Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dream Incubation: Revelations of the Night

Today, if you look up the word "incubation" in most modern dictionaries, the only definitions will involve the development of fetuses. But the acute reader will notice the word "incubus," or dream demon, immediately follows. In ancient times, people would seek divine or spirit guidance via dreams. The technical term for such divination: induced (deliberately sought) dream visitations by spirits, angels, demons, the dead, or gods, is "incubation."

The practice of incubation has a long, multi-cultural history (See, for example, the The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East by Oppenheim). And methods vary greatly. In the Ancient Near East, dream incubation usually involves a preparatory ritual (often an offering or sacrifice) and sleeping in a place of known numinous power (a shrine, a temple, by a sacred water source).

Incubation was widely practiced in all the societies around ancient Israel, and it should not come as a surprise that Israelites also engaged in this practice, though modern adherents to the Bible might find such a though scandalous. Yet there are multiple such events in the Bible, either described, or alluded to.

The key word to look for is darash, "inquire," as in "David inquired of the Lord." It sounds superficially mundane, like David rang God up on the phone. In reality, darash is a technical word for "divined" or "performed an augury." There were several ways to do this - sacred lots (the urim and thummim), consult a living oracle (a prophet or "man of God"), or perform an incubation (See I Sam. 28:6 for the complete list).

Solomon's dream as envisioned by Mark Chagall

The most complete description of an incubation ritual appears in I Kings chapter 3, where Solomon goes to a shrine at Gibeon and, after making sacrifices, sleeps there and receives a divine promise concerning his monarchy. 

There are many variations on this found elsewhere in the Bible. Jacob has an unsolicited dream vision while sleeping on the future location of an Israelite shrine [Beth E] (Gen. 28). Samuel has a comedic incubation while an attendant sleeping in the Tabernacle at Shiloh (I Samuel 3). Other likely, if not explicitly, incubations occur with Abraham (Gen. 15); Zechariah (Zech. 4); David (II Samuel 12:15-23); Nathan (II Samuel 7); and Isaiah (Isa. 6). 

The practice of incubation continues into post-biblical Judaism (Flannery-Daily, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in Hellenistic and Roman Eras). While the Talmudic sages did not document any methods for this (just rules of dream interpretation), the Merkavah mystics did: techniques called she'elot halom, "dream questions," for drawing down the Sar ha-Torah, "[Angelic] Prince of the Torah" and the Sar ha-Halom, "The Prince of Dream." Magical textbooks like Sefer haRazim and Harba de-Moshe describe similar practices. So too, the Chasidei Ashkenaz described rituals that may have been performed overnight in synagogues (Sefer ha-Chasidim 80, 271, 1556).

Isaac Luria was an avid practitioner, and it was a familiar practice mentioned in early modern European texts (Shivbei ha-BeSHT 1,7). And, of course, a prophetic dream (sort of), is key to the plot of Fiddler on the Roof. 

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon.http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can’t help but wonder if dream incubation was an important aspect of cultic sex rituals in the ancient near east, with the goal of the sex being both a soporific as well as a source for dream ideation. Might this be another aspect of the story of Yael and Siserah (in the book of Judges)?

11:19 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

The rabbis suspect there was a sexual component to the Sisera/Yael story, but I'm not sure how dream divination fits into this narrative. I'd love to hear your theory.

4:25 PM  

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