Is Spiritism Condemned in the Bible?
Consulting the Spirit World in the Old Testament
The idea that spiritism relates to communication with spirits without qualification is reinforced further by the usage of divinatory terminology in which consultations occur with either Yahwistic or non-Yahwistic spirits. The verbs “to consult,” “to ask,” and “to seek,” are used in contexts in which Yhwh or other gods and spirits are the direct object.
In the Old Testament, the verb “to ask” occurs in general contexts of “asking” and “inquiring.” The verb is also used in prophetic contexts with both Yhwh and non-Yahwistic spirits (e.g., for Yhwh, see Deut 4:32; Judg 18:5, and 1 Sam 10:22; for other spirits, see Deut 18:12 and Ezek 21:26). Prophetic inquiry of the spirit world is implied by the use of “to ask” in these contexts. The verb “to seek,” is used in general contexts for “finding,” “seek to take one’s life,” and “seek the face of rulers.” Although not used of foreign gods and spirits, the verb is commonly used with Yhwh as the object (e.g., see 2 Sam 12:16, 21:1; Pss 27:8; 105:3; Jer 50:4). Lev , however, preserves an occurrence of the verb “to seek” that prohibits “seeking to be defiled” by “mediums (or ghosts)” and “wizards (or spirits).” In these contexts, the verb “to seek” is terminology used both to prohibit guidance from wrong spirits and to seek guidance from Yhwh and his spirits. Although “asking” and “inquiring” might be different in some ways from “seeking,” it is difficult to discern whether the prophetic activity underlying these verbs is different.
The verb “to consult” (darash in Hebrew) is used primarily with Yhwh or other gods and spirits as its object. One might “consult” Yhwh, Baal, ghosts, and spirits: for Yhwh see Gen 25:22; 2 Kgs 3:11; 1 Sam 9:9; for Baal, ghosts, and spirits see Deut 12:30; Deut ; and 2 Kgs 1:2. According to Siegfried Wagner (“darash,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 3.302), in the books of Kings, Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel the “consult” event occurs in the context of a mediator or prophet responsible for mediating Yhwh’s message to the inquirer. Wagner states, “As long as a prophet or a man of God is present, Yahweh may be consulted” (p. 302).
In an important article rarely cited by scholars, Lust (“The Mantic Function of the Prophet”) observes that by the use of the verb “to consult” soothsaying and prophecy have similar goals. Using 1 Samuel 28 as an example, Lust explains,
Soothsaying . . . shows some striking connections with Israelite prophecy. . . . It is characterized by the use of the term darash just as in prophetic consultation. . . . Saul goes to the medium to gain information (darash) and guidance (v. 7-8). An answer is given, foretelling what is going to happen (v. 16 ss.). The same elements occur in a prophetic consultation. The main difference is that in the prophetic consultation Jahweh is the object of the darash-event, while in the consultation of the witch it is the obot and yiddeonim or the ba’alot ob (v.7) (p. 238).
Lust observes further that the generations after Saul considered prophets to be the opponents of non-Yahwistic prophecy. Elijah condemns Ahaziah for his consultation (of Baalzebub, and Asa is punished for inquiring of the rephaim, “netherworld spirits.”
True prophecy was distinct from false prophecy not so much in method of consultation as in the source consulted. The use of identical terminology, “to consult” and “to ask,” for inquiry of Yhwh or of other gods and spirits indicates, at least, that similar methods were utilized for such consultations. In the Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (trans. L. F. Hartman;
G. V. Smith (“Prophet; Prophecy,” ISBE 3. 989) summarizes the consequence of the existence of like phenomena exhibited by the consultation of Yahwistic or non-Yahwistic spirits: “The similarities explain why the Israelites were so easily led astray by false prophets, while the differences point to the uniqueness and importance of the true prophets who faithfully delivered God’s message.” One might consult a spirit of divination, ob, or the Lord, Yhwh: “and he [Saul] also consulted a ghost and had not consulted the Lord” (1 Chr –14). This passage relates that two antithetical spirit sources might be similarly consulted in the “consult” event. In most cases, however, the “consult” event is stated to occur without any accompanying details or commentary of what actually took place.
