The other day I asked, among other things, about the meaning of מְנַחֵשׁ in Deuteronomy 18:10 and I threaten you with a post on the Rabbinic understanding of that word. So here goes. In B. Talmud Sanhedrin 65b we read,
Our Rabbis taught: A Menahesh (מנחש) is one who says: So and so’s bread has fallen out of his hand; his staff has fallen out of his hand; his son called after him; a raven screamed after him, a deer has crossed his path; a serpent (נחש) came at his right hand or a fox at his left.
Here I use Epstein’s translation. I’ve added the two Hebrew/Aramaic words for reference. Other rabbinic sources (Sifri Deut. 171; Sifra Kedushim 6 ) say similar things.
So a מנחש is someone who mentions things like fallen bread or fallen staffs or the call of a son, the scream of a raven, the activity of deer, snake, or fox.
Much of this is exactly the stuff we find in omen series Šumma Ālu – terrestrial events. Here are three examples that speak of ravens screaming, snakes crossing from the right (and left) and foxes to the left (and right).
If [a man goes off on an errant and] a raven stays and caws to the left of the man, that man: he will go where he decides and he will enjoy profit.
(Šumma Ālu 79:3)
If a snake crosses from the right of a man to the left of a man, he will have a good name.
If a snake crosses from the left of a man to the right of a man, he will have a bad name.
(Šumma Ālu 23:16-17)
If a fox crosses on the road to the right of a man – no attainment of desires.
If a fox crosses on the road to the left of a man – attainment of desires.
(Late Babylonian Šumma Ālu extract (W 22729/7:6-7, Weiher #33)
Examples could be multiplied. Now I rather doubt that the Rabbis had direct knowledge of Šumma Ālu. They may have observed its ongoing legacy. But they sure had knowledge of their own tradition and from the looks of B. Talmud Sanhedrin 65b that tradition contained many of the same ideas as Šumma Ālu. The most obvious difference is the evaluation. The other thing of abnormal interest is that ophiomancy is in the rabbinic mix. Does this mean that the earliest exponents of Deuteronomy 18:10 thought of מְנַחֵשׁ in the same terms? Not necessarily and not without further evidence. But it sure seems reasonable that they would.
I want to be clear about something. As I think about all these issues, I’m not necessarily suggesting that the earliest exponents of Deuteronomy 18:10 had direct knowledge of Šumma Ālu. They may have but they not have. What I am suggesting is that the traditions represented in Šumma Ālu were part of their world and for whatever reason they rejected them.