The Hebrew and Aramaic word ʼash·shaphʹ (rendered “astrologers,” AV) is properly defined conjurer, necromancer, enchanter. (Brown, Driver, Briggs’ Lexicon, pp. 80, 1083; Koehler-Baumgartner Lexicon, pp. 95, 1055) “To conjure” means “to swear together” by oath or invocation, as when one solemnly calls up or calls upon so-called spirits of the dead. A necromancer literally means a diviner of the dead, one who attempts to foretell and control future events through communication with the dead. ʼAsh·shaphʹ is from a root that C. F. Keil defines as “to breathe, to blow, to whisper; for they practiced their incantations by movements of the breath.”
Any manner of purported communication with the dead was condemned by God. “And in case they should say to you people: ‘Apply to the spiritistic mediums or to those having a spirit of prediction who are chirping and making utterances in low tones,’ is it not to its God that any people should apply? Should there be application to dead persons in behalf of living persons?” (Isa. 8:19) Though outlawed in Israel, the “mistress of spirit mediumship in En-dor” whom unfaithful King Saul visited was one who contacted the demons as a conjurer of the dead.—1 Sam. 28:7; Lev. 20:27.
Conjurers flourished particularly among the Babylonians. Concerning that people’s ideas about the dead and their ability to communicate with departed ones, Morris Jastrow, Jr., in his book The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 559, 560, writes: “The stem underlying Shuâlu [the Babylonian place of the dead] signifies ‘to ask.’ Shuâlu is a place of inquiry, and the inquiry meant is of the nature of a religious oracle. The name, accordingly, is an indication of the power accorded the dead, to aid the living by furnishing them with answers to questions, just as the gods furnish oracles through the mediation of the priests. . . . The dead not only dwell near the gods, but, like the gods, they can direct the affairs of mankind. Their answers to questions put to them have divine justification.”
When Daniel and his three companions were taken captive to Babylon in the seventh century B.C.E., and after being given a special three-year schooling in all the wisdom of the Babylonians, they proved to be “ten times better than all the magic-practicing priests and the conjurers” in the realm.—Dan. 1:3-20.
Nebuchadnezzar, therefore, called in all branches of diviners, not the conjurers alone, and demanded that they first reveal the dream he had had and then give the interpretation. (Dan. 2:1-3, 27) The king was suspicious of them, for he said: “It is a lying and wrong word that you have agreed to say before me.” He also was well aware of their stalling for time, hoping that circumstances would change. So, in order that Nebuchadnezzar might have some guarantee that his wise men were able to give a true interpretation to his awesome vision, he insisted that they first tell him the dream. “Tell me the very dream,” the king declared, “and I shall know that you can show the very interpretation of it.” (Dan. 2:4-9) The conjurers and their fellow diviners failed to come up with the answer. Fortunately, Daniel learned of the king’s edict to kill off all Babylon’s wise men (which would have included Daniel and his companions), so after “the secret was revealed” to him by God, Daniel hastened to tell the king, disclaiming any credit for himself, for, as he said, “it is not through any wisdom that exists in me more than in any others alive that this secret is revealed to me.”—Dan. 2:19-30.
Decades later Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson Belshazzar was shocked by ‘handwriting on the wall’ that he could not read. After “calling out loudly to bring in the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the astrologers,” the king made a most generous offer: “Any man that will read this writing and show me its very interpretation, with purple he will be clothed, with a necklace of gold about his neck, and as the third one in the kingdom he will rule.” (Dan. 5:5-7) Miserable counselors indeed! These conjurers, along with the rest of the spiritistic diviners, failed, and again Daniel’s God Jehovah gave the interpretation.—Dan. 5:8-29.