Does the God of Modern Christian faith deal in portents? I suppose in the final analysis, it will depend on who you ask. Portents are well known phenomena in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Occurrences, which otherwise might seem to be simply natural happenings in the world, are regarded as omens or signs of future events that are sent by the gods—for example, the flight of birds, the movements of the stars, the falling of trees in the woods, etc. There were also those in the ancient world who were thought to be endowed with the ability to recognize and interpret the signs that portended future events, and thus avoid disasters. The practice of foretelling the future through such signs was called "divination," for the portents were thought to be sent by the gods.
Although the practice of divination was forbidden in Israelite law (Deut 18:9-12), nevertheless portents show up in the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah's nudity was thought to be a portent (Isaiah 20:2-3, 8:18) and the "handwriting on the wall" was a portent of doom for Belshazzar (Dan 5:5-31). Some prophets thought that the Day of the Lord would be preceded by fearful portents in the heavens (Isa 13:9-11; Joel 2:30-31). Some New Testament writers thought that the end time would be preceded by similar portents in the heavens (Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:8-28). The Apocalypse describes some specific portents (Rev 12:12:1; 15:1). The birth of the messiah in Matthew was preceded by the portent of a star in the heavens leading the three magi to Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-23). The ripping of the curtain of the Judean Temple at the death of Jesus (Mark 15:37-38) is likely a portent, which Mark declines or neglects to clarify.
A case on point may be the crowing of the rooster that portended Peter's denial of Jesus. Before they went out to Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested, Jesus told Peter that "before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times" (Mark 14:30), Matthew (26:34), Luke (22:34), and John (13:38), however, describe only one crowing of the cock followed by the three denials. I have always wondered why it is that the other canonical gospels have only one crowing of the cock while Jesus in Mark predicted two. It may well be because Mark's narration of the actual event of Peter's denial cites only one crowing of the cock (Mark 14:66-72). The first crowing of the cock is apparently not stated in the passage, although some reliable manuscripts add a first crowing at the end of Mark 14:68: "and the cock crowed." New Testament textual critics add the first crowing appearing in some manuscripts to the end of 14:68 in [square brackets], indicating that they are not completely convinced of the authenticity of the enclosed words. In any case a first crowing of the cock, whether or not Mark narrated it, must have served as the portent of Peter's great denial and initiated the sad drama, which concluded immediately upon Peter's third denial (Mark 14:72).
The motif of a crowing cock as a portent of some kind of disaster is mentioned several times by the first century Roman writer, Cicero ("Divination").
Does God actually warn us of tragic events through seemingly inconsequential natural events like the flight of birds, the crowing of roosters, the cawing of crows, or some other natural occurrence? Portents are attributed to God in the Bible, but how about today? Should we modern users of the Bible regard portents as superstition, or should we regard them as "gospel truth," and consult modern diviners or augurs for a reading of "divine" signs before undertaking significant activities in our lives? If, on the other hand, we determine that portents and divining the future are simply the stuff of ancient superstition, which have no basis in fact, how should we then regard and use the Bible? Any thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University