We see several examples of God talking to individuals through dreams in the Bible. Some, like Jacob’s dream of the ladder reaching into heaven, were more or less literal. Others, like the young Joseph’s sheaves of wheat, required more interpretation.
Joseph’s dreams of authority over his family (Genesis 37:5–11)
Joseph was the son of Jacob and Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. He was his father’s favorite son, as well, and spoiled above his older brothers. Joseph had two dreams that served to solidify his brothers’ dislike of him. The first dream was that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, but when his sheaf stood upright, his brothers’ sheaves bowed down to it. In another dream, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph. His brothers and father quickly interpreted the dreams to mean they would one day be under Joseph’s authority. His brothers became even more jealous of him, but his father, after initially rebuking Joseph, contemplated the possibility quietly. Years later, after Joseph’s brothers had sold him to slavers and Joseph had gone from slave to prisoner to Pharaoh’s second in command, the dreams came true. Joseph’s brothers and father were truly under Joseph’s authority as they came to him to buy grain during a horrible famine (Genesis 45).
The dreams of the cupbearer and the baker (Genesis 40)
Between Joseph’s dreams of future glory and his promotion, he spent some time in an Egyptian prison with Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker. The cupbearer dreamed he found three laden branches of a grapevine and squeezed the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup. The baker dreamed he had three baskets on his head filled with cakes, but birds were eating from the top basket. Joseph rightly interpreted the dreams to mean that in three days the cupbearer would be released and returned to his position, but the baker would be executed.
Pharaoh’s dreams of feast and famine (Genesis 41:1–36)
Two years after Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, he was called to do the same for the ruler of Egypt. Pharaoh had dreamed of seven ugly, thin cows eating seven plump, healthy cows. He then dreamed of seven thin, blighted ears of grain devouring seven full ears. Joseph told Pharaoh the dual dreams were both communicating the same message from God: the land of Egypt would see seven unusually prosperous years, followed by seven years of horrible famine. He also said that Pharaoh should stockpile everything he could during the years of plenty to sell during the years of famine. Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of this plan—which was how Joseph came to be in authority over his father and brothers when they ran out of food.
The Midianite’s dream of defeat (Judges 7:13–14)
Gideon may have been the most reluctant judge in all of Israel. God commissioned him to raise an army to defeat the Midianites, but God cut back the forces to a scant 300 men. To strengthen Gideon’s resolve, God sent him to the outskirts of the enemy camp to overhear two soldiers talking. One had dreamt of a loaf of barley bread rolling into the camp and flattening a tent. The other, amazingly, interpreted the dream to mean that the Israelite Gideon would defeat the Midianites: “God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into [Gideon’s] hands” (Judges 7:14). Gideon took heart, followed God’s plan, and watched the Midianite soldiers slaughter each other (verses 19–22).
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue (Daniel 2)
God often spoke to prophets through dreams, but perhaps none so much as Daniel (Daniel 1:17). When Nebuchadnezzar demanded that his wise men reveal both his dream and the meaning, Daniel obliged. The king’s dream had been of the statue of a man: a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, body and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, feet of iron and clay. A stone cut without human hands then struck the feet of the statue, and the statue crumbled, but the stone became a mighty mountain. Daniel revealed that the different parts of the statue were different earthly kingdoms that would come into power, making this dream a far-reaching prophecy. The gold head was Babylon, the silver chest and arms were Medo-Persia, the thighs were Greece, and the legs Rome. The exact identity of the feet has not yet been revealed; it seems to be related to the Roman Empire (the feet and the legs both contain iron), and the ten toes seem to correspond to the ten horns mentioned in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. We know that the final worldwide kingdom will be ruled by the Antichrist. The stone in the dream, the one that destroys all the kingdoms and fills the earth, is the kingdom of God, established when Jesus returns to reign over all the earth forever.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the fallen tree (Daniel 4)
On a personal level, Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream was much more disturbing than the first. The king saw a tree, chopped down and stripped of leaves and fruit, left as only a stump bound in iron and bronze. Reluctantly, Daniel revealed the interpretation of the dream: this was a warning that God would strike Nebuchadnezzar with a type of insanity. For seven years, the proud Nebuchadnezzar lost his reason and lived like an ox in the field. After his humiliation, the king was restored to his sanity and his position in the palace, and he had the good sense to praise Daniel’s God.
Daniel’s dream of the four beasts (Daniel 7:1–8)
Daniel had several dreams and visions of end times events that he couldn’t understand. One was of four great beasts: a lion with eagles’ wings, a bear with three ribs in its teeth, a leopard with four bird’s wings and four heads, and a monster with iron teeth and ten horns. A messenger from heaven interprets the dream for Daniel: “The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth” (Daniel 7:17). The lion was Nebuchadnezzar; the bear was the Medo-Persian Empire (the three devoured ribs were Babylon, Lydia, and Egypt); the leopard was Greece (the four heads representing how the Greek Empire was torn into fourths after the death of Alexander the Great); and the last was the Roman Empire, but with a twist. Although the beast was Rome, the ten horns speak of future events. They will be ten world leaders who will revive the Roman Empire and bring forth the Antichrist, the “little horn” of verse 8.
The Bible mentions other examples of visions and dreams. Although God did reveal His plans in dreams to some people, He also gave strong warnings against those who would falsely claim to have prophetic dreams. In the Mosaic Law, if a prophet claimed to have a message from God through a dream, but then, even if what he'd said came to pass, called the people to worship other gods, he was to be put to death (Deuteronomy 13:1–5). If a prophet claimed to speak on God’s behalf but it was not actually from God, proven by the fact that what he said did not come true, that prophet was to be put to death (Deuteronomy 18:20–22).
The apostle Peter wrote, "We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:19–21). Second Timothy 3:16–17 similarly affirms the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." Peter also wrote that God’s "divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3). We need not seek after dreams to hear from God. The written Word of God, provided through the agency of the apostles and prophets, is our rule for faith and practice. The indwelling Holy Spirit illuminates God’s Word to us and helps us live out God’s will for our lives.