In the Bible, dreams are sources of divine revelation that indicate what someone should do, reveal what is going to happen, or explain current events.
The Bible uses different Hebrew and Greek words when it talks about dreams and visions.
Hebrew words related to dreams
- rāʾâ, meaning “to see” or “to appear” — God or his angels appear (rāʾâ) to certain characters throughout the Old Testament.
- marʾâ, “vision” — Almost always refers to the experience of a prophet seeing a vision or hearing instruction.
- ḥāzâ, “to see” — Usually occurs in prophetic or poetic passages.
- ḥizzāywōn, “vision” — Refers to prophecy, whether true or false (2 Sam 7:17; Isa 22:2, 5; Zech 13:4). This word is used in reference to the gifts that God’s Spirit will pour onto his people when he restores them (Joel 2:28).
Greek words related to dreams
- onar, “dream” (noun) — Occurs in the New Testament only in the book of Matthew. There, every dream is a means of providing instruction and protection for God’s people (example: Matt 1:18–20).
- enypnion, “dream,” “vision in sleep” — Though common in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), this word occurs in the New Testament only in Acts 2:17, which quotes Joel 2:28 as saying, “your young men will see visions (horasis), and your old men will dream (enypniazomai) dreams (enypnion).”
- orama, “vision” —The most common word meaning “vision” in the New Testament. A few examples: Jesus refers to the transfiguration as an orama (Matt 17:9); Stephen describes the burning bush as an orama (Acts 7:31); Paul is instructed in visions (orama) where he should take the gospel next (Acts 16:9; 18:9).
- optasia, “vision,” “appearance” — In Luke, this word is used for two visions of angel (Luke 1:22; Luke 24:23). Luke also uses this word when Paul describes the “heavenly vision” (optasia) he saw on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:19).
- apokalypsis, “revelation” — Refers to the appearance of something which is hidden or unseen. The person of Jesus and the gospel message are described using apokalypsis (for example, Luke 2:32; Rom 16:25). In the context of spiritual gifts, Paul refers to someone who may receive a revelation (apokalypsis) from God (1 Cor 14:6, 26). This word also can refer to future revelations of reality to the world, such as the coming apokalypsis of Christ (2 Thess 1:7; 1 Pet 1:7). The technical title for the book of Revelation is apokalypsis (Rev 1:1).
The relevant terms cluster into two overlapping groups. In one group are words that closely align with the English word “dream” and describe something that happens during sleep. This includes terms such as ḥalôm (Hebrew) and onar (Greek). A second group includes terms that generally mean “vision,” as these words are related to verbs of sight.
When it comes to Joseph’s dreams, the Hebrew text of Genesis uses the noun ḥalôm and its related verb ḥālam. The Bible Word Study guide in Logos tells us these are the most common words for “dream” in the Old Testament.
Dreams (ḥalôm) typically occur in several distinct contexts. First, a dream can be how God protects his people or foretells his provision for them. God warns Laban in a ḥalôm not to harm Jacob (Gen 31:24), and God uses a ḥalôm to promise Solomon great wisdom and understanding (1 Kgs 3:5–14).
Second, an obscure dream provides the opportunity for someone to display God-given ability as an interpreter. Joseph is able to interpret the dreams (ḥalôm) of the royal cupbearer and baker, as well as the dreams of Pharaoh himself (Gen 40–41). In this way, the dreams also serve to magnify God in a foreign context. After Egypt’s wise men prove incapable of deciphering the dreams, Joseph succeeds; he is exalted and God is glorified (Gen 41).
Third, dreams are used to relay information about the future or to provide guidance, and thus are closely related to visions and prophecies. For example, Joseph sees how his family will eventually bow down to him (Gen 37).
Adapted from Andrew W. Litke, “Dreams,” in Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Press, 2014.