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Bible Dictionaries
Divination and Magic

Holman Bible Dictionary

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An attempt to contact supernatural powers to determine answers to questions hidden to humans and usually involving the future. The practice was widely known in the ancient Middle East, especially among the Babylonians who developed it into a highly respected discipline. Ezekiel 21:21 records, “For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver.”

The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians employed several methods. The Babylonians commonly used hepatoscopy, divination by the liver. The liver of a sacrificial animal by virtue of being considered the seat of life could be observed carefully by specially trained priests to determine the future activities of the gods. For this purpose the priests underwent ceremonial cleansings in preparing to interpret the livers which had carefully been divided into zones, each containing its own secrets. This was done before action was taken on any matter of real gravity. Clay models of animal livers apparently used as instructional tools in teaching the science of hepatoscopy appear in archaeological sites in Babylonia and in Palestine.

Other methods included augury (foretelling the future by natural signs, especially the flight of birds), hydromancy (divination by mixing liquids; see Genesis 44:5 ), casting lots (Jonah 1:7-8 ), astrology (2 Kings 21:5 ), necromancy (1 Samuel 28:7-25 ), observing the Urim and Thummim (1 Samuel 28:6 ), and by consulting the liver (Ezekiel 21:21 ).

The use of magic is seen often in the literature of the ancient Middle East, employed both by the gods and by human beings. As superhumans, the gods themselves were subject to the higher power of magic. In Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Creation Story, the god of wisdom, Ea, killed his father Apsu, god of the fresh river waters, after reciting a spell. In the same epic, Marduk, the leader of the pantheon, went into battle against Tiamat, goddess of the chaotic sea, with a talisman of red paste in his mouth. Likewise, Tiamat relied on the recitation of a charm to cast a spell. To demonstrate his supreme position in the godhead, Marduk through the magical power of his word caused a piece of cloth to vanish and to reappear. To assure her reappearance on the earth, Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility, donned charms before descending to the underworld.

Similar beliefs in magic are evident from ancient Canaanite myths. The supreme Canaanite deity El acted to heal the ill king Keret by working magic. The goddess Anath through magical means restored the dead Baal to the earth. Paghat, the daughter of the legendary king Daniel, observed the movements of water and of the stars.

The Old Testament often attests to the practice of magic by the Hebrews themselves, reflecting how entrenched it was. Saul, the first Hebrew king, is said to have “put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land” (1 Samuel 28:3 ), but even he later sought out a necromancer (1 Samuel 28:7 ). Jehu responded to the question of Joram, king of Israel, as to whether he came in peace, “What peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” (2 Kings 9:22 ). Isaiah 2:6 accuses the house of Jacob of being “full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines” (NRSV). Isaiah 3:2-3 reflects that the society attaches the same importance to “the diviner,” “the skillful magician,” and “the expert in charms” as to “the mighty man, and the soldier, the judge, and the prophet” (RSV). Consequently, King Manasseh could make public use of such services ( 2 Chronicles 33:6 ). The people acted in a similar fashion. Jeremiah 27:9 admonishes the people not to heed “your [false] prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your enchanters, or your sorcerers.” (Compare Jeremiah 29:8 ).

Although varying kinds of divination and magic are reported to have been practiced widely in ancient Israel and among her neighbors (Deuteronomy 18:9-14; 1 Samuel 6:2; Isaiah 19:3; Ezekiel 21:21; Daniel 2:2 ), Israel herself was clearly and firmly admonished to have no part in such activities. “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft” (Leviticus 19:26 RSV). “Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out to be defiled by them” ( Leviticus 19:3 RSV). “If a person turns to mediums and wizards playing the harlot after them, I will set my face against that person and cut him off from among his people” ( Leviticus 20:6 RSV). “A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them” ( Leviticus 20:27 RSV). “When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominable practices the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations, which you are about to dispossess, give heed to soothsayers and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you so to do” ( Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ). “You shall no more see delusive visions nor practice divination” (Ezekiel 13:23 RSV).

Karen Joines

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Divination and Magic'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​d/divination-and-magic.html. 1991.
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