Yhwh was “spirit,” and certain conditions had to be met if a tangible link was to be established between humans and that which was “spirit.” For example, notice the elaborate and detailed instructions for building and furnishing of the “dwelling” of the Lord in Exod 25-31 and 35-40. The purpose for this meticulous planning and building appears in Exod 40:34-38, wherein “the cloud” or the “glory of the Lord” (known today as “odic energy”) covered the dwelling as an indication of the manifestation of Yhwh’s spirit world. The dwelling functioned as a sort of antenna to attract spirit beings that were sanctioned by Yhwh to communication with the Hebrews. Likewise, the purpose for all of the directions for preparation of the burnt offerings in Exod 29:10-41 is indicated in vv. 42-43: “Throughout your generations this burnt offering shall be offered regularly before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting, where I will meet you and speak with you.” The sole purpose for building the dwelling and offering sacrifices was to facilitate spoken communication between Yhwh and the Hebrews. This is clarified by the fact that whenever Yhwh is the object of the verbs, “to seek,” “to ask,” and “to consult” one is understood to “consult,” “ask,” or “seek” that which is explicitly ruach, “spirit.” Isa 31:3 states in parallel fashion, “The Egyptians are men, not God; their horses are flesh, not spirit.” Here, “God,” and “spirit,” are parallel. Consulting Yhwh, therefore, is equivalent to consulting “spirit,” and such a consultation might arguably be characterized as RUACH-ism. See Isa 45:11, “Thus says the Lord, holy one of
In many instances, communications from Yhwh occurred via “a spirit of God.” This seems to have been the more usual way in which Yhwh communicated with humanity in the Old Testament. Many of the occurrences of "a spirit of God" appear in 1 Samuel. 1 Kgs 22:21 speaks of "a certain spirit" that is sent by Yhwh to speak through the mouths of the prophets of King Ahab. This is illustrative of one of the ways that Yhwh communicated with human beings, and, in fact, occurred often in this way. The Old Testament does say at times that Yhwh himself is the communicating deity: Gen 17:1,22; Exod 19:9; 33:11, 18-23. If the motive in divining by the spirit world was for Yhwh’s guidance, then such consultations were welcome, even demanded; for only in this way might Yhwh communicate his law and directive to humanity in a form that was perceptible and understood by them.
The grammatical object of the legitimate Yhwh "consult" event is always the "Lord," or the "word of the Lord." Never is the grammatical object "a spirit of the Lord" or "of God." Nevertheless, in many instances in the Old Testament, communications from Yhwh occur through an agent called "a spirit of God," "a spirit of the Lord," or simply "a spirit." The phrase "the spirit of the Lord came upon" occurs often in the context of prophecy, divine guidance, and visions. The phrase implies that Yhwh himself is not the agent that is present during the experience but rather ruach, "a spirit," that acts on Yhwh's behalf. The "word of the Lord" was a message of some kind communicated by "a spirit of the Lord." Receiving such communications might require discplined training in schools. Samuel is said to have administered such schools that were known in the Old Testament as "schools of the prophets." We get very meagre evidence on just what went on in such schools. No detail is given for the "company of prophets" whereby Samuel served as its headment in 1 Sam 19:20. Only the activity of "prophesying" and "behaving like a prophet" is stated. This activity among the prophets of Samuel's prophetic guild is said to occur as an effect of the spirit world. This effect is also described of messengers of Saul: "and a spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul and they also prophesied." Given this bit of information, we might surmise that training in meditation, achieving deep-trance states, and becoming an instrument for spirits of God was part of the program at such "schools of the prophets." For other schools like this, see 2 Kgs 2:3,5,15; 6:1,2; 22:14.
Yhwh, gods, and spirits resided in a realm that was believed to exist as a supraterrestrial invisible reality. Hence, if one inquired of Yhwh or of a ghost, it was necessary that the person have sufficient knowledge of the procedures necessary to establish a tangible link between the terrestrial and a supraterrestrial world. This prerequisite knowledge for consulting the spirit world seems to have been the property of Yhwh’s prophets as well as of Baal’s prophets and necromancers. Communication with Yhwh required training. Samuel administered a “school of prophets” in Ramah. See 1 Sam 19:20. The practices that took place at these schools is not explicitly given, with the exception of the phrase “and the spirit of the Lord came upon them and they prophesied.” This probably involved training in meditation and the liberation of enough odic energy in order that the spirits of Yhwh might use it to manifest themselves through the prophets.
Suggesting contact between two seemingly different ideas such as “good” and “bad” spiritism is not without cogency. Human agents or channels were used whether in consultations with Baal, Ekron, or Yhwh. These channels were required for different spirits, be they “bad” or, at least, condemned ones (ob, yiddeoni), or “good” ones (ruach elohim, ruach yhwh). The immediate point of contact between “good” and “bad” spiritism is found in the media and procedures necessary to communicate with the spirit world, whereas the difference lie in the source consulted. The source determined the quality of the prophetic message among the people. If that source was Yhwh, then the message was unique and the prophets delivered it faithfully and consistently. The message might be one of admonishment, a warning, instruction, or salvific.
The distinction that divination was “bad” (non-Yahwistic) and prophecy was “good” (Yahwistic) gives way to evidence within the OT that such a distinction was never the case. Occasionally, the distinction depends on the subjectively pejorative English usage of “divination” as relating to the “black arts” instead of an objective analysis of the contexts of the Hebrew terms in the OT. For instance, just prior to the Renaissance, the term “necromancy” underwent a phonological corruption whereby the conflation of Greek necro, “dead,” with the Latin
In summary, the usage of the term “spiritism” in contexts that ban the spirit world does no justice to the evidence in the OT wherein the spirit world is not condemned. Spiritism relates to communication with the spirit world as a whole, and this seems to reflect better the usage of the verbs “to consult,” “to seek,” and “to ask,” in contexts that both prohibit consultations with the spirit world, such as the anti-divinatory laws (“bad” spiritism), and in contexts that allow consultations with the spirit world, such as those that seek after Yhwh through prophetic or divinatory means (“good” spiritism)