Sunday, April 7, 2024

Superstitious Survivals from the Ancient Past

What is superstition, anyway? According to one dictionary it is “any belief, based on fear or ignorance, that is inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is generally considered in the particular society as true and rational; esp. such a belief in charms, omens, and the supernatural, etc.”1 Hence superstitions are beliefs or actions that violate rational thought as conceived in a particular society—which makes superstition relative to what passes as critical thinking in a given community.

Since the rise of human reason in the 18th century many of the superstitious survivals of antiquity have generally lost their influence in our scientific based Western culture—particularly with the rise of modern Western secular education. Yet many superstitions still survive in a kind of underground way in the modern Western world—similar to the survival of paganism in the ancient Roman world. Paganism was edged-out by Christian ascendancy around the fifth century. After 440 CE no pagans are listed among the elite of the City of Rome.2 Yet the ancient religions and superstitions of the Greek and Roman worlds survived in the countryside away from the population centers of the cities, where Christianity had established itself.

            I was reminded of the fact that ancient superstitions still survive in modern society upon reading a sentence from Homer’s Iliad. In a speech Achilles made before the assembled Achaean warriors on the occasion of a pandemic caused by the God Phoebus Apollo over a slight by Agamemnon to Apollo’s priest, Chryses. The Achaeans were pondering why Apollo had sent his arrows of pestilence among them. Achilles suggested that they “should consult some seer (mantis), or priest (iereus), or interpreter of dreams (oneriopolos) to discover the cause.3

A seer in the ancient world (and in the Bible) is one who divines the future and answers other questions from various means, such as observing the flights of birds, for example.4 A priest in the ancient world (and in the Bible) is one who was authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as an agent of mediation between people and God.”5 Oneiromancy, the interpretation of dreams, was prevalent throughout the ancient world (and in the Bible). Gods of the ancient world were thought to communicate with people through dreams (Matt 1:20-21; 2:13).

There was a prohibition of such practices in ancient Israel: there should not be found among you “anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer” (Deut 18:10-12 RSV), but such figures were consulted anyway (1 Sam 9:9-12, 18-19).

These three supernatural practices still survive in modern Western society in various forms.  A psychic is a spiritual medium who answers questions dealing with matters beyond the physical world (check their availability on the internet). Priests are in the employ of certain modern religions. They are believed to have the power to mediate between God and people, particularly in the more ritualistic religious traditions (ascribing the divine presence to the elements of the Mass/Eucharist, for example). Dream interpretations are offered by psychics or mediums, who are believed to have the power to interface with the spirit world. Dream interpretation, however, has now also gone mainstream, and is a technique used by medically trained psychotherapists (hopefully not through the powers of spirits).6

Is Christianity’s Holy Spirit, perhaps, only another ancient superstition from the ancient past? It would seem, on the surface, that there is little difference between the ancient pagan belief that certain people communicated with and through spirit (not Holy Spirit) and Christianity’s belief that modern Christians communicate with God through Holy Spirit. Both groups access their Gods through the medium of spirit, what they both channel is a spiritual “reality,” and they are both pre-critical survivals from the ancient past.7 In what way is Christianity’s belief in Holy Spirit not also a survival from the ancient past? Why is it not also superstition, if pagan beliefs in spirit are superstition? If there can be one spirit (Holy Spirit), why can there not be more (pagan spirits)? Luke seemed to think so, when he described Paul as exorcising a spirit of the Pythia (Acts 16:16-18).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition, 2002), s. v. “superstition.”

2Charles Hedrick, Jr., History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin: University of Texas, 2000), 57.

3Homer, The Iliad, Book 1, lines 62-63.

4See Charles W. Hedrick, “Prophecy, Divination and Fate,” The Fourth R 36.2 (March-April 2023), 15-18, 10. For other appearances of a seer in the Bible see 2 Sam 24:11; 2 kgs 17:13; 1 Chron 25:5; 2 Chron 9:29; Isa 29:10; Amos 7:12; Mic 3:7.

5Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. “priest.”

6National Library of Medicine:

See also Charles W. Hedrick, “Does God Communicate in Dreams,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion, May 16, 2013:

7Hedrick, “Laying on Hands, to Pass on the Holy Spirit,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion, July 8, 2021:

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Privative Life of God

Can it be true that God has a private life? Folks at my church seem to assume that God is always on duty, 24/7—particularly to receive all prayers. People seem to think God is even available to make spiritual house calls and hospital visits on a moment’s notice. Imagine; going to God in prayer and sensing a message glimmering in your mind: “call back in a week; on vacation!” Yet there are hints in the Bible that God does have something like a private life—moments when he is away from being hands-on (so to speak) running the world. The ancient Graeco-Roman Gods, on the other hand, are regularly depicted as having private lives.1 I grant you that Yahweh’s free moments are all depicted in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT). The New Testament (NT) writers are not much-given to reflecting on God anthropomorphically (i.e., depicting God as being human).2 Nevertheless these hints are there in OT.

