Bible – Its Dreams and Symbols
And He said, “Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream” (Num. 12:6).
“I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).
“For 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. He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword.” (Job 33:14- 18).
There are about 121 mentions of dreaming in the Bible and 89 mentions of sleep. (King James version.)The very first description of a dream is that in connection with Abraham.
Genesis 015:012 And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And – The Lord – he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
From that point on dreams are mentioned openly in such phrases as ‘020:006 And God said unto him in a dream’ – or ‘020:003 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him’ or ‘028:012 And he dreamed’. But no dreams of women are mentioned in the Old Testament.
Most of us can understand that such dreams or visions as Abraham experienced, and later Jacob and Joseph, are not recognisable as the type most of us wake from and remember. One might say these are a ‘once in a lifetime’ kind of dream. Explaining these dreams, and criticising the modern regard for dreams, some Christians are inclined to believe that only in the past did God directly communicate with ordinary men and women, and such a relationship does not apply to us today.
It must be remembered however that these early tribal people did not emerge from a vacuum. They inherited from previous cultures views and concepts about all aspects of life including dreams. They also lived within a particular view of the world and a system of beliefs which coloured their dreams, what they expected of them, and their manner of reporting them. Therefore it is worth looking at this background to biblical dreams. But in modern terms it can still be seen that dreams come from our core self – whether we like to call that self God or Life – see Core; The Two Powers for an explanation.
The very first mention of sleep occurs when we are told that God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep. These statements were written in Hebrew, a language whose alphabetical characters each had a symbolic meaning, much as the characters alpha and omega mean something by themselves in the Greek alphabet. The words ‘deep sleep’, when used in connection with Adam were ‘thareddemah’. The roots of this word – according to Fred Myers – are rad and dam. In the English language we use the ‘rad’ root in such words as radiate, radium, radical. The Hebrew word ‘radah’ means to rule to govern. The same root used as a ‘passive’ verb means to be insensible, to be fast asleep, or to lose consciousness and control.
The root ‘dam’ means to be connected through blood, similarity, kinship or identity. The whole word suggests a form of sleep in which the person loses self control and is directed by the will of another, perhaps as happens in hypnotic sleep.
This concept of sleep and dreams having the possibility of ones mind and experience being directed by another will, in fact the Divine will, lies at the root of the way dreams were considered in the Bible. Both Adam’s sleep, and Abraham’s vision, have to do with identity. With Adam something emerged from him that had a separate identity from himself, and which led to an awareness of self outside God. So this story is about the emerging of a personal will into an existence that had previously been linked wholly with the will of God.
If the concept of God has difficult associations we can substitute the idea of early humankind having little sense of separate identity from their environment and from their tribe. Their feeling of a collective identity with nature and their tribe we can give an overall name of God – the forces which gave them existence. A study of the Australian aborigines particularly illustrates this enormous identification with the tribal territory and with the tribe itself. With the Aborigines their sense of self was in direct relationship with the territory in which they lived, and their tribal group.
This is important because much of the story in Genesis is about a tribal people trying to attain and maintain an identity. This is true of most tribal people. The struggle to establish and maintain their identity as a group of people, and in competition with other tribes or kingdoms, explains much of their behaviour. Just as our body destroys millions of bacteria each day in its attempt to maintain its integrity, so the tribal peoples often killed their rivals as a part of establishing and maintaining their own existence, identity and territory. Belief systems such as the tribal religion were of immense importance in this. Abraham’s visionary communication with God – the overall and powerful factors underlying his existence – set a path which enabled Abraham’s people to survive as a group through experiences which could easily have disintegrated the tribal cohesion. A common religious belief acted as a social ‘glue’ and a means of establishing mutual direction and the ability to work toward a goal as a group. It was a form of agreed law which established order in the community. Anything threatening the religious belief threatened the community, just as much as bacteria that disrupt the integrated working of our body threaten our personal existence.
Looked at from this standpoint, many of the dreams reported in the Bible are about the direction an individual can take regarding the destiny of the family or nation. Such dreams were not only important to the individual, but also became landmarks and pointers for later generations. They were and still are great statements summarising the beliefs, possibilities and character of the people. They looked at possibilities from the collective viewpoint – the good of the tribe or group – and gave insights that would benefit the tribe or nation. In the book Black Elk Speaks, the American Indian Black Elk tells how many of his great visions were about the healing of tribal conflicts or uncertainties. See: Prayer And Dream Interpretation; Native American Dream Beliefs.
