Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Ancient Roots of Bible-mancy

"Divination" describes a variety of ritualized practises and/or
observations whereby humans aim to acquire otherwise hidden knowledge
encoded in nature or natural processes that are beyond human control.
Such encoding is performed by a god or gods, theism being a regular
assumption (probably not without exception) of divinatory practice.
The perennial aim of divination, from the ancient hepatoscopy (study
of the liver) to the modern astrology and "Bible-mancy" is to secure
the natural insecurity and contingency of human existence. Such
sanctuary is the direct consequence, then, of divine communication.
The fundamental assumption underlying divination is that the gods are
willing to reveal the best course of action to their human
supplicants; that makes the gods approachable and well-disposed. The
ends toward which humans seek the gods' advice are always determined
by human life concerns: "times of prosperity, blessings, and victory
and on times of famine, calamity, and desolation as far as the
community and the country are concerned, on happiness in the family,
success in business, and on disease, misfortune, and death for the
individual (Oppenheim 1977:211).

In the Near East, divination was systematized in Mesopotamia, in the
Babylonian and Assyrian periods. It was one of the primary
intellectual and scientific achievements of A.N.E. civilization
(Oppenheim 1977:206). The systematic tabulation of "portents" (the
sign from the gods) and their interpretation resulted in tables of
portents set alongside their interpretations. Modern study of
divinatory tables categorizes them according to the manner of the
sign's occurrence (Ringgren 1973:93):

* a human agent (diviner) performs an action designed to evoke
some divine indication that answers the diviner's question. The
answer, or omen, requires subsequent interpretation to discern the
god's (gods') intention
* a naturally occurring object or event is interpreted for
indications of the god's (gods') intention. From the flight courses of
birds, to meteorological phenomena, to the courses (especially
conjunctions) of the planets and stars, any abnormal or distinctive
natural event may indicate some message from the god(s) about the best
course for human action

The mechanisms for divination vary:

* operational techniques:
o casting of lots (binary yes/no)
o lecanomancy: pouring of oil into water (significant
patterning in the oil dispersal)
o libanomancy: smoking incense (significant patterning in
the rising smoke)
* magical phenomena:
o evoked:
+ hepatoscopy - examination of the liver for
abnormalities (for which there are lists of interpretations)
+ extispicy - examination of the entire viscera for
o naturally occurring:
+ physiological abnormalities: in human or animals,
especially in the form of birth defects
+ behavioural abnormalities: in humans or animals
+ archeo-astronomy - study of the solar system and
galaxy (always with a view to irregularities in the regular patterns
of apparent motion, particularly conjunctions)
+ astrology - study of planetary alignments and
+ meteorology - study of unusual weather phenomena
+ augury - observation of unusual bird flight
(flocking; conjunction with fixed, landbased markers)

As the list suggests, divination seems to originate divination emerges
out of the unusual and the abnormal. Cause and effect logic suggests
that the abnormal has a cause; the assumption of theism leads to the
belief that the gods are behind the abnormal. Significance of the
abnormal is linked to human life concerns, the abnormal being a hidden
sign, for those who know how to read it, indicating an optional course
of action by which humans may secure and fulfill their concerns.

Because of the belief that whatever happens within perception occurs
not only due to specific if unknown causes, but also for the benefit
of the observer to whom a supernatural agency is thereby revealing its
intentions, the Akkadians of the Old Babylonian period began rather
early to record such happenings. They first made reports on specific
events, then assembled observations of each kind in small collections.
The purpose was clearly to record experiences for future reference and
for the benefit of coming generations. Thus, written records were made
of unusual happenings in the sky, and similar occurrences, and
divination moved from the realm of folklore to the level of a
scientific activity (Oppenheim 1977:210).

Divination moves out of its most primitive phase, seeking the somewhat
random and certainly unsolicited advisements of the gods in the
practises of hepatoscopy and extispicy Ñ ritualized slaughter for the
purpose of interpreting the encoded signs on the entrails of
sacrificial animals. Communication from divinity is now actively
solicited as, for example, in extispicy preceded by invocations to the
god, who is asked to inscribe an answer to the question on the
entrails of the animal about to be sacrificed (cf. Oppenheim
1977:219). We see, here, the first stages on the way to sacrificial
religion in which the central purpose of the religious institution is
to sway divinity to support the best interests (bio-concern based) of
the supplicant.


Bible-mancy is a modern renovation of the ancient principles of
divination. The would-be Bible mantic seeks the advice of God in
regard to some decision, normally something of deep concern (and thus,
usually a concern deriving from the central human life concerns). The
technique, at its simplest, involves a Bible, preferrably an English
language King James Version Bible. Question in hand, the mantic
randomly selects a verse, usually with eyes closed and index finger
planted on the Bible's page. The verse thus selected is then carefully
studied as the word of God applying to the petitioner's question.

The assumptions of Bible-mancy are remarkably parallel to those of the
Babylonian diviners: the gods can predict best courses of human action
and can be solicited to indicate best courses, however ambiguous and
in need of interpretation those indications may be. Human need is
fundamental to both arenas of activity and the gods (God) are
understood to be favourably inclined toward the fulfillment of need.
God (the gods) may choose not to answer or the answer may not be clear
(or, in hindsight, of favourable outcome): the one certainty is human
need and the perception that human means are insufficient to secure
and fulfill it.

Contemporary Bible-mancy is paradoxical, given the numerous explicit warnings against it in the O.T. (Deut. 18.10; 2 Kings 17.17 ; Jer. 14.14 ; Ezek. 12.24 ; Ezek. 13.6 ; Ezek. 13.7 ; Ezek. 21.21 ; Ezek.
21.22 ; Ezek. 21.23). 
The practice is testimony to the deep rootage of religion in human need and concerns. 


1. A. L. Oppenheim and E. Reiner, Ancient Mesopotamia. Portrait of a Dead Civilization (rev. ed.; Chicago & London: U. Chicago Press, 1977).
2. H. Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East (tr. John Sturdy; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973).

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