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 Traditions (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2005).  Pp. viii + 456 (Hebrew), viii (English). Cloth, np.  ISBN 965-493-200-8.

This book is a revision of the author’s 1996 dissertation completed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It includes seven chapters and includes an excursus. The book examines theophanic dreams  in ancient Israel: their patterns, phenomenology, and tradition-history.

In Chapter One (pp. 1-90) and the following chapters the author raises the question: “what constitutes a dream?” since in the Hebrew Bible there are other words that are close and parallel to the word “dream” (p. 18).  In the second part of the chapter she deals with the question of the validity of dreams in the Bible as a way of communication. Thus she raises the question: “Who was it that received those messages in dreams?” and in what types of dreams (p. 41)?

Chapter Two (pp. 91-124) deals with ‘The Feeble Theophany Pattern’. This category includes Laban, Abimelech, and Balaam’s Dreams. In those dreams the dreamer, who is not an Israelite, is warned not to harm God’s elected person or nation. These types of dream come to serve as a biographical or autobiographical essay to portray the person in the dream and not the dreamer. In Balaam’s cycle the word dream does not appear; therefore, the author raises the question: “Was this a direct encounter with God and not a dream?” If so, then why did the subject have to wait until nightfall? Was the author aware of ‘The Feeble Theophany Pattern’ link to dreams or do we have here a link between the prophetic phenomenon to dreams? (p.123).  

            Chapter Three (pp. 125-200), ‘The Dream of Salvation’, shows that the recipient of this type of dream is God’s elected one—Jacob. This category includes Jacob’s dream in Beth El (Gen 28:10-22), a dream in Laban’s house (Gen 31:10-13) and Jacob’s vision of the night in Beer Sheva (Gen 46:1-5). This type of dream is different from the Feeble Theophany Pattern mainly because we have here a reference to the locale of the revelation. In addition, the dreamer sees a vision, and receives a call from God.

            In Chapter Four (pp. 201-242), ‘The Dream Theophany in the Book of Genesis’, the author raises the question of whether the dream medium is unique to the Jacob cycle or to the Elohist (p. 201). In addition, she examines whether other messages from God in Genesis 12-35 are dreams, even though the word dream is missing in these descriptions.

            Chapter Five (pp. 243-271) deals with ‘Incubation and Initiation in Gibeon: 1 Kings 3:5-15’.  The author points to the fact that dreams in the ancient world served as propaganda. Thus Solomon’s dream comes to legitimatize his rule. Its origin lies among Northern Israelites, Judahites and Jerusalemite traditions.

            Chapter Six (pp. 273-335) discusses ‘The Borders of the Dream Theophany’. Passages that exhibit some features of dream elements, such as nocturnal timing or sleep but lack dream terminology, are examined in this chapter. Those ‘liminal reports’ originated in Northern Israel. The Prophetic circles in the north produced the most critical views towards dreams, and also produced most of the liminal reports. The liminal reports are traces of the theophanic dreams. The differences between them lie in the attempt to adjust the traditional pattern to different circumstances and to the different people who received the revelation (p. 315).

            Chapter Seven (pp. 336-340) contains a useful summary of the book.  In addition there is an excursus that deals with ‘Dream Theophany Reports in Ancient Near Eastern Literature’ (pp. 341-360).  The book concludes with a rich bibliography, an index and an English summary.

One might note limitations in this book, as the author herself noted: “our attempts are in some ways artificial or arrogant, the scriptures are analyzed and reconstructed … and not necessarily the way they were originally ” (p. 336).  Thus, when the author analyzes Abraham’s experience in Genesis 15 she claims that the different patterns and styles point to a late author. The revelation in a dream or in a sleep was not an adequate way to describe the future history of the nation (vv. 12-16). Therefore this message was inserted  into the prophetic dialogue (vv. 7-9). Its connection to the ceremony (vv. 10-12) was understood to be the interpretation of a symbolic vision similar to the apocalypse (p. 229). Similarly, while dealing with the revelations to Balaam that appear also in the visions, the author compares it to Abimelech and Laban’s dreams.  She concludes that this points to a description of a night audition to one of the prophets of the foreign nations. A more cautious and fruitful approach is to compare Abraham’s experience with Balaam’s experience, since both texts include the word "vision".  Additionally, in chapter 15 we read about a ritual that Abraham performed that included the cutting of beasts, while in Balaam’s episode we read about the building of altars and sacrificial offerings.  In both episodes a message that deals with the future of the Israelites  is conveyed. Are we dealing here with the same phenomenon?

Ironically, the weaknesses that the author pointed to are the main strengths of this book.  Her treatment of the ‘liminal  reports’ is very interesting and a major contribution to  the study of Theophonic Dreams in ancient Israel.  It allow us to understand this type of dream, its link to similar phenomena and its roots in the Israelite tradition.  Overall, the book is another important addition to our understanding of biblical dreams and will be a useful tool for scholars and students.

Shaul Bar
University of Memphis