The vision of God, the dream in which the Divine is directly experienced within us is not isolated to any one culture. Remembering this helps one to gain a clearer picture of just what such dreams or visions are. For instance a Hindu visionary does not meet with the divine in the image of the Christian God, but with a vision of Krishna or Shiva. The Indian visionary or dreamer makes contact with their own sense of the collective via their personal cultural images of the divine. The American Indian visionary met their sense of the collective psyche or tribe through an image of their own totem animal or family spirit. If ones own identity is deeply embedded in one religious belief system, then such alien images as those belonging to another culture might be as threatening as the invasion of bacteria already mentioned. They would undermine ones sense of self based on a particular belief system.
If we can accept that as a human we have the capacity to touch parts of the mind that have the amazing ability to integrate personal and cultural information, and from it present a view of where current trends and social moods are leading, then we have an understanding from which insight into Biblical dreams and visions can arise. If it is also seen that the form of the vision is shaped by cultural ideas and feelings about divinity – the collective and underlying forces of personal existence – then many of the Biblical dreams become understandable.
As the Bible proceeds, the dreams mentioned become more linked with personal rather than social identity. Joseph’s dream of his brothers sheaves of wheat bowing down to him, and paying homage, is less to do with tribal direction than the vision of Abraham. (Genesis 37:05). But Pharaoh’s dream of the fat and thin cattle is back in the mould of a dream showing the way for his nation.
Example: 037:006 And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.
Joseph and his family clearly understood that the sheaves of wheat in his dream represented themselves. The meaning of symbols and images was clearly understood by many ancient people. Perhaps they could not verbalise exactly what the image meant, but it was often a deeply felt part of their life. It is this aspect of the Bible which is often completely overlooked by readers today. Is the story of Adam and Eve talking about two individuals who were divinely created and walked the earth in a golden age? Is the story of Jonah and the whale literally true? Are the stories of Jesus about a historical character? Or are they wonderfully evocative images which tell of another sort of truth than that of historical fact?
This side of the Bible is incredibly rich. It stands beyond all the attempts to fix a literal and dogmatic meaning to it, and speaks of life experience which most of us can identify with and understand. If we look at the Bible as if it were a description of a dream instead of a statement of history, light shines through the stories and enlivens us.
Starting with the story of Adam and Eve, it is clearly about the beginning of life. It is about human consciousness and its beginnings. In the manner of dreams, where each part expresses some aspect of our own life and feelings, God, Adam, Eve and Eden are all aspects of the one being – the human being. In fact in Hebrew the word Adam is a plural word, not singular, so the story is talking about the human essence, not about a man and a woman.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. See God and the Big Bang are the Same.
Notice that God is given to speak the word ‘us’ showing there are creative forces rather than one creator. Also the man who is created is referred to as ‘them’.
The Garden of Eden suggests a state of mind or a state of existence other than our present normal waking awareness. The story tells us that there was a condition humans lived in prior to their present one. This prior condition was lost. And if the descriptions in the story of the state of Eden are compared with the condition that Adam and Eve found themselves in after Eden was lost, we can see that the story suggests women and men at first had no will of their own. They responded to life out of their sense of connection with what is called God – their connection with their life process, with their innate and instinctive urges and insights.
This is not a revolutionary idea. Every one of us go through such enormous personal changes. From the condition of the womb, in which we know no language or organised thought, where there is no need to make an effort to breathe or exist, we are thrust into separation, into survival, into independent existence. But we still have no language or organised thoughts. In yet another fantastic leap, our brain takes in the programming of language and achieves self awareness and the sense of aloneness. Prior to this we had no concept of time or space.
So Adam – the human race – at first existed in a state in which there was no sense of time, without any personal identity. In an animal we would call this instinct. Instinct guides the animal without the animal needing to have any personal ideas or decisions. It doesn’t have to think, it responds. Many people have associated this life in Eden as the period we each spend in the womb, and when we are cast out of Eden that is birth. But the story has a larger picture. In fact human beings in their development have lived in a transitional period when they were guided by instinct, and later developed refined language and the ability to make personal decisions in some degree. In our growth from the womb we pass through the whole range of our developmental modes, right from the creature with gills to the air breathing life form with a developing sense of personal identity.