            One indisputable attestation of God’s private life is revealed at the creation when God “finished his work and rested on the seventh day from all his work” and immediately “hallowed the seventh day” of the week (Gen 2:2-3), presumably as a day of rest (Exodus 20:8-11). What do you do when you are resting? The answer is, anything but work!3

The depiction of God as “walking in the garden [of Eden] in the cool of the day” (Gen 3:8) and making innocuous chit-chat (before the conversation got serious, Gen 3:9-13) with Adam and Eve sounds as if God’s refreshing pause in the heat of the day was spoiled by the coming of age of Adam and Eve.

            For some reason, God attempts to kill Moses as Moses is on his way to Egypt. God meets Moses at a lodging place on the way and tries to kill him (Exodus 4:24). It does not appear that God is acting in the performance of his official duties, however. Apparently, this act is “off the books” (not an official act) but a clandestine act, if you will, for God fails to kill him—Is this kind of thing something God does in his spare time, do you suppose? Perhaps! God’s all too casual “back-room bargain” with Satan (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6) to allow a testing of Job’s piety appears similar to the incident with Moses. No wonder Jesus followers prayed that they not be put to the test (Matt 6:13=Luke 11:4). God’s bargain with Satan to prove Job’s piety to Satan appears pointless and hence a waste of God’s time.

            There is one kind of thing that God is represented as doing quite frequently in the Bible. One finds repeated references to God “changing his mind,” or “repenting” about things he has done or things he intended to do.4 For example, God “was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6-7). He later changed his mind again, even about his previous change of mind to destroy everything he had created, because Noah subsequently found favor in his eyes (Gen 6:8). God must have spent a great deal of time mulling over his deeds and pondering what his next course of action should be in the circumstances. One mulls and ponders in the spare moments that one has available—not in the busy moments of life. The frequency with which God ponders certain of his actions suggests that he spent a lot of time reflecting, pondering, and being inactive while in self-recriminating thought.

            There is also “evidence” from sherds, pottery, and the Bible that God may have had a wife (or significant other) at some point in the dim past. It has been suggested by an Oxford scholar, who now teaches at Exeter, that at one time the goddess Asherah (Deut 16:21; I Kgs 14:23) was considered a consort (wife, significant other) of the Hebrew God, Yahweh.

Asherah's connection to Yahweh, according to [Francesca] Stavrakopoulou, is spelled out in both the Bible and an 8th-century B.C. inscription on pottery found in the Sinai desert at a site called Kuntillet Ajrud.

"The inscription is a petition for a blessing," she shares. "Crucially, the inscription asks for a blessing from 'Yahweh and his Asherah.' Here was evidence that presented Yahweh and Asherah as a divine pair. And now a handful of similar inscriptions have since been found, all of which help to strengthen the case that the God of the Bible once had a wife."5

This is an interesting development that, if true, certainly support the idea that God at one time was thought to have a private life.

            I think, however, I can hear someone thinking quietly: “But you haven’t proven God has a private life. All you have shown is that an ancient semitic tribe at one time suspected the God they worshipped had odd moments when he might have been doing something other than ‘God-like’ things.” And that someone would be correct! When talk of God commences, we are always at the mercy of human imagination. For all God-talk has little to do with factuality. All words about God, like grass in its season, pass with each generation that coined them, like the dissonance between old and new covenants (Heb 8:1-13). Unless members of the tribe get together and canonize their words about God as an iconic object.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See, for example, Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vols.; George Braziller, 1959), vol. 1. 53-55. This section describes Zeus’ philandering ways, and his home life with Hera, his wife.

2This gap between the OT and NT in God-thought happens between the more primitive anthropomorphic thinking of the OT authors and the slightly-more “philosophically” oriented NT authors. Even one ancient Hebrew prophet recognized the wrong headedness of thinking of God in human terms (1 Sam 15:29).

3Some of the kinds of things God did in his “creation work” are reflected in God’s answer to Job (38-41). Today, God is generally thought-of as doing “religious” work, like answering prayer (or not), rewarding the faithful, and punishing the wicked.

4Repent, means to change one’s mind; sometimes translated as “relented”: Exod 32:14; I Sam 15:11, 35; 2 Sam 24:15-16; 1 Chron 21:15; Jer 8:8; 15:6; 18:10; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9-10.

5Jennifer Viegas, NBC News: