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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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DREAMS . Sleep impressed primitive savages as a great mystery; and they consequently attributed a peculiar significance to the dreams of sleepers, as phenomena which they could not control by their will or explain by their reason. In the lowest stage of culture all dreams were regarded as objectively real experiences; the god or spirit actually visited the dreamer, the events dreamed actually occurred. Hence any one who was subject to frequent dreaming was looked on as a special medium of Divine energy, and many sought to produce the state by artificial means, e.g. fasting or the use of drugs. In process of time dreams came to be treated rather as Divine warnings than as actual occurrences. Such admonitions could be deliberately sought, e.g. by sleeping in a sacred spot, such as the temples of Asklepios or Serapis or the grotto of Trophonius; or they could come unsought, when the gods wished either to reveal or to deceive. (Plato, however, while allowing that the gods may send dreams, denies that they can wish to deceive men). Thus, for instance, among the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Arabs, the Egyptians, a profound importance was attached to dreams; there were professional interpreters of them (cf. Genesis 40:5 ; Genesis 40:8 ; Genesis 41:1 , Daniel 2:5 ), and manuals were compiled to aid the work of elucidation (cf. the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus of Ephesus). Wiser theorists might discriminate between dreams, but popular superstition tended to regard them all as omens, to be explained, as far as possible, in accordance with definite rules.

1. Among the Jews . In both Testaments we find significance attached to dreams ( Genesis 37:6 ; Genesis 37:9 ; Genesis 41:25 , Judges 7:13 , Daniel 2:28 ; Daniel 7:1 ff., Matthew 1:20 ; Matthew 2:13 ; Matthew 2:20 , Acts 23:11 ; Acts 27:23 ), and in OT times it seems that a great deal of vulgar superstition existed with regard to such phenomena; similarly necromancy and sorcery, though discouraged by the higher thought of the nation (cf. Deuteronomy 18:10-11 ), were undoubtedly practised. We find hardly any traces, however, of dreams being regularly sought; 1 Samuel 28:15 may be one; and in Genesis 28:12-19 and 1 Kings 3:5 it is possible to suppose a reference to the practice of sleeping in a sacred locality in order to receive a Divine communication. On the whole, the general trend of OT teaching is as follows: Dreams may in some cases be genuine communications from God ( Job 33:15 , Jeremiah 23:28 ), and as such are reverenced ( Genesis 20:3 ; Genesis 31:10 ff.), though Numbers 12:6-8 treats them as an inferior medium; but there are false dreams and lying dreamers, against whom precautions are necessary; and the idea that habitual dreaming is a certain sign of Divine inspiration is stoutly combated (cf. Jeremiah 23:25 ; Jeremiah 23:32 ; Jeremiah 27:9 ; Jeremiah 29:8 , Zechariah 10:2 , Ecclesiastes 5:7 ), and it is definitely recognized that the interpretation of dreams belongs to God, and is not a matter of human codification (cf. Genesis 40:8 ).

2. General . The consideration of dreams is partly a subject for the sciences which treat of the general relations between body and spirit, and partly a matter of common sense. It seems clear that dreams are connected with physical states, and that their psychological origin lies mainly in the region beneath the ‘threshold of consciousness.’ But all dreams and all waking states are states of consciousness, whether it be partial or complete, and as such are subject to law; if any are to be regarded as ‘supernatural,’ it must be owing not to their methods but to their messages. Some dreams convey no message, and can be explained as valuable only by a resort to superstition. Others may be real revelations, and as such Divine; in abnormal cases the power of spiritual perception may be intensified and heightened in the dream-state, and thus an insight into Divine truth may be obtained which had been denied to the waking consciousness. Similarly Condorcet is said to have solved in a dream a mathematical problem which had baffled his waking powers, and Coleridge to have dreamt the poem of Kubla Khan . But under any circumstances the interpretation of a dream ‘belongs to God’; the question whether its message is a Divine communication or not must ultimately be answered by an appeal to the religious consciousness, or in other words to the higher reason. The awakened intelligence must be called in to criticise and appraise the deliverances received in dreams, and its verdict must decide what measure of attention is to be paid to them. Dreams, in short, may be the source of suggestions, but scarcely of authoritative directions.

A. W. F. Blunt.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Dreams'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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