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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
"Witchcraft" and "sorcery" are the terms used in the Bible to designate the practise of the arts of divination, which were tabooed by orthodox religious sentiment. As this orthodox sentiment was not a constant quantity, practises which at one time were regarded as innocent at another were relegated to the domain of sorcery or witchcraft. These practises were varied, and are denoted by several different Hebrew words.
The Ob and the Yidde'oni.
One of the oldest of these practises was that of consulting the dead. The spirit of the dead was called "ob," and the consultation of such a spirit was ac.complished through a woman who was called a "mistress of an ob" ("ba'alat ob"). The earliest and most famous instance of this on record is that of King Saul on the night before the fateful battle of Gilboa, in which he lost his life (comp. 1 Samuel 28:3,7 et seq.). It appears from the accountthat this method of gaining information was under the ban even at that early date. The "mistress of the ob" whom Saul found at En-dor is said to have been able to summon Samuel's spirit from the under world and to talk with it. The narrative represents her as able to call up any "ob" desired. Wherever "obot" are mentioned there also is found the term "yidde'oni" (R. V., incorrectly, "wizard"). It is, apparently, a synonym of "ob" as a designation of a departed spirit (comp. Leviticus 19:31; 20:6,27; Deuteronomy 18:11; 1 Samuel 28:3,9; 2 Kings 21:6, 23:24; Isaiah 8:19, 19:3; 2 Chronicles 33:6). "Ob" designated a subterranean spirit, but perhaps "yidde'oni" was a more general term. It is probable that the wizards who consulted the dead were ventriloquists, for Isaiah (comp. 8:19) describes them as those that "chirp and . . . mutter." Probably the ventriloquist impersonated the dead as speaking in a faint voice from the ground, whence this description. Deuteronomy 18:11 adds to consulting an ob or a yidde'oni, "inquiring of the dead," as though there were still another means of consulting them. If this be so, no information as to the method of consultation has been preserved.
Another class of diviners is called "me'onenim" (comp. Judges 9:37; 2 Kings 21:6; Isaiah 2:6; Mic. 5:12). This class also was very ancient. It appears from Judges 9:26 that a sacred tree at Shechem was named from it. As this tree is probably identical with the "oak of Moreh" (Genesis 12:6, R. V.), it is probable that the method of divination alluded to was also employed by the Canaanites. Isaiah (2:6) also alludes to the "me'onenim" as existing among the Philistines. It is evident, therefore, that this method of divination was common to Palestinian heathendom. W. R. Smith (in "Journal of Philology," 14:116 et seq.), who is followed by Driver, derives the word from (comp. the Arabic "ghanna" = "to emit a hoarse, nasal sound"), and thinks that it denoted the "murmurer" or "hoarsely humming soothsayer"; he remarks that the characteristic utterances of an Arabic soothsayer are a monotonous croon called "saj'" and a low murmur, "zamzamah," or whisper, "was-wasah."
Drugs and Charms.
An obscure class of soothsayers was called "mekashshefim" (comp. the "nomen abstractum" "kesha"; see Deuteronomy 18:11; 2 Kings 9:22; Mic. 5:12; Nah. 3:4). W. R. Smith (c. p. 125) argues that the root "kashaf" means "to use magical appliances, or drugs"; and many interpreters follow him. Those who doubt the correctness of this explanation are unable to suggest an alternative. This interpretation receives some support from the facts that the Septuagint in Nah. 3:4 gives ÏÎ¬ÏÎ¼Î±ÎºÎ±, and that the belief in the use of drugs or herbs is very old, as is shown by the mention of mandrakes in Genesis 30:14-19. In the oldest code capital punishment is ordained for this class of sorcerers (comp. Exodus 22:18).
A further branch of witchcraft was "laá¸¥ash," or charming (comp. Isaiah 3:3). In Jeremiah 8:17 and Ecclesiastes 10:11 the word is used of snake-charming. Kindred in function to the "laá¸¥ash" was the "á¸¥ober" (comp. Deuteronomy 18:11), which Psalms 58:5 makes parallel to "laá¸¥ash." "Laá¸¥ash," curiously, does not appear in Deuteronomy 18:10-11, a passage which Ewald and W. R. Smith regard as an exhaustive list of forbidden enchantments. In its place there is "naá¸¥ash" ("menaá¸¥esh"). As × and × are both liquids, possibly the two roots are connected. In reality, however, "naá¸¥ash" seems to have had a different meaning. Genesis 44:5 says that Joseph divined ("yenaá¸¥esh") by means of a cup, perhaps by watching the play of light in a cup of liquid. Balaam (Numbers 24:1) is said to have occupied himself with enchantments ("neá¸¥ashim"). Since Balaam observed omens on the hilltops, his oracles must have been deduced from some other natural phenomena. As the equivalent term in Syriac, "nÄá¸¥shÄ," is one which covers portents from the flight of birds as well as other natural occurrences, "laá¸¥ash" probably refers, as W. R. Smith concludes, to divination by natural omens and presages. If so, it was not always tabooed by the best men in Israel, for David once received an omen for a successful military attack from the sounds in the tops of certain trees (2 Samuel 5:24).
