Magic and demons: Bible archaeology

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Esther's story

Moses with the Tablets of the Law, from the movie 'The Ten Commandments'

Moses' story

Ruth gleaning in the fields, painting

Ruth's story

 


 


 


 

 

 

Ancient Magic and the Bible

Officially, Jewish people in the ancient world regarded superstition as an inferior form of belief. It was frequently condemned by the prophets, who taught that the only sure protection against evil was belief in the one God and obedience to His will.  Mosaic Law 

  • forbad all magic practices (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10) 

  • made witchcraft a capital offence (Exodus 22:18) and 

  • rejected customs such as sacrificing to the dead. 

Other nations might believe in magicians and sorcerers but, according to the prophets, Israel did not. In theory. In practice, ancient customs were often perpetuated under a new guise. 

For instance, Leviticus 19:9-10 directs that at the time of harvest, the corners of fields,  the gleanings of corn and the fallen grapes in vineyards shall be left for the poor and the foreigner (this is how Ruth meets Boaz in the Book of Ruth). This probably continued an ancient custom of leaving some of the harvest for the nourishment of the spirits of the grain crops, so as to ensure a good harvA tallitest the following year. 

Similarly, the people of Israel were commanded to leave fringes 'tzitzit' intertwined with blue threads on the corners of their garments, not to frighten off evil spirits but as a reminder of the words of God. Jews also placed (and continue to place) a 'mezuzah' containing a parchment scroll bearing a prayer on their door-posts in continuation of far older customs, intended possibly to protect a house and its inhabitants, although according to the declared faith, to remind Israel of the words of their living God.

 


Magicians

There were various ways of describing someone who practised magic:

  • A sorcerer, or practitioner of witchcraft, is a 'kashaf' (Exodus 7:11; 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:10; Jeremiah 27:9). 

  • 'Lahag' oMagic symbolr soothsaying is used in the Bible for the one who chants or whispers incantations. It means specifically charming serpents (Psalms 58:5)

  • 'hober' or charmer (Isaiah 47:9, 12; Psalms 58:5) refers to the use of magic amulets and charms

  • in the book of Daniel, the word "Chaldeans" is used both in an ethnic sense and to designate a certain class of specialists in magic and witchcraft

  • the New Testament refers frequently to magic and witchcraft (for example in Acts 8:9, 11; 13:6, 8)

  • the Magi, for instance (Matthew 2), were in fact an ethnic group from Media whose name, like that of the Chaldeans, became a technical term for a magician.

Fortune Telling

While many forms of magic were bitterly opposed by official religion, divination (fortune-telling) was taken over by it and in the early days at least was an important aspect of religion.

Amulets often contained a small piece of paper

Amulets often contained a small piece of paper 
with a biblical text, beautifully decorated

Amulets

Wearing amulets was specifically prohibited but their use was widespread and persistent.

In a recent excavation a Hebrew amulet against night-demons was unearthed, dating back to the period of the monarchy. One of the items in the list of women's finery in Isaiah 3:18-23 is the amulet or humming shell ('lahag'), which was supposed to bring good luck and guard against evil forces. 

Some scholars believe that these objects acquired a special potency as a result of spells whispered into them. Others consider that the name originated in 'nahag', the word for 'snake'  and that originally it was serpent-like in shape. Snakes had an important symbolic meaning for the Canaanites and many vessels engraved or impressed with snakes have been unearthed in excavations of the Canaanite and Israelite periods.

The prevalence of sorcery among the peoples of Canaan is evident in the epics of Ugarit, and helps to explain the Bible's uncompromising opposition to it. Magic practices among the Ugarites included divination by observing the flight of birds and the movements of the stars. These and similar practices were condemned by the biblical writers.

Necromancy

Above all, the Bible forbade necromancy (seeking guidance from the dead).  "There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an askull of an Egyptian mummyugur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer." (Deuteronomy. 18:10-11). 

Necromancers who invoked 'ghosts and familiar spirits' were apparently fairly numerous, for more than one king attempted to stamp out the practice. Saul tried to ban the activities of sorcerers and necromancers yet, at the end of his life, even he had recourse to such a woman (1 Samuel 28:7-25). 

The urge to seek guidance from ancestors and the recently dead was apparently strongly rooted in people's hearts and withstood official opposition and even outright prohibition.

Magicians and Sorcerers

a magician casts down his rod which rears into a serpent

a scarab from Tanis, showing a snake-charmer performing before three gods

a man or a god, from a bas-relief in an Egyptian temple, leads four calves and carries either a stick with a snake's head or a stick transformed into a snake

In the top picture a magician casts down his rod which rears into a serpent; in the center is a scarab from Tanis, showing a snake-charmer performing before three gods; below, a man or a god, from a bas-relief in an Egyptian temple, leads four calves and carries either a stick with a snake's head or a stick transformed into a snake. 

In the story of Moses at Pharaoh's court, the magicians of Egypt turn their rods into serpents (Exodus 7:11). 

This was a familiar trick among Egyptian practitioners, as can be seen in the drawings at right. In the top picture a magician casts down his rod which rears into a serpent; in the center is a scarab from Tanis, showing a snake-charmer performing before three gods and, below, a man or a god, from a bas-relief in an Egyptian temple, leads four calves and carries either a stick with a snake's head or a stick which has been transformed into a snake. 

Pharaoh's sorcerers were also able to emulate Moses and Aaron when they turned the water of the Nile into blood (Exodus 7:22) and when they brought a plague of frogs upon the land (Exodus 8:7), but they were beaten when it came to calling up the plague of gnats (8:18) and were affected by the plague of boils along with the rest of Egypt (9:11).

