Appearing in a dream …

St Joseph’s dream

The bible is full of dreams and visions – both the Old and New Testament – all taken seriously as communication with God. So, for example, in the gospel of Matthew we read that ‘the angel of God appeared to him [Joseph] in a dream’ bidding him to keep Mary as his wife and telling him that the child is from the holy spirit (Matt 1:20). The wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod (Matt 2:12); and Joseph is again visited by an angel in a dream bidding him to flee to Egypt for safety (Matt 2:13); then in another dream he’s told to return to the land of Israel (Matt 2:19) and finally not to Judea but to Galilee (Matt 2: 22). Every decision in this narrative is based on a revelation made by God through a dream and four of the five include the appearance of an angel. Paul describes visions and revelations of the Lord (2 Corinthians 12:1), and in Acts 2:17 the book of Joel is quoted where visions, dreams, angels and the spirit will all be present in the last days.

In the bible dreams, visions, appearances of angels and experiences of the spirit are all dealt with in much the same way in the bible. A dream is generally understood as an experience someone might have whilst they are asleep, during a naturally unconscious state. In any dream we are part of a story that is happening to us, or we are at the very least watching events unfold. A vision can be understood as a dream that we have whilst awake or semiconscious, you could say it is the unconscious breaking through whilst we are awake with a dreamlike image or action. John Sanford, a Jungian analyst and an Episcopalian priest, notes that whilst having a dream is allowable, nowadays visions are often seen as a sign of insanity or mental disturbance – which is usually not the case. It is only if the person cannot distinguish between the external and internal world that there would be concern, showing the vulnerability and shattered ego-structure of the person.

There is reverence for God’s revelations through dreams and visions – Genesis is full of dream material, and the book of Revelation is itself entirely a vision (9: 17). In Genesis, Joseph is both the dreamer and the interpreter of dreams: ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, I pray you’ (40:5). When Pharoah asks Joseph to interpret his dream of the seven fat cows being devoured by the seven lean cows, and then again of the seven good ears of corn being swallowed up by seven withered ears of corn, Joseph replied: ‘It is not for me; God will give Pharoah a favourable answer’ and later adds, ‘The dream of Pharoah is one; God has revealed to Pharoah what he is about to do’ (41: 16, 25).

Dreams are seen here as manifestations of divine intention and a communication from God. Indeed, Sanford writes that entire books in the bible are asserted to be dreams or visions – claimed by the authors of Obadiah, Nahum and Habakkuk – working out how much is visionary, and, how much is conscious is difficult.