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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
2. Kinds of Divination
3. Fundamental Assumption in Divination
4. Legitimate and Illegitimate Divination
5. The Bible and Divination
6. Modes of Divination Mentioned in the Bible:
Those Approved and Those Condemned
7. Terms Used in the Old Testament in Connection with Divination
8. Divination and Prophecy
Divination is the act of obtaining secret knowledge, especially that which relates to the future, by means within the reach almost exclusively of special classes of men.
2. Kinds of Divination:
Of this there are two main species: (1) artificial, (2) inspirational, or, as it was called in ancient times (Cicero, Lord Bacon, etc.), natural divination. Artificial divination depends on the skill of the agent in reading and in interpreting certain signs called omens. See AUGURY. In inspirational or natural divination the agent is professedly under the immediate influence of some spirit or god who enables the diviner to see the future, etc., and to utter oracles embodying what he sees. Among the Romans artificial divination prevailed almost exclusively, the other having vogue largely among the Greeks, a proof surely of the more spiritual trend of the Greek mind. Yet that great Roman, Cicero, in his memorable treatise on Divination, says he agrees with those who take cognizance of these two distinct kinds of divination. As examples of inspirational divination he instances men dreaming or in a state of ecstasy (De Divinatione, i. 18). But though Cicero arranges diviners according to their pretentions, he does not believe in any superhuman communication. Thus he explains dreams on psychological principles much as modern psychologists would (op. cit. ii.63 ff). As a matter of fact Cicero was an atheist, or at least an agnostic.
The Latin word divinatio was confined almost exclusively to divination by outward signs, though its etymology (deus, "god") suggests that it denoted originally the other kind--that due to the inspiration of superhuman beings. Chrysippus (died at Athens 207 BC), though himself a Greek philosopher, defines the word in a way which would have commanded the approval of nearly every Roman, including Cicero himself who gives it. "Divination," Cicero makes him say (op. cit. ii.63), is "a power in man which foresees and explains those signs which the gods throw in his way." The Greeks were, on the other hand, a more imaginative and emotional people, and with them inspirational divination held much the larger place. The Greek (mantis) bears a close resemblance to the Old Testament prophet, for both claimed to be inspired from without and to be superhumanly informed. The Greek term for divination (he) mantike (= he mantike techne) has reference to the work of the mantis, and it hardly ever means divination of the lower sort--that by means of signs.
3. Fundamental Assumption in Divination:
Underlying all methods of divination there lay the belief that certain superhuman spiritual beings (gods, spirits) possess the secret knowledge desired by men, and that, on certain conditions,, they are willing to impart it.
(1) The word "divination" itself, from deus, "god," or divus, "pertaining to god," carries with it the notion that the information obtained came from deity. Similarly the Greek mantike implies that the message comes to the mantis from gods or spirits by way of inspiration.
(2) Astrology, or astromancy, is but one form of divination and it rests upon the ultimate belief that the heavenly bodies are deities controlling the destinies of men and revealing the future to those who have eyes to see. According to the Weltanschauung or conception of the universe advocated by Hugo Winckler, Alfred Jeremias (see The Old Testament in the Light of the East) and others, terrestrial events are but shadows of the celestial realities (compare Plato's doctrine of ideas). These latter represented the mind of the gods (see ASTROLOGY secs. 1,2).
(3) On hepatoscopy, or divining from the liver, see below, 6, (2), (c).
(4) It can be proved that among the ancient peoples (Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc.) the view prevailed that not only oracles but also omens of all kinds are given to men by the gods and express the minds of these gods.
