JACOB’S FAVORITE SON, Joseph, knew how to interpret dreams, if the Genesis writer got his facts right. But it sounds like Joseph knew how to interpret the signs in a conjuring cup as well, many scholars agree.
“Why have you stolen my master’s silver cup, which he uses to predict the future?” (Genesis 44:5). That’s the question Joseph’s palace manager asks Joseph’s brothers, who had come to Egypt during a drought to buy grain.
Priests and some high-ranking nobles throughout the ancient Middle East used lots of different ways to try to predict the future or to get their gods to answer a yes or no question. One way involved cups or bowls along with water and oil. It’s called lecanomancy (lay CAN oh man see), from the Greek word for bowl: lecane.
The priest would put water in the bowl, add a few drops of olive oil or oil from animal fat. Then they would find what they would say were answers in the shapes of the oil or in the ripples of the water.
Here’s a paraphrase of instructions from the ancient Oracle of Sarapis, honoring a Greek god:
Get a bronze bowl or saucer. Pour in water. Use rainwater if you are wanting to talk to a god in the sky. Use seawater for gods on earth or in water. Hold the bowl on your knees. Pour in some green olive oil. Bend your face over the bowl and say the prescribed spell. Then ask the god anything you want. The god will answer. Once he has spoken, say the spell of dismissal. You will be amazed.
Centuries later, Jewish law would forbid divination: “Do not practice divination or seek omens” (Leviticus 19:26).
Yet when Jewish priests needed to hear from God, they used something that sounds a bit like dice. The mysterious objects were called Urim and Thummin – sometimes simply called the Urim. “Eleazar will get advice from the Lord by using the Urim” (Numbers 27:21).
The Bible doesn’t say if Joseph was doing anything wrong by using cups or bowls to get his answers from God.
Perhaps it’s not a matter of how Joseph got in touch with the Other World, but of Whom he was getting in touch with.
The Bible writers report that God speaks through visions, dreams, angels, prophets, bright lights, and burning bushes.
Why not a bowl of water with a splash of olive oil?
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