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The Importance of Dreams in the Bible

Pay attention to your dreams. Just like with Joseph, Daniel and other biblical characters—it may be God’s way of communicating with you.

Marc Chagall’s 1966 painting Jacob’s Dream

Years ago, after reading a book by a therapist and minister who showed that God can often speak to us in our dreams, I began writing down my own. Every morning, while I still remember them, I make a quick note in a journal about what I dreamed.

What I’ve learned through this practice is that our dreams are sometimes just a jumble of inconsequential things—what you ate for dinner, a TV show you watched, an article you read. It can be your subconscious mind reorganizing thoughts. But every once in a while, you’ll have a dream that leaves you feeling as if God really is trying to get your attention. And as long as the message of that dream aligns with God’s will by encouraging positive change and positive outcomes, chances are good that he very well might be.

Take, for example, the dream I had just the other night as I was preparing to write this story—and feeling a little anxious about it. In the dream, I was packing up words to put in the refrigerator, just the right ones to make a meal. And the message came: “He is the creative one.”

Me, the creative one, being challenged to put together words for us to feast on. Or then again, maybe it was a heavenly nudge to focus on how our Creator can and has used dreams to communicate to us ever since biblical times. Go back to the source.

There are 21 dreams recorded in the Bible, most of them in the Old Testament, only six in the New. Some you’ll remember right away. How could any of us forget Jacob’s ladder, the dream he had when he made a swift escape from stealing his brother Esau’s birthright and had to sleep in the great outdoors, a rock for his pillow? That’s when the angels appeared to him in his dream, ascending and descending a celestial staircase.

Dreams have a crucial distinction from the other mysterious ways in which God communicates with us. They obviously happen only when we’re asleep. As we read often enough in the Bible, God or his angels will appear in visions or speak to people in their waking moments, but a dream is a message in slumber. It’s from the subconscious mind or God—or both.

The more you pay attention to your dreams, the more you’ll get from them. And the more likely you are to remember them. (I’ve found this from writing down mine.)

We also see this happen in the Bible. The people who dream often have more than one dream—they’ve been paying attention.

And then there’s Daniel, who paid attention to someone else’s dream and thereby saved his own skin.

The Old Testament’s Daniel is in a tough situation. Along with the rest of the Israelites, he’s taken to Babylon and put under the yoke of the king. Bright, young and strong, Daniel catches the king’s attention. But this only increases the courtiers’ jealousy. The only way for Daniel to survive is to interpret the king’s dreams. God tells him what they mean. He discovers a gift—which ends up saving his life—that he never knew he had. But it’s a gift. Nothing he aspired to.

It is easy to dismiss Daniel’s powers of interpretation as something extraordinary. “I’m not like Daniel,” we might say as we ponder what our own dreams mean. But Daniel didn’t read a pile of books or get a Ph.D. or consult with a visionary. His gift came from God, a mark of his own humility.

With that thought in mind, let’s take a look at the six dreams that appear in the New Testament, four of them to the same person: Joseph. In the narratives of Jesus’ birth, we usually focus on Mary. How God appeared to her through an angel—in a vision, mind you—telling her that she would give birth to this baby who would be the Son of God. It is her future husband who gets the message in a dream.

He has heard through the rumor mill that Mary is with child—clearly not his—and so he is going to quietly call off the marriage. Then he has a dream. He is told to take Mary as his wife because the baby is not the offspring of any other man. The child will fulfill the ancient prophecy and be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” and he is to be named Jesus. Joseph heeds the dream, as shocking and bewildering as it must have been. He does exactly what the dream said.

When Jesus is born, the tyrannical King Herod learns of this supposed new king. In a jealous rage, he has every male child aged two or under in and around Bethlehem put to death. Fortunately, Joseph has another dream, warning him of what Herod is up to. He takes his wife and child and flees to Egypt. Then, after Herod dies, a dream alerts Joseph that it is okay to return home. As the family is making their way through Judea, however, he has a fourth dream, in which he learns that Herod’s son, perhaps as murderous as his father, has taken the throne, so they avoid Jerusalem and head to Galilee and Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.

Joseph is a lowly carpenter, not a rabbi, not a Pharisee, not of any exalted status, Yet he is the one who is entrusted with the safety of the Son of God. And he gets the message through dreams.

The wise men too are alerted to danger through a dream. How we refer to them may sound grand, but it is likely they were simply amateur astronomers. They certainly weren’t Jewish and didn’t know the Scriptures. But they did know how to read and act on signs from God—the star they followed in the sky, all the way to Bethlehem.

On their journey, they stop to visit Herod. The wicked king tries to trick them, telling them to let him know when and where the child is so that he might also pay homage. But in a dream, the wise men are warned of his duplicitousness and avoid Herod, returning home “by another route.”

Doing what a dream tells you can take you a different way than you ever intended. It can help you avoid danger too.

The last dream mentioned in the New Testament is the only one in the Bible attributed to a woman.

Pilate’s wife. And the dream she has is actually a nightmare. Pontius Pilate is the governor of Judea. Jesus is brought before him by the chief priests and elders, who are full of accusations. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks. “You say so” is Jesus’ equivocal answer. Jesus’ fate is in the governor’s hands.

At that moment, Pilate’s wife rushes in. “Leave that righteous man alone,” she tells her husband. “I have suffered much today in a dream because of him.”

We know how the story ends, of course. Pilate does not act on his wife’s dream. Sometimes I wish we knew the rest of her dream. Or is it enough simply to know that God chose her, someone apparently not a follower of Christ, someone outside the fold, to communicate his message? Through her we can see that God reaches out to everyone through dreams, even to people who don’t deem themselves to be people of faith.

What I hope all these biblical examples do is reassure you that, by listening to your dreams and acting on them, you can change the course of your own life and the lives of people around you. It’s so easy to say dismissively, “I’m not called to do something extraordinary like Joseph” or “I’m no Daniel, in the service of a king,” but like all of them, we have dreams. And the biggest difference I see is how they trusted what they heard, learned and acted. Can’t you? Can’t I?

I’d like to think this article is an attempt. Putting words into the refrigerator—or at least into cold type.

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