Divination

Throughout history, Jews have been suspicious of manticism and clairvoyance, while still practicing many diviner's arts.

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Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Magic, Myth, and Mysticism (Llewellyn Worldwide).

"Who is wise? He who foresees the results of his deeds (Tamid 32a)."

Across human cultures, it has been widely believed that the gods and spirits close to them (the dead, for example) have privileged knowledge of what will unfold in the mortal realms. The ability to gain such supernatural insight has been prized by humans since (and probably before) the dawn of written history. All divination can be divided into the quest for one of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of the future (manticism) and knowledge of present, but hidden, events (clairvoyance).

Jews are no exception in their desire for this knowledge, and throughout history many Jews have accepted the reality of divinatory events and experiences. Moreover, Jews have been practitioners of many different diviner's arts across time and geography.

Starting with the testimony of the Hebrew Scripture, however, Judaism has manifested an ambivalent attitude toward divination and from earliest times Jews have struggled to distinguish between licit and illicit forms of divination.

In the Ancient Near East, three types of divinatory practices are documented: serendipitous omens, impetrated omens, and mediumistic divination. The first consists of the reading and interpretation of omens and prodigies in naturally occurring phenomenon, such as the weather, abnormal births, or astral signs. The second practice consists of asking questions by means of divinatory devices, such as casting lots or reading entrails, and the third involves the consulting of human oracles or divine forces channeled through a person, such as prophecy.

Manticism & Clairvoyance in the Bible

Within these general rubrics, the books of the Hebrew Scriptures make reference to myriad forms of mantic practices, both licit and illicit. The generic biblical words for divination are kesem and nahash. Among the accepted means of divination are prophets and seers of God (Deuteronomy 18:14-22; I Samuel 9:6; II Kings 3:11), one iromancy (dream interpretation; Genesis 37:5-9; Daniel), Urimand Thumim, the casting of lots (I Samuel 23:10-12), mic (II Kings 3:15), lecanomancy or hydromancy (reading patterns in liquid; Genesis 44:5), and word omens (I Samuel 14:9-10).

Illicit methods, condemned by biblical authors, include terafim (consulting idols; Zechariah 10:2), hepatoscopy or extispiciomancy (reading animal entrails; Ezekiel 21:26), necromancy (communing with the dead; I Samuel 15:23), belomancy (casting or shooting arrows; Ezekiel 21:26), and astrology (Isaiah 47:13; Jeremiah10:2).

At times, the biblical witnesses are not always in agreement about what constitutes legitimate mantic practice. Thus, for example, despite the cases of exemplary practitioners like Joseph and Daniel, the prophet Zechariah condemns one iromancy along with other forms of divination (10:2). II Kings 13:15-19 recounts a case of what appears to be prophetically endorsed belomancy.

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Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.

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