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
Missouri State University