Who Can Interpret Dreams?

There is often a tendency in comparative studies to highlight similarities rather than contrasts. But contrasts can be abnormally interesting. They remind us that understanding depends on seeing what peoples hold in common in the light of their differences and the other way around.
Moshe Greenberg delivered three lectures on biblical prose prayers at the University of California, Berkeley, during the 1981-1982 academic year. In the first of these lectures he observed,

God’s dream-revelations to Israelites are plain, and their sense is immediately given; conformably, we hear of no professional dream-interpretations in biblical Israel. (I leave aside here the dreams of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar; their riddle-character recalls the connotation of mystery and equivocation that attaches to the terms “oracle” and “oracular,” corresponding to the pagan conception of the relation of the supermundane realm to mankind, which is far from consistently or uniformly friendly. Note, however, that Joseph and Daniel are able to interpret the riddle-dreams, not through expertise, but through a special gift of God.)

One might quibble with Greenberg’s generalized characterization of dreams in the Hebrew Bible but it is hard to question the fact that its dreamers interpreted their own dreams. This fact is in seeming contrast with much, if not all, of the surrounding world. Even Gilgamesh needed Enkidu to interpret his dreams. The Babylonians and Assyrians developed a cadre of professionals who practiced oneiromancy and a significant literature to support it. In ancient Egypt the role of professional oneiromancy was every bit as great, likely greater, than it was in Mesopotamia.
One of the Akkadian prayers that I am working on involves a dream of unknown interpretation. Perhaps even the professionals couldn’t interpret it. A while back, I posted a preliminary translation. Here, I will repeat only a couple of lines, lines addressed to the god Nusku,

This dream that came to me during the evening, middle (or) dawn watch you understand but I do not understand.

The supplicant seeks relief from any negative portent without forfeiting possible good news. Notoce that the supplicant specifically says that Nusku understands his dream while he, the dreamer himself, does not. Within the larger context of Akkadian oneiromancy, one would not expect the dreamer to understand his own dreams. This is a rather obvious illustration of a text that contrasts rather markedly from what we read of Joseph or Daniel’s dreams in the Hebrew Bible.
Even so, the Akkadian and the Biblical traditions, as well as many others, assumed that god or gods communicated to humans in dreams. Sure, passages like Deuteronomy 13:1-5 may express very serious qualms about oneiromancy under certain conditions. But these qualms seem to apply mostly to professional and/or public oneiromancy and false oneiromancy at that. The criterion for false dream interpreters (and prophets) appears to be lack of compliance with a central theological requirement at the time of the passage’s composition, a requirement prohibiting service to another god. In general, interpreting one’s own dreams seems to have been on the same footing as prophecy. The text of I Samuel 28:15 puts these words on Saul’s lips, “I am in big trouble. The Philistines attack me and God has turned from me. He no longer answers me by prophet or in dreams.”

Moshe Greenberg, Biblical Prose Prayer, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983 (I thank Claude Mariottini for bring this little book to my attention)

3 thoughts on “Who Can Interpret Dreams?”

  1. Duane, the important information is always in the differences — whether comparing dreams, content, or handwriting.

  2. Rochelle,
    While I agree at one level, I think the most important information is in the interplay between the differences and the similarities. Differences without similarities lack context.

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