A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Insomniacs Find Company in the Bible

Do you have trouble staying asleep?  Doze off just fine but in a few hours find yourself wide awake, ready for conversation, a little TV, maybe a snack?


According to William Holladay, you’re in good company.  You may be experiencing what ancient people knew well: segmented sleep. Holladay summarizes research that indicates that “the pattern of human sleep in predindustrial society has been strikingly different from the one now taken for normal” (“Indications of Segmented Sleep in the Bible,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 [2007]: 215).

In current sleep studies, when subjects are deprived of artificial light for up to 14 hrs per night, they develop a common sleep pattern: lie in bed for 2 hours, sleep for 4 hours, awaken for 2-3 hours, sleep for 4 more hours, and then fully awaken. The same pattern is described in literature throughout the pre-modern world.  Greek, Latin, and British authors all describe “first sleep” as followed by a period of light activity.

Holladay finds evidence of this middle-of-the-night wakefulness in the Bible.  He lists several dozen examples, but here are a few:

  • Luke 11, a parable about a man who borrows food from his neighbor at midnight
  • Matthew 25, a parable about bridesmaids expected to prepare a meal in the middle of the night and who find oil-sellers at the same hour
  • Ruth 3, the story of two folks having an extended conversation (and maybe more) during the night
  • Song of Songs 3, the account of a woman searching at night for her lover
  • Genesis 28 and 32, Jacob’s dream of angels on a ladder and his nocturnal wrestling match
  • 1 Samuel 3, in which Samuel hears God calling
  • references in the Psalms to praying in the middle of the night

The next time you’re awake in the middle of the night, try reading some of these stories to see what ancient people did with their time.  I don’t advise knocking on your neighbor’s door asking for a baguette, but you might be able to find olive oil at the all-night convenience store.  At least you’ll know that lots of other people have been there before you.

One Response to Insomniacs Find Company in the Bible

  • That’s really interesting.

    Anybody who has done longer backpacking or camping trips, especially in the spring or fall when nights are still fairly long, might find themselves falling into a similar pattern. Now they know what biblical texts they can read by flashlight for solidarity!

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