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,
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.