Divination in the Old Testament


  • Question 152, from Roger H, United Kingdom

    Does ‘divination’ in Leviticus chapter19, verse 26 mean ‘Water divining’ or ‘Dousing’?

    The Hebrew text makes no distinction about the means of divination – it just says ‘You shall not divine.’ The means by which you divine the future appears to be immaterial. The word used – ‘na-khash’ – can mean to ‘observe omens’ or ‘tell fortunes’. It can also be translated as something more mundane as to ‘learn by experience’.

    The context of this instruction is a list of magical practices that the Israelites are prohibited from doing, mainly because the practices are linked to Canaanite religion. Leviticus chapter 18 forbids various sexual practices that were common in contemporary fertility cults, while chapters 19 and 20 identify and forbid various other religious practices, including idolatry.

    Divination – seeking to know the will of a god – in Old Testament times included reading the entrails of a ritually slaughtered animal, shamanistic trances, attempts to conjure spirits, and various other methods. It seems the ancient Israelites had some divination tools that were sanctioned by Yahweh, for example the ‘Urim and Thummim’ used by the High Priest to determine God’s will.

    The Urim and Thummim may have been two stones, one black and the other white, which would be drawn from a pocket by the high priest, or cast on the floor to ‘divine’ an answer to an enquiry made of Yahweh. In Exodus chapter 28, verse 30, Aaron is instructed to wear the Urim and Thummim in a pocket of his ‘ephod’, the garment worn by the high priest, so that the two stones would be carried into the presence of Yahweh and blessed. Once the stones had been carried like this, they were regarded as an authoritative way to determine God’s will.

    The banning of divination, except through sanctioned use of the Urim and Thummim, was a way of centralising (and controlling) the worship of Yahweh. As only the levitical priesthood were permitted to enquire of Yahweh, it meant Israelite religion was less likely to continue in small localised cults.

    While modern practitioners of ‘water divining’ or ‘dowsing’ maintain they are continuing an ancient tradition, there is no attested source that dates current practices before the 16th century. As such, this particular activity is not mentioned in the Old Testament. However, as a means of discovering information supernaturally, modern-day dowsing has generally been met with distrust by many Christians who regard it as a form of magic.

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  • 9 comments

    1. Barbara White Aug 10

      What about usaing a pendulum to dowse. Not asking about the future, but simple physical things like does this plant need such and such a mineral, should I plant it here etc

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Aug 13

      Looking at the Old Testament texts, I think the prohibition on divination would cover that sort of thing too. In a sense, seeking otherwise unknowable information, whether about the future or about other aspects of good fortune like favourable planting conditions, is precisely what the writers were describing. The theological reason behind the prohibition (trusting in God rather than human ‘wisdom’) would be consistent.

      Having said that, many of the prohibitions against ‘magic’ were culture-specific in a world that was often dominated by shamans and magicians. Much of the tribal religion around the Hebrews while in exile, and later the nation of Israel, was oriented towards magical religious practices.

      Things are different these days. However there is still an aversion among Christians to practices like this because it seems occult, which conflicts with the idea of only worshipping or giving glory to God. (Although whether you could use a pendulum in a similar way to the urim and thummim or how lots were cast to divine God’s will in the Old Testament is worth thinking about.)

      I’m not sure how effective using a pendulum in your gardening is. I don’t know anyone who prays before planting, but I guess there probably are some who feel ‘guided’ to plant certain plants in certain places. Certainly Jesus used plants in his parables a few times. Maybe there’s scope for an article on Bible-inspired gardening.

    3. Barbara White Aug 17

      Thank you for your comments. I am a christian and certainly do not want to do the wrong thing or be associated with the occult. I considered using the pendulum in this way in a similar way to urim and thummim, I guess and do not in any way want to take the glory away from God. I suppose the real answers needed is from where does the pendulum get its knowlege/what power moves it.

    4. Jon the freelance theologian Aug 19

      That would be the challenge. The prescriptions against sorcery were precisely for that reason – following the ‘guidance’ of something other than God took glory away from God i.e. they were idolatry.

