In the Ancient Near Eastern world dreams were real. They were not an extension of one's conscious or unconscious mind. Dreams were the world of the divine and the demonic. Dreams had meaning, too. They often revealed the future. They could show the dreamer the right decision to make. People even went to temples or holy places to sleep in order to have a dream which would show them the decision to make.
The dreams of common people were important to them, but the dreams of kings and of holy men or women were important on a national or international scale. One of the results was that many of the nations surrounding Israel had religious figures skilled in the interpretation of dreams. These figures could be consulted at the highest level of government for important decisions. In such nations as Egypt and Assyria, these interpreters even developed “dream books” by which they could give interpretations according to the symbols of a dream.
Dreams were important in the Old Testament, too. Israel was forbidden to use many of the divining practices of her neighbors, but over a dozen times God revealed something through a dream. When we recognize that night visions and dreams were not strictly distinguished, we can find many more times in the Old and New Testaments that God used this method to communicate. In fact, prophecy and the dreaming of dreams were to be tested in the same way according to
Deuteronomy 13:1. In
Numbers 12:6 again prophecy and dreams are placed on equal footing. Saul complained that “neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets” did God answer him (1 Samuel 28:6). Joel wrote that when the Spirit comes “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (1 Samuel 2:28).
What Dreams Were Interpreted? Not every dream was thought to be from God. Not every dream was a significant. Some could be wishful thinking (Psalms 126:1;
Isaiah 29:7-8). In times of need and especially when a person sought a word from God, dreams could be significant. In the Old Testament the interpreted dreams were most often those of prophets and rulers.
Not every dream needed to be interpreted. To note this we can distinguish three types of dreams. A simple “message dream” apparently did not need interpretation. For instance, Joseph, in
Matthew 1:1 and
Matthew 2:1, understood the dreams concerning Mary and Herod even though no mention is made of interpretation. A second type, the “simple symbolic dream,” used symbols, but the symbolism was clear enough that the dreamer and others could understand it. The Old Testament Joseph had this kind of dream in
Genesis 37:1. Complex symbolic dreams, though, needed the interpretive skill of someone with experience or an unusual ability in interpretation. The dreams of Nebuchadnezzar described in
Daniel 2:1 and
Daniel 4:1 are good examples of this kind of dream. Even Daniel himself had dreams in which the symbolism was so complex that he had to seek divine interpretation (Daniel 8:1).
How and by Whom Were Dreams Interpreted? Since several religions and cultures developed people skilled in interpretation, this skill undoubtedly was communicated to later generations both through writings and through training a new generation by apprenticeship.
In the Old Testament Joseph and Daniel are the preeminent interpreters of dreams. It is no accident that they used their skills in the courts of non-Israelite rulers. Daniel's story in
Daniel 2:1, especially, demonstrates several points about dream interpretation. First, Nebuchadnezzar believed his dream to have meaning. Second, he summoned all those with skill in interpretation of dreams, but they could not meet his demands. Apparently, even the best interpreters could be “stumped” sometimes. Third, Daniel was able to narrate the dream to the king and to explain the dream after Daniel and his friends had prayed. Here can be seen the Israelite view of the source of an interpreter's skill. The accounts of Joseph identify God as the Source of Joseph's ability when he came before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:16).
Were Dreams Ever Wrong or Wrongly Interpreted? Dreams were neither foolproof nor infallible. Both Jeremiah and Zechariah spoke against relying on dreams to express the revelation of God. Dreams could come without being God's word (Jeremiah 23:28). Jeremiah lumped dreamers together with soothsayers, sorcerers, and false prophets (Jeremiah 27:9). He cautioned exiles in Babylon not to listen to dreamers and false prophets who told them that the Exile would not be long (Jeremiah 29:8). Zechariah pointed people toward the Lord, apparently because they were relying on dreamers and others to give them the truth (Zechariah 10:1-2). Thus, while dreams were often used by God to reveal His will, there is a warning, too, not to rely on this method to know the will of God. See Inspiration; Oracles; Prophets; Revelation.