Active learning has proven results and is now widely advocated in the academy. But it is not easy to devise projects and activities that both engage students and reinforce the concepts or skills taught in class. There are success stories, as Dr. Jill Hicks-Keeton’s posts for AJR attest, and as several stories run in higher-ed publications also attest. My own contribution to this type of instruction was sparked by my personal interests in ritual, prayer, and other religious practices in ancient Judaism, a topic we covered in the course for which I served as a Graduate Assistant last spring.
When the week came for “prophecy and divination in ancient Israel,” the opportunity leapt at me to incorporate a project that would manifest the concepts of this topic in active terms for my students. I designed a lesson that would combine both review, in the form of class discussion, and reinforcement, in the form of the activity I devised. My idea? The students would be asked to develop their own forms of ritual divination, underscoring the concept that prophecy and divination were highly physical, calculated, lived experiences, and concretizing those aspects of the concept in practice.
Across the Hebrew Bible, prophecy and divination appear to be separate modes of divine-human communication, but at the same time the two forms of contacting the gods seem to go hand-in-hand. Since we only had a hour-long class for this project, we tackled both together. We began by outlining from earlier classes what we had learned about how prophets and prophecy are described in the Hebrew Bible. Several students reminded us of important characteristics about prophets and prophecy: prophets are sometimes characterized as members of a guild (e.g., 1 Sam 10:5, 10; 1 Kgs 2:3); some prophets are miracle-working “holy men” (e.g., Elijah and Elisha in the books of Kings); other prophets are political advisers (e.g., in the royal courts of Israel and Judah); some prophecy functions as a form of social critique (e.g., the career of Amos); other prophecy is concerned with getting answers to important religious questions (e.g., Hulda and the book of the law in 2 Kings 22); all prophecy involves a three-way relationship between the prophet, the deity, and the audience. Following this discussion, we opened the circle wider to other forms of manifesting divine messages, or, divination.
My students laid out a wide range of ways to communicate with the divine, including some of the following means of arousing the attention of otherworldly beings: prayers, sacrifice, meditation, casting lots, Ouija boards, tarot cards, séances, Bloody Mary, Three Kings, crystals, the Magic 8 Ball, and more. We asked what it means to think of some of these practices as licit and others as illicit forms of religious praxis. We considered the symbolic value that is assigned to certain instruments incorporated in these practices. And we elaborated on the mechanics involved in some cases, especially those that have counterparts in the biblical texts we were studying throughout the semester. For instance, we broke down the components of casting lots and conducting a kind of séance, since both of these phenomena appear in the Hebrew Bible as effective means of contacting or obtaining information from the suprahuman world (e.g., 1 Sam 28; 1 Sam 14).
With all this in mind, I introduced the activity: create your own form of divination. Working in pairs, and using the tools provided, develop a set of rules you can employ to generate an answer to an inquiry posed to the deity. I had several options to choose from: a set of red and yellow dice (six-sided, numbered); a set of multi-color pick-up sticks; a set of drawing straws of varied lengths; a set of coins of various sizes, colors, denominations (I threw in a couple of Israeli agorot to help somewhat defamiliarize the coins as a kind of equipment); and a Boggle board. Some of these tools obviously have closer counterparts among ancient divination devices, and others (Boggle stands out here) would be wholly unrecognizable to an ancient diviner. But instead of bringing in a sheep’s liver for a haruspicy exercise, I figured “reading” a Boggle board could mirror, heuristically well enough, the practice of “reading” an animal’s entrails!
The set-up: Andrew Hamilton, NYU’s president, has come to us, the bene ha-neviim (“children of the prophets”) of NYU, to inquire whether or not the university should engage in military conflict with Columbia. Do we invade? The students must generate a form of divination and inquire of NYU’s patron deity (the aptly chosen “Bobcat”) to find an answer for President Hamilton.
Between my thirty students, split over two classes, an impressive array of divinatory techniques surfaced! Some students designed means of using the tools in ways I would expect. For example, the flipping of coins or the drawing of the drawing-straws. But some students wholly surprised me with the rules of divination practice they invented. We were, for instance, introduced to the “Sticks of Aggsdaar.” These involved selecting colored sticks from a bag, and discerning divine opinion from the chosen stick’s color—the hotter the stick’s color, the stronger the divine opinion; the cooler the color, the weaker, less enthused, the divine opinion. We also had a coin selection practice that involved ritualized counting and blind drawing. In this case, the set of coins were assigned values not linked to their face value today, with the two agorot, being gold-colored, taking on the maximum value (ironic to anyone who knows the value of an agora compared to US currency!). One of the students in the pair would, with her eyes closed, mix up the set of coins, while the other student counted to seven (as noted, a magical number), and then the student with her eyes closed would select two coins, whose combined value must total more than 20 in order to be reckoned as a positive response from the deity. The students were asked to explain their divination rules to the rest of the class, and together we all inquired after our president’s inquiry — do we invade Columbia?
