“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 18:13–14)
I don’t think I have ever consulted a horoscope or crossed the threshold of a fortune-teller’s tent. As a teenager, the mere suggestion of tarot cards, or a Ouija board being brought out at a slumber party, would have had me running, Joseph style, out into the street.
Only in recent years, as I’ve faced our family’s (relatively small) package of genetic uncertainties, has a crystal ball started to seem enticing. Indeed, a recent StrengthsFinder exercise revealed that my top strength was being a “futurist.” To me, it was a revelation to learn that there are some people who do not spend a portion of time every day considering (and agonizing over) what their family life will look like a few decades from now. Of course I want to know the future. Doesn’t everybody?
Because of my tendencies to forecast the future, it strikes me that in Deuteronomy 18:9–14, as God warns the Israelites against adopting the practices common to the people of the land, he explicitly forbids them to consult fortune-tellers. As he does so, he reminds them of his name, “the Lord,” which always adds a certain gravity to things. He does the same when referring to mediums and necromancers in Leviticus 19:31: “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” What is so important about this particular instruction?
I think part of it is this: God’s people are to seek information, specifically about the future, in a markedly different way than the nations around them — and this distinction is to demonstrate to the nations his very name. It’s as if God is saying, “The nations will practice divination, and consult the dead if need be, to find out what lies ahead. But you will never do that. You will trust. I am the Lord.”
Grasping for Information
This is a people whose hearts and minds have been trained by forty years of daily manna collection. Unable to store it even overnight, they have literally had to look to heaven for their daily bread. So in many ways, they have been well-schooled in the art of daily faith. But now they stand on the precipice of transition. Moses knows the challenges they will face as they go into the land: uncertainty, temptation, warfare, opposition. And in that context, he commands them to distinguish themselves from the nations around them by trusting the Lord for their future military success, future safety, future rainfall, harvests, and fertility, as they venture into unchartered territory.
History tells us that this forbidden fruit, this off-limits information about what was around the corner, was just too tempting for Israel. In 1 Samuel 28:3–25, King Saul sets a generational pattern as, flailing, he grasps for news of which way the battle will go, consulting a medium and swallowing the lie that he can somehow control what he knows about in advance. Before long, the land is engulfed by the pagan practices of the nations before them, just as Moses had warned them (2 Kings 21:6; Isaiah 8:19).
Milk and Honey Ahead
We, facing battles that could go one way or another, also long for reassurances that we are making the right decisions with the available facts. Perhaps more than any generation before us, we cling to the notion that knowledge is power — only to be confronted with the problematic truth, time and again, that it is just not powerful enough.
We live in an age of information, even if it is often devoid of wisdom. We thank God for the common grace by which specialists, medical experts, and financial advisers can offer insight into what the future may look like for us. But as Christians, the posture with which we approach the future — the prenatal test, the prognosis, the investment, the major life decision of any kind — must be distinct.
Why? Because, ironically and yet beautifully, our fortunes have been read to us already. Our prospects have been secured. They are contingent, not on our foreknowledge or organizational skills, but entirely on the work of Another. He knows all about the giants and walled cities and chariot-driving Canaanites around the next corner, and still he gives us certain promises of blessing and inheritance, milk and honey.
So when I approach the doctor, financial adviser, or diagnostician, I need not do so on bended knee, begging for statistics, trajectories, or a count of my days. I cannot possibly fathom all the challenges and victories that lie ahead of me, nor would I have the strength to get out of bed in the morning if I could.
Rather, I approach them in the knowledge that the information they can offer me is supplementary to, and trivial in comparison with, the concrete fortunes revealed in Jesus Christ: that his mercy and grace will surely follow me all the days of my life, and on into eternal glory (Psalm 23:6). In him, perhaps, even my futurist tendencies can indeed be turned to strength.