      As to what influences the pendulum, many people would be sceptical that anything exerted an influence. Some Christians would no doubt ascribe a negative spiritual influence of some sort, because that’s often the sort of thing that happens.

    5. Barbara White Aug 21

      The Bible says “seek and you will find” so I will prayerfully and diligently search for an answer and the promise is that I will find it. Will let you know where all this leads me.

    6. Michael Clausen Apr 5

      My question is along the same lines as this, only I am curious about the cup of Joseph (OT) that he had placed in Benjamin’s bag when they were going back to Israel (Person). In the text it says that this cup was used by Joseph for divination. Now we know from the story of Joseph that he was skilled in understanding messages from God through the translation of dreams, however there is no statements about other uses of determining the will of God. This of course was many years before the Levitical ban on divination, so my question is, since “Let all men be liars but God’s Word remain true”, since divination is declared as sinful in Leviticus, is there a translation error in the text with regard to Joseph’s cup, or is there some other message here? Please understand, I am asking for knowledge and understanding sake, and by no means am I trying to “stir the pot” or defend divination as a practice. I have recently become aware of a few things that have been perceived as error by people who would deny the validity of the bible, but just never bothered to look up the definition of words in the dictionary. For example the command to “subdue” the earth being taken as bend to your will, does not fit with the rest of the commands of God throughout the bible with regard to how we are to tend “the garden”, but if you look in the dictionary there is a definition of the word that means “to know” (very abbreviated on my part, suggest looking up for full understanding of my point). So my question, based on this and other similar things, is simply is there a similar issue at work with regard to divination?

    7. Jon the freelance theologian Apr 20

      That’s an interesting question. I will look into it and post an answer on freelance theology at some point.

    8. Diana Aug 21

      I’ve recently been introduced to “divination” through a pendulum. This is something I am trying to study and find answers, not only for myself, but for a dear friend who is involved in this. My gut instinct is to stay clear until I know more. However, I want to know more.

      In this instance, the pendulum is asked by my friend to show the rotation of the energy in a person/animal’s chakras. Inevitably, and under critical watch by myself, the pendulum moves showing the chakra to be functioning properly or improperly. In my skepticism and desire to be clear of anything not of God, I asked her permission to pray over her, myself and the pendulum, requesting that any spirits, not of God, associated with any or all parts of the circumstance be removed, in the name of our Lord Jesus. She placed the pendulum over the chakra again and the same movement happened (negative..according to what i’m learning about chakra energy) I then prayed again asking God, Lord of all and maker of the universe to remove any negative energy from the body and replacing it with his power and goodness. Again, in Jesus’ name. The moment I said, “Amen” the pendulum stopped moving and literally changed direction.

      I feel wrong even describing here what took place. I want answers. Truthful, Godly answers. Is it possible for evil spirits to have power in a situation prayed over through Jesus’ name by a believer? (I label myself as a believer based on being someone who has confessed being a sinner and accept Christ’s death on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for my sins, knowing that Jesus is the only way, truth and light.)
      I know this post is old. I do not know if it is still maintained, but if there has been any more knowledge gained or further thoughts that could lead to truthful answers. I would very much appreciate it.
      (In the meantime, my friend has been asked to leave her pendulum at home and for it not to be used even “from a distance” in regards to myself. As we have been very good friends for 15+ years, I am confident she respects me enough to oblige.)

      Why I want to know….. If this is something of God, I do not want the enemy to continue receiving credit and continuing to use the spirit of “Fear” to prevent believers from connecting with Christ in a way he created for us to do so. Especially in terms of healing of the body.

      I feel like I’m not making sense and rambling.

      Thank you for your time.

    9. Jon the freelance theologian Sep 15

      The Bible does not contain any references to chakras or that they can be read using a pendulum. There is no scientific basis to this practice, in terms of observed experiments. That leads to the conclusion that something else is altering the pendulum’s swing.

      As a means of divination, pendulums have been used for a long time. There is no Biblical basis for using it and most Christians would assume that using a pendulum is covered by the various commandments not to use divination.

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