Divining Birds Or Snakes In Deuteronomy 18:10-11

Deuteronomy 18:10-11 provides the most complete condemnation of divination of any passage in the Hebrew Bible. But exactly what is condemned?
The Hebrew reads,

לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֹֽו־וּבִתֹּ֖ו בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעֹונֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃ וְחֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר וְשֹׁאֵ֥ל אֹוב֙ וְיִדְּעֹנִ֔י וְדֹרֵ֖שׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִֽים׃

The JPS translates this, “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur (קֹסֵ֣ם), a soothsayer, a diviner (מְנַחֵ֖שׁ), a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts of familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.”
I inserted the Hebrew word that I think is being translation in a couple of places. Because of the linguistic complexities of translation translations shouldn’t always be word for word and some license should be granted even when translating what amounts to a list.
But let’s look at a couple of other translations. Keep your eye out for augury.
NRSV: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination (קֹסֵ֣ם), or is a soothsayer, or an augur (מְנַחֵ֖שׁ), or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.”
KJV: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination (קֹסֵ֣ם), or an observer of times, or an enchanter (מְנַחֵ֖שׁ), or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.”
Exactly what word, if any, means augur? Is it קֹסֵ֣ם as JPS seems to think or is it מְנַחֵ֖שׁ as NRSV seems to think? And where is the augur in the KJV? Perhaps Martin Noth summed up the situation correctly, when he said, “We no longer know what techniques and purposes lay behind the individual practices in vv. 10-11.” I even think he is right in saying, “In the list completeness seems to be attempted” but I find his following subordinate clause problematic, “though we must probably not assume that all these practices could be sharply distinguished from each other.” I bet the author and first readers of these verses knew exactly what these practices were and how to distinguish them from each other. I’m too lazy to check out more recent commentaries just now but I will in due course.
But one thing is abnormally interesting, the LXX appears to render מְנַחֵ֖שׁ οιωνιζομενος meaning, I guess, “augur” (LSJ 1211) but in some contexts it the Greek is more general, “diviner.” The following appears in Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.6:44, παρὰ γὰρ ἱερὰ καὶ οἰωνοὺς μήτε σαυτῷ μηδέποτε μήτε στρατιᾷ κινδυνεύσῃς, “Never put yourself or your army in harms way contrary to a serpent and bird-omen (or something like that).” An οἰωνός of bird of prey and ἱερὰ is some kind of a serpent. But οιωνιζομενος can also mean one who divines in the more general sense. What do they mean when conjoined by καὶ? Obviously, they can simple mean the omens provided by a serpent and a bird taken separately or together as in Id. 12:200-207. Καὶ can on occasion have a more associative meaning. In this case, one might understand ἱερὰ καὶ οἰωνοὺς as “serpent and interpretation (of the serpent).” The reason I bring this up, is that the root of מְנַחֵ֖שׁ is at least orthographical related to a word that means “snake” in Hebrew. The nouns נַחַשׁ, “divine” and נָחָשׁ, “snake” not only look alike they are pronounced almost the same. In a few passages נַחַשׁ, “divine,” and נָחָשׁ, “snake,” seem to stand in a punning relationship. Even if מְנַחֵ֖שׁ in Deuteronomy 18:10-11 eventually came to be understood as augury (the Vulgate has the rather unambiguous auguria), did it once stand for a reader of snake omens? My thought process here involves several rather problematic speculations. And I’m pretty sure מְנַחֵ֖שׁ is used on occasion to mean divination in a rather general way. There are also than a few big IFs in all this. But as I often say, “this is a blog” not a scholarly paper. If I can’t engage in speculation divination here where can I?
I see no reason to render קֹסֵ֣ם “augur,” if that is in fact what the JPS really intended.
By the way, I think any discussion of this question also needs to consider omens 20-22 on tablet 24 of Šumma Ālu. But that’s another topic for another day.

8 thoughts on “Divining Birds Or Snakes In Deuteronomy 18:10-11”

  1. The combination of ‘diviner’ and ‘augur’ in the same sentence is certainly a little odd, since both are effectively the same thing. Could מְנַחֵ֖שׁ be simply translated as ‘snake handler; someone dealing with snakes’ while קֹסֵ֣ם be ‘divination of the future, augury’ proper?

