the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Divination is a general term descriptive of the various illusory arts anciently practiced for the discovery of things secret or future. The human mind has always shown a strong curiosity to ascertain the course of fortune, and the issue of present or contemplated schemes; and in those countries and ages where ignorance of physical laws has combined with superstition to debase it, it has sought to gratify this innate disposition to pry into futurity, by looking for presages in things between which and the object of its anxiety no connection existed but in the diviner's imagination. Scarcely a single department of nature but was appealed to, as furnishing, on certain conditions, good or bad omens of human destiny; and the aspect of things, which, perhaps by the most casual coincidence, marked some event or crisis in the life of one or two individuals, came to be regarded, by blind credulity, as the fixed and invariable precursor of a similar result in the affairs of mankind in general. By such childish and irrational notions was the conduct of the heathen guided in the most important, no less than in the most ordinary occurrences of life; and hence arose the profession of augurs, soothsayers, et hoc genus omne of impostors, who, engrafting vulgar traditions on a small stock of natural knowledge, established their claims to the possession of an occult science, the importance and influence of which they dexterously increased by associating it with all that was pompous and imposing in the ceremonies of their religion.
This science, if that can be called science which was the product of ignorance and fraud united, was divided into various branches, each of which had its separate professors. In a general view, divination may be considered as either natural or artificial: the first being founded on the notion that the soul possesses, from its spiritual nature, some prescience of futurity, which it exemplifies particularly in dreams, and at the approach of death: the second, resting on a peculiar interpretation of the course of nature, as well as on such arbitrary observations and experiments as superstition introduced. The different systems and methods that were anciently in vogue are almost incredible: as, for instance, Aëromancy, divining by the air; Arithmomancy, by means of numbers; Capnomancy, by the smoke of sacrifices; Chiromancy, by the lines on the palms of the hands; Hydromancy, by water; Pyromancy, by fire, etc. but without attempting an enumeration and explanation of all the arts of divination that were anciently practiced, let us confine ourselves to the mention of those which occur in sacred history.
1. Wise men (;;; , etc.), a term applied generally to magicians, or men who were skilled in natural science.
2. 'Wizards' or wise men, and 'a witch,' from an Arabic verb signifying 'to reveal,' both practicing divination by the same arts, i.e. pretending to reveal secrets, to discover things lost, find hidden treasure, and interpret dreams.
3. One who foretold what was to happen by the flight of birds, or the use of lots.
4. One who, though rendered by our translators 'an observer of times,' foretold political or physical changes by the motion of the clouds, along with whom Isaiah conjoins those who made the same predictions from eclipses, and the conjunction of the stars ().
5. 'An enchanter' was probably one who practiced Ophiomancy, or the art of charming serpents, which was, and still is, a favorite trick of jugglery in the East.
6. 'A charmer,' one who placed words and things in a certain arrangement, or muttered them, as a kind of spell.
7. 'A consulter with familiar spirits,' or 'a ventriloquist,' was a wizard who asked counsel of his familiar, and gave the responses received from him to others—the name being applied in reference to the spirit or demon that animated the person, and inflated the belly, so that it protuberated like the side of a bottle (see;; also ).
8. 'A necromancer,' one who, by frequenting tombs, by inspecting corpses, etc. like the witch of Endor, pretended to evoke the dead, and bring secrets from the invisible world (;;; ).
9. Belomancy, as it is called, a form of divination by means of arrows (; see also ), a notable example of which occurs in the history of Nebuchadnezzar, who, being undecided whether to march first against Jerusalem or Rabbah, allowed neither his policy nor resentment to decide the course of his expedition, but was determined wholly by the result of superstitious rites. The way of divining by arrows was, having first made them bright 'in order the better to follow them with the eye,' to shoot them, and to prosecute the march according to the direction in which the greatest number of arrows fell; or, having 'mixed together' some arrows with the names of the devoted cities marked on them, to attack that first which was first drawn out; or to put in a bag three arrows, as is the practice of the Arabs, one of which is inscribed with the words 'Command me, Lord,' the second with 'Forbid me, Lord,' while the third is left blank; so that if the first is taken out, he was to go; if the second, he was to desist; if the third is drawn, no decision being given, the experiment is to be repeated.
10. Rhabdomancy, or divination by rods (). This has been confounded with the preceding. But the instruments of divination which Hosea alludes to are entirely different from those described by Ezekiel, arrows being used by the latter, whereas the former speaks of 'staff.' The form of divination by the staff was, after placing it upright, to let it fall, and decide by the direction in which it fell, or, according to others, by measuring the staff with the finger, saying at each span, 'I will go' or 'I will not go' and determining the course, according as it happened to be the one or the other at the last measurement. Both of these, as Jerome informs us, were frequently practiced by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Herodotus (vi.) describes the Alani women as gathering and searching anxiously for very smooth and straight wands to be used in this superstitious manner.