Very few sorcerers are mentioned by name. 

  • Jezebel was regarded as one (2 KIngs 9:22), and sorcerers are mentioned in Micah (5:12); 

  • Menasseh, king of Judah, is, condemned for encouraging sorcerers (II K. 21:6) and

  •  Ezekiel (Ezekiel 13:17-23) prophesies woe to the women who "sew magic bands upon their wrists and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature, in the hunt for souls!"

Foreign Influences

Most references to magic and witchcraft among the prophetic books concern foreign peoples. 

  • Isaiah 2's denial of the power of Babylonia's 'many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments' to save her from disaster is an example (Isaiah 47:5-15).

  • Daniel's story is another: Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylonia, ordered that young Jewish nobles be brought to his palace to learn the language and arts of the Chaldeans (Daniel 1:3-5), and when they had completed their education the king 'found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom' (1:20). It was they, and especially Daniel, who interpreted the king's dreams when the Babylonian wise men were baffled (Daniel 2-4).

 

Divination and Sympathetic Magic

All the same, the kings of Israel and Judah demanded oracles from the prophets before embarking on military campaigns or battles and the prophets (Elijah, Elisha and Micah) provided them. 

One example of sympathetic magic used in this way occurred when Jehoash (800-784 BC), king of Israel, visited Elisha on his death bed. Elisha made Jehoash shoot arrows from a bow and strike the ground with them as an omen of victory over the Syrians.

Casting Lots

Among the more innocuous forms of magic officially practiced by the priests of Israel were obtaining oracles from the 'ephod' and Urim and Thumim (about which little is known). 

Lots A decision between possible alternate courses of action might also be sought by casting lots.

  • In ancient times, the lots could be small sticks or animal bones, stones, arrows or ropes.

  •  The decision could be sought either by casting the lots and drawing a conclusion from the way they fell, or by shaking the lots in a closed container and picking one out at random. 

The result was regarded as the will of God, by the Jews as much as the other peoples of antiquity. The Old Testament records three instances of lots being drawn to decide who was responsible for God's anger: 

  • the Achan incident (Josiah 7)

  • the argument between Saul and Jonathan (I Samuel 14:38-45)

  • the story of Jonah (1:7)

Nothing is said as to the procedure followed in casting the lots.

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would draw lots to decide which of the two scapegoats was to be sacrificed and which was to be turned out into the wilderness.

Joshua and the leaders of the Hebrew tribes cast lots to see

Joshua and the leaders of the Hebrew tribes cast lots to see 
what part of the Promised Land their people will get

The use of lots in religious ritual suggests that they were also used frequently in secular affairs. Proverbs 18:18 says 'The lot puts an end to disputes and decides between powerful contenders.' When the Hebrews first arrivied in the Promised Land it was divided by lot among the Israelite tribes and their clans. There are also many references to distributing the booty taken from a defeated enemy by lot.

In the story of Esther, Haman drew lots to decide the exact day on which the Jews should be exterminated (Esther 3 :7) and in this case the method used is suggested by the term  'pur' used for the lots cast - hence the Feast of Purim. 

Prophets versus Diviners

What was the difference between the early professional prophets or diviners and the inspired prophets of Yahweh? 

Both engaged in foretelling the future, often using very similar methods, but the development of inspired prophecy shows how far it progressed from the simple fortune-telling of professional prophecy. Magic by spells and symbols was generally condemned by the prophets. 

Prophecy in the classical biblical sense was an essential part of Yahwism, which was itself far removed from divination and magic. Because these practices often bordered on or involved the forbidden black magic, they were roundly condemned by the prophets. 

Nevertheless, people's desire to learn the future and to secure divine help in their individual undertakings the motives which usually give rise to divination and white magic had also to be met. 

This 7th century BC clay tablet from Nineveh records basic statistics about a flood; it was meant to help people farm more efficiently, by giving them valuable information. In its way it was an attempt to understand and harness Nature. Magic was one step on from this.

The prophets made prediction of future events, often using the old methods of divination, the vehicle for revelation of God's "word" or message for His people. Such forms of revelation were allowed to pass, as we find in many passages of the Old Testament. They also appointed "signs" similar to the old familiar omens to give their predictions greater authority. This use of the techniques of magic was justified by explaining that such signs were given by God to His true prophets, as well as to false pretenders. They represented divine power being exercised in minor concerns as evidence that man could trust in God in matters of greater moment.

The prophets never revised their condemnation of magic as such, but a distinction was made between divination, which is merely a matter of trying to obtain advance knowledge of future events, and real magic which aims at enlisting supernatural aid to accomplish certain ends.

Demons in the New Testament

Bronze hands with magic symbols, Roman era

Bronze Roman hand covered with symbols 
that were supposed to avert the evil eye

The ordinary people of Palestine continued to make use of the amulets and magic formulas which, throughout the ancient world, were used as protections against demons and evil spirits, whether merely mischievous or malicious and dangerous like Lilith, the baby-snatching queen of demons. Superstition was universal. For instance, this Roman bronze magic hand (at right) bears symbols to avert the evil eye. 

Among the Israelites, however, they were rejected by official religion which frowned on too much concern with either angels or demons. This did not lessen their significance for ordinary people.

Ideas about the nether-world changed over time. This partly explains why the belief in demons clearly expressed in the New Testament appears to be quite unimportant in the Old Testament. In Jesus' time, demons had been absorbed into Jewish folk beliefs. They were not independent of God and were not His equal. Instead they acknowledged God's superior authority and obeyed Him when called upon to do so (see Luke 10:17-19; Mark 3:22-23).

 

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