Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream in Daniel and Alexander’s Dream in Josephus

The Letter to the Hebrews begins with the multiple forms of the divine revelation: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways (πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως) by the prophets (Heb 1:1, NRSV).” What does the phrase “the various ways of the divine revelation” mean? One of the ways that God reveals himself to humans is “dream” or “vision.” Indeed, the dream is the best way to convey a divine message to humans. In the Old Testament, the divine message is revealed in dreams to Jacob (Gen 28:12-15; 31:10-13), to Laban (Gen 31:24), to the Midianite soldier (Judg 7:13-15), to Solomon (1 Kgs 3:5-14), to Samuel (1 Sam 3:3-14), and to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2:1-45; 4:4-27). The dream narratives in the Old Testament are conceived principally as a means of conveying divine messages both “good” and “bad,” such as the divine deliverance and judgment.

Josephus also accounts Alexander’s dream in Antiquities of the Jews 11.334-35. Among the biblical dream narratives, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel can be compared to Alexander’s dream in Josephus in terms of common themes and features.

Tae Hun Kim discusses the similarities of the two dreams as follows (Kim 2003, 430):

  1. The dreamer is a great pagan king who previously had not been particularly well-disposed toward the Jews.
  2. A positive change in his attitude toward the Jews is effected by his dream and its fulfillment, and great honor is given to the Jews as a result.
  3. A human-like figure (an angelic watcher in Dan 4:13; Jaddua himself in Ant. 11.334) appears and delivers an oral message, though in a different way.

Kim also shows how the two dreams are different in themes and features (Kim 2003, 430):

  1. In Antiquities Alexander is not presented as particularly hostile to the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar, however, destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar’s change of attitude toward the Jews thus is much more dramatic.
  2. Alexander’s dream is a divine encouragement and promise of blessing; there is no punitive element in his dream. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream foretells a divine castigation and punishment.
  3. Alexander had a specific dream that answered specific concerns he already had in mind, and thus the dream functioned like an oracle, i.e., a divine response to Alexander’s question regarding the outcome of his imperial plan. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is an unsolicited vision of pending disaster, which does not address him personally or cater to his concerns.
  4. The message of Alexander’s dream was sufficiently clear that he could readily understand it without the aid of a dream interpreter. The identity of the dream figure still eluded him, yet Alexander did not call for a dream interpreter. But the dream message addressed to Nebuchadnezzar was so cryptic that Daniel had to be brought in to explain to the king the meaning and the repercussions of his vision.

After the comparison of similarities and differences of the two dreams, Kim concludes as follows:

Both dream narratives share a common theme, i.e., a great pagan king becomes the protector of the Jews by means of a divinely-inspired dream, and the honor of the Jews is greatly increased as a result. In this sense, both dreams essentially function as a propaganda piece for the Jews (Kim 2003, 431).

Does the dream of Daniel function as a propaganda piece for the Jews? Does the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 reveal an optimist tendency toward the foreign king? I think the theme of Daniel is not to express a propaganda for the Jews, but to insist that the Most High God is only one real God. The dream of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 is probably a polemical exaggeration. This theme also occurs in the tradition of Nabonidus in Prayer of Nabonidus (4QProNab; 4Q242). As a result, the dream of Daniel 4 reveals not only a possibility of conversion of a pagan king, but it also expresses the acknowledgment of the Most High God.

Reference List

Kim, Tae Hun. “The Dream of Alexander in Josephus Ant. 11.325-39.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period. 34 no 4 (2003): 425-442.

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3 Responses

  1. O.K., this is a GREAT question–how did the prophet acquire his or her material? By what means did divine consultation occur? How were the oracles apprehended? Rendsburg & Cyrus Gordon thought that the Deuteronomist included, along w/dreams/visions, temple implements (urim/tummim, ephod, etc.) and a less objective sense of “prophetic consciousness” given by some sort of divine inspiration but reflected in the sociological phenomenon of prophecy generally. So how do you account for the descriptive use of divination in the Bible when proscriptively divination is banned? Just curious, still trying to figure it all out. -K.O.

  2. Thank you for your cmments, Kevin.
    As you know very well, the DrtH’s point of view on the divination may be later religious stage in the development of the Israelite’s relgion (Wellhausen).
    I think one of the main political and religious purposes of DtrH will be the centralization of Jerusalme cult.
    Let us not forget that historical situation.

    I’d like to post an article soon on “Child Sacrifice of the OT.” This issue also presents a same problem that you asked.

  3. Hi, thank you for this valuable post..

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