According to ancient, primary sources, what was divination and how was it practiced?

Translations that seem to confuse the terms:

NASB, Genesis 44:5 - Is not this the one from which my lord drinks and which he indeed uses for divination, (from נָחַשׁ)? You have done wrong in doing this.’”

NASB, Joshua 13:22 - 22 The sons of Israel also killed Balaam the son of Beor, the diviner (from קָסַם), with the sword among the rest of their slain.

These two words seem very inconsistently translated into English. Are there any ancient texts that illustrate or define these two terms?

3 Answers 3


The commentaries I consulted did not have an authoritative answer nor a convincing suggestion. I suspect that what was being referred to is "scrying":


One looks intently at any of a variety of reflective surfaces such as a metal cup, a crystal ball, a chicken's liver, obsidian stone (such as arrow heads), a pond, etc. and interprets the obscure reflections therein.

Since Joseph had earned a reputation of accurately interpreting dreams he may have been esteemed as a diviner and used his reputation to lend credence to his fabricated story to his brothers:

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary 5. Is not this it in which my lord drinketh—not only kept for the governor's personal use, but whereby he divines. Divination by cups, to ascertain the course of futurity, was one of the prevalent superstitions of ancient Egypt, as it is of Eastern countries still. It is not likely that Joseph, a pious believer in the true God, would have addicted himself to this superstitious practice. But he might have availed himself of that popular notion to carry out the successful execution of his stratagem for the last decisive trial of his brethren.


Micah 3 seems to suggest that some prophets in Israel were "diviners":

NIV Micah 3: 5This is what the Lord says: “As for the prophets who lead my people astray, they proclaim ‘peace’ if they have something to eat, but prepare to wage war against anyone who refuses to feed them. 6Therefore night will come over you, without visions, and darkness, without divination. The sun will set for the prophets, and the day will go dark for them. 7The seers will be ashamed and the diviners disgraced. They will all cover their faces because there is no answer from God.” 8But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.

Micah does not condemn the practice explicitly but he does attribute his own success to power and virtue from God.


Please see this article in the Jewish Encyclopedia.


Divination comes from the Latin divinare, which means to foresee or to be inspired by God.

To expatiate, divination is the magical art of getting answers or confirmations from a god, by asking it to interact with objects in the physical realm. Divination is condemned in the Bible, but surprisingly it records people using it.

In Judges 6:36-40, Gideon wanted confirmation from God that he would save Israel, so Gideon placed a fleece of wool on the floor, and requested that the dew be on the wool only in the morning and not on the floor. Gideon woke up the next morning to see the fleece with so much dew, that he wrung it out and filled a bowl with water. The floor was dry as Gideon requested.

In 2 King’s 20:8-11, Hezekiah wants to be assured that he will be healed by God, and go up to the house of the LORD on the third day, so the prophet Isaiah gives him a choice of 2 signs. The LORD will move the shadow from the sundial of Ahaz either forward 10 degrees, or backwards 10 degrees. Moving it forwards was unimpressive to the ill Hezekiah, so he asked that it be moved backwards. Isaiah cried to the LORD, and the LORD brought the shadow backwards 10 degrees!

One more instance that I can think of occurs in Acts 1:22-26, where the apostles are looking for a replacement for Judas. They seem to have trouble deciding between Justus and Matthias. So first they pray to the LORD, then the replacement is revealed to them by casting lots.


My favourite definition is found in The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. It states

Divination, the art of obtaining secret knowledge, especially of the future, is a pagan counterpart of prophecy. Careful comparison of Scripture will reveal that inspirational divination is by demonic power whereas genuine prophecy is by the Spirit of God. The biblical attitude toward divination is by demonic power, whereas genuine prophecy is by the Spirit of God. The biblical attitude toward divination is distinctly hostile (Deut. 18:10-12). The prophet of Jehovah is contrasted with diviners of all sorts and is set forth as the only authorized medium of supernatural revelation. Baalam (Numbers 22-24) was a pagan diviner but rose to the status of a bona-fide prophet of the Lord, although he reverted to paganism. In Isa. 3:2, Jer. 29:8, Ezek. 22:28 the diviner is classified with the prophet, but this does not mean condonement of divination. It points rather to the apostasy and pagan contamination of the era. The worship of the true God is basically at variance with divination of every sort. Seeking knowledge of the future from any source other than the God of Israel was an insult to His holy Being and the revelation of Himself and His purpose for men.

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