4. Legitimate and Illegitimate Divination:
Among the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans the diviner stood in the service of the state and was officially consulted before wars and other great enterprises were undertaken. But among these and other ancient peoples certain classes of diviners were prohibited by the government from exercising their calling, probably because they were supposed to be in league with tile gods of other and hostile nations. The gods of a people were in the beliefs of the time the protectors of their people and therefore the foes of the foes of their proteges. It is on this account that witchcraft has been so largely condemned and punished (see WITCHCRAFT). Necromancy is uniformly forbidden in the Old Testament (see Lev 19:31; Dt 18:11; Isa 8:19; 19:3), probably on account of its connection with ancestor worship. But among other ancient peoples it was allowed and largely practiced. Note that the Hebrew words translated (Dt 18:11) "consulter with a familiar spirit" and "wizards" denote alike such persons as seek oracles from the spirits of the dead (see the present writer's Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Hebrews, 85 ff). The early Fathers believed that in the divination of heathenism we have the work of Satan who wished to discredit the true religion by producing phenomena among pagan races very similar to the prophetical marvels of the chosen people. This of course rests on a view of the Old Testament prophet which makes him a "predicter" and little if anything more.
5. The Bible and Divination:
The attitude of the Bible toward divination is on the whole distinctly hostile and is fairly represented by Dt 18:10 f, where the prophet of Yahweh is contrasted with diviners of all kinds as the only authorized medium of supernatural revelation. Yet note the following:
(1) Balaam (Nu 22 through 24) was a heathen diviner whose words of blessing and of cursing were believed to have magical force, and when his services are enlisted in the cause of Yahwism, so that, instead of cursing he blessed Israel, there is not a syllable of disapproval in the narrative.
(2) In Isa 3:2 diviners are ranked with judges, warriors and prophets as pillars of the state. They are associated with prophets and seers in Jer 27:9; 29:8; Ezek 22:28 (compare 13:6-9; 12:24). It is true that the prophets and diviners mentioned in these passages use utter falsehoods, saying peace where there is none; all the same the men called prophets and diviners are classed together as similar functionaries.
Pure Yahwism in its very basal principle is and must ever have been antagonistic to divination of every kind, though inspirational divination has resemblances to prophetism and even affinities with it. Why then does the Bible appear to speak with two voices, generally prohibiting but at times countenancing various forms of divination? In the actual religion of the Old Testament we have a syncretism in which, though Yahwism forms the substructure, there are constituents from the religions of the native aborigines and the nations around. The underlying thought in all forms of divination is that by employing certain means men are able to obtain knowledge otherwise beyond their reach. The religion of Israel made Yahweh the source of that knowledge and the prophet the medium through which it came to men. We have an analogous example of syncretism resulting in the union of opposite elements in ancient Zarathustraism (Zoroastrianism) which, though in its central principle inconsistent with divination by omens, yet took on from the native Turanian cults of Persia certain forms of divination, especially that by lot (see Lenormant, La Divination, 22 ff). Nor should it be forgotten that the Bible is a library and not a book, and where so many writers, living at widely separated times, have been at work it is natural to look for diversity of teaching, though no one can deny that in fundamental matters Bible authors are wonderfully consistent.
6. Modes of Divination Mentioned in the Bible:
For modes of divination in vogue among the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc., see the relevant works and dictionary articles. The species of divination spoken of in the Bible may be arranged under two heads: (1) those apparently sanctioned, and (2) those condemned in the Bible.
Those Approved and Those Condemned:
(1) Methods of Divination Tacitly or Expressly Sanctioned in the Bible.
(a) The following are instances of inspirational divination:
(i) The case of Balaam has already been cited. He was a Moabite and therefore a heathen soothsayer. His word of blessing or of curse is so potent that whether he blesses or curses his word secures its own realization. So far is his vocation from being censured that it is actually called into the service of Yahweh (see Nu 22 through 24).
