Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Ruth Fidler, “Dreams Speak Falsely”? Dream Theophanies in the Bible: Their Place in Ancient Israelite Faith and Tradition (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2005). Pp. viii + 456 (Hebrew), viii (English). Cloth, np.  ISBN 965-493-200-8.

Though the subject of dreams in antiquity has received scholarly attention for some time, recent years have seen a resurgent interest in the topic, as witnessed by a plethora of published works on the subject. What has resulted from this research is a new appreciation for the subtleties of, and the divinatory, ontological, and ideological contexts of dreams and their interpreters, and a variety of methodological frameworks with which to understand the data. Nevertheless, while these works have provided some new directions for research, not every methodological framework employed by them has proved useful for elucidating the topic beyond what we already know. For this reason, it is such a pleasure to find a work that moves scholarship beyond the typical descriptive treatment of the subject (even if I do not agree with all of its conclusions). 

One of the book’s greatest contributions lies in the author’s recognition that although biblical dream reports are given literary forms, these forms conform to cultural patterns familiar to ancient Near Eastern peoples—patterns that originate in bona fide dream experiences. This allows the author to treat the dream reports as cultural patterns rather than literary artifice, thus moving the study of dream reports beyond hackneyed Freudian and pure literary analyses.

At the center of the book lies an apparent contradiction that has puzzled some biblical scholars: namely, how to account for the dichotomy between the positive way that dreams are treated in many biblical texts and what appears to be a harsh prophetic denunciation of dreams in others (e.g., Deut 18:15-22; Jer 23:23-32; 27:9-10; 29:8-9; Zech 10:2; Qoh 5:1-7).

The author’s approach to the problem of ambivalence employs a generally accepted methodology by compartmentalizing the texts studied according to the canons of biblical studies (i.e., she divides the subject into units based on the hypothesized structure and authorship of various biblical pericopes). Thus, Wisdom Literature is treated separately from the material attributed to the Yahwist, Elohist, and Deuteronomistic redactors, and prophetic corpora.

This approach leads the author to establish a number of important and unrecognized intertextual links. For example, she demonstrates convincingly that the critique of dreams as theophanic phenomena found in Qoh 5:1-7 reflects upon the tradition of Jacob’s dream in Bethel found in Gen 28:10-22. Such examples of intertextuality, and there are several in this work, are welcome contributions to the field of dream studies in antiquity.

The source-critical theoretical base upon which the author builds her arguments is, of course, still accepted by many scholars. Yet, it is also well known that it has suffered heavy criticism in the last several decades by literary critics who argue for greater literary unity and call for greater methodological caution when atomizing the text into hypothesized segments of varying authorship and date. While it is clearly not the author’s aim to take on the foundations of source criticism in this book, it might have been useful to readers to demonstrate at least a subtle awareness of the ways in which a literary perspective might change one’s interpretation of the same data.

For example, the author suggests that the accounts of Jacob and his dreams represent ancient traditions that hail from northern Israel (and thus show the influence of Canaanite religion), because these dreams are often attributed to the Elohist source, and because some scholars have argued that the Elohist source represents a northern editorial hand. This theoretical position forces the author to account for the contradiction represented by the account of Solomon’s dream at Gibeon (1 Kgs 3:5-15), an admittedly southern (Judahite) and later text. Since the author already has accepted the categories of source criticism, she is forced to propose that the northern elements in the latter account represent the author’s propagandizing tendenz and an aim to legitimate Solomon in the eyes of northerners. However, if one views the same data from a literary critical perspective one might conclude that the accounts of Jacob and Solomon are not contradictory, but rather represent a continuum of views concerning theophanic dreams that are not necessarily northern in origin or outlook. In fact, even from a source critical perspective it is not necessary to account for, or harmonize such differences. It may be that the two different texts fossilize different views concerning the validity of dreams, i.e., there is no reason a priori to assume that the Bible in its current canonized form must represent a monolithic view concerning dreams.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the author’s attempt to establish a new taxonomy for the various types of dream reports (e.g., the “weak theophany pattern,” “salvation dream pattern,” “royal initiation dream pattern,” and “liminal reports”) that she is aware of the difficulties posed by other methods of biblical interpretation, such as the historical critical method.  Similarly, one might critique the author’s insistence that the texts she deems as representing a critical assessment of dreaming as a means of accessing the divine word are rather interpretive in nature and thus, can be understood in different (non-critical) ways.

