Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Meaning of Soothsayers and Observers of Times in the King James Bible

I have been asked a question about the meaning of the expression soothsayers and observers of times in the KJV.

The word sooth is an Old English word that means truth. In terms of English usage, a soothsayer is therefore a truth teller, i.e., someone who tells the truth about the future. The word soothsayer or soothsayers occurs seven times in the KJV.

There are four references to soothsayers in the Aramaic part of Daniel (Dan 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11). The relevant Aramaic word is a Peal participle of the root גזר. This root conveys the idea of cutting, dividing, hence determining. The soothsayers in Daniel were viewed, reflecting the Babylonian perspective, as being determiners or analysts of the future.

The remaining three references to soothsayers in the KJV involve the Poel (and possibly Qal) participle of ענן (Isa 2:6; Mic 5:12 [MT 5:11]) and the Qal participle of קסם (Josh 13:22). The underlying meaning of the root ענן is uncertain. Some have suggested that it originally indicated humming or something to do with appearing. The root קסם appears to convey the idea of dividing or assigning, from which has been derived, in cultic contexts, the meaning of divination, i.e., foretelling the future or what is unknown by means of signs or omens given by the gods.

The expression observer of times occurs in the KJV in Deut 18:10, and the plural equivalent in Deut 18:14. In both instances the Hebrew word is based on the Poel participle of the root ענן. The translation observer of times suggests that the translators took the root ענן here as conveying the idea of someone who sees the future. The LXX translation (based on κληδονίζω) simply indicates someone that tells omens.

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