(ii) To dreams the Bible assigns an important place as a legitimate means of revealing the future. Such dreams are of two kinds:
(aa) Involuntary or such as come unsought. Even these are regarded as sent for guidance in human affairs. The bulk of the dreams spoken of in the Bible belong to this class: see Gen 20:3,1 (Abimelech); 28:2 f; 31:10-14 (Jacob); 37:5-9 (Joseph; see ASTRONOMY, sec. II, 6); 40:5-21 (Pharaoh's butler and baker); 41:1-35 (Pharaoh); Jdg 7:9-14 (Gideon and an unnamed man); Dan 1:17 (Daniel had understanding of dreams); Dan 2:1-49 (Nebuchadnezzar's dream and its interpretation by Daniel); Mt 1:20; 2:13 f,19 f (Joseph, husband of Mary the virgin); 27:19; see also Jer 23:25 ff, where the lawfulness of prophetic dreams is assumed (compare 23:32, where "lying dreams" imply genuine ones). In the document usually ascribed by modern critics to the Elohist (E), dreams bulk largely as the above examples serve to show. Among the Babylonians belief in the significance of dreams gave rise to a science (oneiromancy) so elaborate that only special interpreters called seers (singular, baru) were considered able to explain them (see Lenormant, op. cit., 143, for examples).
(bb) The other species of dreams consists of such as are induced by what is called "incubation," i.e. by sleeping in a sacred place where the god of the place is believed to reveal his secrets to the sleeper. Herodotus (iv.172) says that the Nasamonians, an Egyptian tribe, used to practice divination by sleeping in the graves of their ancestors. The dreams which then came to them were understood to be revelations of their deified ancestors. See Herod. i.181 for another instance of incubation in Nineveh. We have a reference to this custom in Isa 65:4 ("that sit among the graves"), where Yahweh enters into judgment with the Jews for their sin in yielding to this superstition. Solomon's dream (1 Ki 3:5-15) came to him at the high place of Gibeon.
See also DREAM, DREAMER.
(b) But the Bible appears in some places to give its approval to some kinds of artificial or (as it may be called) ominal divination.
(i) Sortliege or divination by lot. The use of the lot as a means of ascertaining the will of Deity is referred to at least without expressed censure, and, as the present writer thinks, with tacit approval, in many parts of the Bible. It was by lot that Aaron decided which of the two goats was to be for Yahweh and which for Azazel (Lev 16:7-10). It was by lot that the land of Canaan was divided after the conquest (Nu 26:56 ff; Josh 18; 19). For other Biblical instances see Josh 7:14 (Achan found out by lot); 1 Ch 6:54 ff; 24:5 ff; 25:8 f; 26:13 f; Est 3:7 ("They cast Pur, that is, the lot"; see Century Bible in the place cited.); Neh 10:34; 11:1; Jon 1:7 ("The lot fell upon Jonah"); Mt 27:35; Acts 1:26. In the URIM AND THUMMIM (which see), as explained by modern scholars, the same principle is applied, for these two words, though etymologically still obscure, stand for two objects (pebbles?), one denoting yes or its equivalent, and the other number Whichever the high priest took from his ephod was believed to be the answer to the question asked. In all cases it is taken for granted that the lot cast was an expression and indication of the Divine will.
See AUGURY, IV, 3.
(ii) Hydromancy, or divination by water. In Gen 44:5 Joseph is represented as practicing this kind of divination and not a word of disapproval is expressed.
See AUGURY, IV, 2.
(iii)We read in the Old Testament of other signs or omens which are implicitly approved of, thus Jdg 6:36-40 (Gideon's fleece); 1 Sam 14:8-13 (Jonathan decides whether or not he is to attack the Philistines by the words which he may happen to hear them speak).
(2) Modes of Divination Condemned.
The following methods of divination are explicitly or implicitly condemned in the Old Testament:
(a) Astromancy (= Astrology).
(b) Rhabdomancy, or the use of the divining rod, referred to apparently in Hos 4:12 (which may be paraphrased: "My people ask counsel of a bit of wood, and the rod made thereof answers their questions"); Ezek 8:17 ("They put a rod (EV "the branch") to their nose").
(c) By an examination of the liver of animals; see Ezek 21:21. This mode of divining, hepatoscopy, as it is has been called, was very widespread among the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, etc., of the ancient world, and it is still in vogue in Borneo, Burma and Uganda. We have no evidence that it was practiced among the Israelites, for in the above passage it is the king of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar) who is said to have "looked in the liver."
