Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oracular dreams

1. In Scripture, a primary mode of divine revelation is visionary revelation. Scripture contains a number of oracular dreams, which employ that revelatory mode.

Oracular dreams are the same type of revelation as visions. The basic difference is the time of day. Oracular dreams are night visions, whereas daytime visions are inspired daydreams.

One of the striking features of oracular dreams is the symbolic imagery. This means that while oracular dreams are predictive, they are not representational. The dreamer isn’t literally “seeing” the future. Rather, the dream is a figurative analogy of future events.

And that, in turn, raises interpretive issues. There are two ways in which an oracular dream can be understood. One way is if the inspired dream is accompanied by an inspired interpretation. In some cases the dreamer can be the interpreter. Or a speaker within the dream can be the interpreter.

In addition, oracular dreams are embedded within a larger narrative, so that a reader can see how the dream was fulfilled after the fact.

If, however, we didn’t have either of those aids, then it’s harder to perceive the exact nature of the fulfillment in advance of the facts.

2. Although Scripture explicitly identifies some oracular dreams, their presence raises the question of whether some other oracles of Scripture may be prosaic summaries of oracular dreams and visions. In other words, are there cases where a seer has a vision or dream, but instead of taking the time to describe the dream, with all of the emblematic imagery, he simply summarizes the message of the dream?

3. This, in turn, raises some ancillary issues:

i) If many oracles are symbolic analogies, then that affects the terms of the fulfillment. For the oracle will be fulfilled analogically rather than univocally. You can’t go straight from the metaphor to the historical referent. Rather, you must first decrypt the metaphor.

What you have, at the given level of the prophecy, is a one-to-one correspondence between the figurative imagery and the historical referent. But to make sense of that we need to decipher the imagery so that we can draw a direct correspondence between the thing it stands for, and the future analogue. And, indeed, that’s what happens when Joseph or Daniel (to take two examples) interpret oracular dreams.

That has some potential relevance for millennial debates.

ii) This also bears on the inerrancy of Scripture. If the terms of fulfillment are analogous rather than univocal, then we need to make allowance for that distinction. If someone alleges that a Bible prophecy failed, he needs to demonstrate that it failed on analogical terms.

iii) Finally, this has some potential bearing on debates over cessationism, semicessationism, and continuationism. Continuationists sometimes draw a distinction between infallible “revelations” and fallible interpretations. And depending on the nature of the ostensible “revelation,” that distinction might be tenable.

Of course, the pros and cons of that debate turn on many additional considerations.

Gen 28:10-16

10Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." 16Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it."

Gen 37:5-10

5Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6He said to them, "Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf." 8His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?" So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

9Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." 10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?"

Gen 40:5-19

5And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. 6When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. 7So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, "Why are your faces downcast today?" 8They said to him, "We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them." And Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me."

9So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, "In my dream there was a vine before me, 10and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand." 12Then Joseph said to him, "This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit."

16When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, "I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head." 18And Joseph answered and said, "This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you."

Gen 41:1-7,25-32

1After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

25Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, "The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.

Judg 7:13-14

13When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, "Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat." 14And his comrade answered, "This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp."

Dan 2:31-45

31"You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
36"This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, 38and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all—you are the head of gold. 39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. 40And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. 42And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure."

Dan 8:1-27

1In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar a vision appeared to me, Daniel, after that which appeared to me at the first. 2And I saw in the vision; and when I saw, I was in Susa the capital, which is in the province of Elam. And I saw in the vision, and I was at the Ulai canal. 3I raised my eyes and saw, and behold, a ram standing on the bank of the canal. It had two horns, and both horns were high, but one was higher than the other, and the higher one came up last. 4I saw the ram charging westward and northward and southward. No beast could stand before him, and there was no one who could rescue from his power. He did as he pleased and became great.
5As I was considering, behold, a male goat came from the west across the face of the whole earth, without touching the ground. And the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes. 6He came to the ram with the two horns, which I had seen standing on the bank of the canal, and he ran at him in his powerful wrath. 7I saw him come close to the ram, and he was enraged against him and struck the ram and broke his two horns. And the ram had no power to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground and trampled on him. And there was no one who could rescue the ram from his power. 8Then the goat became exceedingly great, but when he was strong, the great horn was broken, and instead of it there came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.

9Out of one of them came a little horn, which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the glorious land. 10 It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them. 11 It became great, even as great as the Prince of the host. And the regular burnt offering was taken away from him, and the place of his sanctuary was overthrown. 12And a host will be given over to it together with the regular burnt offering because of transgression, and it will throw truth to the ground, and it will act and prosper. 13Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to the one who spoke, "For how long is the vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled underfoot?" 14And he said to me, "For 2,300 evenings and mornings. Then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state."

15When I, Daniel, had seen the vision, I sought to understand it. And behold, there stood before me one having the appearance of a man. 16 And I heard a man’s voice between the banks of the Ulai, and it called, "Gabriel, make this man understand the vision." 17So he came near where I stood. And when he came, I was frightened and fell on my face. But he said to me, "Understand, O son of man, that the vision is for the time of the end."
18And when he had spoken to me, I fell into a deep sleep with my face to the ground. But he touched me and made me stand up. 19He said, "Behold, I will make known to you what shall be at the latter end of the indignation, for it refers to the appointed time of the end. 20As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. 21And the goat is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king. 22 As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power. 23And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise. 24His power shall be great— but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints. 25 By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall become great. Without warning he shall destroy many. And he shall even rise up against the Prince of princes, and he shall be broken—but by no human hand. 26The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true, but seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now."

27And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.

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