  2. To be sure, augur can mean simply diviner in many contexts, but I think you will find that augur is more often used to mean an interpreter of bird activities. That is how I use it here and I’m reasonable sure that that is how the Vulgate understood it. Everyplace else is up in the air as it where.

  3. I disagree. I think you will find if you consult a few English dictionaries that augury tends to refer to the careful observance of *any kind* of omen.
    Among the Etruscans, there were a few different kinds of “augury” pertaining to anything such as birds, livers or lightning strikes, the same as in the Near East among the Hittites and Babylonians. The Romans adopted these same practices from the Etruscans and they were called in Latin augurium to refer to the entire practice as a whole.
    If one wants to unambiguously refer to a priest that observes bird omens specifically, I would think that auspex is best since that is exactly what this Latin word refers to, avem specere “bird-watching”.

  4. Glen,
    I may be wrong but I take my clue from the common usage among Assyriologists, Hittitologists like Bawanypeck, Ünal and Beal, and the common but not consistent usage among students of North West Semitic languages. Ornithomancy as used by Classicists who study the Greek tradition and some Semitists is generally identical to augury in this understandings. For the Latin, I rely on the first meaning of augur in the Oxford Latin Dictionary (1985, 213), which reads, “1. One who observes and interprets the behavior of birds, an augur. b. (esp.) a member of the college of augurs, an official interpreter of auspices.” The OLD second meaning is, to be sure, more general, “Seer, prophet.”
    I did look a little more closely at the Vulgate and I’m a little less certain that auguria is used as a technical term in this passage but the fact that Jerome was likely looking over his shoulder at the LXX makes me think the balance of evidence is in favor of auguria meaning ornithomancy here. It’s hard to be sure.
    To your question in your first comment: that is more or less what I am suggesting for מְנַחֵ֖שׁ. Of course, the snake omens of tablets 22-26 of Šumma Ālu are unsolicited and they have nothing to with snake handling. They’re more about snake observing. This may or may not relate to Hebrew usage. I think it does and I’m ready to defend that, but not in a comment or even a post. I’m about 15 pages into a 20 page or so page on the subject. I think קֹסֵם at least sometimes relates some kind of solicited divination. Perhaps involving casting of lots or the like but I’m far from ready to defend such an interpretation. The work does seem to function that way in some Biblically “approved” divination.

  5. Okay, let’s say then that augury is just a synonym of ornithomancy. How then do we understand the published sentence “The most ancient and remarkable manner of Etruscan augury was by lightning? You say that the more general meaning is “newer” and yet my quote is dated to 1853. Is there perhaps a larger, long-standing confusion about the meaning of this term among scholars?
    As for snake-observing, Etruscans don’t seem to concern themselves with it as they do with brontoscopy, auspicy and haruspicy.

  6. I intended no claim concerning the age of the more generalized usage. For all I know it is older. The potential for confusion actually goes back to antiquity. I think anytime a word, ancient or modern, has a technical meaning in some contexts and a more general meaning in other contexts there is more than a little room for confusion. In this case, both ancient usages and the usages in modern context add to the possibility of confusion. I will point out that translators of the Hebrew Bible are part of the tribe of North West Semitists who generally, but not always and not all of them, think of augury in a limited technical sense. That doesn’t keep them from using the word more generally in some contexts. Sometimes when I say “theory,” I mean it in the way a scientist means it. But sometimes I use it to meaning little more than a wild idea. I don’t always signal how I am using it. Scientist in casual conversation do the same thing. That lack of signaling is part of what makes all this so interesting.

  7. Could everything after קסם be a parenthetical? That is, קסם is used as an umbrella term, and then the text tries to be more specific (perhaps for some sort of emphasis) by elaborating on just what the author means by קסם to frustrate the “loop-hole-finders”? Just an ad hoc thought.

  8. Busi,
    Yeah, something like that may be going on. It would be easier to get behind such an idea if I were certain that קסם was, at least here, some kind of term for divination generally and not some specific kind of divination. While in some texts it clearly has a general meaning, in others such generality is not so clear. But the same can be said for מנחשׁ. Depending on the day or even the time of day, I move between opinions on this subject

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