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
When you think, write, and teach I always learn. In addition, your last paragraph seems beautifully poetic. Again thanks for teachimg me!
One of your admiring students, Jim
Thank you Jim!
I am sure however that there are many who will disagree.
Charlie, the way "divination" was explained to me is that God speaks to Christians in two ways. 1) Through his written word, Logos 2) Through his Spirit, Rhema. The Rhema communicates through inspiration and revelation. Revelation is a more Christian term than divination, don't you think? I was taught that God spoke his word to the writers of the NT in this way. In other words, it was by the power of the Rhema of the Holy Spirit that the dreams, omens, signs, wonders etc were interpreted by the witnesses of those events. That's why it's different than paganism. Pagan signs are interpreted according secular beliefs.
When it comes to predicting the future, the OT makes many claims about the coming Messiah. Christians say these claims were fulfilled by Jesus and the "proof texts" are used to support this belief. Do you know of any proof texts that claim the Messiah (another word for Messiah is savior, and my understanding is that Messiah was not capitalized in Hebrew.)... any claims that the Messiah of the Jewish people was to be worshipped in the same manner that God is worshipped? Or that the Messiah had the ability to forgive sins?
Thank you as always! Elizabeth
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
"Divination" is simply the process of using certain natural indicators believed to signal messages from the Gods to learn about your future. Israelite and Christian writers of Bible used the same indicators as the pagans to learn from their God, as I hope my essay demonstrated. Revelation (Greek, apokalypsis) and inspiration (Greek, theopneustos-only in 2 Tim 3:16) are two different words that have different meanings. Both were used in pagan religions as well. Messiah means: one anointed by God for a particular task. It does not mean savior. I know of no biblical text that says the Messiah is to be worshipped as God nor of a text that claims the Messiah is authorized to forgive sins.
Thank you Charlie... Yes, you did clearly demonstrate how writers of the Bible used the same indicators as the pagans to learn from their God. Where I come from, however, the word divination is very much associated with witchcraft and evil spirits and sorcery. But you did not use it in that manner- just like pagan. The definitions of people in my circles are very different from yours regarding pagan and divination. In other words, they are seen as negative. Your essay puts them in a much more positive light.
I guess I don't understand why preachers tell us that biblical texts do indicate the Messiah is to be worshipped and authorized to forgive sins... Did the writers of the OT just forget to mention that? I've heard many sermons about how "differently" Jesus behaved than what the Jews expected. (And of course, the Jews are seen as wrong and deceived and blinded for having those different expectations... because they have scales on their eyes or some such thing.) But I know that you are not a theologian, so I don't expect you dot have answer for that. It is puzzling though.
Thanks again and best wishes this spring season! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Divination and related activities were also regarded negatively in in the Bible--as they were practiced by the pagans. On the other hand they regarded prophecy and God sending messages and warnings by chance events of nature as a good thing.
I actually take Cicero's side on all of it: he calls it all superstition (although he outwardly recognized the state practice of augury for political reasons).
I cannot speak to the motivation of preachers as a class (there is bound to be an Elmer Gantry in there somewhere), but a plausible scenario for all the non-Elmer Gantrys among them is the following. They tell you that because they believe Jesus is the true Messiah and he is portrayed as forgiving sin (Mark 2:1-12), and the elevation of Jesus to divinity in the Christian period as the second part of the Trinity (a concept that is not in the New Testament) they could argue makes Jesus an object of worship.
We seem to be finished with the subject of divination but I thought you might like to know how Cicero summed up divination. In the second part of his essay on divination he wrote: "divination is compounded of a little error, a little superstition, and a good deal of fraud" (Div. II.xxxix.83). Hmmmmm--might that be said about Christian divination? Or should we even call prophecy and the reading of signs in the Bible (ostensibly from God) as divination?
Charlie, for what it's worth, Christian divination contains every bit of fraud, superstition, and error... simply dressed up and justified with a Cross and a halo. On the other hand, Judaism prides itself on the fact that the voice of God was heard by three million Jews at Mt. Sinai at the same time... No other religion can boast of such a "sign" or "wonder" being broadcast to so many at the same moment. Every other religion claims one or two or a handful of people heard the voice of God or saw him in a vision- and re-told the mystical experience to other individuals.... whose descendants are no where to be found today. (Ebionites for example.) Jews can trace their ancestors back to Mt. Sinai which they claim gives credence to their hearing the voice of God... What say you? Elizabeth
Good Rainy Morning Elizabeth,
What is your source for "three million Jews" hearing the voice of God at Mt. Sinai? I do not know of any such tradition in the Bible. Your use of the word "Jews" suggests that it might be a late tradition. If it were a Hebrew Bible tradition they would have been Israelites (their religion was quite different from Judaism). But I must say I am very skeptical of such nice round numbers in religious traditions. I always wonder who did the counting and how long it took.
Rainy Greetings from St. Louis Charlie,
The exact number isn't as important as the event itself in Exodus where God spoke to the Israelites and Moses in Exodus chapters 19 and 20... As to where the rabbis get the number 3 million- I have no idea. I don't really care about that but it does interest me that they claim the ability to trace their ancestry back to that exact moment in time. Christians cannot trace their ancestors back to the crucifixion of Christ or the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer... I'm not sure about Muslims tracing their ancestry back to Mohammed... But for whatever reason, Jewish people claim that because they can say "my ancestors were there and they heard the voice of God audibly"... That is unique and sets apart Judaism from all other religions. Not saying I agree- but I had never heard that claim until recently and wondered if you had heard it as well. The genealogy center for individuals of Jewish descent is supposedly second to none in terms of accuracy and access to records and research- and is used by thousands of Jews worldwide. I cannot remember the name of it, but it was developed to assist those Jews who had to burn their birth certificates to escape persecution for being Jewish in Eastern European countries. Elizabeth
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