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
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 harvest 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.
There were various ways of describing someone who practised magic:
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.
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.
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 augur, 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.
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.
Most references to magic and witchcraft among the prophetic books concern foreign peoples.
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.
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).
A decision between possible alternate courses of action might also be sought by casting lots.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).