What are dreams?
The workings of the brain as it tries to make some sort of sense of the
random firing of neurons? Coded "messages" from the unconscious mind
containing clues as to things you might need to pay attention to in
your life? Messages from God?
The answer is likely "all of the above," but it's that last category of
dreams that this page is about. In Numbers 12:6, it is written very
The Lord came
down in a pillar of the cloud, and stood in the entry of the tabernacle
calling to Aaron and Mary. And when they were come, He said to
them: Hear my words: if there be among you a prophet of the Lord, I
will appear to him in a vision, or I will speak to him in a dream.
is also clear in saying,
once, and repeateth not the selfsame thing the second time. By a
dream in a vision by night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, and they
are sleeping in their beds: Then he openeth the ears of men, and
teaching instructeth them in what they are to learn.
So, that God can
and does speak to us in dreams is evident from Sacred
Scripture, not just through those verses, but from the numerous
from both the Old Testament and the New, wherein He is depicted as
speaking to people as they sleep. A little tour of such instances
beginning with the dream of King Abimelech, to whom was given Abraham's
wife, Sara. From Genesis 20:3-7
And God came to
Abimelech in a dream by night, and he said to him: Lo thou shalt die
for the woman thou hast taken: for she hath a husband. Now Abimelech
had not touched her, and he said: Lord, wilt thou slay a nation, that
is ignorant and just? Did not he say to me: She is my sister: and
she say, He is my brother? in the simplicity of my heart, and cleanness
of my hands have I done this.
And God said to him: And I know that thou didst it with a sincere
heart: and therefore I withheld thee from sinning against me, and I
suffered thee not to touch her. Now therefore restore the man his
wife, for he is a prophet: and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt
live: but if thou wilt not restore her, know that thou shalt surely
die, thou and all that are thine.
This dream is
important in not just showing that God can speak to us through dreams,
but also in how it shows that God knows our hearts and is able to look
past our objective actions, including sins, to see the motives behind
our "missing the mark" and, therefore, being perfectly capable of
knowing when to assign guilt for those sins, and when to grant mercy.
After this dream comes the famous dream of Jacob, with its vision of
the stairway to Heaven, found in Genesis 28:10-19, and depicted in the
painting at the top of this page:
But Jacob being
departed from Bersabee, went on to Haran. And when he was come to
a certain place, and would rest in it after sunset, he took of the
stones that lay there, and putting under his head, slept in the same
And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top
thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and
descending by it; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to
him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the
land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed.
And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread
abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the
south: and IN THEE and thy seed all the tribes of the earth SHALL BE
BLESSED. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and
will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I
shall have accomplished all that I have said.
And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this
place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this
place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of
heaven. And Jacob, arising in the morning, took the stone, which
he had laid under his head, and set it up for a title, pouring oil upon
the top of it. And he called the name of the city Bethel, which before
was called Luza.
tells us the story of Joseph's prophetic dream, which he reveals to his
Now it fell out
also that he told his brethren a dream, that he had dreamed: which
occasioned them to hate him the more. And he said to them: Hear my
dream which I dreamed. I thought we were binding sheaves in the field:
and my sheaf arose as it were, and stood, and your sheaves standing
about, bowed down before my sheaf. His brethren answered: Shalt
thou be our king? or shall we be subject to thy dominion? Therefore
this matter of his dreams and words ministered nourishment to their
envy and hatred. He dreamed also another dream, which he told his
brethren, saying: I saw in a dream, as it were the sun, and the moon,
and eleven stars worshipping me.
Joseph is sold
into slavery in Egypt by those brothers of his who hated him, and there
he interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaosh's prisoners, after which
he was called upon by the Pharaoh himself to interpret the Pharaoh's
dreams (Genesis 40 and 41). Joseph's God-given ability to interpret
dreams led to his being given great authority in Egypt.
Judges 7: 13-15 reveals how Gedeon is told of a dream about his,
Gedeon's, defeat of the Madianites:
And when Gedeon
was come, one told his neighbour a dream: and in this manner related
what he had seen: I dreamt a dream, and it seemed to me as if a hearth
cake of barley bread rolled and came down into the camp of Madian: and
when it was come to a tent it struck it, and beat it down flat to the
ground. He to whom he spoke, answered: This is nothing else but
the sword of Gedeon the son of Joas a man of Israel. For the Lord hath
delivered Madian, and all their camp into his hand. And when
Gedeon had heard the dream, and the interpretation thereof, he adored:
and returned to the camp of Israel, and said: Arise, for the Lord hath
delivered the camp of Madian into our hands.
