29 August 2022

Augury: When the universe becomes God’s game of Pictionary.

Back in the 1970s Peter Jenkins grew disillusioned with life, and decided the cure for this would be to walk across the United States. Halfway through his trip, he met Barbara Jo Pennell in Louisiana and asked her to marry him.

They hadn’t known one another very long at all; just a few weeks. Understandably she had her doubts about him. But one Sunday at church, the sermon was on the story of how Abraham’s slave went to find a wife for Isaac, found Rebekah, and concluded it was the LORD’s providence. Ge 24 and found Rebekah, and figured it was providence. When the preacher said, and repeated, the question Rebekah’s family put to her—“Will you go with this man?” Ge 24.58 —Jenkins and Pennell identified this as a sign. A sign from God. So she married him.

I read this story in the National Geographic, where he first published “A Walk Across America” in two parts; it later became a book. I remember at the time I read it, even though I was a little kid, my first thought was, “That’s a sign?” That wasn’t a sign; that’s a coincidental out-of-context scripture.

No, I don’t believe every coincidence is really God. Ecclesiastes makes it clear there are definitely such things as coincidences. Time and chance happen in God’s universe. Ec 9.11

It certainly was a useful coincidence for Jenkins—and for any man who’s desperately trying to convince a woman to marry him, and she believes in signs. In fact if he’s clever, he’ll slip the preacher a $20 and ask her to say a bunch of sign-like things in her sermon. Like “Will you go with this man?” and “Be not afraid” and “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” and so forth. You can manufacture signs, y’notice.

As can Satan.

Looking for signs in nature, and interpreting nature as if you can find signs in it, is a very, very old practice. Predates Christianity. It’s called augury, and some pagan religions specialize in it. And too many Christians, who aren’t aware God speaks to us and we can hear him, dabble in it too. They want a sign!—so they look for ’em.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs.

Ancient pagan gods didn’t talk to their worshipers. Of course they didn’t; they’re not really gods! But even so, the worshipers desperately wanted to hear from their gods. In any way they could.

So the ancient Greeks and Romans invented methods to interpret nature. Some of their customs passed down to the present day, and became our superstitions—loose eyelashes, clovers with extra leaves, certain birthmarks, all these things meant good fortune from the gods. Good karma.

Pagans came up with a very detailed system of which events meant what messages. The priests who specialized in interpreting these signs were called augurs.

Roman augurs were known for watching the way birds flew. If they flew in a group it meant one thing. If they flew alone it meant another. If they made noises, or not; if they flew right or left, soared or swooped, ascended or descended; if they were eagles or ravens or owls or woodpeckers (and which bird’s activity outweighed which other bird’s activity): All these things were interpreted as good or bad omens, as divine pleasure or displeasure. And that’s just birds. Don’t forget augurs also interpreted the weather and the stars.

When an animal was sacrificed to the gods, augurs of different religions would examine the sacrifice: How the animal died, how the blood spattered, what the internal organs or entrails looked like. If you threw the bones, or dropped parts of the sacrifice onto a tray, how they landed might mean something too.

They’d interpret the weather or cloud patterns. They’d interpret the way bones or dice or joss sticks were thrown. They interpret how the tea leaves look in the bottom of a cup. Or how the lines in your hand connect with one another. Or which tarot cards were picked in a deck. Or where the planets are located in relation to the constellations.

Yep, people still practice augury.

But like Ecclesiastes points out, not everything has a meaning. Augurs are trying to extrapolate meanings from random things and lucky coincidences… and trying to deduce meaning from things which are essentially meaningless. How a deck of cards shuffle means nothing. How a dice falls is random. How the planets line up with the stars from our perspective is easily predictable… but why these stars and these planets? You realize we’ve discovered dozens of planets the ancients knew nothing about (i.e. Ceres, Neptune, Pluto, Eris) and if astrology is valid, the influence of these planets is going completely ignored? Every astrologer is committing malpractice.

Omens in the bible.

Some Christians defend their augury by pointing to the bible and claiming, “Well they did it.” And in fact… there are some instances where it appears they did.

The LORD’s head priest wore an ephod, a sacred vest with an jeweled breastplate. Into the ephod were inserted objects called אוּרִים/urím and תֻּמִּים/thummím. The -im ending is plural; there was more than one ur (“shining [thing]”) and thum (“flawless [thing]”). We don’t know what those objects were, but we assume they were jewels, or shiny rocks. It appears they were used as lots. 1Sa 14.41 Someone would ask the head priest a binary question—something with a yes/no, true/false, this/that answer—and after prayer, the priest would reach into the ephod and pull out an ur or thum. The assumption is this is how the LORD definitively gave his answer. Pr 16.33

If you find this idea bothersome, so did Pharisees. In the Babylonian Talmud, in the commentary on Mishna tractate Yoma, the rabbis claimed the urím and thummím weren’t stones. When the priest was asked a question, he’d face God’s glory—the shekhináh—and God would cause various letters on the ephod to shine (ur) and spell out his flawless (thum) answer.

Yeah, that sounds iffy to me too. The Pharisees’ theory was offered several generations after the practice discontinued, so we don’t know how accurate it is. But it certainly sounds more like revelation than pulling rocks out of a box.

My own theory: The priest did hear God and did get an answer from him. But you always gotta confirm what you hear from God—and that’s where urím and thummím come in. This is why the priests didn’t always give binary answers in the bible; they gave some pretty complex statements from God.

