Akkadian divination (Deuteronomy 18)

Deuteronomy 18:9-14 prohibited the Israelites from making use of diviners and sorcerers, who engaged in activities God regarded as detestable practices of the nations. Many ancient peoples, however, regarded divination, the attempt to find and interpret omens from the gods, as a science handed down from heaven. In fact, an enormous amount of Akkadian literature was devoted to cataloging particular signs and their meanings.

A few of the numerous means of divination practiced in Old Testament times were the reading of animal entrails (extispicy), the observation of pattern in oil dropped onto water (lecanomancy) and dream interpretation (oneiromancy). The extrabiblical omen texts assigned specific meanings to possible outcomes with regard to each sign. For example:

  • A drop of oil spilled on water split in two, a sick individual would die or an army would fail to return from battle.
  • If a person dreamed about a dog ripping his or her clothing, that individual was in for a financial loss.
  • A black cat in someone’s house was a sign of good fortune.
  • Magical texts also provided incantations useful in specific situations (e.g. there was an incantation to cure sick livestock).

In the Bible such natural events are never regarded as omens. There are no incantations for practicing magic or for counteracting evil portents. Although both Joseph and Daniel interpreted dreams based upon God’s leading, no code for oneiromancy may be found in Scripture. Rather, interpretation comes from God (Genesis 40:8) and relatives only to specific situations. God did provide Israel with a mysterious form of casting lots in the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:29-30, 1 Samuel 14:36-41), but the lack of any Biblical description or explanation of these tools seems significant. It would appear that the texts do not intend for the reader to focus on or attempt to replicate these items.

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