In I King 3:9-15
(I Samuel 3:9-15 in Bibles with Masoretic numbering) is the story of
the child Samuel's dream, a dream he first mistook for being the sinful
Heli calling to him. Samuel, who'd been dedicated to God at
a very young age, and Heli were both asleep, and three times Samuel
heard himself being beckoned. Three times he ran to Heli asking what he
wanted. Then, we read:
that the Lord called the child, and he said to Samuel: Go, and sleep:
and if He shall call thee any more, thou shalt say: Speak, Lord, for
Thy servant heareth.
So Samuel went and slept in his place. And the Lord came and
stood: and He called, as He had called the other times: Samuel, Samuel.
And Samuel said: Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.
And the Lord said to Samuel: Behold I do a thing in Israel: and
whosoever shall hear it, both his ears shall tingle. In that day
I will raise up against Heli all the things I have spoken concerning
his house: I will begin, and I will make an end. For I have
foretold unto him, that I will judge his house for ever, for iniquity,
because he knew that his sons did wickedly, and did not chastise them.
Therefore have I sworn to the house of Heli, that the iniquity of his
house shall not be expiated with victims nor offerings for ever.
And Samuel slept till morning, and opened the doors of the house of the
Lord. And Samuel feared to tell the vision to Heli.
Then there's the
dream of Nabuchodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar), which was interpreted by
Daniel in yet another dream. Daniel 2:1-2,
In the second
year of the reign of Nabuchodonosor, Nabuchodonosor had a dream, and
his spirit was terrified, and his dream went out of his mind. Then the
king commanded to call together the diviners and the wise men, and the
magicians, and the Chaldeans: to declare to the king his dreams: so
they came and stood before the king...
...Then was the mystery revealed to Daniel by a vision in the
night: and Daniel blessed the God of heaven.
15:11 tells us how Judas used a dream to inspire his army:
So he armed
every one of them, not with defence of shield and spear, but with very
good speeches and exhortations, and told them a dream worthy to be
believed, whereby he rejoiced them all.
dreams are found in the New Testament as well, in the very first
chapter of the very first Book. The Gospel according to St. Matthew
And Jacob begot
Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called
Christ. So all the generations, from Abraham to David, are fourteen
generations. And from David to the transmigration of Babylon, are
fourteen generations: and from the transmigration of Babylon to Christ
are fourteen generations.
Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary
was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with
child, of the Holy Ghost. Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just
man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away
But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord
appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to
take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of
the Holy Ghost.
And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name JESUS.
For he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was
done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet,
saying: Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a
son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is,
God with us.
And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had
commanded him, and took unto him his wife. And he knew her not
till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
In the very next
chapter of the same Gospel, St. Joseph is warned in a dream to take the
Child and His mother and flee to Egypt. From Matthew 2: 13-15:
And after they
were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph,
saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt:
and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that
Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child
and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until
the death of Herod: That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by
the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son.
From all of the
above, it's clear, quite obvious, that God does communicate through
dreams at times. However, while this is a fact, it's also a fact that
the Old Testament gives warnings about dreams. A few such verses, my
emphasis in italics:
You shall not eat with blood. You shall not divine nor observe dreams.
Neither let there be found among you any one that shall expiate his son
or daughter, making them to pass through the fire: or that consulteth
soothsayers, or observeth dreams
and omens, neither let there be any wizard, nor charmer, nor any one
that consulteth pythonic spirits, or fortune tellers, or that seeketh
the truth from the dead.
2 Paralipomenon 33:6 (2 Chronicles in Bibles with Masoretic
And he made his sons to pass through the fire in the valley of
Benennom: he observed dreams,
followed divinations, gave himself up to magic arts, had with him
magicians, and enchanters: and he wrought many evils before the Lord,
to provoke him to anger.
So, how to sort
all this out? Pope St. Gregory the Great, in Book IV of his
"Dialogues," writes the following on the question, " Whether dreams are
to be believed: and how many kinds of dreams there be":
point, Peter, you must understand that there are six kind of dreams.
For sometime they proceed of too much fulness or emptiness of the
stomach: sometime by illusion: sometime both by thought and illusion:
sometime by revelation: and sometime both by thought and revelation.