11. Another way of divining was by 'images' (), which are generally considered talismans, but which the Persian and other versions render astrological instruments or tables.
12. Another form of divination was, 'by looking into the liver' of a newly killed sacrifice, and by observing its state and color according to certain rules, to draw a favorable or unfavorable omen.
The last form which it is of consequence to notice as alluded to in Scripture was by 'the cup.' But in what manner it was practiced; whether it was by observing the appearance of some magical ingredients that were infused into the vessel; or whether allusion is made to a famous cup which the immemorial tradition of the East says has been in the possession of some great personages, and represents the whole world; or, finally, whether the original word rendered 'divineth,' should be rendered by 'searching' or 'inquiring earnestly,' as many learned writers, anxious to save the character of Joseph from the imputation of sorcery (), have labored to prove, it is absolutely impossible, and we shall not attempt, to determine.
Egypt, the cradle of arts and sciences, if she did not give it birth, seem to have encouraged the practice of divination at an early age, and whether any of its forms had become objects of popular superstition, or were resorted to for the purposes of gain in the days of Joseph, it is well known that at the time of the Hebrew Exodus there were magicians in that country whose knowledge of the arcana of nature, and whose dexterity in the practice of their art, enabled them, to a certain extent, to equal the miracles of Moses. By what extraordinary powers they achieved those feats, how they changed their rods into serpents, the river water into blood, and introduced frogs in unprecedented numbers, is an inquiry that has occasioned great perplexity to many men of learning and piety. Some have imagined that the only way of accounting for the phenomena is to ascribe them to jugglery and legerdemain; the serpents, the frogs, and the other materials requisite having been secretly provided and dexterously produced at the moment their performances were to be exhibited. Others contend that these conjurors were aided by familiar spirits or infernal agents, with the Divine permission, in the performance of their wonderful feats. 'Earth, air, and ocean,' says a sensible writer, 'may contain many things of which our philosophy has never dreamed. If this consideration tend to humble the pride of learning, it may remind the Christian that secret things belong not to him, but to a higher power.'
It is reasonable to suppose that as Moses never had been in any other civilized country, all the allusions contained in his writings to the various forms of divination were those which were practiced in Egypt; and, indeed, so strong a taste had his countrymen imbibed there for this species of superstition, that throughout the whole course of their history it seems to have infected the national character and habits. The diviners, who abounded both among the aborigines of Canaan and their Philistine neighbors (), proved a great snare to the Israelites after their settlement in the promised land; and yet, notwithstanding the stern prohibitions of the law, no vigorous efforts were made to put an end to the crime by extirpating the practitioners of the unhallowed art, until the days of Saul, who himself, however, violated the statute on the night previous to his disastrous fall (1 Samuel 28). But it was Chaldea to which the distinction belongs of being the mother country of diviners. Such a degree of power and influence had they attained in that country, that they formed the highest caste and enjoyed a place at court; nay, so indispensable were they in Chaldean society that no step could be taken, not a relation could be formed, a house built, a journey undertaken, a campaign begun, until the diviners had ascertained the lucky day and promised a happy issue. A great influx of these impostors had, at various times, poured from Chaldea and Arabia into the land of Israel to pursue their gainful occupation, more especially during the reign of the later kings (), and we find Manasseh not only their liberal patron, but zealous to appear as one of their most expert accomplices (; ). The long captivities in Babylon spread more widely than ever among the Jews a devoted attachment to this superstition; for after their return to their own country, having entirely renounced idolatry, and, at the same time, no longer enjoying the gift of prophecy or access to the sacred oracles, they gradually abandoned themselves, as Lightfoot has satisfactorily shown, before the advent of Christ, to all the prevailing forms of divination (Comment. on Matt.).
Against every species and degree of this superstition the sternest denunciations of the Mosaic law were directed (;;;; ), as fostering a love for unlawful knowledge and withdrawing the mind from God only wise; while, at the same time, repeated and distinct promises were given that, in place of diviners and all who used enchantments, God would send them prophets, messengers of truth, who would declare the divine will, reveal futurity, and afford them all the useful knowledge which was vainly sought for from those pretended oracles of wisdom. Much discussion, however, has been carried on by learned men to determine the question whether the ancient tribe of diviners merely pretended to the powers they exercised, or were actually assisted by demoniacal agency. The latter opinion is embraced by almost all the fathers of the primitive church. On the other hand, it has been, with great ability and erudition, maintained that the whole arts of divination were a system of imposture, and that Scripture itself frequently ridicules those who practiced them as utterly helpless and incapable of accomplishing anything beyond the ordinary powers of nature (;;; ).
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Divination'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​d/divination.html.