For example, one could argue, and indeed others have argued, that the relevant passages in the book of Jeremiah (Jer 23:23-32; 27:9-10; 29:8-9) do not critique dream interpretation, per se, but rather those mantic groups that produce interpretations through deceitful means. Indeed, Jeremiah himself experiences and interprets dream-like visions. Similarly, it could be argued that the prophet Zechariah condemns the dishonesty of dream interpreters, associating it with the deceitfulness of the teraphim and false predictions of augurs (Zech 10:2), but does not critique the process of dream interpretation itself. Deuteronomy 18 indeed lauds the prophet over the dream interpreter, but it does not list dream interpretation among other forbidden practices. In Deuteronomy 13, we do find dream interpreters mentioned beside prophets who promote the worship of foreign gods, but this also need not be interpreted as a critique of the social institution of dream interpretation. Indeed, the inclusion in this text of a prophet suggests that the issue at stake in this passage is the worship of foreign gods and not the process by which oracles are obtained, since without this distinction the prophet would be considered a legitimate mantic. The mention of dreams in the book of Qoh 5:6 also need not be interpreted as a critique of oneiromancy, but as a metaphor for the futility of one’s aspirations. To wit, too much dreaming about one’s life leads to futility and superfluous talk. Seen in this way, the practice of interpreting dreams is not mentioned in Qoheleth. Thus, understanding these passages as critiques of oneiromancy depends upon one’s perspective, and consequently, upon how one interprets them.

Another great strength of this book is that it demonstrates the author’s keen awareness of the socio-political and socio-religious implications of her research. She calls into question what sort of individuals might have been considered capable of receiving divine dreams and the roles that dreams might have played in their lives and in their communities. This is tied closely to another useful aspect of this book: its judicious placement of the biblical accounts of dreams and dreaming into their wider ancient Near Eastern contexts (both in its opening chapter and in the excursus). This allows the author to show that the dream accounts typically focus on important figures of national significance such as Gilgamesh, Hattushili III, Ashurbanipal, and Nabonidus. Thus, like their ancient analogs, the biblical accounts may possess “nationalistic” goals.

Where I find the book potentially more problematic is in its uncritical acceptance of the dream typology proposed by A. Leo Oppenheim.[1] This typology distinguishes “message” dreams, in which a god or important figure appears in a dream and delivers an auditory missive to the dreamer (often to legitimate, support, or ease the political, national, or military concerns of the dreamer), from “symbolic” dreams, in which the dreamer witnesses enigmatic visual images that require an interpreter upon awakening. Oppenheim also classified those dreams that involve prognostication separately as “mantic” or “prophetic.”

As many have observed since Oppenheim, this typology articulates no distinction between textual genres and it does not place the data into any historical contexts. Moreover, the typology cannot account for all the data. Not every dream account fits neatly into one of the two (or possibly three) categories, and there is considerable overlap among them. There are symbolic dreams that require no interpreters, and message dreams that do. There are prophetic message dreams and also prophetic symbolic dreams. If one also considers the significant conceptual overlap between dreams and visions, the problem of typology becomes even more acute. Indeed, our inability to apply the commonly adopted typology consistently to the evidence has forced some scholars to create additional categories (see, e.g., the author’s “liminal reports”). Moreover, there are serious problems with applying the word “symbolic” to cultures that likely did not understand language and dreams in symbolic terms (in the same way that we might do today).  Thus, while the typology has a certain heuristic value, it remains problematic for the purpose of serious comparative work.

Though aware of the pitfalls posed by Oppenheim’s typology, the author’s general acceptance of it leads her at times to attribute greater importance to different “types” of dreams than may have been the case in antiquity. Thus, the dreams of Joseph are sharply distinguished from those of his father Jacob and those of King Solomon, though the ancients themselves may not have recognized such a distinction. The author similarly concludes that unlike other ancient Near Eastern peoples, the Israelites appear to have preferred theophanic dreams to symbolic dreams, though there is little support for this in the textual record from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In essence the author has relied on “etic” hermeneutic categories that derive from our own theoretical background, rather than “emic” frames of reference provided by ancient Israel’s own linguistic or textual practice. Of course, this is not merely a criticism of this particular book, but of many works on dreams in antiquity since Oppenheim.

Despite these criticisms, I have found a great deal in this book useful and believe it represents a significant contribution to scholarship on the subject. It is up-to-date, well researched, innovative, well organized, copious in footnotes, and offers useful insights on the topic of biblical dream accounts. Also extremely useful is the book’s rather exhaustive bibliography and multiple indices. Future publications on the topic of dreams and dreaming in the ancient Near East will need to take notice of this important work. To this end, it is my hope that an English translation of the book be made available for scholars who do not possess a working knowledge of contemporary Hebrew.

Scott Noegel
University of Washington

[1] A. Leo Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East: With a Translation of the Assyrian Dream Book (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 46; Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1956).