Divination in Ancient Israel and Its near Eastern Environment: A Socio-Historical Investigation

By Sweek, Joel | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Divination in Ancient Israel and Its near Eastern Environment: A Socio-Historical Investigation


Sweek, Joel, Journal of Biblical Literature


Divination in Ancient Israel and its Near Eastern Environment: A Socio-Historical Investigation, by Frederick H. Cryer. JSOTSup 142. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994. Pp. 367. L45.00/$67.50.

Cryer's book is divided into two main parts. The first part is ostensibly a survey ol some principal modem theories of magic. The author summarizes the opinions of E. B Tylor, J. G. Fraser, M. Mauss and H. Hubert, and to a lesser extent those of E. Durk heim and B. Malinowski. He closes with an exposition of the ideas of Daniel L. O'Keefe and a chapter on E. E. Evans-Pritchard and the "magical society" of the Azande. The second part constitutes a survey of divination in ancient Mesopotamia and "ancient Israel."

At the outset of this book's survey of scholarly discussions of magic, the autho asserts:

Actually, it requires little argumentation to justify a concern with magic in the context of a discussion of the phenomenon of divination in the ancient Near East. After all, the phenomenon was assigned to the realm of magic already in antiquity. . and has since then consistently been discussed under such headings as "magic," "Magie," "Mantik" and the like. Although magic is notoriously difficult to define, and although we do make mistakes in the matter, we usually know magic when we see it. (p. 42)

The author's identification of divination with magic is key to the success of his argument. But there are at least four problems raised in this passage. First, the opening sentence begs the question whether magic and divination have anything to do with one another. Second, the assertion that "already in antiquity" divination was "assigned to the realm of magic" would require demonstration. Third, the fact that divination has been discussed under the heading of magic is beside the point. And fourth, the argument that "we know it when we see it" hardly suffices where definition is such a point of contention. The "we" is always the imponderable variable in such an epistemology. Now in fact, magic, as J. Middleton has suggested in his ER article on "Theories of Magic," is a concept that is intellectually compromised as an analytical category. As a polemical category rather than primarily an analytical one, magic tends to float free of methodological constraint and render itself useless for criticism. To the extent that he does not recognize this, Cryer seems perhaps a little late to the table in using magic as an analytical term in the discussion of religious activities. So much for the fourth problem.

Regarding the first problem, this is just exactly what a book like Cryer's would require. Magic and divination, regardless of whether people have tended to treat them together (which might all along have been an error of conception), need not necessarily overlap with or relate to one another in any particular way. Cryer takes them to be related perhaps because the writers whose books he reads take them to be so. But no reader is obliged so easily to accept the dictum that divination is magic or serves any magical function. Identifying divination and magic would require informed notions of what magic and divination might be individually.

In fact, magic and divination, functionally or phenomenologically observed, have little to do with one another, beyond both seeming to have something to do with what we call religion, generally conceived. (Of course, in the ancient world, divination is also a part of political science.) Divination, founded on a presentiment about the structure of knowledge and explanation, is a means of authorizing discourse within the community. Magic, whatever else it may or may not be, is not a means of authorizing discourse. One may use one's status as a magician to arrogate authority to oneself, but this is not the same thing as the content of the divined warrant or the procurement of that warrant.

The assertion that antiquity assigned divination to magic seems strange. …

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