Dream symbols and the law of first mention

How the biblical principle of first mention can help you identify the meaning of dream symbols.

Are you trying to figure out what the symbols mean in your dreams?

Are there principles in the bible that can help?

I believe that there are, and have found that the biblical law of first mention is one such tool.

I approach dream interpretation from a biblical perspective. My belief is that our dreams can come from God, and understanding them is best understood within the context of an ongoing relationship with Him.

If you have just come across this post and are new to dream interpretation, it is worth mentioning that dreams are symbolic in nature. You might find it helpful to read the following articles: Understand your dreams: A bible-based introduction to dream language and Beginner’s guide to biblical dream interpretation .

Learning your personal dream language

I have had the privilege of reading the bible over many years, and discovered that some of the biblical interpretation principles can also help us unravel our dreams. I have been sharing some of these over a number of posts.

Those of you who interpret dreams regularly will know that over time we can develop a personal dream dictionary. This is a record of people, places and themes that appear regularly in our dreams, which usually mean the same thing each time.

A personal dream dictionary is a record of symbols that appear regularly in our dreams – and what we think they meant.

Dreams are like an ongoing conversation, and as time goes by we gradually build up a wealth of experience. If we keep a note of what we’ve learnt it becomes so much easier – we start to get a feeling for our own dream language and what common symbols mean to us personally.

This is where the law of first mention comes in. This principle can be useful as we work on developing our dream dictionary.

PIcture of lady writing, with text: over time we can develop our personal dream dictionary

What is the biblical law of first mention?

The law of first mention is more of a helpful principle for understanding Scripture than a hard-and-fast rule. It is often used in inductive bible study, and says that the first mention of a significant word in the bible sets the tone for understanding the use of that word later on.

It gives us a foundational meaning which may then be progressively built on or developed throughout the rest of Scripture.

The law of first mention says that the first mention of a word in the bible can give us a foundation for the use of that word later on.

The practical implication is that when we are trying to understand a regularly occurring word or subject, our grasp of it may be helped by referring back to the first time that it is mentioned. Often we find a key there which will help us.

The first mention of dreams in the bible

To illustrate this principle, I thought I would explore the first direct mention of the word ‘dream’ in the bible, which occurs in Genesis 20:3. The word for dream here is chălôm, and is about a dream that was dreamed by a king called Abimelek.

(Note – there is an earlier allusion to a dream in Genesis 15, during which the Abramic covenant was established – but it is not a direct mention and does not use the word ‘dream’).

This dream is set in the time of Abraham, who having arrived in Abimelek’s area with his wife Sarah, had lied to him and pretended that Sarah was his sister. Abimelek took Sarah, but God spoke to him before he got as far as touching her, to warn him of the deception.

But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman… I know you did this with a clear conscience … That is why I did not let you touch her … Now return the man’s wife…”

Genesis 20:3,6,7, NIV

What I love about this instance of first mention is that it sets the foundation for dreams as a means of God communicating with us.  It clearly states, “God came to Abimelek in a dream.”  

Also it reveals that we can literally have a conversation with God in our dreams. Isn’t that what we all long for deep down – to have a plain one-to-one conversation with God like this king did?  I do. This story defines dreams as a legitimate means by which this can happen. 

In the rest of Scripture the theme of dreams is then developed, and we learn about symbolic language and different types of dreams.  

The subject is completed in the New Testament where we read in Acts 2 about the Holy Spirit being poured out on all mankind, and how we can all expect to receive dreams and visions from God by His Spirit. (See Could our dreams contain messages from heaven?).

I love the interaction in this account, because it tells us so much more about the heart of God – how He intervenes to keep us on track and protects us from our own silly mistakes! It hints towards the later revelation that God is a good Father and works things for our benefit.

So for our understanding and interpretation of dreams, this first mention of dreams gives us several keys that we can take forward:

  • God communicates to us through dreams
  • It is possible to converse with God in our dreams
  • God uses dreams to guide us and keep us on track
  • God’s heart is to communicate information for our benefit

Exploring the law of first mention

You can try this out for yourself by using a concordance or online bible-search-tool to find the first mention of any word or subject. Then meditate on the passage and see what God shows you!

Obviously some care needs to be taken when using this principle, as it is not always relevant, but it is a helpful tool to have in our kit. It can be useful at times, particularly if we allow the Holy Spirit to guide our research.

The law of first mention is not always relevant, but it can be useful at times.

Pictre of microphone on a biible, with text: try looking up the first mention of a word ijn the bible, and see what God shows you

The first appearance of dream symbols

In the same way, God sometimes seems to use the first appearance of a dream symbol to set the meaning of that symbol in subsequent dreams. This is then a key which can be developed or adapted over time.

The first appearance of a symbol in our dreams can give us the key to the meaning of that symbol in subsequent dreams.

In my experience this is most commonly relevant for people who appear in our dreams, but can also apply to other things like places, buildings and even objects.