Another term often used to describe sorcery is "á¸³esem" (Numbers 23:23; Deuteronomy 18:10; 1 Samuel 15:23; 2 Kings xvii, 17; Isaiah 3:2; Ezekiel 21:21). This method of divination is elucidated in Ezekiel 21, R. V., where the King of Babylon is represented as standing at the parting of the ways, and using divination to determine whether to proceed first against Rabbah of Ammon or against Jerusalem. "He shook the arrows to and fro, he consulted the teraphim, he looked in the liver." In verse 22 (Hebr.) it is declared that in "his right hand was the á¸³esem for Jerusalem." It would appear, therefore, that "á¸³esem" was a method of divination by arrows. Arabian analogy here throws much light upon the practise, as this system of drawing lots by means of arrows, and thus obtaining an oracle, was practised by the Arabs, and the details are quite well known (comp. W. R. Smith in "Journal of Philology," 13:277 et seq.). The lots were drawn with headless arrows in the presence of an idol, and were accompanied by a sacrifice. The method was thoroughly analogous to that which Ezekiel describes. The "á¸³esem" was accordingly a method of casting lots. Among the Arabs judicial sentences were obtained in this way, so that it became a kind of ordeal. Such, probably, was the case in Israel, for Proverbs 16:10 declares that "A divine sentence ["á¸³esem"] is in the lips of the king: His mouth shall not transgress in judgment" (R. V.).
Ordeals and Lots.
Indeed, all through the earlier period of Israel's history important matters were decided by lot. The land was assigned to the tribes by lot (Joshua 14:2); Saul is said to have been chosen king by lot (1 Samuel 10:10); Jonathan, when he had violated a taboo, was detected by lot (1 Samuel 14:41 et seq.); in fact, some form of casting lots was the one way of obtaining a divine decision (comp. Proverbs 16:33). The See EPHOD was probably an instrument for casting lots.
Ewald and W. R. Smith have both observed thatDeuteronomy 18:10-11 contains a formal list of all the important kinds of witchcraft or divination known at the time the passage was written. These various modes of obtaining oracles really diverted popular attention from spiritual prophecy. The Deuteronomist banished them from the realm of legitimate practise and promised in lieu of them a perennial succession of prophets. Among these various kinds of divination, "á¸³esem" (by sacred lots in the presence of an idol) held a foremost place. It stands next in the list to making one's son or daughter "pass through the fire." This was a part of Molochworship, and was probably a means of obtaining an oracle: hence it was classed with witchcraft.
Relation to Ancestor Worship.
If the date of the Deuteronomic code given by modern critics is accepted (about 650 B.C.), the prominence given to "á¸³esem" is easily understood. The Prophets were raising popular practises to a higher level; and arts which had before been esteemed innocent, or regarded as the handmaids of religion, were now condemned as witchcraft. It is probable that other forms of sorcery in the list had passed through a similar history. Isaiah (8:19) indicates that in the eighth century B.C. necromancy (consulting the dead by either an ob or a yidde'oni) was the most popular competitor of prophecy for popular favor. It can not be supposed, as Stade and others hold, that ancestor worship in a pronounced form ever existed among the Semites (comp. Frey, "Seelenglaube und Seelenkult im Alten Israel," Leipsic, 1898, and GrÃ¼neisen, "Der Ahnenkultus und die Urreligion Israels," Halle, 1900); yet, when it is borne in mind how easily an ancestor or a departed sheik becomes a "wali" among the modern Arabs, it is not difficult to believe that the necromancy of ancient Israel had a semi-religious origin. The movement against necromancy was much older than that against "á¸³esem," for it began as early as the reign of Saul (comp. 1 Samuel 28:3); but old customs are persistent, and "seeking unto the dead" was still a popular practise in the time of Isaiah.
The denunciations of Isaiah and the Deuteronomist did not, however, annihilate witchcraft. It still existed in the time of the author of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch, although it was then in bad odor. This writer ascribes all kinds of sorcery and divination to the angels, who, in Genesis 6:2-4, are said to have come down to earth and taken human wives (comp. Ethiopic Enoch, 7:1, 8:1, 9:7, and 16:3). In this writer's view sin came into the world through these angels, and not through the eating of the fruit in paradise (8:1 et seq.). His idea of witchcraft as consisting of nefarious knowledge is expressed in ch. 16:3, where he says that the angels had been in heaven, and so knew "illegitimate mysteries."
The Book of Tobit represents even the pious Tobias as using a charm against evil spirits (6:4-8, 8:2, 11:11). This charm consisted of the smoke of the gall of a fish.
The Apocalypse of Baruch (60:1) regards the religion of the Amorites as "spells and incantations," but its author also remembers that Israel in the days of the Judges was polluted by similar sins. Any foreign religion is here counted as witchcraft and a wicked mystery. This is analogous to the classification as sorcery, in Deuteronomy 18:10-11, of Moloch-worship, which is attributed to the Ammonites. MAGIC.
- W. R. Smith, On the Forms of Divination and Magic Enumerated in Deuteronomy 18:10-11, in Journal of Philology, 13:273-287, 14:113-128;
- Driver, Deuteronomy, in International Critical Commentary, 1895, pp. 223 et seq.;
- GrÃ¼neisen, Der Ahnenkultus und die Urreligion Israels, pp. 160 et seq., Halle, 1900.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Witchcraft'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/w/witchcraft.html. 1901.
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30