Reading about Eve (Aisha), and how she listened to promptings to do a deed her inner life, her habits, her instincts, forbade, the story takes us to the emergence of personal will. Interestingly, in the original Hebrew, up until this point in the story the word for mankind was always Adam. But as soon as this new being is formed the word for mankind is Aish, and the new being is Aisha. The new human being that has come about, Aish (Adam) says is ‘now bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh’ confirming that in fact the story is about one being, not two. But it is a new being with a will of its own.
Many years ago I read the true account of a Bali tribesman who had need one day to leave his tribal village. This was the first time in his life that he was going to depart from his people. As he got to the boundary of his tribal territory he fainted.
If we have been born and raised in a modern Western society, we will find it difficult to understand the enormous part the tribal group and the tribal beliefs play in the psyche of the tribesman. It is difficult for us to understand what it is like to feel so much a part of a group or a family that simply walking away from it can cause one to collapse. Developing a will of our own, learning to exist outside of our family and tribal group, has cost us a lot, and the story of Adam who becomes Aish and Aisha, sums up the price that is paid by modern humans as they meet the anxiety, the guilt, the loneliness of life as an individual. We are, like Aisha, caste out from a sense of belonging to the universe, nature, and our tribe. We have lost a feeling of being in harmony even within ourselves. We no longer have the innocence of an animal or a child. We are alone together.
The New Testament moves on and uses different symbols and images. The story of Mary’s virgin birth while married to an old man; of how a divine child is born, and how this wondrous child matures and heals others and is the way to regain heaven, is a further chapter in the story of human development.
Looking at the New Testament once more as a dream, Joseph represents the rational mind which is not capable of going beyond reason to touch any sense of personal wholeness. Only Mary, the integrated feelings and thoughts, which are capable of being virginal, without prior conception (without holding on to prior conceptions as to the nature of life as the rational mind does) can bring forth the birth of an intuition, a new response to oneself and ones environment, that transforms ones life. This is a living relationship with the mystery that underlies our life. If we generate a ‘Mary’ part of us, a part that is not held prisoner by habits of thought, stereotypes of behaviour, by habitual patterns of thinking, then we can begin to allow into consciousness what was previously impossible to know. Mary, the virginal or open state of mind and feelings, acts as a link between the identity or personality, and the deep unconscious life processes. This link allows the birth of realisations and inner change that brings healing and a possibility of experiencing the eternal aspect of oneself. This is a great boon considering the rational mind, the independent will, has closed the door to personal experience of the timeless. This experience of the transcendent, or ones own wholeness is what Christ represents. See The Inner Path of Christ.
The story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is a continuation of the events depicted in the Old Testament. The emergent individual lost any sense of connection with the whole, and with the community of which he or she was a part. Erich Fromm, in his book Escape From Freedom, explains the recent historical events and psychological changes in people that have widened this gap between the security that was at one time felt by individuals with a sense of being part of nature, or part of a community. The shift the New Testament symbols depict is that of the individual rekindling an awareness of his/her connection with the living power of the creative power, nature and community. In fact one of the major rites of Christianity – communion – directly celebrates this. This communion is not a loss of self as portrayed in Eastern religious teachings, but a willing connection made between an aware individual and the whole.
Example: It was perhaps the dream experiences that led Saint Jerome to mistranslate the Hebrew word for witchcraft, anan, as “observing dreams” (in Latin, observo somnia) when commissioned to translate the Bible by Pope Damasus I. Anan appears ten times in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), but Jerome translates it as “observing dreams” only three times, in such statements as, “you shall not practice augury nor observe dreams,” which more accurately reads, “you shall not practice augury or witchcraft.” These simple changes, which made the Bible appear to discourage attending to one’s dreams, significantly altered the course of how dreams were viewed for centuries.
Looked at through its symbols instead of its historical relevance, the Bible unfolds the drama not only of your personal growth toward maturity, toward an independent identity, and toward a greater realisation of your own potential, it also paints the great picture of the pathway humanity took toward personal awareness and a sense of separate identity. It depicts in its stories and characterisations, the wonder and difficulties of becoming an individual and of discovering satisfaction in ones life. See: archetype of Christ; meeting with Christ; Individuation; myths legends and fairy tales in dreams; spiritual life in dreams.