The two first all by experience know to be true: and the four latter we
find mentioned in Holy Scripture. For if dreams did not sometime
proceed by illusion from our secret enemy, never would the wise man
have said: "Dreams have made many to err, and hoping in them have they
been deceived: and again: Thou shall not be soothsayers, nor observe
dreams: by which words we see how they are to be detested, that are
compared with sooth-sayings."
Again, if dreams did not sometime proceed both of thought together with
illusion, the wise man would not have said: "Dreams follow many cares."
And if sometime also they did not come by mystical revelation, Joseph
had never known by dream that he should have been exalted above his
brethren: neither the Angel would ever in a dream have admonished the
spouse of our Lady to fly away with the child into Egypt.
Again, if sometime they did not also proceed both from thoughts and
divine revelation, never would the prophet Daniel, disputing of
Nabuchodonosor's dream, have begun from the root of his former
thoughts, saying: "Thou, O king, diddest begin to think in thy bed,
what should happen in times to come; and he that revealeth mysteries
did shew thee what things should come," and a little after, "Thou
diddest see, and behold as it were a great statue: that great statue
and high of stature did stand against thee." Wherefore, seeing Daniel
doth with reverence insinuate that the dream should come to pass, and
also declareth from what cogitation it did spring, plainly do we learn
that dreams sometimes do come both of thought and revelation together.
But seeing dreams do grow from such divers roots, with so much the more
difficulty ought we to believe them: because it doth not easily appear
unto us from what cause they do proceed. Holy men, indeed, by a certain
inward spiritual taste, do discern betwixt illusions and true
revelations, by the very voices or representations of the visions
themselves, so that they know what they receive from the good spirit,
and what they suffer by illusion from the wicked, and therefore, if our
mind be not herein very attentive and vigilant, it falleth into many
vanities, through the deceit of the wicked spirit who sometime useth to
foretell many true things, that, in the end, he may by some falsehood
ensnare our soul.
Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, II:II:95:6, on the same question --
"Whether divination by dreams is unlawful?" -- writes, with the last
paragraph summing things up,
...it is to be
observed that the cause of dreams is sometimes in us and sometimes
outside us. The inward cause of dreams is twofold: one regards the
soul, in so far as those things which have occupied a man's thoughts
and affections while awake recur to his imagination while asleep. A
such like cause of dreams is not a cause of future occurrences, so that
dreams of this kind are related accidentally to future occurrences, and
if at any time they concur it will be by chance. But sometimes the
inward cause of dreams regards the body: because the inward disposition
of the body leads to the formation of a movement in the imagination
consistent with that disposition; thus a man in whom there is abundance
of cold humors dreams that he is
in the water or snow: and for this
reason physicians say that we should take note of dreams in order to
discover internal dispositions.
In like manner the outward cause of dreams is twofold, corporal and
spiritual. It is corporal in so far as the sleeper's imagination is
affected either by the surrounding air, or through an impression of a
heavenly body, so that certain images appear to the sleeper, in keeping
with the disposition of the heavenly bodies. The spiritual cause is
sometimes referable to God, Who reveals certain things to men in their
dreams by the ministry of the angels, according Numbers 12:6, "If there
be among you a prophet of the Lord, I will appear to him in a vision,
or I will speak to him in a dream." Sometimes, however, it is due to
the action of the demons that certain images appear to persons in their
sleep, and by this means they, at times, reveal certain future things
to those who have entered into an unlawful compact with them.
Accordingly we must say that there is no unlawful divination in making
use of dreams for the foreknowledge of the future, so long as those
dreams are due to divine revelation, or to some natural cause inward or
outward, and so far as the efficacy of that cause extends. But it will
be an unlawful and superstitious divination if it be caused by a
revelation of the demons, with whom a compact has been made, whether
explicit, through their being invoked for the purpose, or implicit,
through the divination extending beyond its possible limits.
So, to wit, and
as with anything -- e.g., apparent ghosts,
visions, etc. -- it all
comes down to "discerning the spirits." The First Epistle of St. John
4:1-3 tells us how to do this:
believe not every spirit, but try the spirits if they be of God:
because many false prophets are gone out into the world. By this is the
spirit of God known. Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is
come in the flesh, is of God: And every spirit that dissolveth Jesus,
is not of God: and this is Antichrist, of whom you have heard that he
cometh, and he is now already in the world.
If any dream,
apparent ghost, vision, or what have you,"dissolveth Jesus," if it goes
against traditional Church teaching, if it takes you away from your
faith in any way, ignore it as a source of Truth. And if you're not
sure, well, to paraphrase Johnny Cochran, "If it doesn't fit, get rid