As an example, I’m going to share one of the first dreams I ever wrote down:

Dream example: Watching a musical

I dreamed I was with my middle son in a theatre searching for something. We ended up sitting in the auditorium watching the musical ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. My friend Jo and her family were sitting with us. We were on the front row and had an excellent view.

Picture of coloured stage lights

Joseph was one of the great dream interpreters of the bible, and many people know his story due to this famous musical by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As this was one of the first dreams I had after starting to write them down, it was fairly clear that God was speaking to me about understanding dreams, and searching for meaning in them. The clue is right there in the title of the musical!

Here are some of thre dream symbols:

  • My middle son: I was new to dream interpretation and keen to start building my dream language, so I had been wondering what this son of mine could represent in a dream. This dream clearly links him with my journey into understanding dreams. Since then, every time he appears in one of my dreams I first start by considering whether he represents something relating to my dream life. This has proved to be the case, and has been borne out consistently so far.
  • The name Joseph: A secondary point of interest is that my friend Jo was sitting in the front row with me. Although Jo could be short for Joanne, the name Jo, or ‘Joe’, is often used as an abbreviation for Joseph. This again points to Joseph in the bible and interpreting dreams (as per the title of the musical). Since then, every time someone with the name Jo, Joe or Joseph has appeared it has always been about my dream life or interpreting dreams.

This dream was affirming and encouraging me to continue seeking understanding of dreams. It was also establishing both my middle son and the name Jo as dream elements, that God could use whenever He wanted to talk to me about my dream life.

Establishing dream symbol meanings

Hopefully, you can begin to see how useful it is to have a few basic building blocks such as this in place for understanding our dreams! It makes the whole process much easier and faster.

However this does have to be established over time – and in relationship with God, the source of our dreams. It develops through having a dream, trying to interpret it, then seeing whether we are right in hindsight. Then repeat the process as necessary!

I have noticed this though: Often when God is first establishing the meaning of a dream symbol like this, He will give a very clear and obvious dream, like my Joseph dream.

When God is establishing the meaning of a dream symbol, He will often give a very clear and obvious dream.

The following tips could help with the interpretation process:

  • If a symbol appears regularly in your dreams, you could think back to the first time that you can remember it clearly, to see if that helps establish the meaning.
  • If you are stuck on a symbol, you could ask God to give you another dream to clarify the meaning of it.

However, remember that a dream symbol could also change its meaning over time. For example our current boss could become our ex-boss, etc. When our life situation changes significantly, it’s likely that the meaning of related dream symbols will change.

You may have realised by now that I treat dreams as an ongoing conversation with God. This is truly what I believe they are – at least they have become that in my own life.

I have found that God loves to keep us communicating with Him, so He may sometimes use a symbol differently from usual to draw us into conversation – so never assume, always check whether it makes sense!

Picture of boy building a tower from blocks, with text: Think back to the first time you remember a symbol appearing and see if that helps establish  the meaning.


In this article, we have explored the biblical law of first mention – and how that can help with interpreting our dreams.

We have discovered that when certain dream symbols – like people, places and objects – appear regularly in our dreams, God sometimes uses the first appearance to establish its meaning. This then becomes a building block for establishing our own personal dream dictionary.

However, we must be prepared to update our dream dictionary over time – as we gain understanding or the symbol meaning changes. This takes a bit of discipline, but it really will save time in the long run!

The law of first mention does not always apply, but I have often found it to be a helpful implement in my toolkit – for both bible study and dream interpretation.

Maybe it could be a tool in yours too? If this article has helped you interpret a dream, please leave a comment below!

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Dream interpretations

The purpose of this blog is to provide biblical foundations for interpreting dreams and encourage others to make their own dream journey. I am primarily a writer and bible teacher – who loves dreams, and I hope you will be inspired to learn to interpret your own dreams.

It is not currently my aim to routinely engage in dream interpretations or provide training, except through writing blog posts. You can read my most up to date position on interpreting dreams here: Requests for dream interpretations.

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Pay it forward

If you have benefited from my articles and/or my help with dream interpretation and would like to show your appreciation, please consider paying it forward to help me continue the work and bless others.

Thank you very much for your support!

Picture of jenny Needham, Heaven's Dream Messages, with text : Thank you

Content Disclaimer

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Jennifer Needham disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.

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Picture of a microphone on abible, with text: 10 biblical tools for understanding dreams, 4: the law of first mention

3 thoughts on “Dream symbols and the law of first mention

  1. As a matter of fact, I always forget about my dreams.

    However, I was born with a strong spirit. From Kanuga (An Episcopalian Conference Center) to Diocese Events, The Gathering (student-led worship service) to the Bristol Pilgrimage to Volunteering. For some odd reason, always really felt a connection to “Those who have Walked in Darkness have seen a Great light”. I once studied the bible- Gardner Webb is a Christian University so Old and New Testament were required: that was where I attended The Gathering- going almost every Tuesday Night was an amazing stress reliever

    Liked by 1 person

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