We likewise know Aaron and Eleazar, Israel’s first two head priests, heard the LORD directly, same as Moses. Why would they need to throw lots to get God’s will? They wouldn’t. But they wouldn’t always have another prophet around to confirm what they heard—so urím and thummím were convenient confirmation. Imagine a priest who claims, “The LORD says yes,” but he keeps pulling thum after thum out of his ephod, regardless of the chances of pulling an ur: It’s a good bet the priest misheard God. Whereas if he pulled ur after ur, it’s a good bet the LORD really did say yes. (But again: This is my theory, based on personal experience, not the historical record. I could be wrong.)

Omens and guesswork.

Here we get to the important distinction between omens and actual revelation from God. Trying to interpret the lights in the sky, or tarot cards, or what a lucky or unlucky coincidence might “mean”: Each of these things tries to deduce a meaning after the fact. They’re trying to assign a meaning to something which didn’t initially have any meaning.

When a mirror cracks, and you can’t deduce why it cracked, it’s not automatically “a sign.” Sign of what? Sign of seven years’ bad luck? It’s certainly not bad luck for those who make mirrors and replacement glass. Far more likely it’s a sign of a poorly made mirror, or frame, or vibrations in the building, or that one of the kids broke it and didn’t tell you, or that you broke it and hadn’t noticed. What’s not likely is it means you’re about to lose a job, someone’s gonna die, one of your investments will fail, or your football team will lose this weekend.

Ancient augurs worked out their interpretations well in advance. They wrote books about what flying birds or entrail splatters meant. No god told them, “Here’s what these things mean”; they figured out these meanings on their own. Just like when astrologers deduce what it means when Mercury is in one constellation, or Jupiter in another.

But when Christians try to read signs, or deduce omens, we tend to make interpretations on the fly. Usually based on what we fear.

Here’s a testimony I’ve heard far too often: Someone was wondering God’s will, and happened to come across a billboard, or a voice over the radio, or a passage in the bible, or something which pointed them one way or another. They didn’t know whether to buy a house, but today’s devotional reading happened to be about taking hold of the things of God, so they took ahold of that house. Or, conversely, they decided this house wasn’t one of the things of God, so they didn’t buy it.

Y’see the problem? The “sign” simply nudged ’em in the direction they were already going. They were hesitant, but they were looking for any excuse to say yes or no, and the omen gave them that excuse. Interpretation was entirely up to them. Not God.

And now if things go wrong—as occasionally they will—they’ll blame God.

Compare augury with legitimately hearing from God. When we ask God, “What sign will you give me to prove you told me yes?” God tells us precisely what signs to look for. That’s the difference between revelation and augury: God assigns the meaning to these signs, not us. No guesswork necessary. That’s revelation.

Further, God’s signs tend to not be commonplace. Other than rainbows being a reminder God doesn’t plan to flood the planet again, Ge 9.12-17 he tends to get weirdly precise. When an angel told shepherds, “Look for a baby in a manger,” Lk 2.12 it’s not something you’d expect to see. Who puts their baby in a manger? What’re the chances you’d see one back then?

But this sign was given to them. They weren’t casually walking home one night, happened to see a baby in a manger, and leapt to weird conclusions. They were told, “Messiah is born, and the sign this is true is a baby in a manger.” The sign didn’t come before the interpretation; it came after. God’s signs usually come after.

Yes, sometimes before; like when he gives weird dreams which need interpreting. Or when people see a mysterious hand writing on the wall, Da 5.5 or some other odd apocalyptic vision which, like dreams, need a explanation. But in those instances, get someone who hears from God; not an augur who’s only gonna make guesses.

Because guesswork means we invented the meaning. Not God.

Christians who practice augury.

As you know, not every Christian realizes, or even believes, we can hear God. Those who don’t—even when they’re adamant God only communicates through scripture (if that), still wanna hear from him from time to time. Same as the ancient Greeks and Romans wanted to hear from their silent gods.

Well, if you don’t believe God speaks, you’re invariably gonna start looking for other signs of God’s will in nature. You’re gonna look for signs and omens. Humans get naturally superstitious this way.

If you’re wise, you’ll realize this is what you’re doing and stop it. But if you’re desperate, you’ll do it anyway, and not care.

For the naysayers, who insist God could, if he really wanted to, work through an omen on someone who wouldn’t listen to him any other way: Yeah, if God really wanted to, he can do whatever he wants. I’ve met Wiccans who came to Jesus as a result of God using omens to get their attention. But these are extreme cases. Usual cases are revelation, like when an angel appeared to Cornelius, Ac 10.1-6 or when Joseph’s pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar or the magi had prophetic dreams, or when Jesus personally appeared to Paul—same as he appears to pagans nowadays.

Speaking of the magi. I’ve known Christians who say since God spoke to them through astrology, Mt 2.1-12 what’s wrong with astrology? Well, the magi were pagans. They didn’t know any better. Is 47.13, Jr 10.1 We do know better. Astrologers tend to give commonsense advice and encouragement and self-fulfilling prophecies, and their vague predictions of the future can be interpreted every which way. God, in comparison, knows you, and knows your future because he’s already there.

So we Christians don’t have to resort to astrology or augury. God speaks to us. Plus we have bible, prophets, miracles, theophanies, and all sorts of legitimate communiques from God. We have certainty, not guesswork. Why resort to guesswork?