After recording our results, the majority in each session obtained positive responses from Bobcat. The deity seemed to favor invasion! The bene ha-neviim had an answer for President Hamilton.
The final component in our exercise required that we deliver this report to the president. So we had to package our answer. To tie things back to prophecy, I asked the students how — if we assume our deity, Bobcat, favors invasion — we might write a prophecy for our president that reflects this divine will. The students were quick to suggest the introductory formula: “Thus says Bobcat, Lord of NYU...” We filled in the middle of our prophecy with flowery language concerning invasion and destruction, noting, importantly, that the sinfulness of the Columbians drew divine opprobrium and sanctioned an NYU military campaign. Since they had learned that prophecy frequently functioned as a form of social and political discourse in ancient Israel, several students were quick to add that President Hamilton was an instrument of divine justice against our neighboring evil-doing Columbians. Our political conflict with Columbia was easily cast in social-religious terms when framed as divinatorily-authorized prophecy. Several students also saw links to other ways heads of state in antiquity spoke about themselves as divinely-legitimized actors, as in the case of Cyrus the Great and the return of Judahite exiles.
This activity was designed not only to reinforce concepts learned in class, but also to make tangible some embodied practices of divine-human communication that might roughly align with some of those experienced by ancient Israelite diviners and prophets. We live in a world and, especially in the global north, among cultures that are increasingly marked by technology-inflected (social, political, religious) practices, which are embodied and encountered in very different ways than practices were embodied and encountered in earlier human experience. By stepping not only outside of our computers but also outside of the traditional instructor-student paradigm, students in this class were able to experience the reality of manipulating tools in a ritualized manner in order to obtain an answer to a state-authorized inquiry. They, in turn, were able to package that information as divinely-inspired social-political commentary. And I think they had some fun doing it. Not too shabby for a freshly-minted band of bene ha-neviim!
Patrick J. Angiolillo is a doctoral student studying ancient Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter at @PJAngiolillo.
 Jill Hicks-Keeton, “On Pedagogy and Playing with Fire: How (and Why) to Eat a Candle in Class!” Ancient Jew Review, 16 August 2017: https://www.ancientjewreview.com/articles/2017/7/31/on-pedagogy-and-playing-with-fire-how-and-why-to-eat-a-candle-in-class; eadem, “‘We solved racism!’ and other miscalculations in the biblical studies classroom,” Ancient Jew Review, 3 April 2019: https://www.ancientjewreview.com/articles/2019/4/3/we-solved-racism-and-other-miscalculations-in-the-biblical-studies-classroom. See also, from AJR, articles tagged under “pedagogy”: https://www.ancientjewreview.com/articles/tag/pedagogy.
 See, e.g., the story of a Bowdoin Classics lecturer whose students reenact the Roman senate in a class focused on the history of executive power, as reported in Lucie Nolden, “Escaping reality through class simulation game,” The Bowdoin Orient, 19 April 2019: https://bowdoinorient.com/2019/04/19/the-presidential-equation-reform-and-fundraising-2/.
 The bifurcation of prophecy and divination has recently been criticized in studies of these phenomena. An instructive, and accessible, essay that considers these topics and practices together—and which would make for easy student reading—is Jonathan Stökl’s “Ancient Israelite Divination: Urim ve-Tummim, Ephod, and Prophecy,” TheTorah.com, 21 February 2018: https://thetorah.com/ancient-israelite-divination-urim-ve-tummim-ephod-and-prophecy/.
 For a short, accessible, and student-friendly introduction to biblical prophecy, see Corrine Carvalho, “How to Recognize a Biblical Prophet,” Bible Odyssey: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/related-articles/how-to-recognize-a-biblical-prophebasic-article
 The practice of divination in the ancient Near East involved following certain rules and customs in order to properly and effectively interpret certain patterns and signs that could supply divine information. This technical aspect of divination is discussed in up-to-date terms in Stefan M. Maul, The Art of Divination in the Ancient Near East: Reading the Signs of Heaven and Earth, trans. B. McNeil and A. J. Edmonds (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018).