Interpretation of Dreams in the Bible

Joseph interpreting the dreams of the baker and the butler
Joseph interpreting the dreams of the baker and the butler.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

God used dreams in the Bible many times to communicate his will, reveal his plans, and to announce future events. However, biblical dream interpretation required careful testing to prove it came from God (Deuteronomy 13). Both Jeremiah and Zechariah warned against relying on dreams to express the revelation of God (Jeremiah 23:28).

Key Bible Verse

And they [Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker] replied, “We both had dreams last night, but no one can tell us what they mean.”

“Interpreting dreams is God’s business,” Joseph replied. “Go ahead and tell me your dreams.” Genesis 40:8 (NLT)

Biblical Words for Dreams

In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the word used for dream is ḥălôm, referring to either an ordinary dream or one that is given by God. In the New Testament, two different Greek words for dream appear. The Gospel of Matthew contains the word ónar, referring specifically to message or oracle dreams (Matthew 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22; 27:19). However, Acts 2:17 and Jude 8 use a more general term for dream (enypnion) and dreaming (enypniazomai), which refer to both oracle and non-oracle dreams.

A “night vision” or “vision in the night” is another phrase used in the Bible to denote a message or oracle dream. This expression is found in both Old and New Testaments (Isaiah 29:7; Daniel 2:19; Acts 16:9; 18:9).

Message Dreams

Biblical dreams fall into three basic categories: messages of impending misfortune or good fortune, warnings about false prophets, and ordinary, non-oracle dreams.

The first two categories include message dreams. Another name for a message dream is an oracle. Message dreams typically do not require interpretation, and they often involve direct instructions that are delivered by a deity or a divine assistant.

Joseph’s Message Dreams

Before the birth of Jesus Christ, Joseph had three message dreams concerning upcoming events (Matthew 1:20-25; 2:13, 19-20). In each of the three dreams, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph with straightforward instructions, which Joseph understood and obediently followed.

In Matthew 2:12, the wise men were warned in a message dream not to return to Herod. And in Acts 16:9, the Apostle Paul experienced a night vision of a man urging him to go to Macedonia. This vision in the night was likely a message dream. Through it, God instructed Paul to preach the gospel in Macedonia.

Symbolic Dreams

Symbolic dreams require an interpretation because they contain symbols and other nonliteral elements which are not plainly understood.

Some symbolic dreams in the Bible were simple to interpret. When Jacob’s son Joseph dreamed of bundles of grain and heavenly bodies bowing down before him, his brothers quickly understood that these dreams predicted their future subservience to Joseph (Genesis 37:1-11).

Jacob’s Dream

Jacob was fleeing for his life from his twin brother Esau, when he lay down for the evening near Luz. That night in a dream, he had a vision of a ladder, or stairway, between heaven and earth. The angels of God were ascending and descending on the ladder. Jacob saw God standing above the ladder. God repeated the promise of support he had made to Abraham and Isaac. He told Jacob his offspring would be many, blessing all the families of the earth. God then said, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:15)

The full interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder dream would be unclear if not for a statement by Jesus Christ in John 1:51 that he is that ladder. God took the initiative to reach out to humans through his Son, Jesus Christ, the perfect "ladder." Jesus was “God With Us,” come to earth to save humanity by reconnecting us in relationship with God.

Pharaoh’s Dreams

Pharaoh’s dreams were complicated and required skillful interpretation. In Genesis 41:1–57, Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat, healthy cows and seven skinny, sickly cows. He also dreamed of seven plump ears of corn and seven shriveled ears. In both dreams, the smaller consumed the larger. None of the wise men in Egypt and diviners who usually interpreted dreams could understand what Pharaoh’s dream meant.

Pharaoh’s butler remembered that Joseph had interpreted his dream in prison. So, Joseph was freed from prison and God revealed to him the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream. The symbolic dream predicted seven good years of prosperity in Egypt followed by seven years of famine.

King Nebuchadnezzar's Dreams

The dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar described in Daniel 2 and 4 are excellent examples of symbolic dreams. God gave Daniel the ability to interpret Nebuchadnezzar's dreams. One of those dreams, Daniel explained, predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would go insane for seven years, live in the fields like an animal, with long hair and fingernails, and eat grass. A year later, as Nebuchadnezzar was boasting to himself, the dream came true.

Daniel himself had several symbolic dreams related to future kingdoms of the world, the nation of Israel, and end times.

Pilate’s Wife’s Dream

Pilate’s wife had a dream about Jesus the night before her husband delivered him to be crucified. She tried to influence Pilate to release Jesus by sending him a message during the trial, telling Pilate of her dream. But Pilate ignored her warning.

Does God Still Speak to Us Through Dreams?

Today God communicates primarily through the Bible, his written revelation to his people. But that’s not to say he can’t or won’t speak to us through dreams. A surprising number of former Muslims who convert to Christianity say they came to believe in Jesus Christ through the experience of a dream.

Just as dream interpretation in ancient times required careful testing to prove that the dream came from God, the same holds true today. Believers can prayerfully ask God for wisdom and guidance regarding the interpretation of dreams (James 1:5). If God speaks to us through a dream, he will always make his meaning clear, just as he did for people in the Bible.

Sources

  • “Dreams.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 442).
  • “Ancient Dream Interpretation.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary.