Monday, April 10, 2017

Pondering Divination and Prophecy #2

It is surprising to note that the authors of the Bible in the main shared so much of the ancient pagan ideas about divination and prophecy (see "Wry Thoughts about Religion" 3/28/17). The fact that the texts have so much in common with pagan thinking should not be surprising, however, since the authors themselves even in their thinking were products of ancient pagan culture. The term "pagan" describes the religions and culture of the ancient world. It was used in the later Christian period to describe the last vestiges of ancient culture that survived in the byways of the countryside ("pagan" was adapted from the Latin word paganus meaning "a peasant who lives in the villages of the countryside," where the old ways still existed.
 
            The Israelites clearly believed that their God (Yahweh), like the pagan gods of antiquity, chose certain people to be a channel for his revelations (Deut 18:17-18), but on the other hand diviners, soothsayers, augurs, sorcerers, wizards, charmers, mediums, and necromancers were forbidden in Israel (Deut 18:10-12)—nevertheless such things still occurred, as when Saul consulted the medium of Endor to resuscitate the prophet Samuel from death (1 Sam 28:3-25).
 
            The literary prophets of Israel's history were believed to write "words of God." While there is an element of futurity in their prophecies, the prophecies concerned the near future in general detail on matters relating to the Israelites and their welfare. Some of their prophecies did not come true—as, for example, the prophecy that there would always be a descendant of David ruling Israel (2 Sam 7:1-7; Jer 33:17-18). Today, however, Israel is no longer a monarchy, and its leaders do not claim descent from David! Here is a second failed prophecy: Ezekiel prophesied that the ancient city of Tyre would be utterly destroyed and no longer inhabited (Ezek 26:17-21), but today Tyre is a thriving city in Lebanon.
 
            Early Christians co-opted some of the "Old Testament" prophecies to prove that the founding events of their faith had been foreseen by the prophets. For example, they took over a prophecy that Isaiah made to King Ahaz of Judah during a political crises of the eighth century BCE. The birth of a peasant child, Isaiah said, prophesied the survival of the Kingdom of Judah (Isa 7:1-17). The prophecy came true; Judah did survive. Matthew, however, took over one verse out of context (Isa 7:14) claiming that the prophecy related to the birth of Jesus the Anointed (Matt 1:18-23).
 
            Divination also occurs in the biblical texts by means of all the usual pagan methods, as Cicero described them: dreams (Matt 1:20; 2:12-13, 19, 22); signs and wonders (Acts 4:30; 2:43; Heb 2:4; 2 Cor 12:12; Rom 15:19); portents (Dan 5:5-31; Joel 2:30-31; Isa 13:9-11; 20:2-3; 8:18; Mark 13:24-27; Rev 12:1; 15:1); marvels (Exod 34:10; John 7:21); signs (John2:1-11; Judg 6:37-40; Matt 24:29-30) omens (Sir 34:5; Macc 5:4); apparitions (2 Macc 5:1-4); wandering stars (Matt 2:2, 9-10); prodigies (13:1-9, 11-18).
 
            Those who think the Bible establishes the true contours of what is real when it describes divination and prophecy should think again. The Bible simply provides more examples of what occurred in paganism. One definite difference between the Bible and the views of paganism, however, is the Bible's understanding of Fate. In the Bible Fate is not an impersonal force that determines human destiny, rather Yahweh himself predetermines both chance and outcomes: thus human destiny lies in God's hands (Pss 16:5; 31:15; Prov 16:33; Eccl 3:11, 15; 7:13; 8:17; 1 Sam 16:14; 1 Kgs 22:22; Rom 9:18; 2 Thess 2:11). Nevertheless some of the biblical writers are aware of Fate as an impersonal force determining human destiny (Isa 47:13; Jer 10:2; Ezek 21:21; Matt 2:2), and astrologers read the heavens to determine Fate on earth (Dan 2:27; 4:7; 5:7. 11).
 
            Cicero regarded divination as superstition, "widespread among the nations" and it "has taken advantage of human weakness to cast its spell over the mind of almost every other person"; Cicero quickly added, however, "I want it distinctly understood that the destruction of superstition does not mean the destruction of religion" (Div. II.lxxii.148). I am inclined to agree with him.
 
            The truth is: there is no fixed inevitable future, which pre-exists in the foreknowledge of God. The only future we will ever know ahead of time is what rushes into the present in the next second. The future is always in a state of becoming; beyond that it exists only as an uncertain contingency of plans, fears, and hopes in the human mind.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Pondering Divination and Prophecy

Human beings as a species have an insatiable desire to know their future. It has always been the case. In the ancient past there appear to have been three broad avenues to knowing the future. Cicero, a Roman politician and philosopher of the first century BCE recognized only two ways, however (on Divination, II.26), which he designated as natural (prophecies made by inspired persons) and artificial (prophecies based on observation of signs sent by the Gods).
 
            People could consult someone believed to be divinely inspired in order to know the future. Such persons, called: seers, oracles, and prophets (1 Sam 9:9; 2 Sam 16:23), were consulted for a wide range of reasons: matters of state, personal issues, medical questions, outcomes of battles, etc. Their utterances were called prophecies and oracles, or "Words of God." Among many oracular shrines devoted to various Gods, like the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, there also existed prophetic centers in ancient Israel at Bethel (2 Kgs 2:2-3), Jericho (2 Kgs 2:4-5), and Gilgal (2 Kgs 4:38), where one found guilds called "the sons of the prophets."
 
            A second avenue for determining the future was by divination. In the Hellenistic period a widespread belief existed that while Gods revealed the future through certain inspired persons, to the vast majority of us they only gave uncertain signs, omens, and portents requiring interpretation. Cicero mentions a number of these indicators: for example, dreams, the direction taken by lightning in the sky, the flight of birds, observing the entrails of animals at the time of sacrifice, shooting stars, prodigies (something extraordinary, inexplicable, or marvelous), omens (something believed to portend some future event). In other words both the common and extraordinary in life may be portending some future occurrence.  If one disregarded these signs, it was tantamount to not believing in the Gods. The Romans institutionalized the observation of signs by means of a college of augurs (a group of 15 who regularly "took the auspices" (read the signs). They also kept a roost of sacred chickens whose eating-behaviors were regularly consulted by eminent Romans on matters of importance, and a set of ancient books, which were collections of prophetic utterances by the Sibyls, female visionary figures from the classical tradition. They consulted these books at times of national crisis and emergency.
 
            A third way of determining the future, which Cicero included in his artificial category, was astrology.  A Hellenistic period belief was that one's fate was determined by the movement of the heavenly bodies. Fate may be defined as "the principle, power, or agency by which events are unalterably predetermined from eternity." Fate was not a deity but an impersonal force described as "an orderly succession of causes wherein cause is linked to cause and each cause of itself produces an effect."  By the third century BCE ancient Greeks had developed from Babylonian astral observations the idea that "the movements of the heavenly bodies control earthly events up to the smallest detail." Not even prayer and sacrifice could help one escape one's predetermined fate. Even the Gods themselves were subject to the inevitable force of fate, as the oracle at Delphi told the envoys of King Croesus of Lydia. Astrologers were consulted to discover one's ultimate destiny. Astrology, the idea that life is determined by the movement of the heavenly bodies, is still believed by many today to be a viable way of discovering the future by consulting horoscopes, Tarot, astrological almanacs, and psychic readings. So, gentle reader, do you share any of these commonly held beliefs of antiquity?
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University