Handreading and the Old Testament of the Bible

The Bible is the source of some of the oldest references to chirology within the literature that has permeated Western culture. It must be remembered that in Biblical times, divination and prophecy were highly venerated arts. At least a quarter of the Old Testament is given over to the writings of the prophets and many famous Biblical characters were renowned for their divinatory and astrological skills. It would be surprising, therefore, if we did not find at least some references to divination from the patterns of the hand within the pages of the Bible itself.

The several references that can be found there show, indeed, that traditions of handreading knowledge existed from the very earliest of Biblical times.   For example, we find:

Exodus 13:9 'And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand..'
Proverbs 3:16 'Long life is in her right hand and in her left riches and honour.'
Job 37:7 'He seals up the hands of every man that all men might know his work'

The passage in Job is perhaps the most significant of three and was used by many chiromancers over the centuries in the defence of their art, to show that the study of the hand was a legitimate practice sanctioned by holy scripture. The literal translation of the passage reads:

'In the hand of every man He hides (?), for the knowing of all men of his making'.

The context of Job 37 is about how the power of God is manifested in nature and how nature is but a manifestation of the power of God. The implication of this particular passage in verse 7 is therefore that the power of God is also manifest in man and that this is particularly reflected in the hands. The sense of the passage is that marks are put there 'for men to know they are made by God' or, alternatively, 'for men to know what they are made of', both implying that the study of the hand will lead to wisdom and to right relationship with God. God is immanent in everything; the markings of the hand are a manifestation of God in us.  (1)

Whilst it is certainly true that many Biblical passages are open to different interpretations, especially depending on the translation which is being used, to describe a covenant with God and the virtue of following God's wisdom in language such as given in the passages from Exodus and Proverbs does suggest that some form of divinatory handreading tradition was known by the ancient Israelites; for without some pre-existent context in which to make these remarks, the analogies used would just not make sense. That some kind of chiromantical tradition was known to the ancient Israelites is also suggested from the association of chiromancy with the earliest mystical traditions of Judaism. Research into the origins of later Hebrew chiromantic practices suggest that the Renaissance interest in the hand originated within Merkabah mysticism, a mystical form of Judaism which flourished in the early part of this era. However, although some of the texts written from this circle are still extant from the fourth century AD, none of these are known to contain any specifically chiromantic works. Nevertheless, the suggestion that chiromancy was known to the Merkabah mystics is not without significance, for it was from within Merkabah mysticism that the esoteric tradition of the Cabala was later developed, which itself was to have a profound influence on the development of chiromancy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as we shall see.

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(1) I am greateful to The Reverend Professor Rowan Williams of Christchurch, Oxford and current Archbishop of Canterbury for assistance with these translations


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