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The meaning of Augury in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

o'-gu-ri o'-gur-i: This word occurs in the Revised Version (British and American) in Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10, Deuteronomy 18:14; II Kings 21:6, and the parallel in II Chronicles 33:6. In all these cases the verb "practice augury" is in the King James Version "to observe times." The verb thus translated is 'onen, which means probably to utter a low croaking sound as was done in divining.


I. Definition.

The derivation of "augur" is doubtful, but that it means strictly to divine from the flight of birds is suggested by its likeliest etymology (avis, gur) and especially from the fact that in early Latin the augur was called auspex ( = avi spex). But both words came to be applied to all forms of divining from omens.

II. Augury among the Romans.

The Roman augur was a government official, paid to guide the councils of the nation in times of peace and of war. The principal signs from which these augurs deduced their omens were these: (1) celestial signs, chiefly lightning and thunder, the direction of the former (right to left a good sign, and vice versa); (2) signs from the flight, cries and feeding of birds; (3) signs from the movements and audible sounds of animals, including serpents; (4) signs from the examination of the entrails of animals; (5) belomancy, or divination by arrows; (6) sortilege, or divination by lot. Among the Romans as among other nations (Babylonians, etc.), a sacrifice was offered before omens were taken, so as to propitiate the gods.

III. Augury among the Greeks.

Almost the only kind of divination practiced or even known among the Romans was that by signs or omens, though Cicero (de Div. i.1 f.) notices another kind which may be called divining by direct inspiration from the gods. It is this higher and more spiritual mode of divining that obtained most largely among the Greeks, whose chief word for diviner implies this. Yet the lower kind of divination known as augury was to some extent practiced among the Greeks.

IV. Augury among the Hebrews.

In general it may be said that the religion of Israel set itself steadfastly and consistently against augury; a very remarkable fact when one remembers how rife it was among the surrounding peoples—Arabs, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, etc. Surely there is in this evidence of special Divine guidance, for those ancient Hebrews are not fit to be compared with the Babylonians or Egyptians or Romans for achievements in art and general secular literature. For the attitude of the Old Testament toward augury see the passages enumerated in the opening of this article. Several kinds of augury are mentioned in the Old Testament, and in some eases without explicit condemnation.

1. Belomancy:

Belomancy was a method of divination by arrows, a number of which were marked in certain ways, then mixed and drawn at random. We have a reference to this in Hosea 4:12 : 'My people ask counsel from their wood [literally, "tree"] and their staff [i.e. "arrow"] tells them (their oracles)'; and also in Ezekiel 21:21 : 'For the king of Babylon .... used divination, shaking the arrows to and fro.' The first passage shows that belomancy was practiced by Israelites though the prophet condemned it. The second is interesting as showing how the Babylonian used his arrows. It is to be noticed that the prophet Ezekiel records the incident without making any comment on it, favorable or otherwise. He would, however, had he spoken, almost certainly have condemned it. Mohammed forbade this use of arrows as "an abomination of Satan's work" (Koran, Sur. 5 92).

2. Hydromancy:

Hydromancy, or divination by water, was practiced by Joseph (Genesis 44:3-5) without any censure on the part of the writer. There were among the Romans and other ancient nations, as among modern Arabs, etc., many modes of divining by means of water. Generally a piece of silver or gold or a precious stone was thrown into a vessel containing water: the resulting movements of the water and the figures formed were interpreted according to certain fixed signs. See August., de Civ. Dei, vii.31; Strabo xvi.11.39; Iamblichus, de Myst., iii.4.

3. Sortliege:

Of sortliege, or divination by lot, we have instances in Leviticus 16:8; Matthew 27:35; I Chronicles 25:8; Jonah 1:2 ff.; Acts 1:26, etc. The Urim and Thummim was simply a case of sortilege, though in this case, as in the cases enumerated above, God was supposed to control the result. A proper translation of I Samuel 14:41 f., based on a text corrected according to the Septuagint of Lucian, is the following: "And Saul said, O Lord the God of Israel, why hast thou not answered thy servant this day? If the iniquity be in me or in Jonathan my son, give Urim; and if thou sayest thus, The ......" It iniquity is in the people, give Thummim. seems almost certain that these words refer to two balls put into the high priest's ephod and drawn by him at random, the one divining one answer, and the other the contrary.

4. Other Methods:

We meet with several other signs. The prophet Elisha directs King Joash to throw two arrows through the window in order to find out whether the king will be victorious or not (II Kings 13:14-19). If Gideon's fleece were wet and the ground dry this was to be a sign of coming victory over the Midianites. There is nothing in the narrative disapproving of the course taken (Judges 6:36-40). In I Samuel 14:8 ff. Jonathan is represented as deciding whether or not he is to attack the Philistines by the words he will hear them speak. See further Genesis 24:12-19; II Kings 20:9.

5. Dreams:

Dreams are very commonly mentioned in the Bible as a means of forecasting the future. See Genesis 20:3, Genesis 20:6 f. (Abimelech); Genesis 31:10-13 (Jacob); Genesis 37:5; Genesis 40:3 ff. (Joseph), and also Judges 7:13; I Kings 3:5 f.; Matthew 1:20; Matthew 2:12 ff.; Matthew 27:19, etc. The part of the Pentateuch ascribed by Wellhausen, etc., to Elohist abounds with accounts of such significant dreams.

6. Astrology:

That omens were taken from the heavenly bodies by the Babylonians, and other ancient nations is matter of definite knowledge, but it is never countenanced in the Old Testament. Indeed the only explicit reference to it in the Hebrew Scriptures occurs in Isaiah 47:13 where the Exilic author mockingly urges Babylon to turn to her astrologers that they may save her from her threatened doom.

Several cuneiform inscriptions give lists of celestial omens by which Babylonian augurs prognosticated the future. In Mat. 2 the wise men received their first intimation of the birth of the child Jesus from a bright star which they saw in the East.

V. Higher Character of Hebrew Prophecy.

Though Old Testament prophecy in its lowest forms has features in common with heathen divination, it stands on an infinitely higher level. The prophet speaks under a strong impulse and from a sense of duty. The heathen diviner plied his calling for money. The Greek mantis worked himself into a state of frenzy, thought to imply inspiration, by music and certain drugs. The prophet believed himself directly guided by God.



T. Witton Davies, Magic. Divination and Demonology among the Hebrews, 1898, 72 ff.; articles on "Divination" in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes) (Jevons); Encyclopedia Biblica (T. Witton Davies), and on "Augury" in Jewish Encyclopedia (Blau), valuable as giving the rabbinical side as well.

T. Witton Davies

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