The explanation and meaning of dreams in the Bible

Every person dreams. In Bible times, people also had dreams. Those were ordinary dreams and also special dreams. The dreams described in the Bible often contain a message that the dreamer receives from God. People in Bible times believed that God could speak to people through dreams. Well-known dreams from the Bible are the dreams that Joseph had. He also had the gift of interpreting dreams, such as the cupbearer’s and the baker’s dream. We also read in the New Testament that God uses dreams to make things clear to people. In the early Christian community, dreams were seen as a sign that the Holy Spirit was working.

Dreaming in Bible times

Just as people dream today, dreams were also made in Bible times. ‘Dreams are lies’. This is a well-known statement and is often true. Dreams can deceive us. That is now, but people also knew that in Bible times. The Bible is a down-to-earth book. It warns against the deception of dreams: ‘Like the dream of a hungry person: he dreams about food, but when he wakes up he is still hungry; or one who is thirsty and dreams that he is drinking, but when he awakes he is thirsty and parched” (Isaiah 29:8). The view that dreams have little to do with reality can also be found in the Bible book of Ecclesiastes. It says: ‘Busy leads to dreaming and much talking to nonsense’ and ‘There are already enough dreaming and empty words’ (Ecclesiastes 5: 2 and 6).

Table 1: Chronological overview of dreams in the Bible






Genesis 20:3



Genesis 28:12



Genesis 31:10



Genesis 31:24



Genesis 37:5



Genesis 37:9


Pharaoh’s cupbearer

Genesis 40:9


Pharaoh’s baker

Genesis 40:16


The Pharaoh

Genesis 41:1


The Pharaoh

Genesis 41:5


A Midianite soldier

Judges 7:13


King Solomon

1 Kings 3:5


King Nebuchadnezzar

Daniel 2:3


King Nebuchadnezzar

Daniel 4:5



Daniel 7:1



Matthew 1:20


The sages

Matthew 2:12



Matthew 2:13



Matthew 2:19



Matthew 2:22


Pilate’s wife

Matthew 27:19


Nightmare in the Bible

Fearful dreams, nightmares, can make a deep impression. Nightmares are also talked about in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah does not speak of a nightmare, but he uses the word ‘ anxiety dream ‘ (Isaiah 29:7). Job also has anxiety dreams. He says: ‘For when I say, ‘In my bed I am comforted, and my sleep will soothe my sorrow,’ you startle me with dreams,
and the images that I see terrify me’
(Job 7: 13-14).

God communicates through dreams

One of the most important texts about how God can use dreams to connect with people can be read in Numbers. There God tells Aaron and Miriam how he communicates with people.

Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud, stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam. After they both came forward, He said, “Listen carefully. If there is a prophet of the LORD among you, I will reveal myself to him in visions and speak to him in dreams. But with my servant Moses, in whom I have complete trust, I deal differently: 8To him I speak directly, plainly, and not in riddles, and he beholds my figure. How dare you then find fault with my servant Moses?’ (Numbers 12:5-7)

God speaks with people, with prophets, through dreams and visions . These dreams and visions are not always clear, they come across as riddles. Dreams must be interpreted. They often ask for an explanation. God deals with Moses in a different way. God preaches directly to Moses and not through dreams and visions. Moses has a special position as a man and leader of the people of Israel.

The interpretation of dreams in the Bible

The stories in the Bible tell of the dreams that people have. Those dreams often don’t speak for themselves. Dreams are like riddles that need to be solved. One of the most famous dream interpreters in the Bible is Joseph. He himself has also received special dreams. Joseph’s two dreams are about the sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf and about the stars and the moon bowing down to him (Genesis 37:5-11). The Bible does not say whether he himself knew what these dreams meant. In the remainder of the story, Joseph becomes the one who interprets dreams. Joseph can explain the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker (Genesis 40: 1-23). Later he also explains his dreams to the Pharaoh of Egypt (Genesis 41). The interpretation of dreams does not come from Joseph himself. Joseph says to the cupbearer and the baker: ‘Isn’t the interpretation of dreams a matter for God? Please tell me these dreams’ (Genesis 40:8). Through the inspirations of God, Joseph can interpret the dreams.

Daniel and the king’s dream

During the time of the Babylonian captivity, it is Daniel who interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Nebuchadnezzar is critical of the dream interpreters. He states that not only do they have to explain the dream, but they also have to tell him what he dreamed. The dream interpreters, the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers at his court cannot do that. They fear for their lives. Daniel can pass on the dream and its interpretation to the king through divine revelation. Daniel is clear in what he reports to the king: ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians, nor fortune tellers can reveal to him the mystery that the king wants to understand. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has let King Nebuchadnezzar know what will happen at the end of time. The dream and the visions that came to you in your sleep were these” (Daniel 2:27-28). Then Daniel tells the king what he dreamed and then Daniel interprets the dream.

Dream interpretation by unbeliever

When interpreting dreams, both Joseph and Daniel indicate that the interpretation does not primarily come from themselves, but that the interpretation of a dream comes from God. The Bible also contains a story in which someone who does not believe in the God of Israel interprets a dream. The interpretation of dreams is not reserved for believers. In Judges there is the story of a pagan interpreting a dream. The judge Gideon, who secretly listens in, is encouraged by that explanation (Judges 7: 13-15).

Dreams in the Gospel of Matthew

It is not only in the Old Testament that God speaks to people through dreams. In the New Testament it is Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, another Joseph, who receives instructions from the Lord through dreams. The evangelist Matthew describes four dreams in which God speaks to Joseph. In the first dream he is instructed to take Mary, who was pregnant, as his wife (Matthew 1:20-25). In the second dream it is made clear to him that he must flee to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus (2:13-15). In the third dream he is informed of Herod’s death and that he can return safely to Israel (2:19-20). Then, in a fourth dream, Joseph is warned not to go to Galilee (2:22). In between, the wise men from the East receive a dream with the instruction not to return to Herod (2:12). At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, mention is made of Pilate’s wife who suffered much for Jesus in a dream (Matthew 27:19).

Dreams in the first church of Christ

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is not the case that dreams no longer come from God. On the first day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit has been poured out, the apostle Peter gives a speech. He explains the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as predicted by the prophet Joel: ‘ What is happening here now has been announced by the prophet Joel: “At the end of the age, says God, I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Then your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your old people will see dream visions. Yea, I will pour out my spirit upon all my servants and maidservants at that time, that they may prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18). With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, old people will see dream visions and young people will see visions. Paul was led by the Spirit of God during his missionary journeys. Sometimes a dream gave him directions where to go. For example, Paul dreamed of a man from Macedonia calling to him, ,Go over to Macedonia and help us!, (Acts 16:9). In the Book of Acts, dreams and visions are a sign that God is present in the church through the Holy Spirit.

read more

  • Joseph’s two dreams (Genesis 37) and their meaning
  • The four dreams of Joseph the husband of Mary (Matthew 1-2)

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