Divine Revelation and the Old Testament:
Revelation Through Dreams or Visions of the Night
by Monk Themistocles (Adamopoulos)
How did God reveal Himself and communicate His will to the people of ancient Israel and Judea? A glance through the several books of the Old Testament would quickly suggest that God used various and several modes of divine self-disclosure towards His Old Covenant people through patriarchs, spokesmen, prophets as well as kings. This observation is encapsulated in a brilliant summary statement on Divine revelation by the author of the new Testament letter to the Hebrews in his prologue:
"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets..." (Heb 1:1).
One such mode of Divine communication was through the awesome event of a Theophany. Among the most celebrated Theophanies to the ancient Israel one would include God's powerful descent on Mount Sinai as well as His majestic appearance to the prophet Isaiah in the Temple in Jerusalem. Another mode of Divine revelation was through dreams.
Revelation through dreams
The Old Testament records that God chose to communicate His will to the people of Israel through the vehicle of dreams or "visions of the night" to certain selected persons. One such type of Divine dream is the co-called incubation dream. These are dreams initiated by God to the sleeping dreamer in holy places, without the recipient having deliberately sought to receive such a dream. Perhaps the most celebrated example of an incubation dream is Jacob's dream of the Divine ladder at Bethel (Gen 28:11-19):
"Jacob... came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the night had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and laid down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reached to Heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac..." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it! And he was afraid and said "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of Heaven." ... He called that place "Bethel", (i.e. the "house of God").
Divinely-sent dreams, as recorded in the Old Testament, may be accompanied by declarations either: (i) in plain words understandable to the recipient, or (ii) in symbolic language or images needing an inspired interpreter. An instance of the former type of dream occurs in God's command to the grieving Jacob (Joseph's father) to travel to Egypt (Gen 46:1-4). Such a dream needed no interpretation. An example of the latter type is the Egyptian Pharaoh's two enigmatic God-sent dreams of the seven thin cows eating the seven fat cows grazing by the Nile as well as that of the seven withering ears of grain swallowing the good ears of grain, demanding a skilled interpreter of divine dreams - the wrongly-imprisoned Joseph:
"Then Joseph said to Pharaoh "Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do... the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them (i.e. the fat cows) are seven years, as are the seven empty ears... they are seven years of famine... There will come seven years of plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After the, there will arise seven years of famine..." (Gen 41:25-30).
Authentic and false dreams
The Old Testament however does not classify all dreams as God-sent. Indeed the elect of God receive very few dreams. On the other hand many dreams are considered as false. These are the dreams of the falser prophets, men who do not speak for God, and those dreams were not initiated by the Lord:
"Do I not fill Heaven and earth? says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophecy lies in my Name, saying "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" (Jer 23:24-25).
Dreams in the Last Days
The use of dreams - as an instrument of Divine communication and the plan for human salvation - continues into the New Testament era. Thus within the Infancy narratives as recorded by St. Matthew, the righteous Joseph is the recipient of several dreams concerning: (i) the nature of the forthcoming Virgin Birth (Matt 1:20-21), (ii) a warning to flee to the safety of Egypt with Jesus and His Mother in the face of the Herodian massacre (Matt 2:13), (iii) an eventual call to return to the land of Israel (Matt 2:20), as well as instruction to settle in Galilee (Matt 2:22). Furthermore, the day of Pentecost is understood by the Apostles as a fulfillment of Joel's eschatological prophecy. In addition to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, one further aspect of this prophecy deals with he expectation that while there shall be an increase in spiritual visions there shall also be a predisposition for the elderly to experience holy dreams:
"And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the men-servants and maid-servants in those days, I will pour out my spirit" (Joel 2:28-29).
Nevertheless, it is important to note that from an Orthodox theological or doctrinal position, the use of dreams after the Christ event is not necessarily for the purpose of adding further to the deposit of "revelation" or Sacred Truth as revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but rather a means of "illumination". Henceforth Jesus Christ, the Divine Word made flesh, becomes par excellence the exclusive mode of Divine revelation to the world. Nothing more can be added beyond Christ. Everything else which possesses truth is either inspired interpretation or illumination but not revelation! Thus while God may still send dreams to holy people they are not intended to add to the dogma of the Church but as a means of encouragement, warning or edification.