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 abnormalities

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 conjunctions
+ 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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