Opinions differ as to how the state of the liver could act as an omen. Jastrow says the liver was considered to be the seat of life, and that where the liver of the animal sacrificed (generally a sheep) was accepted, it took on the character of the deity to whom it was offered. The soul of the animal as seen in the liver became then a reflector of the soul of the god (see EB, XX, 102 f). On the other hand, Alfred Jeremias says that in the view of the ancient Babylonians the lines and forms of the sheep's liver were regarded as reflecting the universe and its history (The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East, I, 61). Neither of these explanations is made probable by its advocates.
(d) By teraphim (compare TERAPHIM); see 1 Sam 15:23; Ezek 21:21; Zec 10:2.
(e) Necromancy, or consulting the dead; see Lev 19:31; 20:6; Dt 18:11; Isa 8:19; 19:3; see above.
(f) Divination through the sacrifice of children by burning (see Dt 18:10). The context makes it almost certain that the words translated "that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire" (EV; but read and render "that burns his son or his daughter in the fire") refer to a mode of obtaining an oracle (compare 2 Ki 3:27). The Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed their children to Kronos in times of grave national danger or calamity (Porphyry Apud Euseb. Praep. Ev. iv.64,4; Diod. Sic. xx.14).
7. Terms Used in the Old Testament in Connection with Divination:
These are examined in detail in T. Witton Davies' Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Hebrews and Their Neighbors. See also the article "Divination" in Encyclopedia Biblica by the same writer. The following brief notes must suffice here.
(1) kecem, generally rendered "divination," is a general term for divination of all kinds. In Ezek 21:21 (26) it stands for divination by arrows while in 1 Sam 28:8 it is used of divination through the medium of an 'obh ("familiar spirit"). On the derivation of the word see EB, article "Magic," section 3.
(2) me`onen, probably from a Semitic root (compare Arabic `anna) which denotes to emit a hoarse nasal sound such as was customary in reciting the prescribed formula (see CHARM). For "oak of the me`onim" see AUGUR'S OAK. Some say the word means one who divines from the clouds, deriving from `anan, "a cloud," though nothing in the context suggests this sense, and the same remark applies to the meaning "one who smites with the evil eye," making the term a denominative from `ayin, "eye." The usual rendering in the King James Version is plural "observers of times" and in the Revised Version (British and American) "them that practice augury" (Dt. 18:10,14).
(3) The verb nichesh, of which lichesh, is but a variant, is probably a denominative from nachash, "a serpent" (l and n interchange in Hebrew), denoting "to hiss," "to whisper" (like a serpent), then "to utter divinatory formulas." As it is used for so many kinds of divination, W. R. Smith concludes that it came to be a general term for divine. The participle of this verb is translated "enchanter" in Dt 18:10, the cognate verb, "to use enchantments" in Lev 19:26; 2 Ki 21:6; 2 Ch 33:6, and the corresponding noun "enchantment" in Nu 23:23; 24:1.
(4) gazerin, literally, "cutters," i.e. such as kill (in Arab, the cognate verb = "to slaughter") for the purpose of examining the liver or entrails as omens. Perhaps the etymology implies "sacrifice," animals being sacrificed as an appeal to deity. The word occurs only in Dan (2:27; 4:7 (4); 5:7,11), and is translated "soothsayers." Some think they were "astrologers," the etymology in that case referring to the dividing of the heavens with a view, by casting the horoscope, to forecasting the future.
(5) 'ashshaph (the King James Version "astrologer," the Revised Version (British and American) "enchanter"), occurs only in Dan in the Hebrew (1:20; 2:2) and in the Aramaic (2:10; 4:4 (7), etc.) parts of the book. The term is probably taken from the Babylonian and denotes a magician and especially an exorcist rather than a diviner.
