Jean-Marie Husser, Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World
(Biblical Seminar, 63; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel University of Washington

In the last few years, works on dreams in the ancient world have comprised a sort of cottage industry. Numerous articles, dissertations, and monographs have appeared investigating dreaming and dream narratives from a variety of historical, literary, political, and psychoanalytical perspectives. This book, one of the most recent in the list of titles, is an English translation, with updated bibliography, of the author’s previous article entitled “Songe” in Supplement au dictionnaire de la Bible XII (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1996). The book provides an accessible update on the subject for the first time since A. Leo Oppenheim’s 1956 pioneering work.1 (Butler’s recent work on Mesopotamian dream rituals appeared too late to be integrated).2

With the exception of a few texts unavailable to Oppenheim, such as the material from Deir Alla, the resources that this work investigates differ little from his seminal publication. Husser’s approach too, which is primarily descriptive in character, covers mostly familiar terrain. Thus, when discussing the literary aspects of dream narratives, Husser attributes to them tendentious overtones.

Where epic or legendary works are concerned, their (dream reports’) function may be essentially narrative; on these occasions the dream is important to the general structure of the narrative, contributing in some cases to the transformation and valorization of the hero (p. 18).

Husser’s work, however, is not merely an expansion of previous scholarship but offers many distinctive observations. Thus, when discussing the literary nature of biblical dream reports Husser notes that in addition to offering a pretense for moving the story toward resolution and providing a means for dialogue with the divine, their structures often

… form a diptych, the panels of which often mirror each other word for word: the scene experienced in the dream will be lived out again in the wakeful world, for the dream acts as an initial prophetic element or instruction given to the hero of the story (p. 103).

Husser’s form-critical treatment of the dream narratives of Genesis also leads him to conclude that Genesis 37 constitutes a distinct redactional layer from Genesis 40–41, contra redactional critical scholars who typically see the Joseph story as part of one redactional layer (p. 114).

Husser’s consideration of the social context for the production of literary dream accounts also is distinctive. Thus, he insightfully calls into question the oft-cited propagandistic nature of message dream reports.

This kind of interpretation should be handled with care; it should be remembered that a good number of inscriptions were not available for public readership and that the latter were the reserve of a very limited number of erudite scholars (p. 19).

Husser’s caution emphasizes the importance of establishing the function of such narratives and the social context and belief systems of dream interpreters: “… dreams are the instrument used by the gods to bend human behavior to conform to their divine will, much more so than the means employed by men to discern the designs of the gods” (p. 58). Indeed, according to Husser, the ancients viewed the dream experience itself as a paranormal event. “Dreams are therefore not considered to be ordinary natural phenomena, liable to be deciphered as such. Rather, they open up perspectives upon another world” (p. 59).

Throughout the work, Husser maintains that the current scholarly categories for understanding dreams, both literary and non-literary, do not adequately address the diversity of the dream experience and the dream reports that have survived. Even the current typological distinction between intuitive (inspired) and deductive oneiromancy, a classification that dates to Plato, while at times useful, does not allow for the possibility that both forms may be present in some types of dream experience. With reference to incubation, for example, Husser remarks:

It is evident from the manner in which the visit from the divinity is asked for and ritually provoked that incubation is a deductive procedure, while the dream experience that usually accompanies it, namely the visit of the god in the dream, has certain similarities with inspired divination (p. 21).

Husser bases his subtly redefined typology on the more modern recognition of the presence of at least two kinds of oneiric consciousness in the dreamer; one in which dreams appear as reality, and another, in which the dreamer is aware that he is dreaming and can at times manipulate the dream- the so-called lucid dream. It is the mastery of the latter type that Husser sees as informing at least some of the ancient dream reports, such as 1 Samuel 3:9, in which

… Samuel’s response, ‘speak Lord, your servant is listening,’ is the literary expression of an awakening to a particular form of consciousness in sleep, permitting the nabî not only to listen to an oneiric oracle but also to solicit it (p. 177).

This view differs significantly from previous work on 1 Samuel 3 which typically describes the passage as depicting an incubatory rite. In fact, though cautious in tone, Husser finds it difficult to demonstrate any existence of incubation in ancient Israel (p. 172), at least, not without first distinguishing a diversity of forms of the rite, e.g., royal, cultic, and non-royal/cultic.

