There is not to be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, who practices divination, who tells fortunes, or interprets omens, or practices sorcery, Bible

“makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire.” The reference to passing children through the fire is widespread in the Old Testament but is not well understood (cp. Lev. 18:21; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:21; 20:26, 31; 23:37). At least three times it is associated with the god Moloch (Lev. 18:21; 2 Kings 23:10; and Jer. 32:35), and twice it is associated with divination (2 Kings 17:17; 21:6). It is quite possible that the practice varied in different times and cultures.

Passing a child through the fire appears here in Deuteronomy along with other types of divination for guidance or gaining knowledge of the future. That fact argues strongly that at least sometimes the practice was used as part of a ceremony to determine the future. However, it is also possible that it was a sacrifice designed to appease the gods and bring about a favorable future. That certainly seems to be the case in 2 Kings 3:26-27 when the king of Moab sacrificed his son because he was losing the battle. In any case, the scope of Scripture, including verses such as Leviticus 18:21 and Ezekiel 16:21, as well as supporting evidence from archaeology, conclusively support the fact that passing children through the fire was not just some harmless means of prognostication that somehow involved children, it either sometimes or always involved actual child sacrifice.

“who practices divination.” The Hebrew doubles the root word for emphasis, and the phrase in the Hebrew text is qosem qesamim (קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים). It is difficult to accurately bring that Hebrew phrase into English that reads smoothly because qosem is a participle and qesamim is the noun. A very wooden translation would be “divining divination,” but that is hard to understand in English. The essence of the phrase is picked up in many versions that translate it as one who “practices divination.” That translation reads well in English and catches the sense of the phrase, but it loses the emphasis provided by the doubling of the root word.

Divination is the process of acquiring supernatural knowledge by various means, and there are literally hundreds of different ways of divining, depending on the time and culture. Some are specifically mentioned in the Bible, such as looking at the liver of an animal (Ezek. 18:21), using a stick (Hos. 4:12) or casting lots (Esther 3:7. The Bible allowed for certain ways to cast lots, so we must not consider all lot casting to be ungodly, but some of it certainly is).

“tells fortunes.” Although “tell fortunes” brings to mind pictures of Gypsy palm readers, there are many ways people try to tell the future. The exact Hebrew word in the text is meonen (מְעוֹנֵ֥ן) from the root word anan (#06049 עָנָן). The meaning of meonen is debated, which we can see by the different ways it is translated in the English versions: “augury” (ASV); “soothsayer” (CJB; NAB; NRSV); “tell fortunes” (HCSB; ESV); “observer of times” (KJV); “practices witchcraft” (NASB); “an omen reader” (NET; cp. NIV); and “use sorcery” (NLT).

Merrill Unger wrote about meonen: “But the precise etymology of the Hebrew term is uncertain. Some would derive it from the root anan (‘to cover’), ‘one who practices hidden or occult arts.’ This explanation, though, has no real support from usage. Others would connect the word with anan (‘cloud’), ‘one who observes the clouds with a view of obtaining an oracle.’ Still others would make it a denominative from ayin (‘eye’), ‘one who smites with the evil eye.’ But nothing in the context would suggest any of those views. The most likely explanation is that the expression is from the Semitic root meaning ‘to emit a hoarse nasal sound’ …such a sound as was customary in the reciting magical formulas (Lev. 19:26; 2 Kings 21:6).” (Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1994. P. 131). Isaiah 8:19 speaks of mediums and people who try to get information from the spirit world who “chirp and mutter” as part of the practices they engage in.

The HALOT Hebrew-English lexicon has “to interpret signs, soothsayer.” It is likely that in this context meonen refers more generally to those who engage in various magical arts to determine the future rather than those who actively practice magic and other “black arts” with the intent of influencing the future. There are many different ways people attempt to “tell someone’s fortune,” including Ouija boards, Tarot cards, and palm reading; and the list goes on and on. Many of those people do in fact speak or chant as they practice their art, and that could have been ridiculed in Isaiah as “chirp and mutter.”

“interprets omens.” The Hebrew verb is nachash (#05172 נָחַשׁ), and it referred to interpreting omens and divining by means of them. In Genesis 44:5 and 15, Joseph was said to be able to use his cup to divine (which is the same Hebrew word: interpreting omens), but it is also possible that he never did so, but used that as a ruse. There is no biblical record of Joseph actually interpreting omens or using any type of divination except by the revelation he got from God.

“practices sorcery.” The Hebrew verb is kashaph (#03784 כָּשַׁף). For our purpose, a sorcerer is “one who practices magic by using occult formulas, incantations, and mystic mutterings…it is evidently commonly employed to include the whole field of divinatory occultism.” (Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 153).

Commentary for: Deuteronomy 18:10