Joseph: A Biblical Approach to Dream Interpretation

By Hendel, Russell Jay | Jewish Bible Quarterly, October-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Joseph: A Biblical Approach to Dream Interpretation


Hendel, Russell Jay, Jewish Bible Quarterly


GOALS AND OVERVIEW

The goal of this paper is to present the innovative methods of dream interpretation introduced by Joseph. In the Bible, dreams of special significance, understood to be messages from God, are generally experienced by prophets or kings. Many biblical dreams are explicitly stated as being communications from God or use symbols that imply their divine origin, such as angels. Neither of these characteristics applies to the dreams of Joseph. Joseph, although in many ways a typical immature teenager with ordinary dreams reflecting typical teenage insecurities, attained greatness, leadership, and the capacity for national and historic influence by treating his seemingly ordinary dreams as prophetic. The methods Joseph used are operationally definable and can be implemented by any person.

The Bible treats all dreams seriously. However, the Bible employs two types of seriousness when approaching dream interpretation. The Bible interprets dreams of prophets and kings (1) as well as dreams with divine symbols as indicating long-term communal and spiritual events. In contrast, dreams without divine symbols that occur to ordinary people, deal with immediate personal matters. Throughout this paper, the word personal indicates a dream interpretation focusing on the social or physical needs of the dreamer.

Some examples of dreams of prophets or kings or dreams with divine symbols that are interpreted as indicating long-term communal events include Pharaoh's dreams which Joseph describes as what God is about to do He has told to Pharaoh (Gen. 41:25), the child Samuel's dream which is explicitly described as a visitation by God (I Sam. 3:4-10), the numerous prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and King Nebuchadnezzar's dreams which Daniel describes as coming from God (Dan. 2:28).

Dreams without divine symbols to ordinary people who were neither prophets nor kings were interpreted as dealing with immediate personal matters, as we find in the case of the dreams of Pharaoh's chief baker and cup-bearer, dreams that mirrored concerns about their immediate future while in prison. (2)

Regarding the dream warning Laban to treat Jacob nicely (Gen. 31:24), the text explicitly states that God had come to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night. However, Laban was not a prophet and did not interpret his dream as indicating long-term communal goals, but rather as dealing with immediate personal matters, a warning not to hurt Jacob lest he come to harm.

The dreams of Joseph differ significantly from other dreams in the Bible. They are not perceived prophetically--that is, the Bible does not begin Joseph's dreams with "God appeared to Joseph" or "An angel said to Joseph." Furthermore, no angel or divine symbol is found in Joseph's dreams. Most importantly, the biblical narrative itself does not interpret Joseph's dreams, at the time he dreamt them, as indicating long-term communal matters. Rather, the Bible cites Joseph's brothers' interpretation of Joseph's dreams as personal wishes and fantasies, not as coming from God.

THE BROTHERS' PERSONAL INTERPRETATIONS OF JOSEPH'S DREAMS

Joseph's dreams in contrast to all other biblical dreams are the only ones not taken seriously. His brothers angrily snap at him: Are you really going to rule over us (Gen. 37:8). Joseph's father, a Patriarch, also belittles his dreams: Do you think I, your mother and brothers will come to bow to you (Gen. 37:10). The brothers' anger at Joseph's ambitions prompts them to the decision: And now let us kill him ... and let us see what will become of his dream (Gen. 37:20). Clearly, the brothers regarded Joseph's dreams as purely personal fantasies dealing with his own inner world.

Let us now study the symbolic interpretation of Joseph's dreams according to his brothers. In studying Joseph's two dreams, one key activity is bowing (Gen. 37:7,9). Joseph's brothers explicitly interpret bowing personally, indicating Joseph's desire to rule over us (Gen. …

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