Divining Balaam: A Problem With Omens

In which, hoping to avoid confusion, I trot out a confusing array of Greek, Latin, and English technical terms. Happy Face
In the study of divination, it is common to differentiate between solicited and unsolicited omens, omina impetrativa and omina oblativa. For example, the inspection of an animal’s internal organs, extispicy, is always solicited. The diviner, generally after some ritual and sacrifice, examines a sheep or goat liver (or lung or things too fierce to mention) to determine the will or mind of the gods. Likewise, the casting of lots, cleromancy, is always solicited. Lots don’t cast themselves. Ornithomancy, to use what I hope is an unambiguous term, can be either auspicia impetrativa or auspicia oblativa. Indigenous Hittite ornithomancy was solicited; bird fight patterns were read to answer specific questions: “Have you, O god’s, approved?” “Have we nothing concerning him to fear from rebellion?” to use Richard Beal’s, 69-70, examples. Hittite augurs sought out answers to such questions through systematic study of bird behaviors. As far as I can tell, Assyrian and Babylonian (and Homeric) ornithomancy is always unsolicited. Birds present themselves in the context of human events and their very presence and activity have (or may have) implications that stand in need of explanation. In this type of ornithomancy the birds appear; they are not sought out.
Until yesterday afternoon, I thought the dreams of oneiromancy were unsolicited. Omens embedded in dreams were always omina oblativa or so I thought. While asleep, a dream in need of an interpretation comes without the willful intervention (sometimes against the will) of the sleeper. But I’m beginning to worry a little about this. While still trying to figure out the the respective semantic ranges of Hebrew קסם and נחשׁ, I looked at the biblical story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 through new eyes. Balaam appears actively to seek the will of god by going to sleep or at least retiring for the night (22:8-13 and 19-20). And when he arises, he knows not only god’s will but god’s very words concerning a specific predetermined topic. We are never directly told here that Balaam had dreams but what else might be going on? Hmmm. Are the resulting messages from god solicited or unsolicited? The narrative sure makes them seem solicited, omina impetrativa. Balaam retires with a rather specific issue before him and receives a very specific reply.
Later in the narrative, he quite clearly has conversations with his ass, with YHWH’s messenger, and with YHWH himself while awake. But between his nighttime experiences and these seemingly more direct, daytime exchanges, something has changed in the narrative. Or I think it has. Still later in the narrative, Balaam calls for sacrifice before separating himself to receive the god’s message.
The first line of the Deir ‘Allā Balaam text refers to Balaam as a seer ḥz(h) and says something like, “The gods came to him in the night, and he envisioned a vision (wyḥz . mḥzh).” Notice the use of מַחֲזֵ֤ה in Numbers 24:5. Is it with the special talent of a seer like Balaam that the distinction between omina impetrativa and omina oblativa breaks down? If so, what is it about Balaam that makes the contrast no longer helpful?
Just in case anyone is wondering, I certainly see all this Balaam stuff as fictive. But I also see it as culturally and linguistically instructive.

Beal, Richard, “Hittite Oracles,” in Magic and Divination in the Ancient World (Leda Ciraolo and Johathan Seidel, eds; Leiden: Brill, 2002)

6 thoughts on “Divining Balaam: A Problem With Omens”

  1. Too rushed to check but … didn’t people sleep in the temple of Asculepius for dream-cures? In other words, seeking sleep deliberately in the same way?

  2. Thanks Roger,
    There is something in the general neighborhood with the role of dreams in Greaco-Roman medicine. Exactly how all these things relate is not so clear. I think it might require a fair amount of work to sort out. Another interesting thing in this neighborhood is the role of snakes in some of these cures. Divination and healing were never all that far apart.

  3. Duane — See 1 Sam 28, 6 (NIV) “He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.”
    In Jewish tradition (apparently Geonic period and later) there’s a practice called Sh’elat Halom, or dream inquiry, which involves specific preparatory rituals, often including fasting. In general, the inquirer seeks answers to specific kabbalistic or halachic queries, but the practice has had other applications, including divining the future (e.g., in the works of R. Nahman of Breslov).

  4. Gginat,
    Thanks, the 1 Sam 28:6 passage is interesting. So is the Sh’elat Halom inquiry. At some point, I will need to checkout R. Nahman of Breslov.

  5. Sorry Claude,
    I updated my RSS feed when you made the change so I’ve been seeing your stuff. But I failed to update my blog role. I have fixed it to point to your new site. Now I need to see how many others I have wrong!

Comments are closed.