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. Ge 40:5,8; 41:1; Da 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.
Though associated in some passages with trifles and vanities, Job 7:14; Ec 5:7, there is yet abundant evidence in the scriptures that God often conveyed His mind to people by means of dreams, and this not only to those who obeyed Him, but also to the heathen. Ge 20:3,6; Jg 7:13. "God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed: then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man." Job 33:14-17. God said that He would instruct His prophets in dreams. Nu 12:6. He also used dreams in the case of Nebuchadnezzar and of Daniel in order to reveal His will and purpose concerning, the future.
Joseph, the reputed father of the Lord, was directed several times by means of dreams; and Pilate was warned by his wife to have nothing to do with that just man because of what she had suffered in a dream. Mt 1:20; 2:12-22; 27:19. It is to be remarked that in the last days when God pours out His Spirit on all flesh the sons and daughters will prophesy, and the young men shall see visions, and the old men shall dream dreams. Joe 2:28; Ac 2:17. This will be the way that God will make known His mind in those days.
The Scripture declares that the influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul extends to its sleeping as well as its waking thoughts. But, in accordance with the principle enunciated by St. Paul in
dreams, in which the understanding is asleep, are placed below the visions of prophecy, in which the understanding plays its part. Under the Christian dispensation, while we read frequently of trances and vision, dreams are never referred to as vehicles of divine revelation. In exact accordance with this principle are the actual records of the dreams sent by God. The greater number of such dreams were granted, for prediction or for warning, to those who were aliens to the Jewish covenant. And where dreams are recorded as means of God's revelation to his chosen servants, they are almost always referred to the periods of their earliest and most imperfect knowledge of him. Among the Jews, "if any person dreamed a dream which was peculiarly striking and significant, he was permitted to go to the high priest in a peculiar way, and see if it had any special import. But the observance of ordinary dreams and the consulting of those who pretend to skill in their interpretation are repeatedly forbidden.
De 13:1-5; 18:9-14
DREAMS. The easterns, in particular the Jews, greatly regarded dreams, and applied for their interpretation to those who undertook to explain them. The ancient Greeks and Romans had the same opinion of them, as appears from their most eminent writers. We see the antiquity of this attention to dreams in the history of Pharaoh's butler and baker, Genesis 40. Pharaoh himself, and Nebuchadnezzar, are instances. God expressly condemned to death all who pretended to have prophetic dreams, and to foretel futurities, even though what they foretold came to pass, if they had any tendency to promote idolatry, De 13:1-3. But the people were not forbidden, when they thought they had a significative dream, to address the prophets of the Lord, or the high priest in his ephod, to have it explained. Saul, before the battle of Gilboa, consulted a woman who had a familiar spirit, "because the Lord would not answer him by dreams, nor by prophets," 1Sa 28:6-7. The Lord himself sometimes discovered his will in dreams, and enabled persons to explain them. He informed Abimelech in a dream, that Sarah was the wife of Abraham, Ge 20:3,6. He showed Jacob the mysterious ladder in a dream, Ge 28:12-13; and in a dream an angel suggested to him a means of multiplying his flocks, Ge 31:11-12, &c. Joseph was favoured very early with prophetic dreams, whose signification was easily discovered by Jacob, Ge 37:5. God said, that he spake to other prophets in dreams, but to Moses face to face. The Midianites gave credit to dreams, as appears from that which a Midianite related to his companion; and from whose interpretation Gideon took a happy omen, Jg 7:13,15. The Prophet Jeremiah exclaims against impostors who pretended to have had dreams, and abused the credulity of the people: "They prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him tell it faithfully, saith the Lord," Jer 23:25,28-29. The Prophet Joel promises from God, that in the reign of the Messiah, the effusion of the Holy Spirit should be so copious, that the old men should have prophetic dreams, and the young men should receive visions, Joe 2:28.