Husser combines his understanding of the diverse nuances of the dream experience and his views on the induced and lucid dream types to address the question why “the prophets in Israel never speak positively of dreams, when at the same time their nights were full of ‘visions’ ” (p. 26).

After surveying the dream reports of the wider Near East, Husser attempts to answer this question by setting forth the hypothesis that at least some of the prophets “… cultivated a particular and specific kind of oneiric experience, which was not the same as the dream experience denoted by xalom, and which in some cases was called xazon” (p. 139). This difference in terminology, therefore, bespeaks a diversity in the dream experience, one which underwent some change over time with respect to its legitimation as a vehicle for divine communication.

At this juncture, Husser enters the long-standing debate over whether the Hebrew Bible reflects changing attitudes toward the use of dreams as a reliable mode of prophecy and emphasizes again the presence of a diversity of attitudes in antiquity with the negative assessment of dreams constituting a later minority view:

Criticism of dreams is therefore not so radical as is often suggested, and the literary cliche that associates dreams with lies (cf. Zech. 10.2) is not representative of the general or undivided attitude of prophecy to them, far from it (p. 145).

Thus, even Jeremiah 23:25–31, a proof text central to the debate, Husser sees not as a denunciation of dreams as a mode of prophecy, but as a text in support of their usage, albeit one that a Deuteronomic redactor might have altered, thus contributing to the passage’s polemical character (p. 141). To Husser, the possible later redaction of the text only testifies to an earlier sanctioning of dreams as a form of divination.

It is beyond doubt that dreams belonged to the panoply of divinatory techniques authorized in Israel, even if the latter decreased considerably in number under the pressure of successive legislations (p. 167).

The change in attitude toward dreams represents for Husser a gradual increase in the status attributed to the intuitive (inspired) mantic techniques over against more deductive methods. The change of status, however, like the redactor’s hand, could not remove all vestiges of deductive oneiromancy as a form-critical analysis of some narratives reveals.

… traces of deductive oneiromancy may also be found in the grammatical form of the dream accounts in the Joseph story … The survival of this formulaic style in these chapters perhaps bears witness to the prestige that deductive oneiromancy, based upon lists of presages, enjoyed, and thus to the existence of this kind of divination in Israel (p. 171).

Nevertheless, Husser also asserts that the deductive mantic associations that dreams held in early Israel, and which became the object of disfavor by the Deuteronomic redactor, regained their privileged status in exilic and post-exilic times.

The works of Müller (1969; 1972)3 have drawn attention to the resurgence after the exile of a form of wisdom qualified as ‘mantic and divinatory,’ attested in the most ancient texts of all the Near East. Very different from the didactic wisdom of proverbs, xokmah here designates the knowledge or in the knowledge of things hidden, either past or present. It is owing to the exile and in the communities of the Diaspora that this form of wisdom rediscovered its rightful place in the literary tradition of Israel (p. 166).

This explains for Husser why Daniel, for example, is described as “… someone whose knowledge pertains at once to the realms of wisdom, to oracles and to magic” (p. 166).

While Husser’s work does offer a recent and useful survey of the textual resources bearing on the subject of dream interpretation, and thus, it fulfills its mission simply to provide an overview, its lack of engagement with scholarship on the broader theoretical categories with which the book is foremost concerned is regretful.

A case in point is Husser’s treatment of the terms “divination” and “magic” without definition or qualification. A great deal of important theoretical work has been undertaken on these categories, from a variety of perspectives and with significant results. Such studies have made it clear that any discussion of these terms or practices associated with them must proceed cautiously cognizant of the inherent problematic posed by their usage. Notwithstanding this criticism, contribute to our understanding of ancient dream interpretation, insofar as it underscores the importance of recognizing the diversity of dream experiences preserved in the literary remains.


[1] The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East: With a Translation of the Assyrian Dream Book (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 46/3 [1956]; Philadelphia, PA.: American Philosophical Society, 1956). Husser does not envisions his work as a replacement for Oppenheim’s study, but rather as a supplement (p. 10).

[2] S. A. L. Butler, Mesopotamian Conceptions of Dreams and Dream Rituals (AOAT, 258; M¸nster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1998).

[3] Hans-Peter Müller, “Magisch-mantische Weisheit und die Gestalt Daniels,” UF 1 (1969), 79–94; “Mantische Weisheit und Apokalyptik,” in G. W. Anderson, et al., eds., Congress Volume: Uppasala, 1971 (VTSup, 22; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), pp. 268–293.