Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 3 (2000-2001) - Review

Jean-Marie Husser, Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World (Biblical Seminar, 63; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

In the last few years, works on dreams in the ancient world have comprised a sort of cottage industry. Numerous articles, dissertations, and monographs have appeared investigating dreaming and dream narratives from a variety of historical, literary, political, and psychoanalytical perspectives. This book, one of the most recent in the list of titles, is an English translation, with updated bibliography, of the author's previous article entitled "Songe" in Supplement au dictionnaire de la Bible XII (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1996). The book provides an accessible update on the subject for the first time since A. Leo Oppenheim's 1956 pioneering work. (1) (Butler's recent work on Mesopotamian dream rituals appeared too late to be integrated).(2)

With the exception of a few texts unavailable to Oppenheim, such as the material from Deir Alla, the resources that this work investigates differ little from his seminal publication. Husser's approach too, which is primarily descriptive in character, covers mostly familiar terrain. Thus, when discussing the literary aspects of dream narratives, Husser attributes to them tendentious overtones.

Husser's work, however, is not merely an expansion of previous scholarship but offers many distinctive observations. Thus, when discussing the literary nature of biblical dream reports Husser notes that in addition to offering a pretense for moving the story toward resolution and providing a means for dialogue with the divine, their structures often

Husser's form-critical treatment of the dream narratives of Genesis also leads him to conclude that Genesis 37 constitutes a distinct redactional layer from Genesis 40-41, contra redactional critical scholars who typically see the Joseph story as part of one redactional layer (p. 114).

Husser's consideration of the social context for the production of literary dream accounts also is distinctive. Thus, he insightfully calls into question the oft-cited propagandistic nature of message dream reports.

Husser's caution emphasizes the importance of establishing the function of such narratives and the social context and belief systems of dream interpreters: "...dreams are the instrument used by the gods to bend human behavior to conform to their divine will, much more so than the means employed by men to discern the designs of the gods" (p. 58). Indeed, according to Husser, the ancients viewed the dream experience itself as a paranormal event. "Dreams are therefore not considered to be ordinary natural phenomena, liable to be deciphered as such. Rather, they open up perspectives upon another world" (p. 59).

Throughout the work, Husser maintains that the current scholarly categories for understanding dreams, both literary and non-literary, do not adequately address the diversity of the dream experience and the dream reports that have survived. Even the current typological distinction between intuitive (inspired) and deductive oneiromancy, a classification that dates to Plato, while at times useful, does not allow for the possibility that both forms may be present in some types of dream experience. With reference to incubation, for example, Husser remarks:

Husser bases his subtly redefined typology on the more modern recognition of the presence of at least two kinds of oneiric consciousness in the dreamer; one in which dreams appear as reality, and another, in which the dreamer is aware that he is dreaming and can at times manipulate the dream- the so-called lucid dream. It is the mastery of the latter type that Husser sees as informing at least some of the ancient dream reports, such as 1 Samuel 3:9, in which

This view differs significantly from previous work on 1 Samuel 3 which typically describes the passage as depicting an incubatory rite. In fact, though cautious in tone, Husser finds it difficult to demonstrate any existence of incubation in ancient Israel (p. 172), at least, not without first distinguishing a diversity of forms of the rite, e.g., royal, cultic, and non-royal/cultic.

Husser combines his understanding of the diverse nuances of the dream experience and his views on the induced and lucid dream types to address the question why "the prophets in Israel never speak positively of dreams, when at the same time their nights were full of 'visions'" (p. 26).

After surveying the dream reports of the wider Near East, Husser attempts to answer this question by setting forth the hypothesis that at least some of the prophets "...cultivated a particular and specific kind of oneiric experience, which was not the same as the dream experience denoted by xalom, and which in some cases was called xazon" (p. 139). This difference in terminology, therefore, bespeaks a diversity in the dream experience, one which underwent some change over time with respect to its legitimation as a vehicle for divine communication.

At this juncture, Husser enters the long-standing debate over whether the Hebrew Bible reflects changing attitudes toward the use of dreams as a reliable mode of prophecy and emphasizes again the presence of a diversity of attitudes in antiquity with the negative assessment of dreams constituting a later minority view:

Thus, even Jeremiah 23:25-31, a proof text central to the debate, Husser sees not as a denunciation of dreams as a mode of prophecy, but as a text in support of their usage, albeit one that a Deuteronomic redactor might have altered, thus contributing to the passage's polemical character (p. 141). To Husser, the possible later redaction of the text only testifies to an earlier sanctioning of dreams as a form of divination.