Daniel 2:1-13 – Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream


If a man cannot remember the dream he saw (it means): his (personal) god is angry with him. Old Babylonian Omen Text (VAT 7525)

In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. The implication here is that this is a repeated dream, one that is obvious to Nebuchadnezzar to be a ‘vision’, and one that deprives him of his rest. He cannot rest until he has the answer for this dream. The word “troubled” comes from the root פעם (pa’am), the same word used in Genesis 41:8 for the troubled sleep of Pharaoh.

Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC). Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55

Dreams in Babylon were considered significant, especially in the Neo-Babylonian empire. For example, during Ashurbanipal’s reign, a “professional dreamer” saw a warning written on the moon that those that fight against Ashurbanipal are doomed. S. R. Driver gives a number of examples of gods appearing to kings in dreams (Daniel, 17-18).

Nebuchadnezzar decides that he will call together his wisest advisors to obtain an interpretation of the vision. As with the qualifications of the young men in chapter 1, these four “categories” are virtually synonymous, they are all advisors to the king who are charged with giving him advice on what the gods would have him do.

  • Magicians (חַרְטֹם). HALOT suggests this is an Egyptian loan word for an interpreter of dreams. It is used for the dream-interpreters who failed to interpret Pharaoh’s as well as the magicians in Exodus 7:11.
  • Enchanters (אַשָּׁף). The word is only used in Daniel 1:20 and this verse. It refers to a conjuror, or an “incantation priest” (probably an Akkadian loanword according to HALOT). These people would use incantations and curses to bring about some change.
  • Sorcerers (a piel participle of the verb כשׁף ). This refers to people who practice magic and witchcraft. It is the word used in the Hebrew Bible for a witch (Deut 18:10; Isa 47:9; 12; Jer 27:9; Mal. 3:5).
  • Astrologers (כַּשְׂדִּים). This is an ethnic term, the Chaldeans. By the time Daniel was written, the word referred to astrologers, fortune-tellers, magicians (HALOT). These were advisors to the king who sued the stars or other means to predict the future.

Nebuchadnezzar tells these advisors he has had a significant dream and he demands they interpret it. But he is not going to tell them the contents of the dream. Does he not remember the dream? Or is he withholding the information on purpose? The noun in 2:5 is the Aramaic אזד. The NIV and other translations have taken this as a Persian loan word, meaning “be firm.” HALOT suggests “the word (matter) is irrevocable,” suggesting a parallel to the law of the Medes and Persian in 6:8. Hartman and Di Lella suggest the word should be translated as “public knowledge” implying a public announcement of the king’s decision (cf. NRSV, “this is a public decree,” Daniel, 138).

Nebuchadnezzar knows that if he tells the dream to the wise men will consult their dream texts and be able to come up with some kind of interpretation, whether it is true or not. He wants the real interpretation, so he forces reveal the dream as well as the interpretation.

The king makes a matter of public record the penalty that they are going to face if they fail: “I will have you cut into pieces”, literally torn limb from limb. One of the particularly terrifying aspects of the Assyrian empire was the “parting up” of captured peoples (Montgomery, Daniel, 146). “Your houses turned into piles of rubble.” Literally this is a dung hill or a dump. There is evidence of houses and temples being turned into public toilets. In Ezra 6:11 Darius makes the same command for those that defy his decree. The reward, however, is great, but only hinted at it the text with a single word, “rewards.” Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar does not have to specify, since a gift from the king would be of fantastic worth whatever it was.

The wise men rightly complain this situation is unfair and plead to know the dream. They say there is “no one on earth” who can possibly know the dream, only a god could interpret the dream. This foreshadows Daniel’s response to the king in 2:28, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” It is God who has given Nebuchadnezzar this dream and only God will reveal the contents of the mystery of the dream and its interpretation.