symbolic images, such as those that occur in dreams and visions, are more primary and more universal than concepts, usually communicated in a dream by specific words; these words, of course, may have symbolic as well as literal meaning.


A symbol is an image or cluster of images with more than one possible meaning. Dreams speak to us largely in images because, in consciousness, image is prior and more primary than concept. We can see this difference between image and concept as one of the major differences in emphasis between the Catholic and Protestant churches. Catholicism has kept the ancient tradition of relating to images in order to experience the mystery behind the image. Protestantism, on the other hand, developed in reaction to what it considered an overemphasis on the symbolic and it emphasised instead, rational thought and a theology of consciousness. Today, there seems to a growing need to integrate both the symbolic and the literal into balanced forms for expressing the religious experiences of humankind.


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