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Oneiromancy in the Old Testament

Solomon Nigosian
The art of divination by dreams is called oneiromancy; and one who is skilled in interpreting dreams is
known as an oneirosopist, or an oneirocritic. Great importance was given by the ancients (and moderns)
to dreams and visions, because people believed that they were sent by the gods, or that they were
messages emanating from supernatural powers and spirits. Hence, people often inquired for divine
guidance through dreams and visions.
There can be no doubt that great faith was laid in dreams and visions of the Old Testament society as
well. Starting from the narrative of Abraham even down to Nebuchadnezzar, many persons were
recipients of divine communication via dreams. An interesting incident illustrating the belief in the
significance of dreams is recorded in Genesis 20, where the dream takes the form of a long conversation
between the deity Elohim and Abimelech, king of Gerar. Beginning with the ominous words, Behold
you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, the dream-episode ends with
Abimelech successfully convincing the deity Elohim of his innocence. Furthermore, the king secures a
promise of immunity after being informed by Elohim that Abraham was a prophet and could avert the
fatal omen.
The narrative of Jacob at Beth-El (Gen. 28:10-22), which was probably also an adaptation to YHWHistic
worship of an indigenous tradition, is very interesting. Jacob took one of the stones of the place of Beth-
El and used it as a pillow for his head as he slept. It was owing to his contact with this stone (which
represented a divination) that he recognized that the place of Beth-El was the abode of the supernatural, or
as he called it the house of God (Beth-El). As a result, he set the stone up as a pillar marking the spot as
sacred, then poured oil upon it and offered a libation as a token of offering (Gen. 35:14-15).
Again, as a means of communication between the gods and men, individuals sometimes spent the night in
a temple or sanctuary in the hope of receiving divine guidance in a dream. This method is known as
incubation-dreams. Solomons dream at Gideon (1 Kings 3:4-15; cf. 2 Chron. 1:3-12) belongs to this
category. Jacobs dream at Beth-El (Gen. 28:10-19) and Samuels experience at Shiloh (1 Sam. 3:1-14)
are examples of the unintentional type of incubation-dream. That is to say, each chanced to sleep in a
sacred place and become the recipient of a message-dream without having consciously sought it.
Jacobs success in securing the bulk of his father-in-laws yearlings is said to have been due to a dream
divination (Gen. 31:10-11). It was in this same dream that the patriarch was also told to return to the land
of Canaan. Jacob was helped indirectly through a dream when Laban, having realized that his son-in-law
and daughters had forsaken him in an impoverished state, set out in pursuit of Jacob, but was warned in a
dream not to harm anyone (Gen. 31:22-32).
The divine message about the future fate of Joseph communicated by dreams, and the recorded incidents
in which Joseph acted as an oneiroscopist, are also significant (Gen. 37:5-20; 40:1-23; 41:1-32).
Obviously, dreams were believed to be direct communications from the supernatural world; and in the
case of Joseph, it is strikingly demonstrated that once a mans destiny had been revealed by a dream,
nothing could hinder or erase it, since it had been decreed by the gods.
Another interesting evidence of oneiromancy, where neither angels nor deities were concerned, is
recorded in Judg. 8:13-15. When Gideon and his servant Purah went over to the camp of the Midianites,
they met a man who was revealing his dream to a companion. The dreamer had dreamt of a great loaf that
came hurtling into the camp and knocked down the principal tent. His companion interpreted this as the
sword of Gideon, whose deity Elohim would deliver the Midianites into his hand.
Nowhere is this desire for help from another realm more tragically expressed than in the sad story of Saul.
Perplexed and desperate, he inquired of YHWH; but alas, YHWH answered him not, neither by dreams,
nor by urim, nor by prophets. (1 Sam. 28:6). The first hope of a hopeless man was some kind of a dream
divination; but when no dream came, and when other efforts seemed to be of no avail, then, as a last
resort, Saul consulted the witch of En-dor.
Oneiromancy was not only a familiar practice in ancient Israel, but was considered a divinely approved
method of receiving divine guidance (Num. 12:6). So deeply rooted was this belief that in the apocalyptic
portion of the book of Joel, the prophet looked forward to the day when your sons and your daughters
shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28). It
was not until the time of Jeremiah that oneiromancy began to decline in reputation.
While great importance was generally attached to dreams, it was at the same time assumed that some
night visions were of no consequence (Isa. 29:8; Job 20:8; Ps. 73:20; Eccles. 5;7); and a person prone to
dreaming was mockingly referred to as a master of dreams (Gen. 37:19). The false prophets based the
veracity of their oracles on the claim that they were the recipients of divine dreams (Jer. 23:25-32); but to
the true prophets, these were lying dreams (Jer. 23:32; Zech. 10:2; Deut. 13:1-5). Nevertheless, for
centuries oneiromancy continued to be practiced among the Old Testament people.
Taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, 1978, pp. 61-64