(6) kasda'im, the same word as the Greek (Chaldaioi) (English Verisons, "Chaldeans"), denotes in Dan (1:4, etc.) where alone it occurs, not the people so designated but a class of astrologers. This usage (common in classical writers) arose after the fall of the Babylonian empire, when the only Chaldeans known were astrologers and soothsayers. See further, MAGIC. For "spirit of divination" (Acts 16:16) see PYTHON; PHILIPPI.
8. Divination and Prophecy:
Inspirational divination and Old Testament prophecy have much in common. Both imply the following conditions: (1) the primitive instinct that, craves for secret knowledge, especially that relating to the future; (2) the belief that such knowledge is possessed by certain spiritual beings who are willing on certain terms to impart it; (3) such secret knowledge is imparted generally to special classes of men (rarely women) called diviners or (Bab) seers and prophets.
Many anthropologists (Tylor, Frazer, etc.) and Old Testament scholars (Wellhausen, W. Robertson Smith, etc.) consider prophecy to be but an outgrowth and higher form of divination. The older theologians almost to a man, and a goodly number of moderns, take precisely the opposite view, that divination is a corruption of prophecy. Probably neither view is strictly true. Sometimes in human life we find evidences of progress from lower to higher. Sometimes the process is the very reverse. It is important to take notice of the differences as well as the resemblances between the diviner and the prophet.
(1) The Old Testament prophet believes in a personal God whose spokesman he considers himself to be. When he spoke or wrote it was because he was, at least professedly, inspired and informed by Yahweh. "Thus says Yahweh," was the usual formula with which he introduced his oracles. The Greek and Roman mantis, on the other hand, worked himself up to the necessary ecstatic state by music, drugs (intoxicants, etc.), sacrificial smoke and the like. Sometimes it has been thought a sufficient means of divination to swallow the vital portions of birds and beasts of omen. It was believed that by eating the hearts of crows, or moles, or of hawks, men took into their bodies the presaging soul of the creature (Frazer, Golden Bough (NOTE: Separation, distinction: "I will put a division (the Revised Version, margin "sign of deliverance") between my people and thy people" (Ex 8:23). The Hebrew word here is pedhuth =" ransom," "redemption" (compare Ps 111:9), but the reading is doubtful. The King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) follow Septuagint, Syriac and Vulgate, which render "set a distinction," perhaps on the basis of a different reading from that of our Hebrew text.), II, 355).
(2) The mantis practiced his art as a remunerative occupation, charging high fees and refusing in most cases to ply his calling without adequate remuneration. The local oracle shrines (Delphi, Clavis, etc.) were worked for personal and political ends. The Old Testament prophet, on the other hand, claimed to speak as he was bidden by his God. It was with him a matter of conviction as to what lives men ought to live, what state of heart they should cultivate. So far from furthering his own material interests, as he could by saying what kings and other dignitaries wished to hear, he boldly denounced the sins of the time, even when, as often, he had to condemn the conduct of kings and the policy of governments. Look, for example, at Isaiah's fearless condemnation of the conduct of Ahaz in summoning the aid of Assyria (Isa 7 ff), and at the scathing words with which Jeremiah censured the doings of the nation's leaders in his day (Jer 9:36, etc.), though both these noble prophets suffered severely for their courage, especially Jeremiah, who stands out as perhaps the finest recorded example of what, in the face of formidable opposition, the religious teacher ought ever to be. Of Micaiah ben Iralab, King Ahab of Israel said, "I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil." What reward did this prophet have for his fidelity to his conscience and his God? Imprisonment (1 Ki 22:1-35). Had he pleased the king by predicting a happy, prosperous future that was never to be, he would have been clothed in gorgeous robes and lodged in a very palace.
In addition to the references above and the full bibliography prefixed to the present writer's book named above (Magic, etc.), note the following: Bouche-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquite; E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture 3, I, 78-81; 117-33; II, 155; J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough 2, I, 346; II, 355; III, 342, et passim, and the articles in the principal Bible dictionaries.
T. Witton Davies
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'divination'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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