While I was on my way home one day, I saw a sign for a Christian camp called “Camp Kesem.” The name almost brought me to tears with laughter. Why, you ask?
Kesem (קסם) means “divination” in Hebrew. In biblical parlance, divination is the attempt to foretell the future through the generation and interpretation of signs and portents. It was a common practice in ancient cultures and is portrayed both positively and negatively in the Hebrew Bible.
While Scripture condemns a wide range of diviners and practices in divination (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9-14), it also approves of divination (קסם; kesem) for certain purposes. For example, “Urim” (אוּרִים) and “Thummim” (תֻּמִּֽים), elements on the high priests’ breastplate (חשׁן; hoshen), are approved divinatory devices that God encourages the kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים; “priests”) to use in determining the divine will (cf. Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Deuteronomy 33:8; 1 Samuel 14:41; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65). We don’t know exactly what these items were or what they looked like, but apparently the Urim and Thummim were acceptable divining items.
Divination was also prevalent throughout the Second Temple period, especially in regard to healing the sick and seeking the protection of households. The Aramaic incantation bowls attest to this practice. While those Jews holding to biblical ideals would have rejected the use of magic bowls, many still believed this type of divination could encourage the Lord to protect them.
Were the kids at this Christian camp learning divination? Surely not. But the name of the camp is certainly concerning from a Hebraic perspective! This is why it’s important to know the definitional background and cultural meaning of Hebrew words if modern readers are going to rightly understand the Bible.