Communication with a deity for the purpose of determining the deity's knowledge, resulting in clarification of a decision or discernment of the future. Two forms of divination developed in the ancient Near East, one using inductive manipulation of natural or human phenomena and the other taking intuitive forms of inner revelation.
The History of Divination. In Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and Canaan, people communicated with their deities by means of divination, both on a personal and public level. From the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000 b.c.) on in Mesopotamia, the reading of livers helped determine the actions of commoners and kings. A sheep was slaughtered, its liver removed, and the markings of the organ "read" for an answer. Other inductive types of divination included the analysis of stars, moon, entrails, lungs, weather, birds, and fetuses. Human-produced phenomena studied included casting lots, shooting arrows, dropping oil in water, drinking wine, calling the dead, and sprinkling water on an ox. Intuitive types of divination in the ancient Near East involved oracles, prophecies, and dreams.
In Israel, an official position on divination limited its uses to forms that did not reflect the practices of surrounding cultures. Most inductive forms were forbidden ( Lev 19:26 ; Deut 18:11 ), although the use of Urim and Thummim and lots supposes some inductive approaches. Most ancient practices, however, were used by both the populace and the officials. The Bible alludes to the use of omens ( Isa 44:25 ), arrows ( Ho 4:12 ), animal actions ( 1 Sam 6:7-12 ), the reading of livers ( Eze 21:21-22 ), budding plants ( Num 17:1-11 ), necromancy ( 1 Sam 28 ), and prophetic utterances, called false ( Micah 3:7 Micah 3:11 ) or "lying divinations" ( Isa 44:25 ; Jer 14:14 ; 27:9-10 ; Ezek 12:24 ; Zech 10:2 ). References to the "soothsayers' tree" ( Judges 9:37 ), the "sons of a sorcerer" ( Isa 57:3 ), and the girl with a spirit of divination ( Acts 16:16-19 ) are evidence of widespread practice.
Theology of Divination. Divination presupposes that the divine communicates with the human. This communication takes both human and divine initiative. Inductive techniques depend on human initiation. The Bible supposes that a priority rests on revelatory forms (dream, vision, oracle) rather than on inductive ones (Urim/ Thummim, ephod). Although natural phenomena may communicate God's will, their interpretation must be scrutinized and may be helped by the verbal. It seems clear that God is not limited to the use of any one means of revelation.
Why would the Bible record such strong negative injunctions against inductive divination? Deuteronomic law especially attacks everything connected with pagan religions. Foreign deities may have attached themselves to these methods. Even then, most of Israel's approved methods display parallels with the surrounding cultures. The question of veracity may be involved because they prove difficult to interpret. For this reason, verbal forms take precedence over inductive methods. Yet even prophecies need to stand the test of whether they come true ( Deut 18:21-22 ).
Human need requires discernment of divine desires. God chooses to communicate in a variety of ways, including divination techniques, but always in the clearest, most unambiguous way possible.
G. Michael Hagan
Bibliography. M. deJong-Ellis, Journal of Cuneiform Studies41 (1989): 127-86; H. A. Hoffner, JETS30 (1987): 257-85; A. L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Divination'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".