Nightmares of the Bible

Night Terrors

The Bible contains nightmares. By that, I don’t mean, the Bible contains the stuff of nightmares, although it does – multi-headed monsters, marching skeletons, melting faces, whispering ghosts, and angels of death, for example. I mean that the Bible contains stories that include nightmares, night terrors, frightening dreams.

The Nightmare of Pilate’s Wife

Perhaps the best known is the one experienced by the wife of Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the governor of the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, who had succeeded his stepfather, Augustus. It was Pilate’s task to officiate over Christ’s trial.  

There were all kinds of political plots and prison exchanges taking place during the trial. In the middle of this mess, Matthew tells us this. 

While he [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered terribly in a dream today because of him.” 

Matthew 27:19

We have no idea what form the dream took, or from what source it originated. We do know that Pilate ignored it. He could wash his hands all he wanted (24) but he will always be remembered as the official who presided over the unfair trial of Christ and ordered his horrific execution. 

The Nightmares of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel

There are other nightmares in the Bible that have their content described, in graphic detail. Nebuchadnezzar, the god-emperor of ancient Babylon, had a series of dreams that left him so anxious and traumatised that he ended up with insomnia, unable to remember exactly what he dreamt (Daniel 2:1). Because Daniel tells him what the nightmare was and what it meant, Nebuchadnezzar promotes him to Master of the Magicians (Daniel 2:48; 4:9). 

A similar incident happened in Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar’s tell the story from his point of view, as a first-person narrator.  

I [Nebuchadnezzar] had a dream, and it frightened me. While still in my bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me.

Daniel 4:5

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, when Nebuchadnezzar called on Daniel to interpret the dream, the terror spilled over into Daniel’s head too! 

Upon hearing the dream, Daniel was stunned into silence for a time, and his thoughts terrified him.

Daniel 4:5

In the second half of his book, Daniel recorded many dreams of his own. For example, in Chapter seven, Daniel records a dream that he had while lying on his bed, which he wrote down after waking up (7:1). It’s a dream about a series of dreadful beasts, hybrids of human and animals, with multiple horns and eyes, that ate flesh and waged war. What’s interesting is the very natural reaction Daniel – a prophet in the Jewish and Christian traditions – had to this nightmare. 

As for me, Daniel, I was deeply distressed, and the images in my mind disturbed me…I was terrified by my thoughts, and my face grew pale.

Daniel 7:15, 28

The Nightmares of Job and His Friends

That last reference to the physical effects of a nightmare on the human body is expanded in one of the oldest books of the Bible – Job.  In Chapter 4, one of Job’s friends called Eliphaz relates a nightmare he had that involved a ghost! 

In the middle of fragmented night-time thoughts, when deep sleep falls on men, fear and trembling came over me and made all my bones shake. A ghost glided past my face. The very hair on my flesh stood up!

Job 4:15-16

This shapeless from loomed over Eliphaz. Then, in the silence, it whispered to him, telling terrible truths about human frailty and death. No wonder Job later complains about this to God! 

When I think my bed will comfort me and sleep will ease my misery, there you scare me with dreams and terrify me by visions!

Job 7:13-14

Good Nightmares?

There’s an explicitly nightmarish quality to some dreams in the Bible even when those dream are positive. For example, the hero Abraham (then still called Abram) was told by God that his descendants would be a numerous as the stars in space. God then gave Abram a dream to confirm this good news. After Abram made a sacrifice, it says this. 

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep. And, suddenly, a horror of great darkness descended on him.

Genesis 15:12

Some might say these dreams came from God, and so we shouldn’t be call them nightmares. But a divine origin or benign purpose doesn’t relieve them of their nightmarish quality. These were dreams with frightening content or that were dreamt in a frightening context. They left an aftershock of fear on the dreamer, the interpreter, and the hearer. They may have been more than nightmares. But they weren’t less. 

Fear the nightmare itself. Don’t fear the use of the word. 

Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

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