Parashat Shoftim: A true abomination

The astrologer and the diviner are abominations; their assumption is that all events are predetermined, and therefore can be learned in advance by knowledge of the stars or a proper interpretation of an omen.

Mea She’arim 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea She’arim 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
What is the precise definition of this rather ambiguous, amorphous positive commandment, “You shall be whole-hearted with the Lord Your God?” How may it be defined? If we examine the prior and subsequent verses within this passage, the parameters for defining “whole-hearted” become clearer, albeit not without difficulties of their own. The subject opens four verses earlier: “When you come to the Land that the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to act according to the abominations of those [Canaanite] nations.
There shall not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, one who practices divinations (kosem), an astrologer, one who reads omens or a sorcerer. For everyone who does these things is an abomination of the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God banishes (these Canaanite nations) from before you” allowing you to inherit the land (Deut. 18:9-12).
The very next verse commands us to be “whole-hearted.”
And the verse immediately following (18:14) reads, “For these nations whom you are inheriting hearken to astrologers and diviners, but as for you, not for such actions has the Lord your God given you [the Canaanite land].”
It would seem from the content of the verses that Israel is entitled to the Land of Israel because of the “abominable abominations” practiced by the original inhabitants, the Canaanites, which caused them to forfeit their rights to the land. When the Bible previously warned us against acting like the land’s original inhabitants lest we be “vomited out of the land,” the abominations listed were all sexual acts of incest, adultery or sodomy (Leviticus 18:1-30), truly abominable actions. But here the “abominations” are qualitatively different.
To be sure, even in our previously cited passage, the first of the “abominations” is causing one’s child to pass through the fire (Deut. 18:10). Burning one’s child alive in sacrifice to the blood-thirsty god Moloch is truly an abomination. But the subsequent abominations mentioned immediately following the command to be wholehearted are astrology and divinations; many great Jewish commentators (such as the Ibn Ezra) even believed in the efficacy of astrology and omens such as deciding whether to take a journey based upon a staff falling from one’s hand or a piece of bread dropping from one’s mouth. Kosem, (Deut.18:10) according to Rashi, is not so different from the omen thanks to which Eliezer, the much venerated servant of Abraham chose a suitable bride for Isaac.
Why are these “abominations”? To answer the question, we must turn back to the Book of Exodus, where the Bible twice describes the place of the Hebrew encampment before the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea as being in front of Pi-Hahiroth opposite the “Baal of the North” (Exodus 14:1). Hahiroth is a probable reference to the ancient Egyptian god Horus, and Baal was an ancient god of mastery and power. Is it not strange that the Bible should use centers of idolatry as signposts for the Hebrew encampment from which a miracle is about to be launched, a wonder which will conclusively prove that the God of Israel is the true God of the Universe? It is not at all strange, because here God is teaching a profound lesson about the fundamental difference between Judaism and idolatry. The Hebrews have recently emerged from Egyptian servitude, are still in the desert, and they panic to see that they are being chased by the Egyptian army poised to return them to Egypt. They cry out to Moses, who tells them to stand their ground and wait for Divine salvation.
“The Lord will do battle for you; you shall remain silent” (Exodus 14:14).
Fundamental idolatrous belief is that it is the gods who wage wars and are ultimately responsible for whatever happens on earth; the only thing that human beings can do is propitiate the gods, bribe them as it were, and so attempt to influence the outcome. Moses is still in that same mode: It is God who acts and the human being who can only pray. The Hebrews are still suffering from the Egyptian-slave syndrome; they are only at the “mouth,” at the cusp of Hiroth, freedom (herut in Hebrew).
They panic, cry and kvetch to God. The Almighty disagrees; He chides His Master Prophet.
“Why are you crying out to me in prayer? Speak to the children of Israel, and let them move.”
God is telling him, let them plunge into the Re(e)d Sea. I expect My people to initiate action, to function as My true partners. That’s why I created them in My image. Only when people begin the process toward freedom, even if it means putting their lives on the line by plunging into the waves, will He open the gateway for redemption (Exodus 14:15, Rashi ad loc).
That is why the astrologer and the diviner are abominations; their assumption is that all events are predetermined, and therefore can be learned in advance by knowledge of the stars or a proper interpretation of an omen. These practitioners leave no room for human decision making, for human input; they deny the major role played by humans in human affairs. A view that sells the human being short is truly an idolatrous abomination.